Dead Men Left

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Books what I have read

Via Shuggy, rather furtively, I've been handed a book "meme". (Can I, for the record, just say how much I despise the word "meme". It drives me half-mad with irritation.) I notice Len's been similarly threatened, and - to reassure the Bionic Octopus - I will eventually get round to her superhero challenge (made via Lenin), once I've worked out if 2000AD is allowed in place of the Marvel nonsense everyone else has gone in for.

Number of books I own - I've been packing them all into boxes; a depressing task, but necessary for moving out, and with the advantage that I can give a reasonably accurate answer to this question: about 800. (Hence "depressing".) I'm completely unable to either throw books out or give them away, and so the damn things accumulate.

Last book I bought - I get them in bulk, as you might have guessed: Debt Relief for Poor Countries, edited by Tony Addison, Henrik Hansen and Finn Tarp; Fundamental Methods of Mathematical Economics by Alpha C. Chang (embarrassing, that one - in my defence, I needed it for work due to creeping maths rust, it was cheap secondhand, and it's a very good textbook); and The End of Poverty by Jeffrey Sachs ("foreword by Bono", god help us), slagged off at DML already - though he's strong on bashing the British Empire, something that cannot be done too often.

Last book I re-read - a much better question that "last book I read". I've just finished re-reading A Question of Europe, edited by Peter Gowan and Perry Anderson, and have just started re-reading Empire by Niall Ferguson, who entirely fails to bash the British Empire.

Five books that mean a lot to me - how do you answer that one? I think I'm being asked for contexts, rather than for favourite books, or good books, or whatever. (I also think five is probably too few.) Oh well... here are some thoughts:

Western Capitalism Since the War by Mike Kidron, first edition (the second, in paperback, has some extended chapters on the arms race which weaken it slightly): a book that convinced me it was possible to be 1. a marxist 2. an economist (in Kidron's case, an extremely good, insightful one) and still produce crystal-clear, digestible works that could explain pretty complex ideas with a minimum of headscratching and confusion. It's dated now, obviously, but Kidron got most of his descriptions - and, more impressively, his predicitons - spot on. (Mike Kidron, sometime editor of International Socialism, died last year; for bonus celeb trivia points, his daughter Beeban directed Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason.)

Microeconomics by Gravelle and Rees (second edition - can't, I'm afraid, remember their first names): another sodding textbook, but in all honesty I am eternally grateful to these two for having produced an exceptionally thorough guide to neoclassical microeconomics that I over-revised furiously from in my final undergrad term, thus swinging a really stonking mark in "Microeconomic Principles", therefore blagging a first overall, and so meeting the ludicrously tight entry requirements for the masters' course. How could I not be grateful? (NB: this is my Johann Hari moment, don't spoil it for me. The first edition of G'n'R, incidentally, is a lot more critical of the neoclassical paradigm, but these sections have been dropped in later printings; a sad indicator of the tendency Ed talks about here.)

State Capitalism in Russia by Tony Cliff: lightbulb-above-head moment; it takes thirty seconds to grasp the concept of state capitalism, it takes this concise book to demonstrate its application.

Lenin and Philosophy by Louis Althusser: yes, him. Read it when I was 18 or so. Introduces, by way of discussion of Christianity, the theory of interpellation: the idea that social structures "hail" individuals (a policeman calling "Hey, you!" is the analogy Althusser uses) and thus forms them as individuals. (From memory, he says as an insurance.) This is flawed, for a number of reasons; but I'd never seen religion interrogated philosophically (rather than theologically or sociologically) like this before.

The Road to Serfdom by Freidrich von Hayek: even worse, him. Not, by some distance, the best of his work (Prices and Production and The Constitution of Liberty are) but one that forces you to think. (I did think; Hayek's argument is ridiculously flimsy.) Read it years ago. It convinced me not to be a libertarian, but a democrat.

I'd also be tempted to throw in E.P. Thompson's The Making of the English Working Class, bought secondhand for £1.50 and re-read repeatedly; Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France, which I notice Shuggy also went for and which, like Hayek, contains one argument, forcefully presented; England's Dreaming by John Savage, the sort of book I've always quite fancied writing and one which gave me a peculiarly apocalyptic interpretation of 1979 and all that; Keynes' General Theory because it is funny, woefully (deliberately) misinterpreted, and helped fill in all sorts of gaps when I first read it; Isaac Deutscher's Trotsky biography, because it makes a persuasive case to be a revolutionary without covering up or disguising what this commitment means. I could carry on, but I think I'd start drifting off into books I'd recommend, rather than meaningful books. (Of the initial five, I'm not sure I'd really "recommend" any, as such, for general reading; perhaps Cliff.)

(Novels? Pah! I don't think any fiction I've read has made as much of an impression as the stuff above. Utterly soul-less, I'm afraid. Note to self: read more novels.)

I'm sure you're supposed to pass these things on. I'd be interested to see what Laban Tall has been reading to get (politically) where he is today.