Freakonomics: a Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything

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Weekend Links

Bat Segundo bags his biggest fish yet: John UpdikeOn their blog, the Freakonomics guys are looking for poker players to help them with an experiment, but the bigger news is that the post reveals a sequel to the bestseller is in the works.Part one of a interview with book designer Paul Buckley of Penguin Book Group – includes lots of examples of his work.John Batelle doesn’t mind that pirated copies of his book The Search are being sold on the streets of Mumbai.

Won’t Somebody Please Think Of The Children

Of all the things in this hectic world to keep kids away from, why books? Leslie Pinney, a school board member from District 214 (located in suburban Chicago), wanted to have the following books removed from the high school reading list because of their “inappropriate themes”:The Awakening by Kate ChopinThe Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen ChboskySlaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut (It should be illegal for kids not to read this book.)Beloved by Toni Morrison (Take that New York Times best book of the last 25 years.)Freakonomics by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner (More on this later)How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents by Julia AlvarezFallen Angels by Walter Dean MyersThe Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World by Michael Pollen (What are we worried about here? Plant sex?)The Things They Carried by Tim O’BrienTo see just how twisted and depraved these people here, check out this entry at a Townhall site in support of Pinney, where someone has lifted the prurient parts from some of these books to prove that kids shouldn’t be reading them – labeling the books – in a blaring font – “pornographic.” What if the children find that site, though? Then they won’t even have to read the books to get to the juiciest parts! At any rate, I find it comical and depressing that people think we should keep books with foul language or “adult” themes out of the hands of high schoolers. Isn’t the classroom a better place for kids to learn the appropriate context for such things than other outlets?Thankfully this “controversy” turned out to be little more than a tempest in a teakettle as the six other board members voted against Pinney. In fact it was heartening to hear how many people were moved to discuss the banning of the books. From the Tribune: “Board President Bill Dussling said the meeting’s turnout was the largest the district had seen in 25 years but evidently the issue struck chord within the community.” A number of students rallied against the proposed ban as well.Meanwhile, at the Freakonomics blog, authors Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, followed the situation. Their book had made Pinney’s list because it proposes the theory that legalized abortion has reduced the nation’s crime rate. To mark the occasion, the Freakonomics guys are doing something pretty cool. They’re giving out 50 free copies of the book to the first 50 students from the district who respond to their offer, and in the end, it seems likely that more kids will read Freakonomics and the other books than if this closed-minded woman hadn’t proposed the ban.On a semi-related note, I talked to some people at BEA about what helps books and authors get mentioned by the blogosphere. One big thing is for the author or book to have a compelling Web presence, and the Freakonomics blog is a great example. It has kept readers interested in the book, while also letting readers interact with the authors and giving bloggers something to link to.Update: The fallout from the District 214 attempted book banning continues, as described in this morning’s Tribune. The pro-banning forces are vowing to press on with their efforts to get books removed from schools. Peter LaBarbera of the conservative Illinois Family Institute calls the 6-1 vote against the book banning “a Pyrrhic victory” (and presumably LaBarbera was able to learn about Pyrrhic victories because Plutarch’s Lives was not banned in his high school.) LaBarbera’s contention is that “thousands of parents, not just in Arlington Heights but statewide, have been alerted that there are some pretty racy books out there that are required reading,” and so now we can expect many more book-banning battles to arise. Luckily, though, this article also contains more accounts of students fighting for the right to have these books taught: “Some said it was unfair to judge a book on isolated passages. ‘You cannot ban an entire book if you take things out of context, if you’re not looking at a literary whole,’ said Christine Fish, a member of the Hersey High School debate team. The group passed out fliers reading ‘Fahrenheit 214,’ a play on the title of the Ray Bradbury novel about book burning.”The kids, as they say, are alright.

What people are reading

There were a few readers among the sleepyheads on the train this morning. I have to say, I’m impressed with my fellow readers this morning for the caliber of the books they were reading. Here’s what I spotted:Black Boy by Richard Wright (I read this book in high school. Still one of my favorites.)Sabbath’s Theatre by Philip Roth (One of the books that made The Prizewinners list I put together last month.)The Magic Mountain by Thomas MannThe Way of the Flesh by Samuel Butler (V.S. Pritchett called it “one of the time-bombs of literature.”)Granta 91: Wish You Were Here (I love Granta. This issue includes Ismail Kadare, Margaret Atwood, Thomas Keneally and James Lasdun.)Cicero: The Life and Times of Rome’s Greatest Politician by Anthony Everitt (For all the classicists out there.)Three Junes by Julia GlassAnd a couple of bestsellers:Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. DubnerHarry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling

The beauty of British book design

If you’ve ever been to a bookshop in the UK (or to one of the few bookstores in the States that imports British books), you’ve probably noticed that the books on the shelves look stunning compared to their Yankee counterparts. At the bookstore where I worked in LA, I encountered authors who hated their American book covers but adored the British ones. Why the discrepancy? I don’t know; I suspect it has to do with the fact that books are marketed by entertainment companies as “entertainment products” here in the US, while elsewhere, books are treated simply as books. To illuminate the differences in book design, I’ve placed some American books (on the left) side by side with their British versions (on the right). (click on the images to enlarge).Freakonomics by Steven LevittThe American cover looks like an ad for insurance, while the British version is more vivid and features nifty pixel art.Until I Find You by John IrvingThe American version is flat and looks like a promotion for the “John Irving brand,” while the British version is slick and sexy.Cloud Atlas by David MitchellUS version: as dull as a textbook. UK Version: so groovy, you want to dive right in.On Beauty by Zadie SmithThe US versions of Zadie Smith’s books look nice, but they are quite pale compared to their British counterparts.Slow Man by J. M. CoetzeeThis time the US version gets the better of the British one with mysteriously iconic silhouette of the broken bicycle.If you are interested in book design have a look at my long ago post about superstar book designer Chip Kidd, and you’ll also enjoy the book design blog Forward.

Book Review: The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki

Anyone who enjoyed Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point or Blink or Steven D. Levitt’s Freakonomics, will likely be interested in The Wisdom of Crowds by the New Yorker’s business columnist, James Surowiecki. Surowiecki’s premise is that groups of diverse people can collectively come to a better conclusion than even the smartest individual. Like other books of pop economics, Surowiecki employs dozens of real world examples. Among the most interesting was a discussion of why “groupthink” led to the crash of the space shuttle Columbia. Another was Surowiecki’s persuasive argument that a “market” where the probability of terrorist attacks (or other threats) could be bought and sold, would be better at predicting those attacks than our current system of intelligence. Unlike Gladwell, however, Surowiecki fails to make his examples sing. Crowds is weighed down by long stretches of prose in which Surowiecki touches on one academic study after another, continually referring back to his premise, “the wisdom of crowds,” as if trying to drill it into his readers’ heads. Certainly, though, anyone with a passing interest in economics – and especially the behavioral aspects of economics – will enjoy the book, but it fails to compete with the genre’s better examples.

What people are reading

Spotted on the Red and Purple lines of the El today and organized by Amazon ranking:Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt (4)Blink by Malcolm Gladwell (7)Wicked by Gregory Maguire (140)The Source by James Michener (9,873)Between Past and Future by Hannah Arendt (15,939)Dreaming in Cuban by Cristina Garcia (21,324)Fabulous Small Jews by Joseph Epstein (37,316)Jungle of Cities and Other Plays by Bertolt Brecht (505,028)You’ve got the bestsellers Blink, Freakonomics and, to a lesser extent, Wicked on one end, and you’ve got Brecht on the other… probably a grad student, but I like to see those literary, engaging books (the Arendt, Garcia, Epstein) that occupy the broad middle reaches along the span between big media-backed bestsellers and academic obscurity (with no disrespect meant toward Brecht, he just happened to be there). As for the Michener, well, you never know what you’re going to see people reading on the El.

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