Arnold Kling on the book meta of 2021

Some book titles in 2021, in chronological order.
February. Adam Grant, Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know

March. Gary Saul Morson and Morton Schapiro, Minds Wide Shut: How the New Fundamentalisms Divide Us

April. Julia Galef, The Scout Mindset: Why Some People See Things Clearly and Others Don’t

May. Cass Sunstein, Daniel Kahneman, and Oliver Sibony. Noise: A Flaw in Human Judgment

June. Jonathan Rauch, The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth

September. Steven Pinker, Rationality: What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, Why It Matters

More in the post.

Urbanisation and the Onset of Modern Economic Growth | The Economic Journal | Oxford Academic

A large literature characterizes urbanisation as resulting from productivity growth attracting rural workers to cities. Incorporating economic geography elements into a growth model, we suggest that causation runs the other way: when rural workers move to cities, the resulting urbanisation produces technological change and productivity growth. Urban density leads to knowledge exchange and innovation, thus creating a positive feedback loop between city size and productivity that initiates sustained economic growth.

This jives with the Steven Johnson book that says how much more innovatition increases in big cities. People together is a powerful thing.

Caffeine – Michael Pollan

My rating 7/10. Link to book.

This is a super short story from Michael Pollan. I almost read everything he writes. He has good prose and his semi-gonzo style really works for me.

Caffeine was released as an audio exclusive from Audible.

The book touches upon the culture around coffee and tea and how that came to be. Worth a listen.

Listened to this one while I was on a hike so didn’t take many notes, but one thing that stood out was how one coffee plant smuggled out of Mocha in 1616 is the ancestor to much of the coffee we drink today.

The race among Europeans to obtain live coffee trees or beans was eventually won by the Dutch in 1616. Pieter van den Broecke, a Dutch merchant, obtained some of the closely guarded coffee bushes from Mocha, Yemen, in 1616. He took them back to Amsterdam and found a home for them in the Botanical gardens, where they began to thrive. This apparently minor event received little publicity, but was to have a major impact on the history of coffee.

The beans that van der Broecke acquired from Mocha forty years earlier adjusted well to conditions in the greenhouses at the Amsterdam Botanical Garden and produced numerous healthy Coffea arabica bushes. In 1658 the Dutch first used them to begin coffee cultivation in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and later in southern India. They abandoned this cultivation to focus on their Javanese plantations in order to avoid lowering the price by oversupply.

Within a few years, the Dutch colonies (Java in Asia, Suriname in the Americas) had become the main suppliers of coffee to Europe.

Source: Wikipedia

Circe – Madeline Miller

My rating 8/10. Link to book.

I love the ancient mythical stories. I grew up on them. The Norwegian culture has its own stories with the Norse gods, but I’ve always been attracted to the Greek and Roman mythological universe.

Its drama at its finest. Its power plays and a unhealthy dose of bestiality – what more can one want?

In Circe, Madeline retells the story of Circe a daughter of Helios in spectacular fashion. The prose is fantastic. The Greek stories have been told and retold so many times that the storyline is audience vetted and incredible.

The book gives deep insight to the characters and their motivations, something that some other similar books does not. She paints a beautiful picture and gives

I started her first book The Song of Achilles straight after I finished Circe. So far they are equally good and a solid recommendation from me.

For other similar books, look to Stephen Frys Mythos and Heroes or Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology. They are modern retellings of the myths whereas Circe reads as a complete story.

Some highlights

“I had no right to claim him, I know it. But in a solitary life, there are rare moments when another soul dips near yours, as stars once a year brush the earth. Such a constellation was he to me.”

“He showed me his scars, and in return he let me pretend that I had none.”

“He liked the way the obsidian reflected his light, the way its slick surfaces caught fire as he passed. Of course, he did not consider how black it would be when he was gone. My father has never been able to imagine the world without himself in it.”

“It is a common saying that women are delicate creatures, flowers, eggs, anything that may be crushed in a moment’s carelessness. If I had ever believed it, I no longer did.”

“I thought once that gods are the opposite of death, but I see now they are more dead than anything, for they are unchanging, and can hold nothing in their hands.”

“But perhaps no parent can truly see their child. When we look we see only the mirror of our own faults.”

“You are wise,” he said.
“If it is so,” I said, “it is only because I have been fool enough for a hundred lifetimes.”

“I asked her how she did it once, how she understood the world so clearly. She told me that it was a matter of keeping very still and showing no emotions, leaving room for others to reveal themselves.”

Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir

I give it 8/10. Link to Goodreads.

Read in 2 days. I went in blind on this book. Didn’t know he had a new book coming. I thought his next was going to be in the Artemis universe. Looking back to the first few chapters I’m impressed by what kind of book it turned out to be.

He knows how to drip information and spinning a good yarn. The way the book is structured gives the reader increasing knowledge of the world the book is set in without feeling like it’s withholding the story. This is Andy at his best. Loads of space, exciting, and a real page-turner. Readers of his previous work will appreciate the humor.

“I penetrated the outer cell membrane with a nanosyringe.”
“You poked it with a stick?”
“No!” I said. “Well. Yes. But it was a scientific poke with a very scientific stick.”

I think this one, as with The Martian, would be best on audiobook.

The book uses sci-fi well. I have an aversion to sci-fi where it doesn’t add or frame the story in a meaningful way. Andy has always been great at using it to his advantage. As shown in The Martian where mars physics is both an obstacle and solution to the storytelling. Project Hail Mary asks us to ponder some age-old sci-fi questions. time dilation, solitude, camaraderie, humanity, heroism, physics, and how life came to be. Much of the book is about the main characters Grace and Rocky, a possible panspermia cousin who speaks in what we would think of as music, and is a carapace arachnid. The book is not as dull as that sentence makes it seem.

Again, to sum up. It’s an easy and fun read. Highly worth the time.