Thursday, March 27, 2008

Some Book Recommendations

So regular readers may know that I had my computer and iPod stolen in the middle of last quarter. I did not get a new computer until the end of the quarter, and have yet to get a new iPod. What these developments meant, in consort with my living alone without a television, was that my meals, subway rides, and bus rides would be extremely boring. So I started to read random non-academic books while eating or riding public transport. I got through a number of books in the previous few weeks, and here under are my thoughts:

Gang Leader for a Day by Sudhir Venkatesh

Venkatesh was a PhD student in the Sociology department here at U of C back in the 1990s. Some of you may know that the U of C campus essentially borders a "bad" neighborhood, where crime, drug use, and gang violence is pervasive. Venkatesh, who is now at Columbia, decided to do some fieldwork to figure out how exactly gangs operate on a day-to-day basis, what their interactions with the citizens of the neighborhood and projects look like, how they deal with the police and vice versa, and how what poor, black, urban people do to get by. So he lived with a gang called the Black Kings for about six years and produced this nifty 300 pager that can be read in a day. It is also one of those books that you know is going to become a movie some time very soon.

You should buy/read this book if: you want to know more about the daily life of gangs and the people around them.

You should not buy/read this book if: you want a definitive verdict on the causes and possible solutions to urban poverty and gang violence. Venkatesh is either agnostic on these issues, or would rather not say in the book.

The Future of Freedom by Fareed Zakaria

Zakaria's basic thesis is this: democracy is a great thing, but too much of it is not. He provides a brief history of different political systems, before moving on to his targets. His particular targets in the book are (a) those who believe that more democracy, regardless of economic or social conditions, is always a good thing; (b) those who believe that democracy and liberalism are synonymous; (c) those who believe empowering citizens of democracies to as great an extent as possible is a good idea, and (d) polls.

You should buy/read this book if: you want a well-written and simply presented history of both the Western world and the concept of democracy, or you want a somewhat nuanced treatment of the liberty/democracy dichotomy.

You should not buy/read this book if: you're expecting a political scientific treatment of these important issues. Zakaria is jarringly ham-handed in the way he treats problematic concepts like "wealth" or "democracy". This is a giant Newsweek column, not a giant Journal of Democracy article.

Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss

Truss is a grammar-phile. More accurately, she's a those-who-fuck-up-grammar-phobe. In a hilarious treatise on the state of grammar in today's world, Truss takes aim at all those who write incorrect or badly-written sentences. It's not just a railing against bad writing, however. Truss also describes in great detail the exact ways in which commas, apostrophes, and other punctuation marks should be used.

You should buy/read this book if: you want to laugh for three straight hours, or you're an adult and your grammar is terrible and you need help (ahem, AKS. Ahem).

You should not buy/read this book if: you don't think grammar is all that big a deal, or if you have no sense of humor.

Lipstick Jihad by Azadeh Moaveni

The subtitle of this book captures its essence: it really is a memoir of growing up Iranian in America and American in Iran. Moaveni describes her personal tale of the young immigrant experience, and weaves it within a story about political developments in Iran over the last thirty years, and relations between the U.S. and Iran during the same period. Moaveni moved back to Iran for a few years to work as a journalist, and this time constitutes the bulk of the book.

You should buy/read this book if: you want a glimpse of what life is like in Iran today and contrast it with life in Iran before the Islamic Revolution, or if you are from a brown country but live, or lived for some time, in the West. Trust me, the story resonates strongly.

You should not buy/read this book if: you scoff at the idea of a twenty-something writing a memoir, or if you want a deeper historical look at the causes and consequences of the Islamic Revolution, which is treated very superficially.

Zenana by Laura Ring

An anthropologist who got her PhD from U of C, Ring analyzes "everyday peace in a Karachi apartment building". Her basic motivation is that while social science devotes much time, space, and energy to studying war and conflict, peace is generally treated as a residual category. She attempts to correct this imbalance by studying microlevel foundations of coexistence. Her fieldwork is done in a middle-class apartment building in Karachi, where people of different sects and ethnicities learn to get along despite the background of ethnic violence in the city.

You should buy/read this book if: you want a very deep anthropological treatment of the typically mundane activities that take place in everyday life, like exchanging sugar.

You should not buy/read this book if: you're looking for a light read. These will be the longest 180 pages of your life, I can promise you.

Predictably Irrational
by Dan Ariely

Ariely is a behavioral economist, and like all behavioral economists, he takes the tools and lessons of psychology and applies them to dictums and laws of classical economics. Using experiments and surveys, Ariely delves into why we behave in certain ways that are completely contrary to what classical economics would say. In other words, he delves into why we are irrational. Why are we blinded by the allure of things that are free? Why do we make bad decisions when we are sexually aroused? Why does the Economist offer a subscription to its print edition and its website for the same price as its print edition?

You should buy/read this book if: you are fascinated by how we behave in everyday settings, from what we buy to what we order at restaurants to who we choose as life partners. Think Malcolm Gladwell, except with original research.

You should not buy/read this book if: you're sick of smartass Freakonomics/Gladwell type of people telling you how dumb you really are, and why you continue to act in stupid, irrational ways.


bubs said...

You should check out this New Yorker review of Lynne Truss' book; it's possibly even funnier and more nit-picky than the book itself.

Asad said...

so... did you consider human interaction as way to pass time during, say, meals?

Ahsan said...

hahahahaha. well, i live alone, so i dont know who i would interact with. the only human i could have interacted was myself, and i save that for AFTER dinner, if you know what i mean.

Asad said...

unfortunately, i think everyone knows what you mean.

Anonymous said...

I have bought "The Future of Freedom" as I am a huge fan of Fareed Zakaria.He is articulate, engaging, funny and mesmerized his listeners with insights into the current affairs.He is an outstanding speaker and speaks without notes.

What I liked about "The Future of Freedom" by Zakaria is the way he has made a fine distinction between liberal and illiberal democracies.My favorite lines were,"We prefer to speak javascript:void(0)romantically about the beauty of Indians voting and the joys of the world's largest democracy but no one in the west wishes to look at the reality of democracy in India."