Thursday, May 24, 2012

Paul Seabright

Paul Seabright is the author of The Company of Strangers: A Natural History of Economic Life. He is professor of economics at the Toulouse School of Economics and has been a fellow of All Souls College, University of Oxford, and Churchill College, University of Cambridge.

His latest book is The War of the Sexes: How Conflict and Cooperation Have Shaped Men and Women from Prehistory to the Present.

Recently I asked Seabright what he was reading.  His reply:
When I was younger I used to read four works of fiction for every work of non-fiction, but now it’s the other way round. I’ve just finished Tyler Cowen’s An Economist Gets Lunch, which is like most of Tyler’s books in being fantastically informative, written as though dictated at breakneck speed, and utterly original. He annoys foodies by telling them that the best food is often available in the scruffiest restaurants, makes us all feel inadequate for knowing so little about all the planet’s ethnic foods (even waxing lyrical about North Korean cuisine!), and should make it impossible for you ever to eat a quiet meal again without finding yourself doing some surreptitious economics at the same time. All in all, a terrible book for your peace of mind, which is one of the highest compliments I can pay.

Another awful book for your peace of mind, but in a quite different way, is Anna Reid’s Leningrad. Using letters and diaries, it tells the story of the siege of that city by the German Army from 1941 to early 1944, in which over half a million people starved to death. I hardly want to say any more about it, because I urge you to read it – but be warned that certain passages will return to trouble you, and you can hardly fail to reflect on the fragility of our human solidarity under extreme pressure.

I’ve recently finished Laurent Dubois’ Haiti: The Aftershocks of History – a superb history of that troubled country, excellently written, balanced, full of insights and unexpected information on almost every page. What outsiders know about Haiti has so often been reported by those with an axe to grind – from early plantation owners to American colonists to the makers of zombie movies to aid agencies after the earthquake – that it’s a relief to read something about the very ordinary struggles of its population to construct ordinary lives against powerful odds.

I also recently read a wonderful French novel called Le Club des Incorrigibles Optimistes, by Jean-Michel Guenassia, about a chess club for political refugees from the Eastern Bloc in Paris in the early 1960s. It is sad, evocative and sometimes side-splittingly funny. I particularly loved the description of a supercilious Air France employee refusing to help a Russian pilot who has been diverted to Orly because of fog (I could just see that single raised eyebrow the Air France staff have been trained to deploy so deftly). The hero, a 12-year old boy who walks around the streets of Paris reading, insists he is in no danger of running into a car or another pedestrian because he can rely on everyone else’s interest in avoiding him. Until the day when he crashes into a teenage girl who is also holding a book in front of her nose. It turns out to be a great way to meet girls who share his literary passions. All readers of this blog should try it.
Visit Paul Seabright's website.

The Page 99 Test: The War of the Sexes.

--Marshal Zeringue