Monday, October 10, 2011

Robert H. Frank

Robert H. Frank is an economics professor at Cornell's Johnson Graduate School of Management and a regular "Economic View" columnist for the New York Times, and a Distinguished Senior Fellow at Demos. His books, which have been translated into 22 languages, include The Winner-Take-All Society (with Philip Cook), The Economic Naturalist, Luxury Fever, What Price the Moral High Ground?, and Principles of Economics (with Ben Bernanke).

Frank's new book is The Darwin Economy: Liberty, Competition, and the Common Good.

A couple of weeks ago I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
Djibouti, by Elmore Leonard. Leonard, who was born in 1925, has been writing great novels for more than 60 years. At some point he’s bound to lose his edge. Two or three books back, I thought he might have begun to. But his 2010 entry, Djibouti, was for me one of his best ever. Dara Barr, 36, is an award-winning documentary film-maker who travels with Xavier LeBo, her black, 6’6”, 72-year-old assistant, to shoot a documentary about Somali pirates. Theirs is one of two intriguing relationships that evolve through this intriguing tale. The other tracks the oil billionaire Billy Wynn and his model/actress girlfriend Helene, who are in the purest form of transactional relationship I’ve seen portrayed in fiction. Helene wants a rich husband. Billy wants a perfect woman and has invited Helene to sail around the world with him to audition for the role. He’s sure that, like others before her, she’ll fail. There’s no way they’ll end up happy, you think. But by the time Helene has passed every test Billy could put to her, you’ve begun to believe they’re going to make it.

The Devil’s Star, by Jo Nesbø. Since the runaway success of Stieg Larsson’s three posthumously published novels, booksellers have been scrambling to discover an author to replace him. Norway’s Jo Nesbø is the most promising candidate I’ve come across so far. After early success as a rock musician and an economist in the financial services industry, Nesbø began writing a series of police procedurals set in Oslo. Harry Hole, his brilliant protagonist, is a homicide detective who struggles with alcoholism and an inability to take orders. Nesbø’s writing, spare and elegant, is much stronger than Larsson’s. His plots are highly original and cleverly executed. Repeatedly, you think you see where things are headed when the narrative pivots unexpectedly. I’ve read several in the series now, and haven’t begun to tire of them.

Everything is Obvious, by Duncan Watts. Watts, a former physicist, was a professor of sociology at Columbia before leaving to head a research group at Yahoo. He is a pioneer in the study of how social forces influence behavior. One of his main findings is that when events are mediated by the choices of people linked in social networks, they become chaotic and extremely difficult to predict. Small initial changes often have enormous impact on how things turn out. Once a song or movie becomes a hit, people have ready explanations for why their success was inevitable. But Watts will persuade you to be wary of such explanations. The book’s subtitle is “Once you know the answer.” And before you know the answer, almost nothing is obvious at all.
Visit Robert H. Frank's website.

--Marshal Zeringue