What on Earth? Tim Harford On the Best Books to Help us Understand the World in 2017
From surprise election results to wrangling over Brexit, 2017’s been something of a head-scratcher of a year. If you're feeling in need of clarity, fear not, help is at hand from economist Tim Harford. In his latest book Fifty Things That Made The Modern Economy he explains complex world economics through the everyday objects that have transformed our lives, from barcodes to barbed wire. Who better then, to give tips on what to read to make sense of the world in 2017? Here, exclusively for Waterstones, he recommends the best books to provide some much-needed perspective as the year draws to a close.
As the year drew to an end, the economics profession awarded a Nobel memorial prize to the man who did more than anyone to persuade us that the world is often irrational – Richard Thaler, one of the founders of “behavioural economics”. Behavioural economics is fascinating in its own right, introducing psychological realism to the world of economic analysis, but Thaler’s achievement is perhaps best understood as a triumph of persuasion. Economists had a firmly-held view of the world; Thaler persuaded them to change that view. Wouldn’t you like to know how the trick is done? Thaler’s own book, Misbehaving is a fine account of what he did.
For an alternative take, written by a master of economic narrative, try Michael Lewis’s The Undoing Project – a sensitive and surprising biography of Thaler’s two mentors, Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman. Tversky died young; Kahneman won the Nobel memorial prize in economics despite not even being a psychologist. Their experiences – in the Holocaust, the Israeli army, and academia – make for a moving and illuminating tale.
We’re now told, with depressing regularity, that we live in a post-truth age. Thankfully, not one but three books have been published called Post Truth. Evan Davis’s version is the cheeriest (‘good sense normally prevails in the end’) and Matthew D’Ancona’s is strong on the history of post-truth politics, while if you want to get to grips with post-truth political movements today James Ball’s book is the one that takes on that topic head-on.
One of the joys of writing Fifty Things That Made The Modern Economy has been to remind myself that technological progress continues, no matter what the political turmoil. While new technologies always create winners and losers, we probably aren’t nearly grateful enough for inventions such as the S-bend, the light bulb, and even double-entry book-keeping. For a deep exploration of one of my favourite inventions – cruelly and perennially overlooked – pick up Mark Kurlansky’s book Paper: Paging Through History, the perfect combination of form and function. While e-readers are all very well, paper offers much more, from corrugated card to toilet paper. A joy to read.