What I’m Reading

This is meant as a personal tracker of the books and articles I have read and perhaps want to go back to them eventually. If you find some utility in it, I would be happily surprised.

Recent book I have read, I’m reading, or are about to read:

  • The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America by Louis Menand
  • Democracy and Prosperity: Reinventing Capitalism Through a Turbulent Century by David Soskice and Torben Iversen
  • Jump-Starting America: How Breakthrough Science Can Revive Economic Growth and the American Dream by Jonathan Gruber and Simon Johnson

My all-time favorite books (in no particular order):

  • Development as Freedom by Amartya Sen: If there is a single book which has influenced my thinking on development and human progress, this is it. In a nutshell, development is an integrated process of expansion of substantive freedoms that connect with one another (namely political freedom, economic facilities, social opportunities, transparency guarantees, and protective security.)
  • Orientalism by Edward Said: I discovered this book at an old bookstore in Rawalpindi, when I was 16 and on track to become a petroleum engineer in half a decade or so. This book, along with few others, distracted me enough from coursework that I was no longer qualified enough to get into a top engineering school. More importantly, it lured me into the world of social sciences. In sum, the book asks “how the Western world perceives the Eastern World?” with a particular focus on the Muslim world. You must read this.
    • I will be reading Restating Orientalism: A Critique of Modern Knowledge soon.
  • The Great Transformation by Karl Polanyi: I must admit that I discovered this book far too late, and I regret that greatly. Polanyi remains the most neglected social and economic theorists of our time. His case, which was published in 1944 in the form of this book, is highly critical of the market economy – underpinned his criticism of the idea of economic determinism.
    • I also read For a New West: Essays, 1919-1958 by Karl Polanyi, which is a superb addition to a Polanyi-istic study.
  • Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer: I picked up this book in Toronto a day before boarding my flight to Dubai, and it became one the best plane rides I had (barring the annoying passenger who kept asking me questions about my career, which I don’t have). I won’t say much, here is my favourite quote in which Krakauer explains the mind of a religious fanatic’s: As a result of his (or her) infatuation, existence overflows with purpose. Ambiguity vanishes from the fanatic’s worldview; a narcissistic sense of self-assurance displaces all doubt. A delicious rage quickens his pulse, fueled by the sins and shortcomings of lesser mortals, who are soiling the world wherever he looks. His perspective narrows until the last remnants of proportion are shed from his life……Faith is the very antithesis of reason, injudiciousness a crucial component of spiritual devotion. And when religious fanaticism supplants ratiocination, all bets are suddenly off. Anything can happen. Absolutely anything. Common sense is no match for the voice of God.
  • Seeing Like a State by James C. Scott: This is how books are supposed to be written. A true tour de France. The intellectual kind. The book makes a strong critique of state planning, through which the states try to control society and incur large costs on the society (such as collectivism). Now, having said that, if you just read this book in an intellectual vacuum you might become an anti-state crusader, hence you should read something to counter this.
  • The Elusive Quest for Growth by William Easterly: Okay, I must admit, Bill is my one of my favourite economists, and a student of development this has become my bible. Bill provides a critical overview of how the plan to develop the global South didn’t – let’s say – go that well. Bill is very critical, and one might say rightly, of the aid establishment’s plan to deliver economic growth. Every development economist should read it.
  • King Leopold’s Ghost by Adam Hochschild: This is a disturbing book. You have been warned. King Leopold II of Belgium ran Congo as personal property, and in the process killed 10 million Africans. I have read many books on the horrors of colonialism, but this one sticks. Hochschild is a brilliant writer and how he explores the suffering of the Congolese people makes those horrifying events come to life.
  • The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy: I don’t read a lot of fiction (as you can see from the list) but Roy is brilliant. I can’t describe this novel, I don’t have the vocabulary to do so. What I can tell you is that this book should be read everyone. Here is a rather famous quote from it: “The Great Stories are the ones you have heard and want to hear again. The ones you can enter anywhere and inhabit comfortably. They don’t deceive you with thrills and trick endings. They don’t surprise you with the unforeseen. They are as familiar as the house you live in. Or the smell of your lover’s skin. You know how they end, yet you listen as though you don’t. In the way that although you know that one day you will die, you live as though you won’t. In the Great Stories you know who lives, who dies, who finds love, who doesn’t. And yet you want to know again.”
  • No God but God by Reza Aslan: I don’t have much in the way of theological credentials, to remedy that a few years ago I started reading few books on religion. Luckily, the first one I picked up was Reza Aslan’s No God but God. I was surprised that there is so much about Islam that I didn’t know about. Aslan illustrates the growth of Islam from days of Medina and how the Islamic Empires grew over the centuries. This is a must-read. This is my favorite quote from it, it’s rather long but worth it. “A Persian, a Turk, an Arab, and a Greek were traveling to a distant land when they began arguing over how to spend the single coin they possessed among themselves. All four craved food, but the Persian wanted to spend the coin on angur; the Turk, on uzum; the Arab, on inab; and the Greek, on stafil. The argument became heated as each man insisted on having what he desired. A linguist passing by overheard their quarrel. “Give the coin to me,” he said. “I undertake to satisfy the desires of all of you.” Taking the coin, the linguist went to a nearby shop and bought four small bunches of grapes. He then returned to the men and gave them each a bunch. “This is my angur!” cried the Persian. “But this is what I call uzum,” replied the Turk. “You have brought me my inab,” the Arab said. “No! This in my language is stafil,” said the Greek. All of a sudden, the men realized that what each of them had desired was in fact the same thing, only they did not know how to express themselves to each other. The four travelers represent humanity in its search for an inner spiritual need it cannot define and which it expresses in different ways. The linguist is the Sufi, who enlightens humanity to the fact that what it seeks (its religions), though called by different names, are in reality one identical thing. However—and this is the most important aspect of the parable—the linguist can offer the travelers only the grapes and nothing more. He cannot offer them wine, which is the essence of the fruit. In other words, human beings cannot be given the secret of ultimate reality, for such knowledge cannot be shared, but must be experienced through an arduous inner journey toward self-annihilation. As the transcendent Iranian poet, Saadi of Shiraz, wrote, I am a dreamer who is mute, And the people are deaf. I am unable to say, And they are unable to hear.”
  • The Open Society and Its Enemies by Karl Popper (published in two volumes): As I young man in search of paperback filled with wisdom, you can not go wrong with this. And, you might come out as a bit more liberal. I will leave you at this rather telling paragraph from the book: “It sketches some of the difficulties faced by our civilization—a civilization which might be perhaps described as aiming at humaneness and reasonableness, at equality and freedom; a civilization which is still in its infancy, as it were, and which continues to grow in spite of the fact that it has been so often betrayed by so many of the intellectual leaders of mankind. It attempts to show that this civilization has not yet fully recovered from the shock of its birth—the transition from the tribal or ‘closed society’, with its submission to magical forces, to the ‘open society’ which sets free the critical powers of man. It attempts to show that the shock of this transition is one of the factors that have made possible the rise of those reactionary movements which have tried, and still try, to overthrow civilization and to return to tribalism. And it suggests that what we call nowadays totalitarianism belongs to a tradition which is just as old or just as young as our civilization itself.”
  • What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets by Michael J. Sandel: I term Sandel as a patient philosopher, he explains his points slowly, building an evidence-based narrative. This book does that – it attempts, excellently in my view, to convince the reader that markets have a moral dimension – even if we consider markets based on free choice, but the intrinsic characteristics of exchange.
  • The Value of Everything by Mariana Mazzucato
  • The Future of Capitalism: Facing the New Anxieties by Sir Paul Collier
  • The Third Pillar: How Markets and the State Leave the Community Behind by Raghuram Rajan
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