As has become the tradition for our last post of the academic year, we’re featuring summer reading recommendations from special people at LSE. This year, two winners of the LSESU Teaching Excellence Awards shared their picks with us.
Judith Shapiro, Undergraduate Tutor, Department of Economics
Winner of LSESU Teaching Excellence Award for Welfare and Pastoral Support
An invitation to share my summer reading prodded me into the realisation I no longer read for sheer pleasure; I also often don’t do summers any more. Quick consultation with colleagues around LSE confirms this is all too common. So I’ve prioritised a novel here, Helen Dunmore’s Exposure, set in London in the winter of 1960/61, just before London started becoming the London we know, modern, swinging, cosmopolitan, buzzing. It may take me back to the killer fogs, Wimpy Bars, LSE loos so cold you could see your breath, a Wright’s Bar where, like any caff, they didn’t trust you with the sugar bowl. The Cold War and Spies are not so distant, and that is the theme on which the plot turns.
Like all Dunmore’s novels, remarkable historical research must have underpinned it, and she created wonderful characters and fine plots. Created is not, unfortunately, a typo: Dunmore died of cancer on 5 June. The appreciation of her Bristol friends adds a bittersweet flavour to my appreciation, as it will to her last novel, Birdcage Walk, and her last, calm and fatalistic poem, published in the Guardian. As one tribute noted, “the whole group reflected miserably that there would be no more brilliant books, conversations and laughter from this most remarkable woman.”
Closer to my academic life, I still warmly recommend the latest economics blockbuster, Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, in spite of, and not because of, the hype surrounding it. I hope more reviewers get to the cautionary final chapters on what big data cannot do, and should not do. I will be proposing it to those incoming BSc Economics 2020 students who write asking for reading suggestions.
Last year on this blog Paul Kelly passed on wise advice he once received: for every new book you read, re-read an old one. So my final choice is Simone De Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, which will set me in the right mood for my LSE-PKU Summer School course on the Economics of Gender.
Steve Pischke, Professor of Economics and Research Associate at the Centre for Economic Performance
Winner of LSESU Teaching Excellence Award for Research Guidance and Support
I am not sure my recent reading is all that good fare for the summer; in fact, it seems more appropriate for London’s November days. The last book I read was Walter Scheidel’s The Great Leveller, a history of inequality from the beginning of humanity to the present day. The author argues that inequality has always been increasing with the exception of periods of extreme violence: mass mobilisation warfare, bloody revolutions (the French one was too tame!), state collapse, and pandemics like the Black Death in the Middle Ages. For me this is the most provocative—and depressing—piece on inequality I have seen in a very long time, and this is a literature I follow as part of my day job. The descriptive account of what happened is most intriguing. Scheidel is weaker when he wants to be analytical and his writing does not rival the best.
I do much of my leisure time reading with my children, who are old enough so that we can enjoy the classics of popular (social) science. With my son (a computer science freak), I have been working on Douglas Hofstadter’s beautiful and fascinating Gödel, Escher, Bach for the past two years! “Working” is the correct term, as this is closer to a college course than one for the beach. In nearly 800 large, dense pages (which are not available on Kindle), Hofstadter explores the essence of the mind and consciousness; his core principle is self-reference. He weaves a web of analogies centred on Gödel’s incompleteness theorem and exploring as far afield as Bach’s fugues, Escher’s drawings, and the replication of the genetic code. I cherish his humour—the puns are so good he could be English—and forgive that he often stretches his case. If you don’t like ludicrous examples and longwinded digressions this may not be for you. Despite pushing 40, the book is timely again, as Hofstadter’s most important link is between the mind and artificial intelligence, and it is far from outdated.
If we finish Hofstadter this summer, I would like to move on to one of Steven Pinker’s books, maybe his classic The Language Instinct, another book about the mind. That’s unless my daughter (an animal fanatic) redirects me into some zoology. We recently finished Konrad Lorenz’s Man Meets Dog (such a shame that the excellent German title doesn’t translate). This is certainly much lighter than Hofstadter, in weight as well as in content. Recounting stories he experienced with his own pooches, the father of modern animal behaviour research gives a brief survey of what to expect from our four legged friends (including a detour on feline relations). The chapter about the enjoyment of an outing with his bitch Susi on a summer Dog Day is simply brilliant. I wouldn’t mind trying his King Solomon’s Ring, where he talks a bit more about his research methods. The Lorenz volumes would indeed be a good addition to your beach bag.
Our thanks to Professors Shapiro and Pischke for sharing their recommendations and our very best wishes to all our readers over the summer break. We look forward to your company again in September. In the meantime, if you have any questions or suggestions for posts in 2017/8, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with Natalie Paris on firstname.lastname@example.org.