I have never been disappointed by a book reviewed by The Economist magazine. Now I find myself turning to the books and arts section when I get each week’s edition. It is a weekly map to buried treasures.
My first spectacular find (many years ago) was Michela Wrong’s book about Mobutu Sese Seko’s Zaire In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz: Living on the Brink of Disaster in Mobutu’s Congo. The review fascinated as it gave an insightful overview of what I might learn by reading the book. It took a while to find the book and order it online. The result was worth the search. The gave me countless personal realisations about third world politics in general and Sri Lanka in particular.
The book itself never even discussed Sri Lanka. Yet the calibre of its contents promoted understanding beyond its covers. A quality common to the diversity of books reviewed by The Economist. I have of course not read every book reviewed nor have I found every review fascinating enough to shell out for hard currency purchase. However of the books I have sort out via the reviews have yet to disappoint me (yes yes I’ll say it again).
There are two other additional benefits built into reviews in the Economist. I suspect that reviews in the Economist might be written with these goals in mind.
- An overview of what you might gain from reading the book
- A summery (from the Economist’s point of view) of the book’s central thesis along with a concisely useful analysis of the book’s main arguments.
I have taken for granted that The Economist won’t bother with unreadable, dull, irrelevant tomes. Consequently it is rare to see a book getting panned. The worst that can happen is that the faults in the book’s arguments will be will be put on display. “Disappointing” is a word they rarely use but when they do the reasons are clearly stated.
A peripheral benefit are the references to other interesting books and authors I have never heard about. Through these I have discovered, among others the WW2 spy novels of, Alan Furst, contemporary thrillers of Henry Potter, and the historical fiction of Robert Harris (who has a new book out on my favourite Roman Cicero).
Outside the book review section, there’s each issues’ obituary. This one pager profiles a prominent person and the context of their life’s work. When the economist decides to focus on a writer, looking up his or her books will be generally rewarding. I got hooked onto writers such as Ryszard Kapuscinski and I think Wilfred Thesiger (though I think it might have also been a book review) through the Economist’s obituary page.
There are many who mistake The Economist pro free market stand to dismiss it as a neo conservative rag sheet. Others would denousnce it with equal swiftness as colonial snobery mascarading as journalism. The Economist is far more nuance for such easy blurby dismissals. Admittedly it is a publication that will not suite many.
I am not a member of the publication’s desired target audience. I don’t preside over a military to consider purchasing Lockheed martin products. I am certainly not in a position to consider submitting tenders for various governments. Even if I did visit Shanghai I won’t be camped out at the Mandarin Oriental. I don’t read it to show off that I’m some sort of high flying global capitalist. In fact I don’t read it for the book reviews. The subscription has dented the book budget quite savagely. Yet I feel its worth it. Finding out about interesting books (among other things) has almost become as good as reading them.