Source of good book recommendations


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.

  1. An overview of what you might gain from reading the book
  2. 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.

9 comments

  1. great post. like yourself i have been a long-time reader of the economist (over 15 years) print edition and at one stage read it cover-to-cover as i found it so insightful. of late however, i find that i only read articles relevant to my geographical and economic areas of interest ( guess I am a capitalist) not so much because of a dearth of time but because I simply found their opinion to be so mis-guided especially about Iraq. there was a point I thought about canceling my subscription. i do however enjoy the breadth of topics and in answer to Life in Taprobane’s question on what takes you to the toilet (http://wijitha.blogspot.com/2009/10/so-what-takes-you-to-toilet.html) I would have simply answered – The Economist..

    there are a couple of issues i still have with it:
    1. why does delivery in sri lanka for a subscription copy only com on a sunday? It is available in the stores by Saturday. In Switzerland, Thailand, UK I used to get my copy by Friday. I have seen the new issue on the newstands in Singapore by Thursday night..
    2. i am not sure they have entirely got the web 2.0 thing. I still read the print edition but will not go to the website when i am traveling or on a daily basis other than to do some research. only time i will look at the comments is when there is an article on sri lanka and then separating the polarity of the arguments becomes an issue.. all their investment with audio and video just don’t attract me – unlike for example the NY times or WSJ..

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  2. Aha two ‘nosits readers in the Lankanosphere! “D

    maf:Interesting how your interest has shifted. I think I’ve gone the other-way. I uses to read only the Asia/US related news articles. Now I find myself chucking at the something about the European finance. I haven’t had the time to check out their web site. I stare at a screen long enough on a daily basis that paper feels like such a refreshing change. I agree without you about their nutty editorial stances. Surprising shrill compared to the rest of their articles. I end up reading the editorials only at the end of the week. As for Economist deliveries – I’ve given up pondering the mysteries of why it gets delayed in Sri Lanka. I’m just glad it get to me🙂 My father used to grumble that the politicians have it held up in customs because of unflattering article. I’m sceptical about that. Its not exactly something you see in everyone’s paws.

    Jack: In the same boat. I find that there’s enough in the slim magazine to last the week. So much so that my book reading has taken a break. I have avoided taking the economist into the toilet though🙂

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  3. Fantastic post.

    I lost faith in them over the “liberation” of Iraq. Did the whole drama bit of witting to them and telling them off about the position they took. Honestly when one is young one does these weird things.

    Needless to say the relationship suffered and the level of trust I had in them as a teenager never returned.

    Since then I have stuck to the NY Times and Gurdian weekly book reviews and read some weird variety. one of the problems that I have found with these and the Chicago Tribune is often they tend to stick to the best sellers as opposed to good books and I think that is where the Economist is better🙂

    So your post was quite fascinating and reminded me perhaps I should at least check their book review section.

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    • Anne, I bought into the Iraq thing myself. I have noticed a change since the new editor was appointed a year or two back. On the last editor’s departure there was a an article which reported the conflict within the amongst the journalists over the stance of magazine and also of a similar conflict that took place over the Vietnam war, it looks like a more liberal view is prevalent now as a result.

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  4. Every Friday I download the audio version and listen to the magazine for the next seven days as I run on the treadmill or cycle around.

    Arts & Books sections is just great, bought a few titles from Amazon sight unseen just on recommendations.

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  5. Anne: I agree with Jack’s assessment. Overall the “leaders” (editorials) are quite right wingish. Some even contradict the news articles. I have found the columns to be more balanced.

    Jack: I couldn’t have said it better🙂

    Harsha: Listening to the Economist while running🙂 that’s a great idea. Thank you. Will give it a thought. Not that I have much time/bandwidth to download stuff..

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  6. Probably the best for book reviews at the moment is London Review of Books. They have a new website with a 30 year archive just released. Some of it needs a subscription, a lot of it is free: http://www.lrb.co.uk/

    Have worked my way through New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, NYT Book Review, Times Lit. Supplement over the years (and even The Economist when I was a student, considering it’s written by anon. young grads it was appropriate at the time) and the LRB stands out. But it’s reviews are massive, 2 to 4 pages of printed A3, taking in a whole genre at times, per review.

    The Guardians book reviews are also good:http://www.guardian.co.uk/books

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    • Thank you that’s a lot of interesting resources. London Review of Books sounds like an epic novel on its own.. Right now the economist provides the most digestible chunks. ANy particular book you found from any of these sources?

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