Saturday, August 28, 2010

Ten Books from Student Days

We have talked a lot about the increasing debate about undergraduate admissions and have at various times talked about teaching and research infrastructures. One can sometimes forget that one of the best things about coming to university is to have a space for three or four years where you can think and read and have lots of people around you who are doing the same (of course not just books, I had never heard of most of the best bands of the 20th century until they were drummed into me by classmates). I enjoyed most of my undergraduate modules, which is not that surprising given I was studying economics and psychology. My psychology classes, in particular, were pretty liberal and encouraged very wide reading. In general, finding good books and thinking about them was a great way to spend four years. I was very lucky to have had people around who were able to absorb conversation about all of the many things I got interested in and, at times, obsessed about.

Marginal Revolution has had people posting about the ten books that influenced them (Cowen's Top Ten are linked here).  Nearly all my ten were found when I was studying for my degree so here goes a list. These books were the ones that made me lose sleep and think most but not in most cases the ones that influenced my academic direction (something I should reflect on!). Next week or the week after we will all be arguing about the Hunt report and you will not be able to look around without seeing a memo about industry relevance of teaching programmes. There is room for many things in the university system including programmes relevant to industry. However, we are continuously talking about universities in such petty and negative terms that incoming students must be starting to get the impression that nothing good goes on here. It is very hard to quantify in management speak the feeling someone gets when they read something that lights up their brain and makes them look around as if they had recovered from a trip or landed on another planet. As I write, lots of other books come to mind and I am also conscious of how stereotypical my list is.  It overlooks periods spent gripped with Buddhist psychology and even postmodernism (sorry Kevin). It also overlooks that one of my main intellectual influences has been journal articles written about topics in economics and psychology. But it is fun to write this list as it reminds me what I valued about going to college and what I know many others did also.

1. Rawls: A Theory of Justice; Brilliant book and one of my first experiences of seeing a tough analytical approach to abstract concepts like justice.

2. Keynes: General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money: Anyone who reads  this book as a confident teenager will immediately form the impression that only they and Keynes alone understand whats actually happening. It is a very obscure book in places but very good fun to see how he tears strips out of the dominant ideas of his time. Big sweeping ideas abound.

3. Freud: Civilisation and its Discontents. Freud's great rant about history and the human psyche is like walking out into a storm.

4. Kahneman, Slovic and Tversky: Judgment Under Uncertainty, Heuristics and Biases. This looks like a dull technical book if you give it a superficial glance. It has had the biggest influence on me of any book as it immediately crystallised in my head what I wanted to do for a living. I read it at a perfect time where my psychology reading and economics classes were so much in tension about what they implied for human behaviour that I was starting to actively dismiss economics as it was being taught as being a load of bullshit. KST develop that basic intuition much more constructively!

5. Dostoevsky; The Idiot. The story of a kind-hearted culchie trying to cut it in polite society was always likely to resonate with me. Brilliant psychological descriptions that completely absorb.

6. Monte; Beneath the Mask: If you are interested in theories of personality psychology, this book is absorbing. Its one of the few books that has survived with me after about 10 different apartment moves since I came to Dublin. The strength of the book is the way the lives of the great psychologists are presented in epic detail merging in with a description of how they formed their ideas and the content of those ideas.

7. Plato: The Republic: The book that hammered home to me that the classic texts were full of good old-fashioned arguing.

8. Klamer: Conversations with Economists. This book made the debates in economics real, featuring interviews with Klamer and the leading macroeconomists of the 20th century. Again, the detail of how these guys drew from their own upbringing and life experience to think about the world in a certain way is fascinating to read about particularly when you are very young and struggling to find the link between textbook abstraction and the real sweep of history of economics. Its associated in my head with a number of other very good macrobooks.

9. Russell: A History of Western Philosophy. emm.. what can you say really.

10. Thomas Kuhn: The Structure of Scientific Revolutions: Another one of those books that speaks deep truth very clearly and helps demystify the scientific process.

No comments: