January 17, 2008

Book 1: Freakonomics

Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner

Yes, yes, I'm alive and reading, if only just barely. I begin this year, my third blogging my books, with Freakonomics, and interesting anecdotal book that attempts to alter thinking about economics and the world in general. While it basically does accomplish this task, the whole idea of "Freakonomics" works much better in its popular blog format rather than in its original print incarnation. Because the book doesn't make an argument and is admittedly only a collection of interesting ideas and research, its scope is limited and it doesn't lend itself well to re-reading. The premise of Freakonomics is rather interesting, but the book itself becomes almost unbearable in parts with its self-aggrandizing sense of importance. Yes, rethinking the world in a very practical and sensible way is quite interesting and very well could change the world, but Freakonomics isn't an ideological savior or even a particularly novel approach- what it is is an economist's practicality mixed with an artist's curiosity and the down-to-Earth factual results that can emerge when mixing the two.

On this level, Freakonomics is wildly successful. The sections dispelling popular parenting myths were particularly interesting because they take our spoon-fed conventional wisdom and turn it right on its head, leading me to create my own thesis that if something is conventionally understood to be true, it stands a rather good chance of being just the opposite of what it appears to be. The accounts of different myths and hypothoses tested (though the book isn't devoted entirely to myth busting, it does its fair share) are compelling and fascinating and seem to be thoroughly researched. There are plenty of disclaimers and much pointed criticism of inaccurate data reports; though of course I cannot claim to test the claims made in this book, they were obviously constructed and tested through rigorous levels of skeptical thinking and rethinking.

On a more basic level, perhaps, the book is written fairly simply and doesn't overly condescend to those not familiar with economics. The book does, however, take a rather congratulatory stance on its headliner: each chapter begins with a glowing review of Levitt's work from the New York Times and the introduction is ridiculous at best. Though Freakonomics is not a run-of-the-mill dry economic treatise, it does work out especially well for Levitt and paints him and his theory in the best of lights, an approach that always needs to be treated with several large grains of salt, but at its core the book does seem to foster intelligent discussion and, above all, elaborate questioning of the familiar. Freakonomics is a worthwhile book, but definitely one to get from the library as its information is relatively straightforward. Even if you aren't initially intrigued by the book, a look at the blog will pique interest somehow and introduce liberal artsy people like me to the human side of mundane math.

Grade: A-