Read is not dead. Nigella Vigorosso-Heck sees demand for pages keep on turning.
We live in an age where any A Level student can access all the information they could ever want instantaneously. Once in a while, they might be asked to pay to access some of it, but the vast majority is free and most of it can be shared easily. Useful A-Level Economics information has become a public good: non-excludable and non-rival.
And yet, everyone still wants books. Not e-books. Physical, tangible, paper books.
More than half a dozen years ago, I tried to do away with physical textbooks. The cost was too high (£30+), they went out of date too quickly and the students didn’t seem to use them much either. I never refer to one in class; I prefer to use my own resources or something much more dynamic from the web. I even setup a Google classroom a few years ago, which has far more resources than you would find in one textbook. It is more than enough for one student and it is constantly updated. And yet every year, I still have students on the cusp of tears asking me for one of the second-hand, battered physical textbooks that I keep in the store cupboard.
“I still have students on the cusp of tears asking me for one of the second-hand, battered physical textbooks that I keep in the cupboard. ”
I have rationalised my students’ behaviour as them simply needing a security blanket. I know that they’re not afraid of technology, and I doubt that they read those textbooks much anyway (in fact, I sincerely hope they don’t). I concede though there is something comforting about having a 500-page doorstop-like textbook on the corner of your desk; suddenly it makes you feel smarter. It also provides an easy answer to the standard parent question: where are your textbooks?
The demand for physical books isn’t just confined to students though. School governors want me to buy more books for the library. The school wants me to buy books for prize giving. The universities publish their reading lists for all prospective students. Parents want suggestions for stretching their children at home. Colleagues want something to read during half-term. In my world, the physical book still has a long future.
This is a good thing. In my opinion, reading is the basis for all good future learning. And whilst I won’t mourn the loss of physical textbooks, I am a strong advocate for trying to revive the lost art of reading. I wish my students would read more books. One of the biggest downsides to all the freebie content is that it’s all been reduced to bitesize chunks. Common responses to my reading requests are: “I’ll read the Cliff Notes?”, “I’ll watch the TED talk?”, “Is
there a summary?”. In my experience, it’s actually rare to find a student who has read an entire economics book. It involves stamina and it requires an intellectual curiosity (nay, ability) to synthesize all of an author’s ideas over the course of several hundred pages.
With that in mind, I started thinking about all the books that I have recommended to students, parents, governors and colleagues over my teaching career. Paul Samuelson once said: “I don’t care who writes the nation’s laws … if I can write its textbooks”. Until such time that I am commissioned to write a textbook (and I am open to offers!), I will have to satisfy myself with recommending other people’s books.
“In my world, the physical book still has a future.
When I started teaching in the 2000s, there were two main books that teachers were recommending to newbie students: The Undercover Economist and Freakonomics. Both books added very little to the A Level specification. But they both showed economics in a new, positive, fun way. In fact, they were behaviouralist before behavioural economics was a thing. As a result, reading them felt like you were being let in on a secret: that you had to understand economics to unlock the mysteries of the world. I would bet money that these two books have probably
encouraged more people to study economics in the 21st century than any other book out there.
In the 2010s, those books were gradually superseded by Ha-Joon Chung’s 23 things they don’t tell you about Capitalism. After the Great Recession, newbie students wanted something a bit crunchier that they could lean on and try to understand the economic turmoil around them; how had it all failed? Unlike Freakonomics and The Undercover Economist, it wasn’t wacky story-telling, but it did still have the same accessible language, the same secret-revealing approach and it showed economics (as a way of thinking) in a positive light.
Since then there have been many contenders competing for my recommendation. Michael Lewis’ Big Short and Boomerang come close, but you probably need a year’s worth of macroeconomics before they really land. Doughnut Economics, by Kate Raworth, is similar. I would love to recommend Yanis Varoufakis’ What I tell my daughter about capitalism more often. Varoufakis’ quote that “anyone who cannot explain economics in a language that young people can understand, implies that they are clueless themselves” is my classroom mantra. But my own view of his book is that he fails his own test a number of times.
There have been some fantastic single-issue books recently: Anne Lowery’s Give People Money and Frances Coppolla’s The Case for People’s Quantitative Easing spring to mind. I consider these to be essential reading for 21st century economics students but they are not for the generalist reader.
I do not have a recommendation for the 2020s yet. But I’ll know it when I see (and read) it. It will be different and counterintuitive to the traditional economic ideas. It might be written an academic – but it has to be an academic that can still talk to real people. It is unlikely to be an author’s debut book. It will divide people. Some people will hate it, other will find it that it resonates with their soul. I look forward to reading more in 2020.
One Comment on “Spine of the times”
Thanks for this! I would add two books by Marjorie Kelly to a Top Ten list:
The Divine Right of Capital: Dethroning the Corporate Aristocracy (2001) https://www.amazon.co.uk/Divine-Right-Capital-Dethroning-Aristocracy/dp/1576752372
Owning Our Future: The Emerging Ownership Revolution, Journeys to a Generative Economy (2012)