Books you can’t afford not to read
March 3, 2009 by Peter Chomko
Under normal circumstances, at least half the point of book reviews is that they’re timely. Once a book’s been out for a couple years, you can usually assume that it will already have flourished or failed on its own merits.
However, under particularly abnormal circumstances – and you’d be hard-pressed to argue that we’re living through anything but particularly abnormal circumstances right now – it seems that a departure from conventional wisdom can be easily justified.
For one thing, new books are expensive, and you can hardly be expected to go out and drop $28 for a hot-off-the-presses hardcover in the current economic climate. On top of that, recession jokes are the humor du jour, and I could hardly pass up my crack at them.
More important than that is given the state of our national economy, there are certain books that you simply can’t afford not to read. That three of those books happen to be a collective 150-plus years old is no argument, in my mind, against their importance. If anything, their longevity is a testament to that importance.
The fact of the matter is, after all, that recessions are nothing new. Our country has been through this territory before and so have plenty of others. We’ve strayed so far into this territory that such great numbers may be cause for alarm – but not necessarily for surprise.
Nor should it be cause for disregarding advice from the past – specifically, advice from economist John Maynard Keynes, universally-acclaimed as the smartest man in the universe (except by those who happen to declaim him as the most dangerously idiotic man in the universe). Regardless of which side of the Keynesian debate you fall on, there’s a lot to be said for familiarizing yourself with his theories.
In The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, Keynes interpreted economic variations as being products of “aggregate demand” (sound familiar?) and argued for activist government intervention, particularly in times of crisis (again, sound familiar?), in order to promote demand.
Although Keynes’ book was initially published in 1936, his influence continues to be felt in contemporary economics and politics. In fact, a contemporary Keynesian took home last year’s Nobel Prize in economics – Paul Krugman, a regular New York Times contributor and the author of 1999’s The Return of Depression Economics.
A decade ago, Krugman theorized that a world economic structure largely dominated by supply-side economics lacked long-term viability and would soon lead to prolonged, painful economic collapses. His conservative critics laughed, cited Alan Greenspan and continued to tout the greatness of mortgage-backed securities. Guess what? Krugman was right, and with last year’s release of The Return of Depression Economics and the Crisis of 2008, he’s likely to be one of the few people to benefit from this recession.
Of course, no matter if you read Keynes or Krugman, John Boehner probably won’t read either – and as a result, we may be in this for the long haul. That’s why I’ve got a third recommendation for your reading list: Claude Goodchild and Alan Thompson’s classic Keeping Poultry and Rabbits on Scraps.
First published during the Nazi bombardment of England during World War II, the book advised the British of the little things they could do to make everything go a bit further. In response to popular demand, Penguin Group has chosen to reissue the book in (you guessed it) a budget edition, suggesting that you can keep a steady supply of eggs and meat on hand, even in the worst of times.
Of course, the best part is that all this reading comes out to less than 800 pages. Tell that to your conservative friends as they try to slog their way through The Wealth of Nations, clocking in at a hefty 1,200 or so. The upshot, of course, is that you’ll have more time to futilely mail out all those résumés – and plenty to read while waiting in the unemployment line.
Peter Chomko can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.