2013: A year of reading

Happy belated 2013! I hope your year is off to a productive start. I rang in the new year with friends and family in Kampala, where I’ll be based for the next nine months or so, during which time I hope to become active again in this space. I’m currently conducting dissertation research on the history and politics of Muslim education of sub-Saharan Africa, among other collaborations with colleagues and friends here in Uganda. More on that to come.

In the meantime, and in my downtime, I have determined to make 2013 a year of reading. I think this is my one and only new year’s resolution; the gym has failed me time and again. For a long time I felt guilty spending time reading things that did not directly apply to my coursework or research, a terrible way to go through life (and grad school). You can find inspiration anywhere, and the joy of reading is something that is easy to forget when you have thousands of pages of required reading.

So, I’m posting below all the books I read this year for my own records and as encouragement (I’m very much a list person. Makes me more productive). I’m more than happy to hear your suggestions on books you love, whatever the topic. The Economist has a great list of best of 2012 books here.

Last update: December 30, 2013

Key:
* Don’t bother
** If you have some free time, I guess
*** Fun, interesting, and/or worthwhile
**** Outstanding or an important read
***** Read this book!!

Fiction:
The Historian, Elizabeth Kostova ***
The Round House, Louise Erdich ***
Island Beneath the Sea: A Novel, Isabel Allende ***
Sweet Tooth: A Novel, Ian Mcewan **
The Cutting Season: A Novel, Attica Locke ***
The Garden of Evening Mists, Tan Twan Eng ***
Ghana Must Go, Taiye Selasi ****
Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie *****
And the Mountains Echoed, Khaled Hosseini *****
The Cuckoo’s Calling, Robert Galbraith (a.k.a. J.K. Rowling, yes I bought it right after I found out) ***
Beautiful Ruins: A Novel, Jess Walter ***
The Orphan Master’s Son: A Novel, Adam Johnson ***
We Need New Names: A Novel, NoViolent Bulawayo ****
The Lowland, Jhumpa Lahiri ****
Hard Times, Charles Dickens ***

Non-Fiction:
There Was  A Country: A Personal History of Biafra, Chinua Achebe ****
Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic, David Quammen *****
Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead, Sheryl Sandberg ****
Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots, Deborah Feldman ***
What I Wish I Knew When I Was 20: A Crash Course on Making Your Place in the World, Tina Seelig ****
The House at Sugar Beach: In Search of a Lost African Childhood, Helene Cooper ****
More Than Good Intentions: Improving the Ways the World’s Poor Borrow, Save, Farm, Learn, and Stay Healthy, Dean Karlan and Jacob Appel ***
Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success, Adam Grant ***
Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces that Shape Our Decisions, Dan Ariely ****
Triumph of the City, Edward Glaeser *****

Currently reading:
Sacred and Secular: Religion and Politics Worldwide, Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehardt
One Day I Will Write About This Place: A Memoir, Binyavanga Wainaina
Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty, Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson
The Shadow of the Sun, Ryszard Kapuscinski

writing less badly

Political scientist Michael Munger gives 10 tips on how to write less badly. My favorites?

#4 Give yourself time. Many smart people tell themselves pathetic lies like, “I do my best work at the last minute.” Look: It’s not true. No one works better under pressure.

#5 Everyone’s unwritten work is brilliant. And the more unwritten it is, the more brilliant it is.

#9 Your most profound thoughts are often wrong. Or, at least, they are not completely correct. Precision in asking your question, or posing your puzzle, will not come easily if the question is hard.

Like PhD comics, they are funny because they are so painfully true. The good news? You are not alone! Fight on.

What do people care about?

I love knowledge for the sake of knowledge, but as I embark on this five-year journey otherwise known as grad school, one thing I don’t want to do is get stuck inside, both literally and figuratively. Literally, I don’t want to see the sky for only 20 minutes a day on the walk to and from the car, and figuratively (and more importantly), I don’t want to get stuck in a world where only other academics or econ-y types find my work interesting/palatable/intelligible. This has been on my mind a lot recently as I have been trying to home in on a specific research question for my first major research project/paper (which I will hereafter refer to as a field paper). I can think of lots of research questions, but certainly not all of equal pertinence to the lives of ordinary people. Which got me thinking, what would be of most pertinence? I am not a doctor, I am not a teacher (yet, anyway), I am not a civil engineer…there are many things I can’t do to improve people’s lives. So what can I do? Well, hopefully (and this is the goal anyway, I think), I will be able to provide some small insight or suggestion to help solve problems people care about.  So what do people care about?

Since Uganda is mostly on my mind, I remembered a recent Afrobarometer survey asked exactly this question. Ok, not exactly. The exact question was, “What are the most important problems facing this country that the government should address?” The answers? (according to % of people who listed this concern first)

Poverty/Destitution: 43%

Unemployment: 28%

Health: 27%

Food shortage: 20%

Infrastructure/Roads: 20%

Seems pretty obvious in retrospect. But what wasn’t in the top 5? Democracy/Political Rights (3%), Orphans (2%), Political Instability/Ethnic Tensions (2%), International War (0%), AIDS (5%), and Inequality (2%), among others. Less obvious now, right? This is not to say that no one cares about these things, just that they are not the most important things for most people. Of course these things are also related to the above “most important problems”, and it could be that democracy (or something else) will solve all of these problems (I am skeptical though). Still, I think it’s always good to keep in mind what people are struggling with on a daily basis even while trying to figure out what’s up with democratic peace (for example).

Now, back to that field paper…