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Economics of Good and Evil: The Quest for Economic Meaning from Gilgamesh to Wall Street
Economics of Good and Evil: The Quest for Economic Meaning from Gilgamesh to Wall Street
by Tomas Sedlacek
Edition: Paperback
Price: 9.09

4.0 out of 5 stars Why economics is failing to serve society, 4 Mar 2014
The Economics of Good and Evil is an attempt to put the human factor back into economics. Sedlacek reviews the evolution of thinking about economic questions since the Epic of Gilgamesh, the oldest surviving work of literature. He runs through the Hebrew tradition, the ancient Greeks, Christian thinkers, Descartes and the Enlightenment, to today’s maths-dominated practice. He asks why it is that ethics and morals, such a central part of economic thinking until the end of the 19th century and even Keynes, should today be almost entirely absent from mainstream economics.

Sedlacek argues that modern economic theories are as much myths as the fables about the Greek gods. In other words, they are not true, even if they have something true to say about the world. The problem today, in Sedlacek’s view, is that too many economists believe that the rational models developed to make sense of economic phenomena are more than mental constructs and actually reflect the reality. This, coupled with the view that the discipline’s reliance on maths makes it more scientific, precise and meaningful than other social sciences, has harmed the credibility of economics and more importantly, society itself. After the failure of economics to predict or prevent the financial crisis that began in 2008, it is high time, Sedlacek argues, for it to abandon its imperial claim, reassess what it can learn from history, philosophy, psychology, theology and sociology, and come back down to earth.

The overall case is clearly made, even if the argument meanders at times. This is a good book for the generalist with an interest in economics.


The Confessions (Oxford World's Classics)
The Confessions (Oxford World's Classics)
by Saint Augustine
Edition: Paperback
Price: 5.59

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A touching account of Augustine's journey from pleasure in worldly things to serenity in God, 23 Nov 2013
Just over half of Confessions is St. Augustine's autobiography, while the remainder is a series of reflections on the nature of God and on biblical texts. The autobiographical part is the most compelling because there is a clear narrative to carry it along and because it is a very human account of Augustine's search for meaning in life. He throws his energy into theatre-going, sexual adventures, Manicheeism, academic study and a career in the Imperial capital before concluding that serenity is not to be found in worldly things or the temptations of the senses. He resigns his teaching post, is baptized and returns to his homeland in North Africa to serve the Lord. You don't have to subscribe to Augustine's religious views to find this account moving.

The translator notes that Augustine was an accomplished Latin stylist, and while I have no way of judging this I can say that he writes with profound humility and rich imagery, and that the English translation has a beauty of its own and is very readable. Augustine became an extremist in his views about worldly pleasure - he renounced sex and explains that he only ate and drank because he had to sustain his body - but eschews fundamentalism in his attempts to interpret the Bible. He admits that the text is complex and open to multiple interpretations, and that he doesn't really understand the notion of the trinity or how God could have formed the world out of nothing. The last two books are increasingly complex and obscure biblical exegesis, but one can feel his struggle to make sense of the universe and our position in it.


The Eclogues and Georgics (Oxford World's Classics)
The Eclogues and Georgics (Oxford World's Classics)
by Virgil
Edition: Paperback
Price: 5.99

3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Pastoral poetry for pure pleasure, 28 Oct 2013
The Eclogues and The Georgics are related by their theme - life in the country - but very different in style. The Eclogues comprises 10 lyrical poems or dialogues each about 3-5 pages long. They mostly have the feel of being set in a mythical and romantic Golden Age in which sheep and goat herds engage in singing and poetry contests in lush pastures, in the protective shade of a grove, or beside a bubbling brook. I say mostly because the romance is occasionally disturbed by farmers lamenting the confiscation of land on which to settle army veterans, a hint at the discontent in the countryside about the land grab by Rome's new strong man, Octavian. Virgil doesn't push this far, although some have read the Eclogues as allegories of the political situation.

The Georgics is quite different, purporting to be a manual of country life for the aspiring farmer. It is much less romantic than the Eclogues, with a heavy emphasis on the hard work required to make a success of farming, but nevertheless conveys an unmistakeable yearning for the quiet country life. Writing at a time when Rome had experienced decades of civil war, Virgil's pastoral poetry was politically safe but probably also reflects a widespread war-weariness among his audience. But Virgil is first and foremost a poet, and both the Eclogues and Georgics contain evocative and tender snapshots of country life, gently blended with eternal themes such as love, friendship, work and the transitory nature of all things. Pure pleasure.


Brideshead Revisited: The Sacred and Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder
Brideshead Revisited: The Sacred and Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder
by Evelyn Waugh
Edition: Paperback
Price: 6.29

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Waugh appears to write so effortlessly; a pleasure to read, 27 Oct 2013
When Captain Charles Ryder finds himself unexpectedly posted at Brideshead during World War II, his memories of pre-war visits to the palatial country home and park suddenly come flooding back. The novel recounts how Charles makes friends with Sebastian, the youngest of the Catholic Bridesheads, at Oxford 20 years earlier and is introduced to the family whose influence Sebastian seeks to escape through increasingly frequent binge drinking. It describes Charles' affair with Sebastian's sister, Julia, and the breakdown of the relationship as they become aware of the cultural gulf between them.

The novel oozes nostalgia for what appeared to Waugh when he wrote the novel during World War II to be a disappearing world: the dolce vita enjoyed by the landed aristocracy at their vast country estates and London residences, served by butlers, footmen, maids, gardeners and cooks. If you are from that world you might mourn its passing but it's hard to have much sympathy for the breed portrayed by Waugh. The cast's obsession with itself is neatly illustrated in an episode about a brush that Sebastian has with the law. He doesn't care about the fine he's likely to be given, he says: "it's all the bother, mummy, Bridey and all the family." As he worries outside the court room about being told off at home, "the raffish habitués of the police court came and went" - the Bridesheads don't even notice such ordinary people, let alone care about their worries.

Waugh writes beautifully. Brideshead Revisited is so neatly crafted, the plot so realistic and the detail so vivid that it appears effortless. It is both a melancholy and an uplifting read.


On the Good Life (Classics)
On the Good Life (Classics)
by Cicero
Edition: Paperback
Price: 7.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Not really what it says on the tin, 19 Oct 2013
"On the good life" is a misleading title for this Penguin Classics volume. The writings of Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius and Seneca tell us much more about how to lead a good life than the ones collected here. Cicero wrote widely on philosophy, and other works of his may cover the theme of the title, but don't expect to find much on the good life that is valid outside of the context and society in which it was written.

What you will find is extracts of Cicero's works on the duties of Rome's leading citizens, on oratory, and on his views of the divine plan for the world. In this sense, it is a Cicero sampler. The introduction explains how influential the works from which the extracts were taken have been on the western world, particularly during the Renaissance and Enlightenment. While the works are surely of interest from a historical and academic perspective for the insights they provide into the culture and thought of the day, and because of their influence on later thinkers, they offer little of the practical guidance promised by the title.

Cicero is always worth reading, but I clearly came at this one with quite the wrong expectations.


Selected Letters (Oxford World's Classics)
Selected Letters (Oxford World's Classics)
by Cicero
Edition: Paperback
Price: 8.39

5.0 out of 5 stars Lively and personal letters that chronicle the fall of the Roman republic, 19 Oct 2013
"Selected Letters" contains 166 of Cicero's 914 surviving epistles, but it's an uninspired title considering that the selection is designed to present the history of the collapse of the Roman republic through the eyes of a leading participant in the events. There are few periods of history as dramatic as the fall of the republic, with its cast of characters whose names still echo throughout the classrooms and lecture halls of the western world: Julius Caesar, Pompey, Mark Antony, Octavian, Cato, Brutus, Cassius, and many more. Cicero, himself one of these characters, knew them all and corresponded with most of them. They are all featured in the letters and brought to life in the process: the boorish Antony, the wily Octavian, the prevaricating Brutus, the unbending Cato, and so on.

The letters also present a very human portrait of Cicero himself as he vainly exhorts leading historians of the day to extol his achievements as consul in 63 BCE, then nurses his wounded amour-propre when he is sent into exile by an ungrateful senate a few years later. It shows him as a reluctant Pompeian wriggling out of having to fight, worrying about his finances and grieving over his daughter's death.

Above all, though, it shows Cicero's tireless advocacy for the preservation of the republic and the courage he displays after Caesar's assassination in standing up to Mark Antony. "The republic is dearer to me than my own life," he writes in two of the later letters, poignant words in the light of his murder and failure to preserve the republic.

Don't start with these letters if you are new to this period of history, however. Read an account of it such as Tom Holland's brilliant "Rubicon" before diving into Cicero's correspondence. The patchiness of the letters and the one-sidedness of their perspective make the selection inappropriate as a history of the period, even if they are a valuable and lively first-hand account from the front line of events, and in spite of the excellent notes which fill many of the gaps.


Goodbye to All That (Penguin Modern Classics)
Goodbye to All That (Penguin Modern Classics)
by Robert Graves
Edition: Paperback
Price: 6.29

4.0 out of 5 stars A sensitive account of a harrowing period, 9 Oct 2013
Graves was just 33 when he published this autobiography, but was already a recognized poet acquainted with many literary figures of the age. His story features portraits of many of them, including Siegfried Sassoon, T. E. Lawrence (of Arabia) and Thomas Hardy.

Mostly, however, the autobiography covers his formative years in school, his experiences on the front line in World War I, which broke out weeks after he left school, and a marriage which broke down after about a decade. Being half Irish, half German, bright and poor at team sports, Graves had an unhappy school life: the initiation rites, bullying and lack of interest by most teachers made survival tough. The army was little better. During the war, Graves became dismayed at the incompetence and callousness of commanders who bungled assault after assault yet persisted in their murderous tactics. The inhumanity of the army is reflected in the inability of its leaders to show any feeling, tellingly illustrated by their reaction to one particularly deadly raid on enemy lines from which less than a handful of survivors returned; the soldiers reported back just as their commanders were about to tuck into a meat pie but were offered neither drink, nor food nor seat (let alone a word of condolence for their lost comrades), because officers don't share their meals with the troops.

Although maddened by this callousness, Graves is also a product of the system he despised and is unable to display much sentiment himself. Despite having an Irish father and a German mother, he says nothing of any feelings he might have had about fighting the Germans in northern France or helping to keep the peace in Ireland after the Easter Rising. At the same time, it takes great courage to disclose some very personal and painful experiences such as his love for `Dick', a younger boy at school who later turned out be an unpleasant character.

Graves' prose is often as sparse as the hills of northern Wales which he walks during his holidays. For example, the death of brother-in-law towards the end of the war is reported in five words: "Tony was killed in September." Nothing more is said, either about the manner of his death or how Graves' wife received the news of her brother's death. Graves participated in such momentous events of the early 20th century and was acquainted with so many of the period's outstanding people that one wishes he would be more expansive at times, although his dry, tight style certainly keeps the story tearing along. Overall, it is a very sensitive account of Graves' early years and of the experiences which explain why, when the autobiography was published in 1929, he decided to say `Goodbye to all that' and to turn his back on England.


Mrs Dalloway (Everyman's Library Classics)
Mrs Dalloway (Everyman's Library Classics)
by Virginia Woolf
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 10.44

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Woolf's writing is evocative, sensitive and intense, 6 Oct 2013
Virginia Woolf's writing in Mrs Dalloway stands out even today for the way in which it burrows deep into the consciousness of the novel's characters. The story itself is quickly told: set on a single summer day in London several years after the end of World War I, it follows Mrs Dalloway as she finalizes and holds a party at her home and, in parallel, a couple trying to cope with the husband's war-induced nervous disorder. The two strands only meet when Mrs Dalloway hears of the former soldier's suicide in a passing remark by one of her guests, and retreats from her party to let a groundswell of impressions ranging from youth to parenthood to happiness swirl around her. Woolf adeptly mixes the actions and thoughts of her characters in the present with their reflections and memories about the past and hopes for the future. She weaves from the mind of one character to the next and back again, with often just the briefest acknowledgment of activity in the world outside as a bridge between these episodes. The novel has a dream-like flow and intensity.


Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Oxford World's Classics)
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Oxford World's Classics)
by Mark Twain
Edition: Paperback
Price: 5.03

5.0 out of 5 stars A brilliant novel that is thought-provoking as well as entertaining and funny, 8 Sep 2013
Huckleberry Finn escapes his alcoholic father and teams up with runaway slave Jim in this story of their adventures along the Mississippi river in mid-19th century America. Both Huck and Jim are searching for a new life. Huck has good intentions but no heart for the education or religion which would be his fate if he returns to the pious sisters who have offered him a stable home. Jim, having learned that he is to be sold to a new owner and separated from his family, wants to earn an income with which he can buy the freedom of his wife and children. They hunt and fish on an island near their hometown before setting off on a raft when they discover that their hideout is about to be searched.

Twain had the brilliant idea of making Huck Finn the narrator of the novel. The 14-year-old is so innocent and nave that his deadpan accounts of the hypocrisy and callousness of life along the river have made the book a hilarious adventure story that appeals to children as well as a realistic report that influenced the style of subsequent American literature and a social critique that has kept academics analysing its content.

The dialects of Huck, Jim and the other Mississippi characters who come in and out of focus in this picaresque novel provide additional local colour and flair. The last quarter of the novel, in which a puerile and cruel Tom Sawyer returns as the main character, is disappointing in terms of the story's evolution, but does serve to illustrate how far Huck and Jim had evolved and how backward Tom remains. Perhaps this part is best understood as Twain's effort to highlight how little attitudes have changed from the pre-Civil War period in which the novel is set to the mid-1880s when it was published.


The Satyricon (Oxford World's Classics)
The Satyricon (Oxford World's Classics)
by Petronius
Edition: Paperback
Price: 6.29

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A boisterous and high-spirited romp through ancient Rome, 8 Sep 2013
The Satyricon is the surviving portion of a picaresque novel recounting the travels across Italy, probably in the first century AD, of two young men in a homosexual relationship. In their apparently aimless wanderings, they encounter a vulgar nouveau-riche businessman, a corrupt and drunk priestess, a nymphomaniac, a pompous poet and other caricatures of Roman society. They scheme and struggle to escape the clutches of one only to land in those of another. It's full of satire and sex, and is said to be the first - or at least the oldest surviving - novel in the picaresque genre, later providing inspiration to the authors of Candide and Don Quixote.

The novel is short but sometimes hard to follow as some chapters are little more than disjointed fragments. It provides insights into the Roman world in a much more colourful way than the epistles, essays and histories which constitute most of the era's extant writings.

The Oxford Worlds' Classics edition has an excellent introduction that highlights different readings of the novel and its influence on European literature, as well as plenty of detailed notes that explain Petronius' multiple references to other works and authors, from Homer to Virgil and Ovid.


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