Monday, December 26, 2011

Favorites of 2011: Books


John Everett Millais: "Was it not a lie?"
The Chronicles of Barsetshire: My 15-month journey through the novels of Anthony Trollope is coming to a (perhaps temporary) end, although I haven't yet read even half of the novels he published in his lifetime.  Before I embarked on this voyage I thought of Trollope with a kind of condescension. How could someone so prolific be any good? I quickly discovered how misplaced that condescension was.

The six-novel series The Chronicles of Barsetshire (1855-1867) certainly ranks among this great novelist's greatest achievements. I wrote more extensively about the series in A guide to the novels of Anthony Trollope, Part 1. I wrote then, "If you think that a series of six novels about rural English clergy sounds boring, think again. Trollope's Barsetshire novels are filled with power struggles, class dynamics, financial disasters, and impossible loves. Fierce emotions seethe under the placid surfaces of the proper Victorian characters."

The first two novels were also made into an excellent BBC series, The Barchester Chronicles (1982), which will make an appearance in my list of favorite television shows seen in 2011.  And the fourth and fifth novels in the series, Framley Parsonage (1861) and The Small House At Allington (1864), were illustrated by John Everett Millais, a member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and one of the subjects of the BBC series Desperate Romantics (2010)—which will also be on my list of favorites from the past year.

Henry O'Neil: Before Waterloo (1868)
Vanity Fair: In An Autobiography (1883) Trollope wrote, "I myself regard Esmond as the greatest novel in the English language." I confess that on reading this I had to look up the author of The History of Henry Esmond (1852), and discovered that it was written by Trollope's onetime editor William Thackeray. This made me curious to read Thackeray; instead of starting with Trollope's recommendation, though, I decided to begin with Thackeray's most famous novel, Vanity Fair (1847). Since as of this writing I'm only halfway through, perhaps it's a bit premature to put it on my list of favorites. But so far I'm thoroughly enjoying this "Novel Without a Hero" and its two heroines, the good-hearted Amelia Sedley and the delightfully unscrupulous Becky Sharp.

Just a year or two before he died, Trollope himself wrote an "answer novel" to Vanity Fair entitled Ayala's Angel (1881). Vanity Fair's Becky Sharp is the orphaned daughter of a disreputable artist, and—realizing that the game is rigged against those of her parentage, class and gender—uses all her wiles to make her way in society among the wealthy and socially connected. in Trollope's novel Ayala and her sister Lucy are also the orphaned daughters of an artist, and also find themselves having to make their way among their "betters." Perhaps Trollope had initially imagined the sincere Lucy and the beautiful but willful Ayala as his versions of Amelia and Becky. Only, in Trollope's world both young women are ultimately able to marry for love; in Thackeray, marrying for love is either an impossibility or a self-delusion.

After Vanity Fair, I'm looking forward to Henry Esmond and The Luck of Barry Lyndon (1844)—perhaps they'll appear on my list of favorites for 2012.


Predictably Irrational (2008): The sad news from behavioral economist Daniel Ariely's research over the past several decades is that not only are we not the utility-maximizing rational calculators portrayed in standard economic theory, we are extremely irrational, but in utterly predictable ways. This means that, even if we think we are aware of our irrational tendencies, those tendencies can be (and are) exploited by economic actors (advertisers, retailers, and bosses) for their own financial advantage.

For example, we judge prices, salaries, and romantic choices in comparison to what else is available, not by any absolute standard. So we insure our perpetual unhappiness, because there will always be someone earning more than we are, or dating someone better-looking than our partner. Perpetual dissatisfaction is music to the ears of those who want to sell us new things to replace those that are perfectly fine, but which we no longer desire.

This also means that we can be manipulated by the way goods are priced. So much for the equilibrium between price and demand; as Ariely writes, "it is market prices themselves that influence consumers' willingness to pay" (p. 45-46). What we perceive as our personal preferences are often simply the result of arbitrary choices made at some point in the past; those choices have become anchors in a process that Ariely calls "arbitrary coherence." We tend to procrastinate, try to keep our options open endlessly, unconsciously allow our expectations to determine our perceptions, and overvalue what we already own or things that are "free." All of these tendencies are used against us by those who stand to profit by them.

The only bright side is that public policy can be crafted to take account of our irrational impulses and behaviors. The dark side is that in a society that fetishizes freedom of choice, such attempts are usually portrayed as paternalistic (or as creeping socialism). Meanwhile corporations are free to ruthlessly exploit our irrational impulses. A fascinating and sobering book.

More Favorites of 2011: Bollywood, Movies, Music, and Television

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