Ultramarine

In this excerpt from A Brave Man Seven Storeys Tall, Owen Burr is captain of the Stanford University water polo team, bound for the Olympics. But he’s blinded during a match and flees without graduating. His disappearance causes Owen’s father, a Professor of Classics, to travel the world in search of his son, with only his radical academic theories to guide him.

Get the book here.

A Brave Man Seven Storeys Tall

Four days…

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Remember Me

Abroad

FA review tag

Early in Katie Crouch’s ambitious and unnerving new novel, Abroad, her young Irish student narrator, Taz Deacon, takes us on a tour of an Etruscan archeological museum in Grifonia, Italy, where she encounters violent images of Iphigenia, stabbed as a sacrifice to Artemis. Taz wants to understand whythis happened and whythe disturbing images are so insistently reproduced and displayed. A smug…

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C21C

FA review tag

It was something of a surprise when Thomas Piketty’s 700-page, statistics-laden economics tome Capital in the Twenty-First Century became a sensation earlier this year, selling out its early print run and even briefly passing Heaven is for Real for the top spot on the New York Times Bestseller list. Less surprising was the news last week that the 700-page, statistic-laden economics tome now tops a list of books people are buying and then not reading.

According to an admittedly non-scientific study tracking the most frequently highlighted passages in popular e-books, most buyers of Piketty’s book didn’t highlight, and thus probably didn’t read, much of anything beyond page 26. It is “summer’s most unread book” for 2014.

So let me confess at the outset of this review that I am one of the many who have not finished reading this book.

I succumbed fully to Piketty mania, showing up late to a dinner with friends so I could buy C21C on the day it came out. I bought the r > g” shirt from The Colbert Report in the middle of the episode in which it appeared. Over the last few months, I have made it well past page 26, but I still have a ways to go from where I am today in the mid-400s.

In defense of myself and many others, let’s clarify an important point: there is no rush. Piketty’s book is an in-depth analysis of multiple measures of economic inequality and the dynamics that have created them throughout a few hundred years of capitalism. It doesn’t require an in-depth analysis of our political system to understand that none of those dynamics is going to change anytime soon. You’ve got plenty of time to familiarize yourself with Piketty’s argument.

In defense of my own personal delinquency, in between starting C21C and today, I became a father. If you weren’t aware, taking care of a newborn tends to cut into one’s reading time. So I haven’t finished the book. But from what I have completed, I feel more than qualified to answer a few key questions for people considering picking it up, those being:

  • Should I read Capital in the Twenty-First Century?
  • Can I read it if I’m not an economist?
  • Will I actually enjoy reading it?

Should I read Capital in the Twenty-First Century? The answer is a definitive “yes.” You should absolutely read it (cover to cover, I’m speculating). Believe the hype. This is an important book that clarifies a major challenge, not just of our time, but of many years past and almost certainly many years to come. If Piketty’s findings manage to become part of our mainstream understanding of the economy, it could radically change how we deal with these issues — which is to say, we might actually deal with these issues, rather than assuming that happy dust sprinkled by the Free Market Fairy will trickle down through the global economy. We might actually realize that, as Piketty puts it on page 424, “real democracy and social justice require specific institutions of their own, not just those of the market.”

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Can I read it if I’m not an economist? Again, “yes.” Even with its copious charts and equations, Capital in the Twenty-First Century is not so much an economics book as it is a history book. And in history, the exact numbers aren’t as important as the trends and outcomes indicated by those numbers. The most mathematically important element of the book is the equation r > g, which explains that throughout the history of capitalism, the return on invested capital (r) exceeds the rate of overall economic growth (g). In other words: the rich getting richer is not a bug, it’s a feature. The brief post-war period (1950s — 19080s) of middle class prosperity that we elevate as a golden age of capitalism was the exception to r > g. There is much more to it, which Piketty explains better than I ever will, but you’ve seen all this. Look at stock market gains (r) versus real economic growth (g) in the last few years. Consider whether the rate of increase in your salary since college (your g) has matched the interest on your student loans (someone else’s r). Think about whether anyone you know has bought a house using just their income (g) or whether they needed a cash gift from parents or grandparents (r) to afford what is considered a fundamental economic action of the middle class.

You don’t need to be an economist to understand these and other points that Piketty is making. In fact, few readers will have a better understanding of our current reality of slow economic and wage growth than those of us with degrees in English, history and/or philosophy.

Will I actually enjoy reading it? If you’re going to care at all about C21C you have to be willing to respect evidence. However, evidence indicates that reading this book can sometimes feel dutiful — especially around pages 27 and beyond, it seems. We’re also talking about a book that outlines rampant and systemic inequality, so even if you find it a captivating page-turner, “enjoy” might not be the right word. The real pleasure comes from Piketty giving shape, with extensive data and clear language, to the nagging sensations that something is not quite right with how things are working out for most people.

But Piketty has also done something novel with this book, largely by linking his economic data to actual novels. Throughout C21C are references to Balzac, Jane Austen and Henry James, as well as TitanicDamagesDirty Sexy MoneyThe West Wing  and The Aristocats. Some commentators seem to consider these inclusions a contrivance, a touching but ultimately pointless exercise in accessibility. Or, less charitably, a dumbing-down. In reality, this is one of the more revolutionary aspects of the book (that I’ve read so far).  If Piketty can encourage us to see for ourselves the presence of r > g in more of the world around us, then the ideas in his book might actually stand a chance.

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Piketty: Trickle down come at me bro.

The bulk of what I have not read of Capital in the Twenty-First Century covers Piketty’s solutions to the problems created by r > g.  I’m expecting I will enjoy imagining a world in which a global wealth tax fosters a strong middle class with access to well-built roads, cutting edge education, and clean water and air. But I suspect the solutions chapters will ultimately feel like an obligatory add-on, the one piece that is not dispassionate and scientific, and thus the only unpersuasive part of the book.

But that should not take away anything from the importance of this book. We tend to envision the future as a place where intellectual curiosity, science and mutual respect have propelled civilization into an age of peace, pluralism and prosperity. I am the kind of person who believes that to reach such a future, we need great books, with ideas that bring people together in agreement about how we make progress. Capital in the Twenty-First Century is that kind of book, and we can use it to change the world, just as soon as we finish reading it.

- Michael Moats

TL;DR: Capital in the Twenty-First Century It was something of a surprise when Thomas Piketty’s 700-page, statistics-laden economics tome Capital in the Twenty-First Century 

The Circle Jerk

The Circle

I wish someone besides Dave Eggers had written The Circle, a book about an Internet company that takes over the world.

I wish Jonathan Franzen had given The Circle the convincing female characters that tend to feature in his work, instead of the flatness and predictability of protagonist Mae and her best friend Annie, an up-and-coming Circle luminatus who hires her best friend from college into…

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Proust Zumba

The Albertine Workout

FA review tag

1. Anne Carson has written her new book, The Albertine Workout, in numbered sections with alphabetical subsections. This makes for

a) easy reading.

b) an easy review conceit.

2. The content of the book could be described as the terse fruits of Carson’s labor to catalog all discernable facts about Albertine Simonet, the most lasting and beguiling of the Narrator’s loves in Marcel Proust’s In…

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New Quarterly Lit-Mag: The Intentional

intentional

I root for my generation the way some people root for sports teams, and there’s nothing I loathe more than trend pieces bemoaning some supposed Millennial flaw, so I’m excited to see a new lit-mag that does the opposite. The Intentional, a DC-based quarterly journal, publishes fiction, essays, poems, and art, focusing on Millennial contributors and topics.

Their third and current issueis…

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NEW HARRY POTTER STORY

NEW HARRY POTTER STORY

THERE’S A NEW HARRY POTTER STORY! IT’S SHORT!! HE’S OLD!!!

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READ IT AT POTTERMORE.COM.

-Michael Moats

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Ghost in Translation

Faces in the Crowd

The best revolutions turn an issue into a non-issue. Hippies made a non-issue out of marijuana. The gay rights movement is making a non-issue out of who you choose to marry. Duchamp and Warhol and Gaga made non-issues out of representation, originality, and talent, respectively. The best revolutions are built on a shrug. They take what everyone else is anxious about and say: who cares.

Maybe…

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Family Life by Akhil Sharma

Family Life by Akhil Sharma

family-life

FA review tag

Halfway through the twelve years it took Akhil Sharma to write Family Life, his editor, perfectly happy with the then-current draft, urged him to quit rewriting. The temptation must have been mighty; the long silence after Sharma’s promising debut, An Obedient Father, caused his name to be all but forgotten in literary circles, and the pressure to publish again was presumably immense. But the…

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