Abhijit Vinayak Banerjee teaches economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is also a co-Founder and a Director of the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab. In 2009 he won the inaugural Infosys Prize in Economics. He is the author of A Short History of Poverty Measurement. Here are his best reads in 2017.
I am hardly your cutting-edge reader. I typically wait for friends to point me to the books they loved. The best thing I read in 2017 is a 2013 Booker prize-winning novel by Eleanor Catton, called The Luminaries. In an extraordinary act of virtuosity, Catton, who was then in her twenties, has written something that has the structure and feel of a fully realized Dickensian novel, but none of its moral weight. This is deliberate. She carries out a very careful undermining of everything that we expect from that kind of novel and remarkably, succeeds. At the end, I was left confronting my own desire for a genuine hero and some moral ballast.
The Luminaries Eleanor Catton
I also loved Zadie Smith’s Swing Time; I read it as a response to Elena Ferrante’s wonderful Neapolitan novels, another novel centred around a lifelong friendship between two women who met and became friends when they were very young. A difficult friendship between two very different women, both strong personalities, both difficult in their own way, much like Ferrante’s masterpiece. And it is very much about “Those who stay and those who go”, to echo the title of the third of the Neapolitan novels. But in the end, these are very different novels: while the Neapolitan novels are about the impossibility of escape from the background one is born into, despite talent and ambition and even worldly success, Swing Time challenges the entire idea of escape—do we even know what we want from life–and by doing so, offers a less bleak perspective on life.
Swing Time Zadie Smith
Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire, like Zadie Smith’s, is set in the United Kingdom in our peculiar present, where liberal values are being challenged and undermined by the violence of various sectarian prejudices. How does a liberal individual deal with close family members committed to some extremist prejudice, but also with the violence that the state unleashes against those it considers dangerous? If your brother is a terrorist and the state wants him dead, do you, as someone who has little sympathy for his views, just write him off? In one form or another, we all confront these issues all the time, and this brave and well-written novel does us the favor of taking it on and making us think harder about the options.
Home Fire Kamila Shamsie
On a very different register, Robert Gordon’s Rise and Fall of American Growth is a big and bold book, very different from what academic economists usually write. He argues that information and communication technology has not transformed our lives in the same way that electric lighting or automobiles, for example, did, and goes on to argue that this presages an overall slowing down of growth in the United States and by implication, in the rest of the rich world as well. Growth as we know it is over. Whether he is right or wrong, the book is a wonderful read–Gordon takes through a whirlwind tour of all the ways in which the previous, truly successful, innovations transformed life as was then known.
The Rise and Fall of American Growth Robert Gordon
I am currently totally enchanted by Ali Smith’s latest, Autumn, which once again demonstrates that she can take on entirely different kinds of novels and make them work. This is not an easy read: the pleasure of Ali Smith lies in her ability to write entirely unexpected sentences, to throw us images that are at once startling and thought-provoking and to create a densely populated visual world. All of which requires focus. But I have a week’s winter vacation in front of me.
Autumn Ali Smith
So, how many of these added up to your favourites book list?