Off the Shelf

Recent books with Harvard connections

Melanerpes lewis, Meriwether Lewis’s woodpecker, in the MCZ’s collectionsPhotograph by Mark Sloan/Courtesy of the Museum of Comparative Zoology/Harvard University

Progress and Confusion: The State of Macroeconomic Policy, edited by Olivier J. Blanchard, Raghuram G. Rajan, Kenneth S. Rogoff, Cabot professor of public policy, and Lawrence H. Summers, Eliot University Professor (MIT, $31.95). The global financial crisis and Great Recession exposed weaknesses in regulation and policy, and they and the sluggish aftermath have shaken the intellectual underpinnings of macroeconomics. The lingering uncertainties, explored here, are a worry—and a welcome antidote to hubris. From a different perspective, the Law School’s Hal S. Scott, Nomura professor of international financial systems, examines Connections and Contagion (MIT, $38), and argues that regulators need more powers than Congress has been willing to grant to stave off future financial panics.

Nothing like a topsy-turvy election year to bring out a longing for past leaders. Larry Tye, NF ’94, delivers a substantial biography of Bobby Kennedy [’48]: The Making of a Liberal Icon (Random House, $32), while Nick Littlefield ’64 and David Nexon ’66, former members of their subject’s staff, profile the Lion of the Senate (Simon & Schuster, $35): the work of Edward M. Kennedy ’54, LL.D. ’08, in the Newt Gingrich-era, Republican Congress. And While England Slept, by John F. Kennedy ’40, LL.D. ’56 (Praeger, $75), appears in print again with a new foreword by Stephen C. Schlesinger ’64, LL.B. ’68. Spooling back to a previous dynasty, former New York Times executive editor Joseph Lelyveld ’58, A.M. ’60, portrays in dramatic depth His Final Battle: The Last Months of Franklin Roosevelt [A.B. 1904, LL.D. 1929] (Knopf, $30).

Celebrating its collections, the Museum of Comparative Zoology, with Scala Arts Publishers, has released two book-like catalogs: The Rarest of the Rare ($22.95), a narrative cum stunning selection of photographs of interesting specimens, and the new Sea Creatures in Glass ($24.95), on the recently restored and cleaned Blaschka marine animals, the lesser-known cousins to the glass flowers. Nifty mini coffee-table books, with eminent authors (Edward O. Wilson, James Hanken, et al.) to boot.

For the quantitatively inclined, or those who would like to be, Summing It Up: From One Plus One to Modern Number Theory, by Avner Ash ’71, Ph.D. ’75, and Robert Gross (Princeton, $27.95), begins with addition (you need only algebra to follow) and proceeds, with calculus, to probe the results of the initial “enormous intellectual effort to conceive of an abstract theory of addition.” Turning to applications and a more accessible voice, blogger Cathy O’Neil, Ph.D. ’99, disaffected from Wall Street, writes Weapons of Math Destruction (Crown, $26), examining the data and algorithms used for credit scoring, insurance underwriting, and more—to explain “how big data increases inequality and threatens democracy.”

Copernicus, by Owen Gingerich, professor of astronomy and of the history of science (Oxford, $11.95 paper), is indeed one in the series of “very short introduction” volumes, by an outstanding scholar and writer (first sentence: “In or around 1510 Nicolaus Copernicus…invented the solar system”). Other eminent thinkers enjoy a fresh vogue in The New Worlds of Thomas Robert Malthus, in which Alison Bashford and Joyce E. Chalpin, Phillips professor of early American history, reread the author of the Essay on the Principle of Population and cast his ideas in the New World and global context, rather than that of the teeming cities of Europe (Princeton, $49.50); and Lysenko’s Ghost, in which Loren Graham, an MIT historian of science emeritus and associate of the Davis Center for Russian Studies, examines the notorious Russian biological theorist in light of current understanding of epigenetics and the living expression of organisms’ genetic code—and renewed enthusiasm for such ideas in some Russian circles (Harvard, $24.95).

China’s Economy: What Everyone Needs to Know, by Arthur R. Kroeber ’84 (Oxford, $16.95 paper). China was an economic nonentity when the author entered college; now it looms so large that everyone does need to know about its output of steel, consumption of soybeans, and much more. Kroeber, an on-the-ground expert for 15 years (and a participant in this magazine’s “Changing, Challenging China” roundtable, March-April 2010), provides clear, level guidance to the needed economic reforms that an official once described as “walking a tightrope over a bottomless pit—and the rope behind you is on fire.”

Vision: How It Works and What Can Go Wrong, by John E. Dowling, Gund research professor of neurosciences, and Joseph L. Dowling Jr. (MIT, $32). An admirably lucid, succinct explication of the scientific understanding of vision, and of disorders of that vital sense, by a leading researcher and an ophthalmologist—a paired approach that one craves for other senses and conditions.

Old genres in a new era: Never Better! by Miriam Udel ’98, Ph.D. ’08 (University of Michigan, $60). The title exactly captures the ironic insouciance mingled with despair of modern Jewish picaresque literature. The author, a former Ledecky Undergraduate Fellow at this magazine, is associate professor of Yiddish language, literature, and culture at Emory. Meanwhile, in The Lyric in the Age of the Brain (Harvard, $40), Nikki Skillman, Ph.D. ’12, now professing at Indiana University, explores how feeling, memory, and thought, once the domain of the lyric, now function poetically when informed by neuroscience, too, as in works by Ammons, Ashbery, Graham, and others.

When the Fences Come Down, by Genevieve Siegel-Hawley, Ed.M. ’05 (University of North Carolina, $27.95). In an era of increasing racial and economic segregation across school-district lines, the author, an assistant professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, examines school-desegregation efforts in four southern metropolitan areas—and develops evidence of clear gains in school and housing desegregation.

Retreat and Its Consequences, by Robert J. Lieber (Cambridge University Press, $24.99). A Georgetown professor argues that a robust American foreign policy is essential to world order, and therefore, the nation’s own interests. An academic argument against the current “pullback,” it concludes that the United States will reengage as a world leader, given a new perception of opportunities—or of perils.

The Curse of Cash, by Kenneth S. Rogoff, Cabot professor of political economy (Princeton, $29.95). In approachable language, a leading economist lays out the case for doing in paper money. He cites abuses of currency (tax evasion, corruption, terrorism, trade in illegal goods like drugs, human trafficking), and the practical problem that physical money sloshing around has made it much harder for central bankers to effect monetary policy in a near-zero interest-rate environment. The poor would need access to subsidized debit cards, among other interesting details.

An 1854 wood-block-print map of land and sea routes through northern Japan, from Cartographic Grounds
Image courtesy of the Library of Congress Geography and Map Division

From the design perspective: Beyond the City: Resource Extraction Urbanism in South America, by Felipe Correa, associate professor of urban design (University of Texas, $40), looks closely at cities shaped less by the migration from the countryside than by the intersection of heavy infrastructure and global demand for oil, minerals, and related goods. To keep track of the growth, one might consult Cartographic Grounds, by Jill Desimini, assistant professor of landscape architecture, and Charles Waldheim, Irving professor of landscape architecture (Princeton Architectural press, $50), a technically advanced book that lay users will find breathtakingly beautiful and mind-expanding, as it sweeps from historical examples to data visualization.

Thomson: The State of Music and Other Writings (Library of America, $50). One need know nothing about music to know that Virgil Thomson ’22, D.Mus. ’82, could write. So it is delightful to have this volume, with its vivid autobiographical passages on Harvard (“In Cambridge, on the first day I took a room; on the second I acquired a piano and a piano teacher”).

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