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The Nobel-Winning Economist Who Wants You to Read More Fiction

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Amitav Ghosh, in part for his commitment to writing about climate change as well as his gorgeous historical writing. Suketu Mehta’s last book, on immigration, “This Land Is Our Land,” was wonderful. The journalist Rana Foroohar and I think alike on many topics — most recently on the dangers posed by the new digital firms (“Don’t Be Evil: How Big Tech Betrayed Its Founding Principles — and All of Us”). Books like Peter S. Goodman’s “Past Due: The End of Easy Money and the Renewal of the American Economy” can convey a far better sense of the dysfunctions in our economy and our society than can my drier, more analytic work. Just as I would encourage anyone interested in understanding the Great Depression or mid-19th century Britain to turn to Steinbeck or Dickens.

For theater: “Urinetown,” by Greg Kotis, was one of the best plays I have ever seen, and I saw it two or three times. Also “Cardinal,” by Greg Pierce, about a postindustrial town that tries to reinvent itself by turning red. I am from Gary, Ind., so I could relate. We support the Committee to Protect Journalists and I admire brave reporters all over the world including María Teresa Ronderos (Colombia), Giannina Segnini (Costa Rica and now a colleague at Columbia), Ferial Haffajee in South Africa, Musikilu Mojeed (Nigeria) and the tenacious human rights reporters at Rappler (Philippines). A Columbia alum and citizen journalist, Omoyele Sowore, ran for president in Nigeria and was arrested after a controversial tweet. Now more than ever we need good journalism and we are getting it thanks to the philanthropists funding groups like the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, ProPublica, The Marshall Project, Daily Maverick and others.

What writers are especially good on economics? And what economists are especially good writers?

Recent years have seen many good economists trying their hand at writing a popular book in an attempt to disseminate their ideas among a wider audience and influence opinion — with a remarkably large number attaining more than a modicum of success.

The past 12 months have been particularly rich, with Thomas Philippon’s “The Great Reversal: How America Gave Up on Free Markets,” Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman’s “The Triumph of Injustice: How the Rich Dodge Taxes and How to Make Them Pay,” Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo’s (winners of this year’s Nobel Prize) “Good Economics for Hard Times,” and Thomas Piketty’s 1,100-page “Capital and Ideology.” (I mention that partially out of envy: My editor would never have allowed me to get away with anything near that length, and I think back longingly over the pearls on the cutting room floor, especially in my first popular book, “Globalization and Its Discontents,” a mere 282 pages.) For all its devastation, the financial crisis spawned a large number of excellent popular books, including Martin Wolf’s “The Shifts and the Shocks: What We’ve Learned — and Have Still to Learn — From the Financial Crisis,” Adair Turner’s “Between Debt and the Devil: Money, Credit, and Fixing Global Finance,” and my colleague Adam Tooze’s “Crashed: How a Decade of Financial Crises Changed the World.”

What do you read when you’re working on a book? And what kind of reading do you avoid while writing?

I look for a book that is particularly well written (from a craft perspective), more likely than not fiction, in the hope that, somehow, the beautiful use of language, the well-chosen turn of phrase, will seep into my writing. Some nonfiction writers aspire just for clarity; I’ve also sought something more — that there would be at least moments when the reader would think, that was a good read, and even better, inspire them to do something about the problems that I’ve tried to depict.

Do you count any books as guilty pleasures?

Sadly, I don’t have any guilty reading pleasures. I love the idea of a cold night, detective novel and bar of chocolate, but am too Puritanical for that.


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