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Thursday, May 05, 2005

Review of Freakonomics, Part One: In which my review of the book begins and I explain the downside of blogging anonymously

(Note: If you don't get the reference of the title of this post, then you haven't read the Table of Contents to Freakonomics.)

There are downsides to posting anonymously, chief among them the fact that, well, people don't know who you are. One problem with this is that you don't get credit for what you write, although I suppose there is the concurrent upside that you don't get the grief either.

Another problem with being unknown, and one that doesn't have a corresponding benefit, is that people don't send you free stuff.

Apparently, everyone in the blogosphere has received a free copy of Freakonomics, by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner (Steve and Stephe, I guess), for the purposes of generating reviews and buzz. Well, being anonymous, I didn't get one, so I had to shell out cash for it, which I did, thanks to the buzz generated by the blogosphere and the internet generally.

As a sidenote to everyone reading: although I post anonymously, I am a real person, and not (and this may come as a surprise given my work product) a group of monkeys at a keyboard. I am happy to get free stuff, including books, free subscriptions to magazines (ahem, Legal Affairs), or whatever else you will give away. Drop a note in the comments section and we'll work it out from there. And if you are willing to provide me with a free Subaru Outback XT, I am willing to guarantee you a good review and as much positive buzz as I can generate. I do a mean impression of an auto-writer.

(Review with actual insight begins after the jump.)

Anyway, Freakonomics. I've skimmed all of it and read about half, and so I am now prepared to pass judgment.

Here's the deal: Steve and Stephe have done a nice job. Steve is the econobrains, which doesn't actually make Stephe the freakobrains, but rather the brains behind the style. The substantive element is creative and interesting, and the book is very easy and enjoyable to read.

The title is a bad fit, since there is nothing freaky about the book or its goals or methods. But don't let that put you off. Steve and Stephe ask interesting questions about how the world works and, for the most part, provide compelling (and always provocative) answers.

One other benefit of reading this book, at least if you do so publicly: people will think you are smart. I had to drive with a group of coworkers this morning for a meeting in another town. We left at 6:30 A.M. I brought the book and read it along the way. Three people told me they were impressed (but a little weirded out) by the fact that I was doing "such heavy reading" so early in the morning. First of all, I have two young children. 6:30 A.M. isn't that early in the morning. Second (and more relevant), the book isn't that heavy a read. It is quite an easy one, in fact. So by reading it, you get to look smart and studious without actually having to be smart and studious. Just my kind of deal.

The book is definitely readworthy. But it is not quite as buzzworthy and groundbreaking as Steve, Stephe, and the marketing team believe. This is hardly the first book to apply methodologies used by economists to explain everyday phenomena. Put aside that this is what microeconomists do all the time in the academic world and just consider these examples of books with similar descriptions.

So read the book, particularly if you are given it for free, but even if you have to borrow it, buy it, or steal it--hey, even teachers cheat (see chapter one). But don't buy the hype.

Posted by Hillel Levin on May 5, 2005 at 01:03 PM in Books | Permalink


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