Books of the Week

Lower back pain.

In lieu of writing a review of the 1956 Egyptian masterwork, “Cairo Station,” a story of the sexual obsessions of a handicapped newspaper salesman, I decided to briefly reassess the contents of by backpack. I just looked in it to see what I’m lugging around with me:

1. “The Dialectical Biologist” (1985) – Richard Levins, Richard Lewontin
2. “Accessibility and Utilization: Graphical Perspectives on Health Care Delivery” (1984) – Alun E. Joseph, David R. Phillips
3. “Beyond the World Bank Agenda” (2008) – Howard Stein
4. “Public Health and the Political Imagination in Mexico: 1790-1910” (unpublished, 2010) – Paul Ross
5. “釜が崎:歴史と現在 (Kamagasaki: History and Present Day” (1993)) – 釜が崎資料センター(Kamagasaki Document Center)
6. “くもんの小学ドリル:6年生の漢字(Kumon’s Elementary Kanji Drill: 6th Grade)” –Kumon Press

There’s not much that strings these books together, though five of them are excellent. One of my biggest failings, is being easily impressed. Perhaps it’s a positive, I’m not sure, but I’m easily drawn to books, no matter how relevant or irrelevant they are to what I should or should not be working on. Sometimes, I consider whether I might have some adult form of ADD. It’s possible, or maybe I’m just easily swayed.

It’s hard to pick a favorite from this list, though, out of loyalty to my good friend Paul Ross, I have to say that his is the one I’m most excited about. A full review will have to come later, however.

Dispensing with the obligations of friendship, no matter how willingly assigned, Stein’s “Beyond the World Bank Agenda” is a fascinating account of how a combination of bumbling adherence to neo-classical economics and US economic interests created a behemoth which decimated Sub-Saharan African economies during the 80’s and 90’s. It’s dense reading but an eye-opener to how power politics used flawed economic assumptions to the detriment of the planet’s poorest. Stein does not seek to expose a nefarious global conspiracy, but rather views the failures of structural adjustment as a result of antiquated economic ideas, a disconnect between the goals of the Bank and the realities on the ground and the failure to consider evidence when shaping monetary policy.

In 1985, Levins and Lewontin collected a number of essays challenging standard Cartesian approaches to biology which view organisms as linear endpoints of environmental conditions. They call for a Hegelian, dialectical approach, that views organisms as part of a dynamic whole, which reacts in concert with their respective environments to both respond and manipulate their surroundings. While the writing is incredibly obtuse, the implications are huge. It is difficult (impossible?) to boil the work down into a few sentences, though the underlying message is quite similar to Stein’s. Traditional, “accepted” methodologies are often overly simplistic, based on untested assumptions, and the application of which leads to incorrect, and sometimes destructive conclusions.

I’ll skip the book on health care accessibility as it is only relevant to my research. The book of essays on Kamagasaki is part of an ongoing project and will have to wait until later.

The sixth isn’t really excellent, being merely a drill book for 6th graders, though helpful. I am happy at least to know more Kanji than the average Japanese 3rd grader. One has to celebrate these minor victories.

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About Peter Larson

Assistant Professor of Epidemiology at the Nagasaki University Institute for Tropical Medicine

One response to “Books of the Week”

  1. stumpwater says :

    That book about Nishinari-ku looks really interesting. I wish I could read Japanese well enough to read it. Not the sort of thing that will ever be translated, I suppose.

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