New Books on the Bookshelf
Five new social science books with blurbs on each:
1. “The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny,” by Peter McGraw and Joel Warner.
Part road-trip comedy and part social science experiment, a scientist and a journalist detail their epic quest to discover the secret behind what makes things funny.
Dr. Peter McGraw, founder of the Humor Research Lab at the University of Colorado Boulder, teamed up with journalist Joel Warner on a far-reaching search for the secret behind humor. Their journey spanned the globe, from New York to Japan, from Palestine to the Amazon.
In their quixotic search, they questioned countless experts, from comedians like Louis C.K. to rat-tickling researchers, and answered pressing (and not-so-pressing) questions such as, “What’s the secret to winning The New Yorker cartoon caption contest?”; “Who has the bigger funny bone—men or women, Democrats or Republicans?”; and “Is laughter really the best medicine?” As a final test, McGraw uses everything they learned to attempt stand-up—at the largest comedy festival in the world.
2. “Machine Made: Tammany Hall and the Creation of Modern American Politics,” by Terry Golway
For decades, history has considered Tammany Hall, New York’s famous political machine, shorthand for the worst of urban politics: graft, crime, and patronage personified by notoriously corrupt characters. Infamous crooks like William “Boss” Tweed dominate traditional histories of Tammany, distorting our understanding of a critical chapter of American political history. In “Machine Made,” historian and New York City journalist Terry Golway convincingly dismantles these stereotypes; Tammany’s corruption was real, but so was its heretofore forgotten role in protecting marginalized and maligned immigrants in desperate need of a political voice.
3. “Heart of Buddha, Heart of China: The Life of Tanxu, a Twentieth Century Monk,” by James Carter
The Buddhist monk Tanxu surmounted extraordinary obstacles–poverty, wars, famine, and foreign occupation–to become one of the most prominent monks in China, founding numerous temples and schools, and attracting crowds of students and disciples wherever he went. Now, in “Heart of Buddha, Heart of China,” James Carter draws on untapped archival materials to provide a book that is part travelogue, part history, and part biography of this remarkable man.
This revealing biography shows a Chinese man, neither an intellectual nor a peasant, trying to reconcile his desire for a bold and activist Chinese nationalism with his own belief in China’s cultural and social traditions, especially Buddhism. As it follows Tanxu’s extraordinary life, the book also illuminates the pivotal events in China’s modern history, showing how one individual experienced the fall of China’s last empire, its descent into occupation and civil war, and its eventual birth as modern nation.
4. “If Mayors Ruled the World: Dysfunctional Nations, Rising Cities,” by Benjamin Barber
In the face of the most perilous challenges of our time—climate change, terrorism, poverty, and trafficking of drugs, guns, and people—the nations of the world seem paralyzed. The problems are
too big, too interdependent, too divisive for the nation-state. Is the nation-state, once democracy’s best hope, today democratically dysfunctional? Obsolete? The answer, says Benjamin Barber in this highly provocative and original book, is yes. Cities and the mayors who run them can do and are doing a better job.
Barber cites the unique qualities cities worldwide share: pragmatism, civic trust, participation, indifference to borders and sovereignty, and a democratic penchant for networking, creativity, innovation, and cooperation. He demonstrates how city mayors, singly and jointly, are responding to transnational problems more effectively than nation-states mired in ideological infighting and sovereign rivalries.
5. “The Economics of Creativity: Art and Achievement Under Uncertainty,” by Pierre-Michel Menger
Creative work has been celebrated as the highest form of achievement since at least Aristotle. But our understanding of the dynamics and market for creative work–artistic work in particular–often relies on unexamined clichés about individual genius, industrial engineering of talent, and the fickleness of fashion. Pierre-Michel Menger approaches the subject with new rigor, drawing on sociology, economics, and philosophy to build on the central insight that, unlike the work most of us do most of the time, creative work is governed by uncertainty. Without uncertainty, neither self-realization nor creative innovation is possible. And without techniques for managing uncertainty, neither careers nor profitable ventures would surface.
Featured Image: “The Great City of Tenochtitlan” by Diego Rivera, National Palace of Mexico.