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A few books

Over the many weeks that I've neglected my blog, I've read all the books that used to be on my sidebar. Now that I've got a few moments, let me tell you about some of them.
The most striking thing about Robert E. Howard's Conan stories is either a) their generally high quality, or b) the racism that Howard seems to have been unconscious of and that was probably almost unnoticed by his early readers. The bad guys in Conan stories are invariably "dark skinned" and frequently compared with monkeys, both in appearance and in behavior. Lest we try to pretend that Howard didn't have Africans in mind when he wrote about the "savages" that Conan takes out, he frequently describes their "kinky hair" and "wide nostrils." It's the sort of thing that hopefully will disgust most modern readers and leave them grateful that things have changed somewhat for the better since Howard was alive.

This racism is even more disappointing because the stories themselves are so good. They're lean and taught -- something that I wish more of today's fantasy authors might try to emulate more often. Howard never forgets that his readers want action. He gives them plenty of that, with just enough characterization and plotting to make the action make sense.

Atul Gawande is one of my role models, demonstrating that a doc can be a clinician and an informed, thoughtful citizen and writer at the same time. (For a funny look at what you often get with health care providers, read this post by another good writer and ER resident.) Better is a collection of several separate essays that are loosely connected by the theme of improvement -- getting better. There's a great discussion of how one hospital has cut its rate of nosocomial infections by emphasizing handwashing, and another discussion of what kinds of chaperoning to use when you're examining a patient. There are no overall lessons, but the individual essays are well-written and fun to read.

Richard Epstein's Overdose is classic Epstein that feels just a little too classic for me. It isn't that Epstein's writing isn't clear or his arguments weak. It's just that, well, they're so damned predictable. You suspect before you even read the book that the pharmaceutical companies will end up being blameless victims of nefarious collectivist schemes, and when you read that yes, they've been unfairly victimized by collectivists, you sigh and wonder why you had to do all that reading to get there.

Epstein's bigger mistake is that he sings to his choir a bit too much, instead of presuming that his reader will disagree with him. Perhaps he's been thinking like this for so long, he's lost the ability to truly imagine someone who say, "yes, but why shouldn't we trade off some amount of innovation for greater access to the drugs that have already been developed?"


Thanks for the link! And from the sounds of it, I will probably add "Better" to my reading pile as I am always looking for interesting reads.

I greatly enjoyed some of Howard's stories about Conan, and my reaction to his obvious racism is similar to the conflicts I have when I read Kipling, Conrad, etc.

I also like Gawande's writing in general -- have you seen Pauline Chen's new book, which I think Gawande reviewed in the NYT? I haven't read it but I have generally heard good things about it.

Finally, I disagree with Epstein for a variety of reasons, but perhaps most of all because he simply presumes that pharmaceutical innovation is crucial for health. There is not robust evidence in favor of this proposition, and there is good reason to think that pharmaceuticals in general have a much more attenuated effect on population health than we generally believe.

Thus, even if Epstein is right that FDA regulation is "excessive" and stifles innovation -- points with which I either disagree or find to be trivially true -- it does not follow that these policy choices have profound impacts on health.

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