How do you decide what book to read next?

Joshua Kim’s article in Inside Higher Ed made me consider this question. Here is the answer Kim provides:

I always go first to nytimes.com/books . A good review attached to a subject that I’m interested in, or an author that I like, will almost always result in a purchase (as an Amazon Audible audiobook or a Kindle e-book). A middling or bad review – no sale. Sometimes I’ll do a Google search for “book review (book title)” – and read reviews from other sites – but rarely. If the book is reviewed on IHE, then I’m definitely buying. This book selection process has been seriously disrupted by the NYTimes paywall. Sure, it is easy to get around (just do a Google search with the headline of the article you want to read) – but this is an extra and unpleasant step.

I find this account very curious because it is so different from how I buy books. For me, the main – and I’d say the only – source of reading suggestions is the Amazon. I’ve spent so much time and money there that Amazon really knows me well and always recommends books that will interest me. I’m very familiar with Amazon’s structure and the different ways one can search for reading matter on it. I now try to avoid the site as much as possible because it’s hard for me to leave it without a purchase.

It’s strange to me that Joshua Kim relies on the NYTimes so much for his choice of books to read. I dislike NYTimes and discontinued my Kindle subscription to NYTimes Book Review because, for the most part, the books it reviewed were part of what I refer to as “reading for housewives”: cheesy, overly sentimental fare of the tearjerker variety. The reviews were always dedicated to retelling the plot in as much detail as possible, which is something that even the least bright among the Amazon reviewers know not to do.

In my opinion, Amazon reviews are always going to be more reliable than the ones that appear in print media for the same reason that independent bloggers will eventually destroy traditional newspapers. Amazon reviewers and bloggers can only rely on their own hard work and the reputation they manage to build for themselves among their readers. The NYTimes, however, can manage its affairs right into the ground and then rely upon somebody to bail it out. Besides, there is absolutely no reason to believe that newspaper journalists will offer their honest opinion about books. They don’t seem to offer honest opinions about anything else, so why trust them on this subject?

And how do you decide what book to read next?

P.S. If this passionate diatribe on what might seem like a pretty trivial subject surprised you, I have to confess that I’m one of Amazon’s popular reviewers.

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>Immaturity and the Housing Bubble: Review of Edmund Andrews’s "Busted"

Andrews is a long-standing reporter for the economics section of the New York Times. This is what makes the story he tells in Busted: Life Inside the Great Mortgage Meltdown so scary. Andrews’s book presents two closely connected stories: the history of the creation of the US housing bubble that started the current economic crisis and his personal story of getting into an incredible amount of debt in the years that led to the collapse of the housing market.

This is a book that needs to be read, even though it will make you lose your faith in humanity for a long time to come. Andrews analyzes in great detail how the lending institutions gradually became more and more driven by the desire for instant profit without stopping to think for a second what will happen long term. The author also brings to light the incredible, mind-boggling stupidity of Greenspan, Bernanke, and Co. He demonstrates how corrupt and dishonest the Bush Jr. administration was.

None of this, however, is very new. At least not to me. From the moment I moved from Quebec to the US, it became obvious to me that the housing prices in this country were ridiculously over-inflated. I saw my friends and colleagues pay really insane, seven-figure prices for poky little apartments in Manhattan or run-down bungalows in Connecticut and immediately realized that this was the game I would never agree to pay. Mortgaging away your life for the next 30 years in hopes that the bubble will get even bigger and the price of your house would magically grow seemed like a genuinely stupid proposition even for someone like me, who at 27 was woefully ignorant about economy. Today, when I understand the workings of this country’s economy and politics a lot better, I am even more reluctant to participate in this insanity.

What really bothered me in Busted: Life Inside the Great Mortgage Meltdown was not the story of the housing bubble. It was the story of a nearly fantastic immaturity. Immaturity on both sides, the lenders’ and the borrowers’. Those who handed out completely unsecured loans to people incapable of ever paying them off and those who accepted loans they could never even imagine paying off. Andrews was one of those who accepted. And accepted. And accepted some more.

The immaturity and total intellectual impotence of this man – who, once again, writes for the economics section of The New York Times – is mind-boggling. He decides to take out a loan to buy a half-million dollar house. As a result, he knows that his entire paycheck will go towards his alimony payments and the mortgage with not a dime left over for the bills. Of course, he hopes that his new wife will make enough money to cover all of their living expenses. Nothing would be all that wrong about this picture, if it weren’t for one tiny detail. His new wife has been a house-wife who hasn’t worked a day in the past 20 years. Besides, she is accustomed by her former husband to living the life of luxury. She didn’t even do any work around the house because her first husband paid for a housekeeper. On top of that, Andrews gets this woman to move to a completely different part of the country. Then, he expects her to find a well-paying job – with no skills, no connections, no experience of being an employee – and start paying all the bills: “We had both assumed she could earn enough for us to get by. We didn’t have any idea how she would do it; we were both simply sure that she could do it.” It is incredible to encounter such profound intellectual impotence from any one over the age of 12.

This is not the weirdest thing about Andrews’s relationship with Patty, the woman who eventually became his second wife. He left his first wife and proposed to Patty before Patty and he had ANY kind of a relationship. They hadn’t even as much as kissed, let alone had sex or lived together. And these are not some horny teenagers. These are people who are almost 50 at the time. During marriage counselling, Andrews and Patty discover that they do not see eye to eye on 90% of issues discussed. This, however, does not suggest to them that it might make sense to postpone the wedding until they actually get to know something about each other.

Andrews’s path to penury begins when he takes out a sub-prime mortgage on his new house. Over the next few years he gets so far into debt that you couldn’t dig him out of it with an excavator, just to keep the stupid super expensive house. And you know why? In his own words, “Even though it was all about buying a house in the suburbs, it felt vaguely exciting, edgy, and a little gangsta.” When a balding, paunchy, white gentleman in his late forties is motivated to take out an impossible loan because he wants to feel “gangsta”, of all the stupid things, you know that something is seriously wrong here. And this is supposed to be a well-educated upper-middle-class individual, who works as a journalist, for Pete’s sake!

In order to climb out of the financial hole he has dug for himself, Andrews tries every crazy borrowing practice out there. He runs up a staggering credit card debt, empties his pension account, and even hits up for money his elderly mother. There is just one thing he doesn’t do: try to cut down the costs. Andrews goes through his wedding to his second wife in throes of a panic attack over mounting bills and huge debt. After that, he proceeds to pay the caterers that were hired for the wedding. Of course, the idea that people who can’t pay the electricity bill might be able to do without a catered wedding never crosses his mind.

For a while, Andrews’s family income rises to $200,000 per year. I don’t know about you, people, but for me this is a staggering amount of money. One could live like a king on half that amount. Still, Andrews cannot make ends meet. Even though the debt is growing and his interest rates become sky-high, he keeps spending on things that cannot possily be considered necessary expenses: cable telivision, HBO, beach house, Ipods, expensive clothes, the list is endless.

Andrews criticizes the irresponsible lenders virulently. He never stops to think, though, that those who criminally handed out unsecured loans were motivated by the same basic immaturity that got him into so much trouble: have fun now and assume that things will somehow work out in the end. These people, who are so immature that it makes my hair stand on end in horror, are the ones that got us into this mess. They mortgaged away our future, and their children’s and grand-children’s future because they wanted that Ipod, that house, that vacation right now and didn’t want to pay for them. Now, we will all have to pay for their lack of responsibility and their inhuman immaturity for decades to come.

[To be continued…]