What I’ve been reading: linguistic puzzles and the alchemy of advertising

1st November, 2020

I am a sucker for Alex Bellos books – they’re just such fun, full of unexpected ideas and charmingly written. (My very favourite is Alex’s Adventures in Numberland (in the US, titled Here’s Looking at Euclid).) His latest offering is The Language Lover’s Puzzle Book, which offers a hundred puzzles based on a variety of languages (often obscure), codes, counting systems and writing systems. If you like puzzles this is a delightful and original approach and you’ll pick up a lot of quirky delights along the way.

Blackwells (UK) – Amazon

Rory Sutherland’s Alchemy: The Surprising Power of Ideas That Don’t Make Sense gives Rory’s idiosyncratic take on life, commerce and particularly marketing. It’s very funny and full of original ideas. My favourite page is page 43, which contains this: “The trouble with market research is that people don’t think what they feel, they don’t say what they think, and they don’t do what they say” (sometimes attributed to David Ogilvy) and this disarming admission, to Sutherland, “Look, to be frank, I don’t like reading novels all that much, but I find if you have read a few Ian McEwan [novels] you can pull a much better class of girl”. Not especially enlightened, but a useful peek at someone’s internal monologue.

(A complaint, though: Rory misses no opportunity to take a kick at economists. Sometimes we deserve that. But he works hard to insist that game theory is not economics (Milgrom, Schelling, Myerson? etc) experiments are not something economists would do (Duflo, Banerjee, Smith? etc) behavioural science is something diferent (Thaler, Kahneman, Shiller? etc) and “economics treats all markets as though they were the same” (Ostrom, Roth, Akerlof? etc). By my count nearly three quarters of the people who have won Nobel memorial prizes in economics in the 21st century are in disciplines Rory insists aren’t economics. The straw-manning is not necessary: the book stands up perfectly well without it.)

Blackwells (UK) – Powells (US) – Amazon

Both books are a light read, easily consumable in bite-size servings – and they both look rather beautiful too.

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