Holiday Guide: 5 Under-the-Radar Books You Have to Read

Last week, I asked Yale economist Robert Shiller what the best advice he ever received was. He said his father, Benjamin Shiller, always cautioned against the idea that "celebrity experts" are wiser than everyone else. Just because someone is on TV or making headlines doesn't necessarily mean they have profound insight -- except, perhaps, insight on how to market oneself. He tied the point together by noting, "The best books usually aren't the best-sellers."

In that spirit, here are five books that aren't big sellers but should be on your holiday wish list this year.

5. The Bed of Procrustes, Nassim Nicholas Taleb
Taleb was driven to fame by his books The Black Swan and Fooled by Randomness. His latest book received a fraction of the attention -- it's currently ranked 15,316 on Amazon -- but may be his best.

The Bed of Procrustes was ignored by most book reviewers because it isn't really a book. Rather, it's a collection of hundreds of pithy one-liners that, as its description puts it, "will surprise you by exposing self-delusions you have been living with but never recognized."

A few examples:

"The calamity of the information age is that the toxicity of data increases much faster than its benefits."

"To be completely cured of newspapers, spend a year reading the previous week's newspapers."

"The fastest way to become rich is to socialize with the poor; the fastest way to become poor is to socialize with the rich."

"My only measure of success is how much time you have to kill."

"The best test of whether someone is extremely stupid (or extremely wise) is whether financial and political news makes sense to him."

4. Since Yesterday: The 1930s in America, Frederick Lewis Allen
There are literally hundreds of books on the Great Depression. Since Yesterday sticks out for one reason: It was written by someone who lived through it.

Written in 1941, the book describes life in America during the Great Depression years of 1929-1939. Rather than a hindsight digestion of the causes or a lashing over who is to blame, the book recounts the human view of the Depression -- how everyday folks dealt with poverty, the collapse of the stock market, the run on banks, unspeakable unemployment, and the New Deal. It's more about sociology than economics.

It's hard to read this book without noticing similarities to our recent recession. The Great Depression had its own version of subprime, "too big to fail," banker backlash, income inequality, and even Occupy Wall Street. At the same time, reading the book today makes it clear that what we've experienced during the last four years is hog heaven compared with the 1930s.

3. The Haves and the Have-Nots, Branko Milanovic
A few months ago, I was looking for data on global wealth inequality for an article showing how much you need to earn to be part of the richest 1% of the planet ($34,000 a year, if you're wondering). It quickly became apparent that no one has done more research or has a better understanding of wealth inequality than World Bank economist Branko Milanovic.

In The Haves and the Have-Nots, Milanovic takes a slug of highly technical research and turns it into something readable and enjoyable. The book is filled with anecdotes that make your mind spin -- "the poorest [5%] of Americans are better off than more than two-thirds of the world population," and, "only about 3 percent of the Indian population have incomes higher than the bottom (the very poorest) U.S. percentile." Milanovic also tackles an overlooked topic: why wealth inequality matters and how it affects the economy.

2. The Pessimist's Guide to History, Doris and Stuart Flexner
How many times have you heard about the drought of 1873-1876 and ensuing famine that caused 13 million Chinese to perish? Or the Minnesota fires of 1894 that eliminated over a dozen towns from the map? The volcanic eruption in New Zealand that leveled an area larger than Connecticut? Or the 1769 lightning strike in Italy that ignited a massive gunpowder storage area and killed 3,000?

This might be the most depressing book ever written -- put it off until after the holidays, perhaps -- but it's an important and eye-opening read for a couple of reasons. One, it drives home that most of the troubles we face today are not only precedented, but pretty trivial in the grand scheme of things. Two, it makes fairly clear that the world is getting better over time -- the book begins with plagues that threatened the existence of entire continents, and ends with Larry King interviewing Paris Hilton.

It's also a good primer for my final recommendation.

1. Getting Better, Charles Kenny
Kenny begins this terrific book with a simple theme: "Despite counterclaims and handwringing, things are getting better, everywhere."

This is true even (or especially) in places we tend to view as pits of stagnation, like Africa. What makes recognizing progress in the poorest regions of the world difficult is that we tend to focus on financial metrics like income and GDP to gauge achievement, when measures of how people are really doing often have nothing to do with money. Incomes in Africa may be stagnant or declining, but life expectancy, infant mortality, democratic representation, literacy, and education are by and large improving.

"Being poor is bad when you need access to expensive treatments or services," Kenny notes. "Luckily, however, many of the services and treatments most necessary to increase quality of life are very cheap." A mosquito net or a dose of antiviral medicine, for example, costs little and adds virtually nothing to gross domestic product, but can improve the quality of life exponentially for millions.

By no means does this mean life in the developing world is good. But not only is it getting better, it's doing so at a faster rate than the developed world -- a "convergence" that shows no sign of slowing down.

Have any recommendations of your own? Share them below.

Fool contributor Morgan Housel doesn't own shares in any of the companies mentioned in this article. Follow him on Twitter @TMFHousel. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.


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