When I was growing up, I had an idea of the kind of work I wanted to do. I would be a researcher. I would read, test hypotheses, develop theories and write about them in learned journals. I wasn’t yet sure what subject I was going to specialize in. I knew I enjoyed reading a variety of subjects. There was a time when I thought I wanted to be a forensic scientist, another time when I thought international relations would be the most interesting subject to study. Ultimately, I ended up studying history in college, and to those who assume that I must have been crazy to pick such a subject, I would only say, “You have no idea what you missed.”
I had always enjoyed history, even in school where I was one of the few who would bother to read the prescribed textbook and more. But history in college was a whole other thing. In the first place, there were no textbooks. The first few months were a bewildering time for most of us because everything we thought we knew about history – and about education – turned out to be utterly wrong. We had always assumed that history was a series of facts about the past. College taught us that one person’s history is another person’s fabrication. What history really boils down to is perspective and interpretation. Suddenly, we were looking at the same ‘solid’ facts from different points of view: imperialist, nationalist, revisionist, marxist, feminist, dalit. It was mind-boggling and yet exhilarating. Nothing we had assumed was true and we were suddenly forced to question everything that we had been taught in school. That was the other valuable thing we learned in college – how to ask questions. Growing up with a rigid and highly regimented education system, one of the first things that was snuffed out was curiosity. Pedagogy reigned in our school and asking questions, any sort of questions, was strongly discouraged.
Anyway, the reason I’m dwelling on all this now is because I read the most wonderful book, full of the sort of questions that traditional academics would sneer at. Freakonomics, with its motto “assume nothing, question everything” gave m brain one of the sharpest jolts it has received since college. And it’s not because of the answers to the questions it poses; it’s the nature of the questions themselves. What do estate agents and the Klu Klux Klan have in commom? What to school teachers and Sumo wrestlers have in common? What does the legalization of abortion have to do with the declining crime rate in the United States? These weren’t questions I had ever been keen to find answers to, but I realized suddenly what a lot of questions there are in the world. And most of them are so very interesting.
I don’t think I can write about this book the way I have written about others. I’ll only say that it’s packed with facts and interpretations, is easy to read and digest and will keep you on your toes. It’s a good, pacy read and if you’re new to non-fiction, you could do worse than picking this up. It won’t really help you understand economic theory and statistics, but it will show you how the tools of one discipline can be used to answer the riddles of everyday life. If you feel, even just a little bit, that you need to have your curiosity about life piqued, read this book. It will help.