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Book Review: Superfreakonomics, by Steven D. Levitt & Stephen J. Dubner

Did I sleep write this book or something?

I had heard about both Superfreakonomics and it’s prequel, Freakonomics; their titles alone had piqued my curiosity. But life being life, and my pile of ‘to read’ books already very high, I decided to add them to my ‘to buy’ list.

And I have to admit, I kind of forgot about them – until the calls and the emails started. “Sahar, have you read this book? It’s filled with things you would say!” “These guys could totally be you writing under an alias – I could hear your voice throughout the entire thing.” “You have to read this book. It’ll be like reading yourself!”

So I figured the time was ripe for me to read both Freakonomics and Superfreakonomics. And while I have yet to pick up a copy of Freakonomics, a copy of Superfreakonomics did make its way to my desk. And I must say: my friends had a point.

Which is why I feel obligated to start this review with the following disclaimer. I am heavily biased towards this book, as it seems to have been written by someone who thinks like me, who has the same interests as me and who has the same sense of humour as me. So many times, while I was reading Superfreakonomics, I would jot down a comment or a remark only to see it make an appearance a couple of lines later. For example, at page eight, the authors state that: “It appears that cable TV really did empower the women of rural India, even to the point of no longer tolerating domestic abuse. Or maybe their husbands were just too busy watching cricket.” So something I would say.

Another such great quote came in about 20 pages later: “Unfortunately, economists aren’t allowed to conduct such experiments. (Yet.)” Another one of many remarks I would myself make.

It was like reading in the Twilight Zone.

And no, I am not making light of domestic violence, nor were the authors. This is the beauty of this book; it makes light of no serious topic it tackles, but tackles each of them with relish, enjoying each and every moment of it. For these are, after all, the books that were written about "things you always thought you knew but didn’t," and "things you never knew you wanted to know but do."

Superfreakonomics is filled with questions and associated research on topics you would never have thought were under this close scrutiny, bringing them together in a surprisingly cohesive whole. The authors’ discussions are all the richer in that they incorporate thoughts and concepts that are seemingly out of the box (cricket and domestic violence? Not something you usually associate).
Sometimes the questions are those that we wouldn’t dare ask, but that we wish someone, somewhere would not only ask them, but figure out the answer. While Superfreakonomics doesn’t provide for final answers, it offers interesting perspective on such taboo topics as drug use and why the drug on war is not working. And, again, it makes a lot of sense.

It’s okay if, like me, you didn’t read the first installment of the book (gasp!). This second installment is presented in a way that while you are definitely curious about the contents of the first book, you need not depend on them to be able to read this one. However, I have to warn you: if you want to read this book, just get the first one, too. No use prolonging the torture. For resistance is futile.

There are five chapters in this book, as well as an introduction (how in the world did these guys come up with this concept in the first place?) and an epilogue. I think that the most exciting part of Superfreakonomics is the fact that there is definitely a possibility for a third installment, as there are an infinite number of questions to be asked and unfortunately only a finite number of people smart enough to offer answers that make sense. Some of the questions that the authors analyze are as follow:

  • How is a street prostitute like a department store Santa? (Which isn’t really a correlation you want to think about right before Christmas season, especially if you have kids)
  • Why are doctors so bad at washing their hands? (Which isn’t a good thing since more patients who come into hospitals die of infections acquired at said hospitals than of the condition they came to the hospital in the first place)
  • How much good do car seats do? (Which isn’t an appealing question to those of us stuck in less than stellar winter climatic conditions)
  • What’s the best way to catch a terrorist? (A great section a copy of which should be sent to a certain number of people who haven’t been very successful in their work)
  • Did TV cause a rise in crime? (Although I kind of gave a part of this one away earlier on with the cricket quote)

And many, many more.

Written in an easy to read and extremely engaging language, Superfreakonomics is bound to help you think outside of the box, which, in a messed up world where the solutions of the past obviously haven’t worked, is a great capacity to develop. But even with the laid back language, the quality and rigour of the research put forth cannot be denied, as all answers are backed up by referenced statistics and information.

If you want a relaxing yet thought-provoking book to read, Superfreakonomics is definitely the book you want. And the best part is that reading the book is only the first part of the journey, for there are scores of websites dedicated to praising Superfreakonomics and Freakonomics, and, even more interestingly, there are scores of websites intent on debunking everything these books talk about – which was the most interesting of the sites to check out. Just check out their website here.

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