Book Reviews – Schindler’s List and Freakonomics

Schindler’s List (Thomas Keneally)

Since 2004, I’ve had lists of ‘books…’ and ‘movies I intend to see’. Schindler’s List has always been on the latter list, and thus by default, on the former as well. Haven’t seen the film yet, but NK had the book, so…

I’m sure everyone’s heard of the title character, a German who, despite his less-than-honourable private relationships with women, saved the lives of over 1000 Polish Jews during the second world war. To compile this semi-biography, Keneally spoke to many who knew the man. For the most part, they were people he saved through his actions, and thus we know the means by which he accomplished it – through his associations and agreements with important German officials; through his enamelware factory which was to become a ‘failed’ munitions factory; through his dealings on the black market…

In his foreword, Thomas Keneally acknowledges that there are many things we can only about Schindler and his work, particularly the many conversations he must have had to negotiate to bring about his list. The result is a book that reads like a series of old black-and-white photographs and other memorabilia – fuzzy memories, but important in what they recall and bring to life. (And I’ve just remembered that the film is B&W…geh – I want to use a different metaphor (or, if you want to be technical, a simile, rather) but that really seems to fit best…) It’s like reading Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse in that way – and I’m sure everyone knows at least one or two more books that give that impression.

The life of Oskar Schindler really was – and still is, you could say – remarkable. As a man with the talents of a businessman, but with a caring heart and a distaste for that which he regarded as inhumane, the situation during the war made the best use of his gifts – he was not notable before it, and suffered two bankruptcies in the post-war years, supported by those who owed him their lives. But this isn’t a story about a man who failed in the world; it’s about a man who succeeded where it really matters.


Freakonomics (Steven D. Levitt and Stephen I. Dubner)

What is your impression of an economist? Before I read this book, for some reason, I thought ‘calculative’, ‘materialistic’, ‘mundane’ – after all, they study the economy. But impressions, especially those formed on the assumptions of a naive mind, are often wrong. The economy isn’t just about the big corporations and consumers, at least that’s not the way Steven Levitt sees it, because looking at this facet of the economy simply doesn’t hold much meaning for the average most individuals. But what about the things that we are familiar with? Surely school-teachers and sumo wrestlers are not amongst the cheaters in our world; surely we (or perhaps, the people of the USA) were not held captive by the threats of an organisation likened to Real Estate agents; surely the drug underworld has little in common with corporations and crime rates little to do with abortion; and perhaps most importantly, ‘what parents do’ is one of the most important influences children encounter.

Freakonomics is an entertaining read that makes one question everything held as conventional wisdom. You’d think I’d have learnt my lesson after completing ‘God & the Natural Sciences’, the subject wherein Neil Thomason overturned certain ‘expert’ opinions, particularly those pertaining to the myths of Christopher Columbus and the infamous ‘natural selection’ moth, but this book really shows how wrong the experts often are.

The paradox is…just as in that unit at Melbourne University, Freakonomics is based largely on the opinions of Steven Levitt. However, since he’s telling us what the majority of people don’t want to hear (eg. that the law/policy/social change with the single greatest impact on crime in America was the widespread legalisation of abortion), I’m very grateful that economists like him exist in the world. If there’s one thing to take from this book, it would be to have a healthy disregard for ‘conventional wisdom’.

About karice
MAG fan, translator, and localization project manager. I also love musicals, travel and figure skating!

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