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How to Write a Non-Fiction Book Review on Freakonomics?

Freakonomics Book Cover

Very often students are left dumbfounded at such a heterodox approach. Should I resort to the old tools such as themes, structure and symbolism or should I employ some new methods? – they would ask.

First of all, let’s cover the basics. The book Freakonomics was written by an American economist Steven Levitt in 2005 in co-authorship with the journalist Stephen J. Dubner. Although it engendered a broad swath of criticism among traditional economists, the public loved it. It allowed the book to finish second on the New York Times non-fiction best-seller list.

This book may at first come off as a hodgepodge of various ideas, situations and unconventional views that the author so vividly relays. It is hard to review the novel that seems to have no overarching topic. However, even though the author explores various subjects, the underlying objective is to show the benefits of unconventional thinking and data analysis.

So, let’s try and refract our thinking through the Freakonomics prism.

Spoilers FTW

Because it’s a non-fiction book, there is no danger in giving away plot details that might ruin reader’s experience with the book. I would recommend you trying to abstain from relaying the entire plot in a couple paragraphs though. It would be more reasonable to touch upon the key issues that you deem most significant.

For instance, the author is deeply concerned about the crime issue and its implications for the field of economics. You may use examples from the book to underpin the author’s standpoint, but they should be concise and up to the point. You do not want to sound like a blabbering devotee of Steven Levitt’s ideas.

Make sure not to repeat yourself. The author lets you take a brief peek at his prime concepts right in the introduction. However, later he expounds upon them, often reintroducing the same notions, but with different examples. Do not make a mess, structure your writing, so that a reader can derive meanings easily and efficiently

Be Critical

Critical Thinking

Even if you feel attached to the book’s ideas, do not glorify them. If you are a real fan, you would know that the novel itself teaches you to be leery of conventional wisdom, sift through the obvious facts and be critical. You may express your admiration of the book at the outset, but if you simply write a panegyric, beware of your teacher’s response.

There are plenty of ideas in the book that you may subject to a thorough reevaluation. As an example let’s take by far the most polarizing statement of the entire novel, namely, that abortions reduced crime. Here you can refer to the outside sources such as the Broken Window theory that attributed crime minimization to police tackling minor crimes. You may also argue that, even though Rose v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision that legalized abortions throughout the US, was a factor, it could not be the only one. In any case, it is up to you to decide, but, please, do not let Steven Levitt’s eloquent writing lead you astray from the critical analysis.

If you have to review this book for your class, most likely you are dealing with data analytics there as well. I would advise you to conduct your own little research, if, of course, you have the means to do so. The Internet offers a range of useful mechanisms for data analysis, often for free. Your teacher will greatly appreciate you going an extra mile in your review, thus adding a personal touch.

You may also criticize the most obvious drawback of the book: the author often exploits the techniques that are mostly used in sociology and other disciplines that have little to do with economics. Of course, this is a debatable point because nowadays it is generally considered commendable to transfer knowledge and methodology within disciplines. However, if you are feeling like passing off for a traditions' advocate, maybe, that’s a way to go. It is better than singing hymns to somebody who often manifests very arguable ideas.

Watch out for Concepts, not Facts

This tip may seem counterintuitive to what I have already written. Please hear me out, and you will see my point.

There is no arguing that facts are the backbone of any non-fiction book. However, it is the ideas that breathe life into it. It is the ideas that push the world forward and let humans alter their mindset. Of course, as a true professional you need to rely on facts and data analysis when writing your review. However, do not get carried away by the abundance of interesting data points that you dug out or the author put forward. Facts are just the ingredients; it is the ideas that are truly edible.

In case of Steven Levitt, you would be smart to write a great deal about breaking the conventions, incentives and information asymmetry.

You may write that incentives are the ignition that keeps the engine of capitalism running. Without people wanting stuff, there would be no economy as well as no crime, and, maybe, no life. Steven Levitt references an interesting finding by one doughnut salesman who delivered doughnuts to all sorts of companies without monitoring the payment. The salesman than discovered the incentives that either forced the employees to pay or allowed them to steal. He noted that the smaller the company, the better the people knew him, the lower the employees’ positions and the more they like their job – the more likely was the company to paay well. All these factors explain not only how to run business, but also how to run the society at large.

First of all, make sure people are connected to each other. The more contact you have with somebody, the more likely you are to respect that person and treat them good. Second of all, watch the high ranked employees. Unfortunately, stealing and cheating are often the most effective ways to get on top. Do not be blindfolded by their success, always watch out for a personality within. Thirdly, keep people happy. This simple tip can greatly improve humanity’s chances for survival. When people are happy, they are more likely to be just and contribute their fair share to the world, and I am not only talking about money.

There is no need to delve deep into the issues of conventions' debunking or information disadvantages. I believe you got my point. Moreover, imposing my views any further, I would deprive you of the opportunity to analyze the novel on your own. If you decide to read it, you will discover a fantastic source of new insights and unconventional wisdom.

To Sum It Up

So, if you want to write a good review on Freakonomics, remember:

  1. do not put the author on a pedesta

    Steven Levitt is a very talented economist with a refreshing stance towards his field. However, do not let it skew your own understanding. Take his ideas with a grain of salt; do not let his personality outshine your own judgment.

  2. Utilize the data to prove your point

    Do not just agree or disagree with the author. Support your views with data chunks and alternative opinions of other credible economists.

  3. See the big picture

    Facts for the sake of facts are useless. Try to zoom out of the individual data bits and see the encircling rainbow of perception that the author wrapped around it. Facts are solid, ideas are fluid. So, fill in that glass, do not leave it empty.

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