October 09, 2014


How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life: An Unexpected Guide to Human Nature and Happiness. By Russ Roberts. Portfolio/Penguin. $27.95.

The Complete Guide to Living Well Gluten Free: Everything You Need to Know to Go from Surviving to Thriving. By Beth Hillson. Da Capo. $17.99.

     Adam Smith is what would nowadays be called a one-hit wonder: his The Wealth of Nations is generally considered the founding work in the field of economics, and it is a lively, intelligent and genuinely persuasive argument regarding the reasons for wealth and poverty, not among individuals but among entire countries. Read nowadays less often than it used to be – making economics and economists intellectually poorer as a result – it is not only a seminal work but also a genuinely involving one, stylistically accessible even after 200-plus years and as thought-provoking today as when it was first published in 1776. But then there is The Theory of Modern Sentiments, the book that Smith wrote earlier – and a book, first published in 1759, that was highly popular in its day but that almost no one reads or is even aware of anymore. A confusing and off-putting title, a convoluted style that is worlds away from the clear and simple one of The Wealth of Nations, and a set of arguments involving moral philosophy – scarcely a popular topic for most people at any time – have combined to keep The Theory of Modern Sentiments in obscurity. Well-deserved obscurity, some would argue – but not Stanford University economist Russ Roberts, who asserts in How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life that Smith’s first book is at least as valuable today as his second, and in some ways even more so, because it deals largely in the personal rather than the societal. As Roberts explains, “Smith helped me understand why Whitney Houston and Marilyn Monroe were so unhappy and why their deaths made so many people so sad. He helped me understand my affection for my iPad and iPhone, why talking to strangers about your troubles can calm the soul, and why people can think monstrous thoughts  but rarely act upon them.” This is a lot to claim for an old work about morals and ethics, and in truth, Roberts lays things on a bit too thickly in trying to “redeem” Smith’s earlier book. He tends to overinterpret, taking Smith’s admittedly oblique (and sometimes downright obscure) prose to mean pretty much what he, Roberts, wants it to mean. This means that Roberts tends to use Smith’s work as a jumping-off point for his own thoughts: “People do generally prefer having more wealth and a higher income compared with what they already have. …Something inside us drives us to want more. Something else inside us tells us that more isn’t necessarily better. Something else inside us makes us wonder if the price of wealth is worth paying.” This makes sense, but it is Roberts making the assertions, not Smith.

     In fact, when Smith impinges on Roberts’ own life, as in an analysis that undercuts gadget-happy people’s claims that they “need” the latest and “greatest” this or that, Roberts takes Smith to task. Yet Smith has some trenchant observations on gadgetry – such as better and more-accurate watches, the high tech of his time. Someone preoccupied with getting ever-more-accurate timepieces, writes Smith, “will not always be found either more scrupulously punctual than other men, or more anxiously concerned upon any other account, to know precisely what time of day it is. What interests him is not so much the attainment of this piece of knowledge, as the perfection of the machine which serves to attain it. …What pleases these lovers of toys is not so much the utility, as the aptness of the machines which are fitted to promote it. All their pockets are stuffed with little conveniences.” Whoa, says Roberts – he has good reasons for owning multiple Apple products, and an app that explores a DNA sequence, and three separate apps to map the stars, and “gadgets [that] I love the best [and that] do their job extraordinarily well.” Physician, or economist, heal thyself! Yet despite some inconsistencies and some conveniences of interpretation, How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life is for the most part an engrossing work, as entertaining in its own way as Smith’s as in its. And Roberts’ eventual attempt to reconcile the laissez-faire attitude of An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (to give Smith’s famous book its full title) with the altruism and compassion that permeate The Theory of Moral Sentiments is genuinely thoughtful in probing the ways in which the books embellish and complement each other rather than being contradictory or mutually exclusive. How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life is not a book for everyone – not even for all economists. But for those interested in a philosophical inquiry into the thinking of perhaps the most foundationally influential economist of them all, Roberts’ book is intellectually salutary and even bracing.

     Beth Hillson’s aims in Living Well Gluten Free are decidedly more modest and down-to-earth. She too writes of life-changing matters, but in a literal and mundane sense rather than a grandly philosophical one. Whether gluten-free eating is a genuine health matter or simply one of the fads of the moment – with multiple companies taking advantage of “gluten-free” package labeling to promote specific products – is a matter of opinion. Certainly some people need to live gluten-free, but whether all those who say they need to really do is something else again. Whatever one’s motivation for gluten-free eating, though, one will certainly prefer “living well” to living, well, less well. Hillson, editor of the magazine Gluten Free & More, does not look at gluten-free life as a choice or a lifestyle, stating directly that only people with celiac disease, gluten sensitivity or wheat allergies must avoid gluten. With that established, she goes on to discuss gluten sensitivity itself, explains the many foods in which gluten is found, and then discusses gluten-free shopping, baking and cooking – including, among other things, recipes for “15 Favorite Foods You Never Thought You’d Eat Again” (banana bread, buttermilk biscuits, doughnut rounds, pizza, soft pretzels and more). Especially useful for people who must live gluten-free is the final section of the book, which focuses on lifestyle elements such as eating out, traveling and socializing. Hillson tackles subjects that are scarcely the norm in books like this, such as gluten-free sex: “Body fluids do not carry gluten. …Lubricants, spermicidal/contraceptive jellies, condoms, foams, and sponges are generally gluten-free. …Edible underwear (Candypants and others) is made of either pressed candylike materials or candy pieces strung together…[so] check the labels.” Equally intriguing, although in a different way, are Hillson’s remarks on kissing babies, older children and pets: wipe off kids’ hands and mouths, and pets’ mouths, before any osculation. Hillson’s willingness to handle these elements of gluten-free living, her determination to show people who must live gluten-free that they can do so without making huge sacrifices in everyday life, and her inclusion of easy-to-follow recipes, make Living Well Gluten Free a book that actually lives up to its title. It is a narrowly focused book, to be sure – only for those with gluten sensitivity, their family members, and others who care about them – but for its target audience, its plain-spokenness and thoughtfulness will be both welcome and highly useful.

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