In brief

Red Nile: A Biography of the World’s Greatest River, by Robert Twigger, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, RRP£25, 480 pages

The river Nile is immense. It has had many lives. So any “biography” is going to have to embrace its many personalities. In Red Nile, author and explorer Robert Twigger combines his own forays along its length with extensive research to tell the story of the “river which spills into history”.

The result is a tour de force; a brilliantly written scrapbook of history and travel, geography and science, myth and legend both ancient and modern. No element of the river escapes him: from its deadly crocodiles, hippos and diseases such as bilharzia; to the respect the Ancient Egyptians had for the life-giving Nile and the efforts of modern cultures – often hubristic – to tame it.

Twigger allows the river’s ever-changing shape to inform this engrossing biography. It’s a vast subject but he never becomes overwhelmed by the material and has written an elegant, amusing and fascinating book, buoyed by his own enthusiasm, that draws you along in its current.

Review by Carl Wilkinson

What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets, by Michael J Sandel, Penguin, RRP£8.99, 244 pages

Much of this thoughtful book is anchored in ideas of decency, dignity and respect as Sandel distinguishes between “having” the “valuable and effective” tool of a market economy and “being” a market society, in which all human endeavour is filtered through market assumptions. Key to this is how we value things. Sugar can be traded without harm to buyer, seller or the goods sold; but a quota market for placing refugees (in a similar way to carbon trading) is clearly “distasteful” as the market context is degrading to intrinsic human worth.

While this might seem self-evident to many, Sandel neatly demonstrates why applying a market price can change how we value things, and how inappropriate valuing can lead to corruption and dishonesty.

Sandel’s conversational style in What Money Can’t Buy is accessible and persuasive, leavened with a few choice jibes at economists who bemoan the economic “inefficiency” of gift-giving and who consider virtue a zero-sum game.

Review by James Urquhart

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