The Bulgarian prime minister, a Communist, resigned last week after two weeks of peaceful street protests in Sofia. The anthem of the revolution, sung continually in English by the thousands of citizens who rallied daily in the streets, was the Beatles song "Let It Be."
One of the best holiday gift books to be found this year explains why this should be the case. It is "Rock Around the Bloc: A History of Rock Music in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union," (Oxford University Press, $21.95) by Timothy Ryback, which paints a vivid picture of how the acids of modern music ate away at Communist authority over the years.
After crushing the Hungarian Revolution in 1956, for example, Janos Kadar agreed to import 400 Wurlitzer jukeboxes. During a Warsaw concert in 1967, Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards threw the children of nomenklatura out of the first four rows of the hall before continuing the show. Dean Reed, an American expatriate turned Soviet rock star in the 1970s, was discovered "accidentally" drowned in East Germany in 1986 after announcing that he hoped to return to the United States.
In addition to being a painless way to learn a great deal about the history of the command economies, Ryback's book tells more than a little about the West as well. Bill Haley's "Rock Around the Clock," recorded in New York in the spring of 1954 and adopted within months by underground Moscow jazz groups (take that, Klaus Fuchs!), was designated a "fox trot" on the record label.
In a similar way, suppose you wish to give the gift of Margaret Thatcher's England. You might choose "Titmuss Regained" (Viking, $19.95) by John Mortimer. Mortimer, the thoroughly "wet" novelist who created Rumpole of the Bailey, limns the adventures of a Michael Heseltine-like Cabinet officer named Leslie Titmuss who must choose between his free-market ideology and his hankering after upper-crust gentility in the West Country in this sequel to "Paradise Postponed."
Or how about Africa? Robert Klitgaard is a Harvard-trained economist who spent three years in Equatorial Guinea consulting on development projects for the World Bank. The result is "Tropical Gangsters: One Man's Experience With Development and Decadence in Deepest Africa" (Basic Books, $22.95). As Paul Streeten says, the book reads as though novelist Evelyn Waugh had written it; it also contains a good deal of shrewd analysis of Third World poverty. Development economics has never been rendered so easy to swallow.
The point here is that the books you give at Christmas and Hanukah to signify your membership in the larger world needn't all be mainstrength and awkwardness. They could be sweet -- or short -- instead.
Of course, you may insist on giving an important book. Perhaps your intended recipient already has those two universally recognized symbols of the important and long-lasting scholarship, Michael Porter's treatise on the fruits of rivalry, "The Competitive Advantage of Nations" (Free Press, $35) and Alfred Chandler's survey of the rise of European, Japanese and American multinationals, "Scale and Scope: The Dynamics of Industrial Capitalism" (Harvard University Press, $35).
Suppose "Journey through Genius: The Great Theorems of Mathematics" (Wiley, $19.95), with its stunning essays on the history of 10 great proofs starting with the Pythagorean theorem, is too high-toned for your innumerate recipient. Suppose "The Lever of Riches: Technological Creativity and Economic Progress" (Oxford, $24.95) is too discursive for your engineer.
Or suppose he or she doesn't want them because they are ... too long and heavy.
Well, then there are some awfully good short books around for those who like to think about the political economy of things. There's Paul Krugman's readable survey of the American economic condition, "The Age of Diminished Expectations" (MIT, $17.95), for instance. Padma Desai performs the same service for the Soviet Union in the updated paperback edition of "Perestroika in Perspective" (Princeton). Each of these plausibly makes the claim "all you need to know."
But suppose you want to know more? It is not every year you can find a book by Nobel laureate Robert Solow, the doyen of the New Keynesians and a man who has kept the faith with ever-increasing sophistication since he served on John Kennedy's Council of Economic Advisers in 1961. "The Labor Market as a Social Institution" (Blackwell, $19.95) is Solow's look at changing ideas about the nature of unemployment. It has only a few diagrams and the equations are confined to the appendix.
A somewhat more ambitious survey of the state of economics is "Seven Schools of Economic Thought" by Edmund S. Phelps (Oxford, $29.95). This world-class theorist takes a look at Keynes himself, at monetarists, new classicals, New Keynesians, supply siders, real business cycle theorists and structuralists, scattering equations here and there throughout the text. Perhaps an easier window on to the state of play would be a samizdat copier collection of the "schools briefs" laying out the significance of 10 classic papers in the new economics that have been running serially in the Economist magazine since Nov. 3.
Finally, in the short book category, you could try "If You're So Smart: The Narrative of Economic Expertise" (University of Chicago) by Donald N. McCloskey. This little volume by a distinguished econometrician brings the world of stochastic regressors and multicollinearity down to the level of a horse tip. "A story goes with it," says McCloskey, quoting Damon Runyon, explaining much of the persuasive power of modern technical economics. He may not be right about the ultimate source of the "word spinners' " authority, but he is always entertaining, a regular Phi Betta Kappa of the master tropes.
David Warsh is a columnist for the Boston Globe.