Off the Books is subtitled “The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor”. It’s a study of the economic networks of a poor black neighbourhood in Chicago, complete with gangs, prostitutes etc. Reviewers have labelled it a “revealing study” and “a fascinating look at a place and community that would otherwise remain entirely under the radar”, and promised insights into the P&L statements of gang leaders.

It all sounded very interesting, but the book itself was a total disappointment. The book is too long but nevertheless has too little content.

First of all, the book focuses more on the social networks than on the actual economy of the neighbourhood. There’s more talk about the social responsibilities of gang leaders than about how they make money. This is perhaps to be expected, given that the author is a professor of sociology and African-American studies, not of economy, but it was nevertheless not what I expected.

Of course the book could nevertheless have been interesting, but it wasn’t. On the one hand it doesn’t carry its weight as a serious study – it’s not rigorous and solid enough. The whole book is made up of minutiae. There are lots of anecdotes and observations, but few hard facts and analysis, and hardly any conclusions. A study of an economy should surely at least give us some facts and figures: How large is the economy? How many people live in the area? How much do they earn? How much do they work? A map would have been useful as well.

It also doesn’t work as a popular book, because it’s not particularly well written. It’s repetitive and badly organised. The language is leaden, painfully awkward – an uncomfortable mix of highbrow academic terms and colloquial first-person accounts. The book is in desperate need of an editor – it looks like it got published without any attention from editorial staff.

Here’s a representative section:

[Big Cat] was only one of many local stakeholders who resolved economic disputes because the state had no formal authority. Many other local people enforced contracts, or resolved disputes, or, for a fee, could find you a gun, a social security card, or even a job as a day laborer or a nanny for a wealthy family. Others may have claimed control over parks, alleyways and street corners; these people would have to be paid if one wanted to fix a car, sell drugs, or panhandle at that spot. And there were many local loan sharks, besides Big Cat, who could loan you cash, or who could find you customers – for stolen stereos or drugs, for prostitutes or home-cooked lunches – in a matter of a few hours.

Enumeration is piled on enumeration, and it goes on and on in the same vein. I found this so irritating that after 100 pages I couldn’t take any more and gave up.

Amazon UK, Amazon US.