What to read and why it’s not Piketty

A high school English teacher I revered could speak knowledgeably about most current and past popular television shows and movies, yet she watched almost none of them. Lacking the time to do so, but judging it important to be culturally fluent, she read reviews and summaries. She succeeded in appearing to be—and genuinely being—”in the know” while saving herself considerable time. She wasn’t lazy, and she certainly was not ignorant. She was merely busy, and she handled this fact with a genius efficiency.

My graduate school thesis adviser was (no doubt still is) an expert on a deep and wide swath of statistical image and signal processing and related areas. He could converse knowledgeably about all the current and past important papers, yet he didn’t read all of them. Lacking the time to do so, but judging it important to be fluent in his field, he relied on seminar speakers and summaries provided by his advisees (being fortunate and skilled enough to be able to select ones capable of this task). He succeeded in appearing to be—and genuinely being—”in the know” while saving himself considerable time. He wasn’t lazy, and he certainly was not ignorant. He was merely busy, and he handled this fact with a genius efficiency.

These examples are generalizable. We all have resource constraints. In particular, none of us has the time to read everything, even everything we recognize as “important.” So, we must choose what to read and what to ignore, and also how to be somewhat conversant about things we don’t read, to the extent we think it important to be so.

I think about the problem of what to read daily. The list of things I could read—that I judge “important”—grows at a rate higher than my information processing bandwidth. My Amazon Wish List is about 50 books long and growing by dozens each year. Since I only read about one book per month, at most, I’ll die before I read most of what I judge “list worthy.”

The same goes for papers I see in journals’ tables of contents. I receive dozens of tables of contents by email each week. Each one typically includes a few papers of possible interest. Yet I only have time to read, perhaps, a dozen papers per week in their entirety. You do the math.

(Similar math applies to posts in the blogosphere, pieces in magazines, articles in newspapers, even tweets on Twitter. I cannot consume all that is worthy of consumption.)

The latest important book making the rounds is Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century. It’s already famous and famously long (~700 pages with end notes, I believe). I put it on my list, but should I read it?

Probably not. As important as it is—and I have no doubt of that—the opportunity cost is too high. In the time it would take me to read it, I could read several other important (list worthy) books or many tens of important academic papers. But there’s more to it than that.

Like my high school English teacher and my graduate school adviser, I can obtain a fairly good working understanding of Piketty’s book in far less time than it’d take me to read it. Many other scholars, bright thinkers, and good writers have read it and written summaries. I need only read a few of those (which I have) and I’ve got enough.

But wait, you may be thinking, there’s no way I’m getting everything from a few summaries. You’re right. I’m not. If Piketty could convey everything in a few thousand words, he’d have been a fool to write 700 pages, and all those bright people summarizing him would have been fools to have read them. He’s not. They’re not.

But here’s the thing, for me at least (and maybe you), most of my reading is only for short-term entertainment in the following sense: I forget most of it. A few months or a year or more after I’ve read a book, if I remember anything, it isn’t usually more than a blog-post’s worth. That is, my long-term working understanding of almost anything is, at most, a few hundred words long. Thus, by definition, in the long run, most of the time I have put into reading more is just for entertainment. (I bet this is broadly true, but you tell me. In general, is there more than about 1,000-words worth of information in your brain about a book you read a year or so ago?)

So, here’s my approach to reading:

  • Try to read “important” things (whatever that means to you).
  • Put a premium on “important” things that few others are writing about, particularly if you’re in the business of writing (or attempting to write) pieces you want others to think are innovative.
  • It basically follows that when you notice “everyone” else is reading and writing on an “important” thing, you should consider reading a few summaries and skipping the full treatment. Moreover, unless your job/brand relies on writing on every “big idea,” consider not writing about this “important” thing. It’s been done. (There’s a reason I don’t read and write about some big health policy reports and some important papers and developments. This is it. Others have it covered, and I’m time constrained.)
  • A lot of “important” work is in academic journals that almost nobody reads, or is capable of reading (which is only to say, they’re not written for a general audience). So, if you can read and communicate it, you’re almost guaranteed to be writing things people will find innovative.
  • Read for fun, because most of it is entertainment. You’ll not remember much in a year, though you may (hopefully) remember the few, main ideas.

To the extent you’re not like me, your mileage may vary. Develop your own approach to reading. But don’t just read Piketty because everyone is reading Piketty. Consider, at least, the opportunity cost and ways to grok Piketty with less work. But, by all means read Piketty (or anything else) if it’s the best use of your time. Don’t beat yourself up if you read something else (or several somethings else) instead. You’re not being lazy or ignorant. You’re just applying a genius efficiency.

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