• 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.

    (Comments open for one week.)


    • Nice article. The question is: why are more and more peoples writing more and more books & articles? Interesting dilemma: the more knowledge we produce, the less we consume.

    • I’d add to that list that there’s no shame in partially reading books, particularly certain key chapters that interest you when it’s non-fiction. So much non-fiction is outdated in a year or two anyways, and the remaining stuff (particularly history books) is not always completely interesting and often repetitive.

      For example, one of the books I read in the past year that I could write more than 1000 words about was Charles Morris’ Dawn of Innovation, about the rise of machinery, industrialization, and mass production in the UK and US in the 19th century. I loved the book, but skipped the entire long first chapter because it was a dull bit about naval warfare on the Great Lakes in the War of 1812.

      I’ll probably do the same thing with Piketty, and more generally I’ve lost a lot of patience for non-fiction books that run long if they’re oriented towards laymen. If you’re trying to convey an idea or argument towards people with interest but no real special training on the topic, you can often get it across to them in 75-100 pages tops.

    • I don’t read too much of the peer reviewed literature these days. Mostly it’s scanning journal tables of contents looking for interesting titles. When I find interesting title, I capture it to my reference database, so it will be there if I need to cite it in a manuscript that I’m working on.

      If I see something relevant to a particular students work, I’ll forward the citation on to them.

      Where I do read is when I’m doing peer reviews. I try whenever possible to accept requests for review, because at least that way I’m reading something representing the cutting edge literature, of course if it’s crap and then a recommend that it be rejected, and then it might not ever make it into the review literature. But I figure I’m doing my part, and like I said it does keep me reading literature in a way.

    • I’m not finished and it may not be worth your time. But it reads surprisingly quickly, so the cost may be lower than you anticipate. And it’s enjoyable — lots of economic history that interests me.

      This might be a life stage thing. I read a lot of stuff just because I am curious about it. When my kids were still in the house, I couldn’t do that.

    • I’d love to read a follow-up post about how to retain what we DO read when we chose to!

      • Brian- Teach it or at least discuss with someone(s). It will stick much better. I present, or have some of my junior docs present important papers at our meetings so that we can discuss them, and remember them.

    • One very, very helpful aspect of this approach to learning is that, while it’s hard to know whether or not to trust a one-off author, reviewers publish frequently and prove themselves more or less reliable. I always come to an opinion of the reviewer *before* reading the review. This is a powerful technique for avoiding confirmation bias, because it inoculates you before you read an article of inconvenient facts.

      Obviously this is far from foolproof, but when used as part of a self-consciously coherentism epistemology and a commitment to read second order reviews of reviewers, I find that, despite my dillitantism, I am often already well versed in facts that only later gain widespread acceptance. A good example is the reality that Atkins diets work and that refined carbs are bad for you. Five years after I learned this, I am still ahead of the curve.

    • In general, I agree with this approach for most books, articles, blog posts, etc., but I think there are exceptions: books that are important, but for which a summary, no matter how good, does not do the contents justice and may, in fact, lead people who have not read the book to believe it says X, when it actually says Y. In my gut, I have a feeling Piketty’s book may be one of these, as I have read the summaries and I can’t believe that is all there is to this book or even that the summarizers are describing the argument sufficiently. There are books that are extremely important that cannot be effectively summarized, in my view. “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” by Thomas Kuhn is an example. Read the summaries and you think paradigm means “point of view,” but it is actually quite different. Another example is “The Impending Crisis” by David Potter. Summaries of it read like the antebellum portion of your high school history book. The only way to fully understand and appreciate how all of the events fit together is to read the book.

      It is also worth noting that, in the age of the internet, we are becoming a society of skimmers. The ability and desire to carefully and thoughtfully read an important book or novel is becoming a lost art.

    • Gad I’m not the only one who struggles with this same challenge. The advice is much appreciated.

    • Spot on.

    • I think Tyler Cowen has this correct. Most books are too long. You can get the gist of most books w/o reading everything. When reading literature, read the abstracts. Read the whole paper only if it interests you as you wont remember the details of a paper you didnt find interesting to begin with.


    • This is my approach with a lot of key material as well, but the trick is actually getting a reliable digest of the ideas. With Piketty (which I haven’t read and don’t have time to) the fact that so many people are lining up with it on ideological grounds shows that people are just looking at summaries that flatter their priors, so the degradation of discourse continues. In fact, the existence of ideological flattery should be a clear signal that a summary is a bad one. There is probably a lot of real insight in, say, The Road to Serfdom, but mostly I just hear a lot of ranting quotes from it.

      As for your question about the 1,000 words, I think that’s the Fr Guide Sarducci school of learnin’, and yes that’s me too.

    • Piketty: The Economist magazine had a review of “Capital,” then its Free Exchange blogger ran an eight-part series of commentary chapter-by-chapter. (About twenty pages total.) He concludes: “At any rate, I am grateful for the opportunity to think about these issues and debate them, and have views of mine upended. It’s not often that a book manages that, and this one did. I hope all of you, readers, have got something out of this book, and this series, as well. Excellent commentary. Go to economist.com, search on “book club,” click on “Introduction,” with each short article leading to the next. (If a non-subscriber, I think you can get all articles within your monthly limit.)
      Reading retention: Using a highlighter for any “serious” reading means I read text when I come across it, again when I highlight it, and again when I review the material reading only the highlights.