In all seriousness, I’m not advocating not reading Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, per se. I’m advocating being mindful about one’s reading choices because there are opportunity costs, and there are means of obtaining most of the information one’s likely to retain more efficiently.
(Aside: I heard Piketty and Mankiw on On Point yesterday, which was another way for me to consume some of the content and debate more efficiently than reading. (I listen to podcasts as I walk, a time I cannot read anyway.))
As it turns out, most people seem to agree with me. In fact, I’ve heard nothing but praise in response to my post. You’d think this would delight me, but I’m never happy.* I was hoping for some pushback in the blogosphere, on Twitter, or by email. I like different points of view!
So, let me invent some pushback. And let me say to those from whom I pretend to have received passionate messages of disagreement, I’m in very good company! Warren Buffett, for example, has a similar take:
[Fortune:] Have you read the new book on inequality, Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century?
[Buffett:] I have read about six reviews on it. But not the book.
[Fortune:] Are you planning to read it?
[Buffett:] I don’t know. I have read so many reviews I think I know what it says. I may or may not, but it is the kind of book that there is reasonable chance I will read.
And, in his introduction of an an anthology of “the best” American essays in 2006, David Foster Wallace also made points consistent with what I expressed. He argues that grown ups recognize their limitations relative to the vast volume of important work and must, therefore, outsource reading of potentially worthy works to others, wisely chosen. The implication, since this is his intro to an anthology, after all, is that we can read randomly or we can read that which has been carefully curated, the latter being a mark of adulthood. (Be sure to catch his pedophile disclaimer.)
Unless you are both a shut-in and independently wealthy, there is no way you can sit there and read all the contents of all the 2006 issues of all the hundreds of U.S. periodicals that publish literary nonfiction. So you subcontract this job—not to me directly, but to a publishing company whom you trust (for whatever reasons) to then subsubcontract the job to someone whom they trust (or more like believe you’ll trust [for whatever reasons]) not to be insane or capricious or overtly ‘biased’ in his Decidering.
‘Biased’ is, of course, the really front-loaded term here, the one that I expect Houghton Mifflin winces at and would prefer not to see uttered in the editor’s intro even in the most reassuring context, since the rhetoric of such reassurances can be self-nullifying (as in, say, running a classified ad for oneself as a babysitter and putting ‘don’t worry—not a pedophile!’ at the bottom of the ad). I suspect that part of why ‘bias’ is so loaded and dicey a word just now—and why it’s so much invoked and potent in cultural disputes—is that we are starting to become more aware of just how much subcontracting and outsourcing and submitting to other Deciders we’re all now forced to do, which is threatening (the inchoate awareness is) to our sense of ourselves as intelligent free agents. And yet there is no clear alternative to this outsourcing and submission. It may possibly be that acuity and taste in choosing which Deciders one submits to is now the real measure of informed adulthood. [Emphasis added.]
Now, one could read this as an argument for reading Piketty. After all, many we might trust have told us it’s an important and worthwhile book to consume. They are the Deciders and, having put our trust in their judgement, we must submit. But I think Wallace is making a broader argument for efficiency.
In the case of Piketty, our Deciders have done more than just Decidering. They have summarized the key points for us. It, therefore, being possible to obtain a very good understanding of Piketty without reading him in full, I think Wallace would agree that that is a wise, grown up use of curators as well.
In this intellectual struggle between Buffett, Wallace, and me, on one side, and my invented opponents on the other, I think we’ve got the upper hand.
I thank Darius Tahir for the Warren Buffett tip and Adam Pelavin for the David Foster Wallace one.
* Not true, but it sounds right here, so I’m going with it.