Sunday, May 11, 2014

Optimizing Freakonomics (and Other)

The good folks at The Browser favor me with a link to a Wall Street Journal  clip to the new Levitt/Dubner "Freako" book.  I read the excerpt with interest and a sort-of profit (see infra) but as to the book--I think I'll add it to the "pass" pile, bringing to three the number of L/D books that I have chosen not to read in full.

Nothing personal, guys, really.  As I suggest, I have read snippets, and I've certainly read a fair amount about them. I even heard Levitt do a faculty seminar presentation a few years back, this on the business model of drug gangs.  It was fascinating an instructive and he was a fine presenter,

Why the allergy to the book(s) then?  Hah, glad you asked.   Thing is, vita is still brevis (and getting moreso) while bibliphilia remains unyieldingly longa.  In plain English, there's just too much to read.  And here is Buce's principle of  bibliographic parsimony: there are some books that just do not need to be read.

By which I mean?  By which I do not mean "bad" books or "wrong" books or paltry, trivial books of any stripe. Of course they do not need to be read, but you knew that.  I'm talking about good books that don't need to be read--or at least, good-enough books that don't need to be read--and which do not need to be read precisely because everybody else is reading them.

L/D are a splendid example.  As I suggest, they seem by all accounts to be nice people with interesting stories to tell.  Although just for the record, I had heard of King Solomon before.  I had even heard of the brown M&Ms, although I thought that one had been discredited as a canard.  But forget all that--the point is that whether or not I have read it, I can assume that somebody else will have read it and will want to tell me about it--perhaps ignoring my too-tactful hint that I already know (because I heard it from the last guy).

L/D almost define the category but there are others who fit.  Nassim Taleb is a good example.  Although I'm actually not totally convinced that Taleb is a nice man, nor that his book is important.  But I am willing to assume arguendo.  Still, I haven't read any Taleb and I don't plan on it, and yet I strongly suspect I could ace any conceivable Taleb question on Jeopardy.  I've also read some of G.L.S. Shackle's Epistemics and Economics which, from he sound of things, must have been a major source.  In any event, the number of times I've been told about Taleb and what he says are sufficient to make me suspect I wouldn't gain a lot from tackling the whole thing.

Andrew Ross Sorkin's Too Big to Fail is in a slightly different category.   It's Sorkin's account of the Great Meltdown and I bet he tells the story well.  But Sorkin had been covering the Meltdown for the NYT for months before he did the book, and it is hard for me to believe there is much of anything in the book that hadn't already made it into the Times.  At any rate, not one person has ever suggested to me that there was new stuff in the book: I suppose if I ran into his publicist, I might have to respond differently.

Michael Lewis is a more troublesome character. I actually did read Liar's Poker, and enjoyed it immensely, and still recommend it to students as offering a hint at to what (I suppose) life is like in a big-bank trading room.  The more recent Lewis books--well, I might actually read one or more of them at some point, but if so it would have more to do with the fact that he's an awfully good story teller than with the expectation that I would actually learn much that is new for them.

You get the drift.  I could go on.  Indeed, I suppose the list of "books I have not read" grows every year, just like the list of "languages I do not know."  For the moment, perhaps I would be better served if I pull down my copy of Joanot Martorell's Tirant lo Blanc, in the original Catalan (yes, I do!)--anticipating that there, for once I will find something something that I (somewhat paradoxically?) did not anticipate. Will I really?  No, probably not.  But it would likely be a good use of my time.

Update: A well-wisher asks: what about Kahneman and Piketty, surely the two hottest social science books in the century so far?  Well now, that is a good question.  It happens I have read each. and I'd say that each can be not-unconscionably boiled down to a single-page executive summary (but then, so can War and Peace). And with each, there's no shortage of people who are willing to tell you what the book is about.  Yet I'd say that neither passes the "don't need it" test.  Kahneman is easy enough to understand in general, but the book is a dense thicket of particular examples, quite beyond, I think, the capacity of any individual reader to grasp on his own.   Piketty is a little different.   Forget executive summary: you can probably get his main point down as a sound byte. Still, what makes Piketty so forceful is the sheer heft of his database, which he exhibits like a loving, if somewhat obsessive, curator.  You need to feel the pileup of the examples to get the sense of just how well-rooted his sound byte is.

1 comment:

The New York Crank said...

I feel kind of the same way about the Holy Bible. Executive summary?

"Manic-depressive supreme being, sometimes unyielding, rageful and punitive, sometimes fatherly and loving, creates various miracles like the universe and walking on water, punishes those he deems evil, demands loyalty except when he rewards disloyalty (Job),and assumes various forms, from a burning bush to his own son." Assorted tangential tales have food falling from the sky (Exodus), manic practical jokes like a plague of frogs, and a woman turning into a pillar of salt. Contains some 'adult' material. Parental guidance recommended."