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May 2, 2014

the most beloved not-read books of a generation

The fickle hand of celebrity has reached up from the Internet and fastened itself gently around the handsome French neck of economist Thomas Piketty, the author of the suddenly scarce Capital In The Twenty-First Century. The book concerns a deep data analysis of historic acquisition and distribution of money, and comes to the conclusion that we are regressing to a New Gilded Age. This sentiment--that our current economic situation is more Soylent Green than ever--has been whispering around for a bit, and is calcifying into popular opinion. And Piketty himself: well, he now has a certain celebrity to deal with, what with his busy schedule and his national fame. It's true. Piketty is now known as the rock star economist. Marxism is back, and I shudder to think the number of trees yet to give their lives so that this book may someday adorn our nightstands.

So in appreciation of this triumph of the publishing industry and French intellectuals, let's look back at some similar successes, the heart-attack sudden non-fiction rock stardom, the other books we all bought and then did not read, and the careers they launched.


The first comparison that came to mind was Brian Greene, author of 1999's The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory. Oh, I bought it. And while the conversation then about Greene was not as wide-ranging as it is now concerning Piketty, it did launch Greene, a telegenic theoretical physicist at Columbia University, as America's Most Beloved theoretical physicist, sort of the bridge between Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson. The book explained the most then-current theory of how matter works to an eager audience of self-admitted smarty-pants. That theory was called String Theory, and to this day I have only a glancing knowledge of how it works/what it means because after three or four tries, I could not get through the book. Oh, I tried. Maybe I'll try again? But each time I'd race through the first couple chapters, talking about Einsteinian theory and quantum theory I'd be keeping up alright, and then I'd get to the really heady stuff, the eleven dimensional math. And suddenly I'd get migraines and start acting weird at the office and people would ask me if I'm okay more often than usual. If I am in fact a smarty-pants, theoretical physics is not the way the smart of my pants tend. I know exactly where on my bookshelf this book lives. It stares at me every morning when I wake up. I still feel bad about it.

This is not to say that when we buy Piketty's book (count me in!) that the same thing will happen. We should be optimistic. But it's nearly 700 pages long, and not written by Neal Stephenson. I am trepidatious. It would be unfair to cite Elegant Universe without also invoking its direct predecessor, A Brief History Of Time: From The Big Bang To Black Holes. It is a little bit earlier, published in 1988, but it was a very common book to spot in the homes of other people, and it did launch the public career of Stephen Hawking, who remains a proponent of the sciences (albeit no stranger to alarming sentiments on the existence and threat of aliens and philosophy being dead. Did people actually finish the book, back in the 80s? We're going to go with no, but, as with Elegant Universe good faith efforts were made.

Around the same time as we were not reading the Greene, thought-leader-to-be David Brooks, then an employee of the Wall Street Journal, had his book Bobos In Paradise: The New Upper Class And How They Got There published to much acclaim and success. The book, like most of what Brooks writes, is an exploration and appreciation of a class of people who resemble Brooks. But it did elevate Brooks from just another center-right voice looking to get paid to say what he thinks to His Beige Eminence, token conservative on the op-ed page of the New York Times, where he became fixated with traits like punctuality and hygiene. Was it a book that was started and never finished by the reader, or a book that was just never opened? Well, I know one person who read it: David Brooks.

The Bell Curve by Charles Murray (and Richard J. Herrnstein, who died before publication) was published in 1994. The Bell Curve is, depending on your ideological preference, either a calm rational discussion of the genetic basis of IQ and its downward decline in America, or a crypto-racist argument for social engineering that skates too close to Godwin's Law. Needless to say, "discussion" erupted around the country, which is to say that the precedent for a Fox News society was effortlessly set OJ?. And yes, those people who bought it (and never finished it) because they wildly disagreed with it and wanted to better understand it for the purpose of screaming about it? They are our hate-reading pioneers.

It's tempting not to include Malcolm Gladwell on the grounds that his books are largely actually read, or at least skimmed. They are engineered to be read: confident and breezy and powered by clever phrase-coining. But, at the same time, he's Malcolm Gladwell. He's in. If a modern day Dr. Frankenstein went into his laboratory with the intent of constructing the most dominant non-fiction book-writer of his generation, what would emerge would be Gladwell (though probably with less curious hair). His first book and also his break-through was 2000's The Tipping Point, which is about what we now call tipping points. Gladwell is the anti-intellectual's intellectual: cherry-picking data to suit his theses and distilling concepts and processes into easy-to-follow narratives. At the same time he is the poster boy for non-fiction success, from dogged feature-writer to frequent television guest and highly-paid lecturer. New Yorker Staffer Goes Brand. If Piketty has any questions about what to expect from the coming months, someone should slip him Gladwell's digits.

It was a bit of a different circumstance than Piketty's today—Bob Woodward had certainly made his bones years ago thanks to W. Mark Felt—but if you can even remember the title of one of the series of Behind the Oval Curtain books that Woodward has been churning out since the Clinton administration, then you work for Simon & Schuster. Woodward's reporting is legendary, of course, and only exceeded by his access. When each new president is given his first tour of the White House, he is shown a big comfy chair and told, "That's where Woodward sits." Each of these books comes with its share of scoops involving administration functionaries whose names you also don't remember&mdash:that guy really said that to that Treasury Secretary? Or was it that Undersecretary of State?—feeding all the DC bureaus enough chum to keep the books in the headlines. You bought one or two of them in a fit of picque, a bried moment of obsession with the inside of the Beltway. You never even read the preface. And by the time you got around to feeling bad about it, times for the next book.

Of course I'm omitting what may be some of your own personal favorite Notr-Reads (political autobiographies come to mind, as do apologies to Robert Caro) and I'm sure that many of you have actually finished one of the Not-Reads listed above. And you may have noticed: that's an awful lot of white men! Fortunately, we live in a post-racial America now, and the Patriarchy is just a empty phrase you see a lot on Twitter.


This is not intended to be a celebration of not-reading. Reading is, as they say, fundamental. But not-reading happens, for whatever reason, whether fad or timing, and I'd guess that the complaints of the not-read authors are cosmetic and not deeply-seated. Would you rather be widely-read or best-selling? Actually, to rephrase, does your second vacation home prefer you to be widely-read or best-selling? Your second vacation home just wants the mortgage paid down. Troll for pop-culture imminence? Game the news cycle for maximal sales? Whatever it takes, baby.

Reading books is unassailable, but buying books is even better. (And by books I of course mean ebooks and audio-books and, I dunno, retinal-projection books, eventually.) And I believe that you intend to read the Piketty as much as I do. I really want to read it! It's fueling the most interesting economics conversation in my lifetime! Of course I want to be party to that! I want to know the details, and the research, and the methodology, and the results. I want to be able to cite that shit, and to defend that shit from the corners that deem this academic work inconvenient. (Like this guy who kinda agrees with Piketty but thinks the solution is privatizing Social Security (!!), or this guy (okay, Ross Douthat) arguing that the 99% has actually prospered in the past twenty years (ha ha ok)).

The success of Capital In The Twenty-First Century does illustrate what these Not-Reads do actually contribute: they change the conversation. They transmit information effortlessly by virtue of being talked about. Thanks to Piketty, systemic income inequality is a hot topic. It's almost like the Not-Reads do not actually need to be read to disseminate these bits of information. All they need to do is seep into popular culture and become inescapable.

But as far as our individual reading habits go, sometimes our eyes are bigger than our stomach, and the fact that the conversation has advanced fig-leafs our lack of resolution as a reader (or in some cases, the failure of a particular book to live up to the hype). These are dirty little secrets we keep to ourselves, so: buy more books anyway! Read 'em or not.

Posted by mrbrent at 2:19 PM

April 30, 2014

donald sterling: that was fast

Good Lord, not only did the Donald Sterling Saying Racist Things suck all the air out of the room and fast, but it was also speedily resolved, and how.  Thoughts!

Is it a possibility that the speed with which Sterling was dispatched is a symptom of the universe recalibrating with the 21st Century attention span?  Is this the future: all scandals will go from whisper to roar to satisfactory conclusion in five days?

And while we are engaging in idle speculation, is it also the future that we will be punished not for our actions but for our thoughts?  Again, Sterling is a douchebag, and he has more than enough acts to his name that this was a long time coming.  But it is a disturbing precedent, even moreso than Capone being eventually jailed for income tax evasion.  What happens when a camera catches a forward calling Jason Collins something offensive over Collins being gay?

Even more than the disturbing precedent, I am never comfortable with someone being tried in the court of public opinion.  I mean, of course it is unavoidable, we have a public, and we have a media which is voracious for scandal like this, people are going to decide one way or the other.

You know what it is?  The sanctimony gets tiresome, as does the silent arms race of public demonstration of sanctimony.  We are a good and moral people!  Who have punished a man for saying something to his mistress!  There is not a little bit of ick in this.

Posted by mrbrent at 11:15 AM

April 28, 2014

donald sterling and the pitchforks and the torches

So of course you heard of the Donald Sterling situation over the weekend yes?  Sterling, the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, the old dude caught saying racist things on tape?

Well, if you haven't, and you're wondering about why people are talking about a basketball team that should have forfeit, or the owner who should have his team taken away from him: yeah, that's the Donald Sterling thing.  (If you really feel the need to catch up on this character, I recommend this Deadspin round-up.)

But let me offer an unpopular opinion here: are people maybe going a little overboard over the words (of a racist) spoken in private?  I mean, people are really going off the rails over this.  I am in no way defending Sterling, who is an unrepentant scumbag, a man I would take no pleasure in dining with.

But is it a really good idea for people to run around screaming about punishing someone for their words (or, for that matter, their beliefs)?  Two exceptions to that ban on histrionics: NBA owners, players and personnell, and Clippers fans.  To not want Sterling to be associated with the brand, I get that; to not to want to play for him, I get that too; and wanting not to renew your season tickets, hell yeah.  But all the Joe Sixpacks tweeting in to Mike & Mike, and all the sudden experts on morality... I think they're missing the point.

We do not punish people for speech, or for beliefs.  People punish themselves with their speech and beliefs.  Maybe this is one way in which the free market actually works, that repugnance affects transactions.  Sterling is all but done as a public figure and owner, and it's his own fault.  But all this will happen without the pitchforks and the torches.

Posted by mrbrent at 9:57 AM