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An Important Reason Not To Raise The Retirement Age

There's been some Steve Landsburg bashing going down in the left-leaning parts of the 'sphere lately, but I like this observation:

There's an important economic point here: The vast rewards that go to successful novelists can grossly overstate the social value of their work. Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code has sold over 6 million copies and almost surely earned its author over $20 million. But if The Da Vinci Code hadn't been written, some other now-unnoticed book might have taken its place as the blockbuster of the year, and readers would have been almost as happy.
Just off the top of my head I can think of a few ways in which that's an oversimplification, but there definitely seems to me to be an oversupply of books worth reading. Since the earth doesn't get any bigger, every year I feel like I get closer to having visited all the places I would like to visit, even if I probably won't ever get around to seeing all of them. But so many books are published every year, and so many were already written before I was born, that I feel like I get further and further away from having read everything I would like to read as time goes by. I was thinking it was finally time to getting around to Sabbath's Theater and Patrimony when a copy of The Plot Against America plopped into my lap so I read that instead. I'd meant to read Jennifer Government when it first came out, but somehow didn't, and saw it in the bookstore on Saturday and bought it even though my intention had been to get Diary. Sitting on my desk in the pile of free-nonfiction-books-I'd-like-to-read are Fixing Elections, Skepticism and Freedom, Six Modern Plagues, Freedom on Fire, and Condemned to Repeat: The Paradox of Humanitarian Action while I'm still trying to finish The End of the American Era and doubtless eleven new things will be published before I get through even one of those books.

October 25, 2004 | Permalink


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I feel the same way in the scientific arena. I get further and further from knowing it all.

I could say it keeps me humble, but I'm not.

Totally OT, I was delighted with the new video game Katamari Damacy because it IS new in an area that was getting predictable and stale.

Posted by: Tripp | Oct 25, 2004 10:38:59 AM

Simple solution. Read the Holy Bible and forget about everything else. Everything else is worthless, especially your antiamerican Marxist best seller list.

Posted by: Modern Crusader | Oct 25, 2004 10:53:04 AM

Okay, so why is the book surplus a reason not to raise the retirement age? You want to retire early, so that you have plenty of time to read?

Posted by: Daryl McCullough | Oct 25, 2004 10:54:10 AM

Daryl, it's unclear exactly what the connection is. Matt is a proud member of the Intept-Based Community.

Posted by: Modern Crusader | Oct 25, 2004 10:58:37 AM

Two reasons to retire early and be independently wealthy 1) to travel to all the places i want to go and 2) to read all the books i've been meaning to read.

Posted by: jason | Oct 25, 2004 11:03:13 AM

Well, that, and he wants authors to retire early, so they produce fewer books.

Posted by: niq | Oct 25, 2004 11:07:03 AM

Since when is supply measured by the needs of a single consumer? I copyedit university press books for a living, and as a result I am exposed to 15-20 fine, dry, intelligent, unsexy works of the human intellect every year that I otherwise would never have heard of. If the supply enables the disciplines of psychology, poli-sci, philosophy, history, chemistry, etc. flourish, then the supply is about right. To measure supply by what one intelligent generalist can consume is idiotic.

Posted by: priceyeah | Oct 25, 2004 11:09:35 AM


I think MY is being a bit facetious and giving us hints, such as writing: "An *important* reason not to raise the retirement age". Also, see the title of the last post about Kerry.

Feeling stressed and want to let off some pressure by being silly, MY?

Posted by: WeSaferThemHealthier | Oct 25, 2004 11:19:53 AM

What did you think of Plot Against America? I was really impressed.

Posted by: Jeremy Osner | Oct 25, 2004 11:30:17 AM

What a strange point for an economist to make! Rewards in society don't follow a utilitarian rationale. What's more, they seem to concentrate to those on top. Stop the presses, we got a scoop here!

Posted by: wagster | Oct 25, 2004 11:49:20 AM

But if The Da Vinci Code hadn't been written, some other now-unnoticed book might have taken its place as the blockbuster of the year, and readers would have been almost as happy.

The neat thing about this sentence is that just about any pop-culture artifact can be substituted for The Da Vinci Code, and it's still true. And leave it Landsburg to make essentially an alienation-of-labor observation: everyone is replaceable, even (or especially) mega-successful entertainers.

Posted by: son volt | Oct 25, 2004 11:49:41 AM

I think the problem at looking at this from an economic, as opposed to a cultural, perspective is that it leaves no room to say "Why was the Da Vinci code so popular?" Not just any now-unnoticed book would've filled the void. Popular tastes aren't totally value less (they may be without value, but they're not valueless)... so what about the Da Vinci Code did it?

Also... Matt... don't read Chuck Palahniuk. Or rather, if you've read one of his books, is there really any reason to read any of the other exactly identical ones? Maybe I'm just harsh now that I work in a book store, but check out some Haruki Murakami, or perhaps if you want darker material, Patrick Susskind's Perfume or (yes!) Katherine Dunn's "Geek Love". Palahniuk is just a warmed over lazy version of second-rate Martin Amis, minus the wry sense of humor.

Posted by: Isaac Butler | Oct 25, 2004 11:56:50 AM

If you want to add to your list, I've heard lots of great things about Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke.

Posted by: Dave Adams | Oct 25, 2004 11:57:29 AM

A simple rule- never read anything published less than 50 years ago. When you've finished with the classics you may wish to revise the rule- but chances are pretty good you won't.

Or a simple prophyllactic- read a few Icelandic sagas. Like good food, this will make you impatient and unwilling to consume the dross and dregs.

Posted by: serial catowner | Oct 25, 2004 11:59:43 AM

True enough--I feel the same as you with regard to books, though not to traveling as I learn about more and more places and want desperately to see them.

However, let us abstract this discussion far, far away from the Da Vinci Code, which is terrible in every way. So condescending, so annoying, so.... false.

Posted by: Marshall | Oct 25, 2004 12:03:01 PM

Can't find the article ... but there was an intersting Wired piece a bit ago about how Amazon has opened up the marketplace for all kinds of obscure books.

Posted by: praktike | Oct 25, 2004 12:14:58 PM

Make sure to get to Sabbath's Theater; it's pretty amazing...

Posted by: Scott Lemieux | Oct 25, 2004 12:16:51 PM

Overpopulation has seen to it that unique talent almost never reaches the top unless through sheer dumb luck. There are so many people putting out literary works that it's hard to distinquish between the noise and the music. Who knows whether another Michelangelo or Leonardo Davinci, or Albert Einstein has come and went unnoticed because they had an inspiration that was undeveloped due to the almost deliberate disenchantment of their talents? Already too many people are vying for too few chances to show what they are made of or capable of doing. What we end up having is lackluster people putting out crap.
Just look at our government?
Does anyone honstly think these people are the best and brightest capable of running out country? Does anyone think George W. Bush was truly the best person for the job during this 9/11 crisis?
I have no doubts that the best people out there never get the chance to peform at what they could very well be the very best at.


Posted by: MYOB | Oct 25, 2004 12:37:50 PM

Yes to the Icelandic sagas and to the Eddas, which most have never even heard of or read. The classics can give such tremendous insight into contemporary issues and challenges, as there truly is nothing new under the sun. I recently picked up my old Norton's Anthology of English Literature: Fifth Edition and read an excerpt from Richard Hooker's "Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity" written in the 16th century. It deals with the origin of laws, the necessity of reason in creating and interpreting them, the error or biblical literalism, and the importance of moderation in discourse.

After reading this thoughtful treatise, written by a dean of a Christian law school during the Puritan age, I can only conclude that the Republican right wing and their supporters are not fifty years behind the times but four hundred. Bush needs to be carrying a copy of this work under his arm instead of Bernie Goldberg's "Bias."

Posted by: Windhorse | Oct 25, 2004 12:43:24 PM

I have a solution: let's tax the shit out of these guys so that they don't have at least the monetary incentive to write too many books. If we do it this way, then, perhaps, we'll be spared from seeing Tom Cruise in every other movie as well. And Jennifer Lopez may disappear too, who knows?

Posted by: abb1 | Oct 25, 2004 12:45:33 PM

aside to Modern Crusader: subtlety, man, subtlety. The key to a successful troll is preserving reasonable doubt in your marks' minds as to whether you're serious or not.

Posted by: Doctor Memory | Oct 25, 2004 1:34:53 PM

I find the New York Review of Books useful in covering books that I would find interesting, but don't have time to actually read. (I find James Berardinelli's movie reviews useful for the same reason.)

Posted by: Russil Wvong | Oct 25, 2004 3:26:43 PM

The secret of The DaVinci Code's success is the underground rumor that anyone who doesn't buy it will be EATEN BY WOLVES. This may also explain Chuck Palahniuk

Posted by: fyreflye | Oct 25, 2004 4:31:21 PM

Oop. I have officially become shrill.

Oh, and Da Vinci Code blew my mind. I haven't read it, but it blew my mind.

Posted by: priceyeah | Oct 25, 2004 6:23:12 PM

The books I am about to recommend to you were written in 2003. While I appreciate the classics, these 2 disturbing yet stunning novels simply could not have been written at any other time.

The Known World Edward P. Jones
A story about former slaves owning slaves based on sparse public records from the 1820s and later written by an African-American author.

The Kite Runner An Afghan writer, don't have the name handy
A story about growing up in Kabul from the monarchy period to the Taliban, then moving to America.

Posted by: Abigail | Oct 25, 2004 6:34:50 PM

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