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Books I Might Have Read

New meme comes to me from Julian, the question is "What 5 books are you vaguely embarassed to admit you haven't read?" Hm. Well, there are lots of books I would like to read but haven't yet, trying to think about embarassment I get:

  • As mentioned yesterday, Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations. This always winds up being low-priority, because I know the basic outlines of classical economics pretty well for independent reasons, and because having read Theory of the Moral Sentiments I feel I can already do a better context than most of putting Smith's brand of free market advocacy in the proper broader context. Still, it's obviously a very famous book, the sort of thing that comes up a lot. And Moral Sentiments is really great and I like to talk about it, but it's hard to say anything about it without Nations coming up, and bad to go around discussing books you haven't read.
  • David Hume's A Treatise of Human Nature. I like my Scottish Enlightenment, as you may guess. I'm a huge fan of "Humean" positions on most philosophical topics, which is to say positions that are said to be along the lines of what Hume advocated. I know a lot, from secondary sources and contemporary Humeans, about what Hume wrote and said. But aside from a few excerpts here and there, I've read very little actual Hume. Again, embarassing, because I find myself referring to Hume reasonably often and wanting to do so more. It's good to have actually read the stuff you want to mention.
  • Theda Skocpol's Protecting Soldiers and Mothers. This doesn't have the sort of classic status as the two aforementioned books, but it's something I now and again find myself pretending to have read. The book is very relevant to a lot of my professional interests, and since I took Skocpol's course on American social policy I more-or-less know what it says. As a result, I've on occassion recommended it to other people, or referenced it as an authority, both activities that certainly seem to imply I've read the thing. In fact, not so much.
  • Richard Hofstadter, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. I've got lots of stuff to say about anti-intellectualism in American life, and lots of stuff to say about Richard Hofstadter. I've even cited Anti-Intellectualism in American Life in print. Haven't, you know, read the book. A bit of a problem.
  • Thomas Frank, What's The Matter With Kansas? I've skimmed it. I read some excerpts in magazines. I think I get the gist. But at times it seems this is the only thing anyone talks about in Washington, so I just sort of play along. Certainly, one can't be a pundit at the moment and not have an opinion on the subject. So I ought to read it. But life's too short.
There you have it. These almost certainly aren't the most worthy five books I haven't read. My fiction library is comically bare, among other things. But I think they meet the embarrassing standard in that my non-reading of them is something I frequently find myself needing to talk around, elide, misrepresent, etc. I pass to Ezra Klein, Mark Schmitt, and Brad DeLong.

May 22, 2005 | Permalink


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Read Hume -- he's probably the most elegant nonfiction English prose writer of the 18th century, for one thing; right there with Gibbon. The Treatise is admittedly not his best-written book. But hey, he was only your age when he wrote it, Matt!

Posted by: SqueakyRat | May 22, 2005 1:33:51 PM

1. The Bible
2. My apartment lease
3. How to Win Friends and Influence People
4. Penthouse Letters
5. Patriot Games by Tom Clancy

Posted by: Michael | May 22, 2005 1:34:05 PM

Just for fun, my favorite bit of Hume snark:

"So that, upon the whole, we may conclude that the Christian Religion was not only at first attended with miracles, but even at this day cannot be believed by any reasonable person without one. Mere reason is insufficient to convince of its veracity; and whoever is moved by Faith to assent to it is conscious of a continued miracle in his own person, which subverts all the principles of his understanding, and gives him a determination to believe what is most contrary to custom and experience."

Posted by: SqueakyRat | May 22, 2005 1:41:18 PM

I usually find these kind of "canon" texts too ponderous to get very far. But I read _Wealth of Nations_ (or the first half anyway, which is all my paperback edition contained), and didn't have much trouble pushing through it. I think that the examples tend to be very concrete and easily accessible. It has a refreshingly low BS-factor, because Smith never asserts anything without giving a least some little plausible model that supports it. The other part may just be that I find business, industry, and technology a lot more interesting than political theory.

I never really felt that he was intending to "justify" the market as the arbiter of fairness, but just trying to explain how it works and how attempts to make it do something else will lead to unintended consequences.

Posted by: PaulC | May 22, 2005 1:47:43 PM

As for me:

1. Capital -- but then has anyone?
2. A Theory of Justice -- managed to choke down about half of it and decided I'd rather kill myself than finish.
3. The Bible
4. Madame Bovary -- always thought I'd read it in French, but never have.
5. Anything by Philip Roth. Just can't get started.

Posted by: SqueakyRat | May 22, 2005 1:49:37 PM

Don't worry, the second half of Theory of Justice is exactly like the first.

Posted by: david | May 22, 2005 1:54:27 PM

I'm with Squeaky on this--has anyone actually sat down and gone all the way through Das Kapital?

Posted by: Andrew Reeves | May 22, 2005 2:05:23 PM

I have a lot of books on my shelves that I feel I should read, including Who Owns America? and Bleak House; but I have read What's the Matter With Kansas?, which explains a lot. I am currently reading The Politics of War by the late Walter Karp. The section aobut the efforts of various politicians and newspapers to conjure up a war against Spain has familiar sound to it.

Posted by: clark | May 22, 2005 2:11:19 PM


Posted by: Andy | May 22, 2005 2:13:35 PM

Hume's Treatise is very, very readable. It's possibly better, though, to read his later stuff (which, admittedly, sacrifices a degree of radicalism for acceptable elegance) if you're interested in what his contemporaries thought of him. And the Dialogues concerning natural religion are such an antidote to the idiocies of 'Intelligent Design'.

(This is a variant of 'Humiliation', a famous game among EngLit types, best described in print by David Lodge.)

Posted by: ahem | May 22, 2005 2:18:23 PM

The Hofstadter book is fun for its economy of argument, plus has the advantage of being a collection of essays, so one can pick one or two if one's pressed for time.

Posted by: Chris Cagle | May 22, 2005 2:33:51 PM

It's worse when there all whole authors that you've never read: Proust, Mann, Gide, Fielding, Spenser, etc.

Posted by: Jeffrey Davis | May 22, 2005 2:36:58 PM


Posted by: Kieran | May 22, 2005 3:02:36 PM

Well, yes, many people (including yours truly) have finished reading Capital - at least, the part that Marx finished writing (Vol 1).

But I'm amused to see that Matt has sent this on to Brad DeLong. Will he admit at last that he hasn't read The Tin Drum?

Posted by: JR | May 22, 2005 3:49:07 PM

I think anyone who can name five books that they HAVE read in the past year doesn't have to feel embarassed by any books that they haven't read. Now I feel embarassed that I haven't read "Perfectly Legal" but only because I bought it --in hard cover -- several months ago.

Posted by: beb | May 22, 2005 4:02:21 PM

Here at work I sit less than twenty paces away from the stacks of the world's largest academic library--over 3.5 million books written in just about every literary language known to man, plus about twice that number again in off-site storage.

Want a list of books I didn't get around to this year?

Here it is.

Posted by: Jersey Exile | May 22, 2005 4:06:47 PM

Coincidentally, I recently got an e-mail from my father, who is trying to get some books off his lifetime reading list. He had this to say about "Wealth of Nations."

"I am finally involved in reading '........one of those books I'd always promised myself I would read.'

I'm now halfway through chapter 11 of Book I, the chapter on "rents" I have to confess that it's been pretty much of a disappointment so far. I had always heard (mostly from Galbreath's writings) that Smith's writings were particularly lucid, but I'm finding the book to be pretty much of a bore. My principal complaint is that after he makes a point and gives an example to illustrate it, he then gives another and still another and then one more example!

Also, Ive read enough economics (both in school and recreationally) that there are no ( so far) new concepts to excite me. Will things get better?"

So, be forewarned.

Posted by: barry | May 22, 2005 4:38:49 PM

Ditto on the wealth of nations. I go around preaching capitalism but haven't actually read but maybe 50 pages. Ironically, I've read Marx's Capital cover to cover (so yes SqueakyRat).

I think my number one is Plato's Republic. I might be the only person having ever attended the University of Chicago not to have read it start to finish.

Posted by: kaptain kapital | May 22, 2005 4:45:35 PM

I think the point of the exercise is to name books that are actually embarassing not to have read. Like, say, Hamlet, or Pride and Prejudice, or Huckleberry Finn. Mr. Yglesias's list is suspiciously unembarrassing.

Posted by: cthomas | May 22, 2005 5:00:28 PM

JR, kaptain kapital --

I bow in general direction of your comments!

Really, I've always felt I should take the time, so Capital is not on my list as a joke. And I realize that back in the day a lot of people did read it. Not so much recently.

Posted by: SqueakyRat | May 22, 2005 5:26:00 PM

BTW, my Gilligan's Island list.

Posted by: clark | May 22, 2005 5:43:35 PM

On my dresser, collecting dust, taunting me:

1. Divine Comedy
2. Don Quixote
3. Remembrance of Things Past
4. Rising Up, Rising Down
5. Goedel, Escher, Bach

I've read some of all, and all but the final 50 pages of the last, twice.

Posted by: epistemology | May 22, 2005 6:09:17 PM

I can't think of any books for which it would be embarrassing for me to admit not having read. On the other hand, there are a few books that I am embarrassed to admit that I have read, in the sense that if I were walking down the street holding the book, I'd hide its cover, so as not to be recognized as the kind of person who reads that kind of book. Here's a list of books I have read that meet this criterion--as my excuses I can only claim curiosity and poor judgment at used book sales:

Left Behind. The most memorable part of this book for me was when the hero and heroine realize their mutual attraction, they go off on their own. . .and pray together. As this suggests, it's a formulaic thriller with some obvious substitutions in the paint-by-numbers plot.

Jemima J. A wish fulfillment romance for young women, complete with Prince Charming and the fairy-godmother-like physical transformations. Bridget Jones lite (and oddly, Bridget Jones does not belong on this list.)

Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology. Bad--remarkably, obliviously, masterfully bad.

Night of the Triffids. This sequel to John Wyndham's book has a garish cover illustration containing tentacled monsters and space ships in red, orange, and purple. Actually, to be honest, almost any book with a spaceship on the cover is a good candidate for this list.

I wish I could put some political books on this list, but my constitution just isn't strong enough to fight through Coulter, Limbaugh, etc.

Posted by: RSA | May 22, 2005 6:19:49 PM

The thomas frank book is forgettable, Wealth of nations is highly recomended.
My list.
1. the Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire (just too damm big)
2. The name of the Rose
3. The Great Gatsby, (everyone told me to read it but I just couldnt force myself to.)
4. The Proud Tower. (I usually love Tuchman but never got to this one.
5. Crime and Punishment.

Posted by: Kyle | May 22, 2005 6:33:24 PM

Ain't it grand that a bunch of guys with essentially no formal education can regret not reading The Wealth of Nations? Well, get thee to a library, guys- for most of us it will only take about ten pages to realize that we no longer regret not reading this book.

I've read 2-3 hours a day for the past 50 years and I don't regret for a minute not reading any novel written after 1970. I'm not saying there aren't some good ones, just that I do not regret and am not embarrassed to admit not reading these books.

The critical thing is to have read something else. If you do not know the critical 'turnaround maneuver' that you use to imply that the person who HAS read TWON simply wasted their time, you may wish to consult Stephen Potter's Oneupmanship.

Things I would be embarrassed (eventually) not to read:
The deed to my home.
Anything marked 'Divorce Decree- Final'.
Any envelope marked 'Summons'.
Traffic signs, especially speed limits.
And- number one- "between the lines".

Posted by: serial catowner | May 22, 2005 7:00:14 PM

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