I asked a friend the other day whether he had read Thomas Piketty’s book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century. “No”, he said, “though I’ve bought it”. Since he’s one of the most voracious readers I know, I asked him to explain. “Because I’ve read so many reviews of it”, he replied, “I think I know what I need to know about his argument”.
My friend is a very busy guy, and has to read a lot of stuff for his work, so I could sympathise with his conclusion.
The essence of Piketty’s argument is pretty straightforward — inequalities in wealth, which had declined over the period 1914-1950, are now again rising to Belle Epoque levels– and many of the innumerable reviews summarise it pretty well. But taking that utilitarian view of a book is a bit like straining dumpling soup through a colander. You get the dumplings, sure, but the soup escapes. And the nice thing about the Piketty book is that it’s very well written and in many places a delight to read. (Which of course is partly a tribute to its translator, Arthur Goldhammer.) So Piketty’s literary style, the allusions to fiction, etc. is the analogue of the soup.
Still, at least ‘Capital”s has sold in huge numbers. A couple of years ago, however, I came on another case of a really ‘big’ book: Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature: A History of Violence and Humanity. I had an enjoyable conversation with Pinker before it came out, and the book had a huge (and no doubt very expensive) pre-launch PR campaign. For a couple of weeks, Pinker was everywhere. There were dozens of serious reviews. So it looked like it would be a really big deal in publishing terms.
And then a friend who is published by the same publishing house (Penguin) told me that its executives were discombobulated by the book’s poor sales in the UK.
My interpretation was that the publicity campaign had been too successful. As with Piketty’s book, Pinker’s main message — that, in the long view of history, the level of violence in human society has been steadily decreasing over a long period — is both intriguing and straightforward. So people felt that they didn’t need to wade through 1056 pages to get it. And so they didn’t buy the book.