The Problem With Great Books

Jumping off my discussion of reading about Hayek rather than reading Hayek, Jonathan Bernstein inquires into the larger genre of “terribly written great books.”

My favorite is probably Richard Neustadt’s Presidential Power. Just awful. The lowlight? The concepts are terrific, but he gives them nonintuitive, confused names (e.g. “vantage points”). Neustadt says that presidential power is about persuasion, but he doesn’t mean the kind of persuasion in which you start out thinking X and, through clever arguments, Barack Obama gets you to think Y; he means either that or bargaining or threats or bringing pressure of various kinds. But he doesn’t really explain that. Even worse, in each of the updates he published over the years, he added in new terminologies, ignoring the old ones. The ideas are hard enough for people to accept, since they clash so strongly with the way high schools and reporters teach about the presidency, but getting through the murky prose makes it even worse.

Other nominations?

I actually think this is a pretty general problem with “great books,” for reasons that are explained in Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions which is, itself, a great book that suffers from the very same problem. Obviously part of the issue is simply that there’s no guarantee that conceptual innovators will be good writers. But the deeper Kuhnian issue is that great game-changing thinkers end up altering the conceptual terrain in a way that renders their original works obsolete-sounding and confusing. Meanwhile, a whole discipline grows up in the shadow of the great book and its practitioners develop a nice clear reconstruction of the framework.

But the availability of these clear reconstructions only makes the original look even worse. If that‘s what he meant, then we didn’t he just say that!

This winds up being very convenient for the college professors of the world. It’s much easier to understand Kuhn’s theory by having Michael Rescorla explain it to you (or as the case may be, to me) than to just read the book on your own. And now thanks to the glories of the Internet, I’ve gotten Brad DeLong’s explanation of the Keynesian account of the Great Depression which was much, much clearer to me than trying to read Keynes. And over the past year I think Jonathan Bernstein has done enough to explain Neustadt’s account of presidential power that I’m not even slightly tempted to read his book.

That’s not to say you should never read books. I like books (here’s my influential books list). And lots of very good books just aren’t “great books” in that same conceptual innovator sense. Some books are mind-blowingly powerful narratives. And I think it’s worth wrestling with some major works on your own for character-building reasons. And a few great thinkers are also really good prose stylists. But in many ways, I think the “poorly written great book” is the rule rather than the exception.