You Haven’t Really Read it, Have You?

I’ve been giving introductory talks on behavioral economics for a while now, and this is usually my last slide:

Dan Ariely and the problems that have surfaced in the recent past is a whole other story. But that apart, I think this is a fairly good list of books to begin with if you want to learn more about behavioral economics. Shleifer’s book is slightly more advanced, and Stumbling on Happiness isn’t formally about behavioral economics – but that being said, both are worth your time. Especially Stumbling on Happiness – please do read it if you haven’t already.

But I always say, whenever I show this slide, that Thinking Fast and Slow is a book that everybody claims to have read. But hardly anybody, in fact, has actually read it. It is not because this is a difficult book to read in the sense that it has a lot of mathematics, or theorems, or diagrams. Nor is the prose especially difficult. And even the ideas in the book aren’t impossibly difficult to digest.

It is just that this happens to be a book that is incredibly thoughtful. It is thoughtfully written, and every single line matters. The book is heavy reading, in other words, precisely because some heavy thinking has gone into it. I’m not exaggerating!

When I first met Kahneman he was making himself more miserable about his unfinished book than any writer I’d ever seen. It turned out merely to be a warm-up for the misery to come, the beginning of an extraordinary act of literary masochism. In effect, the psychologist kept trying to trick himself into doing things he didn’t want to do and failing to fall for the ruse. “I had this idea at first that I could do it easily,” he said. “I thought, you know, that I could talk it” to a ghostwriter, but then he seized on another approach: a series of lectures, delivered to Princeton undergraduates who knew nothing about the subject, that he could transcribe and publish more or less as spoken. “I paid someone to transcribe them,” he says. “But when I read them I could see that they were very bad.” Next, he set out to write the book by himself, as he suspected he should have done all along. He quit and re-started so many times he lost count, and each time he quit he seemed able to convince himself that he should never have taken on the project in the first place. Last October he quit for what he swore was the last time. One morning I went up the hill to have coffee with him and found that he was no longer writing his book. “This time I’m really finished with it,” he said.
Then, after I left him, he sat down and reviewed his own work. The mere fact that he had abandoned it probably raised the likelihood that he would now embrace it: after all, finding merit in the thing would now prove him wrong, and he seemed to take pleasure in doing that. Sure enough, when he looked at his manuscript his feelings about it changed again. That’s when he did the thing that I find not just peculiar and unusual but possibly unique in the history of human literary suffering. He called a young psychologist he knew well and asked him to find four experts in the field of judgment and decision-making, and offer them $2,000 each to read his book and tell him if he should quit writing it. “I wanted to know, basically, whether it would destroy my reputation,” he says. He wanted his reviewers to remain anonymous, so they might trash his book without fear of retribution. The endlessly self-questioning author was now paying people to write nasty reviews of his work. The reviews came in, but they were glowing. “By this time it got so ridiculous to quit again,” he says, “I just finished it.” Which of course doesn’t mean that he likes it. “I know it is an old man’s book,” he says. “And I’ve had all my life a concept of what an old man’s book is. And now I know why old men write old man’s books. My line about old men is that they can see the forest, but that’s because they have lost the ability to see the trees.”

In fact, I tell my audience during these talks that if they are really serious about reading the book, they should plan to read no more than three to four pages per day. Take as long as you like to read those four to five pages, then talk about what you’ve read with somebody (talk to yourself if nobody else has the patience or inclination). Then tomorrow, read another four to five pages. Keep at it until you’re done.

Again, none of this is meant as criticism of the book. Far from it, it is a magnificent book. So magnificent, in fact, that you’re better off sipping it rather than chugging it. But please do sip it!

But as I was saying, a lot of people claim to have read it, but they haven’t, not actually. Turns out this phenomenon has a name:

So which are the three most unread books of all time? Hard Choices by Hillary Clinton, Capital in the 21st Century, by Piketty, and Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace. And check out number 5!

Shashikant was surprised to see it at number 5, and so was I, but for different reasons. I think Shashikant was surprised to see it was that high on the list.

Me, I’m surprised it is that low.

But hey, if you haven’t read it already, please do start today. I’ll check in on your progress a year from now.

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