On Reading-Part X: Seeing the forest through the trees
The informational shortcut that we take when we have “too much information” is to engage with it selectively, picking out the parts we like and ignoring the remainder, making allies with those who have made the same choices and enemies of the rest.
– Nate Silver, The Signal and the Noise (2012)
Today’s addition to the canon is a problematic trio. All three works are important foundations of western culture and vigorous participants in the Great Conversation. As such they are already part of our Western literary canon. Yet they are each problematic in that they are widely misunderstood and misrepresented by the vast majority of people who have never read more than a fraction of their long and complex arguments. We talk about them often. We quote them out of context. We rarely understand them.
These are important books that need to be read in their entirety. However, their length and complexity are a deterrent to wide popular reading and leads them to be easily misrepresented and commonly misunderstood. I am not so much adding these books to the canon—they are already there—but instead, argue for reading the whole book instead of the fragments and excerpts we are typically served.
Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, Karl Marx’s Capital, and Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America are all classics but their length prevents people from reading the entire works fully and carefully. This leads to much confusion and misinterpretation. I can think of no other books that are so widely misunderstood and misconstrued. They are the subject of endless debates where positions are based on hearsay, unverified assumptions and isolated quotations offered without their context. These arguments are often contradicting the very same works whose support they claim.
It is hard to correct these misinterpretation for two reasons. First, the books are very long. They require time and concentration. To really understand them it is essential to read the entire book. The problem with Marx’s Capital is compounded by it being just one of six proposed thousand-page volumes, only half of which were ever written.
All three of these books are too long to be read in college by more than a handful of dedicated seminar participants. Students instead get summaries and excerpts offered by professors that also have neither read nor understood the books.
Adults have longer time frames, but all too often shorter attention spans. The arguments are long and complex. It hard to keep them clear and fresh in your mind for months as you fit the reading in between the demands of work and family and life.
The second reason is that even if one were to actually read and understand these books, a well grounded understanding of them is so out of step with the culture that it is hard to believe what you have read. You will find yourself second guessing what you did or did not read: “Smith seems to be making arguments for taxes and strict regulation of commerce perhaps I misunderstood what he was getting at” or “I did not see where Marx advocates seizure of property and totalitarian government. I must have missed that part.” You missed that part because it wasn’t there. But even then, the temptation to believe it is there—because everyone else says it is there—is hard to overcome.
Adam Smith-The Wealth of Nations
Alexis de Tocqueville-Democracy in America
- Interpreting Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations (severalfourmany.wordpress.com)
- Tocqueville at Work (gsorman.typepad.com)