Before You Hate, Read it For Yourself

Might seem excessive to blog about this, but it’s a meme that has to stop.

The Intercollegiate Review has a list of the 50 worst books of the 20th century. This was too predictable:

John Maynard Keynes, The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money (1936)

This book did for Big Government what Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring did for the tse-tse fly.

1. The blurb is stupid and false.

2. Just because a book says something you disagree with doesn’t make it a bad book. Whenever someone tells you not to read a book because the content is disagreeable you should take it as a hint to do the exact opposite and read it.

Other entries include Karl Popper and John Rawls. Try telling an academic political philosopher that Rawls’ A Theory of Justice is one of the worst (non-fiction) books of the 20th century. It’s too bad people read and believe the misinformed trash these publications put out.

4 thoughts on “Before You Hate, Read it For Yourself

  1. Neodoxy

    I agree with placing it on the list, if not for the reason. The General Theory has widely been criticized for being poorly written, contradictory in and of itself, and of generally not even of being a very high analysis. The most thorough criticism I know of was Hazlitt’s book on the subject, the shortest and most destructive, if only because of who wrote it, is the famous remark on the book by Paul Samuelson:

    “It is a badly written book, poorly organized; any layman who, beguiled by the author’s previous reputation, bought the book was cheated of his 5 shillings. It is not well suited for classroom use. It is arrogant, bad-tempered, polemical, and not overly generous in its acknowledgements. It abounds in mares’ nests and confusions. … In short, it is a work of genius.”

    Reply
    1. Jonathan Finegold Post author

      Like I said, I think you should read it for yourself. I’ve read and I feel those criticisms are wrong. The book is not difficult to understand; the concepts are difficult to grasp sometimes, but that’s because the ideas are complex. Is the book contradictory? If so, where does it contradict itself? And the analysis is clearly of a high level, especially since many of the ideas Keynes expounds upon had already been published and discussed in top journals by top economists.

      Maybe it was poorly written and poorly organized, but does that really say anything useful at all about it? Hayek was a horrible writer in English. That doesn’t mean any of his books were bad or not worth reading. It doesn’t weigh at all into my decision to suggest the book to someone.

      Reply
      1. Neodoxy

        I found the book impossible to read when I initially tried to grapple with it. I found it utterly incomprehensible. At the time I was actually reading the book alongside Capital, a book of a similarly abysmal quality, and I found myself consistently gravitating towards Capital over the General Theory because, while both were baffling, at least I could understand some part of the former.

        The example that stands most vividly in my mind that Hazlitt exposed was the following about savings. This is a confusion that I believe still has a slight lingering haze in economics:

        “As we shall see, Keynes himself alternates constantly between two mutually contradictory contentions: that saving and investment are “necessarily equal,” and”merely different aspects of the same thing” (p. 74), and (2)that saving and investment are “two essentially different activities”without even a “nexus” (p. 21), so that saving not only can exceed investment but chronically tends to do so.The second is the view which he chooses to support at this point. We shall have occasion to analyze both views later.For the present it is sufficient merely to note the presence of this deep-seated contradiction in Keynes’s thought.”

        The other one that struck me is his criticism of Pigou’s attempt to form some sort of equivalence of capital while at the same time trying to promote his own concept of labour units as a basis for measurement of income, which comes up against all the arguments that he himself levied against Pigou’s attempt. I’m afraid I don’t remember that section too vividly, however, there’s so much of that book that is forgotten both by the reader and modern economics.

        As to how well written a book is compared with how good it is, I certainly think that eloquence and ease of arrangement count for much. Books are written to spread ideas, and if they fail to do that then they are bad books. Bad books can indeed have “diamonds in the rough”, which require excavating and much clarification (I.E someone needs a “bulldog” to come along and clarify their work) and I think it’s difficult to argue that Keynes wasn’t desperately in need of it. So yes, if your book is poorly written and bad at imparting ideas then at the end of the day it’s a bad book.

        If someone who made a huge sum of money and great fame off of adapting your work bashes it as being such an awful book to read, and abounding in confusions, then I think that the burden of proof is on one who sympathizes with the book to show it is not a bad work.

        Reply
        1. Jonathan Finegold Post author

          I’m a big fan of Hazlitt, but sometimes the nuances of certain theories were beyond him.

          He criticizes the apparent contradiction in Keynes’ discussion of savings and investment. There is no contradiction. Keynes’ theory here is actually fairly straightforward. Savings = investment through changes in the income level. (If savings > investment, incomes will fall and MPC will rise until savings = investment.) Hazlitt here is completely wrong. In fact, Hazlitt’s criticism of Keynes in general is not always very good.

          I completely agree on the wage unit concept. Is it fatal to Keynes’ theory? I don’t think so. I think there are more important weaknesses in the book.

          Unfortunately, I can’t really identify with your difficulty in reading The General Theory, because that wasn’t my experience. Like I said, some of the concepts are hard to grasp because they’re complex. It’s the same with Prices and Production, the Pure Theory of Capital, and just about any book on advanced economic theory. You also have to keep in mind that the language used back then was often different than modern language — some of the terms are no longer widely used, for example.

          Reply

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