Dynamist Blog

What Makes a Book Big?

Last week, David Brooks used the occasion of Milton Friedman's death to lament the disappearance of important books like Capitalism and Freedom: "Then in the 1990s, those big books stopped coming. Now instead of books, we have blogs." That's nonsense, as Dan Drezner conclusively demonstrated without so much as a glance at his bookshelf. "Oh, please, spare me the crap about how today's deep thoughts fail to rival those of the past," said Dan.

Now Nick Schulz at TCS Daily has composed an even longer list than Dan's, concentrated almost entirely on big-picture economics. (Both Nick and Dan kindly include The Future and Its Enemies on their lists.) Nick's list inadvertently demonstrates what's really going on: There isn't a middle-brow consensus what books are important. As best I can tell from the NYTBR's semi-reliable archives, none of the first seven books (including mine) on Nick's list rated a review in the New York Times Book Review, and I'm not too sure about the eighth. (My search failed to turn up William Easterly's subsequent book, The White Man's Burden. which was reviewed--by me--in the NYTBR.) A book is not "big" because it addresses important ideas in a serious and significant way. A book is "big" because the right people talk about it. If there's less agreement on who the right people are--or if the right people, traditionally defined, ignore important books until they're old important books--you get laments like Brooks's.

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