How to read (any book like) Capital in the Twenty-First Century?

by on April 20, 2014 at 7:02 am in Books, Education | Permalink

Mike, a loyal MR reader, asks me:

How do you recommend approaching a book like Capital in the Twenty-First Century?  I’m a reasonably smart guy, undergrad econ, ee, mba from good schools, somewhat well read, etc., but the density, length and relative subjectivity(?) of Piketty’s topic has me hesitant.

Do I start with the reviews or another book(s), dive right in or find a discussion group (usually lucky if anyone actually reads even part it).  Maybe I approach it like the bible, one paragraph at a time over several years 🙂

For truly serious books, I recommend the following.  Read it once, straight through, with a minimum of fuss.  If you get truly, totally stuck on some point, which the rest of the book depends upon, find somebody to ask.  Otherwise just keep on plowing straight through.

Then write a review of the book.  Or jot down your notes, but in any case force yourself to take definite stances by putting words down on paper (or screen).

Then reread the book carefully, because now you know what you are looking for.  Revise what you wrote.

Of course only a few books a year (if that many) need to be read this way.

Starting by reading reviews of the book is fine for most people, but usually I prefer not to.  I read just enough of reviews to discern whether I wish to read the book (or watch the movie) at all.  Then I stop reading the review, as I do not wish to be contaminated by the reviewer’s perspective and I feel I usually have enough background to make sense of the book without the assistance.  I intend no slight toward reviewers, but the whole point of the reading/review process is to get some independent draws from the urn rather than a cascade of overly mutually influenced opinion.  That said, I recommend this “skip reviews” approach only to people who read a great deal very seriously.

Reading groups can be useful to either a) force you to read a book you won’t otherwise pick up, b) force you to defend your point of view on a book, or c) induct you into knowing a book really really well when currently you only know the book well.  Or, most of all, d) bond a group of people together.  All that is fine.  But I don’t see readings groups as very useful for simply “reading books.”  As Robin Hanson might say, readings groups aren’t about reading, or for that matter books.

Few people can stay interested reading one paragraph a day from a book.  One underrated virtue of fast reading is that you make enough progress to keep yourself interested and this also can improve comprehension.

1 A April 20, 2014 at 7:13 am

I write up an entry on Evernote after a chapter, or a thematic group. This method mitigates discouraging feelings when reading a book that utilizes unfamiliar terms, technical awareness, or unexplained concepts. You jot down questions and make note of comprehension gaps, knowing that you will fill in the gaps through subsequent chapters or independent reading.

2 BCC April 20, 2014 at 7:37 am

This is not far from what I did with D’Agata’s The Lifespan of a Fact, but my “definite stance” was that the book contained intentional errors, and when I found one on the first try, I quickly realized that the task at hand would require more time than I had. Fortunately I had students the next year to do the dirty work.

3 F. Lynx Pardinus April 20, 2014 at 7:50 am

I like watching author talks on C-SPAN or Youtube after I read a book. You find out what sections of the book the author thinks are important enough to focus on, and the questions from audience may echo what you were wondering.

4 david April 20, 2014 at 8:22 am

In the case of Piketty: read through the book, then put it down and pick up his QJE paper and Handbook of Income Distribution conference paper with Zucman. There, the ambiguities created by the simplification for a lay audience are removed.

5 ed April 20, 2014 at 1:19 pm


I haven’t read the book, but the reviews have convinced me that most readers have missed some important details from his technical arguments. For example, everyone seems very excited about how r>g implies inequality will spiral out of control, but nobody bothers to mention the model and assumptions that would be necessary for this to be true.

The QJE paper, on the other hand, is clear and quite interesting. Find it here:

6 David April 21, 2014 at 9:14 am

Exactly. The QJE paper is at the heart of the discussion. It is clear, succinct, and complete in it’s analysis. I am not deep enough into the book to know whether he covers it as thoroughly as he should.

7 emerich April 20, 2014 at 8:29 am

I think we’re getting ahead of ourselves. First question should be: of all the books out there, does Pickety’s merit the time and attention it would take? He’s far from the front of the line, at least for me.

8 Rahul April 20, 2014 at 8:56 am

I think some of these discussions are too meta. First, someone who’s as smart & well-read as Mike has got some sort of book reading strategy already figured out else he wouldn’t be where he is. So might as well stick to it.

Second, there’s limited external validity. Doubtful that borrowed strategies will continue to work at such meta levels.

9 Colin April 21, 2014 at 6:20 pm

Well considering that wasn’t what the readers asked, that is not the question at hand.

10 Peter Sperry April 20, 2014 at 8:34 am

It might also be helpful if great thinkers made the effort to become decent writers. I make an effort to read 12 or more “serious” non fiction books a year. Many of them are ponderous slogs through excessive verbiage, unnecessary jargon, repetitive examples and obscure academia. Almost all of them could communicate their central message more quickly, easily and with greater comprehension if the author worked with a good editor to improve the quality of their writing. It often seems the author is less interested in communicating an important concept than in authenticating themselves as a major academic.

11 Ari April 20, 2014 at 12:00 pm

Agreed. Most books are way too long and verbose.

12 Jordan April 20, 2014 at 5:25 pm

Was this comment intended to be ironic?

13 Mark B April 23, 2014 at 12:07 pm

As an academic (but in biomed science), I have to agree. So often I find myself thinking these same thoughts – but to be clear, about my fellow humanities faculty outputs. A side idea: why not a publishing world in which an academic writer produces the “big book” with all the refs, endnotes/footnotes, and detailed persnickety arguments… and then the smaller condensed version, written in a far more lively and easy way?

14 anon April 20, 2014 at 8:44 am

This sounds like great advice for someone who has been paid to write a review of the book for Foreign Affairs — less so for a “reasonably smart guy.”

The goals and background of the reader (even a “serious” one) are important too. If someone cannot commit the time to reading a 600+ page book (twice!) that does not mean they have not seriously engaged with the ideas. I would think for non-experts (and even ‘experts’) reading a wide range of reactions to such a book would be essential This may be an amazing book but it is basically one person’s take on a complicated and ambiguous issue. Spending too much time ‘alone with the author’ reading may be a disservice to most people. Cute diss of reading groups but learning is a social activity too – forcing yourself to put your “words into print” is a pretty weak device if you never voice those ideas to others who may disagree.

Still points for consistency – today’s post did fit an earlier one well: “something important about advice in general. From the issuer’s point of view, admonitions are not meant to be followed at all. In fact, they are positioning statements that tell the world about the values the issuer would like it to think they hold.”

15 Rahul April 20, 2014 at 8:58 am

Don’t know about reading groups but for me stuff like StackExchange / Forums / USENET works great to tide me over the bumps in my technical reading.

16 Handle April 20, 2014 at 9:12 am

Amazing that no one has said, “Try to figure out the author’s political agenda, and try to tell whether any of his usual allies and opponents say anything unexpected compared to predictions you would make based on ideological leaning.” Is this an exercise in convenient justification or plausible rationalization? Is this book the result of the pent-up demand in the confirmation-bias-market?

I’ve always wished for the ‘Westlaw version’ of a book, where I have access to the html version of a nonfiction publication, and instead of footnotes or endnotes, every claim or proposition requiring authority or evidence is hyperlinked to that evidence, and buying access to the book also buys me access to that evidence. Yes, I know I can sometimes hack my e-books, but being able to copy and paste paragraphs from all these sources is also quite helpful in writing reviews or participating in online discussion groups.

17 dan in philly April 20, 2014 at 9:32 am

Putting yourself in the mind of the author is always useful. It allows you to consider what the writer is trying to accomplish with his book.
Writing is hard, and so no one ever writes without a really strong reason to. Often the reason is “because I need to get paid” which doesn’t really make me interested. Sometimes it is for more profound reasons, such as advancing a particular agenda, which can be interesting. I think the best reason to write is to better understand a difficult subject, and in such cases reading really can be a journey you undertake with the author. Not that common an experience I have found, but worth it when you find it.

18 F. Lynx Pardinus April 20, 2014 at 9:44 am

The NYTimes summarized Piketty’s background and motivations: “‘My Ph.D. is mostly about pure economic theory because that was the easiest thing to do, and I was hired at M.I.T. as a young assistant professor doing economic theory,’ he said. ‘I was young and successful at doing this, so it was an easy way. But very quickly I realized that there was little serious effort at collecting historical data on income and wealth, so that’s what I started doing.’ Academic economics is so focused on getting the econometrics and the statistical interpolation technique correct, he said, ‘you don’t really think, you don’t dare to ask the big questions.'”

19 Marc April 20, 2014 at 9:31 am

While I cannot say I have read this most recent edition, if you REALLY want to understand a book in its entirely and every detail, nothing can possibly beat the tried and true strategy in this classic:

20 Kent Guida April 20, 2014 at 12:06 pm

Yes, exactly! Adler. Van Doren and the entire great books brigade spent their lives answering this question.

It’s a combination of the reading strategy detailed in the book and the shared inquiry discussion. Guaranteed successful for any text.

Only question is whether a particular book is worth it.

21 ummm April 20, 2014 at 9:33 am

There’s no need to read the book when all the relevant information is online for free in a condensed easy to follow form

22 dearieme April 20, 2014 at 9:39 am

If it’s a translation, read it in the original instead. Unless that’s in Finnish or Hungarian.

23 affenkopf April 20, 2014 at 10:00 am

What if I speak Hungarian but not French?

24 dearieme April 20, 2014 at 5:25 pm


25 joan April 20, 2014 at 10:28 am

Pikitty has all his data online in excel format and to me is of more interest than what he says in his book. I always look at graphs and tables first and if they are are deceptive or cherry picked I assume the book is not worth reading

26 RR April 20, 2014 at 10:48 am

“a cascade of overly mutually influenced opinion….”.

This is what a lot of blogs now feel like , feeding of the opinions and counter-opinions of each other.

27 ummm April 20, 2014 at 12:05 pm

Usually a lot of people linking and quoting each other

Someone creates content like the Thomas Sargent speech and it gets dissected and picked apart by a dozens of bloggers

28 Nathan W April 20, 2014 at 11:45 am

I had half a thought he was going to suggest how to read “Das Kapital” in the 21st century 🙂

29 uair01 April 20, 2014 at 4:04 pm

Yeas that was my thought too. And I was looking forward to the answer and the discussion. I’m a bit disappointed 🙂

30 yayaver April 20, 2014 at 12:32 pm

Often majority discourage heavy stuff to beginners, such books are termed as classic and put in a corner. But a simple reading from first to last page is good enough to form an opinion. Regarding book reviews, I will agree to read this book becuase Paul Krugman is pitching for it –
Why We’re in a New Gilded Age

31 jseliger April 20, 2014 at 2:04 pm

I like your advice but will also note that some books (Piketty’s is one, at least for me) reach a level of depth that is unlikely to be engaging to non-specialists; I liked the intro, first chapter, and conclusion but skimmed or skipped much of the intermediate material, as one might read a paper abstract without caring overly much about the methodology section.

Perhaps Capital in the Twenty-First Century deserves better but a) I don’t have a strong frame of reference for the topic, b) I’m unlikely to use or reference the book in my other work and c) I’m not sufficiently intellectually interested in it to want or need to grok it. Books like Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind or for that matter Average is Over engage me much more.

32 Manny C April 20, 2014 at 3:39 pm

*How to read a book* by Mortimer Adler is an oldie but a goodie in this space.

33 Devil's Dictionary April 20, 2014 at 5:47 pm

Why the default assumption that inequality is bad?

34 vetr April 20, 2014 at 10:42 pm

Matthew Henry, 1706 : “Multum in parvo – much in a little. Mr Norris says, “if angels were to write books, we would have few [long-winded] folios”. (from the intro to Solomon’s Song of Songs).
As for me, before reading a book like this, I would check a few dozen, maybe a few hundred, of the relevant numbers in the statistical tables and try to guess, from his choices, if the author seems to understand the world we live in or if he lives in a Spergerville-like bubble of his own, as is so frequently the case with the best-known intellectual strivers of our day. Or I would ask someone who understands the subject better than I do.

35 Edgar April 21, 2014 at 12:03 pm

But I don’t see readings groups as very useful for simply “reading books.” As Robin Hanson might say, readings groups aren’t about reading, or for that matter books. The exception to this, of course, are the online reading groups at where it is most excellent to see that Prof. Cowen is now a registered goodreads author. Great discussions just waiting to happen at:

36 Max Weismann April 24, 2014 at 4:51 pm


We are a not-for-profit educational organization founded by Mortimer Adler and we have recently made an exciting discovery—three years after writing the wonderfully expanded third edition of How to Read a Book, Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren made a series of thirteen 14-minute videos—lively discussing the art of reading. The videos were produced by Encyclopaedia Britannica. For reasons unknown, sometime after their original publication, these videos were lost.

Three hours with Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren, lively discussing the art of reading, on one DVD. A must for all readers, libraries and classroom teaching the art of reading.

I cannot exaggerate how instructive these programs are—we are so sure that you will agree, if you are not completely satisfied, we will refund your donation.

Please go here to see a clip and learn more:

ISBN: 978-1-61535-311-8

Thank you,

Max Weismann, Co-founder with Dr. Adler

37 Victor April 25, 2014 at 9:01 am

Some really good points I would say. First time I came across you on the web.

I just read ‘How to Read a Book’ by Mortimer Adler and Charles van Doren. Is that a book that you have read? If so, what did you think of it?



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