Too Many Books?

This year’s Man Booker Prize, Nobel Prize for Literature, and Pulitzer Prize for fiction have now all been awarded for works I will never read, and next month’s National Book Award is certain to follow suit. Which causes me to wonder whether the world’s got enough books already. I own hundreds of novels that I will never have the time to read. If these were the only copies on earth and a fire destroyed half of them, my life would not be signifcantly impoverished.

Of course there are great novels that have brought me a lot of pleasure—most recently, Ian Pears’s An Instance of the Fingerpostand Donna Tartt’s The Secret History come to mind—(warning! Do not read the Amazon reviews of Fingerpost; they give away the ending!). But the opportunity cost of reading a great novel is reading some other great novel, so if either of these had gone unwritten, I’d probably have some other wonderful book to recommend.

There’s an important economic point here: The vast rewards that go to successful novelists can grossly overstate the social value of their work. Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code has sold over 6 million copies and almost surely earned its author over $20 million. But if The Da Vinci Code hadn’t been written, some other now-unnoticed book might have taken its place as the blockbuster of the year, and readers would have been almost as happy.

Writing a book is not like growing an orange. If you grow the best orange in the world, the second best orange still gets eaten. But if you write the best book in the world, the second best book loses a lot of readers. So the market price of an orange is an excellent reflection of its true social value, whereas the bulk of Dan Brown’s $20 million is only an excellent reflection of what he was able to divert from some
other author to himself.