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

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.


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