Razib Khan One-stop-shopping for all of my content

November 27, 2016

Top Books Purchased Through This Site

Filed under: Books,Miscellaneous — Razib Khan @ 6:13 pm
So I have an Amazon referrer account. I've had one since 2003. Pretty much I use it to get money when people buy books (or other items) through links here. It's a non-trivial, though not princely, sum of money. Especially since it's passive. These are books I've read and want to talk about anyhow (usually...

January 5, 2013

The future is e-books!

Filed under: Books,Culture,e-books — Razib Khan @ 4:12 pm

Nicholas G. Carr, purveyor of high-brow neo-ludditism and archeo-utopianism, has a piece out in The Wall Street Journal, Don’t Burn Your Books—Print Is Here to Stay. The subtitle is “The e-book had its moment, but sales are slowing. Readers still want to turn those crisp, bound pages.” Here are some of his rancid chestnuts of un-wisdom:

… Hardcover books are displaying surprising resiliency. The growth in e-book sales is slowing markedly. And purchases of e-readers are actually shrinking, as consumers opt instead for multipurpose tablets. It may be that e-books, rather than replacing printed books, will ultimately serve a role more like that of audio books—a complement to traditional reading, not a substitute.

What’s more, the Association of American Publishers reported that the annual growth rate for e-book sales fell abruptly during 2012, to about 34%. That’s still a healthy clip, but it is a sharp decline from the triple-digit growth rates of the preceding four years.

The initial e-book explosion is starting to look like an aberration… 2012 survey by Bowker Market Research revealed that just 16% of Americans have actually purchased an e-book and that a whopping 59% say they have “no interest” in buying one.

From the start, e-book purchases have skewed disproportionately toward fiction, with novels representing close to two-thirds of sales…Screen reading seems particularly well-suited to the kind of light entertainments that have traditionally been sold in supermarkets and airports as mass-market paperbacks.

Readers of weightier fare, including literary fiction and narrative nonfiction, have been less inclined to go digital. They seem to prefer the heft and durability, the tactile pleasures, of what we still call “real books”—the kind you can set on a shelf.

…In fact, according to Pew, nearly 90% of e-book readers continue to read physical volumes. The two forms seem to serve different purposes.

Having survived 500 years of technological upheaval, Gutenberg’s invention may withstand the digital onslaught as well. There’s something about a crisply printed, tightly bound book that we don’t seem eager to let go of.

An immediate issue with this op-ed is that it engages in shell games with quantities. Starting from a baseline of zero a new technology will undergo incredible rates of initial growth in adoption. But this will level off rather quickly. A 34% rate is still indeed healthy, and a sign I think that the explosive phase is giving way to robust and expansionary growth as the market slouches toward maturation. Other data in the piece seem to me to be irrelevant red-herrings. People who read e-books tend to be readers, so naturally one would expect that they read physical books. Most people with e-books have extensive personal libraries, and many works which they already own are not in e-book formats, or, are expensive in e-book formats (e.g., I have textbooks which I purchased for more than $100, which are discounted 50% for e-books, so they still come in at $60!). Additionally, asking all Americans about reading is rather misleading. A small proportion of the public are intense readers, with most being casual at best, if they read at all.
To the left is a figure I generated from an AP/IPSOS survey on American book reading habits in 2006. As it is a self-report this probably overestimates the reading habits of the general public, as well as the nature of what they read. 25% of Americans admitted reading no books in a year, while the median number of books read was 6.5. This I think gets at the heart of why e-books aren’t as popular as you might expect: books are’t that popular! The typical entry-level e-reader runs in the $50 to $100 range. This initial fixed cost is heavily subsidized because the makers of these devices want you to purchase content from them. But consider that the average American reads on the order of 5 books a year.  And Daniel McCarthy brings up the important issue that you need to analyze the trends across age cohorts; most readers are older, but most future readers are not going to be from the older cohorts. Some of these books that people read are likely to be relatively cheap mass market paperbacks or library books, but assuming on average $20 per book, the expenditure of Americans on new books per year is going to be about the same as an e-reader. These devices are not without hassle or risk, they break or malfunction, and, there are the notorious issues with digital rights.

So why e-books? Interestingly Carr asserts those who read more “serious” books prefer the physical medium. I’d like to see more analysis of this. Certainly I am of the opposite opinion. Though I don’t read mass market science fiction or fantasy paperbacks anymore, these $8 purchases are the sort which I would run through once, never to revisit. I don’t need to have something in my digital library if I never revisit it. This is in contrast to meatier references and classics. But for someone who reads a lot one of the biggest hassles of physical books is storage and retrieval. I’m an avid user of libraries, and am assiduous about making a trip to the used book store every few years, but even I nevertheless have a relatively cumbersome collection of texts which I have to transport on every occasion that I move. In addition, any travel plans would often result in my deciding how many books I could stow before it became more of a nuisance than a boon.

Because I do much of my reading on a Kindle I’ve accrued a massive portable library of classics, most of which I purchased for a few dollars at most. I’d wager that the number of people who would actually read War and Peace all the way through (as opposed to being seen reading it, or mentioning offhand that they’re reading it) would be facilitated by its packaging in a less cumbersome format. Contrary to the waxing of someone like Nicholas Carr about the tactile physical experience of a book I’ve never enjoyed the fact that works of more than 500 pages tend to be unwieldy. This is not an abstract concern for me, I’m an intellectual generalist who has a taste for very expansive surveys on a variety of academic topics. Both A History of the Byzantine State and Society and The Structure of Evolutionary Theory would benefit from not being in a physical format (the latter is heavier than my laptop in hardcover!). Not only is the reading experience made difficult by the mass of the book, but the long term physical integrity of the work is often endangered by the reality that the number of pages tends to exceed the capacity of the binding of the spines.

What of the musty pleasures of the scroll?

Finally, there’s the issue of what e-books are in relation to various other forms of books, printed or audio. I think the analogy to audio books is totally ridiculous; e-books and printed books are fundamentally the same thing, only in somewhat different physical formats. Additionally, the printing press was a quantitative, not qualitative, change. It took the codex format, which attained popularity in late antiquity, and elevated it to the level of mass industrial production. The big change in qualitative formatting was the move from the scroll to the book over 1,000 years earlier. Prior to this there was the shift from the antique Near Eastern forms of writing, such as cuneiform or hieroglyph on heavy non-portable medium, to alphabetic script on papyrus. The alphabets packaged in a light scroll allowed for literacy to be more broadly accessible to the higher orders of society, rather than just the specialized vocation of a scribal class. Reading has always been subject to periodic revolution. I am dismayed by the fixation of some on the physical medium of the book, as opposed to the information content of the book. If the smell of paper and the tactile experience of a hardcover jacket is so critical, then I think consumers of text are missing the point somewhat. Frankly, it makes me think that the term “book slut” is more than metaphorical. Many of the lovers of the physical porn linger longingly upon vivid descriptions of smell and texture of the page in a manner which is reminiscent of what “food porn” factories such as the Food Network indulge in.

All that being said there are genuine concerns with the transition to e-books, in particular the scope of intellectual property, and the possibility of monopolistic domination of the sector by a firm such as Amazon. The struggles of the Nook should worry those who appreciate the spur and pressure which competition forces upon companies, though one must remember that e-book consumption occurs across a variety of platforms (e.g., I can read my Kindle books on the phone, computer, and Kindle, as well as tablets). A more substantive concern is the control which we cede to Amazon when we purchase e-books in their specific format. These are real difficulties which we need to address over the next decade, but I think they’re surmountable, and will be resolved. Information is too important to simply abdicate all control of the means of production to a few firms.

If Nicholas Carr truly believes what he’s saying, I’m curious if he’d be willing to make a bet on the market penetration of e-books in 2017. I suspect the reality is that op-eds such as this are expressions of his sentiment and preference, not a genuine prediction rooted in an understanding of how the world is, as opposed to how an individual might want the world to be.

Addendum: Unlike CDs I believe that physical printed books will persist for the indefinite future. There are some works which are important references where I think many people will want to have in physical format not tied into technology and stored in a cloud. But, the number of these works will be small, and most people will not have any physical books aside from the Bible or a religious text, which has sacred value. Interestingly this will result in a physical reversion to the state of affairs of a few hundred years ago, when for most households the only book might have been of a religious nature.

December 21, 2012

Holiday reading

Filed under: Books — Razib Khan @ 11:49 am

Christmas is a time when I accelerate my reading, and catch-up for lost time. Here’s my three books I plan to get through:

The Fall of Rome: And the End of Civilization. I’ve read this twice already. This short book has been one of the most influential works in my own personal thinking. Even if you don’t agree with the thrust of Bryan Ward-Perkins’ thesis, it will clarify your own position.

Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350-550 AD. The author, Peter Brown, is the modern day eminence on ‘Late Antiquity’. I’ve read many of his earlier works, and always found his exposition enjoyable. But I’m re-reading The Fall of Rome in part to have a good counterpoint in my head to Brown’s arguments, which are subtle and difficult to box in (for what it’s worth, I think Brown makes a bit too much of Late Antiquity, but to some extent this is a normative judgement).

The Founders of Evolutionary Genetics: A Centenary Reappraisal. This is an exciting time to be interested in evolution and genetics (see Haldane’s Sieve and prepare to be overwhelmed!). But I also think it is useful to have some historical perspective. Science is a human enterprise, and it is critical to step outside of the flowing river, and observe the parameters which shaped its past course and trajectory, and therefore where it may be going.

With that, an “open thread” for what you are reading, and why.

Note: The comments systems should be improved in the near future. Or so I’m told.

July 31, 2012

Gore Vidal

Filed under: Books,Gore Vidal — Razib Khan @ 8:36 pm

Gore Vidal has died. As a younger man I found his heterodox views bracing, but I would commend to readers two books Vidal wrote which I feel often get forgotten in the shadow of his American historical novels, Creation and Julian. As a polemicist one must always view Vidal’s claims of fact with some suspicion (granted, I suspect I’m in more sympathy with some of his interpretations of history than most), but his historical fiction can rise above such a critique.

June 25, 2012

Brown books

Filed under: Books — Razib Khan @ 10:32 pm

Since I have some time to read again, I thought I’d ask for brown related books which might be of interest. Here are some I’ve enjoyed in the past….

India: A History

In Spite of the Gods: The Rise of Modern India

The Argumentative Indian: Writings on Indian History, Culture and Identity

The Hindus: An Alternative History

The Mughal Throne: The Saga of India’s Great Emperors

The Rig Veda

Self-Knowledge: Sankara’s “Atmabodha”

Early India: From the Origins to AD 1300

The Rise of Islam and the Bengal Frontier, 1204-1760

Castes of Mind: Colonialism and the Making of Modern India


December 17, 2011

Christmas reading

Filed under: Books — Razib Khan @ 9:53 pm

With some leisure, I plan to read a bit. Here is my tentative “stack”:

- The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined

- Edge of Empire: Lives, Culture, and Conquest in the East, 1750-1850

- Mothers and Others: The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding

- Mirroring the Past: The Writing And Use of History in Imperial China

- Meditations

- Consolation of Philosophy

I also plan on browsing more of Brian and Deborah Charlesworth’s magisterial Elements of Evolutionary Genetics , and my friend Joel Grus’ Thinking Spreadsheet. I’m skeptical that I would prioritize fiction, but if I manage to read some, I’ll try and finish The Sacred Band, the last in David Anthony Durham’s Acacia trilogy.

What are you reading for the holidays? (and if you aren’t reading for the holidays, why are you spending your marginal time reading this blog!)

November 13, 2011

What are you reading?

Filed under: Blog,Books,Kindle — Razib Khan @ 10:12 pm

I haven’t had time to read a book front to back in 2 months. Probably the longest period I’ve gone like this since I was 13. I plan to “binge” as much as I can over the Holidays. Is there anything interesting you’re reading? And yes, I already have The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined on my Kindle.

October 16, 2011

The history of the world!

Filed under: Books,History — Razib Khan @ 1:22 am

My post from last week, Relative angels and absolute demons, got a lot of circulation. Interestingly I received several emails from self-described lurkers who asked me for recommendations on world history, with a particular thought to rectify deficiencies in non-European history. These were people who were not looking for exceedingly abstruse monographs. Below are some suggestions….

China: A History. The author is a journalist, so this should be a starting off point, as there are major shortcomings in the narrative. But if you don’t have much background I’d recommend this.

India: A History. Same author as above, same strengths and weaknesses.

China: A New History, Enlarged Edition. A classic survey. Nothing to shout home about, but useful (if sometimes thin and dated).

Early India: From the Origins to AD 1300. The author is hated by many Hindu nationalists, but the period is old enough that much of the controversy is not relevant to this work.

When Baghdad Ruled the Muslim World. A narrative history of the dynasty which crystallized much of Islam as we understand it.

Empires of the Silk Road. This is more a magnum opus, but it’s not a dry one. It can help “connect” the histories of the peripheral zones of the Eurasian ecumene.

A History of Iran. Iran is a small country, but its location is such that an understanding of it’s history can illuminate a great deal.

Power and Plenty. An economic history of the past 1,000 years.

After Tamerlane. The past 600 years. Becomes progressively more Eurocentric, as it should.

The Early Chinese Empires. This is not a long book, and it gives you a sense of what China was like before foreign influences (e.g., Buddhism).

The Classical World. Most people know very little of Western antiquity.

God’s War. This history of the Crusades ranges from the Baltic to Egypt. It has a wide enough spatial and temporal coverage to be a world history.

The Peacock Throne. To some extent this treatment of Mughal India almost seems out of Bollywood in terms of its dramatic nature. But then again the Timurids provide great raw material.

Africa. The title is short, but the yield is long.

1491. Many people know everything in this book, but too few still.

A History of the Ancient Near East ca. 3000 – 323 BC. This is an understudied subject. You need this to see long term patterns which began only with the Classical Greeks.

The Rise of Western Christendom. You can’t understand the core of antiquity and the roots of the Middle Ages without this book.

The Human Web. A world history co-authored by one of the masters, William H. McNeill.

That’s all for now. I haven’t updated it in a while, but you might want to check out Razib on books.

June 29, 2011

No bookstores in Nashville?

Filed under: Books — Razib Khan @ 3:19 pm

That’s what Ann Patchett is claiming. More specifically, there are no bricks & mortar institutions which specialize in selling new books. There are places you can get used books in the city of Nashville. To remedy the situation Patchett is opening up a bookstore herself. She asserts that “…we’ve got to get back to a 3000-square-foot store and not 30,000. Amazon is always going to have everything – you can’t compete with that. But there is, I believe, still a place for a store where people read books.”

I recall going to a Barnes & Noble when I was in Nashville in the summer of 2004. Here’s some demographic data: “As of the 2010 census, the balance population was 601,222. The 2000 population was 545,524.” The details here are a bit muddy because parts of Davidson county are included with the Nashville total, but you get a general sense of how substantial the population of this city is. As a point of comparison Eugene, OR, has a population of 156,185, and 29 Yelp hits for bookstores. Nashville has 46 results.

Back to Patchett’s claim, I think there is something there. I don’t know how it’s ...

June 13, 2011

Harriet Klausner, a one woman content-mill!

Filed under: Book reviews,Books,Harriet Klausner — Razib Khan @ 1:14 pm

On occasion I browse through books on Amazon with an eye for really good negative reviews. The other day I stumbled upon a really strange positive review of the awful fantasist David Bilsborough. It was confusing to me to see 4 out of 5 stars for this author, but the “review” was even more perplexing:

In the tunnels under the mountains of Eotunlandt, Nibulus leads the Questor survivors of the battles as they struggle to reach the surface where they expect their enemies the Thieves will attack them en masse. Instead when they finally reach the outside, no one eerily awaits to ambush them.

This is a direct sequel to The Wanderer’s Tale that takes time to get started as the various key players and their allies are established for new readers. Once the action accelerates there is no slowing down as this military fantasy goes into hyperspeed with confrontations seemingly everywhere. With all the various armies at war and new leaders and heroes emerging, A FIRE IN THE NORTH still pares down to the destined Wanderer. He remains the only one who can save an apathetic prosperous world from the malevolent Drauglir and the wicked necromancer Scathur as The ...

May 26, 2011

The revolution swallowing Powell’s Books?

Filed under: Books,Culture,Powell's Books — Razib Khan @ 11:14 pm

A friend asked me today if I thought that Powell’s would be around a year from now. I had no idea what he was referring to. By that, I don’t mean that I didn’t know he was referring to Powell’s Books of Portland. I mean that I had no idea that Powell’s was in any trouble. I thought of Powell’s as an institution which could weather any shocks, its huge selection and special experience giving it an edge over other independent booksellers (and even over Barnes & Noble and Borders). The main Powell’s store covers a full city block, 1.6 acres. The total inventory of the company is at 4 million books (new, used, etc.). The downtown Portland location can be overwhelming and all consuming. And I have many fond memories of the Powell’s in the Hawthorne District from when I lived in Portland in 2002. In fact, between 2000-2005 I purchased quite a few books at the main location, as well as at Powell’s Technical. Despite not living in Portland for most of that period, I regularly visited, and always made a point to get lost at ...

May 20, 2011

Brown books

Filed under: Books — Razib Khan @ 10:55 pm

Currently reading William Dalrymple’s Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India. Whenever I read about Indian religious practice and belief in its elaborated detail I feel like I’m perusing the appendix to The Lord of the Rings. I’m also going to buy the Kindle version of A Convergence of Civilizations: The Transformation of Muslim Societies Around the World next week when it comes out. Looks to be mostly non-brown, but who knows? Whenever I read about the religion of Islam as practiced by its more “puritanical” partisans (think Salafis) I’m more put in the mode of the world of a dystopian science fiction novel.

February 4, 2011

A site about books I have read/like/recommend

Filed under: Books,Razib Khan on Books — Razib Khan @ 1:21 pm

It’s called Razib on Books. I posted the rationale over at Discover Blogs. Basically a way for me to organize past content which new readers are not aware of.

Razib on Books

Filed under: Blog,Books,Razib on Books — Razib Khan @ 1:18 pm

In the New Year’s Open Thread D. Chamberlin suggested:

I think your many book reviews ought to be more accessible. They were for me an excellent guide as to which books I should buy as well as educational in and of themselves. You have a long list of books you reccommend over on Gene Expression Classic but clicking on them just links you to the book seller. Just as a suggestion if you could link to your previous book reviews that are buried in years gone by I think many people would appreciate them as much as I did….

I have taken that to heart, and set up a new website where I am spending a little time each day adding links to a few book reviews which are “buried” in the posts of my various weblogs over the past 8 years. I’ve also added links & quick comments to books which I have never reviewed, but are part of my “cognitive furniture,” such as Introduction to Quantitative Genetics.

The basic format is this: title, cover photo + link to Amazon, and then link to review or comment. That’s it. It’s not a “blog,” but rather a site devoted ...

January 27, 2011

American history in broad strokes

A comment below inquired about “good books” on American history. Unfortunately I don’t know as much about American history as I do about Roman or Chinese history. But over the years there have been several books which I find to have been very value-add in terms of understanding where we are now. In other words, these are works which operate with a broader theoretical framework, and aren’t just a telescope putting a spotlight on a sequence of facts.

Albion’s Seed. I read this in 2004, and it was a page turner.

The Cousins’ Wars. I had thought of Kevin Phillips as a political writer, but this was a very engaging and deep cultural history. My prejudice resulted in my not reading this until 2009.

What Hath God Wrought. This book focuses on the resistance of the Whigs and Greater New England to the cultural ascendancy of the Democrats and their “big-tent” coalition which included most of the South, the Mid-Atlantic, and much of the “Lower North” (e.g., the “butternut” regions of the Midwest settled from the Border South).

The Rise of American Democracy. This is a good compliment to the previous book, in that it takes the “other side,” that of the Democrats. In many ways this is the heir to Arthur Schlesinger’s Age of Jackson.

Throes of Democracy. A somewhat “chattier” book than the previous ones, it is still an informative read. It covers a period of history with the Civil War as its hinge, and so gives one the tail end of the Age of Sectionalism.

Freedom Just Around the Corner. By the same author, but covering a period of history overlapping more with Albion’s Seed.

The Age of Lincoln. This is not a “Civil War book.” It is of broader scope, though since the the war is right in the middle of the period which the book covers it gets some treatment. I’d judge this the “easiest” read so far of the list.

Replenishing the Earth. This is about the Anglo world more generally, but it is nice to plug in America into a more general framework. North America is not sui generis.

The English Civil War. This is obviously not focused on America, but it is a nice complement to Albion’s Seed, as it shows the very deep roots of the division between two of America’s folkways. The Cousins’ Wars serves as a bridge between the two, shifting as it does between both shores of the Atlantic.

I’m game for recommendations! I had a relatively traditional education in American history, and did very well in my advanced courses, but I knew very little before I read books like this.

August 10, 2010

Books nerds like

Filed under: Blog,Books,Culture — Razib Khan @ 11:34 pm

The Less Wrong community is having a book discussion and offering up recommendations. I’m currently reading Lives of Confucius: Civilization’s Greatest Sage Through the Ages (long time readers will know that I’m a particular fan of Xun Zi though). It is revising my view of the “received orthodoxy” as to the development of state sponsored Confucianism during the Han dynasty. A good complement to The Authentic Confucius, which is less a historical work and more a religio-philosophical exegesis of the sage’s life. I did finish Empires of the Word, but I will review it at some point so I won’t say more than I would recommend it, though with a critical eye.

July 27, 2010

Summer books, what’s readable?

Filed under: Blog,Books — Razib Khan @ 2:08 pm

Danny reminded me that I still hadn’t read Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World. Since I know him a bit (at least internet “know”) I’ve decided I can’t put it off any longer, and I’ll tackle it soon. I just finished two books, Replenishing the Earth: The Settler Revolution and the Rise of the Angloworld, 1783-1939 and The Secret History of the Mongol Queens: How the Daughters of Genghis Khan Rescued His Empire. I can recommend the first, but not the second. Since I will (or plan to) review Replenishing the Earth, I won’t say more about it here. The Secret History of the Mongol Queens was written by the author of Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World. The author is a bit on the pro-Mongol side (he always ends up making Genghis Khan a benevolent warlord!), and his writing style doesn’t have the density which I prefer in these sorts of works, but Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World was a serviceable book. The Secret History of the Mongol Queens on the other hand is too sensational, and it seems rather obvious that the source material was much thinner than for Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World (he admits as much repeatedly), so he had to include a lot of apocryphal material, with caveats, to fill it out. I much preferred The Cambridge History of Inner Asia: The Chinggisid Age, which I read earlier this summer. A naturally more turgid work without a central narrative (each chapter was written by a different academic), but lots of dense data.

So what are you reading? What would you recommend? Over the years I’ve noticed I don’t read much science in book form; I much prefer papers. But since I don’t read physics or chemistry papers that means I haven’t recharged my familiarity, at least on a superficial level, with these fields in years. So I plan to a hit a few popular physics books at some point summer. And I’m always up for economics, world history, international affairs, cognitive psychology, etc.* I suspect I’ll avoid fiction until George R. R. Martin gets his next book out, but that might mean I’ll avoid fiction for a long time.

* In my short-term stack The Sea Kingdoms: The Story of Celtic Britain and Ireland, Lives of Confucius: Civilization’s Greatest Sage Through the Ages, Superfusion: How China and America Became One Economy and Why the World’s Prosperity Depends on It and The Invisible Gorilla: And Other Ways Our Intuitions Deceive Us. In my medium-term “must-read” queue, How Pleasure Works: The New Science of Why We Like What We Like and Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth?: Demography and Politics in the Twenty-First Century.

February 9, 2010

Books & guidance

Filed under: Books — Razib @ 11:52 pm

Read More Books!:

If you really want to understand any issue more complex than Brad and Angelina’s marital status, there’s really no substitute for a book. Not instead of blogs and newspapers and Twitter, but in addition to them. So: read more books! They’re good for you.

I’ve heard and read about how awesome Charles Darwin was as a thinker, but I had to (re)read The Origin of Species to really grok what was being communicated here. So yes, books are important. The point that the content of what is being examined is critica can’t be overemphasized.

It seems that disciplines which exhibit a great deal of tight contingency, such as the natural sciences, are easier to digest in purely non-book form, than those more humanistic domains which are messier and less causally clear in the network of the relationship of facts to frameworks. As an example, very little of Charles Darwin’s argument in The Origin of Species was illuminating as such, it was by and large integrated seamlessly into the body of science if it was worthy, and discarded if it was not. This applies much more forcefully to the physical sciences which have been more strictly formalized. There is also the problem that if you picked up a scholarly book which discussed evolutionary fitness landscapes or the physics of quasars it would probably be unintelligible to you unless you had absorbed the prerequisite scholarship. The structure of learning in extremely contingent disciplines is relatively straightforward. If you want to learn quantum physics, there are necessarily specific math and physics prerequisites. If you want to learn about Russian history from the time of Ivan the Terrible to the rise of the Romanov dynasty, some prior knowledge of late Byzantine history might be useful to understand the cultural-political roots of Russian Orthodoxy, but it is not necessary.

When it comes to “softer” disciplines I think books are critical, because it is so easy to mislead yourself on the shape of scholarship. When I occasionally hear Creationists observe that there is a scientific controversy about evolutionary theory, or even more blatantly that evolutionary theory has fallen into disrepute within biology, they are either being lied to, or, they are lying. It is simply impossible to avoid the fact that there is no alternative universe of Creationist scholarship which has a credible scientific framework which explains the pattern and nature of biological diversity. But what about a discipline such as economics, one of the “harder” domains outside of natural science? You’ll get a very different perspective if you read Greg Mankiw (PhD, MIT) vs. Paul Krugman (PhD, MIT). More outlandishly, many individuals with a political ideology of libertarianism are strongly attracted to the Austrian school of economics, despite the fact that this is a totally marginalized heterodox tradition today. In this case, normative preferences generate a positive feedback loop in terms of how one explores the sample space of scholarship. One can debate whether the marginalization of Austrian economics is justified or not (see The Eclipse of Darwinism), but it is also an empirical fact that it is marginalized.

Reading a wide range of books is a good way to diminish the power of preferences when exploring scholarly landscapes with which one is unfamiliar. When searching for journal articles it becomes easy to get caught in circular networks of citation, or fixating on particular journals which one finds congenial. Additionally, in less contingent disciplines the synoptic vision of a scholar who has dedicated their life to absorbing and reprocessing a mountain of data and generating insight and inference can often be helpful. If they are honest they will sample from the distribution of data in a manner which is not selection biased, something that you as an outsider will likely not be able to do because you do not know the shape of the distribution.

Powered by WordPress