Why I Read More Books than Economic Journal Articles

One of my economist friends asked me why it is that I read more books than economic journal articles. The question made me think. Here is the answer I came to.

First, books are on average much better written–at least the books I read. There are some journal articles that are a joy to read, but the average economics journal article is not. (In the quality of writing, reading a newspaper article or a good blog post is more like reading a book than it is like reading an economic journal article.)

Second, I think of myself as a social scientist first and an economist second, so there is a lot of ground to cover.

Third, I often find it exhausting to read a journal article because if I really dig in to understand it, I find myself either (a) figuring out how one could write the paper it should have been, if the article is not that good, or much more infrequently, (b) finding myself inspired and wanting to do half a dozen new projects because the article is so great. (And a new project inspired by a journal article is seldom something that can be completed quickly.) Because reading journal articles tempts me to rechannel my energies in many new directions when I am already spread thin, that effect from reading a journal article is much more distracting to the essential work I need to focus on than reading books is.

Evolutionary theory has the concept of frequency-dependent selection: there are some things, like left-handedness that are advantageous for survival and reproduction as long as they are reasonably rare. (In the case of left-handedness, the speculation is that if it is rare, left-handedness gave an advantage in combat because one’s opponent would have to face moves he had less experience with.)  My pattern is unusual among economists who publish in economic journals with some regularity, but precisely because it is rare, I think having one more person (me) doing things the way I do is valuable.

In another context, when I was criticized for being weak in a particular dimension helpful for professional success, I thought to myself “What strengths I have don’t come for free.” I have the strengths I have in important measure because I spend a lot of time developing those strengths–something that has unavoidable tradeoffs in less time to develop certain other skills.

Actually, having that thought is something that itself came from hard-won knowledge about the malleability of intelligence from reading the kind of books that Noah Smith and I talk about in “There’s One Key Difference Between Kids Who Excel at Math and Those Who Don’t.” I tell the story in “How the Idea that Intelligence is Genetic Distorted My Life—Even Though I Worked Hard Trying to Get Smarter Anyway” of how culturally, I was brought up to believe that one simply started out smart or not. If that were true, it would mean that for those who are lucky, intellectual strengths would come largely for free. I don’t believe that any more, but it took a lot of reading to get to the view I have now–the view Noah and I lay out in “There’s One Key Difference Between Kids Who Excel at Math and Those Who Don’t."