Beach reading for historians (or why simple writing makes your argument smarter)

by Marta Musso

Summer reading is always tricky for young academics. On the one hand, the summer holidays are the perfect and unique time of the year to relax and read all the pleasant, light novels that you never have time for. On the other hand, summer is also the time to catch up with all the serious reading that is not directly related to your research project but you know you should read sooner or later.

Back in January, I bought a copy of “Le Capital au XXIe siècle” by Thomas Piketty (now available in English as “Capital in the Twenty-First Century”), a 700-page economic analysis on inequality trends in the past two centuries and the social risks associated. This is not a book review, partly because I have not finished it yet, and partly (mostly) because “Capital” has been reviewed by several Nobel prize winners (you can read Paul Krugman’s review here), making the contribution of a postgrad student quite useless.

I would rather focus on an aspect of Piketty’s book which has not been adequately stressed: how to read it. The moment I held the tome in my hands back in January, I knew I would have to wait for the summer before I could engage with such a massive reading task. I also thought that the fact it did not even fit in my luggage was a good enough excuse not to read altogether; after all I suffer from back problems, and even if I study development and inequality, the size of the book gives the impression of being an infinite list of complicated graphics and formulas.

Meanwhile, after the English translation came out, Piketty became a mass phenomenon, the ultimate literature rockstar; there is not a library desk in Europe or the U.S. that does not showcase the book[1]. It is one of the most talked-about best sellers of the year. So when summer came, I decided to make space for hard reading and to concentrate on something I supposed to be extremely complicated and terribly boring. I started to read it at my desk, windows closed and artificial lights on; by page 20, I was devouring the book while lying on the beach, eating watermelon and getting tanned, without a care in the world (apart of course from the fact that the current inequality levels are approaching those of the Gilded Age, after which two world wars followed, as Piketty shows).

Don’t get me wrong: the book is neither light nor simplistic. It is the product of a massive investigation on a wide set of data and it tackles very complex issues. The difference is that Piketty does the contrary of what economists usually do; he does not stuff his arguments with complicated pseudo-mathematical formulas to convince you that his liturgy is the best one, like those priests in the 1960s who opposed the abandonment of Latin as the language of Mass, scared by the possibility that their followers might realise that they were not preaching anything significant, just rambling.

On the contrary, Piketty convinces you that the meaning of formulas can be grasped by anyone, that the understanding of economic issues does not require an MIT background (which he has, incidentally), and that complex ideas require clarity of thought and an easy language – big words and pompous paraphrases are for those who don’t really know what they are talking about. Even if we leave aside the importance of his arguments to understand our present by digging in the past, which in my view is the most important task of a historian, “Capital” remains unique summer reading and a lesson in style for talking to a general audience without losing any of the complexity.



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