Over at Marginal Revolution, Alex Tabarrok was apparently born yesterday:
When I ask who she reads on the subject, she responds that she admires the late Milton Friedman as well as Thomas Sowell and Walter Williams. “I’m also an Art Laffer fiend—we’re very close,” she adds. “And [Ludwig] von Mises. I love von Mises,” getting excited and rattling off some of his classics like “Human Action” and “Bureaucracy.” “When I go on vacation and I lay on the beach, I bring von Mises.”
So who said it? I was surprised.
Yes, we’re all “surprised” Michelle Bachmann claims to read Ludwig von Mises on the beach, because such claim is palpably false. As David Ricardo says, “Reading von Mises on vacation is like doing your tax return on vacation. Both activities are excruciating at any time, and doing a tax return or reading von Mises while on vacation ruins what would otherwise would be a very enjoyable experience.”
Alas, Bachmann is in esteemed company. A few days ago the editors at the New York Times’ Book Review posted their summer reading lists. Here are some quotes; names omitted to avoid further shaming the guilty:
[BH], deputy editor: I’ve just read a book about “Moby-Dick” coming out later this year, and it made me realize that it’s been, um, many years since I’ve read the novel. So I hope to spend some of this summer at sea with Melville again.
[GC], preview editor: I actually did read “Moby-Dick” last summer…
[DK], preview editor: I’m going to France this summer and thought I might reread “Nausea,” one of my favorites. But now I’m leaning toward another existential novel, Kobo Abe’s “Woman in the Dunes,” the best beach book ever written. …
[ST], editor: One of the many gaping holes in my so-called knowledge is political theory. On the principle of “better late than never,” I’ve begun to tackle, more or less simultaneously, Garry Wills, “Inventing America”; Louis Hartz, “The Liberal Tradition in America”; Karl Mannheim (the collection “From Karl Mannheim”); John Locke, “Two Treatises on Government”; and Leo Strauss, “Natural Right and History.”
That’s right: two votes for “Moby-Dick.” I don’t care that it’s one of the agreed-upon greatest books in English; anyone who claims to read it over and over again has too much time on their hands and too little interest in reading new books, or they’re just plain fibbing.
One individual on vacation in France is, allegedly, cheering himself up with lines in Nausea like:
I said to myself: Perhaps there is nothing in the world I cling to so much as this feeling of adventure; but it comes when it pleases; and how empty I am once it has left. Does it, ironically, pay me these short visits in order to show me that I have wasted my life?
Another reader is, as a form of continuing education, “simultaneously” diving into Locke, which I suppose is possible, Strauss, which is unlikely, and Mannheim, which is certainly untrue. No one reads Mannheim unless they have to.
All of us at times stretch or compact the truth while describing ourselves. It’s human nature. Sometimes it’s just a shorthand to finish the conversation. It’s usually harmless, like a list of summer books is harmless.
But at some point it just doesn’t work any more. Nobody reads obscure conservative economic philosophy on the beach. How will you know when you’ve reached that point? It’s unlikely anyone will tell you, but it will follow you around nonetheless.
Lawyers are trained in the art of doubt (and the fine art of self-doubt), so after I reached my summary conclusions about the honesty of the book editors at the New York Times, I forwarded the list to some of my more literate friends to ask if it was possible that someone could be reading existentialism for the summer.
Same goes for the repeat-Melville-readers, and for the claim to be relearning political theory by diving into some of the more turgid texts in the past few centuries.
That said, maybe some of that is true! Maybe [DK] has read Nausea enough to re-read it on a vacation and find some secret comedy or solace in the meaninglessness of it all.
The problem is that no one will believe it anyway, even if it’s true. If you’re really going to read obscure political philosophy or existentialism over the summer, or do anything impossible to prove which seems far-fetched, consider if anyone’s really going to believe it. Sometimes you need to lie about yourself; let your modesty compact the truth and say you’re reading The Economist — “everybody lies about reading The Economist” — or something safe like Life of Pi.