the realities of readership: on books that are too long

“I wonder if you could spare me a little of your time,” he inquired politely, “and help with a few small jobs?”
“Why of course,” said the Humbug cheerfully.
“Gladly,” added Tock.
“Yes indeed,” added Milo, who wondered for just a moment how it was possible for someone so agreeable to have a face with no features at all.
“Splendid,” he said happily, “for there are just three tasks. First, I would like to move this pile from here to there,” he explained, pointing to an enormous mound of fine sand; “but I’m afraid that all I have are these tiny tweezers.” And he gave them to Milo, who immediately began transporting one grain at a time.

-Norton Juster, The Phantom Tollbooth

One of my commenters recently demanded to know by what right I made so bold as to criticize Derek Parfit on this blog, since all I’ve read is a New Yorker article about him, and not any of his books. The commenter, whose Internet ID is as featureless as the face of Juster’s villain, added this:

We’re all free to disagree with Parfit of course, but before doing so we should at least have read his books.

I would engage in this discussion, but I don’t know what you mean when you say that the life of those whose life is barely worth living has “immense” value. Who values what?

I’m not sure Parfit would say that at all, and in fact he doesn’t say it. But of course to know that you would need to read his book.

I’m going to respond to his specific statement about Parfit down below; to make heads or tails of that, you probably should read the original post on him, which is here. However, I can’t pass up the opportunity to discuss the issue Mr. No-Name clearly wants to beat into the ground, of whether or not I’ve read the book. (WELL HAVE YOU READ THE BOOK WELL HAVE YOU WELL HAVE YOU? HURRY UP PLEASE ITS TIME).

Here are the facts on the book:

1. It’s in two volumes and costs $60 from Amazon; at a regular bookstore, which wouldn’t carry it in the first place, it would cost $70 plus tax.

2. It’s too new for most libraries to have a copy.

3. It’s 1,440 pages long.

4. It is “syncretic,” meaning that when you have read it, if you have understood it, you have learned about what Parfit considers his synthesis of three already well-established schools of ethical thought.


This pretty much encapsulates everything that is wrong with modern academic publishing and modern discussions about speculative fields of thought, including advances in those fields. First of all, the book is not affordable. Speaking as somebody who literally weighs the relative merits of buying Kindle editions versus used copies by mail, which amounts to a difference of about $3, spending $60 on a book that I may find disagreeable and useless is simply impossible. It was a big deal for me, as a graduate student, to spend $80 on the Oxford Shakespeare.

Second, it’s massively long — half the length of Proust, longer than the collected works of Plato — and apparently irreducible, since a Parfit supporter believes you can’t criticize it without having read the entire book, and probably Reasons and Persons as well. To put this in perspective, I still haven’t read The Critique of Pure Reason, and every day, when I wake up, I wake up aware that I quite possibly will die without having read The Critique of Pure Reason. But hey, while we’re at it, let’s toss in The World as Will and Representation by Schopenhauer, Hegel’s Aesthetics, and anything by Thomas Aquinas or Leibniz. In other words, despite my great love for philosophy and my substantial reading in it across many periods, I am still woefully under-educated in it, including in many of the works that are so important for Parfit’s synthesis. My situation is not unique; actually, it is the situation of every modern academic. Part of the reason that there is no communication between the various ideological camps in today’s stagnant humanities is that every camp believes you have to read everything our heroes have written, and meanwhile those heroes act as though they can overcome the anxiety of influence by simply filling one bookshelf after another with verbiage. Parfit’s book, On What Matters, is exclusively an ethical investigation, despite its length — apparently aesthetics does not matter or will be the subject of another interminable volume. And, of course, when I’m finished, I will be haunted by the feeling that I could have simply read the classic works that Parfit is synthesizing, and said to myself “well, they’re not as darned incompatible as all that,” just as he did.

Yes, as an ardent reader of Nietzsche, I think it’s good to have read all of The Genealogy of Morals, but I also think it’s perfectly possible to get something interesting and useful out of a very short quotation from the book. I think it’s good for Parfit to appear in the New Yorker, and it’s good for him to be discussed on the blogosphere. As feeble as these portings of his thought may be, they at least do something in (what I consider to be) the spirit of true philosophy, which is the betterment of all people, as opposed to that tiny population of subsidized philosophers with the time and money to take Parfit very, very seriously.


Regarding the commenter’s question, about the value of human life, it is clear that Parfit places some kind of special value on human life because throughout the article he emphasizes his hatred of suffering, and argues with his wife about the inherent value of someone (rather than no-one) existing. His take on the problem of overpopulation, however, seems blatantly materialistic: some people’s lives will “barely be worth living,” because they don’t have much by way of basic necessities, while other people will be denied a full measure of happiness because of increased competition for those necessities. It seems to me that it is quite possible to be concerned about the Earth’s resources without implying, as Parfit is clearly doing here, that happiness is a matter of bread alone.

“How much money is he getting to let you use my place?”
“There is no money.”
“Free to all.”
“Well isn’t that something.”
“It is, actually.”

Fight Club