I just finished Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, and I have to admit: I kind of hated it.
I expected to be fascinated. I expected to fly through the pages and come away with all kinds of scintillating knowledge about why the world works the way it does. Malcolm Gladwell is quoted on the front saying, “Prepare to be dazzled,” and I was. I was prepared.
But then, I started reading, and I was anything but blown away.
My first objection stems from my rigorous training as an English major wherein we were taught, especially by one particular professor of mine, the importance of thesis statements, and the necessity that every subsequent sentence be somehow related back to that topic. Each “happy, healthy thesis sentence,” as he called them, required 3 elements: a transition word or statement, a grappling hook back to the original thesis, and a topic for that paragraph. I took his writing class freshman year, but those rules have stuck with me, and I’ve used them to analyze everything I write. (Granted, I sometimes choose to ignore them, but it’s a conscious choice.) So, I struggle with the concept of writing a book about “the hidden side of everything.” To me, trying to write about everything means you will probably end up writing successfully about nothing. I felt like the transitions in the book were lacking, and the grappling hooks were shaky at best and an irreconcilable stretch at worst. I know the authors’ point was to address ridiculous questions and point out how they are, at root, related, but I felt like they failed, because they lost me in the transition.
Secondly, throughout the entire book, I felt like I was being scammed. Since their whole point was to argue against conventional wisdom, I expected a lot of backing behind each of their outrageous claims. Now, granted, had there truly been enough backing to satisfy my need to know, the book would have been horrible dry and statistical, and I wouldn’t have enjoyed it then, either. But I felt like I was being forced to buy the authors’ arguments and points of view hook, line, and sinker, with no explanation. I don’t think this is any better than buying into conventional wisdom. (And in fact, I feel like a few times they actually bought into conventional wisdom themselves, like when they bluntly claim “[…conventionally speaking, spanking is considered an unenlightened practice. We might therefore assume that parents who spank are unenlightened in other ways.” Excuse me? Not that I’m all for spanking, but I’m not quite sure how it’s okay for them to just throw that highly opinionated, charged statement in the middle of a chapter dealing with highly rational statistical regression analysis of data. Okay, </soapbox>.)
A review I read on Goodreads said, “Sure, this book was a compelling read that offered us all some great amo for cocktail party conversation. But ultimately I think most of what Leavitt claims is crap. He dodges accountability with the disclaimer about his book NOT being a scholarly work, but then goes on to drop statistics, theories and expert opinions. These assertions laid, he doesn’t provide readers with enough information to critically examine his perspectives. Ultimately I have a problem with the unquestioned, unaccoutable role of the public intellectual. Levitt dances around with his PhD on his sleeve, but is never subject to peer review or any sort of academic criticism. I think it’s irresponsible.” I couldn’t agree more. In fact, I initially intended to post only an excerpt of that review, but I found I couldn’t decide where to cut it off, so I ended up posting the whole thing.
I normally am wary of taking a hard and fast stand on anything. I think that’s part of the reason I was never wholly successful at Youth Legislature. But for some reason this book got me whipped into enough of a frenzy to write a blog post about and to go on an impassioned rampage to A. the other morning. And it doesn’t hurt when I find other reviewers who take a similar slant.
All this got me thinking about bestsellers. I wonder if a lot of people raved about this book just because it was a hit and they were “supposed to,” or if they legitimately thought it was a well-written and worthwhile piece of literature. I read as much fluffy fiction as the next person, if not more, but I have to admit, I actually have some respect for authors who can churn out formulaic pageturners. It’s a different sort of “good” writing that takes an understanding of plot, character, and the mind of the average reader that not every literary genius had. To me, Freakonomics hits none of those high points. A reviewer from the Wall Street Journal claims, “I tried hard to find something in this book that I could complain about. But I give up. Criticizing Freakonomics would be like criticizing a hot fudge sundae.”
Well, I guess I’m criticizing a hot fudge sundae, because I found plenty to complain about in Freakonomics.
Do you have any spare change to add to this discussion? Have you ever read a book that plenty of people loved, only to think it fell flat?