Deception, commerce, and book blurbs

I’ve read about how you can’t trust book blurbs—the tidbits of praise on the covers and in the front matter of books. Usually I buy without seeing the cover because a book has been recommended, whether through friends, reviews, or reputation, and so don’t notice the blurbs, but an example from Gregory Clark’s A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World is so egregious that I double checked. On the front, the only text aside from the title and author reads: “‘…the next blockbuster in economics.’ —New York Times.”

“That’s interesting!” I thought, because I recalled Tyler Cowen’s piece in that very paper and, although it was positive, it wasn’t that predictive. The ellipsis gave away the problem, as Cowen actually said: “Professor Clark’s idea-rich book may just prove to be the next blockbuster in economics.” (I would link to the article, but it hides behind a firewall. The headline: “ECONOMIC SCENE; What Makes a Nation Wealthy? Maybe It’s the Working Stiff.”) The blurb fundamentally and unfairly changes what Cowen wrote, which is an unscrupulous move on the part of A Farewell to Alms‘ publisher, the Princeton University Press.

Despite the lie on the cover, the book itself is worth reading and makes a series of fascinating, if possibly incorrect, arguments about the story of human development and its consequences for the modern world. Clark acknowledges this in the preface: “Doubtless some of the arguments developed here will prove over-simplified, or merely false […] [b]ut far better such error than the usual dreary academic sins, which now seem to define so much writing in the humanities, of willful obfuscation and jargon-laden vanity.” What refreshing candor! The first 50 pages offer a myriad of ideas about how humanity became both massively wealthier and modestly poorer than it ever has before. I wish all nonfiction I read was so enlightening—and A Farewell to Alms doesn’t need the deceptive blurb on the front to be worthwhile.

EDIT: I just noticed that the blurbs on the back include the fuller quote from Cowen, but my original point stands.

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