Book: On The Wealth of Nations by P. J. O'Rourke

Not especially coherent, but I suspect that the original isn't either

P. J. O'Rourke
On The Wealth of Nations
Atlantic Monthly Press, 2007
ISBN-10: 0-87113-949-9
ISBN-13: 978-0-87113-949-8
195 pages (main text)

I'm a fan of P. J. O'Rourke and also a fan of Adam Smith. But there's an important difference: I've actually read most of P. J. O'Rourke's books. The reason for that difference is that Adam Smith's famous The Wealth of Nations (technically, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations) is 1200 pages long. Also, P. J. O'Rourke's books are funny.

I remember reading some of The Wealth of Nations in school, but that was a long time ago. So I was delighted to find that Mr O'Rourke had written a book about the great best-seller of 1776 and my expectations were high. Possibly a little too high.

There's a lot that's good in this short book, but it's a bit hard to judge it because it's not completely clear what sort of book it's trying to be. It doesn't seem to be a comprehensive distillation of The Wealth of Nations, if such a thing were even possible. It doesn't seem to explain Mr Smith's economics arguments (or at least the ones he got right, which seems to be quite a lot of them) in ways that would make it easy for a twenty-first-century reader to follow them. Mr O'Rourke does some of both of those things, with the result that the book seems to be a somewhat miscellaneous commentary, mostly on The Wealth of Nations, with a short biography of Adam Smith in the last two chapters.

At its best, the book is both funny and illuminating. Take, for example, Mr O'Rourke poking a little fun at Adam Smith:

    Adam Smith was so articulate on the abstract
    nature of justice that he could have gone into
    a television studio by himself and been the
    host and all the guests on a Fox News show.
    (p. 135)

At other times, the humor seems more forced and sometimes tacked-on, with the joke separate from what Mr O'Rourke is discussing. That's an unfortunate trend in Mr O'Rourke's writing that other people have also noticed.

And though the book doesn't manage to leave the reader with a clear or entirely coherent understanding of all of The Wealth of Nations, that may be too much to expect from any book. In any case, if you haven't already gathered the patience to read and make sense of the original, you'll know a lot more about a great book at the end of this book than you did at the beginning.

There are a couple of small editing errors in the book. The phrase "succèss d'estime" should be italicized (p. 9) and Mr O'Rourke has "prerequisite" where here means "perquisite" (p. 187).

Posted: Thu - January 25, 2007 at 06:34 PM   Main   Category: