More Quantification of Greatness

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

I was so excited by my effort at quantifying greatness yesterday – well, okay, I was testing Alex Beam’s assertion that Great Books tend to be prohibitively long – anyway, I was so excited I couldn’t resist counting the pages in the Great Books I had at home to add to the data set I acquired in my office yesterday.

I had thought that the books at home would be shorter since I keep some of them there for regular reading, and the ones I read regularly tend to be shorter (for obvious reasons). I forgot, however, that some of them I keep there simply because I don’t read them very often at all, and those books tend to be longer (for obvious reasons). The books in my office represent the middle of the spectrum in terms of how often I read them.

Anyway, here’s what I came up with at home. Remember, our test case is Beam’s book, a history of the Great Books movement that claims Great Books are too long to be easily accessible and that clocks in at 245 pages:

Machiavelli, The Prince: 78 pages

Havel, The Power of the Powerless: 87 pages

Lewis, Mere Christianity: 113 pages

Mill, On Liberty: 113 pages

Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress*: 154 pages

Orwell, 1984: 240 pages

Chesteron, The Everlasting Man: 254 pages

Aristotle, Rhetoric: 257 pages

Dante, Inferno: 260 pages

Swift, Gulliver’s Travels: 293 pages

Augustine, Confessions: 305 pages

Pascal, Reflections: 329 pages

Marsilius of Padua, Defender of the Peace: 432 pages

Kant, Critique of Pure Reason: 628 pages

Smith, The Wealth of Nations: 1,028 pages

*I include only the original Pilgrim’s Progress, not the “second part” that he wrote years later.

Again, Beam is clearly on the shorter side of the halfway mark, but the original finding is confirmed: the broad generalization that Great Books are prohibitively long has been falsified.

Moreover, the distribution of page lengths isn’t a bell curve. It’s clustered – and Beam’s book is right smack dab in the biggest cluster:


Coming next: a comprehensive set of metrics that quantifies all the qualities that make a book “great,” thus allowing greatness to be expressed mathematically – just like Dr. J. Evans Prichard, Ph.D. did for poetry in Dead Poets Society.

5 Responses to More Quantification of Greatness

  1. Ryan says:

    I feel obliged to point out that, though we all have a copy of it, no economist actually reads Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations–that would just be ridiculous, after all.

  2. Jeff says:

    I notice you failed to include anything Russian in the mix. A little Tolstoy or Dostoevsky would pretty much ruin the curve. 🙂

  3. […] “Quantifying Greatness” – Greg Forster debunks an unfounded gripe about the Great Books. […]

  4. Greg Forster says:

    Ryan: I almost didn’t include Wealth of Nations because the part that is really “great” is such a small percentage of the whole – which is also why few people actually read it today. But then, that would have introduced some major selection bias – if we’re testing Beam’s assertion that Great Books are prohibitively long, it would hardly be fair to exclude a book on grounds that nobody reads it because it’s prohibitively long!

    While we’re on the subject of what’s excluded, I had meant to record in the original post that I excluded Marx and Nietzsche because I don’t consider their books to be great. Certainly they are historically influential, but then, so was Mein Kampf.

    Jeff: As I mentioned in my last thread, I only include the books that happen to be on my bookshelf, both because trying to include all Great Books would take too much time (I didn’t want to be sitting here for hours pouring over the question of which books are Great) and also in order to avoid increasing selection bias. As it happens, these are the books I found on my bookshelf. My wife has a bunch of Russian books on her shelf, if that’s any consolation.

  5. Patrick says:

    Looks like you need to get Bastiat’s the Law.

    I’m reminded of this because Judas Priest’s “Breaking the Law” just came on the radio.

    …yes I’m listening to the radio at work. Hard Rock and free-market research go hand in hand.

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