There seems to be some controversy about a chapter on global warming in SuperFreakonomics, the sequel to Freakonomics coming out this week. The publisher sent me a free copy of the book a couple of weeks ago, hoping I'd blog about it.
I read the book. Most of it. Skimmed a few of the chapters (including the global warming one, so I have absolutely nothing intelligent to say about the controversy over whether their proposed approach makes sense-- not that I would have anything intelligent to say on this subject even if I'd read the chapter).
I expect the book will sell well. The original sold four million copies. So even if this one only sells a small fraction, it'll still have done fine. But I think the success of the original-- which spawned so many similar kinds of books, by economists and social scientists, looking at the world through an economic lens-- has made this sequel feel kind of irrelevant and derivative.
The problem may be that I've read too many of the books Freakonomics paved the way for. Books by Tim Harford and Dan Ariely and Barry Schwartz and a dozen others whose names are not jumping as quickly off the tip of my tongue. And SuperFreakonomics doesn't reinvent the genre here. It's just another Freakonomics sequel, distinguishable from the others only because it's written by the same guys who wrote Freakonomics, and not because it does anything better or differently.
I've read a half-dozen other discussions of the Kitty Genovese case, where 38 people saw a woman get murdered and no one intervened. I don't know if the discussion here really added anything. There's a 40-page chapter that leads off the book, about the economics of prostitution. It didn't keep my interest. The authors repeat Malcolm Gladwell's findings about more elite athletes being born near the age cutoff for school, so that they're older than their teammates growing up. It's not that there are no new insights in the book-- it's that they're buried among stories and facts that I've seen before, that I've read before.
For someone who's read Freakonomics and that's all-- who didn't delve deeper into the card catalog over the past four years, since Freakonomics was published-- then I think saying this is more of the same is a great thing. This is a book anyone who read and enjoyed the original should also enjoy. But it's not breaking new ground, or at least I missed it if it is.
There are worse things to say about a sequel than the original was too big a success, it spawned dozens of copycats, and so the terrain just doesn't feel new anymore. Malcolm Gladwell's books are sort of in that same boat, and they still sell amazingly well, and I read them, and they make me think, and I'm glad they exist. Really, the worst thing I can say about the book is that I feel like it missed the opportunity to create a new category the way that the original did. The authors have this incredible platform, this huge reader base-- they had the chance to do something different and take the field in a new direction that would once again spawn a legion of imitators. They didn't. But would it have even been possible to? Repeating what the first book did-- becoming a phenomenon, and in effect starting a new book genre-- would have been almost impossible. Can I blame them for sticking to a formula they'd already found success with? Not really. If Anonymous Lawyer had sold a crazy number of copies, and someone wanted to pay me for a sequel, I'd be happy to do it instead of trying to reinvent the wheel.