A longer book suggests weighty study but shorter ones point to greater clarity of thought

The latest tome from bestselling French economist Thomas Piketty landed this week, at 1,200 pages. Anecdotal evidence suggests it will hardly be read. Time-pressed buyers will leave it on the coffee table, and read the reviews. Other authors have packed bigger ideas into fewer pages. Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time covers just 220 pages. Some readers have even finished the late scientist’s book.

Verbosity does not necessarily translate into sales. UK sales of thought-leading books inversely relate to their length, suggest calculations based on data from Nielsen BookScan. Page numbers are based on editions held in the FT library, or top-selling versions available on Amazon. Strangely, the FT has no copy of Das Kapital. But page numbers do not account for text size or word length. The analysis may also be skewed by better sales for more recently published books, which are often shorter than long-established classics — and launched with marketing razzmatazz.

A longer book suggests weighty study. Prof Piketty encourages comparisons with Karl Marx whose Das Kapital also runs to almost 1,200 pages. Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged also ran to more than 1,000 pages. Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations is similarly voluminous. But shorter books point to greater clarity of thought — and maybe greater influence. Charles Darwin kept his On the Origin of Species to just under 600 pages. John Maynard Keynes’ General Theory runs to 430. In recent times, Sheryl Sandberg kept Lean In to a lean 230 pages. Then again, a lot can also be said in 260 words. 

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