On Rewriting the Wealth of Nations

I joined a friend on a road trip yesterday afternoon down to Washington, DC, for a bowl of chili and a book report.

The chili was pretty good, courtesy of the folks at Hard Times Cafe. The book report was even better, as delivered by P. J. O’Rourke at the Cato Institute. The politics of the event were something I pretty much ignored. What excited me was the concept behind the book; a lesson to people who would write something, but can’t think of what to write.

A snippet from the publisher’s description of the book:

In On The Wealth of Nations, America’s most provocative satirist, P. J. O’Rourke, reads Adam Smith’s revolutionary The Wealth of Nations so you don’t have to. Recognized almost instantly on its publication in 1776 as the fundamental work of economics, The Wealth of Nations was also recognized as really long: the original edition totaled over nine hundred pages in two volumes—including the blockbuster sixty-seven-page “digression concerning the variations in the value of silver during the course of the last four centuries,” which, “to those uninterested in the historiography of currency supply, is like reading Modern Maturity in Urdu.”

P.J. noted a number of differences between his book, and the work of Adam Smith. Chiefly amongst these was that the original work was over 700 pages long in small print, while his is barely 200 pages long, with larger print and wider margins. Of course, while his book approaches the material with a satirical bent, it also acts to illustrate the concepts and ideas that make the original work important.

As we left the event, I found myself thinking back to some of the books that I read while I was a University student, and wondering how many of those could be used as the inspiration for a modern version.

In some ways, many of the posts here benefit from the same approach – attempting to take patent filings and translate them into something more accessible and readable, while still trying to retain some of the ideas of the original in a way that shows the value that they may have.

In creating content for many web sites, you don’t always have to start with a blank page. One source of inspiration can be looking back at some of the works that people find value in, and exploring the topics discussed in works that have been cited as classics of a field, and seeing how you might be able to update those, expand upon topics discussed within them, and provide value for your intended audience.

It’s something that writers have been doing as long as there have been classics to rewrite.

12 thoughts on “On Rewriting the Wealth of Nations”

  1. Good points Bill. I started reading his book last night after our trip and I discovered that he read us the first two chapters already!

    I vote for a rewrite of the patent law itself. Perhaps with a primer on why they did what they did when they did it? Your particular skill set is perfect for writing a summary of the law and why it is as it is. Think about it.


  2. PJ O’Rourke is an amazing writer. I luv his work! I recommend that peeps check out ‘Eat the Rich’. He gives a good look at what makes a nation wealthy or poor.

  3. Bill:

    Nice concept. BTW I’m a big fan of the three way Cincinnatti style at Hard Times.

  4. PJ was pretty good on stage, though as Alan noted, he pretty much went through the first couple of chapters of his new book.

    Some excellent chili, Dave. I’d love to see a Hard Times open up in my area. The Cincinnati chili is excellent.

    A summary of the patent law, Alan? Maybe. I’ll have to think about it.

  5. Phil:

    Our hosts at the Cato Institute heartily recommend “Eat the Rich” as an economics primer.

    And EarlPearl, I had the Cincinnati three way with Bill that day. It was very good as usual.

  6. Thanks for this article. As a long time website content writer and a new student of SEO your advice will come in very handy. Why reinvent the wheel with every post when there are so many classic wheels to spin a different way… that ended up being way more punny than I intended. Sorry.

    It’s not always about coming up with the next original idea, it’s all in how you present what you’ve got.


  7. Hi Peter,

    Thank you. There are some great works that would be wonderful subjects for updating. I’m surprised that we don’t see more of it happening on the Web.

  8. I think we should update Alexis de Tocqueville Democracy in America and Bastiat’s The Law. Anything to help a younger generation understand some of the things that made our country great yet have fallen completely out of the education curriculum and our common knowledge.

    But it does sound like an excellent way for an author to continually find material huh? 🙂

  9. Hi Scott,

    It does sound like a way for an author to find new material. Shakespeare did the same thing with many of his plays, reinterpreting tales that were classics in his time.

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