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Freakonomics Response #1

It would seem that one sensible purpose of this blog would be to respond to Freakonomics questions and comments that come up in reviews, blogs, reader e-mails, etc. Consider this post the first of several such responses.

A lot of people have wondered about one minor but significant element of the book: the use of small excerpts of a New York Times Magazine article between the book’s chapters. The article in question is a 2003 profile that I wrote about Levitt, and which led to Freakonomics.

It wouldn’t be impossible to charge both of us with gross egomanical behavior for including these excerpts. (Or should that be ecomanical?) We certainly thought about this possibility. But we decided that, for the book’s intended audience, the gain from including the excerpts would likely outweigh the upset that the excerpts might cause.

The excerpts were included to address a fundamental problem with the book. The problem was that the book would not be a third-person biographical treatment of Steve Levitt and his work, as the original Times article was. Instead, the book would be a co-authored treatment of Levitt’s work (and the work of other scholars when appropriate). It wouldn’t make sense, therefore, for Levitt to burst into first-person explanations of how a particular research notion struck him; or for me to burst into third-person explanations of how Levitt’s work has been influenced by his own life, etc. And yet we thought that some such contextualizing might be pretty interesting to the average reader. So the most graceful solution we could conceive was the inclusion of small relevant pieces of the Times article as chapter intros.

We suspected that a small minority of readers — book critics, perhaps, and maybe fellow economists — would look askance at this idea. Whenever someone read an early draft of the manuscript, we asked if the excerpts bothered them, on whatever grounds. Almost always, they answered no; most readers, in fact, appreciated a little context.

I think we’d make the same choice if we had it to do over again. Judging from the overall reception to the book, most people seem to be reading the excerpts as intended — as a brief, perhaps mildly interesting scene-setter for the chapter to follow. The people who don’t care one way or the other can skip them easily enough on their way to the chapters.

And the people who dislike the excerpts would have found something else to dislike. Perhaps the very title of the book. Or the occasional incidence of vulgarity. Or the professed lack of a “unifying theme.” Or the inclusion of first names like OrangeJello, LemonJello, and Shithead, which would surely seem to be no more than urban legend. These and other issues will be the subject of future Freakonomics Responses. All comments welcome.