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Can a single book, from Piketty’s Capital to Hawking’s The Theory of Everything, encompass all knowledge?

Ten years ago, French economist Thomas Piketty wrote a book trying to explain the fundamental economic forces that shape the world. Capital in the Twenty-First Century became an unlikely bestseller, introducing to the book-buying masses such themes as the capital-income ratio, modifications to the Kuznets curve and the elasticity of substitution of labour. For a while, this unassuming Frenchman became a rock star akin to Jean-Paul Sartre (the mood of whose 1945 lecture Time magazine’s caption writer captured thus: “Philosopher Sartre. Women swoon”).

Nine years ago, when Piketty spoke at London’s Peacock Theatre on a summer evening, there was no one who fainted, but there were long lines of people waiting to get in. Piketty’s message was well-received: economics should be utilized for the greater good and not for malicious purposes, such as the fair redistribution of wealth.

Piketty aimed to persuade his audience that the 20th century was atypical due to rapid and unique population growth that contributed to economic expansion. This, combined with significant events such as two world wars and the Great Depression, caused a decrease in the value of capital and resulted in lower levels of inequality. These occurrences were not typical in human history, but rather rare exceptions. However, if we do not take action, the accumulation of capital in the hands of a small elite group will resemble the patterns seen in the early 19th and 18th centuries.

It is evident that despite being under the leadership of a wealthy prime minister during a cost of living crisis, Piketty’s message was not fully understood. However, the concept of a “theory of everything” book gained popularity after the unexpected success of Capital.

Economist Michael Muthukrishna states that one of his preferred literary categories is what he calls The One Thing That Explains Everything or Tottee. This genre has become increasingly popular since the release of Capital in 2013 and its English translation in 2014. Some notable examples of this genre include David Graeber and David Wengrow’s 704-page The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity (2021), Peter Frankopan’s 636-page The Silk Roads: A New History of the World (2015), and the latest release from Oxford professor of global history, The Earth Transformed: An Untold History (736 pages, published this year). Other notable titles in this genre include Sarah Bakewell’s 464-page Humanly Possible: Seven Hundred Years of Humanist, Freethinking, Enquiry and Hope, and all works by Yuval Noah Harari, particularly his 512-page Sapiens: A Brief History of Mankind (published in English in 2015).

In addition to the aforementioned works, Muthukrishna’s A Theory of Everyone: Who We Are, How We Got Here, and Where We’re Going was published in September. The book opens with a tale recounted by the late American author David Foster Wallace about two content fish who encounter an older fish. The latter greets them with a simple question: “How’s the water?” The young fish continue swimming and one eventually turns to the other and asks, “What is water?” This highlights one of the main objectives of Muthukrishna’s book – to reveal something that is so ingrained in our lives that we often overlook it.

Muthukrishna suggests that while water is essential for fish, energy is essential for humans. We often take for granted the energy that powers our daily activities, such as turning on a light or using a microwave. However, Muthukrishna’s theory ties energy to the process of evolution. He argues that throughout human history, advancements in energy sources have resulted in periods of abundance, which have then led to population growth and, ultimately, scarcity and conflict.

Books like these often strive to challenge our comfortable perspectives and shift them completely. In The Silk Roads, Frankopan aims to completely reevaluate world history by shifting the focus away from the typical occidental figures. Similarly, Graeber and Wingrow’s book, The Dawn of Everything, uses Gandhi’s statement about western civilization (“It would be a good idea”) to critique the supposedly rational Enlightenment ideals of the west.

The synoptic book is not a novel concept. In 1871, George Eliot satirized its claims in her novel Middlemarch, where she portrayed the dry Rev Casaubon’s endless search for a book titled A Key to All Mythologies. His wife Dorothea, who was not as naive, understood that his life’s work was rendered useless by recent German scholarship. More recent examples have encountered different challenges. Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, one of the most popular nonfiction books of the past millennium, was once labeled as the most unread book ever. In 2014, mathematician Jordan Ellenberg created the “Hawking Index” to measure the average amount of a book that readers will actually read before giving up. A Brief History had an average of 6.6%, while Donna Tartt’s lengthy novel The Goldfinch had an average of 98.5%.

The ultimate goal of publishers is to combine the intellectual depth of Hawking with the accessibility of Tartt, resulting in a book that anyone with a functioning brain desires to receive as a Christmas gift.

For Casiana Ionita, publishing director at Penguin, the appeal of these books is that academic experts can give us something we don’t otherwise get in our post-truth era of self serving, inegalitarian mendacious politicians. “After decades of our main narratives being defined by traditional economics and neoliberalism, people feel the need for alternatives. There’s something very encouraging about this interest in experts after years of politicians saying we don’t need them.”

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Ionita claims to be the editor in charge of publishing top-quality nonfiction works by scholars who present groundbreaking concepts to the general public. These include Italian physicist Carlo Rovelli, Albanian political scientist Lea Ypi, Russian-American complexity scientist Peter Turchin, and Canadian sociologist Michèle Lamont. She believes that there is a strong demand for books that provide a fresh perspective on the recent global events such as Brexit, Trump, the pandemic, climate change, and war.

Who are the readers of these books? Turchin’s End Times: Elites, Counter Elites and the Path of Political Disintegration could possibly provide some insight. A major concept in his argument is the surplus of elites created by neoliberal capitalism. Turchin suggests that there exists a significant group of frustrated individuals, often well-educated and skilled, who feel excluded. Essentially, the western world is filled with humanities graduates who hold low-status positions in what anthropologist David Graeber referred to as “bullshit jobs”.

The frustrated elites are often drawn to books that claim to provide insights into how the world operates. However, according to Muthukrishna, these books are built on a false premise. Both the readers and the authors are aware that the world is complex, with causality arrows pointing in various directions and often intertwining with each other. No single factor can fully explain everything.

Stephen Hawking, known for his book The Theory of Everything, came to the realization that Kurt Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem means that there will always be true statements that cannot be proven in any logical mathematical system. Despite this, many physicists continue their pursuit of a theory that explains all the forces and particles in the universe. However, the fact that numerous professors have their own theories of everything suggests that there may not be just one ultimate theory, but rather multiple competing ideas.

Source: theguardian.com