In "Are the Great Books Still Alive," an article that is mainly about how economists don't read Adam Smith, author Josh Rogers makes several good points about why reading such books is valuable. Here are a couple:
“It’s like saying I wish more people read the whole Iliad or the whole Odyssey,” he said. “That would be a good thing, but I wouldn’t count on it. It’s not likely. It’s hard — he’s slow going.”
That’s how a few experts responded when asked about reading original works. N. Gregory Mankiw, chairman of economics at Harvard and chairman of the President’s Council of Economic Advisers from 2003 to 2005, noted that Smith is the subject of one of the first lectures in freshman economics — but his full works aren’t required reading.
“Maybe you can learn geometry from the original Euclid,” he says. “But it would be a lot more challenging and a lot more demanding.”
Well, I read Euclid — along with The Wealth of Nations, the Federalist Papers and many others — in college. Relearning geometry from Euclid’s Elements taught me about logic and creative thinking. Even more importantly, it taught me to start any search for a new idea by looking for the first principles and then working forward from there.
I learned how to think by reading the great books, boldly. It has led to financial success for me. And I’m not alone.
In a videotaped interview in 2012, billionaire inventor Elon Musk, founder of PayPal, Tesla Motors and SpaceX, said a passion for original ideas was a secret to his success. Musk argued that it is essential to base one’s thoughts not on what he called “analogy” — trying to invent something new by borrowing somebody else’s ideas — but rather on “first principles.” “Boil things down to the most fundamental truths and say, ‘OK, what are we sure is true?’” he explained. Doing so, he said, provides far greater opportunity for true innovation, even if it “takes a lot more mental energy.”
And then there is this nice point:
Elected officials or corporate leaders taking the time to read Smith, Keynes, etc., might be too much to hope for. But the argument for not requiring more core texts in college seems to imply that there is not enough time for students to read the most creative, imaginative, and disruptive ideas in the history of the world. Meanwhile, the most common and loudest complaints about our educational system are that we are not turning out students who are creative, imaginative, critical-thinking problem solvers.