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Great—and unmet—expectations

A book review of P. J. O’Rourke on the Wealth of Nations

P. J. O’Rourke reads Adam Smith so you don’t have to.

Or so says the blurb—printed in boldface—on the front inner flap of his latest opus.

Entitled “On The Wealth Of Nations,” the work is the American journalist’s take on Smith’s classic as part of Atlantic Monthly Press’s Books That Changed The World series.

The offer is just too good to be passed up, both for fans and first-time readers of America’s funniest Republican.

Besides allowing readers to experience the dense, wry prose of the famous Scottish economist, On the Wealth of Nations also promises to showcase O’Rourke’s biting wit once more.

Considered as America’s funniest republican, O’Rourke has conjured highly original one-liners while avoiding wayward missiles in Iraq, periodic gunfire in Lebanon, and corrupt policemen in the Philippines (his piece about Edsa I is included in Holidays in Hell, one of his very best books, next to All the Trouble in the World and Give War A Chance).

As Rolling Stone magazine’s foreign affairs desk chief, he was also the most well-traveled conservative commentator, giving his readers something to laugh about every time he submitted dispatches from abroad.

Sad to say, his latest work falls below expectations.

Like his previous two books—The CEO of the Sofa and Peace Kills—On The Wealth Of Nations arguably shows that being something of a television celebrity—through his regular appearances at HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher—may have blunted his edgy, no-holds barred, take-no-prisoners writing style.

This is not helped by the fact that O’Rourke in On The Wealth of Nations is “all over the place,” according to one discerning Facebook user, noting the author’s awkward attempt to establish a unifying theme to hold the book together.

Instead of dishing out outrageous, racy, and funny diatribes, O’Rourke simply quotes liberally from Smith and then provides weak insight that does not befit someone of his stature.

Originally printed in a shorter and different form in a UK publication, the book also includes an Adam Smith Philosophical Dictionary, as compiled by O’Rourke, his literary nod to Voltaire and Ambrose Bierce whose The Devil’s Dictionary remains cited to this day.

In an entry called “Homeless, an alternative view on the,” he quotes Smith as saying “The beggar who suns himself by the side of the highway, possesses that security which kings are fighting for.”

While the material—900 pages long in two volumes—may have cramped his style, the O’Rourke faithful, myself included, can still take refuge that the work is not totally devoid of humor.

“At my house I see a Made in China label on everything but the kids and the dogs,” O’Rourke says in Chapter 8. “And I’m not sure about the kids. They have brown eyes and small noses.”

Here’s hoping that his next book would prove to be funnier than his British Airways commercial (which, by the way, is available on YouTube.)


Picture of the book is taken from the Cato Institute, whose members include O’ Rourke.

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