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Intro. [Recording date: March 9, 2022.]
Russ Roberts: Today is March 9th, 2022. My guest is Tyler Cowen. This is Tyler's 15th appearance on the program.
We're doing something a little unusual today. We're having a conversation, less of an interview, about our reading habits in response to a tweet from Noam Shapiro asking, 'How will I choose what to read? How do I read?' And I thought there could be no one better to discuss that with than Tyler, who I think reads more than just about anyone. Tyler, welcome back to EconTalk.
Tyler Cowen: Happy to be here, Russ.
Russ Roberts: I want to remind listeners, if you read a book a week, you'll probably read about 2,500 books a year in your lifetime. That's a small number. So, choose wisely--which will be part of our conversation today.
So Tyler, how would you describe your reading habit? Do you have any rules or is it just catch-as-catch-can? How do you think about it?
Tyler Cowen: My basic rule is to read as much as possible. A lot of books are sent to my house. So, I order on Amazon. On a weekday, I might get 5-10 review copies, and I look at each and every one, and I read some of those. I love to reread classics. The earlier parts of my life, I spend a much higher percentage of my reading, reading the kinds of books that would be in the back section of Harold Bloom's The Western Canon. Most of those I've read, say two to five times. Then I read what my friends write. I spend a great amount of time on Twitter, and I love to print out, say, economics working papers and read those. And then I take books on trips. I'm about to take a trip, and I just keep on reading, basically.
Russ Roberts: Like you, I get a lot of books sent to me, which when I was younger it would've been the most exciting thing I could possibly imagine--to have a job or an opportunity where people would send me books without having to pay for them. I'm struggling with that these days. Before I moved to Israel, I think I had about 3,000 books. I gave away about 1,000. They're sitting in a warehouse in Maryland. So, they're coming soon, and it's scary.
And, when I was younger, I thought, 'Well, I'll get all my father's books when he passes away.' It turns out--he passed away two years ago--I don't want any. Well, I took about 10. He had about 3,000 books, also. And I thought, 'Well, my kids will want my books,' but they don't. So, I don't collect books the way I did when I was younger, but it is fun still when people send them to me. And like you, I look at almost everyone, and I read a sample. Do you turn to a certain page before you make a decision?
Tyler Cowen: No. I just start at the beginning and see if it grabs me, and enough other people do that that if the author can't grab you fairly quickly, it may in fact not be a good book.
Now, older books are quite different. They were not written to grab people up front. So, if the author's bad at that, it's not a negative signal. I don't give away many books. I'm afraid to give away books because unless I think the book I'm giving is the book in the world the recipient most needs to read, I feel I'm doing the person harm.
Russ Roberts: Yeah, yeah. You don't give away--do you lend books out?
Tyler Cowen: Not very often. I don't own many books. So, I collected books in great numbers when I was an undergraduate, mostly history of economic thought. I thought I would build up this incredible collection of the great economics masterworks. But then I started moving around, and then I moved to Germany for a year and I'm, like, 'This is not going to work.' So, what I will do--there's some economic historians in my department. If I get a history book, I will give it to them because I know they won't necessarily read it. They'll use it or not use it for reference. And I don't feel I'm tricking them into reading a book. But I would be very reluctant to give you a book, Russ. Not that I don't love you or like you, or both, but I would feel that you would feel obliged to read the book. Correct?
Russ Roberts: Yeah. That's an awkward thing. But, for me--I asked you about lending books out--if someone's over to my house for a meal and they see a book of mine that they like, I just give it to them; and I say, 'You don't have to give it back.' I just give it to them. If it's a book that I really care about especially, that I haven't written in, and I just buy another copy. That's sort of my rule. Because what I used to do is I'd say, 'Oh, of course you can borrow it,' and then you never say it again. It's an amazing thing how hard it is for people to return books.
Tyler Cowen: Correct.
Russ Roberts: And it would bother me intensely that they wouldn't return them; and I just now just give it to them and I'm very happy. So, that's a great solution to this problem.
Russ Roberts: Do you write in your books? How do you take notes?
Tyler Cowen: No, I don't take notes, really, in any way. I do fold over pages if there's something notable on the page. And typically, I don't mark what was notable because then when I go back, I'll find other things. So, I'm deliberately randomizing my second thought or search a bit.
Russ Roberts: You're a lunatic. I bend back pages also. I do that especially when I'm reading a book on Shabbat and I can't use a pencil or pen, and then I feel good about it that I've bent the page back, but I almost never go back to the bent pages. Very, very rarely. So, it's just a psychological comfort.
I think I probably told listeners before: I have a lot of trouble writing in--I used to have a lot of trouble writing--in books. That whole idea of highlighting was so horrifying to me. It was sacrilegious. The idea of writing--
Tyler Cowen: It's violence. It's violence against books, right?
Russ Roberts: Yeah, it's horrible. I hated it. I would never write--
Tyler Cowen: Especially if it's yellow. That's the worst highlight color.
Russ Roberts: Awful, awful. And I would never write in the margins. But as I get older, I realized that I'd figure something out about a really hard book, and I'd want to remember it. So, I eventually got in the habit--now I do quite a bit, especially the underlying. I don't highlight. I underline or bracket. And I find that helpful when I go back and read a book a second time, actually. Sometimes I do notice other things. I end up basically highlighting often the whole book, because the other part I didn't highlight, 'Oh, that's good, too. I'll bracket that,' or 'I'll underline that.' Basically, the whole book ends up underlined. What--
Tyler Cowen: I just don't write very well, period. But I also find I could read another book in the time it takes me to highlight. The next best book I haven't read is probably quite good. So, why should I highlight it?
Russ Roberts: But, why should you read a book more than once? Couldn't you--
Tyler Cowen: Well, let me give you an example. I brought the books I'm reading now. So, here's a book: It's called Land, Politics and Nationalism: A Study of the Irish Land Question, by Philip Bull. He goes through Irish land debates in the 19th century. I read about two thirds of this book. It's from the library. I'm going to read most of it again, but only after I've read other books about Irish land history. So, to reread it twice in a row makes no sense. To read it again 10 years from now for me makes no sense. But I like to read books in clusters; and overall, it's a good book. Much of what Bull says will have much more meaning to me after I've read four or five other books on the 19th century Irish land question. That is how and why I'm going to reread, say, at least two thirds of this book.
Russ Roberts: When you're talking about the classics that you were reading before, those are--you read a book four or five times, you said. You said two to five times. When you're reading those again, it's not a clustering thing. Why are you doing it? Is it comfort?
Tyler Cowen: Those, you want to reread after many years. So Tocqueville, Plato's Republic, Adam Smith. The very best books, as you are older and know more, they become very different for the most part.I think they become much better.
But even then, you should read them twice in a row when you're reading them. I think that's important. It's very hard to just read them and absorb it all. And, I don't think you should finish it and then start again. You should read a chapter, then reread that chapter, and reread as you're going along. But those are in my view the books with the most wisdom, the ones that are most important to read, to study, to talk about with other people--Shakespeare--the list is mostly obvious, right?
Russ Roberts: You don't take notes. So, how do you remember anything you read? Do you just have a great memory? I know you have a great memory, but you just rely on that? You just hope you remember, and the second or third time it gets a little bit richer?
Tyler Cowen: I have a good selective memory, but I think I remember things better by sampling them from different sources, like this book on the Irish land question. If I just reread it twice in a row, the things I didn't understand I still wouldn't understand; but I'm going to invest in more context, and then many more pieces will fall into place. So, I think it's that I'm good at context more than I have a good memory. If you gave me a string of random numbers to remember, I don't think I would remember them better than the median human being. So, I view my skill as investing in context and having invested in a lot of context already.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. I mean, there's a limit to what you can remember. Writing things down--some say it helps you remember it having written it down, not because you're going to go back to it, but just the act of writing it down.
But, I think the deepest things we learn from books are--you're saying context. I think of it as frameworks, lessons, classes, perspectives, insights. And, when you read it again in a different phrasing and a different example, you start to own it; and you can apply it to something that isn't either of the two things you've seen the first two times. And for me, that's what's profound and powerful about reading and reading clusters--books on similar topics or similar issues. It gets burned into your brain in a different way.
Tyler Cowen: How do you decide when to reread a truly great book or which one to choose?
Russ Roberts: I don't do a lot of rereading. In preparing for this conversation, I thought about books I've read more than once. Now, a book like--a Jewish theology book, God, Man, and History, by Eliezer Berkovits--I read it the first time. I didn't find any of it particularly hard, but when I finished it, I had no memory of what he'd said; and I didn't read it over a long period of time. And I'd ask people, 'Have you read that book?' and they'd say, 'Oh, yeah, yeah. I read that a long time ago.' 'Do you remember anything about it?' 'Not a thing. Not one thing. Not one thing.'
So I read it again. And, I sort of got an idea of what he was talking about. And I read it a third time.
I'm doing that same thing with a book called--one of my books I'm reading right now is On Human Nature, by Roger Scruton. It's a set of lectures he gave. I read it. I started it, got about 30 pages in, bogged down, wasn't sure what it was about. Struggled with it, put it down. Picked it up again, read the first 30 pages again, bogged down, struggled.
The third time, I really liked it. I finally figured it out. I finally saw what he was trying to do.
Now, some of that is that it's a complicated book. Some of it is I read it in a hurry. Some of it is I may have been distracted when I was reading it, and some of it just I'm not smart enough, right? There's a lot of possibilities for why I might want to revisit a book. But once I've read it that full time through, I'm not sure I'll reread. I might reread it one more time down the road because I'll say, 'You know, I got something interesting out of that. Maybe I should try it again.' But, great books that you're talking about, I don't reread very often. I remember reading--I read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, by Robert Pirsig when I was a lot younger--you know, 40, 50 years ago--and I loved it--
Tyler Cowen: I did, too--
Russ Roberts: And I told someone about it and she said, 'I didn't get much out of that. You liked that?' So, I thought, 'Maybe I missed something there. I'm going to read it again to see if I still like it.' And I did. I read it a second time. But that's very unusual for me.
Russ Roberts: So, I don't read a lot of great fiction. I don't reread those kind of books. I should, maybe. Do you reread a lot of fiction?
Tyler Cowen: The very best works I will reread a few times, So, something like a Moby Dick or Flaubert or War and Peace. Absolutely. I'll read them three, four times--
Russ Roberts: I read--
Tyler Cowen: but I spread it out over life.
Russ Roberts: I read Moby Dick in 1964. I was 10 years old. I think that was a mistake. I liked it--
Tyler Cowen: It's one of the very best books.
Russ Roberts: I haven't read it since. I think I should go back to it. I understand it's a lot about whaling. I'm not that interested in whaling, but it's one--
Tyler Cowen: It's mostly about man's quest for God, I think, and Melville doing a kind of ideological tour of the theological universe, and that is sandwiched in between a story about chasing a white whale, and there's plenty in the book about law, and science, and America of that time, and abolitionism.
Russ Roberts: How many times have you read it, you think?
Tyler Cowen: I would guess five, but some parts I've taught and read, like, 20 times. So, if I had to pick five novels everyone should read, Moby Dick would be one of my five.
Russ Roberts: What would be the other four, off the top of your head? Not holding you to it.
Tyler Cowen: Let's say Proust, Tolstoy's War and Peace, Cervantes, Moby Dick and Dickens' Bleak House--
Russ Roberts: Oh, gosh that's a--
Tyler Cowen: or Gulliver's Travels. That would be the off-the-top-of-my-head list.
Russ Roberts: That's a horrible list, Tyler, because one of the things that--
Tyler Cowen: It's a wonderful list--
Russ Roberts: one of the things I wanted to talk about is how you feel about people who don't like the books you love as much as you do. So, let me give you my five and then you can pick on it.
Tyler Cowen: Sure.
Russ Roberts: But, first I want to say what's wrong with your five. Can we do that first?
Tyler Cowen: Let's do that first.
Russ Roberts: Okay. So, Proust is unbearable and unreadable. Terrible book. I read volume--I read À la recherche du temps perdu--In Search of Lost Time, I think is the way it goes--
Tyler Cowen: Correct.
Russ Roberts: which is volume one of--no. Swann's Way, sorry. Swann's Way, which is the first volume of In Search of Lost Time. I got through it--because in those days, when I was younger, I would always finish a book I started: something I also learned not to do, and I strongly recommend that practice of not necessarily finishing every book. But, I'm not a big fan of that. Cervantes, I enjoyed in parts. I started Don Quixote a couple times, couldn't get through it. Moby Dick, I did read that once, 1964. What else we got? What was your other list?
Tyler Cowen: Gulliver's Travels.
Russ Roberts: Never read it. It's a missed opportunity. I'm open to that. And there was one other one, I think. I think you had six, or five maybe.
Tyler Cowen: War and Peace.
Russ Roberts: War and Peace, excellent book, loved it. I would like to read that again, because I did not like Anna Karenina, and that would be my least favorite famous book that most people love. You can think about yours for a minute.
But, my top five would be The Brothers Karamazov, Soldier of the Great War--Brothers Karamazov, by Dostoevsky, Soldier of the Great War, by Mark Helprin. In the First Circle by Aleksndr Solzhenitsyn. What else would be in my top five? I would pick Our Mutual Friend, by Dickens, which is just my personal favorite.
Tyler Cowen: That's very good and underrated.
Russ Roberts: It's very underrated, not well-known.
Tyler Cowen: It's a bad infrastructure, right? Waterworks.
Russ Roberts: There's a lot of infrastructure in it. And--it's funny, I'm blanking on my fifth. I actually wrote some of them down. Oh, I can't--somewhere it's in here. I don't know. Anyway, those would be my top four, for now. They're different than my top four when I was younger. I would've put Thomas Wolfe in there, probably some Robert Penn Warren, Robertson Davies. I still love them, but they wouldn't make my top five. And part of it is recency bias. I read them a long, long time ago, so it's hard to know.
Tyler Cowen: I would agree that I don't love Anna Karenina as much as many people do. I prefer Tolstoy's short fiction.
Russ Roberts: Oh, it's phenomenal.
Tyler Cowen: And, maybe it's strange to call Anna Karenina 'predictable' at this point in time. We all know the book. Of course, it's predictable. But, in some way, it's less striking and novel to me than either War and Peace or the short fiction like "Hadji Murat," or "The Cossacks," or Death of Ivan Ilyich, or others, which I think are phenomenal.
Russ Roberts: Well, I just recorded--it'll come out before this conversation--a conversation on "Master and Man," which I think is one of the greatest short stories ever written, and you're not saying anything. Do you not know this or you don't like it?
Tyler Cowen: Oh, it's fantastic. Sure.
Russ Roberts: Oh, okay. Whew. I mean, I got this sort of anti-Proust thing working against me.
Do you like Anthony Powell? Snoozer.
Tyler Cowen: I haven't been able to get through it. I started it once. I suspected the fault was mine. But I didn't love it, and the opportunity cost seemed too high.
But I would say: Try Proust again. Language is a problem. The original English translation was not very good. Lydia Davis has done a better one. It's better translated into other languages. So, I actually spent two years reading it in German in the 1980s. I bought the whole German set. It was very slow going, but just fantastic. Maybe my best reading experience ever.
Russ Roberts: One of my favorite forms of pretension is to remember who translates books. Like, I think Scott Moncrieff was the standard Proust--
Tyler Cowen: Correct. It was bad--
Russ Roberts: but that is not nearly as pretentious as reading Proust in German. Tyler, you have you topped that forever. That is the most extraordinary thing. I know a lot about you, Tyler, but that kind of sets the standard. Wow. I'm impressed.
Tyler Cowen: I wish I could read French. I'm not impressed. I'm embarrassed. But it's a wonderfully comic book. It's the great comic novel, actually, and that's a study of social mores--
Russ Roberts: Which?
Tyler Cowen: In Search of Lost Time.
Russ Roberts: Are we talking about the same book here?
Tyler Cowen: We're talking about the same book, but the new Lydia Davis translation--and I just did a podcast with her on Conversations with Tyler--is much better than the older English-language translations.
Russ Roberts: Okay. Would you gift that to me so that--and I'll still be your friend, okay?
Tyler Cowen: Can I gift it to you in Hebrew?
Russ Roberts: That won't help me. It'll be worse.
Russ Roberts: I don't know where we were. We're talking about a bunch of things. Going back--
Tyler Cowen: What's the book you're reading now, and why?
Russ Roberts: So, I'm reading--I think I made a list. Before we start recording, you said you've got five books that you're in the middle of. I'm in the middle of five also, as it turns out, and these are, quote, "for fun." I read 20 to 30 books a year for EconTalk. These are things I'm reading on the side.
So this would be--I'm reading On Human Nature, by Scruton; I'm about halfway through through it. I'm reading Israel: A Concise History, by Daniel Gordis, my colleague. I am reading After Babel, by George Steiner. George Steiner is really a fantastic thinker and writer.
Tyler Cowen: That's wonderful.
Russ Roberts: I really recommend his book Errata, E-R-R-A-T-A, a memoir. It's just full of interesting ideas. What else am I reading? There's two more. I'm blanking on them. Oh, I'm reading Invisible Man for EconTalk. That kind of counts. It's a little bit different because it's not a[?] normal EconTalk book.
Tyler Cowen: You mean the Ellison?
Russ Roberts: Yeah. I'm going to talk about it with Dwayne Betts. He's going to read Primo Levi, and I'm going to read Ralph Ellison; and we're going to talk about what it's like to read a book from a different perspective of your ethnic or race. It'll be interesting. I hope.
And I'm reading something else. I can't remember. Oh, I'm reading a bunch--I'm reading, it's called Why We Are Restless, by the Storeys, S-T-O-R-E-Y. That's a possible EconTalk book. I'm enjoying it. I like having a lot of books open on my Kindle. I like going into them and trying them, reading them, but I--
Tyler Cowen: See, I don't like Kindle. To remember things, I try to remember visually where it was on the page. And that helps me remember the fact. And I can't do that for Kindle. It's all the same page somehow.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. Well, that's interesting. So, you don't read anything on the Kindle?
Tyler Cowen: No. When I travel I have to, and I can deal with it. But I never prefer it.
Russ Roberts: Okay. Interesting.
Tyler Cowen: Let me tell you what I'm reading. The main thing I'm reading. It's a new book, review copy, Leo Damrosch, Adventurer: The Life and Times of Casanova, which is a book about 18th-century Venice, the Enlightenment, Casanova himself; and it's wonderful. I'm a big fan of Damrosch. All his books are very good. There's a new one. I'm going to read the whole thing.
Russ Roberts: Okay. What else? What else is in your pile?
Tyler Cowen: I have a fiction book, which is very slow, Elizabeth Bowen, the Anglo-Irish writer, Eva Trout. It's her last book.
Russ Roberts: Okay. Don't know it. Okay.
Tyler Cowen: Wonderful prose. It is like molasses reading it, but it's partly slow because one enjoys it, and that I will read very slowly and take on my trip, and it's not too long and not too heavy. So, that's a perfect book for a long trip. Elizabeth Bowen, to me, is one of the great underrated fiction authors. Last September is a fantastic book, though I had to read that twice in a row to really absorb it. Took me a long time.
Then I have this book in Spanish that I might quit by Eric Zemmour, who is running to be the next leader of France, as you know. And he is now losing to Macron, but he wrote a book available only to me in Spanish, though he wrote it in French. It's called El Premer Sexo [Le Premier Sexe--Econlib Ed.], like The First Sex. It's about the feminization of society. And it's mostly long and rambling. So, I might stop it, but it's good Spanish practice. Like, I actually can understand it. And the notion that a major candidate for our leadership post in a major country would write a whole book on the feminization of society seems to me noteworthy.
Russ Roberts: So, wait a minute, Tyler. You read in German, Spanish, English. That's it?
Tyler Cowen: And English, and I'm always reading something in Spanish and German at any point in time, but very slowly.
Russ Roberts: Okay. That'd be good for travel. Take you a while to get through it. You wouldn't have to take as thick a book.
Tyler Cowen: There's this book by Thomas Bernhard called The Voice Imitator--Der Stimmenimitator--which is short stories that are only a paragraph long and they're in German. And every now and then I read three or four of them, and I keep on reading this book; and I'm reading that now, too.
Russ Roberts: Do you like short stories?
Tyler Cowen: Mostly I prefer novels, but in foreign languages, like, a. they're easier. They're shorter by definition, and I feel I understand them better in other languages. Somehow in English I'm impatient with them in a way that I'm not with a novel.
Russ Roberts: Do you like William Trevor?
Tyler Cowen: I like him. It's actually on my Kindle because the collected short stories is so big to carry around. But I don't love it. I would much rather read a novel by Elizabeth Bowen, say.
Russ Roberts: I really like William Trevor. He wrote both novels and short stories, but I think his main gift was the short story. I think he's fabulous. Mark Helprin writes both great novels and great short stories.
Tyler Cowen: My copy of Helprin have arrived, like, three days ago because you told me to buy it last time we spoke. So, now I own the book.
Russ Roberts: Which one?
Tyler Cowen: The one you recommended, something with great man.
Russ Roberts: Soldier of the Great War.
Tyler Cowen: That's right. Yeah. So, I have it now.
Russ Roberts: I think you'll like it. It'll make you want to go back to Rome, maybe. If you like it, try The Pacific, which is a short story collection. I like every one of his short story collections. I don't love all of his novels, but I love at least three of them a great deal. They're some of my favorite books. I think Winter's Tale is a great book, also.
Russ Roberts: And, anyway--
Tyler Cowen: Bookshops. What's your bookshop policy? Where do you go? Where are the good ones? Do you just use Amazon?
Russ Roberts: Well, I used to spend an enormous amount of time in bookstores. It was the equivalent of playing chess online. It's a form of distraction.
Tyler Cowen: Except it was offline. Yeah.
Russ Roberts: Yeah, and it costs money--yeah, a lot more money. But, yeah--I spent an enormous part of my youth just wandering at bookstores. I love--it'll always be nostalgic for me to be in a bookstore, especially a great used bookstore.
I used to love to go to the Strand in New York. Here in Israel, in Jerusalem, there's a ton of fantastic used bookstores with English books, but one of my favorite bookstores ever is a bookstore here in Jerusalem called Adraba. And it is--it's about the size of my office. I'm exaggerating--not about the size: it's tiny. I was going to say it has about 50 books. It doesn't have a lot of books. Most of them are in Hebrew. But there's an English book section of about two books--large bookcases--and virtually, every book in those bookcases I've either read and loved or want to read; and they're all beautiful.
So, there's something wonderful when you find a collection of--I really do who love a physically beautiful book--you know, with nice endpapers. It's a sweet, sweet, sweet nostalgic pleasure that I get less and less of as I get older and work on the Kindle.
Tyler Cowen: So, with someone who reads more than average, I know giving advice is hard. It depends on context, but what is the thing you would wish to tell your listeners that you feel you know about books or how to read that maybe they don't. If you had to boil it down?
Russ Roberts: Well, I've told some of them so far, which is: Don't finish every book you start. Take notes in your books--which you don't agree with, but I think it's very useful.
Tyler Cowen: I think it's good for most people. In that sense, I agree.
Russ Roberts: I guess the other thing I would say is to take them seriously. I can't tell whether [?we're in?] the golden age books or the death of books, right? It's an extraordinary thing to be able to access Amazon and buy, quote, "any book you want." I mean, when I think back to my youth and relying on libraries or a bookstore--you know, when Barnes & Noble came along, it was so exciting. It was just the biggest candy store of all time for a reader. I loved it. And then Amazon just crushed them--built a much bigger bookstore. And I loved wandering. I love wandering at Amazon, online. I think it's beautiful.
But the advice I would give is to take it seriously. I think--you know, reading is a little bit out of fashion. In some sense, that's misleading because I think a lot of people read online. They just don't read books. They read articles and essays and all kinds of things. But there's something deeply precious about the opportunity to spend 10 hours or so with an interesting mind and you're at their mercy. They've laid out the book in the way they thought was best to capture what they wanted to say and you get to experience that. And, it's not to be taken lightly. It's a precious human thing that people write books and read them.
And, you know, you and I read--in a way, we both probably read way too much. We'll talk about skimming in a minute. I skim some books. But, to immerse yourself in a book is one of my favorite things.
One listener asked, one Twitter person asked in prep for this--or no, it was you, I think--about music. And I've finished some books with music on. I remember reading Nietzsche with "Thus Spake Zarathustra" [theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey, Richard Strauss--Econlib Ed.] playing on my turntable. I listened to opera while I read A Soldier of the Great War, which was set in Rome. I think it's "Il trovatore" is the aria that he is--it's either "La traviata" or "Il trovatore," I can't remember--that he loves and repeats in there. So, to listen to that while you're reading the book is--it's just a transcendent human experience. So, that's what I would say. What would you say?
Tyler Cowen: I would agree with your points. These are maybe squirrelier recommendations--but first: Read in clusters. So, read a bunch of books on the Irish land question. Any one book you read on that topic, you are not going to retain, unless you're exceptional with your memory. But if you read four, five--
Russ Roberts: And it could be wrong. It could be wrong, too. You should probably--
Tyler Cowen: It could be wrong, too. Yeah. If you read four or five books on that topic, even if you only read parts of them, you'll know something about it.
But, my other advice would be: I think picture books are greatly underrated. So, if you want to learn about Venice, Italy, one thing you could do is go to Amazon, type in Venice, read a book on the history of Venice. I mean, that's fine. But if you just go to your public library and pull down a picture book--it's probably just titled Venice--most people will actually learn more doing that, reading the picture book. Which is somewhat in a early Wikipedia style and with a lot of wonderful photographs and maps, and it will be very much to the point. It's probably not that partisan, not trying to push some kind of very particular line, not post-modern: just a book about Venice, called Venice, and people don't do nearly enough of that, in my opinion.
Russ Roberts: And that book on Venice called Venice was published in 1963. I can see the photographs. There's a certain style in those picture books of the print quality of those photographs. Very vivid to me. Carry on. What else? What else would you say?
Tyler Cowen: If you read picture books about animals, about science, you'll probably learn more than if you do what most people do. This is not about books, but I think most of us--I know it's true for me--I don't spend enough time on YouTube. So, YouTube is in many ways becoming more potent than books. So, just evaluate your YouTube consumption and see if you could improve it, would be another tip.
But also, don't read stuff you don't love reading. Simplest point that I would stress above all else. Maybe you have to read it for your job. But, look: The point of reading is that you love what you're reading. If not, don't do it.
Russ Roberts: Joy. Joy. Yeah.
Russ Roberts: Do you ever read children's books or young-adult fiction?
Tyler Cowen: Not very much. I read The Hunger Games and some of the sequels. I quite like those. People give or send me a fair number of those books. I think they're good. They're just not my priority. And true children's books, pretty much never read--like for four-year-olds.
Russ Roberts: I have a love of a book called The Seven Silly Eaters, which I really like. It's a children's book. And a book called The Gardener. It's interesting--these are picture books. These are written for, to read out loud to a seven-year-old or a six-year-old or an eight-year-old. And, I find them often quite moving. They have to be short, right? They're a short story. The illustrations often enhance.
And I've read a few other--so, I didn't read many children's books when I was younger. I read Moby Dick at 10 and it bothered my mom. My mom said, 'He's missing out. He's not reading'--whatever it is--whatever boys at 10 usually read.
And so, some of those I've gone back to.
There's a wonderful book by Robert Cormier--I don't know how to pronounce his name--but it's called I Am the Cheese. It's one of the scariest books I've ever read. It's written for teenagers. It's the creepiest thing I've ever read. It's a phenomenal book. Anyway, I kind of liked--I liked that. I'm a big fan of Winnie-the-Pooh.
Tyler Cowen: Those are good. I liked Encyclopedia Brown when I was 10.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. Yeah.
Tyler Cowen: I read a lot of chess books, a lot of books on cryptography.
Russ Roberts: What's your favorite chess book?
Tyler Cowen: Well, they're all books I read a very long time ago.
Russ Roberts: You don't have a favorite.
Tyler Cowen: Alexander Kotov, How to Think Like a Grandmaster, which is still a wonderful book for learning how to do almost anything.
So, it encapsulated a lot of the wisdom of the Soviet School of Chess--how they trained people to become better. And the way you become better is by doing exercises with actual feedback that might prove you wrong. So, try to annotate a chess game and then compare your ideas against--then a grandmaster, now it would be a computer--and that's much better than just playing through games or staring at the board or what most people do. So, that's a fantastic book even if you're not mainly a chess player.
Russ Roberts: Are your parents readers?
Tyler Cowen: My grandmother was a big reader. Her favorite authors were Shakespeare, Victor Hugo, and John O'Hara.
My father didn't read that much. He ended up actually reading "The Freeman" from Foundation for Economic Education, which he brought home to me when I was, like, 11, 12. And I started reading that. So, that was important. But he didn't read that many books.
My mother ended up as a reader. She would read books like Jonathan Livingston Seagull,--like, popular but smart, maybe vaguely spiritual books, smart or self-help books, books on psychology. And I read a lot of what she had around when I was young, say 11 or 12. That was a good influence for me, just to think about people in a better way.
Russ Roberts: Did she try to get you to read books that she loved?
Tyler Cowen: I don't think so. I always read more than either of my parents did. My grandmother gave me some useful tips and I would talk to my parents about what I was reading. And my mother was great. She would always take me to the library. So, even in Carney, where I grew up as a kid, there was a Carnegie library. My mother took me there, say, when I was three. I was reading when I was two. I watched my grandmother teach my sister who was two years older than me. Picked up reading very early. I think my first favorite book was by Leonard Kessler, who just died, and it was something like Mr. Pines Paints a House, and it's a kid's book, but that was my favorite when I was three.
Russ Roberts: So, what I find interesting is that most of the books that my grandfather and father, who were the big readers of my life, most of the books they loved I didn't love and struggled to read. So, my dad--I may have talked about this on EconTalk--my dad liked Sir Walter Scott. His father liked Sir Walter Scott. He liked Thackeray. They both read a lot of Shakespeare, a lot of Macaulay and English history. I've never read Macaulay--a hole[?] in my reading. I don't enjoy reading Shakespeare. And Sir Walter Scott I just can't--I struggled to read. And I probably read The White Company when I was younger. They also like Robert Lewis Stevenson a lot and--
Tyler Cowen: It's consistent taste, of a sort.
Russ Roberts: Yeah, of a sort.
Tyler Cowen: I liked Scott much better than when I was younger, and I read some to prep for Neil Ferguson and really liked it. That's an example of going back to a classic.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. Maybe I'll go back to that because what's fun is--so some of those books, I mean, a good example would be Jane Eyre. Jane Eyre is incredibly entertaining. One of my kids had to read it, and I hadn't read it since I was 15; and I just thought, 'Oh, my gosh! It's so good. The writing is so good.' But, most of the books that I love, my kids don't love. Most of the movies I love, they don't love. And the common denominator there is pace. They want faster. One of my favorite movies is High Noon. It's glacial.
Tyler Cowen: It is over 90 minutes, right?
Russ Roberts: Yes, it is, and it's 90 in realtime. It's--one of the most beautiful things about the movie is that the movie starts and you watch 90 minutes of what happens. There's no splashbacks or cutaways to future stuff. It only covers 90 minutes of what happens in this town. It's a magnificent book--movie--but my kids can't watch it. One of my father's favorite movies is a movie called I Remember Mama. We can't watch it. It's too slow. I just wonder if the next generation will read Don Quixote and Dickens. It's hard to believe that they won't, but they really like--
Tyler Cowen: Jane Austin and Shakespeare seem much more popular to me now than when I was a kid.
Russ Roberts: I agree. Yeah. They're doing all right.
Tyler Cowen: Russian fiction seems much less popular. Doesn't make sense to people. 'What's all this angst about? If there's no God, isn't everything evil?' and so on. It's sort of like something from a bad Woody Allen movie.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. That's a cheap shot if I've ever heard one--at least two of the books on my list of top four, but okay. Fine, Tyler. Keep going.
Tyler Cowen: But when I've reread Dostoevsky, it hasn't clicked for me.
Russ Roberts: Really?
Tyler Cowen: When I was in high school, Brothers Karamazov was my favorite novel of all time. Just soaked it up, loved it. Actually, my mother then read it. She loved it. I went back to it--I don't know, seven years ago, I'm guessing. Ehh. I could see the point, but it didn't grab me.
Russ Roberts: Well, my wife and I tried to read Crime and Punishment together, and we couldn't get through it. I'm sorry to say. We got about halfway through. It's hard. It's life.
Tyler Cowen: And what do you think of Dickens these days other than Our Mutual Friends?
Russ Roberts: I love Dickens. I just love Dickens.
Tyler Cowen: [?]He's held up[?] very well, I think.
Russ Roberts: He's a brilliant storyteller. He has a tremendous sense of humor. He's a great plotster. He plots beautifully. His characters are vivid beyond vivid. I've probably read, I don't know, 10. But I have to confess, Tyler: I've never read Bleak House. So, it may--
Tyler Cowen: Oh. That I would give you a copy of.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. That I'm going to have to give a shot to. You know, I've read a lot of Dickens. I find him--so, Great Expectations, which is deeply flawed, I think, but there are so many scenes in that book that are magical, just magical. The characters--I miss them. When things happen to them, I feel bad. They're wonderful. Joe Gargery, whose--Pip is, I guess, his step-uncle--is, what is he? I can't remember his exact relation. Gosh, I'd like to spend an evening drinking with him in a pub. He's great, great.
Tyler Cowen: But, there are books young people read that I find much too slow. So, I can't really get through the Harry Potter books.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. I read them a long time ago.
Tyler Cowen: Game of Thrones, either on TV or in the books, I can see the appeal. I'm just not sure at the end of it all what I'll have; and I stop reading, stop watching.
Russ Roberts: What about humor? Do you read funny books? Humor, comedy?
Tyler Cowen: Only Proust. Most books to me aren't funny. I just don't absorb the humor. Something like Wodehouse or these British writers that are supposed to be so funny, I see that they are, but they're not funny for me. YouTube is funny. TikTok can be funny. Larry David can be funny. Books to me just aren't funny.
Russ Roberts: Okay. So, I've got a cheap shot at Wodehouse. That's not acceptable. I'm sure you know, Tyler, and I know my listeners know, that Adam Smith points out that we care more that people hate what we hate and that they love what we love, but I do love[?]--I've read a lot of Wodehouse.
Tyler Cowen: I think it's good. It's just not funny for me. It's like a period piece--of interest.
Russ Roberts: Okay. My top three comic books would be anything by Wodehouse that has Jeeves in the title, though my favorite is a book called Joy in the Morning. Three Men in A Boat, by Jerome K. Jerome: Have you read that?
Tyler Cowen: Never.
Russ Roberts: Okay. So, that may tickle you. You may be amused by that. But my favorite I think is going to be in your sweet spot, Tyler. I'm feeling good about this: A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers. Have you read that?
Tyler Cowen: I quite like it. It's not funny, but I can see that it's funny, if you get my drift.
Russ Roberts: I do.
Tyler Cowen: I think it's very good. I've been disappointed with him since then, but an excellent book.
Russ Roberts: We're on the same page there. But, that book is one of the funniest and saddest books I've ever read.
Spoiler alert: but it's not much of a spoiler because you learn very early on the book is about an orphan; and the main character--it's not fiction. The writer loses his parents in a relatively short period of time. So, I'm at a conference. I'm reading this book; and there's many passage in that book--three, four, five--where I laughed out loud so hard I couldn't stop laughing. I was just so convulsed. I imagine being at a--not imagine: I'm sitting in this conference. I'm in the hotel waiting for the conference to start, an economics conference, and I'm laughing at this book and I'm imagining someone coming up to me and saying, 'Oh, it's a funny book?' 'Yeah. It's maybe the funniest book I've ever read.' 'What's it about?' 'Oh, a guy loses his parents within the space of a couple of months.'
It's a very sad book. That's why it's A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, but I think the comic set pieces in there are just--are genius. He's a phenomenal, phenomenally funny person. But, okay.
Tyler Cowen: Why isn't YouTube just always funnier than any book?
Russ Roberts: There are things that are funny on YouTube. I think there's something special about comic writing. It's a different thing. It's like saying, 'Why would you eat French food when you can eat Tex-Mex?' They're just different. I think they're just different.
Russ Roberts: What books changed your life, Tyler?
Tyler Cowen: Many, many books. So, all the early chess books I read got me playing chess, which was a formative experience for me. But, reading Ayn Rand, Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, was a big thing for me. I never loved the long novels or even a lot of the philosophy, but reading her on capitalism; Hayek, Mises, the Austrian School of Economics in general--I'm an economist so that's been my life. And those are books I read when I was 13, 14 years old.
Russ Roberts: But you read so many things outside of economics. Surely, there's some other books besides chess and economics that have had a big--it doesn't have to be, quote, "changed your life." But anything come to mind?
Tyler Cowen: Well, Derek Parfit, Reasons and Persons, which I just discovered in a Harvard bookstore in 1984--I had never heard of it, never heard of him--that shaped--
Russ Roberts: I've never read it--
Tyler Cowen: It's a philosophy book. I don't know that it makes sense to read the whole thing now because it has been absorbed, and you can read how it's been absorbed. But that book definitely changed my life, a lot of my work and writings. Stubborn Attachments came out of reading Parfit.
Reading Quine and the American Pragmatists and philosophy, reading Plato, reading Moby Dick--just books encouraging me always to think more broadly and to think about the role of narrative in society, to think: what do people really care about? how are people actually motivated? If you're trying to understand, say, the current war--Russia attacking Ukraine--I think fiction often does you better than to read political science and international relations.
Russ Roberts: What fiction would you recommend?
Tyler Cowen: Well, Moby Dick would be a good example because it's an obsessive quest. Believing in some screwed-up idea very badly and wanting to see it through. Or Tolstoy for that matter--just Russian fiction in general. The ways in which that culture can produce irrational behavior. You learn that better from fiction, I think.
Russ Roberts: That's interesting.
Russ Roberts: It's funny: you mention Ayn Rand. I've become so less enamored of Ayn Rand as I've gotten older. But you remind me that when I was 17 and read it for the first time, I was just overwhelmed. I couldn't--I think I read "Anthem" first--the very, very short novella. And it just set me on fire. And, again, I moved away from it in many ways. There are many, many things I don't like about her worldview. But, boy could she write a story. So, I would put--
Tyler Cowen: I think Atlas Shrugged in particular--it was highly prophetic, and it's become underrated as sociology. Like, her cocktail party scenes, her account of what we now call 'the woke'. It's what? Published in 1958 or around then? And she saw this in the 1950s. She so nails it.
Russ Roberts: That's true.
Tyler Cowen: I think better than any critic writing today. And there's a lot of critics of 'the woke.'
Russ Roberts: Yeah, that's true. Yeah. That's--
Tyler Cowen: On that, she was so perceptive.
Russ Roberts: Have you read Atlas Shrugged?
Tyler Cowen: I read it when I was 14. I once tried to reread it. Couldn't do it. Even at 14, it mostly bored me. It's just too long. A lot of it is absorbing, but I felt battered a bit, even then as a teenager.
Russ Roberts: Sure, it is.
Tyler Cowen: So, simple ideas about capitalism being highly productive and moral and supporting virtue--to me, that's great. I think she is too one-sided on that. But, relative to the current discourse, a much needed corrective. I never loved Fountainhead, but I think particular scenes in Atlas Shrugged are still golden and remarkable. You have to read them this year to understand how good they are.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. The first hundred pages is such a tour de force of storytelling. Forget the philosophy and the economics. It's hard to put down. It's a really good book. But it is 1200 pages. I think it's the longest book I've probably read, if you don't count Gulag: Archipelago or multi-volume books. I was going to list--
Tyler Cowen: Long books have impact, even today.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. It's true. It's surprising--
Tyler Cowen: [?Piketty?]. Yeah, Harry Potter. Many examples.
Russ Roberts: It's a bit of a puzzle. Right?
Tyler Cowen: It's a world you get absorbed into. And it's a kind of totem and a signal of absorption into a culture that people share. And if the entry fee is too low, the value of club membership is diluted. So, I think it makes sense and looking at it with economic reasoning.
Russ Roberts: So, I made a list of books that I thought changed me. I thought Anarchy, State, and Utopia, by Robert Nozick, which I have not gone back to, but it had a huge impact on me.
Tyler Cowen: Great book.
Russ Roberts: Fooled by Randomness, which was, like--by Taleb--it was the beginning of my obsession with being deceived by numbers and the challenge of thinking about uncertainty, which I don't think I'll ever lose that fascination.
Tyler Cowen: Excellent book.
Russ Roberts: There's this book by Adam Smith, not the Wealth of Nations, called The Theory of Moral Sentiments, which is also was an eyeopener for me.
And then--I'm going to list a book. It would be interesting to think about how many books I've read that you haven't, Tyler. It's a short list, I have a feeling.
Tyler Cowen: It's not a short list.
Russ Roberts: No, I think it's a very short list. But, I'm going to list an author who's totally forgotten, who had a huge impact on me when I was younger--and that's Robert Ardrey. Have you read Robert Ardrey?
Tyler Cowen: I don't think so. What did he write?
Russ Roberts: So he wrote--he's great. He's a playwright. And then he got into--well, the kind of book I hate now, which is like a theory of everything. So, it would be--his first book, I think you've heard of. It's called African Genesis. And the theme of it was very simple. It was that we came out of Africa--humanity--not out of the Tigris/Euphrates area. And, we were violent. And--
Tyler Cowen: Oh, that book, yeah.
Russ Roberts: I thought you know it. But he wrote a second book called The Territorial Imperative, which was another amazing book.
Tyler Cowen: Yeah, yeah. Okay. I read that as a kid. Yeah.
Russ Roberts: And then the third book he wrote, it was called The Social Contract, which I'd love to go back and read. When I finished that book--it was 1976, I was 22 years old--and I remember being so overwhelmed by how that book opened my brain. I don't even remember how. Doesn't matter. But I thought, 'This is what I want to do. I want to write a book like this.'
And, so it didn't change my life in the sense that I created a worldview out of it, but it made me realize what a book could do. And it just was a beautiful thing.
Tyler Cowen: Has science fiction affected you much? Because it was a huge influence on me--and still is.
Russ Roberts: Now, I want to talk about that in a sec, but I got to mention first, have you read Worlds in Collision, by Immanuel Velikovsky?
Tyler Cowen: As a kid, I did.
Russ Roberts: Did you? Yeah. I thought you would.
Tyler Cowen: I was like, 'Oh, my goodness!' It seems to be wrong, but it made an impression on me--
Russ Roberts: Yeah. So, did--
Tyler Cowen: von Däniken--
Russ Roberts: What?
Tyler Cowen: Erich von Däniken.
Russ Roberts: Oh. See, I didn't read him, but I read--
Tyler Cowen: It seems he was quite nasty. And wrong. But again, when you're 13, you imbibe these things.
Russ Roberts: My dad gave me--I was about that age--my dad gave me a book called The Passover Plot, which was this fantastic attempt to explain the facts of Jesus' life as a conspiracy. I mean, it's just this fabulous work. And you read those books, especially when you're younger--you're not very smart--and you go, like, 'Oh, my gosh!' and you realize you've been led into this secret truth, this conspiratorial unveiling that you have access to. No one else knows. No one else knows that we're apes that are murderers. It's those kind of books.
Tyler Cowen: I think I, Robot might go down as the most influential book of the 20th century. Not counting something like Mein Kampf, which is a very different direction--
Russ Roberts: Different kind of thing--
Tyler Cowen: but a real book, right?
Russ Roberts: Is that Isaac Asimov?
Tyler Cowen: Isaac Asimov. It's about artificial intelligence and how you would govern it with laws. And Asimov also had studied Torah. So, the laws for the robots, they were kind of running satiric commentary on--
Russ Roberts: Jewish law?
Tyler Cowen: Yeah.
Russ Roberts: Huh, I got to check--
Tyler Cowen: And the robots failed to obey the laws in all same ways that the humans don't obey the laws in the Torah. So, it's theology, too.
Russ Roberts: So, science fiction is a huge hole in my--I've read--I think the list of books I've read that you haven't, if we cheated and include not-good books--I read a lot of mysteries when I was young: Robert B. Parker. And then I went through a whole set of British mystery writers, who--I love them. I read hundreds. It's the equivalent of playing chess online. It was a compulsive distraction from life. I don't know. I read all those books. But I never read science fiction. And the reason is simple: My dad didn't like it. All of my reading when I was younger was an attempt to earn the respect of my father. And science fiction was not on his list; and so I didn't read any. Any science fiction I've read is, I've read as an adult. I don't like fantasy either. I don't like Tolkien. I don't like--I don't know. It's weird. What science fiction should I read?
Tyler Cowen: Start with I, Robot, I would say. Try Olaf Stapledon, Last and First Men from the 1930s. He was Neo-Hegelian philosopher who sketched out how he thought the world was going to evolve.
If I get together, say, with a tech crowd, the book that everyone has read--it's some mix of Tolkien or I, Robot--not the Bible, not Charles Dickens, better or worse. Not Proust. But everyone has read those books, or almost everyone.
Russ Roberts: It's interesting.
Tyler Cowen: Massively influential.
Russ Roberts: It's fascinating.
Tyler Cowen: I love Tolkien, even though most fantasy I don't like. Once and Future King, by White, I think is a fantastic book. I would recommend you try that. I'd be willing to give you that book, even.
Russ Roberts: I bet I'd like that, actually. I think I would like that. I've not read it.
Russ Roberts: Do you have any holes? Do you have things you don't read, genres that you've missed out on? Besides young adults? I can see that's a huge hole, Tyler. I want to forgive you for that one--
Tyler Cowen: It is a huge hole.
Russ Roberts: I'm going to forgive you for that one.
Tyler Cowen: Well, mysteries and crime. A lot of the best known authors, I've read one book by them, and I typically think it's good, but I'm not interested in reading another. It feels like an act of repeat. So, I wouldn't say I haven't read in that area, but there's no author I'm well-read in. Romance novels of the non-classic sort, which are a pretty big chunk of the book market, I've hardly read.
Russ Roberts: Yeah, for sure.
Tyler Cowen: I've read a great deal of what you would call classic African-American literature, but popular African-American literature I don't think I know well at all.
Russ Roberts: Well, you have. You read so widely in non-Anglo stuff. I mean, most of my reading is overwhelming and overwhelmingly British and American. So, I have giant holes, outside of a sprinkling of Russian novels that I read when I was younger, a few French novels when I was younger. Do you like Flaubert?
Tyler Cowen: I certainly like him a great deal, but he feels a little overrated to me. I don't quite feel the passion.
Russ Roberts: Balzac?
Tyler Cowen: Very solid, underrated now, but the very best one is not [?much?] better than the average.
Russ Roberts: The average--?
Tyler Cowen: Balzac novel. So, as a whole, they painted a portrait of French society that is important and interesting, but whatever might be the best one.
Russ Roberts: Hemingway?
Tyler Cowen: Short fiction, above all.
Russ Roberts: For sure.
Tyler Cowen: The classic novels, they seem dated to me.
Russ Roberts: Me, too--
Tyler Cowen: The stories are amazing.
Russ Roberts: Although my son is reading him now, and he's loving him, which shocks me. I read them all when I was younger, too; but they don't hold up for me. I would never want to go back and read A Farewell to Arms or Sun Also Rises, but his short stories are still, I think, very good.
Tyler Cowen: How about Faulkner for you?
Russ Roberts: Also, I had--I took a class in college on Conrad and Faulkner because I loved Conrad.
Tyler Cowen: Yeah. Two of the best for me.
Russ Roberts: And I hated Faulkner. I had tried to read The Sound and the Fury when I was 16 and I thought, 'This is nonsense. This is horrible.' You can't figure it out. It's the worst kind of modern art. By the end of the course, I became--oh, that would be on my list of great top five, and that would be Go Down, Moses. I think--if those of you listening have tried to read Faulkner and failed, my advice is always: Start with As I Lay Dying--
Tyler Cowen: Agree--
Russ Roberts: because it's accessible. It's not easy, but it's not hard. And you can enjoy it. Read it twice. It's short. That's a book I read twice. When I first read it, I thought, 'Oh, no. I get it. I get the hang of it,' and I read it twice. Death in August, Absalom, Absalom!, they're pretty good. They're pretty accessible. Sound and the Fury, the most famous one is very, very, very hard to read if you just pick it up and try to read it because you don't know what's going on. Once you get the hang of it, it's very good. But, Go Down, Moses--and I can't remember the two books that came before it about that family, are--I just I loved all those. I like The Reivers. It's just totally accessible, but I don't think a great book. It's funny.
Tyler Cowen: Absalom is my favorite. But I don't think it's easy. I think it's one of the hardest novels to read.
Russ Roberts: It's not easy, but it's not The Sound and the Fury.
And, by the way, my other confession: I've never read Ulysses by James Joyce, or Finnegans Wake. Have you read either one?
Tyler Cowen: Now, Ulysses has to be in my top five, if I can put, in seven. Finnegans Wake, I've looked at every page. I wouldn't say I've read it. Like, maybe I'll just buy the NFT [non-fungible token] on Finnegans Wake and call it a day.
Russ Roberts: I do have a friend who says you should work your way through it. It's worth it. To me, it's the worst cryptic puzzle. I don't do cryptic crosswords. I kind of like them, but it's a thousand pages of a cryptic crossword. That, you need a book equally as large to try to figure out what the jokes are and the allusions. And--it's a cruel, cruel book.
Tyler Cowen: I don't think you can solve it. I think you have to read it. It's a very long poem. As that for me, it comes across as tedious. But I suspect it's very good along some dimension I don't care about much.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. It's--
Tyler Cowen: Ulysses is easy. And fun. That, you should pick up. That, I would give you. I would give you my copy.
Russ Roberts: Well, I hope you're writing these down, Tyler, but we are recording this, I hope, in which case listeners can make a list of Tyler's promises for me.
Okay. So, we've talked a lot about fiction. Let's go back to nonfiction.
Tyler Cowen: Just one thing to add. Ulysses intersects with a lot of your interests--Judaism, cosmopolitanism, what it means to be human,--
Russ Roberts: Yeah, Irish--
Tyler Cowen: Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments. It's definitely a book you should read, in particular.
Russ Roberts: Okay. All right. Maybe we should do a book club on it for an EconTalk episode. We'll do Moby Dick--
Tyler Cowen: That'd be great--
Russ Roberts: and then we'll do Ulysses; and you'll explain it to me. Because it's a hard book, I think. I used to own at least two books that explained Ulysses. Now, we're talking about James Joyce, not Homer.
Russ Roberts: But let's talk about fiction--nonfiction--excuse me.
Tyler Cowen: Sure. You mean nonfiction.
Russ Roberts: Yup. What are some of your favorite nonfiction books? I'm going to ask in two categories: History, and then the nonfiction book like Fooled by Randomness. Got anything that you love in there? I'm sure you have many.
Tyler Cowen: I love nonfiction books less than I used to. I find what sticks with me are methods and ideas and tools for approaching problems--like economics. Clearly, I've learned a lot of the economics I know from books. But, it's not fundamentally a book thing. And, most nonfiction books as books, I'm maybe a little disappointed in, and there's not that much I could name. There's great number of wonderful history books--you know, Braudel--
Russ Roberts: Fernand--
Tyler Cowen: I was talking about yesterday. And Piketty. I like classic works that are not fiction, but they're not quite nonfiction either. Like, what would you call Plato's Republic, right?
Russ Roberts: I think it's called--
Tyler Cowen: the Theory of Moral Sentiments?--
Russ Roberts: philosophy--
Tyler Cowen: Philosophy. It's nonfiction in a sense, but it's not classic nonfiction.
Russ Roberts: Correct.
Tyler Cowen: Boswell's Life of Johnson would be one of my favorites--
Russ Roberts: Trouble reading that--
Tyler Cowen: which by the way is part fiction.
Russ Roberts: I have trouble reading that.
Tyler Cowen: It's the small group theory: how small groups can have amazing dialogues and how that propels them forward. But a lot of it's made up.
Russ Roberts: How about Montaigne, the Essays? Did you read them?
Tyler Cowen: Yes. I have a very high opinion of them. I've gone back to them. They just seem a little slow for me right now.
Russ Roberts: They are, but I love--
Tyler Cowen: But they haven't gone down in my eyes. I think they're pretty amazing, and he's ahead of his time, still.
Russ Roberts: Oh, my gosh! He's such a modern. That part of it is so fascinating to me.
Tyler Cowen: Humane in some very deep way and a big influence on Smith. I would say better than Smith, actually.
Russ Roberts: I'm just going to let that sit there.
Tyler Cowen: Yeah. Yeah. That's my trolling you.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. Exactly.
Are you a Robert Caro fan? [More to come, 59:04]
Tyler Cowen: I love the Moses book. The LBJ [President Lyndon Baines Johnson] books, I've started. I thought they were amazing, but I ended up saying, 'I could just read the Wikipedia page and end up knowing the same things,' because I don't need to know the details of how he bribed his way through Texas State government; and I didn't read further, but they're incredible.
Russ Roberts: Mmm, I think that's a missed opportunity. As a portrait of ambition--ruthless ambition--I think it's unparalleled. I say that having stopped--I think I only got through the first three volumes. But I loved them when I was reading them. I think they're extraordinary. They're a portrait of America. They're not a portrait of LBJ. They're incredible achievement on my mind.
I'm going to mention one of my favorite books, which is Churchill's History of World War II. Have you read it?
Tyler Cowen: I have never read it. I think I've read snatches of it. It's beautiful prose.
Russ Roberts: It's incredible.
Tyler Cowen: But I don't trust the narrative.
Russ Roberts: Oh, of course not.
Tyler Cowen: I love the Victor Davis Hanson book on World War II. But, it's like you don't want to watch certain documentaries because you know they'll skew you, and Churchill on World War II strikes me as a bit like that.
Russ Roberts: It's so good, though, Tyler. And the other part I did--this is crazy, but I actually read--in the back of every volume are all the memos he wrote. And I felt--and this was in my phase when I couldn't not finish a book: and by the way, that would include, like, the appendices. So, I would read all his--they're phenomenal. They're so great. He's such a good writer. Anyway, I recommend that even though I understand it's--you can read his fiction if you want. He's just a beautiful stylist.
Tyler Cowen: I don't read books of letters much. There's a few I quite like, but do you love reading letters?
Russ Roberts: Not at all. What would be--you mean, like, the letters of so-and-so?
Tyler Cowen: There's exchanges between Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop, who were two poets.
Russ Roberts: Well, that's worth thinking about.
Tyler Cowen: And those are very good. There's some other examples, but mostly letters, the action unfolds too slowly for me or it's too much superfluous information.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. Yeah. Not my thing.
Tyler Cowen: Fantastic.
Russ Roberts: You have a favorite?
Tyler Cowen: Lolita is hard to read. When you read it from a current vantage point, you see just how brutal a story it is.
Russ Roberts: It's horrible.
Tyler Cowen: And it's almost unbearable. Many are excellent. Pale Fire would be, like, a top 20 fiction work for me. Pnin. But, again, many others.
Russ Roberts: What a stylist. Incredible.
Tyler Cowen: Top mind.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. Incredible.
Tyler Cowen: And writing in his second language, maybe it was even a third language.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. Amazing.
Russ Roberts: Do you have anything else you want to ask me or say? Do you ever read--
Tyler Cowen: How much do you feel obliged to read the books of your friends? You have a lot of friends who write books, right?
Russ Roberts: Yeah. Well, you talked about books--fiction, excuse me, nonfiction being overrated. I do tend to believe that most books are just a good journal article or essay, magazine or essay that got flushed out into a book. I'm always disappointed--I'm not always--I'm often disappointed. I'll give you an example of a counterexample of that. I remember when I read Bryan Caplan--my former colleague, your current colleague--his book, The Myth of the Rational Voter. There's an interesting idea on every page. There's not a single--you may not agree with it, it might be wrong; but he earned the writing that book. It's full of interesting stuff. So many books aren't like that.
One of my favorite books is Arnold Kling's Three Languages of Politics. It's short. Every page, is also good. It's just short. So, many books--many, many pages don't speak to me and don't give me anything. Taleb would be the opposite. He's a brilliant storyteller. So, I like almost every page there. So, when you ask me, 'Do I read the books of my friends?' I'll tell you, I'm going to confess. No, no, no--
Tyler Cowen: If you don't like the book, you're not your friend, is what you're telling me.
Russ Roberts: No. I'm going to confess something even weirder.
When I went through my library--and I said I had 3,000 books and I gave away a thousand before I moved to Israel--I don't think I gave away, I'm not sure I gave away any books by my friends even when I didn't read the book or didn't like them. I just felt it was like a--it would be a betrayal of some kind to not keep the book in the library. Even though I wasn't going to read it, don't particularly like it. So, that's mine. How about you? You also have a lot of friends who write books. Do you read them all?
Tyler Cowen: If they give me copies, I will read it.
Russ Roberts: You will? Oh.
Tyler Cowen: I will. But it's striking to me--the book I just finished writing called Talent with Daniel Gross, my co-author--I read remarkably few books to write that book. I read a very large number of articles. And this is maybe getting back to my view that books are overrated. I don't think there are many great books to read on understanding talent other than just trying to absorb some very large corpus of knowledge about human achievement.
You know, Dean Keith Simonton would be a counterexample. Gladwell's Outliers is quite interesting. There are books you should read. But I think more and more, the idea--you learn methods, you read in clusters, you don't obsess over single books, you try to read on a project you're working on so you have context--that those are the best ways to read. I think I'm now believing more firmly than before.
Russ Roberts: Hmm. Interesting.
Tyler Cowen: What would be your summary statement of where you're at, at the moment, on reading books?
Russ Roberts: I miss my youth. I miss curling up with a book for a whole day and reading a book--like, an entire book--cover to cover, in a sitting, which I've done a handful of times in my life for 250 pages in a different context. I can't do that anymore--for a lot of reasons.
My old joke used to be: When I was younger I read a book a week; and then when I had children, I read a book a night: they just had more pictures. And now I'm back to reading a book a week. But it's usually for EconTalk. And occasionally I regret a choice. I wish I hadn't picked this book. But often I learned something, almost always I learned something. But I miss that immersion, just like I miss graduate school when I could sit for four, six hours and just think through a problem and write stuff down--you know that--
As I get older, you know, my memory--I think I was blessed with a very good memory. It's not what it was. I can feel it. But the compensation is, is that because I've read more stuff than when I was younger, I see connections that I couldn't see. And that's very precious to my.
So, when I read a book now and I see its connection to something else I understand or read or I pull out a narrative or an anecdote or a story and I piece it together with something else, that's just the deepest kind of pleasure. And I just love that. But what I miss is that lost-in-a-book feeling, which is hard for me now. I have more going on in my life. I've got--I'm older. I'm less able to concentrate for long periods of time because I spend too much time on YouTube and chess.com. And I miss that.
But, overall, it's pretty good. And I would just say--today is the second anniversary of the passing of my father, who was an enormous influence on me, as anyone who is listening can tell and has listened to me can tell. And, books remain a great connection for me with him now that he's gone. I still read things that I think, 'Oh, I could share this with my dad.' And--but it's still okay that he's still part of me. So, that he's not here physically isn't so important in a way. I miss him, but the fact that I can't show him a passage in a book is okay because his son's reading that book. It's part of him. He's not gone that way, completely.
So, have you read Sum by David Eagleman?
Tyler Cowen: I don't think so.
Russ Roberts: S-U-M?
Tyler Cowen: No.
Russ Roberts: Can I give you a copy?
Tyler Cowen: You can. I'll read it, too.
Russ Roberts: Okay. It's real short. It's a magical book. It's phenomenal. He's a neuroscientist.
Russ Roberts: I've got nothing else to say. Do you want to add anything?
Tyler Cowen: I would add I view Chinese fiction as a big open missing area for me.
Russ Roberts: Whoa!
Tyler Cowen: I've tried a fair amount. It's just hard for me to make progress. I'm really grasping it and its context, and I will read your next book, Russ.
Russ Roberts: You already have, Tyler; but what you don't know is that it's much better than when you read it before.
Tyler Cowen: I'll reread it and then I'll read your next book after that.
Russ Roberts: My guest today has been Tyler Cowen. Tyler, thanks for being part of EconTalk.
Tyler Cowen: Thank you, Russ.