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Love and Clusters: (more from) Tyler Cowen and Russ Roberts on Reading and How to Read

Highlights from Cowen and Roberts’ recent conversation on Econtalk.

On reading for love

Cowen: …don’t read stuff you don’t love reading. That’s the simplest point that I would stress above all else. Maybe you have to read it for your job, but the point of reading is that you love what you’re reading. If not, don’t do it.

On higlighting and annotating

Cowen: I don’t take notes really in any way. I do fold over pages if there’s something notable on the page, but typically I don’t mark what was notable because then when I go back I’ll find other things. So I’m deliberately randomising my second-order search a bit…

Roberts: … I’d figure something out about a really hard book and I’d want to remember it, so I eventually got into the habit [of underlining and writing in the margin], now I do it quite a bit a bit, especially the underlining. I don’t highlight, I underline or bracket… and I find that helpful when I go back and read abook a second time.

Cowen: I just don’t write very well, period. But I also find that I could read another book in the time it takes me to highlight, and the next best book I haven’t read is probably quite good, so why should I higlight?

On reading in clusters and re-reading

Roberts: But why should you read a book more than once?

Cowen: 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. So 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 this book again, but only after I’ve read other books about Irish land history.

So to re-read it twice in a row makes no sense. To read it again ten 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. And that is how and why I’m going to re-read, say, at least two-thirds of this book.

Roberts: But when you talk about the classics, that you were reading before, those are… you read a book four or five times, 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?

Cowen: Those you want to re-read 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 heard 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 re-read that chapter, and re-read as you’re going along. But those are in my view the books with the most wisdom, the books that are most important – to read, to study, to talk about with other people. Shakespeare… the list is mostly obvious, right.

Roberts: But you don’t take notes, so how do you remember anything you read? Or do you just have a great memory?

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 re-read 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 that I have a good memory.

Roberts: 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 in a different example, you start to own it and you can apply it to something that isn’t either of the things you’ve seen the first two times, and for me that’s what’s profound and powerful about reading and about reading clusters, books on similar topics or similar issues. It gets burned into your brain in a different way.

Cowen: Any one book you read on [a] topic you’re not going to retain unless you’re exceptional – and it could be wrong too. If you read four or five books on that topic, even if you only read parts of them, you’ll know something about it.

On reading picture books

Cowen: 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 like a kind of early Wikipedia kind of style and with a lot of wonderful photographs and maps, and 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.

If you read picture books about animals, about science, you’ll probably learn more than if you do what most people do.

On reading YouTube

Cowen: 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 can improve it.

Books are overrated

Cowen: It’s striking to me that 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 that 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. Dean Keith Simonton would be a counterexample, Gladwell’s Outliers is quite interesting – there are books you should read.

But I think more 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 that you have context. That those are the best ways to read, I’m now believing more firmly than before.

Cowen’s top five books

[Cowen has stated before how hesitant he is to recommend specific books that people should read – context is king]

Cowen: Off the top of my head I would say…

Moby Dick
– Proust [I assume In Search of Lost Time, Lydia Davis translation]
– Tolstoy’s War and Peace
– Cervantes [Don Quixote]
– Dickens’ Bleak House or [Swift’s] Gulliver’s Travels

[Roberts thinks this is a horrible list]

Roberts’ Top Four

Roberts: I would pick…

The Brothers Karamazov – Dostoevsky
Soldier of the Great War – Mark Helprin [amazon]
In the First Circle – Alexander Solzhenitsyn
Our Mutual Friend – Dickens

See also:

I'd love to hear your thoughts and recommended resources...