Tyler Cowen Reads--and Knows--More Than You

Tom on May 12, 2010

I've always been fascinated by "speed readers." I'm not sure there were any magazine ads when I was growing up that I was more drawn to than those ones for Evelyn Wood Reading Dynamics. (Am I right? Did Bill Cosby endorse them?) I can't find an image of the ads on the web, but I can still see them in my mind: white pages with short paragraphs of large type with circles and underlines and ovals and the promise that, with training, you could take in those words in huge, comprehensive gulps. And throughout my life, but in grad school especially, there always seemed to be a secret pecking order, based on how fast you could read. You would look at other people, who seemed to have read ten times the books you had, and wonder if there was some biological difference that made them able to inhale information at some warp speed.

These days I'm less concerned about reading fast than I am about just staying awake, but I still read a profile like one I came across of Tyler Cowen a little while back with a combination of admiration, envy, and disgust. The Atlantic has been doing a pretty interesting What I Read series, about how various people, journalists mainly, deal with the "torrent of information" that rushes past us all, and when they asked Cowen, the famous economics blogger at Marginal Revolution, it became clear that he deals with the torrent by, well, reading it all:

If I don't have a social event, and am reading non-fiction, it is likely I will read a few books in an evening. I can't read fiction nearly as fast. I love Kindle when I travel but don't use it much at home, except to finish books from episodes of travel. The pages don't turn fast enough for me, so it works best for fiction.... Usually I do with books the same thing I do with magazines, I’ll see what comes in the mail that day, and I try to read it that night.

Wha? I consider it a victory just to open the boxes of books that arrive every day, much less read them. What's it like to "read a few books in an evening"? Does he comprehend a book the way I do, when it passes so quickly before his eyes? (Ah, no doubt he understands it better...)

I was reminded of that piece by a profile of Cowen in yesterday's Washington Post, which further reveals him (as I'm sure his more-regular blog readers well know) as an omnivore of many further appetites, and also further explains his book-reading, and movie-watching, policies:

"People should be more willing to walk out of movies," he tells anyone who will listen. "Most movies -- they grab you or they don't, and if they don't, just leave. Just go. You have already lost money. Why lose the time?"

If a movie doesn't hook Cowen, he reads a book outside while his wife remains in her seat. Most recent movie they both left: "Greenberg," starring Ben Stiller.

With books, Cowen is even more brutal. If a book is bad, he often throws it away, so it doesn't waste anyone's time. "What if the next book they were going to read is 'Moby-Dick'?" But if a book is good, he might give it away -- to libraries, friends or, if he's on a plane, total strangers (he leaves them in the seat-back pocket for the next passenger to discover). "He drives the flight attendants crazy," his wife says.

Books, thanks mainly to my job, I've learned to leave if they aren't working for me, but I've never walked out of a movie. Maybe it's that a couple of hours is too short a time to outweigh the pain of not seeing the story to completion (of course Cowen could knock off a book or two in that time, which may explain why he values it more), or maybe I like seeing how even bad movies are constructed in total. Or maybe I'm just too embarrassed to walk up the aisle when everybody is still watching... What are your reading and watching habits? --Tom

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