Saturday, January 23, 2016

Tyler Cowen on Deep Reading

Cowen writes:

Brad asks:

Prof. Cowen – I’m a longtime MR reader, but just came across an old post on your prolific reading. In the post, you mention:

“But it is not like the old days when I would set aside two months to work through The Inferno, Aeneid, and the like, with multiple secondary sources and multiple translations at hand. I no longer have the time or the mood, and I miss this.”

I am intrigued by this process of deep reading the canonical classics – have you detailed your method/routine for this anytime on MR?

Here is my preferred method:

1. Read a classic work straight through, noting key problems and ambiguities, but not letting them hold you back. Plow through as needed, and make finishing a priority.

1b. Mark up the book with bars and questions marks, but don’t bother writing out your still-crummy thoughts. That will slow you down.

2. After finishing the classic, read a good deal of the secondary literature, keeping in mind that you now are looking for answers to some particular questions. That will structure and improve your investigation. But do not read the secondary literature first. You won’t know what questions will be guiding you, plus it may spoil or bias your impressions of the classic, which is likely richer and deeper than the commentaries on it.

3. Go back and reread said classic, taking as much time as you may need. If you don’t finish this part of the program, at least you have read the book once and grappled with some of its problems, and taken in some of its commentators. If you can get through the reread, you’ll then have achieved something.

4. I am an advocate of the “close in time” reread, not the “several years later” reread. The several years later reread works best when it has been preceded by a close in time reread, otherwise you tend to forget lots, or never to have learned it to begin with, and the later reread may be more akin to starting a new book altogether.

5. If you want to find new things in books you already know and love, opt for new editions, new translations, and new typesettings where you will encounter it as a very different visual and conceptual field.

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