Friday, May 27, 2011

How Tyler Cowen Reads 10,000 Books a Week

Brenda Greely at Business Week explains:
Tyler Cowen sits with a cranberry juice and a pile of books he no longer intends to read. He's at Harry's Tap Room, near the Air France ticket counter in the main terminal of Dulles International Airport, on his way to São Paulo. Two days ago he e-mailed me his reading list for the trip—27 books—and I vowed to keep up with it. Already, before he boards, he has assembled a pile of discards. "Unger. I'd say I browsed it. I looked at every page," he says. "There's nothing wrong with the book. It's a good book to stir up leftists." Roberto Mangabeira Unger's The Left Alternative falls with a thud to the table.

Cowen, 49, has round features, a hesitant posture, and an unconcerned haircut. He handles each book as he ticks it off his list. "This I discarded. It appeared to get a good review, but there's no framework, just scattered vignettes. I looked at 20, 30 pages." Sarah Vowell's Unfamiliar Fishes, thud. Cowen's first rule of reading is as follows: You need not finish. He takes up books with great hope and no mercy, and when he is done—sometimes after five minutes—he abandons them in public, an act he calls a "liberation." ...

Tyler Cowen has read what's listed in Harold Bloom's The Western Canon, though not, he concedes, every single last one of the Icelandic sagas. He rereads what you probably haven't heard of, like Anton Chekhov's Sakhalin Island. For the Brazil trip, in case he runs out of new books, he has also brought Neal Stephenson's 1,100-page Cryptonomicon, which he has already read. Fiction slows him down, he says, which makes packing easier. He carries a Kindle but reads paper when he can; he says he's invested too much time on the rhythm of how the eye tracks the page. Several people have told me the same story about Cowen: They have watched him read, and he scans a page as others might scan a headline...

At the bar at Dulles, he produces David Goldfield's America Aflame, a three-inch-thick hardback on the Civil War. He pats it like an obedient dog and urges me to open a page at random and read a paragraph. "It's clear," he says, "it's about stuff." When we're done eating, he offers me a plastic bag filled with the books he's liberated, tells me that reading is the handmaiden of travel, and heads for security.


  1. Maybe that's why he doesn't believe in the Austrian theory of Business Cycles: because he's only ever skimmed the literature and never read it thoroughly.

  2. I wonder how many pages of Human Action; Theory of Money and Credit; Man, Economy and State; and Economics in One Lesson Cowen got through ...

  3. You know. . . This really explains a lot.

  4. So according to this article and correct me please if i'm wrong... any and all material i touch and skim over .. I can count as a read book or item.. and an expert on all matters..

    Boy will my friends and associates be proud of me... :)

  5. I've heard of the dumbing down of the American educational system, but I've never seen such glaring firsthand evidence. I might as well put a book underneath my pillow. I'd learn as much as he does.

    "It's clear," he says, "it's about stuff."

  6. I just read Amazon's "Top 100 bestsellers" not the actual books themselves but just the list. Can I now check them off my list?

  7. What mindless drivel. This truly does explain quite a bit.