Please enjoy this transcript of another episode of the “Books I’ve Loved” series, in which I invite amazing past guests, close friends, and new faces to share their favorite books—the books that have influenced them, changed them, and transformed them for the better.
This episode, we have Maria Popova and Tyler Cowen. Maria (@brainpicker) is a reader and a writer who writes about what she reads on Brain Pickings, which is included in the Library of Congress permanent web archive of culturally valuable materials. She is the author of Figuring, the editor of A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader, and the creator and host of The Universe in Verse, an annual charitable celebration of science through poetry at the interdisciplinary cultural center Pioneer Works in Brooklyn.
Tyler (@tylercowen) has a personal moonshot: to teach economics to more people than anyone else in the history of the world—and he might just succeed. In addition to his regular teaching at George Mason University, Tyler has blogged every day at Marginal Revolution for almost 17 years, helping to make it one of the most widely read economics blogs in the world. Tyler cocreated Marginal Revolution University, a free online economics education platform that’s reached millions. He is also a bestselling author of more than a dozen books, a regular Bloomberg columnist, and host of the popular Conversations with Tyler podcast.
Transcripts may contain a few typos. With some episodes lasting 2+ hours, it can be difficult to catch minor errors.
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Maria Popova: My name is Maria Popova, and I am a reader and a writer. And for 13 years now, I’ve been writing about what I read, what I think about, what I aspire toward, on a website called Brain Pickings. I also spent eight years on a labor of love that became the book A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader, which is a collection of illustrated letters to kids about the power and the joy of reading—how it shapes who we become—with contributions by 121 of the most interesting people of our time: Jane Goodall, Yo Yo Ma, Neil Gaiman, Richard Branson, and also a lovely letter from Tim with all proceeds from the book benefiting the New York Public Library system.
And I wrote a very thick, very yellow book called Figuring, which looks at our human search for truth, for meaning, for self-actualization, for love through the lives of several historical figures, spanning four centuries, beginning with the astronomer Johannes Kepler, who revolutionized our understanding of the universe with his laws of planetary motion, and ending with the marine biologist and author Rachel Carson, who catalyzed the modern environmental movement.
And that is also how I read and what I read. Across disciplines, across eras, across sensibilities, and that is the lens with which I’ve chosen the three books I’m about to recommend. They’re also books wonderful, in large part, for being underappreciated, books of quiet revolution that have kind of coursed beneath the surface of mainstream attention and awareness.
The first book is a tiny, tiny gem of a book called Letter [to] a Hostage by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, the author of The Little Prince, which is of course one of the most beloved—I hesitate to say “children’s books” of all time because I consider it really a work of philosophy and deep, deep psychological insight. In fact, I reread it about once a year, every year, and each time I find in it new revelations of meaning, new existential remedies really for whatever it is I’m struggling with in my own life at that particular moment.
Saint-Exupéry was a commercial pilot before World War II, and once the war broke out, he served as a pilot for the French military, running reconnaissance missions. At one point he became a prisoner of war after his plane crashed over the Sahara Desert. Letter to a Hostage is his slim memoir recounting that experience, reflecting on its deeper significance, an experience that informed and inspired The Little Prince but also opened up these enormous questions of what does it mean to live? What is the wellspring of our humanity? How do we keep our noblest impulses alive in the midst of death and destruction and divisiveness?
He is an incredibly poetic writer and this is just an incredibly soulful humanistic book, but also incredibly lucid and helpful, helpful in a very practical sense that trickles down from the philosophical and the poetic, the practical sense of how do we live these human lives? How do we live meaningfully and honorably and purposefully despite the foibles and the imperfections of the world and of our own hearts.
The second book is one that shines a sideways gleam on perhaps the most elemental of these questions. It’s called Love and Saint Augustine by Hannah Arendt. And it’s an improbable and deeply insightful inquiry into the life of the heart by one of the most incisive intellects who ever lived and one of the greatest political thinkers our civilization has produced. It is her first book-length manuscript and the last to be published in English. It was posthumously discovered amongst her papers by two women, a political scientist and a philosopher who were doing research on her.
For half a century after Arendt wrote this as her doctoral thesis in Germany in 1929, she obsessively revised and annotated the manuscript, and for the remainder of her life she honed her core philosophical ideas against Augustine’s whetstone, contemplating the troublesome disconnect between philosophy and politics, particularly moral philosophy and politics as evidenced by the rise of totalitarian regimes, which of course she later explored in her just shockingly relevant book, The Origins of Totalitarianism. And all the while in Love and Saint Augustine, she contemplates the nature of love and how to live with our fundamental fear of it’s loss.
Here’s just a tiny passage from it. She writes: “Fearlessness is what loves seeks. Such fearlessness exists only in the complete calm that can no longer be shaken by events expected of the future. Hence, the only valid tense is the present, the now.” It was from Augustine that Arendt borrowed the phrase, “amor mundi,” love of the world, which would become a defining feature of her philosophy and her core political concern, which was: Why do we succumb to and why do we normalize evil?—the question at the heart of her now iconic book, The Banality of Evil.
Arendt identified as the root of tyranny the act of making other human beings irrelevant. Again and again, she returned to Augustine for the antidote, love.
My final and crowning perk as a kind of unifying force for the questions raised by the other two books. It’s a book by the astrophysicist Janna Levin, who became a real-life friend after I first encountered her through her beautiful writing. The book is called A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines, and perhaps it’s best described as a mathematical historical novel. How’s that for USB specificity?
But just beside any label really only loosely captures this uncommonly original, intellectually stirring, soulful, poetic book, drawing on the real lives of two great geniuses to whom we owe much of what we take for granted today—including my ability to record this and your ability to listen to its digital echoes across the space-time fabric of ones and zeros—the great computing pioneer Alan Turing and the great mathematician and logician Kurt Gödel. It’s a book that looks at their lives to unpeel the core of their genius and also of their tragedy and to look at how the two intertwined to give us these remarkable people of just immense impact. And out of their lives arise these larger universal questions about the nature of genius, the relationship between our suffering and our achievement and the search for truth beyond logic.The book belongs to that very, very rare species of incredibly poetic books by working scientists, by an author who happens to be one of the world’s foremost, probably the foremost, expert on black holes, but as also a writer of deeply poetic prose and a thinker of deeply poetic thoughts. It’s a slim book, and I read it long before I knew Janna in person, and it really shaped the way I think about what literature can be. It is extremely form bending, genre bending. There is no analog, no book I can say it is like, and it has really informed the way I think, and I write, and in a great sense that I’ve only recognized in hindsight, it really informed how I wrote Figuring.
Tyler Cowen: Hello, I’m Tyler Cowen. I’m an economist at George Mason University and the Mercatus Center. I’m a blogger at Marginal Revolution and the host of a podcast called Conversations with Tyler. People sometimes don’t believe me when I talk about how many books pass through the house. If I’m not traveling, it’s quite ordinary if I go through five or 10 books a day and which parts of them I’ve read, you can debate, maybe it washes out to be reading two or three books a day. Some good nights, you get to read five all books, right?
The important thing is to be ruthless with the books that are not good. Just stop reading, put them down, usually throw them away. Don’t give them away. You could be doing harm to people if you give them away. My philosophy of reading is that no one reads quickly. So someone once asked me, “Well, how long did it take you to read that book?” I said, “57 years. I’m 57 years old.” So the way you read well is just by reading a lot, and by reading a lot your whole life. Then when you go to read actual books, you’re like, “I know that, I know that, I know that.” You keep on going and you read much more quickly. That’s really the way to read a lot. There are these compounding returns to being obsessed with reading and starting young and never stopping.
Sometimes authors just go on and on with blather or with personal detail that has no relevance to the argument or there are just pages of terminology. It’s like, well, you might still give the book a chance, but you start turning the pages more rapidly and you’re just waiting for some bit of meat. You’re, like, out there, desperate, giving the author still a chance, and then at some point you’re like, “No.” Sorry, zap. Throw it in the trash, onto the next one.
Most books are not half great and half horrible, and you should look at a few different parts of the book, but especially these days. And authors should be able to signal by putting some good stuff up front, right? Because people are less patient than they used to be. A nineteenth-century book, you need to give it more time. It may not get good until chapter three, but these days, my goodness, you can tell so much sometimes just from the font of a book. There are books with bad font management, and you’re like, “Oh my God, it’s that font again.” You just throw it out. You don’t have to read it at all.
A lot of books come to the home, so I get many review copies. On a weekday, I’ll probably average getting 5 to 10 review copies. Probably I’m buying on average two books a day. Those have a much higher chance. There are then books people give me, all sorts of things. So, books from my library that I’m rereading. There’s really just a heavy flow and you have to deal with it somehow. The best reading is focused reading when you’re trying to solve some kind of problem. So, if I’m doing one of my own podcasts with a guest and then I’ll read or reread everything the guest has written. Typically, it’s a reread because I have on guests I like. If I like them, I’ve already read a lot of their stuff, right? So, you’re rereading with an eye toward what is actually interesting about this person and you learn much more that way than if you just randomly pick up books.
So I advocate reading books in clusters. The author can be the clustering factor, it can be the topic, it can be the historical period, but you really get into a person’s mind if you reread everything they’ve done within the span of a few weeks or months and then watch them on YouTube and just try to think about and write out notes. What am I going to ask them? One of the very best ways to read is to have your own podcast.
You want to start with the problem or question when you’re reading. Again, you want to read books together in groups, and you want one of the early books to make the whole thing real or emotionally vivid to you. If you travel to a place, that will do it automatically, but if you’re not traveling, you want the book to do it, so your early book choice is quite important. Then many areas—so take the case of ancient Egypt. As you mentioned, I don’t know what’s the best book on ancient Egypt, but I know there’s enough uncertainty about what went on in ancient Egypt that there’s probably not a clearly well-defined, here’s-the-best-book-on-ancient-Egypt. So you want to read 10 or 20 of them and do a kind of cross-sectional mental econometrics and see which pieces start fitting together and take it from that. So, in so many areas it’s a mistake. “Oh, what’s the best book on X?” Rather you’re looking for some kind of portfolio of books on X.
My first recommendation would be fiction. Reading fiction is important to understand the cross-sectional variation in humanity, to understand how difficult generalizations can be, to just get a sense of how social pieces fit together, and to get a sense of different historical errors. Plus reading fiction is often just plain, flat-out fun. So, I think my fiction read I found the most rewarding was Marcel Proust Remembrance of Things Past, which comes in multiple volumes. It’s a very long read. I’d say about a third of it is quite boring, but the peaks are just amazing, and it’s also hilarious. It’s about how inner monologues work and why expectation matters and what disappointment feels like and what is jealousy like and what’s it mean to be a kind of total failure in a social world or to climb and reach higher levels of status. So I think that’s just a thrilling, remarkable set of volumes.
Some of the very best parts came early, so the first two volumes are incredible. The last volume is incredible. What comes in between is more uneven, but you always feel he’s going to come back to the main storylines you care about. Even the bad parts, they’re not that bad, but it could have been edited down a bit. Right? Let’s be honest.
The second book I’ll recommend is a book on management, except it’s not really a book about management at all. It’s something else. Let me explain. Well, I’m against most books on management. The worst way to learn management is to read a book on management. I recommend to people read a book on something you know about. So if you’re a football fan, read about Vince Lombardi or read Jerry Kramer’s Instant Replay. My favorite book on management is a book about the classic rock group, The Byrds, B-Y-R-D-S. It’s by Johnny Rogan. It’s called Timeless Flight. It’s hundreds of pages about how The Byrds split up and couldn’t work together, and it’s brilliant. It helps you understand small groups. I work in small groups a lot.
I’m not saying you should read that book. You need to know about The Byrds for the book to make sense. Pick an area you know really well and read a book about actual substantive events that in no way has management in the title and is not in the management section of the bookshelf, and then maybe you’ll start learning something about management.
Very often the books that are vivid to me are books I’ve read recently or in the last year. A book—I think it was very, very famous in it’s time, one of the best sellers of its century, but people have stopped reading it, and that is Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which is a book about migration, a book about travel, a book about race, obviously a book about slavery, a book about America in the middle of the nineteenth century. It has vivid characters. The issues maybe for a while seemed obsolete, but they’re highly, highly relevant today. It just bleeds a kind of humanity on virtually every page and communicates what the suffering is like of being in a tragic situation and how there are some structural features of America that tend to breed those kinds of tragedies—slavery in that day, often on migration issues today.
So, I would say go back and read it. There’s a reason why it was one of the two or three best-selling books of the nineteenth century. Those people were not stupider than we were. It’s a somewhat different context. It’s a bit long, but once you pick it up, you’re immediately in the book in the way you would be engrossed in, say, a popular novel. Indeed, it was a popular novel in its time.
I would say if you’re looking to read memoirs, don’t necessarily follow other people’s recommendations, focus on reading memoirs in areas you know something about. Then just Google to online lists. What are the best memoirs in that area? Read a bunch of those. Then here’s the other next thing you should do: every area you don’t give a damn about, you probably should read at least one book in, because the very best book in that area is superb, and you’re not going to know what it is. So if tennis is something you don’t know anything about, well, read Andre Agassi’s memoir. That’s a wonderful book. You don’t have to know or care about tennis. Just go through other areas—gardening, dogs, turtles, whatever. Find the best book on dogs and read it, and the less you like dogs actually, the better that book is going to be because you are not sick of the topic.
Here’s a book I read last night. It’s by Scott H. Young. It’s called Ultralearning. The subtitle is: Master hard skills, outsmart the competition, and accelerate your career. I’m all for all those things. How did I get this book? I met Scott. I had lunch with Scott. He gave me a copy of his book. It’s actually not a bad filter to read the books of people you meet because them getting to meet you is itself a kind of filter, and if they get through that filter, then maybe their book is interesting too because you have structures set up to match people to you based on shared interests. So I care a great deal about the topic. I had a lot of fun with Scott.
I learned Scott is this guy who learned a whole bunch of languages on his own in just a few months’ time, and he just kind of mastered them. He teaches you his secrets on how to learn things quickly. That’s been an obsession of mine since I was a kid. So, this is a book very much after my own heart.
If you’re a knowledge worker, you want to be better, earn more, advance your career, you can’t just sit back and be complacent. You need to be thinking every day—in a sense, every minute—how am I training myself to get better? You’re much more like an athlete or a concert pianist or a chess player than you might think. The people who do really well, they’re just always self-training. So how you should self-train depends on your job. One way I self-train is just by doing, like, my own podcast, Conversations with Tyler. I try to figure out, like, what’s the code to what a famous person has done or achieved and how does it all hang together? Then I talk to them about it, and I know I’m going to be talking to them about it, so I can’t just screw it up. That’s the ultimate test. You can’t say to Martina Navratilova, “Oh, here’s what you really did in tennis.” She’ll tell you you’re full of it. So, that’s like an immediate reality test.
Another method I use for training is this, to keep on writing, always be writing. Don’t care if it never sees the light of day, and write out points of view that are not your own. It’s just practice for thinking. Writing is thinking. If your writing isn’t clear, probably your thinking isn’t clear. Just always be thinking like, “I’m an athlete. I’m like some version of—sub in your famous athlete. What do they do to train? What am I doing to train now?” If they’re ahead of you, like, catch up. People don’t read enough. I think as a society, we’re under investing in reading. People feel compelled to finish books they started. That’s just a tax on your reading. Why would you do that to yourself?
Imagine a world where any restaurant you tried, you had to keep on going there for days or weeks. You’d hardly ever go out to eat. Take reading seriously. Develop a passion for it and view it as part of your practice as a knowledge worker to get ahead. Along the way, having fun doing so.
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