The man who wants to read everything

by on February 18, 2016 at 12:16 am in Books, Education, Web/Tech, Weblogs | Permalink

The New Yorker has done a profile of Michael A. Orthofer, here is one excerpt:

I first contacted him in 2004, asking him if I could write for the the Complete Review; I was an undergraduate at Stanford at the time, and thought that the site was an institution, like The New York Review of Books. I was politely rebuffed. Years later, I e-mailed to ask if I could send him a galley of my first novel. He already had it, he replied—he had picked up an advance review copy for sale at the Strand, for $1.49. He went on to review the book, giving it a B, and later e-mailed to soften the blow. “Bs always have something going for them,” he explained, while a C grade indicates “steer-clear territory.” All books on the site get a rating from A+ to F, part of the site’s endearing, Robert-Christgau-like fustiness.

Michael runs Literary Saloon, one of the very best and most important blogs, focusing on foreign literature in translation.

Oddly, he spent the first six years of his life not reading, and thus he is somewhat behind.  Yet he is working at it:

“I can’t imagine not doing it,” Orthofer told me. “A day in which I don’t read or write, I have trouble falling asleep.” His goal is to read a book a day, though he confesses that this is “unrealistic.” He works on weekends, too, and has written four novels that are in the drawer. His main interests, according to the site, are inline roller-skating in Central Park and building snow sculptures, some of which are big enough that he carves staircases inside them to get to the top. When he tires of working, he steps out to a library or bookstore, “to see, be around books.” Last year, and this year, he worked through Christmas.

I will continue to read him until I can no longer.  The profile is interesting and humorous throughout, and it is so far my favorite magazine piece of the year.

For the pointer I thank Michael Rosenwald.

1 Tom T. February 18, 2016 at 12:28 am

I have the same goal, except it’s as to drinking.

2 Govco February 18, 2016 at 2:38 pm

“Oddly, he spent the first six years of his life not reading, and thus he is somewhat behind.”

Oddly, I spent 6 years sober but then turned 7 and thus I am still behind.

To veer a bit, as we functional drinkers do, Prof Cowen is sober and intermittently delivers temperance sermons (thankfully, he doesn’t go full Progressive prohibition), so I have a question: why do cultures/countries that prohibit alcohol suck so much? (Drinking countries are a mixed bag, sure, but prohibition countries universally suck.)

Proposed study: We measure the contributions and melting-pottedibility of two Middle East immigrant populations- drinkers and abstainers. What do you think we’d find?

Last point, within 20 years of its first saltpeter farms the quality of English black gunpowder exceeded all European sources because of dense NH4 concentration in their urine, which occurs when the body metabolizes large quantities alcohol.

3 carlolspln February 19, 2016 at 12:39 am

“..within 20 years of its first saltpeter farms the quality of English black gunpowder exceeded all European sources because of dense NH4 concentration in their urine, which occurs when the body metabolizes large quantities alcohol”


1) If you consumed a large quantity of alcohol, you’d have higher levels of formaldehyde in your system

2) You don’t excrete ammonia in your urine, you excrete urea. Ammonia produced by the urea cycle is highly toxic and must be removed from the organism’s body through excretion. The form in which it is excreted largely depends on the availability of water. In fish ammonia is secreted directly into the surrounding water in a very dilute form. This is advantageous as no metabolic energy is expended processing ammonia into other molecules. In mammals and amphibians which normally do not have unlimited access to water, ammonia is first processed to urea. This less toxic nitrogen containing substance can then be excreted with far less water loss enabling the animal to conserve. For birds it is essential to minimize unnecessary body weight in order to facilitate flight. They convert ammonia to uric acid, which has very low solubility. This means very little water is needed to excrete waste nitrogen so the water stores they carry do not need to be as high.

4 Mark Thorson February 18, 2016 at 2:19 am

Six is young to start reading. I was five, but my mom was a teacher and she drilled me into reading before I entered school. I was the only kid in my first grade class who was already a proficient reader. My class was synchronized with a third grade class, and I was sent there during reading time. I was still a better reader than any of them, but third grade was the highest grade they had in that school. (The higher grades were in another school up on a hill.)

The advantage I got from early reading persisted throughout my school career. Of all of the things my parents did for my education, I think this was the most effective in propelling me to high academic achievement.

5 John February 18, 2016 at 4:32 am

I don’t understand how this many can’t even read one book a day (and its all he does) yet Tyler reads 3 per day.

6 Anon February 18, 2016 at 5:31 am

……yet Tyler reads 3 per day.


7 RPLong February 18, 2016 at 7:33 am

As of late last year, Tyler was averaging about 115 pages per day of just books (I.e. Not counting the blogs and magazines he reads), which is not at all unreasonable for a normal person. But then you factor in his overall workload, blogging, professional responsibilities, etc., and it starts to strain credulity. We may never know if he sleeps.

Here’s my two-penny analysis of his ability to read:

8 Anon. February 18, 2016 at 11:50 am

115 is perfectly reasonable, especially considering Tyler seems to read mostly non-fiction, including a lot of economics. When you’re reading something in an area you’re familiar with you can skim the bits for non-experts and go straight for the meat. You can do 115 pages in 2 hours per day with ease.

9 RPLong February 18, 2016 at 2:40 pm

I believe that it’s possible, i.e. I believe Tyler Cowen tells the truth about what he reads. I was pretty skeptical until I wrote my blog post and realized that it wasn’t as unbelievable as it seemed prima facie.

Still, understanding Beethoven’s 9th Symphony requires more than just the time required for the music to be performed .I wouldn’t trust the review of a writer who had only heard it once, and especially if they had fast-forwarded through parts of it to catch only the main themes. That’s why I respect that Tyler Cowen can read so many books, but only take his book reviews with salt-shaker in hand.

10 Mark Thorson February 18, 2016 at 10:53 am

He sleep-reads. Three books under his pillow every night. Of course, it takes two nights to read one book. Odd pages on the first night, then he flips the book over and reads the even pages on the second night.

11 carlolspln February 18, 2016 at 5:36 am

“……yet Tyler reads 3 per day.”

Three per day before Lunch.


12 joe February 18, 2016 at 8:09 am

At what point are you actually reading too much? What is the point of reading about others’ lives while not living your own?

13 Willitts February 18, 2016 at 8:49 am

I paused momentarily when the article described what he does as “work.” By no means do I think cerebral endeavours lack value, but there are only hints at his ssources of income. How can he afford the leisure time of building massive ice castles?

His outstanding blog probably generates income. Perhaps some of his novels made it out of his desk, and he lives off royalties. Perhaps he earns enough from paid reviews.

My point here is not to disparage his work but to demonstrate a sea change. The basic philosophy of the liberal arts is knowledge for its own sake, not for the purpose of earning income. He appears to be doing quite well and enjoying life to boot.

It appears that capitalism, in general, and the internet specifically, has learned to squeeze value out of esoteric arts that would otherwise be a free ride.

14 Thelonious_Nick February 18, 2016 at 11:49 am

He has no novels on Amazon, though he does have a couple book review guides, the highest ranked at # 274,243. My writers’ group published an anthology a couple months ago that hit #60000, and we made a couple hundred bucks from that.

Blog may very well generate income, but it’s hard to imagine it’s anything but the most modest amount.

My guess is some combination of inherited money, rent-controlled apartment, and indifference to poverty.

15 Anton February 18, 2016 at 6:38 pm

Evidently, he went to Columbia for law school. See It sounds like he graduated around 1991, and then cut down on law work in 2002. Based on where he went to school, he probably worked in biglaw during those years, possibly doing more lucrative transactional work in New York. He could have made some pretty good money that way — at least enough to live like a bohemian as long as he supplements with some occasional real work on the side, has a rent-controlled apartment, and inherited some money.

16 Willitts February 18, 2016 at 7:18 pm

So apparently I’m not the only slacker from there. 🙂

17 bulgarian licens plate V mode February 18, 2016 at 9:30 pm

I have studied reading rates for years. Here are a few maximums – Nabokov, 4 hours of real literature a day (for him, that would be specialists like Tolstoy and Flaubert and Kafka):Oliver Wendell Holmes, 100 substantial legal treatise pages on a weekend day: Virginia Woolf – appalled but not surprised that a classics student read up to 8 hours of Greek a day: typical literature student at a Great Books college, 20 to 30 real pages a day, two or three times through if necessary (Plato, Swift, Dostoyevsky – that sort of real). The great classical scholars of the 19th century would read through the useful parts of recently published books in classical scholarship in a single evening and would, before going to bed, toss the book, having read the best parts, out the window into the shrubbery for the gardener to dispose of in the morning (365 books a year, to simply do the math). I read an internet comment once from a very interesting person – as I assume from this one comment – who stated that, for the sake of his wife whom he liked as a friend and as a spouse, he planned, for the rest of his life, to read no more than 4 difficult books a year. As for the people I have known in real life – the eight or nine hundred people who I have known well enough to have an informed opinion, for what that is worth, about – the average among those who like books is probably, with a very extended bell curve, 40 minutes a day or so, which does not sound like much but is enough to get through lots of the best parts of lots of good books every year. Orthofer’s blog is very useful if you want to see what the publishing establishments of various countries have decided about which authors are potentially worth reading. Based on what I know about books he has reviewed and that I have read, he may be accurate up to about thirty to forty percent (to be super-generous – most of what he likes appears to be stuff that is no more than over-developed boilerplate secular and faded witticisms, although, to be fair, he has said many insightful things on books I consider good, and he may know more about what good modern books are out there in his wheelhouse than I could possibly know). That being said, he is really not at his best with geniuses and very very good books, and he puzzlingly prides himself on considering “literary fiction” to be a genre, sort of like an admirably bluestocking parallel to science fiction and westerns and mysteries. But his website is a fascinating website, and he seems to one of the most interesting people who can be found posting on the internet. In any event, the optimal human rate of reading was demonstrated by Shakespeare, who probably spent several hours a day in conversation with people he admired, and over the course of his life, on average, had to have read about 30 to 60 minutes a day (with huge variability) of the usual suspects such as Montaigne, Ovid, Vergilius, Sappho, and similar writers; not to mention memorization of the liturgy of the local traditional church, deep and compassionate memorization of the Geneva Bible (ask Ron Rosenbaum about that) and constant astonishment at what statements and expressions the people he cared about came up with (and he cared about almost everybody, I guess). Then again, to return to recent times, the great mathematician Andre Weil believed, if I remember correctly, that no mathematician should read math books qua books. Good for him, but I haven’t come across any good verses by him lately.

18 Steko February 19, 2016 at 11:19 pm

Tyler should send him a copy of Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World.

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