Michael Orthofer, one of the world’s most prolific book reviewers, joins Tyler Cowen for a conversation on — what else? — books. Read to discover why Michael believes everyone should read more fiction, how we should choose books, why American popular literature is overrated, what he thinks about authors like Herman Melville, Fyoder Dostoevsky, Goethe, J.K. Rowling, Arno Schmidt, and many others, his recommendations for the best sites for readers, why studying literature at college was such a big disappointment, how much book covers matter, and why his opinion will never be the final word.
Here is one excerpt:
COWEN: Here’s another life hack which I totally reject, but it may just be because I’m an addict of sorts. You tell me why, for you, it’s wrong.
A lot of people say to me, “Well, I love fiction, but I’m never going to read new works because I can’t tell what’s really good. I’ll just wait 20 years and then look back on what was truly excellent from 20 years ago and read that 20 years later. In the meantime, now I’ll just read classics or things in other areas which are verified as being truly excellent.” Does that make sense?
ORTHOFER: I worry very much about people who rely on what gets that stamp of approval. Just because it has a cover review in the New York Times Book Review does not mean that that book really is, if we look at it from five or ten years down the road — that that book will still be a significant work. I find so much which is highly praised at any one point long‑term won’t be. Again, however — .
COWEN: If we take American citizens, who are not necessarily the people who read you, but at the margin, we could give them more nonfiction, we could give them more travel, we could give them more fiction, or we could actually give them more of some really good TV, which of those things are we rooting for them to do more of, at the margin?
And this exchange:
COWEN: Bottom’s Dream. Most people have never heard of Arno Schmidt.
ORTHOFER: Regrettably, no.
COWEN: We have a chance now to read his masterwork. Some of his others are in English already. Tell us why we should care.
…COWEN: But you giggled when you read Bottom’s Dream, right?
COWEN: You giggled a lot.
ORTHOFER: The English edition, I think, is just under 1,500 pages.
COWEN: A mere pittance compared to Dream of the Red Chamber, right?
Do read the whole thing.
Here is my short review of Michael’s big book on world literature: “If you measure book quality by the actual marginal product of the text, this is one of the best books written, ever. Reading the manuscript in draft form induced me to a) write an enthusiastic blurb, and b) order about forty items through Amazon, mostly used of course. The book is basically a comprehensive guide to what is valuable and interesting in recently translated world literature, a meta-book so to speak, with extensive coverage of most of the countries you might want.” And here is Michael’s blog. You can order Michael’s book here.