I just picked up Tyler Cowen’s Discover your Inner Economist, and found that he has some rather unorthodox suggestions for how to get the most enjoyment out of reading books and watching movies. He argues that when it comes to these experiences, the major limiting factor is the scarcity of our own attention. Cowen’s approach? Quit early and often if something loses your interest:
When should we finish a book we have started? In this regard I am extreme. If I start ten books maybe I will finish one of them. I feel no compunction to keep reading. Why not be brutal about this? Is this book the best possible book I can be reading right now, of all the books in the world? For me at least, the answer is usually (but not always) no.
And he has a similar approach to movies:
I walk out of many movies, especially if I go alone. I go to many movies expecting to walk out, indeed wanting to walk out. I would like some idead of what the movie is about. . . . Certain movies are so popular or so famous that none of us want them to remain a mysterious black box in our cultural experience. I’d like to get a feel for this movie and I don’t always want to wait for the DVD or suffer the small screen . . . . do I really need to see the end?
I’ve run into the problem Cowen describes. I assume we all have. There is no shortage of interesting books to read or movies to see. I take the opposite approach to Cowen, though, in that I rarely give up on a book or a movie. I guess I figure that while a book may not be the very best possible one I could be reading, if I’ve read a substantial fraction of it I will likely enjoy the remainder of the book more than I would starting a new book that might turn out to be bad.
But I wonder if I’m not wrong. I read a lot of popular nonfiction–stuff like Guns, Germs, and Steel, for example–that’s written in inverted pyramid form like newspaper articles. The author will tell you all the most exciting stuff about his or her idea at the beginning, and then spend the rest of the book elaborating on the idea, fleshing out details. Because of this arrangement, I find it exciting to start books of this kind, but I often have to force myself to finish them. Guns, Germs, and Steel is an excellent example of this. I couldn’t put it down through the first couple of hundred pages–Jared Diamond has an explanation based on geography of all things, for how it came to be that the Europeans ran roughshod over the American Indians, rather than the other way around–but I was getting bored by the final few chapters.
I often find while reading the last few chapters of such a book that I am enticed by other books. So perhaps I should take a modified version of Cowen’s advice and give them up once the exciting front end is over.
My wife actually applies a version of Cowen’s approach, certainly to movies and occasionally to books. She watches a lot of movies on DVD by fast-forwarding through the uninteresting parts. If you don’t go too fast, (no more than 2x speed or so) you can even put the subtitles on and follow the dialog. I asked her about this once, and she told me that her experience is that only a few movies are paced well enough for it to be worth her time to experience the pacing as a part of the movie.
Along similar lines, if I remember right, in David Brin’s near-future novel Earth, there’s a character whose job is to artfully edit down 2-hour movies of the late 20th century to 45 minutes for busy 21st century people who didn’t have two hours to spare. I don’t see why multiple versions of different lengths couldn’t become a standard DVD option. We’ve already seen examples in Peter Jackson’s extended editions of The Lord of the Rings movies. But on a simpler level, every time we look at a DVD’s deleted scenes, we’re deciding that we were interested in watching a movie for longer than its actual length, and when we fast-forward, we’re deciding that we’re less interested than its actual length.
So how do you deal with the problem of your limited attention relative to the abundant books and movies you might want to experience? Does anyone use Tyler Cowen’s solution, or anything like it?
[Note: The quotes from Discover your Inner Economist come from p. 73. If you like Tyler Cowen’s writing or ideas, you should definitely check out his blog Marginal Revolution, which he writes with Alex Tabarrok.]