How Do You Read Books (and Watch Movies)?

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.]


  1. If a book or movie bores me out of my mind or offends my sensibilities, I’ll put it down, change the channel, or walk out. Going to the movies, though, I’m a little less likely to walk out as I paid good money to see it, so only if it is really offensive or totally boring will I walk out. If I’m there, though, to do research or critique it for some reason, I’ll stay and bear with the boredom or offensiveness. Books and television movies (or even DVDs or videos) I can put down, remove from the player, walk away or change the channel easily. As I rent DVDs and videos inexpensively from the library (50 cents for a week’s rental) I don’t feel compelled to watch the whole movie if it’s a stinker.

  2. I am a first semester grad student in history. My professors have spent a lot of time ensuring that we know how to “gut” books– reading impatiently for content rather than reading the whole thing. I haven’t finished anything and I’m pretty comfortable with the material.

    I have to finish movies… but I might start gutting those too so I can get more cultural consumption out of my grad student movie budget.

  3. I’m fairly familiar with movies and can see the signs of a bad movie. Take for instance, Spiderman 3. It had many of the signs of a movie attempting too much, and straining to keep the magic. I had no desire to see it. I don’t follow the advice to walk out on a movie. My advice is to not even pay them the money for a bad movie. They don’t deserve my money. And it doesn’t affect them one bit to make better movies if they got my money. If we want them to make better movies, we should not give them money for bad ones.

    Book-wise, I tend to spend a little time reading them at Borders or Barnes and Noble before I dive into a book. If I am bored in the first few pages (and they don’t have to have action or violence, but just a great story) then I won’t even buy it. Not worth the money.

  4. Yep, I do all of this. That trick with subtitles on fast forward is a great one, although sometimes you miss crucial dialogue. But since I have already decided to fast forward the movie, it is obviously not that crucial. More often I just turn the movie off.

    Not long ago I had to quit reading Locke’s An Essay Concerning Human Understanding due to his poor editing for length. And I’m not talking about semi-poor, I’m talking about a Peter-Jackson-level problem.

  5. I try to get other people to do the work for me. I pretty much only read books for my book club or ones that have been highly recommended by people whose taste is similar to mine (Julie’s and Rebecca’s book blogs are a major source of my 370+ Amazon Wish List). I read mostly non-fiction, but fmhLisa has turned me on to a couple of fiction series that I’m enjoying.

    Same thing for movies. I rarely see any in the theater(maybe 2 a year), because so few of them wow me –the time and money spent is not worth it and I’m not a pop culture junkie. The movies I get from Netflix are pretty much all recommends from people with similar movie tastes to mine. I love it when someone in the ‘nacle starts a movie or book post–I’ve added to my Amazon and Netflix lists from those and am seldom disappointed.

  6. Idahospud, I like your idea of getting recommendations from people who have similar tastes. I think that’s funny that you use an Amazon list to keep track of them. I do the same thing because I use so many different computers that it’s a handy way of always being able to add to my list. I guess it’s probably a common strategy.

    Sorry I’m an idiot, but can you direct me Julie and Rebecca’s book blogs? I’m always up for more recommendations!

    Jacob, wasn’t An Essay Concerning Human Understanding the work that Locke worked on his whole life, just adding and adding to it? (Or am I thinking of something else?) Maybe that was the problem–he never went back and edited it.

    Even setting aside the problem of most of my reading material getting less interesting as I read it because the most interesting stuff is at the beginning, I guess I have a short attention span, because I’ll often find that I’m interested in the topic of a book to the tune of perhaps a few hundred pages, but then if it’s 500 pages long, I’m kind of stuck. I can read the beginning and quit when I start to get bored, and I guess I’ll probably get the most important stuff. But I’m not too good at quitting once I’m some way through a book–I guess that’s kind of the point of this post: whether it’s worth it to just quit early on a book in such circumstances. I’m willing to do what Dan mentioned, and check out the beginning of a book and put it down if it doesn’t look interesting (except I do that at a library instead of a bookstore because I’m still a poor student 🙂 ) but I’m just not good at quitting if it gets boring later.

    I like your point about “gutting” academic writing to get the gist of it, Melanie. I can do that fairly well with academic articles in my field, but I don’t do it at all with my pleasure reading. I’m not sure if I would like it. Certainly there are books that I read that, after the fact, I can see I would have been happier spending less time on. But I don’t know if I would be good at predicting, when I’m partway through a book, whether the remainder will be worth reading thoroughly.

    LDS Anarchist, I’m glad to hear that there are people who can give up on the boring stuff easily. I’m not good at giving up on movies, either, even if they’re dumb or offensive. And by the way, welcome to ZD. I’ve enjoyed your comments on the other threads, although you appear to have discovered us during a lull. I have it on good authority that Lynnette is planning a post next week on why stay at home moms in lesbian marriages shouldn’t breastfeed their adopted handicapped children whose biological parents initially considered aborting them, and I’m sure that will increase the amount of discussion in these parts. 🙂

    Thanks for all your comments. I always enjoy hearing how other people read and get recommendations and everything. And I’m with you too Idahospud, on enjoying it when bloggernacle threads turn to book recommendations.

  7. I think the place we get the media also has a lot to do w/ how willing we are to ditch it before we’re through. Going to the theater or buying a book would make me more hesitant to dump the product. However, my library has Blockbuster-type movies which I can check out and then feel free to watch or not watch, b/c hey it’s free! Thus, I checked out but never watched Superman, did watch Wild Hogs (unfortunately) and didn’t finish A Thousand Splendid Suns.
    But, those choices were based on my feelings at the time, not on the money I’d spent on the item. Economic freedom of media choice. 🙂

  8. Once I’ve committed a certain amount of time to a book or a movie, I have a terrible time giving up. No matter how dumb or implausible it is, my ridiculous optimism sustains me in believing that it has to get better. (Also, I find that I simply have to know how everything turns out–even if I don’t much care about the characters.)

    On the other hand, I can easily drop a book in the first couple of chapters if it fails to hook me, and I often drop even books that I like simply because–well, I’m not sure why, exactly. I have too many other books out of the library, or too many other books I’m reading, or trying to read, and even good books sometimes get shoved to the back burner. I sometimes find that buying books almost guarantees I’ll never get around to reading them because I have to read library books first–I can read books I own anytime.

    I’ve now read the first 150 pages of Margaret Atwood’s _The Blind Assassins_, which my husband gave me for Valentine’s Day in 2001, twice–once in 2001, and last Christmas on the plane back to Utah. But now, more than nine months later, I find that I will have to read the same 150 pages a third time if I’m going to read the book.

    In 2003, Lynnette and I visited Kiskilili and succumbed to a kind of book-buying insanity I’ve never experienced before or since. At the time I was living in rural South Dakota far from bookstores working a mind-numbing job, and I was gripped by desperate, manic booklust at the scores of new and used bookstores that seemed to be everywhere. Hundreds of dollars were spent. Among other things I bought a used copy of _Vanishing Voices: The Extinction of the World’s Languages_. I’ve never read it, although Kiskilili, who also owns it and has actually read it, periodically quotes it to me and tells me how good it is, making me want to pull it off the shelf.

  9. Inner Economist doesn’t live up to the sub-title — I was not amused that he has no idea of how to survive business meetings or improve dental care by incentives.

    He rambles much too much as well. Argghhhhh.

    He really needed a good editor and a more honest copywriter.

  10. Unfortunately, I have to agree with you Stephen. I’m also disappointed that he has already blogged about so much of the material, so I’ve seen it already. And it’s nice that he acknowledges the limitations of applying incentives, but it’s just more fun to read a book full of snappy, memorable examples to illustrate interesting principles.

    Regarding the false subtitle, I have come to think that perhaps these are the area where authors cede all control to marketers because subtitles are so often blatant malarkey. Here’s another egregious example: Baseball Prospectus’s Baseball Between the Numbers is subtitled “Why everything you know about the game is wrong.” Huh? The book doesn’t even begin to argue that, so it seems clear that some marketing guru wrote the subtitle as an attention-getter or something.

  11. Jessawhy, I definitely think you’re right that it’s easier to ditch a book or movie that cost little or nothing. Certainly I’m glad that almost all my reading (and viewing) material comes from the library so at least if I give it up I haven’t spent anything but time. But I think that was Cowen’s point about the scarcity being in attention: most of us can get cheap or free books and movies. What’s scarce is how much time we can spend enjoying them. So how do we pick what to enjoy and when to give up on it?

    Eve, I’m glad I’m not alone in having a hard time giving up on even a bad book or movie. I don’t know if I’m so much optimistic as I share your second reason–I want to know how things turned out. Actually, my wife has a good strategy for this issue too: if she’s not sure if a book or movie is worth finishing, she skips to the end and then finishes the whole thing only if the end is to her liking. Of course, this means potentially missing out on experiencing the end as it flows naturally out of the beginning and middle, but in most cases it instead means discovering that it’s not worth the time to read or watch the middle parts.

  12. For me it depends on what type of book/movie it is. I get all my media through the library, so it’s not a matter of money for me, but time/effort. If it’s something that’s supposed to be good for me, like a classic or an important work or something non-fiction that might be hard to get through but is full of knowledge, I often try to muscle through and finish it. I do often skim it though, and I’ve been known to give up, quite often. However if I’m just reading trashy fiction, I’ll dump after the first few pages if it’s annoying, or halfway through if it loses momentum.

  13. Ziff,

    Yea, that’s the one. He was fully aware it was repetitive and in desparate need of editing, but all I’m saying is that if you are going to write one of the most influential philosophical works in history, you need to have a better excuse for not editing than:

    But to confess the truth, I am now too lazy, or too busy, to make it shorter. –John Locke, giving the worst excuse in history for his failure to edit his magnum opus

  14. It’s so like an economist to view reading a book or watching a movie in cold transactional terms.

    I think I’m at the opposite end of the spectrum from Cowen. I’ve been known to sit through some pretty wretched movies (Forces of Nature, Along Came Polly) simply because I wanted to find out what happened. I know it doesn’t make sense that I would care to find out what happens to characters I didn’t care about, but there it is.

    With books I’m even worse. I finish most books I start, and in fact I have a (short) list of books I have not finished that I feel guilty about. Once in the library this random guy approached me and enthusiastically suggested that I read some Yukio Mishima. In spite of the fact that this guy seemed to be a bit unhinged, I not only followed through on his recommendation but also read an entire four-book series by Mishima (the Sea of Fertility tetralogy). I liked the first two books in the series all right, but I really didn’t like the last two, and the third in particular had some very graphic material that I wish I hadn’t read. But nooooooo, I just had to finish what I started, didn’t I?

  15. I like Nancy Pearl’s (author of “Book Lust”) 50-page rule. According to the 50 page rule, if you are under the age of 50 then you should read the first 50 pages of a book and if you are not that interested you should put it down and read something else. If you are over the age of 50, then you subtract the number of years over 50 from 50 to find out how many pages you should read before giving up. A person who is 52 would read 48 pages before giving up. According to Nancy Pearl, this is a good rule because the older you are the less time you have to read books. When you are 100 you can judge a book by its cover.
    Another thing that I like about Nancy Pearl is the idea that you might be reading a book at the wrong time of your life. You may be forcing yourself to slog through a book that you would actually enjoy at a later time. This happened to me when I was trying to read “One Hundred Years of Solitude.” I think I forced myself to read the first 75 pages, but I just didn’t get it so I quit. A couple of years later I picked up the book again and loved it. I finally got the humor. I am glad that I can remember this book as “the book that I loved” rather than “the book that I forced myself to read.”

  16. When I was in first grade I sludged through every Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle book even though I detested every single one. I found it annoying that every chapter followed a formula in which kids learned that some aspect of their behavior was inappropriate and then inevitably reformed under the pressure of Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle’s unconventional wisdom. I’m not sure I can even reconstruct the bizarre mindset that led me to finish not one book I hated, but multiple books. Perhaps I thought reading was an accomplishment rather than a recreational activity? I also have a memory of reading a biography called Mary, Queen of Scots as a child and having absolutely no interest in it, but forcing myself to finish every page. (Fortunately I’m no longer that bad.)

    Related question: how many books is the ideal number to read at a time? I frequently keep books I’m planning to read or have started in stacks on and inside the nightstand by my bed. (Other books to be read later I put in stacks around the room.) But since the number of books in the “active piles” often comes to about 40, I end up “shortlisting” the books I think I want to read most, and then “shortlisting” the “shortlist.” Then I see books from other piles around the room and think they look interesting and the “shortlist” starts to swell again. I thought that box of Pirate valentines I bought months ago would provide me with enough bookmarks, but evidently not.

    Obviously I have an unrealistic sense of how much time I have for recreational reading and how fast I read. But also I like some variety. Several years ago when we took a week-long trip to Washington, D.C., certain of my siblings mocked me for packing 12 books, which probably was excessive. But the problem wasn’t that I thought I would read all 12 books; it was that I wasn’t sure what I’d be in the mood for.

  17. put the subtitles on

    I always do that with DVDs — my wife started it and we just miss a lot less. I also believe in fast forward, but there are a lot of times when the pacing actually matters.

    Well, off to work.

  18. I consider myself a lifelong film buff : although I am still having trouble learning our recently changed zip code, I can tell you the names of minor actors in many movies from decades gone by. I have almost never walked out of a movie theater. (Hid my eyes once or twice.) But thanks to netflix, i now can turn off a movie if it turns me off.

    And , with Idahospud, I find reviews useful for books and movies. I have deeply enjoyed many films recently that I would only have discovered by trolling the movie reviews. (Best example, the films of Rodrigo Marquez, such as Nine Lives. )

    Kiskilili ‘s story about toting 12 books along on a short trip brought vividly to mind a short story by Somerset Maugham, called “The Book Bag.” Protagonist hauls a duffle-bag of books all over the Far East. (That is not the plot per se, of course.)

    How many books at a time? How much room ya got?

    At the risk of triggering some understandable objections, may I also say that speed reading is not the philistine experience many think it to be. I learned speed reading long ago, at a time when reading student essays had slowed me down to about 250 words per minute. (The average is about 275.)
    I learned to read much faster. When really geared up, in the old days, I could read several thousand wpm
    with dandy comprehension. I don’t read that fast now, but I do read much faster than I did–probably around 900-1200 wpm. And actually, for most people, somewhat faster reading means better, not worse, comprehension. (NOT talking about poetry here, of course.) And of course for “gutting” a book, really fast reading (2000-3000 wpm) works well. The thing is, the 275 wpm most people read is the same speed people read 100 years ago, with much less TO read, and the same speed most adults read in the 8th grade.

    The book problem my friends and I now face is this:
    what do you do with accumulated books, as in several thousand? Recycling books is no longer as easy as it once was. Give away, yes, give some to libraries, yes, if they will take them. But even the charities that send (mostly new) books to China and India want the donors to pay for shipping, and they want only certain titles. ‘Tis a puzzlement.

  19. Good question, Frank. We were concerned that economics might become addictive and that we wouldn’t be able to stop with “just once.” Soon, our blog would be dominated by posts on economics and the discussion of such topics as poetry would fall by the wayside.

    Secrecy and the Economics of Religious Devotion

    Yikes! It’s begun already!

    Elouise, I haven’t tried it, but I read somewhere about bookcrossing, where you mark your books with an ID and leave them where you think another interested reader might pick them up. Then if another reader further down the line enters the book’s ID later, you can see where your book ended up. But if you have lots and lots of books, this might be impractical unless you’re going to leave books lying around by the box. I guess I should feel fortunate I haven’t run into this problem yet. My family lives in a very small condo and our bookshelves are jammed so I’m on a strict book-buying diet.

    Wow, Anna, you really are devoted! In light of your dedication, I should be grateful that I’m able to quit reading books I don’t like at all.

    Beatrice, I like the idea that perhaps if I don’t like a book it’s because I’m reading it at the wrong time in my life. I remember reading Guard of Honor and finding it incredibly slow-moving and dull. When I explained this to a friend’s mother, she said that she had loved the book, and she speculated that I might like it more when I was older. (It’s already been a decade or so; perhaps I should try again.)

    Of course, the idea that maybe I should revisit books that I didn’t like on my first attempt is also kind of frustrating because I find it simplifying to be able to cross a book off my list and mark it “not worth the trouble.”

    Kiskilili, I’ve pretty much given up on the question of how many books to read at once. I read one book at a time. (I read it very well, and then, I move on. –Chuck Winchester, M*A*S*H). Occasionally I’ll read two books at a time, but typically in different circumstances, like I’ll read one while at home and another while on the bus. I’m afraid my mind is too linear to handle more. When I try to read more than one or two at a time, I lose track, and end up just picking up one and reading to its conclusion (or until I decide it’s not worth going on) and then going to the next, and so forth. Either that or I’ll pick up a second book while I’m in the middle of a first, and that will mean that I never actually get back to the first at all and I end up not finishing it because I’m too distractable.


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