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Tyler Cowen recommends “a pile of books” on The Ezra Klein Show

From Plato and Nietzsche to tennis and the Beatles.

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MacLean has argued that the economist and blogger Tyler Cowen — pictured — has provided “a handbook for how to conduct a fifth column assault on democracy” Washington Post/Getty Images

The first time Tyler Cowen appeared on The Ezra Klein Show, to talk about his book The Complacent Class, Ezra’s explicit plan was to ask the economist and blogger questions on “as many topics as possible.” This time around, that strategy continues — so much so that it’s difficult to categorize the conversation.

Over the course of the episode, Cowen shares his thoughts on a wide range of topics, including health care, “PC culture”, J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, and the racial wealth gap. He answers whether American complacency is ending (yes), whether America is a racist country (probably), and whether the internet makes people unhappy (he met both Ezra and his wife on the internet, so he certainly doesn’t think so). Cowen also talks at length about what makes a good book and why he believes that “most books are, at best, articles.”

When illustrating his points on writing, Cowen mentions his favorite book this year: The Dawn of Eurasia: On the Trail of the New World Order by Bruno Maçães. The Portuguese political scientist traveled along the borderlands between Europe and the former Soviet Union to write this book, which is both a travelogue and a political argument for erasing the artificial separation between the Eurasian supercontinent. Cowen compares it to Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, calling Maçães’s travels “a kind of Toquevillian journey.”

Buy The Dawn of Eurasia here: Amazon | Barnes & Noble

Typically, Ezra doesn’t ask returning guests for book recommendations, but since Cowen “reads more than anyone I know,” he asked for specific categories of books that he’d recommend to listeners. The Dawn of Eurasia came up again as an example of a book Cowen disagrees with but still thinks people should read. (Ezra’s pick is Why Liberalism Failed by Patrick J. Deneen.) While Cowen wouldn’t say he disagrees strongly with Maçães, he remains unconvinced of the thesis of the book — that “the future of our world will be determined by the sphere of interaction between Russia and Europe.”

Later, Ezra asks for his favorite biographies. Cowen mentions several, including Ron Chernow’s Grant, Walter Isaacson’s Leonardo da Vinci, and The Beatles: The Authorized Biography by Hunter Davies. Cowen believes biographies are an underrated way to learn about human nature. His advice is to “study small creatives groups that work together, ward against each other, split up, [and] get back together.” He also likes The Autobiography of John Stuart Mill as a book to “help you think more clearly.”

Ezra also asks for a book that is “a good introduction to an idea most people have never considered.” Cowen suggests that listeners read books about a style of art they hate. For example, Ezra mentioned brutalism. Cowen recommends just doing an Amazon search for the word brutalism and ordering half a dozen books (which he’s done), to learn how to love a style. He says, “If you think it’s crap, you’re wrong.”

The last recommendation Ezra asks for is a book that will make listeners “feel better about the world right now.” Rather than read something like Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now, which argues enthusiastically that things are better than they’ve ever been, Cowen suggests reading someone who’s “a bit down” like Nietzsche or John Gray. He says to read “the pessimistic books” like Yascha Mounk’s The People vs. Democracy and the aforementioned Why Liberalism Failed “and you’ll see their flaws.” (Both Mounk and Pinker have appeared on the podcast.)

As to what he’s currently reading, Cowen is in a deep classics period. Well, classics and books on tennis. He revisited Plato’s Symposium in preparation for an interview on his own podcast, and recently read Andre Agassi’s autobiography, which Ezra also loved. Cowen is reluctant to recommend any one of the books he mentions, though, wondering, “Why listen to what I think is the book you should read?” Instead, he suggests reading “piles of books.” “Pick a pile you love and don’t obsess over any of the individual books in it.”

You can listen to the full conversation with Tyler Cowen on The Ezra Klein Show by subscribing on Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts, or by streaming the episode here: