Q: What’s the first thing you read in the morning?
A. I first read The Economist over breakfast, because it’s the best single source of weekly global news, and its editorial style is such a potent anti-depressant if combined with morning espresso. Whereas other publications focus on doom ‘n’ gloom, The Economist puts even the most alarming stories in their cross-cultural, historical, scientific, and intellectual contexts. In his recent book The Rational Optimist, Matt Ridley argues that there are many good evidence-based reasons to expect human lives to continue improving for decades and centuries to come. The Economist embodies that rational optimism. Also, if you have a bone-dry sense of humor like me, it’s very funny, and it’s thrilling to read the same publication that the world’s political and corporate leaders read, knowing that what you’re reading might change not just your own mind but theirs too.
Q: What newspapers and magazines do you subscribe to or read regularly? What do you read in print vs. online vs. mobile?
A. Apart from The Economist, I currently subscribe to Wired, Harper’s, and Prospect (from London). When I was researching consumer culture for my book Spent, I subscribed to quite a variety of publications: Architectural Digest, AutoWeek, The Baffler, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Consumer Reports, Maxim, Men’s Fitness, Money, PC Gamer, Premiere, Rolling Stone, Stuff, Wired, Worth, The Utne Reader, and Vanity Fair. I read them all on paper, partly so I could tear out and file interesting bits and ads. I also like a strict distinction between real work (leaning forward to look at computer screens) and leisure (leaning back to read print). I don’t take a daily newspaper; the local American city papers are a waste of ink, and even The New York Times is rather parochial and nationalistic. I miss the British papers such as The Guardian that I used to read in the eight years I lived in England.
Q: What books have you recently read? Do they stand out?
A. Most of my “leisure” reading consists of reviewing journal articles concerning evolutionary psychology, intelligence, personality traits, or sexuality. If I don’t have journal reviewing to do, I’ll usually turn to the book genre that can transport me mentally as far as possible away from the death-by-a-thousand-cuts excruciations of faculty meetings. That genre is hard science fiction, such as Iain M. Banks, Greg Bear, Stephen Baxter, Greg Egan, and Alastair Reynolds.
Like The Economist, they tend to share a rational optimism about humanity’s future, but without sugar-coating the real conflicts of interest that drive human drama. Iain M. Banks is my favorite among these authors, since he has a particularly well-developed vision of a future anarchist-socialist-secularist utopia worth fighting for, one that embraces plenty of sex, drugs, and games, but that has a capacity for ferocious self-defense when threatened. My most recent delight was his book Surface Detail, which is one of the most compelling (if oblique) critiques of religion I’ve ever seen. A few years ago I went to a book signing by Banks in England, but I broke out in a cold sweat at the sight of him; my hands were shaking, my voice caught in my throat, and I couldn’t bear to approach his little author’s table.
My wife had to get the book signed on my behalf. That’s the only time I’ve been star-struck. Why his novels aren’t being made into big-budget Hollywood films, I can’t imagine. I’ve mentally cast most of the roles already.
Q: What’s the most surprising thing you have recently read? How so?
A. The most surprising things I’ve learned recently came not through reading but through watching DVD documentaries through Netflix—a great service. The BBC series Seven Wonders of the Industrial World was spectacular—it caught humankind attempting vast-scale feats of engineering just as we were emerging from millennia of agricultural stagnation. It was inspiring to see the organizational details of how the Panama Canal, the Brooklyn Bridge, and the Great Eastern ship were built, and to realize, this is what our little sort of social primate can do when we set out minds to something. I watched them in the spirit of a primate natural history documentary, and imagined them being narrated by David Attenborough. That made each of the achievements orders of magnitude more remarkable than if I’d viewing them as simply ‘historical footage’.
Q: Do you read blogs? If so, what blogs do you like best? Why?
A. I don’t read blogs, except when Facebook friends include links to particular ones they recommend; these are usually popular-science articles about some new finding of interest. I’ll skim the story and then go find and skim the original article.
Q: Do you use Twitter? If so, whom do you follow? Why?
A. I don’t use Twitter, but I’m thinking about doing a study on the personality traits of heavy Twitter users. I expect some rather high narcissism scores to pop out.
Q: What are the guilty pleasures in your media diet?
A. One guilty pleasure is reading the Columbia and Stanford alumni magazines. They always bring a little buzz of self-satisfaction and nostalgia, and they sometimes have intriguing articles. But I was such an introvert at both places that I don’t bother seeing what my old classmates are doing; I wouldn’t recognize their names anyway.
To cheer up, I use Netflix instant-streaming service to watch a lot of stand-up comedy, such as the “Comedy Central presents ….” series. Whenever I think we evolutionary psychologists have figured out the key components of human mate choice and sexuality, there’s always a stand-up comedian offering a new insight, both true and funny, that we haven’t yet reearched. It’s a great source of scientific hypotheses, and of restorative laughter.
I need a certain amount of Beauty to balance out the Truth that we scientists get caught up in seeking. For me, that often means taking a couple of hours to go to one of those coffee shops with lots of free magazines you can browse through. I’ll stock up on a pile of arty magazines, and just enjoy some visual gorgeousness for a while. This usually starts out with looking at art/design/architecture magazines such as ArtForum, Juxtapoz, Wallpaper, Atomic Ranch, and American Bungalow, and then shifts into the fashion mags such as Vogue or In Style. The guilty pleasure there is seeing what my favored celebrities are wearing and, to a lesser extent, saying and doing.
Once you realize that each human career—whether science, art, or fashion—has its own intricacies, dramas, and forms of progress—it’s impossible to dismiss any of them as a mere guilty pleasure. You can treat them that way, but if you look and listen with an open mind, you always learn more than you expected—even from In Style magazine.
Sketch by Ted Benson