Feb 09, 2018

Charles Mann's production function

Tyler asks, Charles answers (a):

Cowen: There’s a question I like to ask many of our guests. You don’t work from inside the traditional academy. You don’t have tenure. You don’t have an overwhelmingly single academic specialization, but yet you’re remarkably productive.

Your works are, in scholarly circles, very highly respected. Hardly anyone, if anyone, knows more about the history of the New World than you do, as illustrated in your books, 1491 and 1493. The breadth and also depth of your knowledge of the environment and history of environmental movements in your new book, The Wizard and the Prophet, again seems virtually without parallel.

So I would ask, what is the Charles C. Mann production function? How do you get this stuff done? What is it you know about being productive in your path?

Mann: Well, I don’t go to meetings. And unfortunately, academia is replete with meetings. One of the reasons for living in Amherst is that they don’t request me to come and talk to people. So there’s a huge amount of the overhead of, say, an academic job, that I’m very lucky not to have to do.

The other thing is that, because I live near a university, I’m able to use the University of Massachusetts Library. And there’s a bunch of colleges and universities around here, good libraries, a wonderful thing, and they’re kind enough to let me use it even though I’m like a parasite.

The second thing is the wonderful tradition of scholars in which, if somebody with a plausible interest in what they’re doing calls them up or writes to them, nine times out of ten, they’re very happy to talk to you about what they’re interested in. I can’t tell you how grateful I am to this tradition. People will talk to me for hours; it gains them nothing. I try to make it pleasant for them, but frankly, it’s sort of nuts, but they’re willing to do this.

Then the third thing is that I am able to sit down and read a lot of stuff, and my secret weapon is that I can read.

Cowen: That you can read, you can read quickly perhaps?

Mann: I can read fairly quickly, and I’m not afraid of numbers. An awful lot of journalists aren’t afforded the pleasure, or time or whatever, to read, and an even larger percentage of them are much more scared about numbers than they should be. I was always raised by my father that if you stare at something long enough and ask enough questions, you can always figure out the gist of it.