Lawrence Summers, president emeritus of Harvard University, adviser to presidents, former chief economist of the World Bank and treasury secretary of the United States, says he likes to read sprawled across his bed in the Brookline home he shares with his wife. He is a professor in Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.
BOOKS: What are you reading currently?
SUMMERS: I am reading Christopher Clark’s “Sleepwalkers,” a history of how World War I started. I’m reading David Ignatius’s novel “The Director” about cyber warfare in the CIA. I am also reading Mark Broadie’s “Every Shot Counts,” a “Money Ball” type analysis of the game of golf. I’ve learned that it matters less than I thought it did to hit the ball far, and that I need to work more on my irons and less on my putting.
BOOKS: What made you pick up “Sleepwalkers?”
SUMMERS: I thought it was this historically pregnant year with anniversaries. It’s the 100th anniversary of World War I , the 75th anniversary of the beginning of World War II, the 50th anniversary of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, and the 25th anniversary of the end of the Cold War. I wanted to learn more of each of those events. I’m a strong believer in the farther forward you want to look the farther back you need to look.
BOOKS: Are the books you are reading typical of your reading?
SUMMERS: Probably in some broad sense. I don’t happen to be reading an economics or finance-related book but at most moments I am. I also read about how the modern world is changing. A few months ago I read “The Second Machine Age” by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee about the effects of technology. I was much influenced by Charles Murray’s “Coming Apart” and am carrying around Michael Young’s “The Rise of Meritocracy.”
I also read a fair amount about science. I’ve read Brian Greene’s physics books. I read Steve Pinker’s books about how the mind works and the way it cannot be captured by computational model. Then when I go places I read something that is connected to it. I’ll be going to Ukraine in the fall. I expect I will read “Bloodlands” by Timothy Snyder.
BOOKS: What would you say is the last book that knocked you out?
SUMMERS: Nothing in the recent past. “House of Debt” by Atif Mian and Amir Sufi about the Great Recession was a very impressive book. “Lords of Finance” by Liaquat Ahamed about the errors of the central bankers that lead to the Great Depression made an enormous impact on me.
BOOKS: Which of your high-pressure jobs left the most time for reading?
SUMMERS: I thought it was important to read in all of them. At the World Bank I read a set of ethnographies on village life in the developing world. When I was with President Obama I read a lot about the history of financial crises, the Great Depression and Roosevelt’s response to it. That had a significant influence on the advice I gave the president.
BOOKS: Who influenced you as a reader?
SUMMERS: My mother used to take us to the public library every week or two and that set the habit. Whenever I get separated from my family in an airport they look for the bookstore because they figure that’s where I am.
‘My mother used to take us to the public library every week or two and that set the habit.’
BOOKS: Who do you talk books with?
SUMMERS: I try sometimes with my wife, but she’s an English professor so she talks books in a more sophisticated way than I do. Sometimes we are able to find some convergence on something historical. I joke with her that the fiction she likes doesn’t have enough verbs in it. She finds the fiction I like to be a tad primitive, meat-eating and number crunching.