Books and the Spread of Ideas

Everyone loves books, but I think they leave a lot to be desired. Mostly because I can’t be bothered to read them.

Does that make me lazy? Maybe. But the reality is that I am responsible for an up-to-date and accurate worldview. This helps me navigate the present, and prepare for any number of likely futures. Twitter is such a valuable service to me because it exposes me to exactly the sort of information I need/want in order to inform this worldview.

There is an old Usenet philosophy: “Share what you know. Learn what you don’t.” There’s also an old Unix philosophy: “Do one thing only, and do it well.” As the director of my information diet, it’s my responsibility to learn what I don’t know as quickly and as efficiently as possible. As a member in good standing of our little networked world, it is also my responsibility to distill my conclusions and current worldview into neatly packaged chunks, so that others can learn what I strongly believe.

Books generally fly in the face of this philosophy. I find it rude. Long books are especially obnoxious. A serious author with serious ideas should have a single goal: spread his/her ideas as far as possible, so that they can be discussed, debunked, iterated upon, and learned by others.

A long book is not conducive to this. Long books require deep prior interest and a commitment from the reader to read and digest slowly. That’s asking a lot of someone with a very limited time to entertain a large number of competing ideas and worldviews. I also have a hard time believing that an author with a sufficiently polished idea cannot express the pillars of this idea in under a hundred pages.

Now, there is certainly a place for more thorough and robust research, but this kind of work only caters to an incredibly tiny audience with sufficient prior interest. The ultimate example is a PhD thesis: very long, very technical, and only read by three people.

If important, robust ideas are not supplemented by short, readable essays describing the main tenets and arguments and aimed at a mainstream audience, I really question the point. Why think at all if you don’t intend to spread your conclusions, or inspire action of some sort?

Marshall McLuhan seems to agree:

"I read only the right hand page of serious books. If it's a frivolous, relaxing book I read every word. But, serious books I read on the right hand side only because I've discovered enormous redundancy in any well written book, and I find that by reading only the right hand page, this keeps me very wide awake, filling in the other page out of my own noodle."

And so does Megan Garber, in the Nieman Journalism Lab:

"...books are much, much less great at actually propagating ideas...Which is a flaw that’s easy to forget, given books’ cultural status...And yet. The precise thing that makes idea-driven books so valuable to readers — their immersive qualities, the intimate, one-on-one relationship they facilitate between authors and readers — also make them pretty lousy as actual sharers of ideas. Books don’t go viral."

I’ll thank those two for packaging their thoughts nicely and concisely for me to consume and iterate upon.

This post was mainly inspired by Thomas Piketty’s new and supposedly monumental book, which I doubt I’ll ever actually read. Also, this only applies to non-fiction. Fiction is another beast. It’s for stories, and for transporting the reader. There’s no need to do that quickly.