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What’s Wrong With Thinking Short Thoughts

From The New Yorker [1], on the future of the book:

When I first spoke to MacInnis, several months ago, he told me that today’s digital shelves are the equivalent of a “mechanized horse and carriage.” “What they’re selling is essentially a book,” he said. “They haven’t added anything. Who cares?” He described his approach to publishing as a shift “from being a book to being software. I don’t know where that line is, but I think we’ve already crossed it.” Around that time, Holliday’s company came out with a publishing platform called Citia, which breaks up a book into modules, pared down, CliffsNotes-style, “without so many illustrative examples,” she said. Citia has two book-chunk collections on the market now — “What Technology Wants” and “Predictably Irrational” — with a few more in the works. Speaking on the panel, Holliday threw up her hands, wishing to dispel “the myth that a book is a straight line, or a string of pages,” as publishers see it. “Nonfiction is a constellation of ideas that you have to string into a straight line,” she said. Holliday envisions a Pinterest-type board, where readers could post their favorite cards. “They might read pieces of hundreds of thousands of books, and not one whole book,” she said. “Is that so bad?”

Well . . . yeah, I’d say so. There’s a powerful moment in a very large book I have praised before [2], Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, in which Rebecca West asks of a place in the Balkans, “And what has happened there? The answer is too long, as long indeed, as this book, which hardly anybody will read by reason of its length. Here is the calamity of our modern life, we cannot know all the things which it is necessary for our survival that we should know.” Not all stories need to be as long as the one West tells, but many of the “things which it is necessary for our survival that we should know” are complicated, entangled, interrelated, and for a society to thrive it needs to have many people — not all, but many — who have the patience and concentration to work through long narratives and arguments.

To cite just one example from among books I have recently read, Roger Scruton’s How To Think Seriously About the Planet [3] is nearly five hundred pages long and could scarcely be much shorter without seriously compromising its argument. The entanglements here involve the science of environmental change, national and international regulatory structures, the priorities of local communities, the problems of finding adequate motives for people to do the right thing, and so on and so on. Trying to figure out how those forces interact by having recourse to “a Pinterest-type board, where readers could post their favorite cards” is a risible thought.


And of course, most people who have opinions about the issues Scruton raises could inscribe their entire body of knowledge about those issues on a 3X5 card. This is our problem, not a circumstance to cheerfully adapt to. We need more advocacy for book-length treatments of our society’s major concerns, not a turning aside from them.

8 Comments (Open | Close)

8 Comments To "What’s Wrong With Thinking Short Thoughts"

#1 Comment By Gabriel Rossman On January 28, 2013 @ 11:35 am

The ideal point might be to say that each book should be the length it needs to be without filler or abridgment to hit a target length driven by market or genre considerations. This is of course more difficult than to compare it to a 280 page target (or whatever). I think we’ve all read books where the original magazine article from which it was adapted would have sufficed and likewise (although it’s harder to spot) read things where there were too many cuts and so the argument has implicit ellipses. I’ve read 1000 page books that feel perfect and 150 page books that feel padded.

Taking an introspective view on this, my book is short (120 pages of text + 20 of endnotes) and I still feel like it’s got some filler that’s not really necessary to make the arguments, although conversely I’ve been told it should have had another chapter or two (specifically, a lit review of everything known about sociology of music and a chapter on how songs get dropped from the radio).

#2 Comment By Jack Shifflett On January 28, 2013 @ 2:05 pm

Excellent post–I’ve got nothing to add, I just wanted to express my appreciation.

#3 Comment By David Ryan On January 28, 2013 @ 2:40 pm

There was a great little radio piece on NPR about how the burn time of candles dictated the length of movements in chandlier lit concern halls. In the same series there was another installment about the 19th century german chemical industry and putting paints in tubes, and the effect on expressionism.

Writers are, I think, less sensitive to and less embracing and accepting of the effect of the tools of production and the means of distribution than other artist. Not all of them, of course, but overall this is my sense. Writers don’t have to pay more to use one word or another. It feels as if no ideas are more costly than others.

This is not true. It never has been. It never will be.

#4 Comment By Ethan C. On January 28, 2013 @ 2:51 pm

This isn’t completely on topic, but your point here reminds me of something I’m (unfortunately) working on right now: “Quality Matters” design planning for online courses.

One of the main principles is that every course needs to be broken down into “chunks,” like units or weeks, and each chunk addresses a single “learning objective.”

But what if your subject is just one thing, that’s so rich that you could spend a whole semester just studying one aspect of it?

Chunks and objectives might be great for learning math or planning a military campaign. But how do you break Moby Dick into units? Okay, maybe you discuss several chapters at a time. But how are the “objectives” for chapters 1-5 different from the “objectives” for chapters 6-10?

When everything’s about analysis and breaking things into small pieces, how do you study big, unbreakable things?

#5 Comment By Glaivester On January 28, 2013 @ 5:11 pm

In this really part of the digital revolution? There have always been long books and short books, and in non-fiction, books that were one long argument and those that are a series of short, chapter-length arguments on different topics, with different books having different levels of chapter interrelatedness.

Are the people reading these book-chunks people who would have read long books in the past?

#6 Comment By James Emerson On January 28, 2013 @ 6:03 pm

Like Jack Shifflett, I’ll simply say this is a fine post on a vital topic.

#7 Comment By EliteCommInc. On January 29, 2013 @ 3:36 pm

I also enjoyed this article, though I have to admit I was initially a bit perplexed.

I can’t think of reading a chunk of a book unless, I had previously read it and wanted to note something specific again or was engaged in research and chunking helped me get to the salient data faster.

I have no idea why, but the book “The River”, comes to mind, though I read it years ago. I could not possibly condense that story into meaningful chunks or “The Bin Ladens.”

#8 Comment By Pilgrim On January 30, 2013 @ 7:40 am

I have started the West book, but got bogged down by the lack of maps and annotations. It needs to be longer! I was reading about Dalmatia, flipped on PBS,and a guide was touring Dalmatia. I could make it through the book if this coincidence happened during my reading of each chapter.