From The New Yorker, 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, 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 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.