Thursday, February 11, 2010

6 ways blogs are better than nonfiction books

I'm glad someone (Henry Farrell) has finally put into words what's been bothering me for years about nonfiction books (via):

[1.] I would estimate that about 80% of the non-academic non-fiction books that I do not find a complete waste of time ... are at least twice as long as they should be. They make an interesting point, and then they make it again, and again, padding it out with some quasi-relevant examples, and tacking on a conclusion about What It All Means which the author clearly doesn’t believe herself. The length of the average book reflects the economics of the print trade and educated guesses as to what book-buyers will actually pay for, much more than it does the actual intellectual content of the book itself.
A major defect of nonfiction books is that they're not blogs. (I'm obviously biased in making this statement because I'm not a book author but I am a blogger. On the other hand, I have good reasons for choosing to blog but not to write a book.) Ezra Klein points out one fairly obvious advantage blogs have over books:
[2.] It's possible to follow an issue in real time. People who really wanted to understand the health-care reform conversation were better off reading Jon Cohn's blog than any particular book or magazine. Did those people spend more time reading Jon and less time reading books? Probably. But it was time well spent.
Penelope Trunk's advice to people who want to write a book includes a couple further points, which complement Klein's:
People ask me all the time how they can get a book deal. ... But really, I'm telling you, you probably don't need to write a book. Every time I ask someone why they want to write a book, they have a terrible answer. ...

People who have a lot of ideas need a blog, not a book.

[3.] A blog is more immediate, so you’ll get better feedback. And getting feedback as you go is much more intellectually rigorous than printing a final compendium of your ideas and getting feedback from the public only when it's too late to change anything.

[4.] Many people think they have a ton of ideas and they are brimming with book possibilities when in fact, most of us have very few new ideas. If you have so many ideas, prove it to the world and start blogging. There is nothing like a blog to help you realize you have nothing new to say.
To rephrase point 4, a blog is an efficient and flexible test of the richness of a writer's ideas. A book also tests the richness of a writer's ideas, of course, but without the same efficiency and flexibility. A blogger has immense freedom to put out a mishmash of ideas that don't cohere to form a beautifully unified whole but nevertheless contain valuable insights. The author of a nonfiction book, in contrast, has to devote so much time to supporting a single thesis in the same time a blogger could have disseminated 10 (20? 50?) ideas on a variety of loosely related or even unrelated topics.

This tradeoff for the book author may be worth it if the result is the rare nonfiction book that thoroughly supports a ground-breaking thesis and is written lucidly enough to engage the minds of a general audience. (Flow, Stumbling on Happiness, The Moral Animal, In Defense of Food.)

[5.] But even this idealized scenario has another downside: The pressure on a nonfiction-book author to support a single, clear thesis means that the author has a stubborn bias in how they view the world. The author shines a spotlight on the facts that support the thesis, meanwhile sweeping inconvenient facts under the rug. Even the best nonfiction books suffer from this bias. Bloggers are biased too -- no one is objective -- but a blogger is likely to be far less invested in any particular thesis.

Of course, some people who have nothing new to say are going to disregard Penelope Trunk's advice and write nonfiction books anyway. And then what happens? My mom's answer to this question underscores point #1:
[6.] I just paid $25+ for a 300+-page book that was an expansion of an article from The Atlantic. I did that for a Bloggingheads diavlog, and — you'll see when it's up — the author scolded me for skimming. Did that open the door for me to scold her for padding? Readers and writers — we all have our tactics and must guard our own interests. You pad. I skim.
Yet, defenders of books will argue that the internet, with its relentless flood of free content that can be accessed as rapidly and vapidly as flipping channels on TV, diminishes the quality of our reading experience and thought processes. Nicholas Carr, in his widely linked article "Is Google Making Us Stupid?," said:
The kind of deep reading that a sequence of printed pages promotes is valuable not just for the knowledge we acquire from the author’s words but for the intellectual vibrations those words set off within our own minds. In the quiet spaces opened up by the sustained, undistracted reading of a book, or by any other act of contemplation, for that matter, we make our own associations, draw our own inferences and analogies, foster our own ideas. Deep reading, as Maryanne Wolf argues, is indistinguishable from deep thinking.

If we lose those quiet spaces, or fill them up with "content," we will sacrifice something important not only in our selves but in our culture.
Carr is right about the value of not just reading books but "any other act of contemplation." What Carr glosses over is that, in 2010, blogs as well as books can lead to "contemplation" that helps us "make our own associations, draw our own inferences and analogies, foster our own ideas." In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if, on any given day, more of the thinking being done in the world is spurred by a blog post than by a nonfiction book.

Anyway, who knows? This doesn't have to be a competition. All of the content we're talking about is just human thought expressed in words. We should accept it in whatever form it happens to present itself to us.


Ann Althouse said...

"The pressure on a nonfiction-book author to support a single, clear thesis means that the author has a stubborn bias in how they view the world."

= Gladwell's Disease

Richard Lawrence Cohen said...

Padding is the stock in trade of professional nonfiction writers, without which many of them would starve. I think I once wrote a blog post -- can't remember, and too lazy to check! -- on books that can be satisfactorily understood from the title alone. A prime, though old, example: "Small Is Beautiful."

What we're never told in school is that writers practice their craft as a livelihood. That's especially true for upper-tier journalists. They can't live for a year or two on a magazine article, but they can on a book advance.