The never-ending discussion of whether the Web can or should replace books has shifted into the corners of blogdom that I follow again, with Kevin Drum arguing for more books, Henry Farrell arguing for shorter books, and Jim Henley agreeing with Henry, and expanding it to fiction. They’re all at least partly right– more shorter books would be a good thing.
I do want to pick up on one thing Kevin said, though. He writes:
This is, I grant, a purely personal reaction, but one of my occasional frustrations with the blogosphere is a sense that people sometimes think they can understand complex issues merely by reading lots of blog posts and newspaper articles. I’m not so sure of that. There’s a big difference between a 100,000-word book on healthcare and 100,000 words of real-time commentary on healthcare. You can learn a lot from the latter, but very frequently you miss the big picture because (a) it’s not all there and (b) you have to put it together yourself over time. The result is a sort of glib and shallow understanding that can produce enjoyable polemics or good water cooler arguments, but not much more.
A few hours spent with a carefully constructed book, on the other hand, can change the way you think about something by showing you history, context, and all the non-sexy stuff — in other words, all the messy complexity — in a single package that you absorb all at once. Basically, if you read Sick, you’re getting years of Jon Cohn’s distilled knowledge of American healthcare in a few hours. To get the same from his blog posts, you’d have to spend months or years reading them, and you still wouldn’t get it all.
The addition I would make (which is sort of implied, but could stand to be brought out more) is this: In addition to forcing arguments to be shorter, the normal operation of blogs changes the content of what’s presented. It’s not just that blogs lack context, it’s that they’re skewed toward topics that generate lots of argument.
My stock example of this is the online discussion of Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum’s Unscientific America. If you read the online commentary about it, you would think that three-quarters of the book was devoted to a concerted effort to suppress atheists online. That’s generated most of the discussion because there are dozens of people with blogs who leap on any excuse to rant and rave about religion or the lack thereof.
In fact, material related to religion and particularly maybe a quarter of the book. Religion is one of several factors they discuss as presenting problems for science in the US, and it’s not even the most important one. The stuff about atheist blogs is a single short chapter, which isn’t all that central to the overall argument.
Reading about the subject online would give you a ridiculously skewed version of things, because people who run blogs post things that they think will bring in readers, and they respond to other people who talk about their hot-button issues, and pretty soon the whole conversation is given over to whatever people find most upsetting. Even somebody writing a blog with the best of intentions to give the full picture of things will end up pulled toward whatever the hot subjects are, by the dynamics of the medium.
A book, on the other hand, can be a self-contained thing, and doesn’t need to respond in real time to whatever gets people’s panties in a twist. Which means you can give a more balanced picture, rather than being driven by the whims of the audience.
I do agree with Henry and Jim that there are a great many books that could stand to be shorter, and it will be interesting to see if technology does, in fact, lead to more shorter books. I hope it doesn’t lead to only short works, though, because there are advantages to a sustained book-length argument that really aren’t possible to translate into the world of blogs and social media.