Jeff Bullas has nice post on his blog called “Is this the future of books” about where publishing might be taking us. He’s less interested in the future of the codex (sheets of paper bound to form a block) that we’re all familiar with, than the future of the narrative which lives inside many books.
Jeff, like myself, enjoys an author taking him somewhere, either by weaving a tale of dastardly deeds (á la James Elroy), or building a an argument that might make me change my opinions (á la Peter Singer). Much of the development with ebooks seems to be more focused on multimedia, which is a great tool to explore a topic or idea, but in some instances it doesn’t have the power that a narrative can bring to the topic. He doesn’t come to any strong conclusions, but he raises some interesting questions. Go read the post: it’s a good one.
What really caught my eye, however, was one line he threw in toward the middle of the post:
Do Gen Y have the time to read or enjoy a book for a quiet 2 hours when everything is about ‘now’ and 2 minute YouTube videos and 400 word blog posts?
This got me thinking.
Many books have very little inherent value. They’re just filler. The pulp fiction you buy at the airport, or that copy of Ninja Ruby Coding for Left Handers or Six Sigma for Dummies are often just thrown together. That’s ok as you’re just getting them to waste time on the plane or get a quick overview of the topic. We’re not expecting War and Peace.
These days though, we have alternatives to the physical book. Those pulp novels are being replaced by low price ebooks, often costing only $2.99, while the reference book are being edged out by Wikipedia and other community created references. (And the “e” versions of reference books are searchable.) Neither of these use cases justify a high price tag or heavy investment from the author. The reason we made them into books historically was that it was the only way the information could find distribution. These days we have more appropriate distribution models. (Plus reference books these days often just seem to copy large slabs of text from public resources anyway.)
Some books, however, build a longer narrative and bring some insight on a specific problem or the world at large. These books can justify being 400 pages or more, as it often takes that long to build their argument and walk you through the various aspects. Over their 400 hundred pages they bring a unique value, changing how you think about some topic, a shift which might range from your attitude to yourself and society (as Peter Singer has done, inventing entire social movements in the process) through to showing you new ways to think about your business and how to improve it (Peter Drucker and Michael Porter spring to mind). And there’s always the likes of George Orwell, Neal Stephenson and Margret Atwood to argue for the longer fictional narrative.
This raises an interesting question: if these longer form books have a distinct value, then are you missing out on something important if you pass them by? Or, more specifically, are the people who cannot (or will not) consume these high value books putting themselves at a disadvantage relative to the people who do?
If all you’re ever doing is reacting to information that happens to flow your way, then you cannot claim to be in control of your own destiny. You’re just reacting to the environment as it unfolds. The challenge is, as always today, to know where to invest your time so that you can move beyond simply reacting. Some ideas require more effort, but the reward is worth it. A short blog post might provide stimulating coffee break conversations, but if it doesn’t change the way you view the world did it add much value beyond being convenient infotainment. That TED talk you watched in your lunch break might be inspiring, but did it change how you approached and did your work in the afternoon?
We live in a rapidly changing world, and many peoples’ reasons for consuming all these snack sized ideas is to help them find the one’s which will make a difference. However, if you never take the plunge and explore the longer form arguments that seem interesting, you just might be doing yourself a disservice. Living on quick, easy and cheap McMuffins might keep you going in the short term, but you could regret it later when you no longer fit behind the steering wheel.