The Trouble With Books


I love the idea of books. Years ago, I used to browse in bookstores. I bought paper copies of some of the books I looked at, and read some of the books I bought. Once Amazon came along, I clicked around their suggested items list for ideas. These days, I keep an Amazon wish list of Kindle books. When I’m reading online and someone recommends a book that looks interesting, I add it to the list. Often I can download it from my local public library. Sometimes I’ll buy a copy if a book is too popular to get from the library, or if I just decide that I want to have it around.

I find that always having an ebook on my phone is the best way to read more books. When I have some spare time, instead of clicking around the usual sites, I can read a few pages of a book. When I’m done with it, I download another one. Since the books are electronic, I don’t have books lying around taking up space and waiting to be read.

In some ways, it’s a better time to be a reader of books than it has ever been. But books still aren’t perfect. Here are a few complaints about (nonfiction) books.

Problem #1: They’re Too Long

Most readers don’t want to spend most of their time reading verbose works by [a] single author, when a greater variety of more relevant and thoughtfully concise works are available from a much larger pool of thinkers. — Nick Szabo, “The Trouble With Books”

Readers have expectations about the length of a book. The upper limit is a matter of binding technology and economics. But the lower limit is dictated by expectations. If a book doesn’t meet a reader’s size expectations, they may feel cheated. “More like a pamphlet!” says the title of this negative review of the unconventional database book The Essence of SQL.

Unfortunately, not all authors have 300 pages worth of original ideas. To meet size expectations, a technical book may contain gratuitous screenshots or may paraphrase the documentation. A “big idea” book, to fill out its page allotment, may add more examples even after the reader has gotten the point.

Book size is tied to the characteristics of a physical artifact, even now that people reading on their phones or Kindles may not have the same gut reaction to a pamphlet-sized book.

Problem #2: They Don’t Search Well

In another post entitled The Trouble With Books, librarian Maura Smale promotes books as a way to help undergraduates make the jump from very general sources like encyclopedias to very specific sources like academic journals. Yet she runs into problems helping students find the books they need:

  • If they look for physical books, they’re limited by the space constraints of their local library or the time constraints of waiting for a delivery from another library.
  • If they look for ebooks, they are constrained by the subscription that their library has purchased, with its restrictions on printing, selection, and devices.

What about Google Books? In theory, that service provides a way to have results from traditional books show up in your Google searches. Yet that rarely happens, in my experience with searching. Maybe that will change after a recent court decision. But part of the problem may be that books don’t have the same link ecosystem that web pages do. While it’s possible to link to individual pages in a book using a Google Books URL, that feature is rarely used compared to how often online writers link to web sites. This means Google’s algorithms don’t have as much information to work with. So while you can find exact text in books, you don’t get the same magically relevant results as with Google web search.

Problem #3: There’s Always More to Read

Except for some books in math and the hard sciences, there’s no test of how well you’ve read a book, and that’s why merely reading books doesn’t quite feel like work. You have to do something with what you’ve read to feel productive. — Paul Graham

You can find plenty of lamentations about wasting time online. And they don’t even all use cat videos as an example. Even if you’re reading a serious article on the New York Times website, is there something better you could be doing? As many have pointed out, if a news item is important enough, you’ll find out about it one way or another.

Though books don’t have the same addictive design as media websites, it’s still easy to fall into the trap of reading more about a subject than you really need to. Reading a well-written book may have its own mind-altering rewards independent of the information contained int that book. But at some point you have to step away from the book and do something with that altered mind. If you don’t write a book of your own, give a speech, or otherwise communicate what you got out of the book, how do you know that you actually did get anything out of it?

What to Do About It

The Economist’s review of Robert Hellenga’s novel The Fall of a Sparrow is also entitled “The trouble with books.” In the novel, professor Alan Woodhull discovers after a family tragedy that “for the first time in his life, he cannot find what he needs in books.” It may seem unfair to demand that books have all the answers. But books make a lot of promises, especially the parts of books that are visible as they sit at the bookstore, encouraging you to buy them. Nevertheless, it’s ultimately it’s up to the reader to make use of a book. The book can’t do it on its own.

A careful author of nonfiction plans for how his or her book will be used. Here are a few possibilities:

Solve a specific problem

Technical books often have a straightforward purpose: Explain a technology, and provide examples of how to use it. If you understand a topic better after reading about it, and if you can find answers to your questions about the topic, then this type of book has done its job.

Make a change in your life

Some books have a more personal goal, asking readers to make some kind of change. A book like Deep Work falls into this category. Part 1 of the book is about the idea of deep work, but Part 2 is all about changing how you work in order to become more effective. The bar is higher for this type of book to be truly successful. The reader has to make a personal change.

Learn a way of thinking

Even the most practical book, if it’s a good one, should illustrate a way of thinking. Since the author is an expert on some topic, they should also have some insight on how to think about that topic. In the long run, that will be more valuable than a solution to a specific problem, even if it’s less practical.

Author Jeanette Winterson quoted her mother as saying, “The trouble with books is that you don’t know what’s in them till it’s too late.” But there’s no law that you have to read a book from cover to cover. Books can be a great resource for readers who recognize their limitations and supplement them with the electronic alternatives that we now have. A single piece of advice or original insight can make it worth dipping into part of a book, even if you skim the rest of it.

(Image credit: Germán Poo-Caamaño)