During my work day I spend a lot of time reading online. But at night I leave the Web behind and settle into a book. In terms of human interaction, this change is like moving from a passing chat with an acquaintance to a deep conversation with a dear friend. For breadth, detail, and sheer delight, good books beat the Web every time.
The problem with how we read on the Web
Jakob Nielsen has an impeccable presence in both Web and book publishing. Much of his training, consulting, and writing has a single aim — to help people develop truly usable Web sites.
Meeting that goal, Jakob says, starts with admitting the truth about how we usually “read” online:
- We’re impatient, always ready to click on the next link.
- We scan ruthlessly rather than read for detail.
- We snack on information rather than feast on ideas.
- We scavenge for details rather than slow down to get the big picture and underlying principles.
- Instead of taking the time to master challenging new ideas, we demand content that is familiar and instantly accessible.
For deep learning, in short, the Web just doesn’t cut it.
Where the Web does shine, says Jakob, is for “narrow, just-in-time learning of information nuggets — so long as the learner already has the conceptual framework in place to make sense of the facts.” And the best places to find those frameworks are still between the covers of a book.
The problem with how we write on the Web
“Bloggers are big on regurgitation,” wrote Brian Clark back in 2008 in a classic post about how to read. He was describing writers whose output consisted of content largely cut-and-pasted from other online sources.
In these pitches there’s nothing to suggest the person has any original experience or research or insight to offer said advice. Instead they choose to quote other people who quote other people and the insights can often be traced back in a recursive loop. Their interest is not in making the reader’s life any better, it is in building their own profile as some kind of influencer or thought leader. Or, most frustratingly, they all reference the same company case studies (Hello, Apple and Pixar!), the same writers, or the same internet thinkers. I often encounter writers that share “success advice” learned from a blogger who was quoting a book that interviewed a notable prolific person.
The result is a vast echo chamber that Sean ingloriously described as the Bullshit Industrial Complex.
Benefits of a long-form medium
In contrast, books offer explanation and storytelling that’s deep, rich, and sustained. Writing a 1,000-word blog post about a topic is no small accomplishment. But compare that to a book of 25,000 to 100,000 words or more about the same topic. While the book is more demanding for both writer and reader, it yields far greater rewards.
Ben Casnocha, blogger and coauthor of The Start-Up of You, makes this point in a long and insightful post about what he learned from writing that book.
“Doing a book strikes just about everyone in Silicon Valley as retro,” Ben notes. And there are reasons for this: Compared to online content, books are expensive. They’re hard to share. And — at least in print form — they lack interactivity.
On the other hand, Ben writes, books are still the ideal medium for developing and delivering a “focused, long-form idea.” We still expect books to meet standards for length and substance that don’t apply to blogs and other online content:
Want to churn out some blog posts? Easy. Shout slogans from the rooftops? Easy. Relay some stories and take-aways in bullet point form? Easy. Coherently develop, assemble, and stylize a series of ideas over a couple hundred pages in book form? Hard as hell. When we began, Reid and I had the equivalent of blog posts on the themes in question, but we did not have anything close to a book. Attempting to write a book forced us to be super precise and thoughtful about what we wanted to say.
It’s for these reasons that books still offer the ultimate brand of credibility for idea entrepreneurs.
Books as evidence of effort and sacred expressions
Anyone who’s tried to achieve this level of credibility by writing a book knows how much effort it takes. In their darkest moments, authors despair over the prospect that few people will ultimately bother to read their precious work.
Take heart, says John Butman, author of Breaking Out: How to Build Influence in a World of Competing Ideas. A book counts as “evidence of effort” to develop and test an idea —even with people who don’t read it. Because writing a book forces you to think so rigorously about an idea and express it in a compelling way, it becomes your big idea’s “sacred expression.”
In addition, there’s a practical benefit: A book’s rich hierarchy of concepts and supporting details provides the backbone for countless articles, blog posts, podcast, videos, presentations, and other smaller-scale expressions of your ideas.
In sum, things haven’t changed much over the last few centuries since the invention of the printing press. Two of the best ways to avoid the Bullshit Industrial Complex are still to read a good book — and to write one.