Say It Ain’t So, Please?

Or is that just nostalgia talking? Here is how Arnold Kling ends a recent blog post:

I speculate that nonfiction books are headed down the path of academic journals. They will be useful for academics positioning themselves for tenure, but they will be too slow and ponderous for communicating ideas. People who really care about ideas will turn to reading and writing substacks instead of books and journals.

I don’t attempt to quantify it, but I’m fairly sure that the time I spend reading has not gone down over time. If anything, in fact, I think it may have gone up slightly. But what I read has certainly changed over time. Tweets, blogs, columns and articles make up the lion’s share of the time that I spend reading, and time spent on books is on a steady decline. Again, this has not been formally quantified, but given that it’s me I’m talking about, I am fairly sure that this is the case.

One of my resolutions this year was to read more long-form content, and I’ve done ok on this goal in the month of January. Not just books, but also longer articles and columns. But I’ve had to consciously set aside time for it, and have had to make an effort to continue reading beyond the point where I’m tempted to reach out for my phone and check ‘what is happening’.

On a related note, I’ve switched off all notifications on my phone, and I can tell you that it has worked wonders for me. Your mileage may vary, of course, so this is not me recommending that you do the same – but in my case, it’s been A Very Big Help.

But the ‘what is happening’ disease is real – I’ve lost the ability to go for hours without checking my phone.

All of which is to say that while I am very tempted to agree with the entirety of Arnold’s post – and please do read the whole thing, of course – I do worry about the opportunity costs of preferring tweets or substacks to books. It’s been something I’ve written about in the past, and god knows I’m not the only one worry about this:

The emergence of shorter reading formats: tweets, book summaries, blogposts (ahem) are easier to read, quicker to digest and most importantly for the era we live in, save us a lot of time.
And that, unfortunately, means that most readers today (myself included) are akin to T20 batsmen. It turns out that we are very, very good at consuming very large amounts of snippets of information – in fact, we positively excel at it.
But the opportunity cost (and it is always there, isn’t it?) is that we struggle to sit and consume a full length book. I can’t remember the last time I sat down and read a classic, for example, and struggle to read in one sitting an entire book. We’re today a generation of T20 readers, as it were. To borrow from another Aakash Chopra column from way back in the day, we’re all Murali Vijay now.

Most books, it is unfortunately true, ought to have been a blogpost instead. And very few blogposts, whether in isolation or as a collection, merit the promotion to a full-length book. So more often than not, you’re actually better off consuming information-dense’ content. Or as Arnold puts it, blogposts and tweets get to the point much more quickly:

Actually, showing off erudition is more of a bug than a feature. Professors who enjoy citing a wide range of references in their lectures and writing are kidding themselves if they think the rest of us have the patience for it. Niall Ferguson’s The Cash Nexus had a major, lasting influence on my view of banking and finance. But re-reading it now, it’s really painful. I want to say, “Stop showing off and get to the point.”

The problem with short-form content (remember, TINSTAAFL!) is that every now and then, one is tempted as a reader to say “Stop being so concise and think about the nuance”. And I don’t know about you, but one is almost always tempted to say this while composing a tweet. Sure Twitter threads get around this problem somewhat, but there are cases where a book is better than a Twitter thread.

The truth lies somewhere in the middle, and this is something that goes for all of us. So each one of us needs to figure out the right mix of very long, long, medium, short and very short content. But just as a healthy diet for the body needs the right mix of all micro- and macro-nutrients, with the occasional fast thrown in for good measure, so also a healthy diet for the mind!

I’m still trying to figure out both the correct way to think about this, and fashion this lesson for my own personal ends, so if you have any content to share regarding this, it will be most welcome.

I’m currently agnostic about its length!