Shouldn’t Information Transcend Formats?

I just don’t get books. There’s something inherently anti-social about picking one up and plonking yourself down to read a couple chapters as you’re publicly announcing “I’m doing something and I shouldn’t be disturbed”. Still the act of sharing that anti-social experience can be quite social as I’ve had many great experiences discussing the few books that I’ve read over my lifetime. Still I struggle to get through dead trees even when I make an active effort to get through them. My latest victim, The Four Hour Work Week, has been in my backpack for the past 6 months and the last 5 of that have been with around 100 pages to go. For some reason I just can’t be bothered with sitting down and slogging through page after page of the centuries old medium, but that doesn’t mean I don’t crave their content.

After I went through a long time of having not a whole lot to do whilst I was at work I discovered the wonderful world of RSS feeds. Gone was my endless list of poorly organised bookmarks and in its place was a lovely unified view of all those websites I loved to frequent. After fiddling around with a couple installed RSS readers I eventually turned to Google Reader and I haven’t looked back since. Every day I can spin through a couple hundred articles in quick succession with the better ones usually inspiring a blog post or two. I’d say that on average I read about 2~3 books worth of online content per week, possibly double or triple that if I’m elbow deep in research for a particular problem.

So the question remains, why don’t I get books? I know I have a pretty insatiable hunger for information on various subjects and the bite sized chunks I get online, whilst very well suited to my almost permanently Internet connected life, are usually too small to get a decent understanding of something. Additionally I remember one of my college English teachers telling me that my generation was apparently the last one that would have any respect for the medium as the generations who followed us would get all their information from online sources. Whilst I don’t agree with her vision completely (thanks in part to the whole Twilight phenomenon, I mean they did read the books right?) it does seem that when it comes to getting information on a particular subject I don’t even think about visiting a library, let alone picking up a book.

The answer then is most likely one of convenience.  I can, on any device capable of browsing the Internet, open up a page with a dedicated stream of information tailored exactly to my interests. Books on the other hand are usually only aimed at one subject and unfortunately require me to carry them with me when I want to read them. I thought the answer would lie in eBooks but unfortunately they seem to suffer the same fate as their dead tree companions. You could probably put this down to a short attention span when it comes to absorbing information as all online content is aimed at being consumed in less than 5 minutes and trying to read a book like that just doesn’t seem to work for me (or anyone else I’ve seen read books for that matter).

There are some notable exceptions though. Way back in the middle of my time at university a good friend of mine handed me a copy of the first book in the Night’s Dawn trilogy by Peter F. Hamilton. After sharing a love for the revamped Battlestar Galactica he handed me the book saying that if I liked that kind of sci-fi, I’d love this. I hadn’t read an entire book in well over 3 years so initially I struggled to get into it. The entire trilogy took me a year to read but I savoured every last word of it, often stealing an hour away from my classes to sit on the university concourse to bathe in the warm summer sun whilst my mind was firmly planted in this epic space opera. I have yet to be that captivated by a book again as my last attempt to read another of Hamilton’s other works had me 20 pages in before I was told I was reading the wrong book in the trilogy (that’s the last time I trust you, Dave).

Maybe as I get more time to myself I’ll find the time for books. Right now though my life is filled with so many other activities that getting through a book always feels like a chore that doesn’t get me very far as it doesn’t usually satisfy a pressing want or need that I have at the time. With most of my subsequent free time spent playing through an enormous backlog of games (which just spurred an idea for a post tomorrow, stay tuned! 😉 ) books are one of those things that I’ll let slip by the wayside. Watching them rush past as the torrent of the Internet sweeps them away.


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  1. For those interested in IT or science then an article (up to journal length) which provides enough for the layman (or enough for them to begin practical engagement) is fine, if not advantageous given the quick speed at which knowledge updates in these fields.
    But many subjects can’t be boiled down to just short articles. Politics generates perhaps 50 articles per day in the Aus press & hundreds of journal articles a year, but unless you’ve read the key books you’re understanding will still be quite superficial. If you’re interested in history or philosophy then only books will do (any articles about these topics simply won’t make sense without them).
    There’s also much to be said for the time taken by the writer to think about the topic as they write a longer piece. Snap responses are fine, and everyone gravitates towards writers they think insightful/who reach similar or comforting conclusions. But only with time can you really get into the heart of the matters and reach conclusions that defy simpler tribal/pre-concieved categories of information. Ie how we arrange information is a deliberate human construction, any snap judgements must invariably rely on these arrangements of information. But some of the biggest scientific and philosophical breakthroughs of history came from breaking away and creating new structures of social construction of information.

    If you ever read Kuhn’s structure of scientific revolution that I gave you, you’d know this 😛
    Long short: Some shit is complex & requires a lot of words to cover. Book/e-book/documentary/interactive guide/  however organised there are minimum words/time spent by author required to accurately convey some subjects that only books have traditionally provided.
    But most reading of books is simply about pleasure, so if it doesn’t interest you, that doesn’t matter at all.

  2. Interesting, I hadn’t considered that in order to make sense of the online articles that I’m so fond of a base level of knowledge in the field is required. Whilst most of my knowledge in this area is self taught or through my various bits of formal education the only other source to get a good grounding in those topics would just so happen to be books. There’s also an aspect of what your dominate learning style is (auditory, visual or kinesthetic) which will affect how much value you can derive from any one format.

    Agreed on the complexity argument to, there are some things which I try to cover in a blog post that I know I’m not doing justice. I tend to assume a lot when writing about certain subjects and know that I’m probably leaving some people wondering what I’m talking about. There are some subjects which just don’t boil down into a 1000 word blog post nicely, and those are the ones I don’t usually write about (or write about and then later grow to hate).

    I can get into books sometimes however it almost always feels like an interruption to some higher ordained task. That’s probably due to my kinesthetic learning bent as I’ve always learnt a lot more by doing something than reading about it. Not that I haven’t derived value from books in the past (my university maths classes were heavily based on the text books) just that I’d prefer to do my learning in another way.

    That’s probably why I enjoy conversations about certain subjects more than others (politics being one of them).

  3. There’s a lot to be said for tailoring learning styles to the personalities engaged. A great example for myself was discussing philosophy with eamon. After our coffee’s & raising of the days issue, I would talk & talk, trying to find my way to an acceptable answer, thinking through my vocabulary. A process that would annoy him no end. However he meanwhile would sit and try and draw diagrams to represent whatever abstract issues we discussed, a path that made little sense to me. Same idea, very strong mutual desire for constructive discussion, but different learning/thinking styles both hindered and aided our discussion.
    Books greatest strength is the depth of involvement required for them, by both the author and the reader. Not all books merit this, but it’s an advantage over all other mediums. People will sit through 3 1/2 hours for a movie max, but will sit for a fulll week for a Book. To answer your headline, only certain messages are available through certain mediums.

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