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The end of books?

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I wonder whether the Malcolm Gladwell-ing of nonfiction is a sign of a weakening of books’ hold on the structure of knowledge, even as print book sales have been increasing over the past 5 years.

You feel Malcolm Gladwell’s influence every time an article opens with a really interesting story that seems to have nothing to do with the article’s topic. For example, a great article by Gladwell in The New Yorker that began with a story about a dog bite and how pit bulls got an unearned reputation for viciousness turned out
to be about insurance profiling. It’s as if we can’t be trusted to be interested in the actual topic.

The rise of Gladwell’s style is perhaps an indicator that we need more to get us through a nonfiction book these days. My friends and colleagues also report that, while they still read books, they cherry-pick within them more and more. Yes, the sample size is tiny, and its bias is extreme, but at least some of us who were deeply committed to books now tend not to stay in them all the way through.

A mouse click away

Perhaps that’s just further evidence that the internet is shortening our attention spans. That definitely could be. But after being on it for about 35 years, I think it has not shortened my attention so much as worn down my patience. When an entire universe of works and ideas is always just one click away, it takes more to keep me anchored within a multi-chapter stream. But when a book is good, I’m perfectly capable of being carried by it from the first page to the last … and then out onto the web so I can find out yet more.

My growing impatience is the other side of feeling as if the internet has given my curiosity full rein. Or, to say the same thing another way, it feels as if we’ve all been shown that the world is way more interesting than we were told.

One of the consequences of this is that the internet has trained me to be willing to jump out of a stream of text whenever I have a question or find myself prompted to wonder about an idea. Yet books are designed to keep us within them—at least the sort of nonfiction books that we read not because we have to for work or school but simply because their topic grabbed us, perhaps by surprise. In short, the sort of books that Gladwell writes.

Holding on to readers made sense when escaping a book to chase down the ideas and questions it provoked was so difficult that it well might require looking up the schedule of the bus to the nearest public library. But
now that we are a mouse click away from pursuing the very interests that a book provokes, why is finishing a book more important than jumping into the web of information and ideas?

Actually, there are often important reasons to finish books that are developing ideas. For one thing, the author is likely more of an expert than you about their topic and is more likely to take you where you didn’t know you needed to go—places you would not have found if you had hopped off the book too early. So, I don’t mean to argue against reading books all the way through. I am trying to understand a phenomenon—impatience with books—that I can’t be sure is widespread, but that perhaps points to a change in our understanding of the structure of knowledge.

We used to like to think that knowledge segments itself into manageable chunks. Books used to announce the scope of their chunk and the level of detail they will go into: One book would be a beginner’s guide to ham radio, and another an expert explanation of radio interference—and each would attempt to deliver on its promise. If you had to jump out of the book to get the information you needed, either the book had failed or you had overestimated your expertise.

But the Gladwellizing of nonfiction instead implies that knowledge is, by its nature, surprising. It bursts out of its containers. Topics that we didn’t think were related in fact are and in ways that delight us and sometimes amuse us.

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