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Against books -- sort of


George Packer's post on Twitter is rather less considered than his colleague Steve Coll's. Packer, a prominent figure who offered a controversial argument in a public forum, responds to the criticism of his argument by saying, "the response to my post tells me that techno-worship is a triumphalist and intolerant cult that doesn’t like to be asked questions." As the Twitterites would say: #fail.

As it is, there's nothing bold or brave about "mourn[ing] the loss of books and the loss of time for books." You don't get hunted through the streets for saying there's "no way for readers to be online, surfing, e-mailing, posting, tweeting, reading tweets, and soon enough doing the thing that will come after Twitter, without paying a high price in available time, attention span, reading comprehension, and experience of the immediately surrounding world." This is inside work, and tapping out the conventional wisdom does not count as heavy lifting. Let's stop being so world-historical about our blog posts.

As it happens, the more uncomfortable position is the inverse: Celebrating the loss of time for books, and the cacophony of alternative mediums suddenly available for readers. I like books. I read them. I want to write one. But many books are -- sorry about this -- quite bad, and the time it takes to figure that out is quite significant. We venerate the medium, but not for good reason.

It is true that for the best books, there is no substitute for a book. I do not want to read Robert Caro's blog posts if they will delay his final volume on Lyndon Johnson by so much as an hour. But for many books, a few blog posts, or an article, would work just fine, and the reader would save a lot of time in the process. And time has value.

Then there are the advantages that online media offer that books can't match: It's possible to follow an issue in real time. People who really wanted to understand the health-care reform conversation were better off reading Jon Cohn's blog than any particular book or magazine. Did those people spend more time reading Jon and less time reading books? Probably. But it was time well spent. Packer is insistent on making the point that something is lost as we move into this faster, more fractured, more condensed media environment. But so too is something gained.

And finally, I wonder whether online media is crowding out books to the degree Packer assumes. My blog is primarily read during the workday. That's true for every blog I know of. It's also true for the type of Tweeting under discussion here. This is all operating in the crevices of the workday, in part because it can be done on the computer, and so it looks like work. Cracking open a biography, conversely, is not the sort of thing that you can do while your boss roams the halls or in the spare moments between finishing one task and beginning another.

The different mediums are suited not just for different types of information but also for different levels of possible focus, and that makes them a lot more complementary than some think. Packer's post is about the competition between them, but my hunch -- and my experience -- is that people read blogs and online articles (which is what Twitter mainly links to) during the day and books during the night. That seems unambiguously better than when the only option was books during the night.

Photo credit: By Robert Pratta/Reuters

By Ezra Klein  |  February 9, 2010; 11:32 AM ET
Categories:  Books  
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It is true that for the best books, there is no substitute for a book."

why is this necessarily a universal truth?
collecting books is also about "ownership."
the printed word is the printed word.
whether it is on parchment or a lit screen.
i have come to appreciate reading everything just as much on my computer, as in a book.

actually, in an effort to simplify, and have less "things," i am glad not to be accumulating books as much.
having a library is about "holding on to things..."possessing things."
i can have things when i need them on my computer, and then send them back into the universe, instead of lugging them around for the rest of my life.
knowledge, beauty, word....all part of the etheric universe of ideas and computer has helped me to see the world in this way, and i am glad of it.
and i am fine with having all of this amazing and magic mindfulness on my waferlike computer.

Posted by: jkaren | February 9, 2010 11:48 AM | Report abuse

I used to read a lot more when I was younger. I don't mourn the decrease. If it were so bothersome to me, well, I wouldn't be choosing to replace that time with other activities, including reading things on the internet.

Posted by: MosBen | February 9, 2010 11:49 AM | Report abuse

Twitter lite-- (40 char or less)

'Obama, it's time for a crusade.'

(See, that didn't take long.)

Posted by: HalHorvath | February 9, 2010 11:49 AM | Report abuse

" I like books. I read them. I want to write one."

Romance or science fiction? I think you should go the Nicholas Sparks route. "Legislation in a Bottle" and "Dear John Conyers". "The Notebook . . . of Ideas for An Improved National Healthcare Policy".

"But many books are -- sorry about this -- quite bad"

Like Nicholas Sparks "The Notebook". When I read that book, I was dumbstruck. This has been translated into 60 languages? Seriously? I felt like T. S. Garp, complaining that his mother's feminist manifesto (and first attempt at writing) had been translated into Apache.

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | February 9, 2010 11:52 AM | Report abuse

I certainly agree that different mediums are suitable for different types of information: I'd like to see how one would read the digital version of Pat the Bunny to a nine-month-old.
For things like political chatter and policy updates, of course a blog is more suitable, and perfectly sufficient. The few topical political books I ever bought were not worth the investment and got sent to Goodwill within a year of purchase. Exhibition catalogues or other art books might be different. They certainly would be cheaper to produce, but part of their allure is scarcity ... and there can also be problems with reproduction quality.
But one more thing: "many books are quite bad"? Well, duh. Ditto and quinzillion that for many blog posts.

Posted by: JJenkins2 | February 9, 2010 12:07 PM | Report abuse

I was enrolled in a health policy class earlier in 2009. One of the first books we were assigned was Tom Daschle's plan to fix healthcare -- seen at the time as being Highly Relevant because of his pending appointment as HHS Secretary. I had also been reading Ezra's blog for some time beforehand.

A few months into 2009, Ezra's blog remained highly useful. Daschle's book certainly did not. For developing public debates, nothing beats a blog. Ezra's coverage grew and changed, linked up to other thinkers, and allowed immediate response and feedback. A book is over the moment the author is done writing it.

On the other hand, you couldn't do something like "Nixonland" in blog format. Different media are appropriate for different types of communication. What a mind-blowing revelation.

Posted by: NS12345 | February 9, 2010 1:11 PM | Report abuse

You write "My blog is primarily read during the workday. That's true for every blog I know of. It's also true for the type of Tweeting under discussion here. This is all operating in the crevices of the workday, in part because it can be done on the computer, and so it looks like work."

Indeed! And since you are coming at me from the Washington Post I am not blocked from reading you, whereas most blogs (plus twitter plus facebook plus plus plus) is blocked. Who knows, you may owe your readership to corporate censors rather than your mad blogging skillz.

Posted by: luko | February 9, 2010 1:35 PM | Report abuse

Ezra, I absolutely agree with your take on blogs vs. books. They both have their time and place.

I read your blog (and others) and news all day long because I work in an office and that's what I can get away with. What I can't do in my cube is open up War and Peace and go to town.

When I get home from work it's blogs out and books in. If I missed your last post or something I can always catch it the next day.

Posted by: patrickbyers | February 9, 2010 1:38 PM | Report abuse

It's also important to remember that people absorb information differently depending on the delivery technology of the time. Many of Dickens' novels were published as serials in the 19th century, so many readers of the time never sat down in a chair with one of his books the way people did in the 20th century. People in their teens now will become incredibly comfortable using products like the iPad (still a horrid name), Kindle, or Nook. Their kids, or maybe their grandkids, will have some new text delivery system which may also drastically change the way text is presented to us.

Books were popular because they were the dominant technology for a long time. Eventually, people won't read them, at least not printed, bound volumes, and something else will be popular. And all throughout, older generations will bemoan that they way they're used to things being is being replaced and that people will be poorer for it. Whaaaaaa.

Posted by: MosBen | February 9, 2010 3:07 PM | Report abuse

The reasoning in this piece sounds right to me.

Blogs and new social media are sometimes in direct competition with other things -- such as books -- for time and attention, but the media also fits in its own niche.

The interactive nature of blogs offers a chance to hone critical thinking skills; they also offer a great excuse to practice typing skills.

In terms of getting a good 200 or 300 level understanding of a broad range of subjects the web is also great resource. With all of the specialist blogs, it's almost like a virtual class-room, where a reader can audit a course with any number of good instructors. No tests either. Just ideas; some reading in digestible bits; and some discussion. If a person wants to follow-up on an idea sparked by a blog post they have a broad range of other resources at his or her finger tips that allow for further study (e.g. including books!).

If there are stumbling points, etc, readers and commentators have the chance to test ideas with other readers.

Blogs are a much more direct and interactive media than books, and they don't tend to be as passive, basic, or general regarding the kind of subjects covered on most TV or radio programs.

Books tend to offer an opportunity for more reflection and they're easy to notate for future reference. They probably help to develop focus as well. Granted books as a general category encompasses a lot of ground. Just as with blogs, there's a lot of crap out their too. A crappy blog, fades into oblivion, usually with minimal harm. A crappy book unnecessarily kills trees.

Posted by: JPRS | February 9, 2010 6:08 PM | Report abuse

This post reminds me of Richard Posners recent return to blogging at The Atlantic after several months hiatus.

He writes that he was away because he was working on a book, and blogging would result in too much overlap with the book (and would distract him). Sort of a real-world example of Caro hypothetical.

And finally, I think I can testify to the fact that people do read these blogs after work (or school, in my case). And when I do work, I certainly feel like I don't have time to read as many blogs as usual.

Posted by: gocowboys | February 9, 2010 8:58 PM | Report abuse

Many forms of compression are coming. I made a 90-second summary-review of the argument of Al Gore’s last book, using a flow-cartoon language:

There are about 100 facts in it, organized.

Visual animation allows a new degree-of-freedom in a regular grammar, so you can accelerate comprehension.

More here (and my project’s own bibliography, at the bottom of this page:)

Posted by: Lee_A_Arnold | February 9, 2010 9:23 PM | Report abuse

Portability is a key for me. I can download the equivalent of say 300 technical books as .PDF on my Mac and then use Searchlight to look for keywords. Google provides this as well. Learning to read Arabic tho requires a hard copy to leaf back and forth between pages. But having a downloadable recording that lets me hear the language is great. Its seems that in perhaps narrowing the debate to be about this or that type of media for me misses the key for me which is learning, understanding, knowledge acquistion, skill building, entertaining, keeping my mind sharp, etc. All presentation models work together depending on what I am after. How do you like to learn or entertain your mind. Its great to sit in my study with real books, online, content, video, sound, streaming in real time, etc all at my finger tips. The larger perspective, is wow, look at the ways to pursue my myriad interests in overdrive. And yes, I have ADD.

Posted by: mickster1 | February 10, 2010 12:47 AM | Report abuse

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