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Posted at 9:19 AM ET, 02/ 7/2011

Can 'The Box' get smaller?

By Ezra Klein

the-box-by-marc-levinson.jpgI spent some of my weekend reading Marc Levinson's "The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger." The book is trying to answer the question of how we got to a world where, in the words (pdf) of economists Ed Glaeser and Janet Kohlhase, "it is better to assume that moving goods is virtually costless than to assume that moving goods is an important part of the production process."

Levinson's answer is a bit more complicated than "boxes." It's that boxes allowed for the mechanization. The process of putting things in boxes was really the process of remaking the shipping process so that it could be handled by cranes and assorted other machines that lifted more and moved faster and cost less than the small armies of human laborers who ran the docks before. That was the importance of boxes: Machines are better at picking heavy things up and putting them places than people are, but for the machines to really work, you need fairly standard shapes for them to work with.

My only problem with the book was that it had an enormous amount of technical detail about how tankers and ports and containers were retrofitted or rebuilt for this new world. That's important history. But it's more history than I, a casual reader, actually needed.

I don't bring this up to nitpick. Rather, there's been a lot of discussion over the publishing model Tyler Cowen is helping to pioneer with his 15,000-word e-book, "The Great Stagnation." But a lot of the discussion has been either/or: long books vs. short ones. Reading "The Box" made me yearn for the day when the same book is offered at varying lengths. This happens occasionally today, as magazines run excerpts from some new books. But it's rare. And those excerpts are designed to serve the purposes of the magazine, not the author's argument.

If the author could release a full book for those who wanted the deep dive into the subject, and a shorter version for those who just wanted the argument, that'd seem to be the best of both worlds. You could maximize reach of the book, perhaps pick up some readers for the longer version, and I doubt you'd do too much to cannibalize sales, particularly given that the sort of books this would really work for -- thesis-driven nonfiction -- rarely rack up "Harry Potter"-like numbers.

By Ezra Klein  | February 7, 2011; 9:19 AM ET
Categories:  Books  
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A longer review that explains the value of the book's deep-dive:

Posted by: SamPenrose | February 7, 2011 9:35 AM | Report abuse

That would massively increase the cost of preparing the book (almost doubling the labour), for the benefit of you not having to skip pages yourself. Frankly, seems unlikely to happen, and a little disappointing that you would want that.

Posted by: albamus | February 7, 2011 10:25 AM | Report abuse

Sounds like you ran into a problem similar to the one you encountered reading the Constitution.

Posted by: msoja | February 7, 2011 10:51 AM | Report abuse

I really like the idea of different versions. Some books already come out in abridged form with the audiobook. I often prefer the audiobook when it more appropriately matches the time I want to spend on a subject. (For instance, I first "read" The World is Flat by listening to the abridged audiobook, which was great. A couple years later, I had the time and read the whole thing.) If the abridged version already exists, selling versions of it should be fairly costless, if the additional versions are e-books.

Posted by: Levijohn | February 7, 2011 1:04 PM | Report abuse

Great book, great topic (all of them). Perhaps the e publishing will allow different editions to be available for purchase -- the whole thing, the Ezra light version, the "only consonants" version, etc. All appropriately priced, of course.

Posted by: bdballard | February 7, 2011 1:22 PM | Report abuse

By the way, here's an interesting factoid that I heard in a macroeconomic presentation at an aviation/transportation meeting -- during the worst days of the recent downturn, there was some observed shifts from air transport to maritime transport (in some goods) because the cost of money was virtually zero and there was thus little or no inventory cost associated with moving things more slowly on the cheaper mode.

Posted by: bdballard | February 7, 2011 1:34 PM | Report abuse

Why would that double costs? I've worked with a lot of authors to create excerpts from their books. It took a week, not a year.

And in general, when authors begin to decide that it's up to their readers to do work for them -- say, skip stuff they don't want to read -- they lose readers. To give an example from my own work, I end up rewriting the same blog posts a lot because people are interested in the information but didn't read the post the first time I wrote it. Saying they should've done the work to read it, or to Google it, just means it doesn't get read.

Posted by: Ezra Klein | February 7, 2011 3:52 PM | Report abuse

--*I end up rewriting the same blog posts a lot because people are interested in the information but didn't read the post the first time I wrote it.*--

Could you give a specific example of that, including how you know people "interested in the information" didn't read it until you rewrote it?

Isn't it more likely that your writing skills are not all that, and that sometimes you have to clarify that which was originally opaque, vague, confused, or confusing?

That said, how is Levinson supposed to determine which level of detail to include in the Klein version of his book?

Posted by: msoja | February 7, 2011 6:19 PM | Report abuse

I remember wishing that I had bought the short version of Eric Foner's classic book Reconstruction. The full version had more detail than I remember anyway. Am I right, Short History of Reconstruction is the same book, just edited down?

So it's been done on occasion.

Posted by: Hopeful9 | February 7, 2011 11:37 PM | Report abuse

Apple's iBooks has a David McCullough ebook for $1.99 called "Truman Fires MacArthur" that is actually a 35-page excerpt from "Truman."

I think that is along the lines of what EK is talking about and something I'd like to see more of from publishers.

Posted by: Porchland | February 10, 2011 2:31 PM | Report abuse

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