Can 'The Box' get smaller?
I 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.
| February 7, 2011; 9:19 AM ET
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