Have you determined how much non-book content you are reading during the day? During a typical day, I end up reading several books worth of articles, not to mention emails. I’m loath to value books over other forms of written content impulsively: after all, books are often crap and articles are often quite good.

Is it valuable to be self-aware about the way in which notifications and consumption of short-form content performs operant conditioning on you? Sure; this is why I have notifications off on my devices, avoid broadcast television entirely, and try to avoid reading any article that takes less than five minutes (with articles taking 20 minutes or more to read taking precedence).

But, a “book” has a lot of cultural and structural baggage: books are associated with traditional publishing pipelines (meaning that a book is written about a year and a half before anybody who isn’t a professional author, editor, or reviewer reads it), with a particular structure (several multi-page sections called chapters, organized either by topic or chronology, numbered) and attributes (even ebooks are usually paired with paper equivalents, and so features like internal hyperlinks, interactive sections, and direct feedback should be avoided; updates, to the extent that they exist at all, are limited to later editions which must be bought separately; a book is rarely less than 90 pages long and rarely longer than 500, because otherwise binding it would be prohibitively expensive for an approximately seven USD price point). How many of these attributes of a book are, in of themselves, valuable? How many of them, for a particular subject, are desirable constraints rather than undesirable ones? When we consider that books might also need to be audio books, we add more constraints: no diagrams, no extensive use of homophonic puns or homoglyphic puns, write nothing that is inherently unpronounceable.

I love books. But, when we uncritically value the book format we sacrifice ourselves to a kind of shallow reactive traditionalism that ultimately runs counter to precisely the kind of attributes that book-loving people ascribe value to: deep consideration and intellectual bravery. A book is a tool, and to consider it preferable for jobs for which it is unsuitable for reasons of habit and social signalling is to devalue it.

Written by

Resident hypertext crank. Author of Big and Small Computing: Trajectories for the Future of Software. http://www.lord-enki.net

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