I recently read an article in praise of short books. Marina van Zuylen, whose response led to the article by Steven Weiland, praises not only brevity, but also print. There is a difference between reading an actual book and reading something on a screen, even if an actual book of it exists somewhere. I don’t buy the argument that books are clutter. Books are my life, and if you start tossing them out you might as well start chopping bits off my body. But it’s her thoughts on short books that really caught my attention. Not that there’s anything wrong with long books. Good ones are like getting lost in a pleasant mind-forest. But I miss short books and the sense of accomplishment they engender.
Maybe like me you see a book online and get excited. You really want to read it and then you click on its landing page and learn it’s over 300 pages long. Or 400. Or more. You stop to think; do I really want to invest that much time on a single book? As van Zuylen explains, some tenure committees don’t take short books seriously. They want heft. This blog should stand as proof that anyone can multiply words. There are well over a million words on this blog alone. As a book this blog would be about 3,650 pages. Without footnotes. But it’s not a book, and that’s the point. Your time is valuable. You’re choosing to spend a little of it with me (Thank you!). I keep my posts around 400 words. A five-minute read. And I like books that I can finish in a week or two, along with my full-time job and other life responsibilities.
The electronic revolution—as good as it’s been—distorts things. Even the very definition of “book” is up for grabs. My mind always goes back to the scriptoria with weak-eyed monks rubbing aching backs as they laboriously copied books out by hand. Today we don’t even wait for the paperback, but download it instantly. How is this the same? And yet we have less time than ever. That’s why I enjoy short books. Some of the most impactful (oh, that word!) books I’ve read have been brief. As Pascal long ago noted, it’s more difficult to write a short piece than a long one. So I join Dr. van Zuylen in her praise of the short book. Long may they live!