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Books for the 21st Century – Short is the New Smart

This man, they said in Paris when I was there, had written a big book because he had not had the time to write a small one. Jean-Louis Guez de Balzac 1654 (translated from original French)

The digital crisis that swept over the music industry is racing headlong towards book publishers.  Is part of the answer to be found in ‘lunch-hour books’?

It takes the average person two and a half weeks to read the average book*.  Whilst that’s a great way to stay amused on holiday, it’s a pretty lousy way to learn  something new.

The psychology of information overload has been recognised since the 1970s – ‘a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention’ said Herbert Simon – although it wasn’t until 2001 that the concept reached tipping point with the ‘Attention Economy’ (see Wikipedia or Davenport & Beck’s book). Whilst most of us recognise we are knowledge-hungry yet time-poor, solutions are hard to find.

One solution that may be showing the first signs of a growing trend is the short-form, non-fiction book.

Ted Books launched in July 2012 with the ambitious aim of launching a new title every two weeks.  Derived from the hugely successful Ted Talks videos, these e-books are ‘shorter than a novel, but longer than a magazine article … they’re personal and provocative, and designed to spread great ideas’ (from Ted Books introduction).  Titles include ‘When I’m 164: The New Science of Radical Life Extension, and What Happens if it Succeeds‘, ‘Smile: the astonishing powers of a simple act‘ and ‘Cheating the Impossible: Ideas and Recipes from a Rebellious High-Wire Artist‘.

The present letter is a very long one, simply because I had no leisure to make it shorter. Blaise Pascal, 1657 (translated from original French)

The pioneer of this format was the Very Short Introduction Series from Oxford University Press, first published in 1995 and now extending to over 300 titles. According to the publisher, they set out to provide provocative, yet always balanced and complete, discussions of the central issues in a given discipline.

The Illumynation series sets out to follow in these illustrious footsteps. Short enough to be read in an hour, yet substantial enough to provide deep insight – this was what we aspired to when we first began.

As the writing progressed, however, so our thinking evolved. Where Ted Books seek to entertain and inform in equal measure, and hence pick quirky, eye-catching topics, we play with more of a straight bat. We pick a big issue and hit it head-on! Each Illumynation title aspires to be the ultimate distillation of its subject-matter – distilled to the point at which any further distillation would damage the coherence or sufficiency of the explanation.

Inevitably, this make them different in scope from OUP’s Very Short Introductions. Where they give a balanced overview of current thinking and the different views held by leading authorities, we focus instead on the questions that are answerable with confidence.

Not that the story need be long, but it will take a long while to make it short. Henry David Thoreau 1857

The Illumynation series is also written facts-first. Each chapter begins with a fact that is either self-evident (e.g. the Earth is volcanic) or deduced very simply from the evidence (e.g. the Sun is a ball of gas). This enables us to bring readers on-side immediately, through their acceptance of a simple fact and then draw them logically into each explanation. We feel this is more persuasive for a non-specialist reader than starting with a proposition that readers may not understand or feel comfortable with (e.g. the Universe began with the Big Bang) and then trying to justify it.

Writing in such a distilled way is hard and enormously time consuming, as, hopefully, the quotes alongside this article suggest. But in a world of proliferating information, it is hard enough to keep up with topics we already know, far less become knowledgeable about new topics. Concise distillations of specific topics may be the way forward – short might indeed be the new smart.

This book is really short. Short books are hard to write, but … something I’ve learned along the way: Write less. Seth Godin, The Dip, 2011

* The average book is 100,000 words long, the average reading speed is 300 words per minute That’s over 5 hours of solid reading.  Given that we read for between 15 and 20 minutes a day – that will take us two and a half weeks.

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