36 Comments

Great post. I just wish you'd mentioned SBF.

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Nov 28, 2023·edited Nov 28, 2023Liked by Paul Bloom

Having just read "After Virtue," this post comes at a good time. MacIntyre's very excellent treatise has to be read to the end to make sense. If you want to get what he is laying down, you have to put in the hours.

I no longer read popular nonfiction, like Malcolm Gladwell or Yuval Hariri, as they have (intelligently) written for the modern reader, which is to say they write a blog post and expand it into a book to fill a shelf without requiring the full reading to get the to the content. If you don't get a Gladwell argument in the first chapter, then you will never get it, and Malcolm will gladly summarize the whole thing in a TED talk with no loss of nuance or breadth.

I would contrast these with "The Dawn of Everything," which is majestic and long. I suspect virtually nobody reads the whole thing, but I did, and it was spectacular to the last page. It had reinforcement, but never repetition, and the argument kept unfolding to the bitter end.

People don't read real books all the way through because it is very hard. It takes time and moreover a great deal of energy, energy that is not returned from the social sphere. It is cheaper to read a tweet of listen to a podcast and say a few sentences to a friend about it to cement a social bond.

But a tweet won't ever make you change the way you understand the world. Finishing a book can.

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Nov 28, 2023Liked by Paul Bloom

I think the real issue is that 99% of Non-Fiction books nowadays are following a Gladwellian formula to start with a cute anecdote to draw the reader in. Then they slyly allude to the thesis of the book. The they map it's relevance point by point while wrapping it up with a compelling point to keep you reading into the next chapter.

Maybe that's just crappy Non-Fiction but isn't that most of it anyway?

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Nov 28, 2023Liked by Paul Bloom

I try to finish Small Potatoes most weeks, but sometime my inner SBF wins out.

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Mortimer Adler's "How to Read a Book" helped me a lot, or will once I finish it.

My vote for most content least fat are both of David Deutsch's books; I am looking resentful at GEB as I write this.

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Nov 28, 2023Liked by Paul Bloom

Most non-fiction books are better at article length. I appreciate the gems that deserve their length but most could be far more concise.

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As much as I dislike the man, I think SBF is right about the relative worthwile-ness of reading popular non-fiction books specifically. I used to be an avid non-fiction reader, but I recently came to the realisation that at least 90% of the popular non-fiction books I read could easily have been condensed into a chapter or two (The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris comes to mind). There are exceptions though - such as 'I Am a Strange Loop' by Douglas Hoftstadter - but I find that some of the best non-fiction I have read recently has been the size of novellas or even shorter. Christopher Hitchen's 'Mortality' is a work of art at less than 100 pages of content, although, admittedly, its length is more to do with the tragic passing of the author rather than a stylistic choice.

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Nov 28, 2023Liked by Paul Bloom

Books: The other alignment problem (as you nicely illustrate with a description of the different incentives at play for writer and reader).

Maybe before AI destroys us all there will be a time when it can take a book and provide us with the version most optimized to our particular needs. One could even envision an interactive book under this scenario.

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Dec 1, 2023Liked by Paul Bloom

Most people may not read or finish books, but some do. I read most books to the end. Either I discard quickly or finish.

On another note this whole issue reminds me of a Charlie Munger quote (may he rest in peace):

“In my whole life, I have known no wise people (over a broad subject matter area) who didn’t read all the time — none, zero. You’d be amazed at how much Warren reads — and at how much I read. My children laugh at me. They think I’m a book with a couple of legs sticking out.” — Poor Charlie's Almanack

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Huh, I really did make it through a Brief History of Time. I was younger then. You know how time is...

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Nov 28, 2023Liked by Paul Bloom

I find it fascinating that you wonder why the book market hasn't contracted when, if you consider the larger "reading" market, it very much has.

Blog posts like yours didn't really exist 30 years ago or so, and books are competing with other things to read.

Time was they competed with more ephemeral works like newspapers or magazines that had, at best, a lifespan of a single month before being swept aside or used to line a birdcage (just hours even, in the days of morning and evening newspapers).

Now books are competing with everything to read online, and, while I have no substantive data to back this up, I'd IMAGINE that folks consuming books on the same screens as news articles, blog posts and Facebook slap fights aren't distinguishing one form of readable content from another.

It's far, far, easier to ignore digital content than it is that pile of books on the bedside table. Unfinished Kindle books probably greatly outnumber unfinished physical books, who sit there, taunting you with their unrealized expectations.

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Nov 28, 2023Liked by Paul Bloom

“...some people don’t even read past the beginning of Substack posts.”

This. Nevermind books. Although I imagine (hope) Substack readers are better than other platforms’ readers.

I will add that I agree with you that this is a very hard topic to generalize because of so many factors affecting peoples’ decision to stop reading. However, beyond thinking that it would be nice if more people would finish - or even start - reading great books, I don’t see a reason to really complain, (except, as you mention, perhaps for the market not finding a way to respond to end-users). What you call waste is inevitable in creative endeavors, whether they be in the arts, business, science, etc. imho.

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Dec 1, 2023Liked by Paul Bloom

Audiobooks have the opposite momentum issue. You dont wait to pick up an audiobook, which can be a battle. You will continue to listen to the audiobook on your commute / chores unless you actively choose to change. So I suspect audiobook listeners finish more books. I finished A Brief History of Time this way

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Nov 30, 2023·edited Nov 30, 2023Liked by Paul Bloom

I haven't read any of your books but your "maybe you should stop" comment chimes with me. I don't think there's anything one can usefully say on political/philosophical themes that cannot be said in a 3000 word essay. People who want to read long books to learn more about how society works should instead read good novels. That's what I do....and (somewhat amazingly given the times we live in) these are still being written in quantity. As for my own non-fiction writing, I'm a 2000 word-max man: https://grahamcunningham.substack.com/

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I think you miss a key purpose of those doorstopper non-fiction books that keeps them from being eliminated by the market, despite the fact that nobody reads them: everybody pretends to read them for prestige. Who needs to slog through the whole book when you can quote the first chapter, throw it on your bookshelf, artfully curated for Instagram, and impress everyone?

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Nov 29, 2023Liked by Paul Bloom

I read mostly the kinds of books you write. I’ve read all of yours and finished them all. There are many others I’ve started and not finished, some because I lost interest and others because something interrupted me, but I do intend to finish the ones that were interrupted. Sometimes it takes a few years to finish a book, and I usually have several in progress at any given time. One of the ones I’m reading now is one you recommended- The Second Creation, by Jonathan Gienapp (thanks for that). I’ll finish it, eventually.

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