Books, what are they good for?

Normally I write about how great books are so here’s something a little different: a guest post from my former boss Paul Rainger with a rather different take on books.

All I want for Christmas is a good bookpamphlet to read

Like me, you are probably hoping to unwrap a good book to read this Christmas.

I read a lot of science fiction. I like to read for a pleasure. An escape from the troubles of everyday life.

But from time to time I am required to read for work, particularly social science and environmental books. Sadly, it is very rarely a pleasure. Ploughing through long turgid texts, that many, I am ashamed to say, I never actually manage to finish, including some by quite famous thinkers.

The problem for me is not the quality of the ideas or the writing, it’s the length of the book format.

An idea, succinctly explained in the first two pages of each chapter is then tortuously padded out over and over again to fill the required chapter, leaving this reader at least screaming for it to end so we can mercifully move on.

Am I the only one who still hankers after the simple old fashioned short political pamphlet?

I fondly remember the infamous 1970’s Scottish Young Liberal’s drugs policy pamphlet “Excuse me while I kiss the sky”. More impactful than any book today, thanks to being condemned by the establishment at the time as ‘more a comprehensive users guide than a policy guide’, and yet with hindsight today looking like nothing more than ‘radical but realistic’ thinking ahead of its time.

So why has the pamphlet been abandoned and instead padded out to book length?

Perversely perhaps, it seems technology has done in the pamphlet format (sort of blog length) in favour of hyper-short tweets or long (often self-published) books, combined with the emergence of a book-powered ‘thinkers industry’ in the USA.

It used to be that a social commentator had to learn their craft through published opinion pieces, and the best might be picked up for a book contract, filtered through the quality control of the publisher’s editor. You would then be invited to speak at events (and sometimes even paid to speak) promoting your book sales.

Today this process has been turned on its head. Particularly in the USA, where a sort of ‘thinkers industry’ has emerged, and the book is used more like a business card.

In this industry, ideas that would have made a good pamphlet/blog are now padded out into a full book format with self-publishing, if required, removing the annoying need for the author to exercise any quality control. Armed with your latest book, you now pay to speak at events in order to promote and sell copies of your book. And the pressure is on to come up with a new book for next year’s circuit, regardless of whether you have something new to say or not.

It’s the battle for ideas and influence turned into a self-feeding industry to make money.

Does it really matter you may well ask? Well I think it does.

Over long turgid books don’t get read. They don’t inspire new young minds like a pamphlet grabbed on a march or at the coffee shop and quickly read on the train home. They don’t influence busy journalists who want to cut to the chase.

In short, these books are burying and chocking off the very ideas and influence they are trying to propagate.

So, by all means send me a massive science fiction book for Christmas, but if you’ve got an idea to change the world, put it on a pamphlet – please!

Paul Rainger is a former Director of Campaigns for the Liberal Democrats.

Paul’s got a good point. One of the reasons I usually pen a review on this site after reading a book is to help me remember what I got out of it. For non-fiction the key points can often be summarised in just a few sentences. Sometimes you need the length to demonstrate why those points are valid but often the length doesn’t add nearly as much value as it should.

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