Search This Blog

For the Love of Books

I currently have seven books in flight—a few that I'm actively reading, a couple that I'm trying to juggle for learning new skills, and a couple more that I started a while back but had to put aside for the time being. What they are doesn't really matter. It seems I'm always in the middle of at least a few books at a time. Please understand this is not bragging; it's love. I love starting a new book, with all of its promises of knowledge or adventure or perspective. I love progressing through the middle of a good book, absorbing enough introductory material to understand more difficult concepts or following the intricate plot twists as a story builds to its conclusion. And I love finishing a great book, reflecting on the knowledge learned and the experiences had through the written word mixed with imagination. Books are still a major source of enjoyment and fulfillment for me, and I don't see that ever changing.

open books

More and more people today have trouble reading books. They have trouble focusing or finding time. They're too busy catching up on their Twitter feeds and the news or too distracted by Facebook and Instagram posts. People are losing themselves to the relentless deluge of the Internet. Nicholas Carr wrote an entire book, The Shallows, on how difficult the Internet has made it for him and us to read books. (It's good. You should check it out.) But that's not true of all people, and it's not that hard to resist the gravitational pull of the Internet with the right motivation and some sound reasons for pursuing better nourishment for your mind.

Books provide so many advantages over other forms of modern writing. While the Internet holds a tremendous wealth of information, it's fragmented, dispersed, and diluted with so much garbage that it can be hard to find things that are worth reading. Books are more cohesive, focusing on one topic in depth as opposed to barely scratching the surface of wide varieties of topics, like I do in this blog. The amount of understanding that can be gained from reading 200,000 words on a subject is far beyond what can be covered in even 100 2,000 word articles found across a multitude of sites on the Internet. Each of those articles needs to start over and repeat the same material to appeal to a wide audience, but a book has the latitude to build on itself for much longer and achieve coverage of a subject that most sites dare not try.

The information in Gödel, Escher, Bach, for example, could probably be found scattered around the Internet, but why go through the trouble of trying to find its myriad pieces when they're all packaged up nicely in one amazing book? You're not even likely to find most of the material in GEB without some real, concerted searching, but what would be the point of the exercise? If learning about Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem was the goal, that may be found more easily through Google, but what kind of understanding is to be gained from a Wikipedia article compared to careful study of a full, well-structured text on the subject? For true depth of understanding, books still easily beat the Internet.

The Internet may be good at access to information, but books are better at packaging up knowledge and facilitating understanding. While you can find almost anything on the Internet instantly with a Google search, it can be difficult to find good sources again later. I've had more instances than I can count where I've read a great article on some subject that I came across in one of my RSS feeds or Hacker News, but I forget to bookmark it and can't find it again later or I do bookmark it, but the link has rotted away. This loss can happen with books, too, as they go out of print and disappear, but it seems less frequent for the best books. The good books tend to be filtered by time so that the ones that are worth reading stick around in libraries, bookstores, or your bookshelf at home. Internet posts tend to be filtered out by time, and we are constantly enamored of the new and recent, with works more than a few years old fading from online memory.

Those time-filtered books hold treasure troves of knowledge, too. It's incredible the insights that can be found in a good book from decades ago or more, and we seem to continually rediscover these same insights with each year of posts without building much on the original ideas. We're accumulating mountains of the same information over and over again. Rehashing old ideas is all well and good, and turning over those ideas by writing them down in your own words is a worthwhile exercise that absolutely improves ones own understanding and solidifies the writer's thought processes. However, there's a certain appeal to reading the original works and seeing connections that the author has made over the span of a couple hundred pages as opposed to stumbling around the Internet looking for serendipitous crumbs of thought.

Due to the enormous sea of information on the Internet, it's much easier to find a good book to fill a significant chunk of reading time than a good series of articles online. It's easy to find curated lists of good books on any given subject, and book rating sites abound, from Amazon to Goodreads. The equivalent sites for online articles only cover the most recent trending articles, with the occasional classic popping up. That's not even considering the even more transient nature of Twitter and Facebook feeds. When I want something satisfying and engaging to read that is more than likely better written and edited as well, I'll default to picking out a book. (Of course, books available online still count as books. There are some exceptionally well-done programming books, at least.)

The friction of publishing generally seem to improve books as compared to Internet postings. The Internet was heralded as a place where anyone can post anything and get noticed, but it turns out that when the barriers to publishing are reduced to that extend, we really get anyone posting anything. The vast majority of the time, it's not that great. Publishing may prevent some gems from seeing the light of day, but I really believe that making the effort to get something published improves the work. Publishing ends up doing a fairly decent job of filtering out some of the junk, while there is a whole lot more junk floating around on the Internet that we all have to sift through.

Constraining the author to the linear flow of a book also serves to improve it. Online we can post disparate thought bubbles whenever they come to mind, not needing to connect them or think about how to lay them out in a cohesive narrative. The author of a book, on the other hand, needs to organize the ideas of a subject into a coherent set of chapters that flow from one to the next, starting with some basic assumptions about the reader's knowledge, and guiding them through the development of the subject to some higher level of knowledge. It is not an easy task carrying a reader through for dozens of chapters and hundreds of pages to the ultimate goal, but great writers make it look effortless. It's a joy to reach the end of a well-written book with them.

One criticism I've heard of books is that the reader is forced to follow a patriarchal authority, presumably meaning that there's no way for the reader to interact or change the narrative, but why have such an awfully negative and unnecessary perspective? It sounds like a weak argument from someone who doesn't like reading and is trying to rationalize why that might be. A good, active reader will analyze the book's material and decide for themselves what is reasonable and acceptable according to the prior experience and knowledge that they bring to the table. The ideas in the book may raise questions in the reader's mind that they then go off and learn more about from other sources. If an author is wrong, but their misconceptions drive the reader to do further research and study to figure out the truth, the reader has still gained and will be better equipped to debunk those erroneous claims in the future. Reading is an active, analytical activity, not a passive reception of whatever the author chooses to have the reader believe.

The active reading necessary for books takes time. Reading blogs, Facebook, Twitter, etc. can be done in short bursts without much focus. They encourage short attention spans, but reading books requires large amounts of focused time to analyze and absorb the more complex content. It's a pleasure to spend that time on one thing, getting into a flow of thought that spurs new ideas and triggers deeper insights, giving a keen sense of accomplishment.

In the same vein, books encourage deeper thought, as opposed to the short commitment of blogs and articles. On the Internet, reading consists more of flitting from one shiny, interesting thing to another, never really focusing on a single thing for a substantial length of time. It amounts to constantly task switching, and that means rarely scratching beyond the surface of complex and difficult topics. Reading books, on the other hand, requires focused thought over long periods of time. Extended reading clears the mind of all of the nagging notifications and cacophony of interruptions vying for your attention, making room for a singular subject to roam free, to be turned over and explored in detail without distraction. It's a kind of meditation that allows for new thought paths to be traversed and novel ideas to be dissected.

Exploring ideas through reading books is more deliberative than searching the Internet. A book will cover a broad range of issues on a given subject, giving a fuller picture of the landscape. Finding information on the Internet usually involves quickly narrowing the search to target a specific problem that needs to be solved quickly. While it is exceptionally good for that purpose, there is no depth to the knowledge gained, no development of a place in your mind to hold the information for when it may need to be recalled later. The only recourse is to search again the next time that information is needed. Maybe with enough repetition, it will eventually stick.

The additional time invested in studying books is not time wasted. Putting more focused time into a book will yield greater returns because that extra time spent thinking about the subject literally changes your mind by making new pathways to store knowledge as the book presents more complex material that builds upon earlier fundamentals. Having an organized progression of content is key to developing a clear and complete understanding of a subject that is difficult to obtain through fragmented, disparate, unstructured tutorials and articles online. If multimedia is involved, it's been found that understanding and retention suffers even more because the distraction of multiple forms of media presented together inhibits our ability to focus and integrate the information presented.

Even more so, reading a book is an escape from the constant pull of Internet distractions and information overload. Oftentimes after surfing around on the Internet for a couple hours, lazily tapping through one link after another, I leave feeling exhausted and drained. But I can read a good book for those same hours and feel refreshed and energized, my brain happily turning over the consumed plot twists of a thrilling novel or possibilities of a technical book. Books are a way to get lost in our own imagination, guided by someone else's. It can be a calm reprieve, a refreshing exercise, and a thrilling adventure, all at the same time.

The Internet seems to be taking over our collective attention more and more, especially with the super-catalyst of the ubiquitous smartphone, but forgetting about books altogether would be a tremendous tragedy. Books center our thoughts in ways the Internet cannot. Books encourage deep focus and concentration that helps us achieve higher levels of thought. Books provide an escape from the relentless press of our busy, overloaded connected lives. I will always love cracking open a book to get lost in its pages. I hear one calling for me now. I think it's time to go read.