Books are not Information Dense
Substack is much better
The Internet deluges us with information. Martin Gurri terms it a tsunami.
Tyler Cowen, who has speed-reading superpowers, says that he finds Twitter to be information dense, by which he means that for him, it contains more information per line he reads than do other media. I disagree with him about Twitter, but I like the term information dense.
I wish that Tyler Cowen would switch his essays to Substack. Same with Martin Gurri.
For several months now, I have found Substack to be more information dense than books. For 2022, I could not even come up with a list of best nonfiction books of the year. But I subscribed to a few dozen Substacks.
I am reading fewer books that I did before Substack came along. The most recent book I read was Good Reasons for Bad Feelings, by Randolph Nesse. Relative to what I wanted, the book did not disappoint. But boy, it felt like it took a long time to get there. The book is not information dense. I had the annoying sense that in the time it took me to read the book I could have profitably explored many substacks.
People ask me whether my series of essays on human interdependence might turn into a book. I think that the chances of that are less than 50/50. I think it is likely to be more information dense as a series of essays.
Razib Khan’s essays on population genetics probably would make for a high-quality book. But saying that in order to write a high-quality book you have to be as erudite as Razib is setting the bar at a height that hardly anyone else can reach.
Actually, showing off erudition is more of a bug than a feature. Professors who enjoy citing a wide range of references in their lectures and writing are kidding themselves if they think the rest of us have the patience for it. Niall Ferguson’s The Cash Nexus had a major, lasting influence on my view of banking and finance. But re-reading it now, it’s really painful. I want to say, “Stop showing off and get to the point.”
People used to talk about the enjoyment they get from “curling up with a good book.” There might be people for whom that is still be true for novels. It is not what we are looking for in non-fiction works.
One tip that I have for using Substack is to subscribe to many authors but with email notifications turned off. To keep up with new writing, use the app on your phone or go to your personal substack.com page.
Another tip is to rotate the writers to whom you pay attention. When you first subscribe to someone, you may read everything that the writer puts out. After a while, if the marginal novelty of a writer’s essays starts to drop, you can skip many of them. Not many writers can post frequently and remain fresh. For me,is someone who writes often without the novelty wearing off. He deserves his large following, which I admit grudgingly because I often disagree with him.
Another tip, probably obvious, is to follow some of the links on substacks, especially if they go to other substacks. In that way, you can find new substacks worthy of subscribing.
Another tip is to use podcast transcriptions. Tyler linked to a service for YouTube transcription based on ChatGPT that I have started to use and find helpful.
I speculate that nonfiction books are headed down the path of academic journals. They will be useful for academics positioning themselves for tenure, but they will be too slow and ponderous for communicating ideas. People who really care about ideas will turn to reading and writing substacks instead of books and journals.
I think the book will survive. There is a level of thematic integration that you can get with a book that you cannot get at the level of an essay or blog post. But maybe there will be fewer books and maybe that's good.
Books have an important role in imparting knowledge. At present I am learning about Russia’s history from 300 AD to the present with the help of two books:
Restless Empire, A Historical Atlas of Russia by Ian Barnes
Russia: Myths and Realities, by Rodric Braithwaite
I am reading both books together, chronologically. You cannot achieve this kind of knowledge by just reading Substack. Moreover, you need the background information in order to make judgments about the current conflict in the Ukraine.
Add to this trying to learn Latin, Spanish and linear algebra and you quickly find life is impossible without books.