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I'm Mike Pope. I live in the Seattle area. I've been a technical writer and editor for over 30 years. I'm interested in software, language, music, movies, books, motorcycles, travel, and ... well, lots of stuff.

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What is the Internet, if not the world's most efficient way to say something bad about someone -- and post pictures of cats?

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Blog Statistics

Dates
First entry - 6/27/2003
Most recent entry - 7/16/2018

Totals
Posts - 2509
Comments - 2574
Hits - 2,063,655

Averages
Entries/day - 0.46
Comments/entry - 1.03
Hits/day - 375

Updated every 30 minutes. Last: 10:04 AM Pacific


  01:17 AM

I buy a lot of books, but for every book I have, I've probably considered another three or four. Over the years, I've picked up many a book that looks interesting, glanced through it, and then hefted it and thought "Nah, I don't want to read a book this thick about [subject]."

Years ago I remember reading an article in which one of the statements was something like "The worst thing that ever happened to biographies was the word processor." There are times when I tend to agree. Sure, I'm interested in, say, John Adams, but do I need 752 pages about him? What am I going to do with 1120 pages about Harry S Truman? And as much as I admire Robert Caro as a writer, the honest truth is that I will never read all 2784 pages about Lyndon Johnson (in three volumes -- I, II, III -- with a fourth one yet to come).[1]

And then there is the class of books that have essentially one premise, with a bunch of chapters that are examples or variations on the basic theme. You know the kind. Flow. The Wisdom of Crowds. Freakonomics. Blink. And don't even get me started on self-help books. Not long ago, I went to hear Daniel Gilbert talk about his book Stumbling on Happiness. In an unusually frank author appearance, he read us the first few paragraphs from the book, and then he said "That's the basic idea. The rest of the book is details."

In fact, some of the books like those I just listed started as articles, or were quite successfully excerpted as articles. If you're a New Yorker reader, you've read many articles that eventually turned up, expanded, as books -- The Orchid Thief, The Hot Zone, the aforementioned Path to Power by Caro, and probably a hundred more.

Therefore, premise the first: there are many books -- many, many books -- that would have been just about as informative, and more manageable to read, if they were (or had stayed as) articles. Heresy? You decide.

And then there is the reverse. In spite of all this whining, I do have lots of thick books, or at least, books that are more pages about a subject than I might particularly want or need. Just recently, for example, I picked up The Stories of English, David Crystal's account of the history of our fine language, a book that weighs in at about 600 pages. A daunting size, one might think, especially about a topic that most people might think was worth, mmmm, an article. If that.

Well, I'm not going to read 600 pages about English. At least, not in a row. Certainly not all at once. I have latterly decided (or discovered, might be the more accurate term) that hey, you don't have to read a book like a book -- you can read it like a magazine. I might decide tomorrow that I want to read a chapter in Crystal about Noah Webster. The next day, maybe I want to read in Freakonomics about how statistics suggests that teachers cheat on assessment test. Maybe the day after that I'll read about the lingering death of President Garfield. Or about lobsters. Or about human crash test dummies. The how and why of the Burr-Hamilton duel.

Obviously this isn't a strategy that's going to work well for all reading, such as, say, Austen or Roth. Or for that matter, maybe not even for biographies. But it's changed the way I contemplate a book acquisition. Now it's not a matter of "Will I ever finish a book about [subject]?" These days, I'm perfectly willing to read just pieces of the book. Or to put it another way, these days I might buy a book if I can answer yes when I ask myself this: "Would this book make a good article?"


[1] Don't get me wrong; I'm not saying these shouldn't be written, nor that they aren't well written. McCullough and Caro (and Ellis and many more) write very fine biography. They just write so much of it.

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