Books Mindsets

Like Twitter, but for reading (and not in a good way)

Jamie Rubin recently wrote about abridgement going too far when it comes to books in his post “Abridge, Too Far“.

I’ve been thinking about abridgments lately because of an ad that keeps popping up on Facebook. It’s for a service called Blinkist. The service claims it allows you to “fit reading into your life.” It does this by providing short (15 minute or so) key takeaways of popular nonfiction books. I took a look at some titles in the History category. Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari, a book I recently finished, is summarized in 19 minutes of audio. The actual unabridged audiobook is over 15 hours long. Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, which I read last year is summarized in 19 minutes. Actual unabridged audiobook length: 41 hours 32 minutes. This, to me, is abridge too far.

Jamie Rubin

This reminded me about a couple articles I’ve read lately about a different approach to using social media. In Ephrat Livni‘s post titled “The best way to use social media is to act like a 19th-century Parisian“, she wrote –

Arendt argued that a moral society depends on thinking individuals. In order to think we need solitude and mental freedom. “Arendt reminds us, if we lose our capacity for solitude, our ability to be alone with ourselves, then we lose our very ability to think. We risk getting caught up in the crowd. We risk being ‘swept away’, as she put it, ‘by what everybody else does and believes in,’” Stitt writes. She warns that in our hyper-connected world, the risk of losing a connection to ourselves and the ability to think independently is greater than ever.

Ephrat Livni

These extreme abridgements are like Twitter, but for reading. I mean this both in the sense that they’re short (well, they’re abridgements), but also in the sense that they seem to fit this notion of reading as something to churn through so you can rush off to the next thing. All while completely skipping past the substance that reading offers.

Reading is an opportunity to be still for a time, and delve into ideas, stories, other worlds. It’s not about scanning some quick gist, deluding yourself into thinking you’ve somehow grasped the essence of the book.

As Rubin points out, this is partly about exploitation –

My worry is that the revolt, in this case, is against reading. These millions are not consuming the works, they are instead like vultures, tearing away at the liver and intestines of a book that has already been gutted by profiteers playing on people’s desire to feel well-read without doing the actual work of reading.

More than that, though, I think this is indicative of a social trend away from substance, and thoughtfulness, towards a much more impulsive and superficial approach to how we live our lives, and engage with the issues we face.

Om Malik touched on this in his post titled “Why we need to slow time and scale down” –

Everything is meta sized. Information, choices, inputs, and outcomes. As a result, our biological makeup is being put to test. How long can we live with an unending dopamine hits? What about the thumbs, eyes and our hearts which are facing new stresses? What about our diets that are full of sugar and are re-configuring out gut microbes?

Om Malik

Let’s not be in such a rush to skip through the substance in Life. That substance is what our lives are about.


More substance please

It struck me how insubstantial so much social media activity was last year (and probably has been for a while). Brands responding on social media have generally over-promised and under-delivered. We saw lots of new jargon and little substance to go with it. Where was the real?

One of the things I am hoping for this year is more substance in our digital interactions. I don’t know about you but I am not even remotely satisfied with pretentious, self-indulgent social media gurus who stand around in whatever a gender-neutral version of a circle jerk is. I left 2013 with a strong sense that, for the most part, the bigger players in the local scene attracted and maintained larger obsequious followings for no real reason other than their increasing social gravity. They attracted followers, their influence grew, they were showered with more attention and attracted more followers. In the meantime they have about as much substance as Jupiter, one of the gas giants in our humble solar system. Where is the substance?

I don’t think the problem is that we didn’t see any authenticity in 2013. We saw some authenticity. What we lacked was authenticity built on substance. We focus so much on our digital interactions on Twitter (primarily) that we lost touch with each other. Sure, we were connected but how meaningful were those interactions? How many “friends” do you have on Facebook? How many of them do you actually know? I found myself going through my Facebook friends list in December and I realised I didn’t know a number of people and many of the people I had friended are strangers to me. Even worse, because I had so many Facebook “friends”, my News Feed was doing a poor job presenting me with updates from my actual friends and people who I really want to get to know better.

My Twitter feed also had a trim. I followed so many people I wasn’t all that interested in and started paring that list down to people who I really want to engage with and follow because their contributions are meaningful. Same story with my feeds.

I’m hoping for more substance from the people I encounter this year and intend giving my limited attention to more meaningful interactions. Giving attention to the gas giants in our community may seem like a good idea because you get to orbit the biggest objects in the system but you are ultimately just spinning around a lot of swirling colours while the real value is taking shape elsewhere.

As for me, I intend adding something more meaningful to the mix. Its too easy to fixate on stuff that doesn’t amount to much in any real terms and to forget the work and people who do mean a lot. Hopefully I’ll resist the urge to fill up with hot air just to get attention in 2014. There was far too much of that happening in 2013 and we don’t need more of that this year.

Books Miscellany

This book is why I much prefer ebooks

I took this book with me to the 2008 iCommons iSummit in Sapporo, Japan. This book is one of the reasons I am such a huge fan of ebooks.

This book runs to about 1 000 pages and it is heavy. I wouldn’t want to have a home without paper books, they add substance to a home. Our kids also prefer paper books to digital, interestingly enough, but when it comes to my reading, I’ll take an ebook over a paper book any day.