Book-shaped thought, publishing and me

Too Big to Know: Rethinking Knowledge Now that the Facts aren’t the Facts, Experts are Everywhere, and the Smartest Person in the Room is the Room by David Weinberger is a little book packed with plenty of ideas. At its heart is the assertion that the net has fundamentally changed the nature of knowledge and expertise.

Books as knowledge... knowledge photograph courtesy of Flickr user pfv. / Creative Commons Licensed
Books as knowledge… knowledge photograph courtesy of Flickr user pfv. / Creative Commons Licensed

Like all persuasive works, Weinberger’s is strongest when the claims appear most obvious. At one point he states that there is something called ‘book-shaped thought’. This book-shaped thought, he continues, has allowed for long-form writing, argument and knowledge, all of which are characterised by linear progress (encouraging the reader to start at page 1), finality (p 99: ‘your book has an end and thus needs ending. You write a sentence that leaves the reader feeling that you’ve done the job’) and stasis (p 99: ‘The book is published. It is out. It stays constant as the world changes around it’). And this type of thought is not natural, but rather emerged from technologies: paper, type, binding, storage. To quote Weinberger:

Books do not express the nature of knowledge committed to paper cut into pages without regard for the edges of ideas, bound together, printed in mass quantities, and distributed, all within boundaries set by an economic system.

To think that knowledge itself is shaped like books is to marvel that a rock fits so well in its hole in the ground. (p 100)

What then, we might ask, is the alternative to this type of knowledge. For Weinberger it is knowledge produced in public, as opposed to in some bolt-hole in the mountains with an intermittent dial-up internet connection. The advantages of this kind of knowledge – typically produced online and exemplified here by Jay Rosen’s PressThink.org – include:

  • ‘The argument assumes a natural length’ (p 107), as opposed to one constrained by publishers or printing conventions.
  • The argument is able to develop responsively and engage commentators directly.
  • The work assumes a ‘loose-edged’ (p 107) and genuinely discursive quality.
  • It reaches the public fast and with fewer barriers of entry.
  • The ideas it contains can escape the author more easily.
Where we used to write, where we often think we should wrrite and where Weinberger insists we shouldn't write... Mt. Isolation This Way photograph courtesy of Flickr user timsackton / Creative Commons Licensed
Where we used to write, where we often think we should wrrite and where Weinberger insists we shouldn’t write… Mt. Isolation This Way photograph courtesy of Flickr user timsackton / Creative Commons Licensed

If all this seems a total rejection of the book, it is not: Weinberger’s own book is, after all, an example of long-form book-shaped thought, an irony he lingers on at length. Rather ‘long-form writing’, he continues, ‘is by no means unnecessary or “dead”. But the fact that it is improved by being placed into the Net’s web of connections means it is being dethroned by that web as the single best way to assemble ideas’.

I happen to agree with Weinberger. Though he perhaps underestimates how the linearity of long-form knowledge has, for some time, been subverted by abstracts, contents pages and indexes (I’m sure we all occasionally skip to the end…), his argument does make a great deal of sense. Books no longer assemble knowledge the same way most knowledge is assembled or made use of. All of this seems terribly relevant at a time when UK HE is debating – passionately, confusingly, only occasionally calmly – the merits or otherwise of open access publishing. Within the humanities and social sciences, book-length monographs are a particularly thorny issue: a medium cherished for allowing long-form thought and – when correctly pitched – genuine public engagement, yet one beset by high prices, falling sales and questionable relevance. Put bluntly, how relevant is a medium searchable only by index in the age of Google? (or, to put it another way, how often have you been frustrated by not being able to mine a book with ctrl+f?) How the monograph will emerge in the future is unclear, and thankfully there are those not satisfied to allow mere anecdote to guide us through the storm: see OAPEN-UK. What is clear however, is that the nature of scholarship has changed and that the monograph will in turn have to adapt. As Tim Hitchcock’s twitter bio has displayed for sometime ‘I used to write books, now I write history’. This is where we are headed.

Weinberger’s work then makes excellent reading in the context of these debates, but Too Big to Know is also particularly relevant to me. I have a book in draft form. A sample of this book is under consideration by a publisher (where it has been for some time) and sections of the book are in the hands of critical colleagues. Like so many early-career researchers, I feel the need to publish in book-form. Weinberger lists under the disadvantages of releasing work in web-form ‘the published book is a traditional token of expertise and achievement’ (p 109). This remains the case in the area of academia I operate within. To not publish a peer-reviewed book during this transitional phase for the academy may, in short, harm my career.

On a more positive note, the research I have conducted seems suited to a long-form argument and the words I have written contain long-form arguments. And yet – having had much of what I feared confirmed by reading Weinberger – I do not want to constrain them all to book-form.

Moreover, when I break down the long-form arguments I have made, it is clear – putting the benefits of web-form aside for moment – that for pragmatic reasons some of these arguments are more suited to book-form than others. For example, those arguments which rely on late-Georgian satirical prints for meaning face barriers to publication outside of their quality as arguments: as these arguments can only be made in tandem with the prints they discuss, publishing them in book-form will incur additional cost (both to licence and reproduce), bureaucracy and risk. This has made me stop and pause, for as reproductions of these images are available online to everyone free of charge, would not a link to a high-resolution image the reader can interrogate be preferred to a printed version constrained by the physical size of a book? Surely it makes more sense for these arguments to be connected to the vibrant sources they discuss rather than awkwardly locking these sources into the physical page?

This print would appear like this in a book. Click for what a hyperlinked text could offer.
This print would appear like this in a book. Click for what a hyperlinked text could offer.

With this in mind, I am considering changing course and pursuing publishing my research in a modular form. The book – of a modest 30-40k word length – would contain one long-form argument: how the content of late-Georgian graphic satire was shaped and constrained by technology and business more than it was by artistic agency. As was, the book would then have proceeded with three case studies, each themselves 15-20k word long-form arguments, which by interogating a large corpus of prints would ‘prove’ the original argument and at the same time make some further claims which emerge from the sources: the importance of custom, the relationship between everyday experience and stereotypes, the significance of domestic counter-referents, the complicated presentation of female agency. Under the new plan these would instead appear online as a series of essays: each subjected to rigorous scrutiny (perhaps via History Working Papers), some kind peer review (see Dan Cohen’s excellent Wired piece for the form this could take), gratuitous hyper-linking and the opinion of the crowd. An executive summary of the book argument would be provided for context, and each essay would build on the next: responding to the knowledge and expertise of the crowd.

So, one token of traditional achievement and three loose-edged, flexible explorations of my research. A double win, right? Answers on a postcard please, or via the comment box if you prefer.

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6 thoughts on “Book-shaped thought, publishing and me”

  1. James, it’s both gratifying and terrifying to have someone put into practice something one wrote. The thoughtful way you make it your own, however, relieves me of almost all the crushing guilt. (The residue is probably just a genetic inheritance.)

    I’ve wrestled with these same questions as I’ve thought about writing another book. I actually have worked on two since finishing Too Big to Know, but both have been obviated by books on a too-closely-related theme. I am still contemplating a third topic. Only in the past few months have I come to a realization that makes writing a book feel more plausible. And it too is an embarrassingly obvious realization: Long form doesn’t have to be presented as a reconstruction of reality but as a work of art. There is something aesthetically pleasing about following a path of thought. Its virtues are the same as narrative’s. So, I now feel better about writing another book, but would hope that it would make clearer to the reader that this is one pleasant walk through a field that is open to many, many such walks.

    Thanks so much for this post. And best of luck with your very interesting project.

  2. David, I am immensely grateful that you took the time to respond to my post. In the past when I’ve tried to cajole students into blogging, I’ve always dangled the carrot of a scholar they are discussing responding directly to their posts: so it is always pleasing when precisely that happens.

    In a sense I think you’ve encapsulated my thought process: there are areas of ‘my book’ which form a pleasing narrative, whilst others are perhaps better served by publication in another venue. I guess it is easy to be down about the book when there are so many bad academic books out there – not bad in terms of content, rather in terms of delivery – published almost exclusively for the wrong reasons (I have to, it is just what we do, et cetera). For both author and reader there is indeed ‘something aesthetically pleasing about following a path of thought’. Perhaps book form becomes less relevant in examples where the text is purely mined for knowledge as opposed to for enjoying, appreciating or learning from your ‘path of thought’. Then it seems to me the logic of book form is no longer justifiable: there are better ways to get that sort of knowledge out there. I guess the trick – as an author – is to identify what you have and what you are capable of.

    Thanks for offering a positive afterword. I look forward to books you have in gestation.

  3. Bravo, both to Mr. Weinberger and to yourself for addressing this issue. I’d like to add a bit from a layman’s perspective: As someone who is a non-academic but loves reading academic works, I relish in holding a book and turning the pages as I go. Aside from the obvious frustrations with e-readers (battery life, fragility, possibility of theft, eye damage etc) there’s also a psychological aspect for many people like myself. I grew up in the digital age and have used computers since childhood, so by no means am I in the library dinosaur phase of life, but my God do I enjoy the less sensible reasons for reading books. I like turning pages, I like holding a physical book (especially a heavy one, dense with information), most of all, I love the feeling of getting to the end. One of the things that makes the online world such a time suck is the comments, links and related searches. How does one ever stop?

    Maybe a hybrid book/online community is worth considering in some cases. Publish a blog relating to the book, which will contain extra information, links, references and a place to discuss. Then the cravings of folks like myself (I can’t be the only one) can be completely sated. I get to hold my physical book which makes my long commute something I look forward to. And I get an online portal to visit once I’m done where I can interact with a book I loved along with other like minded people and the author. I know that certain genres of fiction have similar communities like this, but I am a non-fiction lover and I see even more value for them in the non-fiction world.

    1. Thanks for your comment. There are indeed plenty, as you call it, ‘less sensible reasons for reading a book’. I guess the problem is the lingering suspicion that too many academic works are published in book form for the sake of it, with little considering of whether the book is indeed the best venue for a given argument. Traditional hierachies of reputation and employment, the history of the book as a venue for argument, and critical inertia has all contributed to the situation we find ourselves in. I think we all appreciate the book and would be challenged by its loss. But attitudes towards its use needs to evolve in order to help the book find a place in the current landscape of knowledge creation, use and reuse.

      1. Agreed, change is slow to come in academic circles but I think it will. The fact that online publishing is so much more economical, interactive and almost universally reachable cannot be ignored for long. I just hope musty old libraries don’t go the way of the dinosaur.

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