A Dislike of Books

If you have an idea you wish to share, write an essay. Not a book. Too often in recent times I’ve found that books are written because they sell. Essays don’t generate income to any significant degree unless published in collections. Thus, rather then granting a reader a significant viewpoint of a chosen subject with choice arguments in supporting roles, most non-fiction books act as soapboxes. From there the author preaches on the evils of the world they live in, maintaining the illusion of a single topic with periodic repetition of key words or phrases. 

I come to this in the reading of Neil Postman’s book “The End of Education,” though it is only an example and surely not so great an offender as some others. Postman, in the discussion of modern education systems, spends chapters debating human and child psychology, the importance of a driving ideology, and other people’s thoughts on this, and other subjects. He, in the process, makes many good points and is correct the vast majority of the time. Yet, at the same time, most of these points could have been eloquently stated in single paragraphs or sentences, not the hypothetical-laden pages and chapters which Postman deems necessary. Then entire first half of the book, all of ‘Part 1’ serves the purpose of an introductory paragraph. 

 

Clearly this problem does not pervade all of non-fiction. A book on the damage done to the Amazon Rainforest in the last century will often stay, for the most part, on task. It is non-fiction speculation, argument, and rhetoric that tend to stray. A problem is easy to state; trees have been cut down; here are times when trees have been cut down. Reasons and solutions are harder. Why were the trees cut down? How do we stop them from being cut down? Why is my solution better than her suggestion? Even the enormously popular “The Last Lecture” does this, though I beg you excuse this given the nature of the book and it’s conception. It was never meant to be a concise argument, and serves its purpose well.

 

This problem extends to fiction, though in a different way. Today various writers’ circles online, some of which I am a member of, are rife with unfinished novels. Some have even commented on the decline in the number of short stories present. Once it would be that an author became known first by getting a vignette published in a literary magazine catering to their target audience. Each short story would be expected to give just as much satisfaction as would come from a novel. If enough people liked them, and this often took numerous short stories to accomplish, they might be able to get a novel published- after all, people would clearly be willing to buy it.

 

And that’s the key- the fee a magazine might award for a short story is minimal when compared to the royalties involved in having a book published. The short story, like the essay, is becoming a lost art. And, like essays, short stories have, intrinsically, more value than books as they crystallize the moments we read for. Take Ray Bradbury for an example. I view him as a brilliant man and a fantastic author. Yet I also believe that his short stories by far outshine his novels. “The Veldt” has more power than “Something Wicked This Way Comes” because “The Veldt” is all about this single moment in time, the crowning evidence of the children’s adoption by technology. The novel is a good book, but nowhere near so good a story as “The Veldt.” There are individual portions that show characters twisted by the evil of the carnival, yet there is also much connective material, which drags the story down, relatively speaking.

 

The best novels, in my mind, are nothing more than sequences of short stories. Each story, or chapter, is complete in its own right. At the same time each story adds to the value of the others by lending credence to the characters actions and increasing the readers’ empathy. While Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451” would be an acceptable example of this, I can think of a clearer, though lesser-known one. “The Name of the Wind” by Patrick Rothfuss has become an extraordinary cult-success among fantasy readers.

 

There are numerous different covers.

My favorite of several different covers available in the US.

 

 

“The Name of the Wind” is a piece of metafiction, that is to say ‘a story within a story,’ similar to  “The Canterbury Tales.” Yet unlike “Canterbury Tales,” Rothfuss’s story is focused on a single character’s epic life. Rothfuss divides the biography into segments, interspersed with views of the ‘present’ where the narrator and main character interacts with his captive audience. While I won’t claim there are no exceptions to the rule, the majority of chapters and snippets alike could stand on their own. Each tells it’s own story. Rothfuss has been criticized on the length of his first novel, but I find it hard to find any extraneous material. Yes, there are whole chapters that could be cut without disrupting the story but that is the beauty of it. Each chapter is as relevant as the next, and few are much hurt by the subtraction of all others.

 

If only all books were so happily divided.

 

 

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6 thoughts on “A Dislike of Books

  1. I think this is a very interesting point. I too feel that many non-fiction books lately could have been expressed simply and sufficiently with an essay. But non-fiction has become glamorous and ‘controversial’. Writing books about ‘why god sucks’ seems to be the hottest thing lately.

    Fiction also has its fair share, particularly fantasy novels. Why does everything have to be a quartet or a trilogy? Why do modern fantasy novel writers think that I want to wade through 1000 pages of randomness for each novel? I’m currently reading Ian Irvine and struggling with this very thing.

  2. I disagree with your assumption that people write books to make money, like when you say, “books are written because they sell.” I have a feeling a majority of authors would disagree with that statement. Just because an author would like their book to sell does not mean that the book was written for the mere purpose of making a profit.

    Also, you use a personal preference to support the argument that fiction novels should be condensed. You don’t like reading long books, but many others do; why do you think books like Lord of The Rings and Harry Potter have sold so well? The best writers are those that are expressive in their language. If you want a short story, you are going to sacrifice character development and descriptive imagery, for what, less pages to read?

    Ockham’s Razor does not apply to mediums such as books; if you wanted to make this argument with respect to scientific theories, then go ahead, but including your so-called superfluous material into a novel is part of what makes it, its very nature, a novel. Your argument is that there should be no books, but only short-stories, and I don’t see any reasonable support for this argument.

  3. I’m sorry if I came across as saying that books should not exist. This was not my intention. What I meant to get across is that books are rarely optimized. There are some books that are- I named a few- and they are among my favorites.

    Which isn’t to say that I don’t enjoy other, non optimized books. I read and liked Something Wicked This Way Comes, Lord of the Rings, and to a lesser extent Harry Potter. I simply don’t view them as quite as good. I don’t know what I would do in a world with no books.

    As for Ockham’s Razor, I would like to apply it to everything, though you’re likely justified in your criticism. Here’s an Einstein quote instead (which is probably just as bad): “Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius — and a lot of courage — to move in the opposite direction.”

  4. I can see the point of simplicity if you are writing a fact-based book, although reading such a book without any literary embellishment would just put me to sleep.

    Writing isn’t about content as much as it is about how that content is expressed. Two sentences could say the exact same thing, but we may prefer one over the other because of its beauty and eloquent wording. In my opinion, optimization does not mean efficiency. If writers tried to optimized their novels by your definition of optimization, then colorful descriptions, metaphors, etc would go out the window.

    I adhere to Ockham’s razor when it comes to scientific theories that are based on fact, but when it comes to something subjective and expressive like a book, applying Ockham’s razor just misses the point.

  5. Its not so much the literary embellishment which needs to go as the unneeded facts. Take Postman’s book for example. The first half is crammed chock full of facts- most of them either restate what he has already said or are only indirectly relevant to his point.

    I have no problem with eloquence, whether it be in fiction or non-fiction. The extra word is not the enemy I was attempting to battle here, but the extra chapter. As I stated about “Fahrenheit 451” and “The Name of the Wind,” it is possible to have an entire book which does not have ‘bridge’ material, but is instead comprised of one crystallized short story after another creating a narrative. Theoretically it would be possible to write an entire book after the fashion of a short story- but I have never seen it done. I liken it to how it is theoretically possible to create an atom with some huge number of protons- a thousand say. But it has never been done.

    My favorite example of extra bridge material is most of ‘Shaman’s Crossing’ by Robin Hobb. It’s a several hundred page novel, but nothing meaningful would have been lost if it only contained the ‘dream’ encounter near the beginning with the ‘forest lady,’ a mention of his being sent off to the military, and then the circumstances of his second encounter with her. If two things should be added to that it would be a brief encounter with his cousin at the beginning, and then a mention of a cadet he befriended. While some of the rest of the book is interesting, it all sags like a rope bridge between the posts of the two dream encounters.

  6. So, your issue is not with books in general, but with poorly written books? At the end of the day, that is basically what your argument says. I’ll grant you that books with unnecessary fluff aren’t as good as books without that fluff, but I think pretty much everyone would grant you that.

    I don’t understand what you mean by saying that it is theoretically possible “to write an entire book after the fashion of a short story.” I think (due to the very nature of books) that there is no way for a book to be written like a short story, because that would then make it a short story.

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