The natural-length revolution in books

Short text, tablet edition

I”ve long been predicting that the main effect of the digital revolution on writing and reading has to do with word count. Put differently, it has to do with the length of texts.

Yesterday, I saw my vision starting to become reality.

But first let me explain why word count/length are so important to literary culture, and why length is at present often distorted.

As music went….

In this post, I’ve ruminated on the imperative of writing to the optimal word count — that is, writing neither too long nor too short.

To use the imperfect analogy of music: Beethoven shouldn’t have been forced to shorten his Fifth to the length of the Rolling Stones’s Brown Sugar, nor the Stones to lengthen Brown Sugar to equal the duration of the Fifth. Each work of art has to be true to itself, which means that each has its own optimal length.

For many years, that presented a packaging problem in music. It made no sense for an orchestra and an audience to gather for only a few minutes. And it made little sense to manufacture and sell vinyl discs that contained only a few minutes of music. So the emphasis was on longer forms of music, or on collections of short pieces — albums, not singles.

But as soon as music migrated from analog to digital media, that packaging distortion disappeared. So now music has been “liberated”. Each artist can compose at optimal length. (Where the medium is still analog, as in a live performance, there is still a preference for greater length.)

… so will text

Text has been far behind the curve. Yes, the digital media have already resuscitated ancient short-form traditions such as haikus, sonnets and aphorisms, in the form of Tweets and blogs. But the dominant medium for the written word is still the printed book. And analog books present the ultimate packaging problem.

Hence the pernicious and pervasive bias toward unnecessary length.

An adult book, especially non-fiction, that is as thin as a baby book looks stupid. No self-respecting publisher, and no author, would touch it. Hence publishers demand that authors pad their ideas to reach a minimum word count. A 30,000-word idea has to be packaged as an 80,000-word book.

This

  • delays the process of writing and publishing and
  • means that most readers only read a small part of most (non-fiction) books.

Bookshelves everywhere are groaning under the weight of unread words. What a waste.

Enter the Kindle Single

Digital books (on Kindles, iPads, iPhones etc.) will change all that. Suddenly, a “book” (shall we still call it that?) no longer looks stupid if it is short. As many Kindle readers have pointed out, one has no sense of length on a Kindle anyway.

And thus Amazon, shrewdly, has launched Kindle Singles, in direct allusion to the music analogy above. As music was liberated from length distortions, so text will be.

This really sank in yesterday when I got an email from Chris Anderson, the “curator” (a title I find a tad pompous) of TED. (That’s an upmarket conference that would like to be a social network. I’ve attended, hence I’m on the email list.) In it, Anderson announced that “TED Books” are now being sold as Kindle Singles. I just bought my first one.

TED Books, he writes, are

to Books as TED Talks are to lectures. They’re short, pithy, riveting. They’re designed to express a single big idea in a way that can be absorbed in a single sitting. A typical 18-minute TED Talk might be around 2000 words. A typical traditional book is at least 60,000 words. TED Books nicely fill the gap in between. They come in at 10,000-20,000 words. So they can be read and absorbed in an hour or two.

So there you have it: the length distortion has disappeared. More interesting is how Anderson talked about that distortion:

Many people are hungry to learn, but have limited time to read full-length books. TED Books offer an exciting new alternative. And it also will allow many brilliant thinkers who don’t have a spare year to author a full-length book (and another year to wait while that book gets published) to nonetheless get their ideas out in the world….

I highlighted that phrase because, as you may remember, I took about one year to write my book, and have been waiting almost two years now for the publication process to kick off in earnest. (It has indeed kicked off: publication is slated for the fall, and my publisher is suddenly very busy.)

My point is that this process, which all publishers today share, makes no sense to a logical alien visiting earth, or to anybody under thirty. This is why the publishing industry will (not might, but will) be disrupted.

As TED’s Anderson puts it,

the world of serious reading is undergoing a revolution. Suddenly it’s possible to carry around a whole library in your coat-pocket. Suddenly, books don’t have to be 200 or 300 pages long so that they feel substantial in printed form. Any length is possible. And that was the breakthrough for us. We’ve seen from TED Talks the power of giving speakers a time constraint. It’s been an amazing instance of “less is more”…

The search for simplicity, continued

Almost six years ago, I tried in The Economist to start a movement for simplicity and against complexity. In this Leader (ie, editorial, to everybody but us), which accompanied this Special Report, I wrote:

“LIFE is really simple,” said Confucius, “but we insist on making it complicated.” The Economist agrees. Unfortunately, Confucius could not have guessed what lay ahead. The rate at which mankind makes life complicated seems ever to accelerate. This is a bad thing. So this newspaper wants be the first to lay down some new rules. Henceforth, genius will be measured not by how fancy, big or powerful somebody makes something, but by how simple.

Alas, that was easier said than done.

But ever since then, I have been obsessed with simplicity, as you may have noticed if you have been reading The Hannibal Blog (for instance here and here).

This means that I palpitate with excitement whenever I encounter other people who share my obsession. Well, Alan Siegel, a brand consultant, appears to share it. Watch (less than 5 minutes!):


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Alexander meets a yogi: Who’s the hero?

Alexander the Great was busy conquering the known world once, when he saw, on the banks of the Indus river in today’s Pakistan, a naked guy sitting in the Lotus position and contemplating the dirt.

“Gymnosophists” (gumnos = naked, sophistes = philosopher) the Greeks called these men. We would call them yogis — as in: Patanjali, say.

“What are you doing?”, asked Alexander.

“Experiencing nothingness,” answered the yogi. “What are you doing?”

“Conquering the world,” said Alexander.

Then both men laughed, each thinking that the other must be a fool.

“Why is he conquering the world?”, thought the yogi. “It’s pointless.”

“Why is he sitting around doing nothing?”, thought Alexander. “What a waste of a life.”

Devdutt Pattanaik

Thus Devdutt Pattanaik tells the story in the TED talk at the end of this post. (Thank you to Thomas for the link. Was it Thomas?)

Devdutt used to be successful and bored (the two can go together) in the pharma industry until he decided instead to make a living out of his passion, which is comparative mythology, by applying myths and storytelling to business. Wow. That’s exactly what The Hannibal Blog (at least in part) tries to do.

But let’s get back to this specific little anecdote (which echoes another such encounter Alexander was said to have had). It makes a perfect transition in my thread on heroes and heroism from the Greek and Roman heroes of antiquity to the Eastern heroes of antiquity.

As Devdutt says, Alexander grew up with the stories of Hercules, Theseus and Jason, which told him:

  • you live only once, so make it count, and
  • make it count by being spectacular!

The yogi grew up on up on different stories — the Mahabharata (which I love) and Ramayana and so forth. His heroes, such as Krishna and Rama, were not distinct individuals who lived once and made it count, but different lifetimes of the same hero.

The yogi’s stories told him that:

  • you get to live — nay, must live — infinite lives, until you get the point, so
  • stop wasting your time by conquering things that have been and will be conquered countless times, and try to see the point.

To approach this in a slightly different way:

In my last post on Aeneas, I argued that he was “the first western hero whose internal journey is as important as his external journey.” Well, I put the word western in there for a reason: Because I was already thinking of Arjuna, to whom I must turn in a separate post.

Now watch Devdutt:

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Inspiration in a baton, a helmet, a sword …

445px-der_mann_mit_dem_goldhelm

In January I recommended to you a talk at Google’s Zeitgeist Conference that I had attended. It was by Itay Talgam, an Israeli conductor who asks us to see in the styles of the great conductors (Karajan, Kleiber, Muti, Bernstein…) the dos and don’ts of leadership, the ways to elicit or inhibit the creativity and collaboration of individuals in a group.

Talgam can make us see in a conductor’s manner of holding a baton our own experience as, or with, leaders.

He has now given essentially the same talk again at TED. (If I may observe: TED, Zeitgeist and Poptech, who are rivals, are essentially the same conference these days. As soon as a speaker does well in one, the other two pick him up too.)

So why would I recommend Talgam … again? Because his talk is so incredibly good! So watch all 20 minutes of it, below.

But I’d also like to make another point, one that might seem oblique. One thing I like about Talgam’s approach is that he draws from one area of life (orchestra music) and role (conductor) to inform another area of life (business) and role (boss).

In my very humble way, I try to do the same thing. When I think about writing, I like to think about painting–the way Rembrandt uses color so sparingly and thus effectively, for instance. I see in the highlights of a helmet the touches of good storytelling.

And in my forthcoming book, I take the story of Hannibal, Fabius and Scipio, whose role was commander and whose context was war–the sword, if you will–and I extend it to sex, science, business, sports, exploration, art, politics and intellect–and the ways we succeed and fail in them.

Sometimes, when I give my “elevator pitch” (ie, the book idea compressed into a sentence or two) I get blank stares. I imagine that Talgam does, too. But then I watch Talgam’s talk, and I leaf through my manuscript, and I realize that this … works!

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Beyond arousal and control: “Flow”

Flow

I really like this visual depiction of flow.

Some of you might remember that I am fascinated with the concept of flow, and the Positive Psychology that is based on it.

Flow is a state of effortless and complete absorption into whatever we are doing, a state in which we are and feel at our best and most creative, when we achieve harmony and mastery, when we forget time and feel good.

Flow does not come easily, of course. They say that it takes ten years of training at something–soccer, violin, writing, you name it–before you become able to slip into flow.

Which brings me to this diagram. It is by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, an unpronouncable Hungarian psychologist who might just belong into my growing pantheon of great thinkers. Indeed, quite a few people consider him a great thinker, and he has even received an award called Thinker of the Year.

You can view the diagram the following way:

Most of us spend most of our time hanging out somewhere near the bottom left:

  • We are apathetic because we are not challenged and have not applied ourselves to mastery of anything, or
  • we have taken up a challenge unprepared and are floundering, which causes us to worry, or
  • we are good at something but not challenged, so we become bored.

The way out is two sweep either clockwise or counterclockwise in the diagram:

  • Challenge yourself, by finding something you want to master. If your skill level is low, at least you will feel aroused, which is a good first step toward learning and flow.

Or:

  • Keep learning, practicing, mastering, refining. Even if you are not challenged yet, you will become relaxed and feel in control, which builds confidence and is also a great step toward flow.

This is, of course, nothing but the self-help manual of the Samurai and Zen disciples through the centuries.

It’s also a great reminder for us parents and teachers (especially those public-school bureaucrats in America): You must, you must, you must challenge a child to “educate” (ex-ducare = lead out) him or her from apathy.

Watch Csikszentmihalyi’s TED talk:



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The danger of the single story

Adichie

Adichie

A big theme in my thread on storytelling, and a premise of my forthcoming book, is that certain stories are universal and timeless–or, as Carl Jung might say, archetypal.

But as with everything, there is a way to misunderstand that insight. Yes, there are elements that are common to Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad, to the Grimm stories and to Heidi–elements such as a hero who goes on a quest and meets a wise old man and so forth….

But that does not mean that one single story can summarize a life, a person, a place or a country. The opposite is the case. There must be an infinite number of stories, even if they all have something in common.

The attractive Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie gave a great TED talk (below) about exactly this. As a girl in Nigeria she read and loved British and American books and stories and began to write stories herself at the age of 7. But her stories were about … white, blue-eyed girls who played in the snow and ate apples and talked about the weather and whether it might turn nice. Even though she had never left Nigeria!

She eventually realized

how impressionable and vulnerable we are in the face of a story.

Stories had overpowered her own perception of the world. She assumed that stories could not be about brown people eating mangoes in the sun but had to be about white people eating apples in the rain.

Emancipation occurred when she realized that

people like me … could also exist in literature

But that was only the beginning. She understood that many people have only one single story about Africa (= catastrophe), and that she did not fit into that story. She realized that she herself had only one story about Mexico (= illegal immigrants) which proved woefully inadequate. She realized that some people, such as her American college roommate, had only a single story about her, Adichie from Nigeria (= exotic tribal woman), and that she herself simultaneously had only one single story about her own family servant (= pitiful poor boy), which also proved incomplete. She understood that

power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person but to make it the definitive story of that person,

and that

the single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue but that they are incomplete… It robs people of their dignity.

So consider this a refinement of my views on storytelling. We must be open to many, many, many stories even as we see the common, universal humanity that runs through all of them. Now take 18 minutes and watch:



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Spunky language in the search for truth

Yesterday I gave an example of bad–meaning squeamish, cowardly and therefore intentionally obtuse–writing. Today I came across an example of good–meaning courageous, irreverent and therefore clear and authentic–language.

It comes in the form of a spunky almost-ninety-year-old Welsh lady named Elaine Morgan. She took the stage at TED and clearly and humorously laid out her case that we descend not from apes that stood up because they left the trees and went onto the savannah (the mainstream paradigm) but rather from aquatic apes. The video is below.

A few things, before you watch:

  • Her theory is fascinating, but whether or not it convinces you is not my point. Most people are not convinced.
  • My point is the clarity of her language that comes from her courage, the corollary of my view that bad writing/expression comes from fear.
  • Worth noting: Morgan’s talk contains humor and sprezzatura, which often accompany courage but never cowardice.
  • She nods to Thomas Kuhn, whom I declared one of the runners-up for the title of greatest thinker ever. Kuhn, remember, was the guy who described how scientists will disregard any evidence (and messenger) that does not fit their paradigm until that paradigm collapses entirely. It is her way of saying to her audience: Snap out of it and open your minds!
  • Listen to her point about how to treat “priesthoods”!
  • Finally, think about how she would react if new evidence came to light that proved her theory wrong but advanced our understanding. Would she be upset? Or would she celebrate?



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Alain de Botton on success and anxiety

Thinking more deeply, or at least differently, about success seems to have become a genre. Malcolm Gladwell has done it, I am doing it right now in the manuscript which I am rewriting, and now Alain de Botton, another young author, is doing it in this TED talk below.

His key points:

  • we live in an age of anxiety.
  • the problem is our egalitarianism. We no longer believe that people who are worse off are “unfortunates” (the old term). Instead, they are now “losers”. It is their fault.
  • So we fear failure more than ever, because it is our fault. This is the flip side of meritocracy, which we consider a good thing, but which is really a tyranny of expectations.
  • The dominant emotion in this age of equality/anxiety is envy. We envy everybody who does better.
  • With it comes fear: the fear of the judgment of others. If we have a boring job, others will look down on us and we will feel bad.

I think he underestimates the anxiety that previous generations had, but he does have a point.



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Why complexity matters

Dan Ariely

Dan Ariely

Regular readers of The Hannibal Blog by now know my fascination with complexity and simplicity as subjects in their own right. I’ve equated simplicity with beauty and genius, and I’ve decried the nefarious complexity (man-made, as opposed to natural) in such vulgar monstrosities as America’s tax code.

Now I’ve come across one of two TED talks (below) by Dan Ariely, a behavioral economist with an interesting life story (he was burnt in an explosion, recovered and used his agony to generate amazing research ideas.)

Here he talks about how awfully bad we are at making decisions, and how awfully confident we nonetheless tend to be that we make good decisions, indeed that we are the ones deciding at all. Much of the time we are not.

Most of the ‘choices’ we have to make in our lives are too complex. And often even a tiny bit of extra complexity puts us over the edge. We can’t handle it, so we become passive and ‘opt’ for the default, whatever that is. That means that somebody else (the one who set, deliberately or not, stupidly or not, the default settings) actually decides for us. As Ariely says,

it’s because we care, it’s difficult, and it’s complex, and it’s so complex that we don’t know what to do, and because we have no idea what to do we just pick whatever was chosen for us.

He shows this with examples from organ donors in Europe to health care to (my favorite, of course) a really stupid (or unbelievably cunning) marketing pitch that The Economist once ran.

Worth 17 minutes of your time:



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