“How” books vs “Why” books

This is apparently a widespread distinction in the book industry, at least in non-fiction. I actually think it’s useful.

My book is definitely a Why book.

I don’t think much of How books. I know that some sell well, just as junk food sells well, but neither genre is good for you. How books are like slot machines: they make a fake promise of sudden insight or wealth to the weak-willed and vulnerable, and then don’t deliver. They can’t deliver. The world is too complex for one How book or even a thousand. The best we can do is to try to understand Why and then use our instinct and experience.

A genre closely related to the How books is the List book (or List magazine-article). The formula is simple: If you have nothing to say, no story to tell, no central insight, just make a list! Ten steps to this, seven habits of that, one hundred answers to this, and so forth. In magazines, the one hundred most powerful women, the fifty richest men, the twenty greatest innovators, etc. It’s a mediocre writer’s dream: You don’t actually have to go out and find a story, you just sit around and rank some celebrities or quirky one-line teasers and let the audience debate.

As with everything, there are exceptions that prove the rule. The 48 Laws of Power, by Robert Greene, is an intelligent book that is also a list and appears to be a How book. But it’s not. It’s really a Why book, cleverly disguised as a List/Why book.

But my basic point stands. Write Why books. Read Why books. That is challenging and rewarding enough for a few lifetimes.

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