Strong opinions, weakly held

Are book reviews a better deal than books?

I’ve been thinking lately that book reviews are a better investment than books in terms of attention, for a large class of books. Obviously for many books, the journey is the reward. Obviously, a review of Yann Martel’s Life of Pi will not yield the same rewards as reading the book. Indeed, there’s a good chance that reading reviews will spoil your enjoyment of the book. Likewise, Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything is a voyage that no review can satisfactorily capture.

On the other hand, every year there are a number of important idea books that are published. I’m thinking here of books about things like the long tail, black swans, the wisdom of crowds, and crossing the chasm. You can also include revisionist histories in this category. For these kinds of books, reviews often capture most of the value of the books themselves, with a significantly smaller time investment.

Why you might just want to read a few reviews of a book instead of reading the book:

  • In many cases, the central idea of the book can be captured in just a few paragraphs. As long as you can comprehend the idea, you don’t really need all of the additional details.
  • You get not only the central idea but also the reviewer’s reaction to the idea. Read Tyler Cowen’s review of The Black Swan. There’s a lot of value in the review in addition to the value of the book.
  • You save a ton of time.

Here are some reasons why it may be worth it to read the book:

  • Reading the book is fun if the author is a good storyteller. Reading Malcolm Gladwell’s explanation of an idea is its own reward, and his anecdotes are always worth the price of admission.
  • Oftentimes the ideas conveyed in a book are more nuanced than can be captured in a review. Many reviewers construct a straw man version of the argument in a book rather than engaging the author more fully.

Of course these two approaches aren’t mutually exclusive. I like to read the reviews of a movie after watching the movie, just to catch details I might have missed. This argument occurred to me because we live in the golden age of reviews. The Internet is full of reviews, review aggregation sites, and weblogs with commentary on books, movies, television shows, and just about everything else. Why read a book these days unless it seems like fun?

1 Comment

  1. This post pokes at lots of issues… one could spend lots of time exploring this topic.

    But, three quick things to consider: 1) There’s a lot more crap that’s put out there these days, even if only by virtue of the fact that there’s just a lot more volume of stuff put out there. There are plenty of books whose ideas did not merit a book-length treatment, in which case your thesis holds – that a review is sufficient to extract the ideas.

    2) On the other hand, there are plenty of books whose ideas are subtler than reviews or summaries convey, and one loses a lot but not seeing the full argument or analysis. Ideas can be greatly shortchanged in summation. While I am often amused at the “Shorter [X]:” type of synthesis, sometimes important pieces are glossed over.

    3) This is all related to the incredibly busy lives so many of us lead with correspondingly short attention spans. I do think there is something to lament when none of us have much time to read complete books. (In this case, referring to those books that merit a book-length treatment.) Not to mention that often I think exploring a deep topic or idea really requires reading several books about that topic.

    Several magazines do book reviews where the reviewer has read several books on a theme and explores each in the context of one review – that at least provides some more context than simply reviewing on book in isolation. I find those useful.

    I think I fear what decontextualization of ideas can bring — a sound byted, bullet-pointed culture where complicated arguments and ideas are not considered worth investing the time in. In fact, fewer people are taught how to comprehend complicated, multi-faceted analyses. But we have very complicated problems to solve, as a society – so that leaves us in a bad place, I think.

    All that said, there are definitely some books that can accurately summarized, without loss of nuance, in half a page or so. Those books should never have been books to begin with, I’d argue. 🙂

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