Let’s say you want to be smart about a given topic. What’s better: read several books on the topic, or subscribe to a couple blogs and passively read the latest articles?
If you had asked me this question a few years ago, I wouldn’t have hesitated: reading books will make you more well-informed. Books explore ideas in more depth, have stricter editorial standards and have more highly respected authors.
Now I’m not so sure.
Books are Higher Status (and Therefore Overvalued)
Here’s a seemingly straightforward question: why have William Shakespeare’s plays retained their popularity, hundreds of years after they were written?
Ask an English major and you’ll get a suitable answer: because they’re some of the best works of English literature. We study them, because they give particularly deep insights and have particularly beautiful prose.
Another, more cynical, explanation would be that we study them because they’re high status. The reasoning is pretty straightforward:
Reading Shakespeare is difficult. The English used differs substantially from how people speak today. Therefore, to enjoy Shakespeare, you need to be able to decipher it, meaning you’re probably intelligent.
Shakespeare also has a large cultural footprint in the English-speaking world. Enjoying Shakespeare often requires interpreting the connection to these cultural artifacts, meaning you’re probably more cultured if you enjoy Shakespeare.
People want to appear intelligent and cultured, so they profess a greater love of Shakespeare than they actually possess. This becomes a positive feedback loop, as wannabe Shakespeare lovers exaggerate its virtue to signal qualities they want associated with them.
Of course, most people probably aren’t doing this intentionally. Humans are sophisticated self-deception machines. However, many people will acquiesce to Shakespeare’s talent, but wouldn’t read a copy of Hamlet for fun.
The point of this little diversion isn’t to argue that Shakespeare doesn’t have literary value (the positive feedback cycle needed to start somewhere, so why not with works of merit?). But rather that many supposedly more virtuous activities can become overvalued because people want to associate with their virtue more than they actually benefit from it.
My sense is that reading books on intellectual topics suffers from this more than blogs. Tell someone that you read a dozen books on economics and they’ll admire your erudition. Tell someone you subscribe to a dozen blogs and they’ll think maybe you need to spend more time away from the computer.
This shouldn’t be seen as convincing evidence for the virtue of blogs over books, but rather to expose a common thinking trap we engage in. Namely, that we shouldn’t be too quick to praise or dismiss an activity, merely by its association to perceived virtue or vice.
Why Might Blogs Be Better for Understanding Deep Topics?
I see a couple major advantages blogs have over books, in terms of the amount of knowledge you possess after reading them.
One is simply spacing. A great deal of psychological research shows that studying in a burst is less effective than study sessions spaced out over time. Blogs naturally embody the latter method, dripping out ideas over weeks and months instead of in a burst.
Another is interactivity. Many blogs I follow have considerable more interactivity than any book I’ve read. This doesn’t usually manifest in the reader-to-author channel, but in the author-to-author channel, as bloggers comment on each others’ ideas. Good bloggers will link to opposing views in their debates, which will broaden your viewpoint more than an author who carefully conceals a counterargument in his endnotes.
An underrated virtue of blogs is that, quite often, they’re simply easier to follow. Books often require more concentration and investment to get at the same information. A blog can drip that information out over our shorter attention spans.
One might argue that perhaps the difficulty of books is a feature. That reading books trains a higher attention span. That might be the case, but it also might be that many people give up on hard books mid-way, wasting the rest. I say the decent habits you do follow are more virtuous than the perfect habits you don’t.
Finally, technology gives blogging a depth many books (including ebooks) currently lack. The format of books is still stuck in paper mode, even if we no longer live in that world. The average academic blog I follow makes Wikipedia-style references to jargon, so that I can either dive in to explain a difficult point, or breeze over concepts I already understand.
Some Arguments in Favor of Books
My titular question wasn’t intended to be rhetorical. I still see some problems with blogs in their current status, and my professional bias hardly permits me to see the problem objectively.
Here are some potential things I see books beating blogs at:
1. Ideas which can’t be explained neatly in one post.
Some ideas can be delivered in bite-sized drops. Others require so much background knowledge to fully appreciate an argument, that even a long blog article won’t cut it.
My thought is that this strikes both ways. Perhaps the truly long ideas are better delivered through courses, instead of books? Books may handle middle ideas, but technology seems to be attacking them from both the short and the long ends.
Some bloggers avoid this problem by entirely glossing over the background. This is left to the reader to piece together through links to Wikipedia and links to other background material. This lacks the handholding of a good book, but perhaps it is faster for a reasonably sophisticated reader.
2. Higher editorial standards.
Books, as of this moment, still have editors and publishers. Although you can self-publish books and skip this step, it’s usually fairly easy to separate the amateurs from the pros in book publishing.
Blogs largely go unedited, and when they do it’s typically retroactive, in the form of retractions. This means people can be faster and looser with the truth. It also means ill-conceived ideas bubble up to the public when they would have been squashed by a decent editor.
Ryan Holiday, in his excellent book, uses a variant of this argument to condemn blogs. However, I see it as mostly being a condemnation of the more newsy blogs that live off traffic, and less on the blogs which rely on a regular reader base. Still, the lack of editorial oversight is a blow to the overall quality of blogs.
3. Books are better researched and well-thought.
This point is separate from editorial standards. Getting a book contract usually means investing a lot more time in research than writing a blog article. Although some bloggers invest dozens of hours working on a post, most bloggers will jump off one or two sources and provide quick commentary. The posting pressure on the typical blogger encourages a hastier, treadmill-style idea generation which may not be as valuable as spending a year or two deeply invested on a single idea.
The advantage is that books can cull hundreds of different research points to coalesce on an idea, while a blog may organize that information in a more scattered manner. Book writing forces a different kind of thinking than blogging, and that might ultimately be more valuable.
However, part of me suspects this worry will become outdated. As blogging becomes more popular as a medium of communication, it will create more competition, raising the standards. This is easy to see since the last several years when blogs were largely glorified diaries and are now increasingly platforms for ideas.
New Year’s Resolution: Read More Blogs?
I’m certainly not going to stop reading books. However, I’ve recently pushed myself to read more high-quality blogs. I might not be able to pat myself on the back for an extensive library of collected blog articles, but I might learn more along the way.
What are your thoughts? Are books still the clear choice for learning about deep topics? Which blogs have you read that helped you think more deeply? Share your thoughts in the comments.
EDIT: Some people have been asking which blogs I read. Here’s a temporary list (I change my reading habits regularly, so this only happens to capture my current subscriptions):
- EconLog (I basically just read it for Bryan Caplan)
- Overcoming Bias
- Marginal Revolution
- Jack Norris (nutrition)
- Daniel Willingham (cognitive psychology)
- Cal Newport
- Ryan Holiday
- Not Shown for Clarity (architecture)
- Better Explained (math)