Why Books Suck

For every 100 forgettable works, there's one by a Robert Caro or a Wade Davis. But you have to ask the question: why do the New York publishers pump out so many books on trivial subjects, or books that shed no new light on the same old issues.
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Okay, not all books suck. Just most.

Why, you ask?

Many reasons. Where to begin?

How about this... books no longer are in tune with our ADD-shattered brains. In a much earlier era of human history, before the advent of the iPhone2, if you wanted to learn something, you bought a book or took one out of the library. If you're under 40, libraries are places where "patrons" used to "check out" (that means, remove from the premises) "books" for a prescribed period of weeks with a "library card." I don't have time to explain this concept any further; if you're still interested, ask your grandfather.

Prior to the 2008 attention span meltdown, books contained the precise amount of information people needed in order to feel informed about a topic. Today, most people no longer need to feel informed about anything. If they do feel an urge to learn something, even TMZ is usually TMI. Why would you need 400 pages about Harry Truman, or Lady Di, or even Lady Gaga for that matter, when the equivalent of four pages online would suffice?

Books are also boring. You can't check the weather -- or your stocks, or look at porn -- in a book. All you can do is read it. The serious point here (I know the porn reference threw you) is that we've moved into a world of color, light and sound with which the frumpy old black and white book cannot compete. Reading something online may or may not stick with you the way reading it from a book might, but you can look up all kinds of side references, videos, speeches, and whatnot that a plain old book can't offer.

Next, most books today benefit authors more than they do readers. An author puts out a book that regurgitates what everyone already knows about a topic and suddenly he's on The Today Show as an expert, commands high fees for speaking and consulting engagements, and attracts vast numbers of the opposite (or same) sex. What did the reader get out of the experience? Not much, and certainly not $24.95 worth of information, instruction, or innovation.

Why do such useless books routinely get published? Because New York publishers are far more interested in an author's social media presence than the content they'll provide in their books. Publishers today are destroying the basic value proposition of books: you give me money and I'll give you knowledge. Instead, most books today offer one chapter containing approximately three ideas and 13 chapters of Hamburger Helper.

Books today pander to niche audiences instead of teaching something new. Today, publishers sell books that either crucify or deify Obama, Bush, or any other public figure, instead of taking a balanced approach. Back in the day, you had The Making Of The President -- a book that explained, in non-partisan terms, what really happens on the campaign trail. Today, books are partisan, nasty, and preaching to the converted, giving them new reasons to believe what they already believe instead of opening their minds to new realities. From Teddy White to Ann Coulter and James Carville is a vertiginously steep drop.

Next point -- books today are all too often out of date before they're even published. Why did New York spend all that time and treasure bringing out books on, say, the Gulf oil spill, the fall of Mubarak, or the war in Afghanistan? How many people really spent 20 bucks on any of these topics? Now, killing Osama, that's interesting, especially when the CIA gooses your marketing by telling the world you revealed secret stuff. But who signs off on these other titles? And how do they keep their jobs?

And then there are Vanity Fair articles pumped full of air until they reach the size of books, offering you all kinds of trivia about the Bruce Springsteens and the Walter Cronkites of the world -- nice guys, interesting people, to be sure, with many famous friends, but is it really worth anyone's time to read hundreds and hundreds of pages about them? This is actually a different form of pandering -- it's bedtime reading for baby boomers whose fascination bordering on infatuation with their own generation only increases the older they get.

Not all books suck, of course. For every 100 forgettable works, there's one by a Robert Caro or a Wade Davis. But you have to ask the question: why do the New York publishers pump out so many books on trivial subjects, or books that shed no new light on the same old issues, from finding a man to losing weight, or subjects that people barely paid attention to while they were newsworthy?

For all these reasons, we are moving rapidly into an era where most people will refuse to pay for information, simply because the world is awash in free information that's at least as good as the stuff that gets bound between covers. If I need anger management (and I do), I get more than 27 million hits on a Google search (discounting the 3 million related to anger management and Charlie Sheen). Why would I buy a book on anger management when I could read all that free stuff online and write my own book? Gets me angry even thinking about it!

There are servers that allow you to steal books, Napster-like, and your sneaky friends can show you exactly how to do it. But books are different from music in that people still want to listen to music, so you'll never have Napster-sized theft of books the way you did with music. It used to be that "patrons" checked books out of libraries. Today, alas, books themselves are checking out.

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