Is this book about anything?

In the past several years it seems like nonfiction books have been steadily rising in numbers and popularity while dropping in the amount of actual information they contain.  Every time I go to the library or bookstore, there are cutesy new nonfiction books that favor breadth over depth, and contain little more than a smattering of facts and anecdotes arranged around a loose theme. I don’t know if there’s a name for this genre, but I call it “pop nonfiction”. Mary Roach, Bill Bryson, and Malcolm Gladwell are some of the authors that come to mind.

Two such books I’ve read are Cheap by Ellen Ruppel Shell and Blink by Malcolm Gladwell. Both books strike me as rather ironic. Cheap is about the history of cheap goods, discount stores and mass-retail chains, society’s addiction to cheap gratification, quantity over quality. Blink is about subconscious, intuitive thinking– both the powers of the mind to intuit insights without knowing, and the danger of forming quick stereotypes. There were a lot of interesting anecdotes in both books, but after I finished them I said to myself, “is this book actually about anything?” The information, if there was any, was so fragmented that I had no view of the overall picture. They felt kind of like those cheap knick-knacks you buy at Wal-Mart and then forget about by the time you get home.

Contrast that to another book I’m reading, Across the Wide Missouri by Bernard DeVoto, a book about the Rocky Mountain fur trade in the 1830s, which won the Pulitzer Prize for history in 1948. The goal of this book is to give a complete understanding of the history, geography, economics, and culture of a specific place and time, as well as what daily life was like for the people involved. The author makes many tangents to trace the complete backstory of every new character (and every river, mountain, Indian tribe, and financing company) that walks onto the scene. I admit that sometimes I space out for a few pages of trade company lineages and lists of wagon train supplies, but for the most part it is absorbing and immersive, a richly mined source of knowledge that can only be written by an author who has spent his life researching the topic. The facts are presented in a well-organized narrative that doesn’t try to be gimmicky.

The problem with pop nonfiction books is that they try to be too easygoing. They chop up the information into fragments that are quickly digested, and in so doing, they do most of the thinking for the reader. Such writing is perfectly fine in essays and blog posts, but is too unfocused to ground an entire book. A proper nonfiction book should be an expedition of discovering for yourself and carving your own path through knowledge, not a series of regurgitated vignettes.

Most pop nonfiction books are written not by experts, but by journalists. They may be excellent writers, but I don’t trust them as curators because they are not experts in any of the subjects they write about. I suspect that the authors themselves don’t know the whole story, which gives me anxiety about their ability to curate it.

I actually wrote part of this post about three years ago, and I cannot remember a single thing about either of the two books I mentioned, Cheap or Blink. In fact, I had forgotten that I’d even read them at all. Just two days ago I finished reading another book in the genre, Bonk by Mary Roach, and I can’t recall much about that book other than a couple of interesting tidbits and the fact that I laughed a lot while reading it. There was no unifying theme or journey of thought other than “this book is full of humorous scientific anecdotes about sex”. It was a collection of thumbnail sketches about a topic, each thought incomplete.

On the other hand, I can still remember much of Across the Wide Missouri from reading it three years ago. The lush historical landscape it painted has stayed with me, and I want to read it again to learn something different from what I learned the first time.

In life, few things are as satisfying as the pleasure of rooting myself in a subject or place or thing and seeing insights trickle from the well of deep experience for years afterward. The best books can provide the same experience, the gaining of knowledge from which to weave my own themes and curate my own collections of thoughts. I read books to give me things to think about, not to do the thinking for me.

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