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Books for depth, articles for breadth

March 7, 2021

What's better — articles or books?

Nassim Nicholas Taleb claims that the longer something has been in print, the greater the chance it will remain in print, and the higher value it has (aka The Lindy Effect). Since old articles that have remained in print don't exist, books are more valuable, per this rule.

Nick Maggiulli from "Of Dollars and Data" agrees and thinks that books provide more value per sentence than articles do since books are usually written after an author has spent a lot of time investigating and researching the topic.

Authors like Yuval Noah Harari have to spend more time writing each sentence than what's spent on writing a blog post. He has to do a lot of research for every sentence he writes. For just $15, you get his best thinking distilled in a book. If he has spent 1,500 hours on research, this would mean you pay him $0.01 per hour for his research — a great price for getting one of the best minds in the world to work for you.

(This is one reason why Matt Ridley in "The Rational Optimist" claims that we have more servants than Louis XIV. The abundance of choice we have today was not available even to him, with his army of servants and immense wealth.)

Articles, on the other hand, usually don't require as much research. They usually don't go too deep into one topic. But they can cover a wider range of ideas.

Even if an article dives deeper into one topic, it's always shorter than a book. The opportunity cost in reading an article is lower since articles get to the point quicker. So you'll finish a bad article quicker than a bad book since figuring out that a book is bad usually requires more time with it. ("Think and Grow Rich" might be a counterexample since the bullshit starts right from the title.)

Most modern nonfiction books contain a lot of fluff. They are not even trying to say things simply. Instead, they are repetitive and try to teach a single lesson in endless parables and examples from history.

Book authors aim to hit length goals set by a publisher, and adding fluff is the easiest way to do so. These goals are not unreasonable since there are certain expectations on the length of the book. We are used to buying 200-page books full of fluff. 50-page books that are concise and get to the point quickly would probably be much harder to sell.

Article authors don't have length goals to hit, as there are no gatekeepers who set the goals, so article authors are not incentivized to add fluff.

Books are usually bought, unlike articles, which are usually free to read for anyone. I suspect that the fact that we have to buy books is one of the primary reasons why they are much harder to quit than articles — a sunk cost fallacy. With most articles, the only cost is the time invested in reading them. And quitting them is just a click away.

Books might be more valuable, and the best books are mind-blowing and make us look at the world differently. More books have blown my mind than articles.

But articles also have their value. They are more raw and unpolished. Because of this, we get a better sense of the author's thinking process. We get a peek behind the curtain that is not available in books, meticulously edited and polished to perfection.

A good information diet consists of both books and articles, which nicely complement each other. It's T-shaped. Depth is important, but so is breadth.

@shime_sh Hrvoje Šimić
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