The Web is full of ideas for self-improvement: how to be more efficient, more productive, more successful. One tip for reading more effectively is to read only short books (I’m not joking – there is a website that tells you which are the classic  novels that don’t take long to read, “50 great classic novels under 200 pages”). But here I am talking about non-fiction, and specifically, gentle introductions, or what the French call haute vulgarisation. It fulfils the need for background information for non-specialists.

Short books are not a modern phenomenon. Almanacs (collections of dates and information such as tide tables) date back to the 15th century, the earliest years of printing,. Pocket books, with miscellaneous information, were common from the 18th century onwards.

Non-fiction information series appear to be a 20th-century invention. The Que sais-je series, published by the Presses universitaires de France, was started in 1941. Each title contains 124 pages, and around 32,000 words – and the Que Sais-je series is clearly a success from the number of titles available, comprising over 3,900 titles (today down to around 1400). Following the success of the early titles, the list became increasingly a kind of home encyclopedia, with early titles such as “Cancer”, “The Nervous System”, and “Dreams”, with more recent topics such as “Narcissism”, “Negotiation”, and “Cybersecurity”.

How short is a short book?

Here are some of the widely used formats in academic publishing:

  • Journal articles will be around 5,000 to 10,000 words; they typically cover one new research idea or experiment. The limitations of the journal format are well known. Articles assume that readers are already familiar with the domain; it is not their task to provide much background. Anyone trying to learn about AI who starts with academic research articles will struggle
  • Wikipedia provides brief definitions and background information, but  Wikipedia articles are very variable in quality, reliability, and readability. The average length of a Wikipedia article is Even using Wikipedia, there is a bit of a jump between a Wikipedia article, of average length 622 words,
  • Monographs have a much wider length range, but will be anything from 45,000 words upwards – a lengthy process to write, and very slow to read.
  • A book chapter in a collection of essays might be around 9,000 words per chapter (this is the length of individual chapters in the Cambridge Companions series, each title comprising a collection of essays around a single subject, such as Fantasy Literature, or Seventeenth-century Opera). Cambridge Companions now comprise over 600 volumes; but since each volume may be 100,000 words or more, they may not provide the kind of introduction that many readers are seeking.  

Very Short Introductions

The Oxford Very Short Introductions are a highly successful series from Oxford University Press. Each volume is around 35,000 – 45,000 words, which gives the authors an opportunity to combine introductions with a definite point of view. The Very Short Introduction to AI is an example of such an approach; I wrote about it here.

Why is the VSI series so successful? According to one article, two key factors were the authority of the series, and the name of the author (far more than the title); in other words, a dependable introduction to the subject, ideally by someone well-known in the field. I believe there is one other factor crucial to their success. It is what makes encyclopedias sell; the feeling that you ought to know about something that you don’t understand well enough (if at all); yes, there is often an element of guilt in the acquisition. VSI titles often fall into the “I should start reading that book” category. It is not surprising that the most successful Que sais-je titles (each selling more than 100,000 copies) have been on issues that people feel they ought to know more about, such as “Existentialism”, “Marxism”, and, unsurprisingly, “Structuralism” (this last by Jean Piaget, no less).

Example of Gallimard Découvertes, The Dreyfus Affair, 1994

Gallimard Découvertes

While there have been many competitors to the Que sais-je series in France (for example, the series “Les Essentiels” and “Idees recues”) and in English-language countries, the biggest innovation in this sector was from Gallimard, whose series Découvertes (introduced 1986, and today with over 550 titles) uses a four-colour integrated layout. These books are delightfully readable, combining relevant and well-captioned images as a central component of the work. Unlike all the other series discussed here, Gallimard Decouvertes are a pleasure to open and simply to look at. The Gallimard titles have been successful in the UK as “New Horizons” and in the US as “Discoveries”. Each title includes an “evidence and documents” section, plus a chronology. The only downside of such an integrated layout is that it is not easy to transfer to digital display.

Charleston Briefings

It may seem unlikely to compare this small series with some of the most successful publishing initiatives of the past 40 years, but I believe the information context is generally similar: the need for background information, even if in this case, not to pass an exam, but for professional competence. The Charleston Briefings are short books, published by MIT Press, assembled by the Charleston Company under the editorship of Matthew Ismail. At around 25,000 words, each Charleston Briefing provides a useful intermediate length between article and monograph, and significantly shorter than the Very Short Introductions.

Unlike the Very Short Introductions, the Charleston Briefings are restricted to in topic academic research, libraries and publishing. This makes it possible to tackle trending topics, for example, Library as Publisher, or Peer Review, two of the titles in the series. Some of the titles, such as Reading in a Digital Age, are by a single author; others are by multiple authors. They are entirely free to access, with eight titles currently published. Coverage to date is rather variable, from highly specific (peer review) to very general (reading).

Charleston Briefings versus Cambridge Elements

With a typical length of 25,000 words, the Charleston Briefings are similar in length to the highly successful Cambridge Elements. However, unlike Cambridge Elements, Charleston Briefings are far less specialised. Cambridge Elements includes titles such as Epsilon-Near-Zero Metaminerals, and Analysing Language, Sex and Age in a Corpus of Patient Feedback, which are unlikely to be best-sellers. Cambridge Elements are intended to be somewhere between research and monographs, while the Charleston Briefings appear to be more introductory – at least, that is how I read them. However, the subject matter is firmly within a professional domain, that of academia.

Benefits of the Briefings format include:

  1. Published only (as far as I can see) in digital form, so a shorter production time
  2. Open-access, so readable by everyone
  3. Less text for the authors to write, so reduced writing time.
  4. Written by insiders, so the titles appear to be authoritative.

So, will reading these short books make me a more efficient, more productive researcher? We need to look at some individual titles to get a better impression, but I’ll certainly be able to get through more Charleston Briefings than I would monographs. I can have the pleasure of telling someone I read three complete books in one day…