My English teacher at school used to tell us, when asked how long an essay should be, “begin at the beginning and go on until you come to the end”. In other words, there is no perfect length for a piece of text. That advice, I can now confidently state, was rubbish. It left me guessing, but worse, it invited me to be prolix. Today I know that short books are better than long books. All other things being equal, I would prefer to read a non-fiction book that is 64 pages than one that is 640 pages. In fact several authors have done both, so you can compare the results: one example is William Doyle, who authored The Oxford History of the French Revolution in 1989, and then a volume on the French Revolution in the Oxford Very Short Introductions in 2001. What’s most impressive is that he doesn’t just summarise the arguments of the larger volume, and yet provides a succinct overview. That’s no mean feat when the average length of the Very Short Introductions is around 45,000 words, while in the larger Oxford History is around 200,000 words.
If you are publishing digitally, you might think, the limitation on length of books (and articles) disappears. But that’s not the case at all! By a strange paradox, the digital age leaves us with less patience than before. The phenomenon of TV channels has often been stated: when you have only three or four channels to view, you are very keen to make sure you watch the best programmes. When you have 30 or 40 channels to choose from, you watch less TV overall!
Why are academic books published at all?
For the most part, academic books do not make much money. Scientific monographs don’t exist any longer, by and large. Monographs in the humanities have a print run as low as 100 copies. The only books that make money are textbooks – and some short books, such as the Very Short Introductions.
So why do academic authors write at all? The publishing world for higher education is not straightforward. There are several drivers, to some extent conflicting. The role of the reader is minimal:
- Science researchers (and increasingly researchers in all subjects) see publication as the only way to getting, and keeping, an academic position. There is a drive to publish, at all costs. Not surprisingly, the world is moving in favour of the drive to publish.
- Science research is 100% based around journal articles, and mainly focused on preprints (ArXiv, bioRxiv, and so on). The head of a big genetic research group in Oxford showed me the library, and proudly stated it contained not a single book.
- Undergraduates, who want to pass exams, are not interested in long books at all. The only books that really interest them are textbooks, since these are the only books that are 100% guaranteed to be relevant to their exam syllabus; and collections of essays (such as the Cambridge Companions), which are really just summaries of current topics of academic focus around a topic.
- Humanities and social science academics see publishing a monograph as the way to preferment, and the thesis as a perfect stepping stone. However, the academic thesis is written not to be read but to display learning; I don’t know if you have ever tried to read a thesis as a general reader, but it is not a pleasant experience. Theses that are published are usually rewritten for a general audience.
So where do long books fit in all the above? My personal experience from two undergraduate degrees in the arts is that full-sized books (more than 50,000 words) are just not read. In the whole of my English literature degree, I read one full (non-fiction) book from end to end, and that was a mistake. I should clarify, of course, that I am referring here to non-fiction books, not to the works of fiction we were expected to study. The goal of higher education study is learning not to read a full book, but to navigate your way around many books you have not read (one day I will respond to Pierre Bayard’s wonderful book on that very topic). Today, I even struggle with the Very Short Introductions. I might read a TLS or LRB review, but it’s rare that I get through more than a third of any full-length book. The question should be: What is the marginal benefit of reading the next chapter, when I have read and profited from the chapter(s) I have read so far?
My principle is, all books should be short books, and if a long book is absolutely necessary for me to learn more about a topic, then I will do everything I can to make it shorter – by reading summaries, reviews, chapter headings, the first and the last chapter, anything to speed up the process. Perhaps I should provide a summary of this post for those who choose not to read the whole text.