Non-fiction books for (curious) busy people #

I'm in the process of re-reading The Baroque Cycle and have gotten curious about Newton's time at the Royal Mint. Ideally, I would like something more detailed than the two paragraphs that Wikipedia devotes to this, but shorter than a 300+ page book*. I've had similar experiences in the past: no matter how much The Economist raved about a ~1000 page history of the British Navy, I was never able to commit to actually reading it all the way through. I think this is more than Internet-induced ADD; I manage to read a book every 4-6 weeks, and dedicating a slot to such a unitasker seems wasteful.

I realize that producing a shorter book on the subject may not be any cheaper or less resource/research-intensive than a long book. I would even be willing to pay the same amount for the digested version as I would for the full version. With recent developments like Kindle Singles there also wouldn't be the issue of fixed production/distribution costs that should be amortized by creating a longer book. Though fiction-centric, Charles Stross has a good explanation of why books are the length that they are.

I used to think that abridged editions, CliffsNotes, and the like were an abomination (as far as not getting the experience the author intended) and for lazy people. To some degree I still do; I think ideally these alternate editions should be produced by the same author, or with the author's blessing.

* As it turns out, there is a 128-page 1946 book about Newton's time at the Mint. Perhaps there was less need to pad then?

Update later that day: Based on the endorsement on Buzz I'll give the (modern) Newton book a try. Part of the reason why I was soured on longer non-fiction books was that I tried reading Operation Mincemeat and was put off by the amount of seemingly extraneous background information and cutesy anecdotes. Incidentally, Operation Mincemeat has a brief appearance in Cryptonomicon, another Neal Stephenson book – I promise that I read other authors too.


From the perspective of someone who has written a long non-fiction book on an obscure topic...As the author, you have likely done a considerable amount of research that may never be done again firsthand, so you may feel compelled to publish as much of it as you can, as the next person who is interested in your topic may have your book as their only resource. The other issue is that if the information that you are presenting is cumulative, then it may be hard to make a later point if you skipped over earlier points to cut down on the length of the book. Also, once you've drafted a lot of material, it is hard to have the discipline to take it out because it's frustrating to see that effort go to waste. Finally, being succinct is difficult, as noted by Pascal: "I would have written a shorter letter, but I did not have the time." Honestly, I would have loved to have written a shorter book -- it would have taken less of my time and would probably sell better -- but I couldn't figure out how to say everything I wanted to say in less than 500 pages. Sometimes topics are just complext.
Thanks for the author's perspective Michael. I agree with all that you said, but my focus was around "social science" non-fiction books, as opposed to technical books. Though perhaps that's my bias as engineer ("of course Closure needs 500+ pages to explain properly, but surely the important events in Newton's time at the Royal Mint could be conveyed more tersely").

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