Books Don't Count Any More?

Continuing the discussion from Torley on The Resurrection: Take Two:

This an interesting proposition. Though @vjtorley is making the case about religion, but it could be easily extended to science. It is partly a commentary on the times, but then also dips into giving the current state of affairs normative force, as if this is how it should be done. This is worth thinking about in more depth.

First of all, I agree that books are not as important as they used to be. Shorter forms are important now. Though it seems that there is a range of contributions between “Book” on one end and “Forum” on the other. Here is how I might draw out a gradation from substantive and formal by slow, to nimble and superficial.

  1. Book, once the gold standard of academic contributions, even in science.
  2. Journal article, which is most common in science, and becoming increasingly common in the humanities.
  3. Institutional publication/magazine/blog, which might go through peer-review, and benefits form engagement with a larger community (such as the New York Times, or Biologos)
  4. A well curated blog, which is published with essentially no peer-review.
  5. A forum conversation, with complete immediacy and all the rough and tumple.

It seems that it is far to either or to jump from a critique of 1 to say we must do 5. That doesn’t make sense to me. Rather, it seems, that a joint approach seems to work best.

Moreover, I see value in creating hybrid approaches, combining the best parts of each genre into different composites. That is why, for example, we have an open forum that also engages scholars in office hours, and also we have a blog, and we can also turn threads into DOI’s. This sort of creativity and innovation, I think, will carry the day in the end.

I’d also insist that saying “books don’t matter” any more risks a profound sort of anti-intellectualism. @vjtorley, what are you after here? Influence? If so, perhaps this book might give you a different view. And yes. I understand the irony of encourage you to read a book. This one, however, might give you a new way forward.

Quoting Vincent Torley:

So much for my library, lol!

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Thats interesting. I note , muse, that books are no longer as important. Its like in the news media. I understand the TV and papers have suffered great viewers loss to the internet etc especially in the denopgraphics of young/middle age. so likewise books have lost.
It shows many subjects never needed to be in books but there was no other options. now there is.
In fact maybe anyone can now WRITE a internet book with little cost. its possible future best sellers will not ever of made a actual book-in-the-hand.
in the end the book just was exchanging information. the computer is again changing the world.

Now, this is interesting, because from what I’ve seen, in real life and internet forums where we discuss books, my generation is actually returning to books.

And not even e-books or something, I’m talking about hardcovers.


The definition of book has changed. Today a book is the digital content. It can be available in both print media and virtual content like a pdf file. Books aren’t going away. In fact the sale of “books” is growing significantly. Amazon counts it as one book sale whether you buy an ebook, a hard covered book, a pdf file, or all at the same time.

Yeah, but you’ll see that I’m specifically talking about hardcovers. Not e-books, pdf or kindle.

Those three are kinda like facebook today. They’re mostly used by older generations trying to stay relevant.

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Well, I think it is more about costs. Recently my school district went to pdf’s for its textbooks. It is following a trend where the poorer districts actually were leading the way. Even though the price for a pdf version of a school textbook was the same as a hard cover, pdfs are easier to manage for the school district. I see print book staying a while longer, but they are already relics. I am curious, @NLENTS and other book authors here, how have the sales of hard cover vs. ebooks been?

I know that technical journals have been going to less printing for a while now.


That’s true enough, the cost of shipping is really high, especially if you’re ordering from overseas like I am. And science textbooks might be selling more in digital format than in hardcover.

But books in general? Yeah, my generation prefers to own a hard copy of the book.

Some of the people I know have a veritable library.

Yes, I still like hard cover books, But I find myself ordering both the hard cover book AND the electronic content, especially when it is offered to me for both at the same price. I can start the book immediately by downloading it. Once the hard cover book comes as quickly as 24 hours later, I switch over. But then I get lazy and don’t want to carry the book to the coffee shop to read, so I pick up reading where I left off on my iphone.

As for the veritable library, it is junk to me. I had to clean out houses of deceased relatives and friends and the amount of print material is staggering. All goes into a dumpster.

Recently my town moved its library into the Bell Labs site. Although many books were moved, most were discarded. The new library is very digital now.

With both of my books (and in all markets), hard copies outsell e-versions big time, between 5-1 and 10-1. But that could be because it’s just so easy to steal illegal downloads of the e-version. When my first book came out, almost all of my students were able to find illegal copies to download within a few weeks and they all found it different ways. There is no money in e-books until they solve that problem. Personally, I could care less. I don’t write books to make money. The proliferation of books, reading, and knowledge is just fine with me. :slight_smile: But I’m also aware that publishers ability to make money is what drives the acquisition of new books and profitable books allow them to take risks on other books. So I get it.


That used to be me. I feel into the pattern of taking great pride in a huge collection of books, already dusty, collecting more dust. After several moves weakened my affection fo the books themselves, I was persuaded by a friend to see that a hoarde of books accomplishes the exact opposite of what books are meant to do. A book sitting unread for decades helps no one, it is merely ornamentation, vanity really, especially when you compare that to what you could do with a book you’ve finished: give it to someone and ask them to give it someone else when they’re done. So that is what I started doing, both with my hoarde and with newly collected ones. And my textbooks I give to students studying for MCAT, GRE, etc. So now I keep only those that I might actually reference again, OR, ones that meant so much to me that I want to give to my kids so that I can enjoy watching them read the very same book that I did. (mostly classics)

This is my very much reduced hoarde of books…

Most of the textbooks are from when I was in college and grad school, so there is absolutely no use for them besides being my trophies. lol


As for myself, while I do own some non-fiction (history, literary criticism, sociology etc) I mostly read fiction, and those are almost certainly books I’m gonna read more than once, so I tend to keep them.

@eddie Do have a lot of books in your house and office? I am guessing that you do. :grinning:

Oh dear - here’s about 3/4 of mine:
Nearly all the medical stuff went years ago.


Holy craaaaackers.

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One of the important aspects is if it is a primary source with original content, IMHO. In the past, a scientist may have communicated new, original work in a book. That just isn’t the case anymore, for better or worse.

What I am looking for in academic works is some kind of indication that the material was taken seriously before publication. A publisher probably isn’t going to publish just anything, so you would expect that a book from a well respected publisher was at least scrutinized before publication. In journal articles there is usually peer review, except in some really low value journals that will publish anything if you pay for it.


Thanks. I was starting to think there was something wrong with me.

ETA: I’d never be able to live with those unequal height shelves!


Oh I think this is still very much the case. The academic presses are still putting out books, even in the sciences, that are “primary” in the sense of being a new and original synthesis of data (if not a new report of data).


Interesting. When I said that you had said this (or something very like it) a few weeks back, and John Harshman asked you if you really said it, you denied saying it. Now you are saying it again.

I already refuted this claim. I pointed out that Doug Futuyma (more known worldwide for “original work” in evolutionary theory than anyone writing here) praised the book by Gunter Wagner as extremely valuable. He would not have done so if the book did not contain some “original” thought. He certainly wasn’t praising it merely as a useful textbook to introduce undergrads to evolution, but as a solid contribution to evolutionary thought.

Possibly you are just being ridiculously sticky about what counts as “original work.” I consider fresh interpretations of existing work “original” if they advance a field theoretically. Einstein did not a stitch of “original” work as you seem to mean it – he carried out no experiments. He theorized about the results of others, and advanced his field by doing so. If Einstein still counts as “scientist” without producing new lab results, then Wagner counts as “scientist” for writing a book (on genes, homology and evolution) that puts previous work in a new light. Any definition of “original work” that discounts genuine theoretical reflection is a shallow definition.

Thanks very much, Dr. Lents. I have been trying to say this here, in a few places, but have met with resistance from the “only journal articles are important in science” crowd.