I just spent four hours reading a book. Well, a third of a book – I’m a slow reader. It’s the galleys for ‘Aid on the Edge of Chaos’, by Ben Ramalingam, due out this October. I’ll review it when it’s published, but reading it made me think about books in general, and how hard it is to read them.
The standard response of my colleagues when I review a book on the blog is ‘Wow, I’m so jealous – you’re so lucky to have the time to read them’, shortly followed by ‘Great, now I won’t have to read it – I can just read the review’. My fear is that they are typical – not many people in the NGOs read books related to their work. When Oxfam decided to close down its library a few years ago, there was barely a murmur of protest.
The discomfort I experience when reading a book during working hours may help explain why this is. Far from being a delightful act of self indulgence, I feel itchy, guilty, check my emails and blog traffic every hour or so ‘just in case’, and get a glow of relief when I find something I need to reply to. And I’m supposed to be a bookworm!
The growing distance between the rhythm of work, and the slow digestion of a book may be part of the answer – a fellow blogger once confessed he hardly ever reads books any more because of the ‘ADHD state’ brought on by his constant use of email and twitter. I have colleagues who can’t even have a conversation without compulsively checking their blackberries (although that might just be the effect I have on people). Even when it comes to the aptly-named ‘grey literature’ of papers and reports, we’re all executives now (at least in terms of only skimming the exec sums). What’s happened to our collective concentration span?
Once I manage to suppress my anxiety, and persevere, a good book delivers on many more levels that even the best paper. The writing is often better (a book is a far more personal labour of love than any research paper); you argue with the weak arguments, and assimilate the convincing ones, in a more profound process, like a day-long tutorial. And yes, I write all over them, sorry. At their best, they usher you into a whole new paradigm, profoundly changing the way you see the world. And then of course there is the surge of self-satisfaction when you finish it…..
I can’t see why papers shouldn’t in theory be able to do all of this, and maybe some can, but in my experience nothing matches the revelatory intellectual impact of books like Eric Beinhocker’s The Origin of Wealth or Ha-Joon Chang’s Kicking Away the Ladder. So if people stop reading books
once they stop being students or keen newbies in the aid world, does that mean they will miss out?
But before getting all doom and gloom, let’s see if I’m right. It’s time to fess up. When was the last time you read a book on international development. A proper book – at least 150 pages. And all of it – not just skipping to the conclusions? You know the drill – voting options to your right. And since it’s fairly safe to assume that the readers of this blog are at the wonkier end of the spectrum, I’ll take the result as the upper limit for development bookworminess.