Is it just me, or is it getting harder to read books on development?

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, duefalling_asleep_while_reading_boring_books 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

the exception to the rule, obviously
the exception to the rule, obviously

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.

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18 Responses to “Is it just me, or is it getting harder to read books on development?”
  1. L Faye

    I am very happy to read this! I would add though that reading books that one would call a “book on international development” isn’t what is actually necessary. I think we need people to simply read more books. A balance between fiction and non-fiction, a lot of books written by authors from developing countries, ensure your reading both male and female authors – but just read. I recently read Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle” and Antjie Krog’s “Country of My Skull” and I think they have really added to my thinking around my work in development as well.

  2. P Baker

    When books have all seized up like the books in graveyards
    And reading and even speaking have been replaced
    By other, less difficult, media, we wonder if you
    Will find in flowers and fruit the same colour and taste
    They held for us for whom they were framed in words,
    And will your grass be green, your sky be blue,
    Or will your birds be always wingless birds?
    [Posterity. Louis MacNeice 1957]

    • Duncan

      Next poll on when did you last read some poetry? I should pass on that one, as went to a Sylvia Plath 50 year commemoration at the weekend – the whole of Ariel read out by 40 women at the Festival Hall. Amazing.

  3. Kate

    Hi Duncan
    I quite agree. Somehow I could never read a book during work time, although I could (just about) read a paper. Not just because of the unaccustomed change of pace (though that is a factor), but also because I think we are conditioned to think and feel that reading in general is a passive activity that does not consitute ‘real work’, and that book reading in particular is the sort of indulgent leisurely thing one does in bed (yes, my life is THAT exciting!).

    Even the reading of papers and reports – which can somehow be more easily considered as ‘work’ – is done under accelerated conditions: skimming… and that unnerving test where you ask yourself, what exactly did the page I just read say?

    What does it mean? I guess for many of us it means that our ‘deep’ knowledge about what we are doing either stems directly from our own experience and practice, OR from the last time we were enrolled on a university course that required us to read widely and think deeply. I guess it makes us narrower, more superficial, and more likely to adopt habitual positions that fit with our worldview…

    Have to get back to emailing and skyping now…

  4. Catherine

    I’m gutted the poll doesn’t include the ‘intention’ to read a book in coming days!! After honestly not reading a whole book on development for more (possibly much, much more) than a year, on my desk this morning has arrived ‘Pastoralism and Development in Africa: Dynamic Change at the Margins’ which I ‘hoped’ to read… and now will factor it into my working days over the next week or so – thanks for the push!

    (And I have to say, when I was at Oxfam I was pretty up in arms about the closure of the library – it’s a massive loss to the organisation – particularly the loss of the wonderful librarian who directed me to all sorts of gems and kept me connected to new content in a way I have never managed to for myself since. More than just books were lost when they closed the library)

  5. Robert

    Disagree with comment that the Oxfam library went with a whimper rather than a bang. I recall that the process leading to the closure was so suspect and the actual evaluation of use so amateurish that those who were concerned took a deep breath, looked at where the power lay, and decided to save their energy for a dispute that they had some chance of winning. As an act of intellectual vandalism it took some beating; and as a signifier of the value the organisation’s leaders put on thinking and learning it spoke volumes. Hardly a week goes by when I don’t miss the resource and the librarian’s skill and knowledge.

  6. Maybe it’s just the librarian in me but I read development books all the time! I particularly like that books (in print or on my Kindle) are a good excuse to get me away from my computer when I just can’t sit at my desk any longer.

    A few weeks ago I read “Beyond Good Intentions: A Journey into the Realities of International Aid” By Tori Hogan. And now I’m working on “Savings Groups at the Frontier” and “The Blue Sweater” by Jacqueline Novogratz.

    On a side note, does “Disastrous Passion: A Humanitarian Romance Novel” count as a book on development? 🙂

  7. Good post. Attention spans are getting shorter. I find reading multiple books helps feed the ADD within, and learning to speed-read has helped enormously. Tony Buzan’s The Speed-Reading book is a great place to start, if you’re interested. Just finishing Poor Economics, with Matt Andrew’s “Limits” waiting for me. I loved your book review, by the way.

  8. This post really got me caught red-handed and it was only some days ago that I wondered about exactly the same issue.

    In addition to what you mention (distractions, work load, …) I sometimes feel overwhelmed by so many interesting new books coming out. Most development-related books I recently read landed on my my desk because of some research or assignment I was doing and almost all were on methodology, not theory or history. And each time I was browsing new publications during the past months, I found it really difficult to pick one or two titles – well the solution might just be starting somewhere.

    I also have the impression that reading (books in particular) is also a matter of organizational culture. Being a freelancer at present, I can pretty much read whenever I feel like (well, kind of) whereas I experienced very different attitudes towards reading in my former workplaces. These ranged from clear disapproval of even reading papers or reports not directly work-related to the explicit encouragement to devote one half day per week to reading (development-related) books and papers.

  9. Ian

    Hmmmm, I read lots on development – but rarely books. But I’m not convinced that our changing professional reading habits are necessarily a bad thing.

    Often development books and other “ideas” books are often a couple of good ideas that could easily be elaborated in other formats but which are padded out with additional material to make something that can be packaged and sold.

    I often find it more valuable to skim read a book but then invest more time in reading the reviews and discussions around it -“Dead Aid” would be an example of where I found this a much better approach!

    I also think that newer formats (blog posts, policy papers, online discussions, videos etc.) make ideas much more accessible by allowing people to pick through and absorb ideas quickly and in the format they prefer and then dive deeper into those topics (or parts of topics) that are more interesting or relevant. I think this is very positive as it allows us more flexibility in how we disseminate and access knowledge.

    What is a drawback in the “always on” world is that often we don’t create enough space for ourselves for reading and reflection. I might not want to read a book, but I still need to make sure I’m taking enough time to read, think about and interact with others about new development ideas, which sometimes needs use to step back, reflect and not rush to react or move to the next thing.

    So while I’m happy to take some of my personal time to consume development writing in multiple formats, if I’m going to read a whole book, then I’d probably prefer to spend my time with a gripping novel, preferably with a bit of escapism in it.

  10. Jane

    I’m glad you wrote this! I’m a total bookworm and constantly reading books that are directly applicable to my job (and oft-cited in reports I have to write!)– but always feels terribly guilty reading them during working hours. Somehow reading a book, which is so much better for my eyes and brain, just doesn’t feel as appropriate at work as reloading emails and staring at less useful stuff on a glaring monitor.

  11. Ravi

    Thank you kindly Duncan for offering to provide intl dev book summaries for us :).

    Could you consider diverse audiences – i.e. summaries ranging from 130 characters to about 500 words?

    pretty please !