Sunday, March 25, 2007

Starting on the Stack

Like most readers, I keep a stack of books (or more than one) waiting to be read. Now, I also have a stack for books to be blogged about. In fact I started the stack a long while before I started the blog, in the hopes that it might inspire (guilt?) me into starting. After all, I can't really clean up my space until the "to blog" stack disappears.

At the very bottom (really the beginning) of the blog stack is Jared Diamond's book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. The author presents a breathtakingly-thorough comparative analysis of several societies that, for varied but related reasons, undermine the ecological basis for their survival. For 592 pages, Diamond examines the errors of ancient Easter Islanders, Mayans, the Greenland Norse, contemporary Montanans, and others to reveal tragic flaws in human culture--notably, societal hubris--that separate us from nature and may lead to our destruction. Each case studied was fascinating, nuanced and convincing, and the contrasts between failed civilizations and more sustainable ones offered some rays of hope. Critics showered it with praise and it's won scads of awards and speaking invitations for the author. The book and author are all over the web, including this excellent video lecture.

And while I hesitate to argue with any of the applauding critics or happy purchasers, I still think that like too many books these days, it was just too long. More case studies or more details do not necessarily mean a stronger argument. It's not just a matter of limited reading time, or short attention spans, or even limiting unnecessarily turning trees into pages. It's more about the old Mark Twain saying, "If I had more time I would write a shorter letter." I'm having a similar problem with a children's book about oceans I'm currently working on--how do you write a meaningful chapter on salt water invertebrates, for example, in 500 words? Somehow, I'll have to distill what I want to say down to a few paragraphs, and leave out lots and lots of details.

I'm not trying to talk anyone out of reading Collapse. Rather, I'm giving myself permission to stop reading it and other books that fail or cease to satisfy, for whatever reason. If you need to for some reason (academic, cultural, or personal), you can always go back and try again. In the meantime, there are plenty of other books in the stack.

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