Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Heavyweight Non-Fiction

Most non-fiction books that cover conceptual topics (like science or social sciency stuff) can usually be split into two groups, those written by experts (like academics) and those written by non-experts (like journalists). Over the past six months or so, I've noticed a trend in my non-fiction book selection: I've become less and less discriminatory regarding the author's level of expertise. I've pretty much been selecting books based solely on how much the topic interests me. Once I realized this, I reflected a bit on which books really affected me and which ones didn't. My conclusion? Academic heavyweights write better books. [note: I'm only talking about widely-circulated popular non-fiction books; real academic textbooky books are in a different category altogether]

Experts writing about a topic within their field of research start off with an initial stock of credibility in my eyes, while journalists or other lightweight non-fiction writers have to earn that trust. Heavyweight authors tend to fill their pages with more original and creative ideas, probably because they have actual academic contributions from which to draw on. Lightweights, by contrast, are not direct knowledge-producers and must restrict themselves to analyzing and synthesizing existing research. Often this results in more novel topics and book titles for the lightweights (they've got to find the gaps), but it also means the topics are less ambitious and more marginal.

Malcolm Gladwell might be the best example of a lightweight author: great writing, clever and fascinating topics, tons of cool little analyses and observations. But if I compare his books with those written by actual experts in the research fields from which he draws upon, there's no comparison. Nudge by legal scholar Cass Sunstein and economist Richard Thaler gives a much better overview of behavioral economics and unconscious decisionmaking than does Blink, while Bursts by graph theorist Albert-Laszio Barabasi provides a much deeper and more rigorous understanding of social cascades than does The Tipping Point

I recently finished The Information by James Gleick (a lightweight), and I was stunned by the complete lack of creativity and original thinking. Marketed and publicized as a deep inquiry into the concept of "information," the book was merely a cobbled-together assortment of different scientific histories (a chapter on linguistics, one on logic, electrical engineering, early computers, etc.). The Hidden Reality by physicist Brian Greene delivered in a single chapter the most fascinating and unorthodox expression of the concept of information I've ever read. So don't be seduced by clever topics or good newspaper coverage (journalists surely promote their own). It's time to get picky and get smart. Read heavyweight non-fiction.


  1. Only a moron (or an intellectual lightweight?) makes blanket statements and characterizations like this blog post. Only academics or specific experts in a specific field can write good books? Gleick is about as "heavyweight" as they come: Chaos? His Feynmann biography? And now his superb book "The Information." But of course, I'm biased. I've read it.

  2. I'm not saying only academics or experts can write good books, merely that I've noticed a trend in my personal preferences that favor authors with practical experience in the field being discussed. I think what I'm really trying to get at is the distinction between the journalistic/historical approach versus a more primary form of knowledge conveyance. I prefer learning about ideas and concepts from the person who developed them over a journalist or historian. But obviously there is an important role for interpreting, popularizing, analyzing, and synthesizing original research. I think I simply enjoy trying to do those higher-level aggregation steps on my own.

  3. Out of curiosity, does the lightweight make up for his lack of intelligence/originality with astonishingly good looks/better sense of humor?