Do big ideas fit into small books — very small books?

Sam Harris has gone small — to the Kindle Single, that deceptively-named species of sub-book that Amazon sells for $1.99, buy with one click and download instantly to your device!

The Kindle edition of The Moral Landscape costs $13.02 (as strangely specific a price as you’ll find anywhere), so Harris’s latest, the little white Lying, is a steal — unless, that is, you like your books to run more than twenty-six pages.

Calling a twenty-six page essay a “Single” may refer to the idea that these small editions are just long enough to introduce one idea each, but I suspect that the name was chosen at least partly because it suggests something compact but still full-sized, like a single bed, or a single scoop of ice cream. You can’t put anything past those marketing majors, or find anything that they can’t inflate.

I have no principled objection to purchasing a scholarly essay for $1.99, but Harris himself admits that his little book is hardly more developed than are some of the free postings on his blog, and Lying is a very simple, very primer-like statement of the idea that as a general rule it’s better to be honest than to lie — not just big, morally-fraught lies, but also those everyday fibs that oil the machinery of our social groups and personal relationships.

I found the simplified content more of an extended abstract than a shortened book, and I’m not convinced that even someone who writes as plainly and unimaginatively as Harris typically does can successfully shrink a big idea into so small a space.

Still, if the intended audience is Amazon customers who would neither pay thirteen dollars (and two cents) for one of Harris’s fully developed books, nor read any non-fiction book that doesn’t have either “How To” or “The Twenty-Six Secrets of” in the title, maybe there’s a place for Lying after all.

Harris makes the case for the little book in an article on the Book Beast webpage. In “The Future of the Book,” Harris writes that “the future of the written word is (mostly or entirely) digital.” He chronicles his own conversion to blogging. In the digital world, Harris says, everyone expects to get content for free; it’s difficult to convince people (Harris included) that the newspaper and magazine content they paid for a year or two ago should cost something when it’s accessed online.

As well, Harris cites the greater investment in time and effort required to read an entire book — when the writers start saying things like this, you know that the print world is heading dodo-ward at warp speed!

Harris writes:

If your book is 600-pages-long, you are demanding more of my time than I feel free to give. And if I could accomplish the same change in my view of the world by reading a 60-page version of your argument, why didn’t you just publish a book this length instead? 

Well, just maybe because you can’t often change my “view of the world” in just sixty pages?  Or in twenty-six?

“My goal in LYING was to write a very accessible essay on an important topic that could be absorbed in one sitting,” Harris says.

His idea, “how revolutionary it is to be honest with everyone one meets—to refuse to shade the truth even slightly in business or in one’s personal life,” may be accessible, but I didn’t find that twenty-six pages was enough space to make his point in any more than the most superficial way.

How could it be? Twenty-six pages isn’t enough space to develop a complex idea. But it is enough space to oversimply an idea, to make it as straightforward and declarative as the restrictions of a Kindle Single require.


One thought on “Do big ideas fit into small books — very small books?

  1. Great, that’s exactly what we need. ‘Science’ and ‘Philosophy’ diluted and dumbed down so that just about anyone can claim to have knowledge about complex subjects without needing to understand the complexity. You are right – this is just not enough space to fully develop ideas that are intended to be taken seriously… I think I’ll stick to peer reviewed journals if I want to read something of a 25 page length.

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