Why Books Are Still the Gold Standard for Ideas That Matter


In 1686, at the insistence and expense of his friend, astronomer Edmund Halley, physicist Isaac Newton agreed to write and publish his three-book series, PhilosophiƦ Naturalis Principia Mathematica (which, in English, translates to "mathematical principles of natural philosophy"). Newton's work began simply as a discussion with Halley about the laws that govern planetary motion. It would go on to become what many consider to be the most important scientific text ever written.

Principia, written in Latin (a language known largely by academics at the time) and in a dense mathematical style, was never meant to be a bestseller. It was never even popular in Newton's lifetime. It was meant to disclose his theories about "the frame of the system of the world." We know it today as the laws of classical physics: the axioms of mass, force, momentum, and universal gravitation, proving that the written medium ensured that the influence of his ideas would go on to matter after his death.

A century after publication, Newton's laws became accepted scientific fundamentals and were directly responsible for the technological and economic boom of the Industrial Revolution. Every subsequent breakthrough in chemistry and biology is possible because of the publication and eventual spread of Isaac Newton's Principia. Had Halley not convinced him to proceed and himself funded Newton's book, we would live in a much less developed world today, and it would not be technologically possible for you to be reading this right now.

In January 1776, an anonymous pamphlet about the philosophical basis for American independence was published in Philadelphia and disseminated throughout the 13 colonies. Thomas Paine's Common Sense challenged the institution of the British monarchy and became the bestselling book per capita in American history. Perhaps most impressively, because it was anonymous, Americans were able to evaluate Paine's ideas on their own merits, not on any perceived authority of the author.

Because its language was clear, purposeful, and persuasive, Common Sense accomplished an amazing feat: changing the minds of millions of people toward an unprecedented cause. It made the American Revolution (and all social progress that followed) a desirable outcome instead of an obscure fantasy. Less than six months later, Paine and his contemporaries signed the Declaration of Independence. Their change in the structure of society would inspire similar advancements in nations worldwide. Fellow founding father John Adams said, "Without the pen of Paine, the sword of Washington would have been wielded in vain." Paine demonstrated that the right idea presented to a ready audience could change the world.

Affluence of Opportunity

As more communication channels are available than ever, people have many ways to make their voices heard. We tend not to appreciate such power because it's what modern generations have always known. We forget that when we strip away communication technology, our ability to be heard drops to only whoever is within earshot. Our influence, then, is the same as that of our primitive ancestors.Every communication medium that has come in and out of fashion throughout history has done so for specific reasons in the context of the time that they were popular. Each medium offers unique advantages and disadvantages. Modern social media platforms give us the ability to create facsimiles of ourselves online. Blogs serve as written collections of experience or expertise on a subject. Video channels rocket ordinary people to minor celebrity status by displaying their personalities on camera for all the world to see.

Though the methods for producing books have improved, their fundamental function has not. Printed books have remained popular in the digital era because they have symbolic importance beyond any other medium. Books are the gold standard of communication that matters. Sitting down with a book is an intimate experience we have romanticized and adored across countless subcultures. The sacredness of books in human minds is incomparable to other forms of content. There's a reason the idea of burning a pile of DVDs isn't nearly as traumatic as the idea of burning a pile of books.

Long-Form Communication

Books also persist because they serve long texts of tens or hundreds of thousands of words better than any other medium. They provide the space needed to elaborate on every relevant angle of a subject in a logical progression. By the time the reader reaches the final pages, they should feel that their knowledge of the subject is complete enough to be applied in the world. Such a comprehensive education is not possible with snippets of ideas trimmed down for virality and digestion.

Interconnected Ideas

The structure of books enables writers to cover multiple complex connected ideas. Different sections, chapters, and subheadings make it easy for readers to categorize the information in front of them, skimming back and forth between concepts as needed for reinforced integration. Readers can take notes, mark pages, and refer to earlier passages whenever they need to. Books, more than any other medium, make it convenient for consumers to navigate information at their own pace and in their own ideal way.

The evolution of communication standards and technology is a double-edged sword. Every new medium suffers from rapid self-obsolescence. The way people watch videos or listen to music changes within several years as generational trends and portable storage technologies move on. Audio and video content have inherently shorter shelf lives (recordings of major historical events notwithstanding). Vinyl records, 8-track tapes, cassettes, CDs, Betamax and VHS tapes, and DVD and Blu-Ray discs are subject to a decline in accessibility from the moment they are created.

Timeless Appeal

More than any other medium, paper books subvert the effects of entropy and obsolescence. Books today are still made roughly the same way as hundreds of years ago. Binding techniques and the composition of paper may change with the generations, but the information in old books is as convenient to consume as it is in modern ones. The consistent standards of books make them more collectible than any other medium, either privately in homes or publicly in libraries, stores, and museums. Despite the advances of the digital era, there is no reason to believe that the timeless appeal of books will wane anytime soon. Even the convenience of e-book and audiobook distribution largely seems to increase the total demand for books instead of cannibalizing physical book sales.

Our favorite books become a part of us. Modern homes proudly display large collections of cherished books. These personal libraries are shrines to the values that have taken hold in our minds. An old book is a renewable spring of positive influence, maintaining the same personal resonance it did decades prior. Books from ages past help us appreciate the eras of their authors. Reading Common Sense, we can imagine what life in the American colonies must have been like for Paine's words to spurn such strong support for independence. Books offer a static recreation of the minds of human history beyond the mere facts and statistics about their existence.

Cost-Efficient Transmission

Without relatively cheap and efficient book publishing, the revolutionary ideas of the Newtons and Paines of the world may never have taken off. Long-term transmission would have been too difficult. We will never know how many other great minds have had ideas of equal worth but lacked the opportunity to publish a book and harness such influence. Books and the information they carry can literally outlast empires.

For almost four centuries, it has been difficult for ordinary people to become published authors, as even small publishing contracts have required enormous faith and investment in the author. Only a few organizations had the production, distribution, and marketing capacity to turn an unknown author into a success. Many of the most successful authors today only got their big breaks after struggling for years, penniless, to find someone willing to take a chance. If a writer did not already have a connection to someone in a position of authority at a publishing house, their chances of even being considered were slim.

Gregory V. Diehl is the founder of Identity Publications and author of several popular nonfiction books on business and personal development. His book The Influential Author is a lengthy, in-depth guide to crafting and publishing meaningful nonfiction books at or beyond the standards expected from traditional publishing. 

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