Evolution has a mysterious and amazing way of driving relentlessly toward simplicity and specialization:
Evolution figured outs its version of simplification. It (if you can imagine it talking) says, “Get all that useless crap out of the way. Just give me the few things I need and make them really effective.”
The question, then, is why complexity sells in the modern world.
Morgan Housel compares this phenomenon to why in the world of business, market motivations are almost always the reverse: consumers generally want a more complex product, service, or deliverable (or at least producers of goods convince themselves this is true). I love this quote he pulls from Edsger Djikstra:
Simplicity is the hallmark of truth— we should know better, but complexity continues to have a morbid attraction. When you give for an academic audience a lecture that is crystal clear from alpha to omega, your audience feels cheated and leaves the lecture hall commenting to each other: “That was rather trivial, wasn’t it? The sore truth is that complexity sells better.
And as a reader of many books, this one strikes home in particular:
Length is often the only thing that can signal effort and thoughtfulness.
The U.S. constitution is 7,591 words. A typical business management book covering a single topic is perhaps 250 pages, or something like 65,000 words.
The funny thing is the average reader does not come close to finishing most books they buy. Even among bestsellers, average readers quit after a few dozen pages. Length, then, has to serve a purpose other than providing more material. My theory is that length indicates the author has spent more time thinking about a topic than you have, which can be the only data point signaling they might have insight you don’t. It doesn’t mean their thinking is right. And you may get enough of their thinking after two chapters. But the purpose of chapters 3-16 is often to show the author has done so much work that chapters 1 and 2 might have some insight. Same for research reports and white papers.
I can understand the motivations here: the perception of thoroughness signaled by high word counts, the perception of that perception on the part of authors and publishers. But as an experienced reader, I’ve learned I appreciate the reverse. It’s rare to find anymore the brief, memorable, and impactful books — the ones that imprint themselves on your mind in a hundred pages. Books like Man’s Search for Meaning, Invisible Cities, or Meditations. Certain works can pack in a few chapters what it takes many a thousand pages to convey. A market where we get better at recognizing the value of simplicity in products would be a welcome one.