Monday, February 06, 2006

How to tell what type of book you're reading...

Here's how to tell if you're reading a textbook, a fiction book, or a discursive nonfiction work.

Consider the marginal benefit to you, the reader, of perusing one more page of the book.

If this figure stays constant as you read the book, it's a textbook: usually, if you read half a math book, you learn half the math, and at 90% you've learned 90%. There are occasional variances, like the "extensions to the theory" appendices that may not add that much (or, if you're creative, they may suggest unexplored horizons, and be invaluable).

If the marginal benefit of the next page increases, you're reading fiction. Getting to the denouement is the goal. If you don't read the last 10% of War and Peace, you really haven't read it at all.

If the marginal benefit drops off, you're reading discursive nonfiction. An example is H. L. A. Hart's The Concept of Law. Great book. But the main ideas--the rule of recognition, the internal point of view, etc.--are early on.

And that's how you know what type of book you're reading, if you ate the book's front and back cover.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I can't believe you have such a linear approach to fiction. Most of my favorite novels I could pick up in the middle, read 40 pages, absorb the style and feel and author's project, and gain 80% of the value. The other 20% is the sheer pleasure of reading the whole damn thing, and not wanting the experience to end. Then again I'm a shallow postmodern stylist at heart, I fear....

1:08 PM  
Blogger Sean Strasburg said...

You know, this is totally true: modern fiction is probably fundamentally less day-noo-mah oriented than classic Victor Hugo-type stuff. In the interest of measuring things, we should attach electrodes to someone's noggin, and study their brain waves as they go through Tristram Shandy and Ivanhoe. If the beeps and blips are constant for the former and growing for the latter, we could win a Nobel Prize. This would also be a fast, inexpensive way for libraries to classify novels as modern or classic.

1:43 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Do we have to confine ourselves to measuring noggin response? A true postmodern masterpiece like Tristram Shandy works on multiple psych- and physi-ological levels...
And I can think of a couple of more interesting places to attach electrodes. But that's probably not a library-appropriate activity.

9:52 PM  

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