In defense of books

When I’m asked “what podcasts do you listen to?”, after an uncomfortable pause
I’m forced to answer that “I usually don’t”. The full explanation is almost
always too long for a brief friendly chat, but I did manage to articulate it to
friends a couple of times in recent history; I think it’s time to put it down in
writing.

Generally speaking, I prefer Slow Media,
and the slower the better. This means I’d rather read books than articles, blog
posts and video talks; I’d rather listen to audiobooks than to podcasts. The
same applies further down the scale; I prefer articles and blog posts to social
media, and if I do listen to a podcast I favor the long-form ones.

Why? Wouldn’t one learn more by spending 10 hours listening to 10-20 podcasts
on different topics than by spending the same time on a single book?

While this question is phrased in a suggestive way, I posit that the answer – at
least for me – is actually NO, at least when viewed strategically rather
than tactically.

Consuming information is a marathon, not a sprint. It’s not the case that I have
10 hours allocated in my life to consume information and I have to be as
efficient as possible; the truth is that over the years, I have many thousands
of hours. While it may appear that given 10 hours listening to the more
condensed podcast format is more efficient, the same is absolutely not apparent
if the decision is between 1000 books and 15,000 podcast episodes.

Suppose I’m interested in 20 different topics. I could read two books on each
topic – 40 books in total; at my current pace of reading this would probably
take a bit less than a year. Alternatively, I could spend these ~400 hours
listening to podcasts and/or reading articles on the same 20 topics. It’s
slicing the same cake of time, just along different axes.
One could claim that with articles and podcasts you could learn about more than
20 topics in a given year, but do you really want to? I’d say even 20 is a
stretch, at least if by “learn” you mean at least some minimal depth.

In programming terms, it’s a bit like using DFS vs. BFS to explore the same
knowledge graph.

If the actual information intake is similar with the two approaches over a long
time period, why prefer one over the other? This is where the quality and depth
of information comes in. Books typically win on depth, since authors have put
much more effort into researching and writing them than is put into podcasts or
articles. Books also win on quality because they are easier to vet; when I plan
to spend 10 hours on reading a book, I can afford spending 15 minutes on
researching which book to read, looking at reviews, looking at samples, etc.
When one plans to spend 45 minutes on a podcast episode, any non-trivial
investment into research seems wasteful.

I’ll end this post with a few disclaimers: none of this is a rigid rule. I do
listen to podcasts every once in a while, and I do read articles and blogs
posts. Some of them are of a very high quality and informational value. I’ll
also note that some podcasts are packaged in well-researched and in-depth
series, which makes them very similar to books at this point. I’m not dogmatic
about these things; just stating my preferences.

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