By ‘thick’ description, I mean an extended, detailed, evidence-based, written interpretation of a subject. If you want to write a feature, or blog, or wikipedia entry, be it about the origins of the first world war; the authoritarian turn in Russia; or the causes and effects of the 2008 financial crisis, in the end you will have to refer to a book. Or at least refer to other people who have referred to books. Even the best magazine pieces and TV documentaries — and the best of these are very good indeed — are only puddle-deep compared with the thick descriptions laid out in books. They are ‘thin’ descriptions and the creators and authors of them will have referred extensively to books to produce their work.
In this sense, authors and publisher-curators are in the ‘civilisation business’, trafficking in the knowledge that provides the building blocks for culture and society. They probably shouldn’t go around talking about ‘civilisation’ too often, but it’s true nonetheless. Books are a different class of object, profoundly unlike magazines, newspapers, blogs, games or social media sites. The world they evoke is richer, more dense and, literally, more meaningful.
At times, tired from other responsibilities and bereft of inspiration, I’ve forced myself to consider whether I might have taken this blogging thing as far as I can. The answer I came up with is no, I enjoy writing too much to simply stop doing it. But in the course of my musings, I did have to acknowledge that I was spending too much of my already-limited free time looking for things to write about on a web that, to my curmudgeonly eyes, at least, was increasingly filled with ephemera and effluvia. The pop culture/current events section of the web, to be more specific, is overflowing with clickbait trash and superficial treatments of topics that deserve better.
I’m not pining for some lost Golden Age when the web was truly scintillating or anything; I realize that it’s just my own perspective which has changed over time. But with that aging perspective comes the realization of the many ways in which the web is a younger person’s game, and the recognition of how uninterested I am in keeping up with what today’s undergrads find important and exciting. Mundy reaffirms what I’d already been thinking, that there’s something unique about the form of the book that enables deeper consideration of a topic. I haven’t given up on the idea that there are still interesting blogs to be found out there somewhere far from the bright lights and big traffic of the mega-blogs, with authors diligently setting down their thoughts on whatever interests them, taking no notice of the changing fashions or stat-measuring contests on social media. But it appears increasingly clear to me that I will need to feed my writing habit with material found in books rather than on blogs. I’m sure that means my output will continue to be much reduced from what it once was, but so be it. You have to stop talking if you want to do some worthwhile thinking.