Saturday, November 22, 2014
Can We Really Trust Our Books?
Not too long ago when the vast majority of books were published by what was the Big Six, and self-published books were delegated to a handful of vanity printing presses, people gave more credence to what was published. One didn’t assume everything they read was true, but people tended to not question the books out there. They assumed if a book got published it passed a litmus test. They further assumed a published book was fact-checked and edited. Lastly, the American public – lacking the Internet of today – was not in a position to independently check on a book’s veracity.
Now we have more books being published by individuals than publishers. We also have books being written by more authors than ever before. One might say the market has a lot of choice and diverse voices. Others will say we have diluted books, written and edited by unqualified individuals.
Whether in the old days of gatekeeper publishing or in today’s bold world of click-it publishing, I’m not so sure we have a better representation of the truth in either scenario. Do our books represent, more comprehensively – and more accurately – what our world is all about, or do they obstruct our understanding of it?
Books seem to offer a sense of authority, the product of researching, writing, contemplating, and editing, delivered in the context of a world filled with information and ideas. Books are not a spur of the moment blog post or a newspaper story that gets filed under the limitations of deadlines and space. But, books can tell their stories as they see fit, whether in 120 pages or 1,200.
Books are only as good as the authors who write them and the editors that edit them. But its up to the readers to discern if a book is accurate, complete, unbiased, and helpful. Books, at face value, can no longer be seen as the sole recorders of our world. Books may seem complete and permanent, but they are really just an attempt to capture moments, people, and ideas. They can flood us with data – opinions, facts, analysis – as well as fantasies, visions, and ideas. I’d like to believe that books are like bricks of a building, each an important part in the collective foundation of our society’s knowledge. But I also know we need to be careful in how books are treated and too easily accepted as truth or as a full and honest examination of a subject.
I do know that as we seek to record and capture more information – with books, blogs, and social media -- the less complete our understanding of things becomes. How could this be, a world of more information leading to a less than smart understanding of the world?
First, no one has time to consume all of what’s out there.
Second, no one has a way to verify each claim put forward.
Third, because we are overwhelmed by info – accurate or otherwise – we are challenged to prioritize which source to listen to over another.
We need a librarian-type force to help us navigate through the piles of information available to us. We want unlimited access to as many sources and resources as possible, but this must be tempered with the help of trained editors, truth evaluators, and people who can scale down a book into a paragraph and a life’s work into a few sentences. To catalog and verify all that is out there is what’s needed, otherwise Google is tasked with telling us what to read or view – and doing so without double-checking any facts or figures.
This can’t be left to the government, though funding will be needed for such a project. It can’t be in the hands of a few self-serving corporations. It can’t be left to just a handful of unpaid do-gooders at some non-profits. It can’t be like Wikipedia, where info is crowd-sourced but really not validated.
Until we come up with a comprehensive, fair, and productive system to summarize, verify, and rate the books that are produced, our world may grow dumber even as it reads more books than ever before.