*Update: I’ve added bullet points to the bottom since the time of original publication. New points are identified as “New.”
I’ve made references to the concept of the “animated bibliography” in a few recent instagram posts. I first started conceiving of the idea when I wrote a short self-reflective critique of my habit of reading self-help books.
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-/16 The Achievement Habit by Bernard Roth. The concept of design thinking and Stanford's "D School" has been on my radar for a few months. The book was listed in an article I read so I checked it out. Given what I've read over the last year, it's pretty par for the course. It was refreshing that it wasn't an animated bibliography of research like other books I've read in the genre. Instead, it is written with a lot of anecdotes from the author's life as a mechanical engineer and professor, which I found quite enjoyable and a nice change. To be honest, the thing I was more excited about was that I listened to this for free on the #Libby app using my @kitchenerlibrary membership. While I like my Audible subscription, I love my library more and am glad they offer this for audiobooks. #books #reading #selfimprovement #books #nonfiction #productivity #habits #learning #audiobook
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-/22 – Originals by Adam Grant. There were some novel ideas and observations in this book, and it did give me hope that I'm not necessarily limited to a fix mindset of work, but it still crept into the animated bibliography territory of weaving a story and using research to give the idea legitimacy. I found a repetition of some of the same studies and case examples found in other books in the genre. I felt assured that my broad-domain knowledge base and procrastination habits are in good company with others in the "Originals" camp. #reading #selfimprovement #books #nonfiction #productivity #habits #learning #Libby
I doubt I’m the first person to notice this trend in publishing, and I’m not entirely confident that this is a new trend at all. The more likely explanation is that this is something that has gone on for a while and I’m just too stuck in reading the same books listed on every “must read” list to see the broader context. Were I to read books that were published earlier than the last decade, perhaps I would see that book have always used this strategy to convey information.
Nevertheless, it would be fun to take on a bit of a research project to see whether this trend has proliferated from a certain point in time, who the early adopters were, and how quickly it’s accelerating.
For the moment, here are my early observations:
- The animated bibliography is a style of nonfiction where the author uses a micro expression of some authority to explain or contextualize some broader universal “truth.”
- The authority is either scientific studies or biographical case studies. Biographical case studies are not always literal examples, but can also be mythical or metaphorical examples.
- The material is rarely discussed from the negative; that is, the material is presented as a causal relationship to explain a phenomenon, but less commonly are counter-examples, counterfactuals, or false-positives discussed.
- The author is usually repackaging the work of someone else, rather than the original author of the micro expression. For example, there is a difference between Daniel Kahneman writing a book reflecting on behavioural economics and his original studies, and someone invoking a study published by Daniel Kahneman to explain an phenomenon. The animated bibliography would be the latter, but not the former. The animated bibliography is a presentation of the things the author has learned.
- The animated bibliography has parallels to how research papers are written at the undergraduate level.
- The animated bibliography can be thought of as a narrative stitched together. A series of vignettes (chapters) that bring stories together under a broader meta-narrative that provides a unified theory.
- The animated bibliography is a method of delivering nonfiction, but it is not necessarily meant to be a moral lesson. It is protreptic in aim – it attempts to be explanatory, if not educative.
- The animated bibliography typically falls under a few key genres of nonfiction: business, productivity, leadership, personal development or self-improvement.
- In isolation, the animated bibliography is merely a geneology of ideas, but taken as a genre it becomes self-referential. The same studies and case studies start popping up over and over. These, in turn, get meta-referenced by popular authors who write about them. For instance, a reference could take the form of a book referencing another author’s book about a series of published studies.
- Hypothesis: this phenomenon (if it is a new phenomenon) is an emergence from the overlapping worlds of start-ups and founder idolization, social media-fed ennui, high technology, scientism, and people’s inability to move from idea to action. The books are proliferated as instructionals and how-to’s to solve a behavioural problems. They paint an ideal way forward, but the fact that they keep getting published, and that a market still exists, means that no one book can actually be held up as the definitive voice. The plurality exists because they singly do not provide broad answers.
- The market creates a series of urtexts that spawn and inspire secondary and tertiary levels of reference.
- *New* The author takes on an authoritative tone in the books, but uses the references to others as the source of their authority.
- *New* Rarely is the book the result of a lengthy period of research or work in the field as a practitioner. Instead, the book is the product of some period of immersion or research in the topic at hand (e.g. the author spent a year working on the topic and is writing a book about it).
I’ve deliberately kept things vague in terms of which authors and books I have in mind when I make the observations above. Perhaps in time, I’ll have more courage and name names of those I find to be the biggest offenders of the genre. For now, though, I choose to remain silent.