*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.
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.
11 thoughts on “The Animated Bibliography”