I’ve been reading Boswell’s Life of Johnson, the classic of literature in which the Scottish writer James Boswell recounts the life of his great friend the poet, essayist, raconteur and lexicographer Samuel Johnson, who was one of the most gifted and learned men of his age, and almost entirely self-taught (he was one of those who knew more than his teachers).
His conversation was remarkable for its intelligence, insight and wit. Boswell recorded one such snippet, which struck me as a timeless truth: “Mankind have a great aversion to intellectual labor; but even supposing knowledge to be easily attainable, more people would be content to be ignorant than would take even a little trouble to acquire it.”
This attitude, of course accounts for much of the stupidity you see online, where the ignorant tweet with abandon.
At the same time, we live in a world where information is everywhere – and easily obtained. That’s not to say that because information is out there for use it’s the same thing as learning: you do have to absorb this information in order to profit from it.
My friend and colleague Michael Drew, co-author of Pendulum, an excellent book about how to utilize information from social trends over the last 3,000 years, forwarded me a link to an interesting video of a robot scanner quickly digitizing books. Pretty soon, no doubt, the bulk of the world’s printed material will be available for perusal online.
But will anyone take the time to look at it?
Well, if you’re developing your own platform in order to build an audience, your readers are already used to getting their information online (they are probably going to read an e-version of your book, too). You’re probably already finding where your arguments go off on tangents, or you lose your readership by being overcomplicated or abstruse or just dull.
Lots of information is out there. A lot of it is arcane, difficult and takes an effort to absorb. But don’t expect your readers, dedicated as they are to your message, to exert themselves to learn from you. Be concise, simple and provocative. That way, even if in our hyperactive, attention-deficit age, you can get across what you want. Don’t make people work to understand you, even if what you say is important: our natural state, as Johnson once said, is perhaps idleness.
Stir things up a bit with your writing, and people will learn to remember what you have to say.