Bestsellers, classics and the un-compressable

“Don’t mistake wit for wisdom.” This is the advice I closed with yesterday after discussing the difference between a compression and a simplification. To briefly review: A compression is a dense statement which rests upon a foundation of study and reflection. A simplification is a shallow, un-nuanced summary of an idea or concept. For example, the Law of Gravity is a compression, a dense statement that explains a lot. “Burn more calories than you consume” is a simplification of the complex topic that is nutrition and diet. 

Another manifestation of the idea of compression can be found by consulting the bestseller charts for business books. At the time of writing, these are the books that sit atop Amazon’s category for Sales and Marketing:

  1. 500 Social Media Marketing Tips by Andrew Macarthy
  2. Methods of Persuasion by Nick Kolenda
  3. The Google Checklist by Amen Sharma
  4. Mass Persuasion Method by Bushra Azhar
  5. Online Business Startup by Robin Waite
  6. Profitable Social Media Marketing by Tim Kitchen
  7. How to Market a Book by Joanna Penn 
  8. Hooked by Nir Eyal
  9. Go Pro by Eric Worre
  10. 79 Network Marketing Tips by Wes Linden

Of these ten, I possess one: Nir Eyal’s Hooked. It’s a good book, and I enjoyed it. But like most business books, it takes too long to say too little. The signal is buried amongst the noise. For example, the key takeaway from it is this model:

This diagram appears on page six, and Eyal spends the rest of the book describing the ins-and-outs and the ups-and-downs of each part, contextualising the model in reality. Fair enough. But if all you’re after is a usable model, it’s possible to compress this book. Give someone the diagram and a page or two describing each component and they’ll be able to get some tangible yield from the model in their work and thinking.

Essentially, Nir Eyal’s Hooked is easily compressed. The consequence of being easily compressible is that it’s easy to discuss and tell others about. So we could say that if something is easy to compress it’s more likely to be a bestseller. But if something is easily compressed, it also means that it is quickly consumed and digested; it’s stint at the top will be short if it’s too easy to compress.

So that’s what authors, editors and publishing houses spend their time and money doing. They’re trying to find the balance between easily-compressed and difficult-to-comprehend that will allow their books to top charts and sell.

That’s bestsellers. But a bestseller is not the same as a classic. A classic can be a bestseller, but not all bestsellers are classics. The difference between a bestseller and a classic is found chiefly in terms of compression. A bestseller, like I said above, is a bestseller because it is optimally-compressed. A classic remains a classic because it is tricky—sometimes stupendously difficult—to compress. 

I’ve given a definition of compression, allow me to give you a definition of a classic, courtesy of Thomas Cleary. This comes from the introduction to his translation of The Art of War—itself a work that has endured through time because of its impenetrability.

“On a small scale, a classic yields significantly different meanings when read in different circumstances and moods; on a large scale, a classic conveys wholly different worlds when read in different times of life, at different stages of experience, feeling and understanding of life. Classics may be interesting and even entertaining, but people always find they are not like books used for diversion, which give up all of their content at once; the classics seem to grow wiser as we grow wiser, more useful the more we use them.” 

So, we can see that a bestseller is optimally-compressed and a classic nearly un-compressable. Of the two, I think it’s easy to see which has the most immediate short-term yield; the bestseller. But aside from the observation that reading what everyone else is reading results in thinking what everyone is thinking, there’s another implication of reading that which is easily compressed: it requires little work. Consider this passage from Montaigne’s Essays:

“No powerful mind stops within itself: it is always stretching out and exceeding its capacities. It makes sorties which go beyond what it can achieve: it is only half-alive if it is not advancing, pressing forward, getting driven into a corner and coming to blows; its inquiries are shapeless and without limits; its nourishment consists in amazement, the hunt and uncertainty…”

It is near-impossible to develop a “powerful mind” if, for nourishment, we provide it only with the easily compressed. Our powers of thought, imagination, analysis and creation thrive when confronted with difficulty and constraint. They purr with excitement when we offer them something that is hard to break down and difficult to decipher, something that is un-compressable.