When Does Nonfiction Go Stale?

By James Wallace Harris, Friday, June 19, 2015

When does a newspaper transform from news to wastepaper?  How old do the magazines at your dentist office have to be before you sneer at reading them? When does a science book become a history book? Why don’t we have classic nonfiction books like we have classic novels? What’s so important about new information as opposed to old information? If you found a two week old newspaper in your house you’d immediately throw it away, but if you found a 1832 newspaper in your attic you’d treasure it. How many bestselling novels from 1955 are still read today versus the nonfiction bestsellers from that year? When The Bible and The Iliad were written there was no distinction between fiction and nonfiction.

Sometimes it seems the books I enjoy reading the most are novels from the 19th century and the nonfiction books just published that are getting a lot of buzz. The only nonfiction book I can remember reading from the 19th century is Walden; or Life in the Woods  by Henry David Thoreau. I’ve always meant to read On the Origins of Species by Charles Darwin.

I started reading Darwin Among the Machines: The Evolution of Global Intelligence by George B. Dyson, a book I bought new back in 1997, but just now getting around to reading. Dyson is the son of Freeman Dyson, and the author of the more recent book Turing’s Cathedral (2012), which I bought and is also lying around here waiting to be read. I wonder if I’ve waited too long to read Darwin Among the Machines, because I’ve read The Information (2011) by James Gleick and The Innovators (2014) by Walter Isaacson, as well as many other books about artificial intelligence and information theory since 1997. However, Dyson has a unique approach to the history of thinking machines, starting his story with Thomas Hobbes and his book Leviathan. Dyson even ties in H. G. Wells and Olaf Stapledon. This is the kind of book I would write if I had the discipline to write books.

Darwin Among The Machines by George Dyson 1997 1st printing

Yet, I wonder about reading such an old book when there are so many newer books waiting to be read. Is there a Read By date for nonfiction books?

Dyson opens with,

“Nature (the Art whereby God hath made and governes the World) is by the Art of man, as in many other things, so in this also imitated, that it can make an Artificial Animal,” wrote Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) on the first page of his Leviathan; or, The Matter, Forme, and Power of a Common-wealth Ecclesiasticall and Civill, published to great disturbance in 1651. “For seeing life is but a motion of Limbs, the beginning whereof is in the principall part within; why may we not say that all Automata (Engines that move themselves by springs and wheeles as doth a watch) have an artificiall life?”¹ Hobbes believed that the human commonwealth, given substance by the power of its institutions and the ingenuity of its machines, would coalesce to form that Leviathan described in the Old Testament, when the Lord, speaking to Job out of the whirlwind, had warned, “Upon earth there is not his like, who is made without fear.”

Three centuries after Hobbes, automata are multiplying with an agility that no vision formed in the seventeenth century could have foretold. Artificial intelligence flickers on the desktop and artificial life has become a respectable pursuit. But the artificial life and artificial intelligence that so animated Hobbes’s outlook on the world was not the discrete, autonomous mechanical intelligence conceived by the architects of digital processing in the twentieth century. Hobbes’s Leviathan was a diffuse, distributed, artificial organism more characteristic of the technologies and computational architectures approaching with the arrival of the twenty-first.

The trouble is Dyson wrote this sometime before 1997, and artificial intelligence has come a long way since then, beyond what Dyson could imagine eighteen years ago. Yet, what he’s really writing about are the centuries of thought before the 20th century on the subject – and that is mostly new to me. The common starting place seems to be with Babbage and Ada Lovelace, so it’s rather interesting that Dyson starts with Hobbes.

I guess it depends on what I’m enjoying learning. I seem to have two modes of interest. First is, what’s happening right now. The second is, how did we get here. Should I spend my time reading about the current state of global intelligence, or study the history of how someone imagined it would be hundreds of years ago?

I could be reading The Fourth Revolution: How the Infosphere is Reshaping Human Reality published 9/1/14 by Luciano Floridi. The Fourth Revolution is a book Hobbes would have found very interesting.

I wish I could read, digest and summarize a book in my blog in three or four hours. It takes me one or two weeks to read a book, and often longer to digest. If I really get caught up into a book I want to follow its leads and tangents. Just reading the first chapter of the Dyson book makes me want to go read about Thomas Hobbes. But do I need to spend so much time thinking about the 17th century when I live in the 21st? Tim Urban claims in “The AI Revolution” that the years 2000-2014 experienced as much progress as all the progress in the 20th century, and that the years 2015-2021 will speed even faster through that same amount of new information.

I am reminded of an old play title – Stop the World I Want To Get Off. Of course, I’m also reminded of that bestseller of the 1970s, Future Shock. Maybe it would easier on my mind to read Thomas Hobbes than Luciano Floridi. Yet, isn’t it sort of sad, that whatever nonfiction book I’ll read will be out-of-date in just a few years. If I had a good memory, I could tally up a very long list of nonfiction books that promoted some kind of far out idea as a possible understanding of how reality works yet has since been forgotten. How many people remember The Naked Ape by Desmond Morris or The Origins of Consciousness if the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind by Julian Jaynes?

Not only do we surf the web, but we surf the current state of knowledge by reading the latest nonfiction books. New information flows into creation far faster than we can gain wisdom from processing that data. Is it practical for me to stop and read a book from 1997? Dyson was working to make sense of 1996.

Quite often new popular science books rephrase the same histories the older books covered. How many popular physics books have I read that summarized Einstein’s discovery of general relativity or  Kurt Gödel’s incompleteness theorems? Generally my knowledge of science lags far behind it’s discovery. At least I gave up on String Theory before The Big Bang  characters did.

I read for fun, so does it matter when a book is published if it’s fun to read? I’m not a scientist, so I don’t need to be up on the latest theories. I can never understand science at anything more than a popular science level, which is essentially at a philosophical level. And at a philosophical level, Darwin Among the Machines is still a fun read.

The problem that continues to nag me is whether or not I’m being the most efficient reader I can be. I only have a few more years left to live, and I want to cram in as much knowledge as possible. I know it leaks out my brain as fast as I consume it, but overall, a little residue remains and it feels like I’m progressing in my understanding of reality.

The decision to read an old nonfiction book versus a new nonfiction book must be made on how much knowledge will it add to my overall collection. That means I must choose between a writer who is carefully digesting a lot of historical information versus a writer who is reporting a lot of new information.


7 thoughts on “When Does Nonfiction Go Stale?”

  1. I think we usually read nonfiction for information and fiction for the stories, the literary value, the insights into the “human condition.”. With most nonfiction I want the latest developments, what people are thinking and doing now. Not necessarily so with fiction.

    There is classic non-fiction, but I think it’s based on what influenced society most profoundly, Marx, Darwin, Watson (DNA), Carson, Keynes, etc. But I think like you said it’s more about history. And history is another matter, as historians want to read the old stuff as well as the new interpretations.

  2. I don’t think it matters much if you’re only reading for fun. Whether you read old or new, you will learn something new and possibly of value. For me, the time period of fiction books doesn’t matter but I tend to skew towards contemporary because the language is easier to get through. Language is what I use to judge when I consider books from another time since I highly value how a story flows, thus, I’m sometimes impatient with the verbosity in stories back in the early stages of the novel (1700s, I think). It hinders the pace of the story and warps my brain.

    As for nonfiction books, I think people read them regardless of when they were published because some of the information is still pertinent and, as you’ve mentioned, some of the information is repeated in books published today. It’s also interesting to see how ideas and theories have evolved. I recently started reading more nonfiction so again I read more recently published ones but I don’t mind dipping in older work.

  3. Think you might find this quite interesting (neural networks create weird art) —


    Also, re older books that might make worthwhile reading — are you familiar with “The Descent of Woman” by Elaine Morgan (1972 )?


    Like “The Naked Ape”, it is essentially a collection of Just So Stories about human evolution but based on a different hypothetical scenario. Whatever you think about the validity of either work, Morgan’s book is very entertaining as a sort of alternative history to Morris’s version, and like the Jaynes book, exposes you to some novel out-of-the-mainstream ideas.

    As for the superiority of current books — if you know anything about the history of science & tech, you know that it is quite common for valid ideas to be proposed, only to fall out of fashion and/or be forgotten for long periods of time. In economics, for instance look at the case of Henry George.


    His most significant work, ” Progress and Poverty”, was published in 1879 and dealt with economic rents and inequality (a bit of a slog, but still worth reading). At one time George was said to be the third most famous person in America (behind Teddy Rooselvelt and Mark Twain, if I recall) yet he is relatively unknown today.

    George’s ideas seem more relevant than ever in our current rentier age, though. One proposal he favored was for a “citizens dividend” (basic income), something that was also advocated by Thomas Paine, another historical figure who is no longer read much. And if you still believe we are talking outdated rather than just out of fashion, be advised that this is something that has actually existed in the U.S. since 1976 — but only in the socialist paradise of Alaska (it’s called the Alaska Permanent Fund, if you want to look it up).

    1. I’ve read about Elaine Morgan, she’s the most famous proponent of the aquatic ape theory. I haven’t heard about Henry George. I’m always fascinated about people who were once very famous and now are not. I just followed your link about George and read it. Fascinating. I then went looking for a Kindle edition of Progress and Poverty, and noticed there’s a new book out on him. http://smile.amazon.com/Henry-George-Crisis-Inequality-Progress/dp/0231120001/

  4. More of a littoral ape theory actually — anyway, fun to think about. Yes, George’s ideas are still around, and have been successfully put into practice at times, both in experimental communities like Fairhope, Alabama and in places like Philadelphia in the 1970’s. It’s interesting that his arguments can appeal both to socialists and “free market” types. And interesting as history — did you catch the part about the origins of the board game “Monopoly”?

    “Progress and Poverty” can be downloaded (free) in PDF at the Schalkenbach Foundation website here —


    or in several Kindle editions for under $5 at Amazon

    A modernized version of “Progress and Poverty” abridged and edited by Bob Drake can also be had (free) in PDF at the Schalkenbach link above or in (free) mp3 audiobook form here —


    or in Kindle format ($7.50) at Amazon here —


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