In Praise of Pamphlets

One of the influential books in my life is A Technique for Producing Ideas by James Webb Young. I spoke about it at length in episode 13 of my podcast, where I called it a pamphlet.

I meant this in the sense of it being short and focussed. He doesn’t waste any of his 48 pages on background or fluff. It’s almost entirely about the technique.

I read a lot of (much longer) books in the same basic genre of this one — “A wise, old knowledge worker gives you their secret to doing knowledge work.” But probably because of the tyranny of the publishing industry, they have to be fleshed out to 300 pages, and so I have to read the same old Steve Jobs anecdotes again. Because pretty much any good idea about creativity, business, or productivity has a Steve Jobs anecdote.

We’re just lucky that Webb’s book predates Steve Jobs, but I don’t really remember him telling any anecdotes. There are no lessons from pseudo-science (or worse, non-reproducible, but compelling, real science). He is 100% betting that you don’t need to be convinced, or that the technique itself is convincing, and he rewards you by keeping it short.

Being American, I learned about the great patriotic pamphlets of the revolutionary era, like Common Sense, and so maybe I have a soft spot for this kind of work. In a way, maybe all pamphlets are common sense.