People don’t need a 1/4″ drill bit; they need a 1/4″ hole. That observation made by a business school professor (I forget who) is a perpetual favorite of mine. It cautions us against confusing means and ends. I believe that much misery of our mundane lives arises from our inability to distinguish between means and ends. Let me tell you a story. Stop me if you have heard it before — which you may have since I repeat it often enough.
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The village nut-case, when offered a choice between a dime and a nickel, always took the nickel. The villagers were much amused and just for the laughs they played the trick on the poor fellow dozens of time every day.
One day, a kindly villager took the fellow aside and said, “You really are an idiot. Don’t you know that although the dime is smaller than the nickel, it is worth two nickels. You should take the dime.”
The guy said, “The first time I take the dime instead of the nickel, that will be the last time I will be offered a choice between a nickel and the dime. I may be crazy but I am not stupid.”
Choosing the nickel was merely a means, not an end.
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A friend just mailed me about a new book by a very erudite author, and I was reminded of that story.
I have not read the book but going by its short blurb, I am totally convinced that the book is extremely valuable. Or rather, the message and the main thesis of the book is timely and important, and must be understood by tens of millions of people.
The book is 650 pages long and priced at Rs 795. Too bad it will be bought by only a few thousand people, if the author is lucky. Of that very small number, an even smaller percentage — serious scholars perhaps — will actually read the whole book, and the author will be extraordinarily lucky if more than a couple of hundred ordinary people read the book in its entirety.
If the end was to publish a big fat book for scholars to admire (and perhaps read), then it is brilliant. But if the end was to get the message across to the millions who need to get it, the big fat book is absolutely the wrong way to go about it.
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Imagine if the message of the book was delivered in a handy little package of 50 pages, and modestly priced at Rs 30. Most messages can be condensed without loss of meaning or comprehensibility. Further imagine that the first 5 pages of the book expressed the main story even more compactly.
Standing in the aisle at the bookstore, you read those first few pages and buy the book. You finish reading the book later that day. You love the ideas, they make you think, and you determine that you are going to take some action about the matter discussed in the book. The first action you take is to spread the book around.
You give it to your wife. She reads it and passes it on to her friend who after reading it passes it on to her son. By the end of the week, the book you bought on an impulse has been read by a dozen people.
In the end, that one book which cost Rs 30 at the store influenced 30 people by the end of the month. Cost of message delivered only one rupee per person.
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There are many books which are important enough that they should be available in a wide range of languages. Translating large works is expensive. But since the main theses of most most books can be condensed into short books, getting the message across to people in various languages becomes easier.
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Here’s an idea. I am going to start a press called “Not a Big Fat Book Press” — the NBFB Press. It will take big fat books with important messages, condense them to 50 pages, and publish them in handy little packages. You could carry a couple with you to read any time you find a few minutes to spare. The price of each book will be a modest Rs 30.
The NBFB Press will also publish translated versions of the books. And all of these will be available both in hard copy and soft copy.
We could also have special lending libraries based out of neighborhood grocery stores. They will keep a collection of NBFB books in the local language. For Rs 2, you could borrow any book.
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Why do we need NBFB?
Because we need to get ourselves a decent education. The government has ruined our education system and while it will be a long time before we fix it, we can at least enable people to learn what they need to learn by making good content available and accessible.
I believe that a reasonable remedial education programs would require us to read around 100 books. At 400 pages each on average, that would mean 40,000 pages. At one book a month, that means it will take 8 years to read them.
Using the NBFB versions of the book, it will take only one year to get nearly the same education.
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What BFB would you like to see NBFB Press publish?
UPDATE 24th Jan 9 AM IST:
Thanks for the excellent suggestions and comments. A bit of clarification in response to some of the comments posted.
The NBFB Press is only for works that convey important ideas so that they become more accessible. It is not meant for works of literature, although one can have condensed versions to serve as an introduction to important works of literature. Shakespeare has to be read in the original, for instance, and shortening it makes no sense.
Amazon Kindle Singles is something along the lines of what I am suggesting. But they are not suitable for the masses in India — too expensive and not really accessible since only a few in India can afford a Kindle. More importantly, the value addition would be the selection of books which the NBFB Press will publish.
The books have to be those which correct the distortions that a government-controlled education system has introduced into the brains of the masses.