"[R]esearchers should embrace the book as another means of expressing not only their insights but also their visions.... It is time to bring the book back into the science mainstream. This needn't be a mass movement: just a dedicated few, but more of them, could fulfil the reasonable hope that their books will inspire a new generation. And they should be encouraged to do so."
I had a mixed reaction to the Nature article. On the one hand, I have previously argued that researchers' contributions to advance scientific discourse inside their community, across communities and with the public should be better acknowledged. As should be other community services and public services in general. I proposed that instead of expecting researchers to be all-rounders and do a little of everything which is then generally done sloppily, one should allow for a specialization in task which would have the benefit of allowing them to focus on what they're best at. Besides that it could counteract specialization in topic.
On the other hand I was wondering who is supposed to read all these books. How many books does the world really need? Isn't everybody writing a book or wants to write a book anyway? I would be concerned that with more popular science books and textbooks coming out these would just become increasingly more specialized. Which publisher wants to print the 50th criticism of string theory, whether or not it's an expression of somebody's insight?
I could picture myself standing in the library when I was a teenager staring at all these aisles full of books and books and more books. Where to start? I couldn't possibly read them all, so now what? 20 years later though things have changed. Today you can quickly and easily check online for book recommendations and learn about other people's opinions. It might not always work too well, but you don't have to rely on one librarian and otherwise make good guesses. The other thing that I didn't know when I was 13 is that it doesn't matter much where you start. If you trace back references you'll find what you were looking for (unless you really started in an entirely disconnected part of the citation network.)
Thus, I think I shouldn't be too concerned that we'll end up having too many books. So what do I look for in a popular science book?
Most obviously, a book isn't a random string of ascii characters, but it contains information. On the other hand, research papers also do that. There is the issue with subscription though. While I'm fortunate to have access to the majority of subscription journals, a book can provide information that might not be freely available to everyone.
But besides that, a book ideally provides the reader with an overview on a subject, and with explanations beyond the information. With a well written book one can draw upon the knowledge of an expert who is familiar with his field.
- Time and effort
A book is usually more carefully edited than journal articles. Ideally, great care has been taken to erase any sloppiness, and to make it accessible to the expected readership. That includes avoiding gaps in the argumentation, inconsistent or not introduced terminology, and disconnected branches of arguments.
- Personal account
A book can do a good job making science more human. It's a place to tell the story behind the result, to make science fun, add a dose of humor and some anecdotes. To me that's one of the main reasons to read a popular science book rather than, say, a review article in a journal. I want to know if the researchers ever had any doubts and what difficulties they faced. What do they believe but don't know? What was their inspiration? I want to know what they were thinking, what they were or are concerned of, and what their hopes and dreams are.
- The big picture
Finally, in a book it is possible to embed ones research into the big picture in a way that's not possible in research articles. What world-view has the writer obtained from his or her research? What relevance do they believe their results could have, in a decade, in a century, in a thousand years? What is their vision? How does their research relate to other disciplines and do they see any connection? How do they see themselves in the history of science? What made their research change them their opinion on?
These are points I value very much in books. Textbooks are somewhat different. One of the big disadvantages of textbooks in active research fields is that they are rapidly outdated. The Living Reviews are a great step to alleviate this problem. Unfortunately, I find them hard to read. I'd rather have a printed textbook with an update option, eg a website where one could download chapters added within the course of years.