Category: Reading Posts

Weekly Tuesday posts on some aspect of my reading.

Abridge, Too Far

When I was in high school, Cliffs Notes were available (for those who could afford them) to get summaries of the key elements of a variety of popular books. I know how students used Cliffs Notes, but I have always been uncertain as to the intention behind their creation. Giving them the benefit of the doubt, I like to think they were created as a memory aid for those who have already read a book, a guide to help someone better understand what they were reading–not a replacement for the book itself.

When I began listening to audiobooks, I quickly learned that I had to be careful in selecting a book. Some titles appeared twice, once in their full form, and once as an abridgment. Abridgments are abominations that I still, to this day, can’t understand. With Cliff Notes, I can at least reason that they supplement the book. What purpose do abridgments serve? What’s more, I can’t understand how an author would knowingly allow their books to be abridged.

Most writers I know fight tooth and claw to keep each word of their prose pristine. Editors recommend cutting a word here and a word there, and we do it only with the greatest reluctance. I work mostly in short fiction and cutting is often the most painful part of the process. I can only imagine how much more challenging it is with a novel or nonfiction book. Given such a reluctance to cut, I just can’t understand how abridgments exist. Is it money? Are the same writers who make cuts to their work only reluctantly willing to hack up the same work for a little extra cash?

We can debate whether reading a book or listening to the complete audiobook results in the same thing. I’ve argued for years that the text is the same in both cases so someone who reads the paperback version of, say, Essays of E. B White and someone who listens to the complete audiobook version will be able to talk about the book on an equal footing. This is not true for an abridgment, however. An abridgment is not the same text as the original. Pieces are missing, and who’s to say if those pieces would be important to any given reader. Is it fair to say that if you’ve read the abridged version of, say Dark Sun by Richard Rhodes, you can claim to have read Dark Sun? As in the old baseball record books, I think such a claim requires an asterisk.

Essays of E.B. White

I’ve been thinking about abridgments lately because of an ad that keeps popping up on Facebook. It’s for a service called Blinkist. The service claims it allows you to “fit reading into your life.” It does this by providing short (15 minute or so) key takeaways of popular nonfiction books. I took a look at some titles in the History category. Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari, a book I recently finished, is summarized in 19 minutes of audio. The actual unabridged audiobook is over 15 hours long. Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, which I read last year is summarized in 19 minutes. Actual unabridged audiobook length: 41 hours 32 minutes. This, to me, is abridge too far.

First, reading (or listening to) a summary of key takeaways is not the same thing as reading the book. For one thing, the takeaways are the opinion of the person summarizing the book. My takeaways might differ if I read the book. For another, you are missing the context behind the takeaways. When I read, I often relate the thing I am reading now to something I read earlier. I draw interesting insights from these kinds of relationships.

Second, reading a summary of key takeaways eliminates the voice of the author. Part of the pleasure of reading is the voices that come through. This is as true for nonfiction as it is for fiction. Part of the reason I so enjoy Will Durant’s Story of Civilization series of books is Durant’s voice. Ditto for writers like E. B. White, John McPhee, Simon Winchester, David McCullough, and on and on. Fifteen minutes of bullet points can’t replace that.

Blinkist boasts a community of 7 million users as part of a “reading revolution.” I have no qualms with this statement. Far fewer than 7 million people can carry out a revolution. My worry is that the revolt, in this case, is against reading. These millions are not consuming the works, they are instead like vultures, tearing away at the liver and intestines of a book that has already been gutted by profiteers playing on people’s desire to feel well-read without doing the actual work of reading.

Witcher 3: The Jack Reacher of Video Games

I’m not a big gamer, but there are certain types of games that I like. I enjoy games like the Ultima series. A few years ago, shortly after we got an Xbox, I played Skyrim, and thought it was pretty fantastic. Generally thought, time spent playing video games is not time reading or writing, so I keep it to a minimum.

A few weeks ago, I read Blood, Sweat, and Pixels: The Triumphant, Turbulent Stories Behind How Video Games Are Made by Jason Schreier. The book discussed the development of 10 games. Among them was Witcher 3 made by a Polish video game company. The discussion of the development intrigued me, as did the game itself, which is based on a novel by a Polish writer.

Blood, Sweat, and Pixels by Jason Schreier

A few weeks passed and then, this weekend, I decided to get the game. I began playing it and I really enjoy so far. I’ve spent far too much time playing it (Friday night, I stayed up until nearly 1 am Saturday morning playing) but I think that says a lot about the story. In the days since, I’ve been thinking about what it is I like so much about the main character, Geralt. He seemed somehow familiar. He has a somber, quiet way, more ready to fight than talk. I liked him a lot.

I made the connection Saturday night. I’ve been reading a fascinating books called Reacher Said Nothing by Andy Martin. I’ve never come across a book quite like this one. Martin followed Lee Child around while he wrote the 20th Jack Reacher book, Make Me. The book is part biography, part craft, and a big part behind-the-scenes of how a bestselling author goes from idea to publication. Think of it as the “making of” portion on the DVD for a movie. I’ve read all 23 Jack Reacher books and so I’ve found this book particularly fascinating. And it was while reading this book that I realized that the reason I liked Geralt so much is that he comes across as a kind of video game fantasy world version of Jack Reacher.

Reacher Said Nothing by Andy Martin

Indeed, when I play the game, I find myself playing as if I was Reacher. What would Reacher do in this particular situation or that? How would Reacher answer this question? Would he help? Fight? Reacher’s rules even help out: hit first, hit hard. Always move forward. It’s made for an interesting gaming experience for me.

I’m not that far into the game. My method for playing is to start slowly, doing all of the little side quests in order to better learn how to play and to build experience. But I am impressed by the game play, by the depth of the story line, the characters, and by the feel of that particular imagined world.

Revving the Treadmill of Life

A while back, I wrote a post on letters vs. email in which I considered the pleasures of the former and frustrations of the latter in our current high-paced, highly digital environment. Recently, a friend of mine wrote an excellent post on his blog that was in something of a similar vain: “Navigating the Digital / Analog Divide in Life and Work.” It is a thoughtful post, well worth reading.

On the plane home from Los Angeles, I finished reading Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. I was reviewing my notes from that book and came across this passage which I highlighted that encapsulated my thoughts in my “Letters vs. Email” post, as well as some of what Ken has to say in his post:

Previously it took a lot of work to write a letter, address and stamp an envelope, and take it to the mailbox. It took days or weeks, maybe even months, to get a reply. Nowadays I can dash off an email, send it halfway around the globe, and (if my addressee is online) receive a reply a minute later. I’ve saved all that trouble and time, but do I live a more relaxed life?

Sadly, not. Back in the snail-mail era, people usually only wrote letters when they had something important to relate. Rather than writing the first thing that came into their heads, they considered carefully what they wanted to say and how to phrase it. They expected to receive a similarly considered answer. Most people wrote and received no more than a handful of letters a month and seldom felt compelled to reply immediately. Today I receive dozens of emails each day, all from people who expect a prompt reply. We thought we were saving time; instead we revved up the treadmill of life to ten times its former speed and made our days more anxious and agitated. (Emphasis mine.)

Sapiens, p. 105-6, Kindle edition.

It is this unintentional revving of the treadmill that has me rebalancing my digital/analog activities. The problem with this is that it alters only part of the equation. I may be slowing things down on my end, but things are not slowing down outside my little bubble. While on vacation I sent out some postcards. I received delighted email replies from the recipients on the day they received them.

I think I am sensitive to this change because it has paralleled my career. The first email I ever sent was when I started with my company right out of college. All through college, I wrote letters, and it was only during the summer after graduating that I began communicated with friends through AOL (“you’ve got mail!”) In the quarter century that I’ve been with my company, I’ve seen an every increasing volume of email, where any one email these days holds less valuable content than one from 25 years ago.

Communication outside work has paralleled this. I continued to write letters after graduating from college, but stopped around 2000, when my sole remaining correspondent (my grandfather) became too sick to write anymore. Now, everything is via email, and even that is being supplanted by even faster and more realtime forms of communication like instant messaging, which further reduces the art in communication down to something like the hand signals that soldiers use to communicate with one another in silence.

I’d love to slow down that treadmill, but at this point, it seems out of control and I hardly know where to begin.

5 Books I’m Looking Forward to in 2019

Last week was a very busy one in L.A. and it threw me off my game. I had almost no time to read, and by the time I could read, I was too worn out. I hate when this happens because it takes a while to get my momentum back and find something that really sparks my interest and gets me back on track. I’m in the middle of that now, and when this happens, I often looks at the various lists of books I maintain. This morning, I was thinking about books I’m looking forward to reading in 2019.

I no longer read much science fiction, but Jack McDevitt is one of the writers I still read. He was always very kind to me as a fellow writer. He is a modern day Clifford D. Simak in that everyone I know has only good things to say about Jack. He writes two series, and I especially enjoy his Alex Benedict series. In may, the 8th installment comes out: Octavia Gone and I am really looking forward to it.

Octavia Gone by Jack McDevitt

We live a few hours away from Hershey, Pennsylvania and have visited the town, and toured the Hershey museum there a couple of times. The tour in particular has piqued my interest in Milton Hershey. I recently learned of a biography of Hershey released this month called Hershey: Milton S. Hershey’s Extraordinary Life of Wealth, Empire, and Utopian Dreams by Michael D’Antonio.

Hershey by Michael D'Antonio

One of the longest, most fascinating books I’ve read is Gotham by Edwin G. Burroughs and Mike Wallace. It is the history of New York City from its earliest settled days until 1898. Last year, Mike Wallace released a sequel, Greater Gotham, which is nearly as long, but instead of covering centuries, covers a mere 22 years, taking New York City history up through 1920, the year my Grandpa was born. Greater Gotham was released late last year, but the audiobook version comes out later this month. I’m really looking forward to that book.

Greater Gotham by Mike Wallace

Last year I read a book by Tom Clavin called Dodge City: Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, and the Wickedest Town in the American West. I enjoyed it, and was immediately interested in a new book Clavin has coming in February: Wild Bill: The True Story of the American Frontier’s First Gunfigher.

Wild Bill by Tom Clavin

This July will be the 50th anniversary Apollo 11 and the first humans to walk on the moon. In April, Douglas Brinkley has a new book that I am really looking forward to: American Moonshot: John F. Kennedy and the Great Space Race. I can never get enough of this story, and I’ve read just about every book I could find on Apollo, and so I was excited to see another one coming out soon.

American Moonshot by Douglas Brinkley

There are quite a few long books on my list for this year as well. I’d like to finish reading Will and Ariel Durant’s Story of Civilization, and I am considering dedicating the month of February to getting through the complete History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. But the five books I’ve listed above are ones that I am particularly looking forward to in 2019.

Have any books that you’re looking forward to? Let me know about them in the comments.

Unobtainable Books

I keep a wishlist of books that I want to read. It never gets too long. There are 28 entries in the list as of this writing, and having just reviewed them, I can probably eliminate half since the fond feelings I once had for them have passed. There are three levels to my reading wish list:

  1. Books that pique my interest. These are by far the vast majority of the books that make it onto the list. They are books that have somehow caught my eye. I’m uncertain if I actually want to read them, but they go on the list until I have time to investigate further. These books tend to be on the list for a long time because I don’t always investigate right away and the butterfly effect of reading often carries me off in other directions.
  2. Books I know I want to read. These are books I do not yet have in my possession, but that I know I want to read as soon as I do have them. They rarely stay on the list longer than the time it takes me to cash in an Audible credit, or have them delivered to my Kindle, or, if they are on paper, to the house.
Current wishlist sample
A sample of (audio) books on my current wishlist.

The third level of the list is more pernicious and sinister. Call it my List of Unobtainable Books. These are books that I have a great desire to obtain and read, and yet they seem virtually unobtainable. I might see one listed on Abe Books fro $900 and that is more than I am willing to spend, so the books remain out of my reach. The reason this level is so pernicious is that it feeds upon itself. The harder a book is to obtain, the more I want to read it. The more I want to read it, the harder it is for me to find.

At present, two such book collections glower at me from this level of my wishlist. The first is Arnold J. Toynbee’s 12-volume A Study of History. I first learned of these books years ago when reading Isaac Asimov’s autobiographies. (Fred Pohl, apparently, talked Asimov into joining a Toynbee fan club.) More recently, Toynbee made his appearance in Will and Ariel Durants’ A Dual Autobiography. The historians were mutual admirers of each other’s work. Even Asimov had a difficult time obtaining a complete set of the books. Now they seem to be almost impossible to find, at least in the places I’ve looked, unless you are willing to fork out what would potentially be thousands of dollars. A 2-volume abridgment of 12 books exists, but I’m not interested in abridgments (1).

The other collection is Joseph Needham’s Science and Civilization in China. I first learned about this collection while reading Simon Winchester’s The Man Who Loved China. These books are also very difficult to locate and obtain. Whenever my sister enters a used books store, I get a text from her asking if there is anything I am looking for. “Any volume of Needham’s Science and Civilization in China,” I tell her. Recently, there was a near-hit. The bookshop owner told her that he used to have one, but it was sold.

Now and then I check various places on the Internet to see if perhaps any one of these volumes, Toynbee or Needham, is available for a reasonable price. Usually I am disappointed. But I try to look on the bright side: at least my list of unobtainable books is short.

(1) I am aware that there are editions of these books available from secondhand sellers on Amazon, as well as EBay and other sites. I’ve skimmed through many of them. Some seem reasonably priced, too, but these latter always seem to appear with no image and no corresponding description of the condition of said volume.

Best Reads of 2018

Now that 2018 is behind us, my conscience is clear and I feel like I can list my favorite reads of 2018. These are the best books I read during 2018, not necessarily books that were published in 2018. I kept my method of selection simple: I reviewed all the books I read in a given month, and picked the one that I liked the best from that month. The result is a list of 12 books, instead of the usual “top 10.

Some reading stats for 2018:

  • I read 129 books.
  • That made for a total of 61,400 pages
  • 49 books were fiction, 80 were nonfiction
  • The longest book I read was 1,344 pages
  • The average length of a book was 475 pages
  • On average, I finished one book every 2-3/4 days; that’s about 2-1/2 books a week on average.
  • Here is the list of everything I’ve read since 1996. What I read in 2018 begins with #719 on the list.

And now, my best 12 reads of 2018, listed in the order I read them:

One Man’s Meat by E. B. White (1942)

In the late 1930s, E. B. White did what I dream of doing: he gave up life in the big city for a salt water farm in Brooklin, Maine. White became a farmer, which, according to him is 70 percent fixing things. In order to insure some income, he wrote a monthly column for Harper’s magazine about his life as a small town farmer. One Man’s Meat collects these columns. These essays are quaint, and often about seeming simple things. But with the clouds of war gathering in Europe, White also wrote about freedom and democracy. It has become one of my favorite essay collection–I enjoyed it so much I recently re-read it.

Autobiography of Mark Twain by Mark Twain (2013-15)

At 2,200 pages, and three volumes, Mark Twain’s Autobiography is no small undertaking. But I found it a fascinating read. His life overlaps with the likes of Theodore Roosevelt (who Twain did not like) and Winston Churchill. His friendship with President Ulysses S. Grant was fascinating.

Red Smith on Baseball by Red Smith (2000)

There is no sports writer today like Red Smith. I wish there was. Writers today seem to focus on the technicalities of the game, as opposed to the people who make it up. Smith’s writing had style. He made baseball sound fun, while understanding it was a business. If there were more writers like Red Smith today, I think there’d be a greater appreciation of the game.

Rocket Men: The Daring Odyssey of Apollo 8 and the Astronauts Who Made Man’s First Journey to the Moon by Robert Kurson (2018)

I went into this book with some trepidation. I thought I knew everything about Apollo 8, but Kurson’s book surprised me. This was a great book on an historic voyage to the moon.

The Sweet Science by A. J. Liebling (1949)

I have never been a fan of boxing. Not until I read A. J. Lieblings essays on the sport. These essays appeared in the New Yorker in the 1940s, and his dismay with the changes to the sport resonated with me even though I wasn’t a fan. His writing not only made me sympathetic, it made me want to be a fan. This was perhaps the most surprising read of the year.

The Age of Faith by Will Durant (1950)

Volume 4 of the Story of Civilization series by Will (and later with his wife, Ariel) Durant. At well over a thousand pages, this is the longest book in the series and centers on the history of religion and the dark ages. It was a fascinating read, rich in detail, and marvelously written.

The Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin (2012)

A short novel about Mary in the years after the death of Jesus. The audiobook version was narrated by Meryl Streep which added an extra dimension to the voice in the story.

Jefferson and His Times: The Sage of Monticello by Dumas Malone (1981)

The sixth and final volume of Jefferson and His Times. This volume covered Jefferson in retirement and the renewal of his friendship with John Adams. I think it was my favorite of the batch.

Long Journey with Mr. Jefferson: The Life of Dumas Malone by William C. Hyland (2013)

Dumas Malone spent forty years researching and writing the six volumes that make up Jefferson and His Times. Anyone who can do that holds a fascination for me. I searched around and found a biography of the biography and thoroughly enjoyed it.

The Library Book by Susan Orlean (2018)

I grew up in L.A. and lived there from 1983 – 2002. Somehow, I had no idea there was a fire at the Central Library in 1986. Susan Orlean’s book is a history of the L.A. Public Library told using the Central Library fire as a framework. It was a fantastic, and nostalgic read for me.

No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy (2005)

This was my first dose of Cormac McCarthy and I was blown away by the rhythm of the language, despite the darkness of the story.

Bing Crosby: Swinging on a Star: The War Years, 1940-1946 by Gary Giddins (2018)

I read the first volume of Giddin’s biography of Bing Crosby when it came out in 2001 and loved it. I had to wait 17 years for the second volume, which came out in October, I read it slowly, enjoying the rich endnotes as much as the main text. This book was as much a cultural history of the early 1940s as it is a biography of Bing Crosby.

So which is my favorite? Like I tell my kids, favorites vary with my mood. In the spring, I might say my favorite was The Sweet Science by A. J. Liebling. If I was feeling nostalgic, I think my favorite would be The Library Book by Susan Orlean.


Around 10 pm last night, Christmas Eve, our dark bedroom grew noticeably brighter. From behind the trees in the east, a full moon gazed down from its perch in the bleachers, a quarter million miles away. My eyes had already adjusted to the dark, and the moon seemed impossibly bright. I stared at it for a long time, trying to make out the mountains and maria. It occurred to me that fifty years ago, three voyagers from earth were orbiting the moon on Christmas Eve.

Back in April, I read Rocket Men: The Daring Odyssey of Apollo 8 and the Astronauts Who Made the First Journey to the Moon by Robert Kurson. I’ve read just about every book on the Apollo missions that exists, but this one was new, and I decided to give it a go, and I’m glad I did because I really enjoyed it. Nothing fills me with a sense of wonder as much as the idea that we have actually visited the moon.

Many of NASA’s most famous astronauts have passed away. None of the Original Seven are alive today. Neil Armstrong is gone. 2017 saw the passing of Dick Gordon, and in 2018 we lost Al Bean so gone is the entire crew of Apollo 12–my personal favorite. As of this writing, however, Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and Bill Anders–the crew of Apollo 8–are all still alive. I imagine all of them gazing up at the moon last night, somewhat in awe of the fact that half a century ago, they were there making ten orbits around the moon. Last night, as I looked up at the moon that brightened our room, I tried to imagine what the earth would look like from there tonight.

1968 was a tumultuous year. In his book, Kurson writes about an anonymous telegram sent to the crew of Apollo 8 which purportedly read, “You saved 1968.” I wonder if NASA hadn’t given up on the moon, if Apollo 18, 19 and 20 hadn’t been canceled, if we continued to have stretch goals in science and engineering, how would things be different today? 2018 has also been a tumultuous year, but humans haven’t been to the moon since 1972; the space shuttle hasn’t flown since 2011; and there doesn’t appear to be anything on the horizon on the scale of Apollo.

Fifty years after Apollo 8, I am desperate for something hopeful, something like returning to the moon, even if it is just to show that we can still do it. I’d love to wake up on Christmas morning to the news that three humans are once again in orbit around the moon. If telegrams still existed, I’d be the one to send: YOU SAVED 2018.

Reading Through the End of the Year

It just so happens that I am on vacation through the end of the year. Since what book I am reading often reminds me of what I was doing when I was reading it, I try to keep things a bit lighter when on vacation, although it doesn’t always work out that way. As we made the long drive down the I-95 corridor from Virginia to Florida, I finished listening to Jon Meacham’s excellent biography of George H. W. Bush, Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush. I’ll have more to say on this book in a future post.

At present, I am re-reading One Man’s Meat by E. B. White. I think of that as an almost ideal vacation book, since the essays read like little idyllic windows into life on a Maine salt water farm in the late 1930s and early 1940s.

There are two books I’ve been working my way through slowly, savoring each phrase: Bing Crosby: Swinging on a Star: The War Years, 1940-1946 by Gary Giddins and A Dual Autobiography by Will and Ariel Durant. I’m planning on finish both these books while on vacation.

There are a few lists that I have been slowly trying to complete. Two of them are Modern Library’s Top 100 Fiction and To 100 Nonfiction books. Another is Sports Illustrated Top 100 Sports Books of All Time. I plan on tackling a few books from this latter list while on vacation, including The Boys of Summer by Roger Kahn, and Friday Night Lights by H. G. Bissinger.

I imagine this list will change slightly, as my reading list often does. But this is a pretty good look at what I’ll be reading through the end of the year.

Backlots of the Mind

When I read book, I see what’s happening in my imagination. Over the years, I seem to have developed a stock of stages that serve as the default placeholder for many common settings that I come across. I call these stages the backlots of the mind.

I was recently re-reading Stephen King’s novella “1922” which takes place on a Nebraska farm in the early 1920s. I’ve never been to Nebraska, but when I was a kid, I visited a relative’s farm in Utah on several occasions. My memories of that Utah farm served as the backlot to the farm in Nebraska. King then added the stage dressing required to make that backlot unique to his story. Indeed, any time I read about a farm–the farm into which Ray Kinsella carves a baseball field in Shoeless Joe for instance–I begin with my backlot Utah farm.

When I read of a completely fictional place, like the University in Patrick Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind, my backlot comes from my memories of walking around the Oxford campus on a visit to England many years ago.

This is as true for nonfiction as it is for fiction. When reading John Adams by David McCullough, and picturing John Adams’ farm, Peacefield–a place which I’ve never visited–I use as my mental backlot the New England farms I’ve seen in Sturbridge, Massachusetts. When reading Tales of the South Pacific by James Michener, I used as my backlot memories of my visit to Princeville, Hawaii on the north shore of Kauai.

When a writer describes someone living in a small house, I imagine the house I rented while living in Maryland. If a scene takes place in vast forested land, I often default to memories of walking through Huntley Meadows Oark. Even in a science fiction story that describes something that doesn’t exist today–Asimov’s Foundation for instance–I find myself resorting to familiar backlots for reference points.

Other times, I don’t have backlots adequate to serve my purposes. In these cases, I have to rely more heavily on the author’s descriptions and draw on other related memories. Reading Endurance by Alfred Lansing, I had no experience Antarctica. Instead, I relied on memories of videos and shows I’ve seen of Antarctica to help fill in the blanks. Reading Shogun by James Clavell, I was almost entirely at the mercy of the author’s descriptions. Fortunately, he did a good job and I really enjoyed the book.

I was thinking about these backlots recently because they provide an important insight into the relationship between a writer and a reader. As a writer, no matter how much detail I provide on a scene, the picture I have in my head will never match that of the reader’s. Every reader brings their own backlots to a story and that is what makes the story unique. I’ve recently started to write again, and I am trying to take this lesson to heart. As a writer my job is to provide just enough detail to let the reader fill in the rest from their own backlots. If there’s an important detail, I’ll add it, but otherwise, it seems better to allow the reader’s imagination to do the work. It makes the story more their own. Still, I sometimes think about books like Endurance and Shogun where I had no backlots to help me out. Surely there are people reading some of my stories who have no backlots for what I am writing about. This is one of those things that makes writing a particular challenge. How much or how little do you assume about a reader?

Some of these backlots change over time, but the most basic ones seems to stay the same. I kind of like that. It brings a familiarity to unfamiliar places between pages. Familiarity helps ease me into a book, and I imagine the same is true for readers of my own stories.

Reading Goals for 2019

I didn’t have a specific reading goal for 2018. That is, I didn’t say to myself, I am going to read 50 books this year. Way back when I started keeping my list of books in 1996, I did have a goal: Read one book per week. It seemed reasonable at the time, and yet I never managed to make that goal until 2013, when I read 54 books.

Setting a goal

Having a book count as a goal is tricky. Books vary in length. This year, for instance, the average length of books I read was 473 pages. But there is wide variation. The shortest book I read this year was The Testament of Mary by Colm Tóibín, which came in at 96 pages. The longest book I read this year was The Power Broker by Robert A. Caro, which exceed 1,300 pages. I read 16 books this year that I consider to be “long” book, each exceeding 700 pages. Such variation makes it difficult to set a specific number of books as a goal.

As most of the my reading comes through audiobook, I rely more on how much time I can spend listening to books each day. Audiobooks makes it easy to listen to books while doing other things: working out, commuting, doing chores around the house, waiting in line, watching your kid’s soccer or basketball practice. Audiobook turn out to be one of my best productivity tricks. Early in the year I set a target of 3-1/2 hours of listening time per day.

From that start, I looked at what the average length of a book I’ve read since I started listening to audiobooks in 2013. It turns out to be 453 pages, which translates into an average of 17 hours, 45 minutes of listening time per book. Well, knowing that, and with a target of 3-1/2 hours of listening time per day, I knew it would take me about 5 days on average to finish a book. And knowing that, I could make a reasonable estimate of how many books I could listen to in a year. That came out to about 73 books, far more than any previous year.

Adjusting the goal

At first, that number seemed completed unreasonable. In 22 previous years the best I’d ever done was last year when I finished 58 books. 73 books would be a 25% increase over last year.

Two things combined to change my outlook:

First, I found that I was regularly exceeding my daily goal of 3-1/2 hours of listening time. For instance, last month, I averaged 4-1/4 hours of listening per day. I keep a little heat map of this data, and here’s what it looks like for November:

Reading Heatmap

Second, over the last 5 years that I’ve listened to audiobooks, I’ve steadily increased the speed at which I listen. I started at 1x and after a long time, moved to 1.25x. Early this year, I moved to 1.5x. Then, this fall, when a new Audible app update introduced the 1.75x speed, I started listening at that speed. Each jump takes some getting used to initially. For the most part, these days, I listen to nonfiction at 1.75x and fiction at 1.5x. When I try to listen to a book at 1x these days, the narrator sounds as if they are on quaaludes.

This had a significant impact on how much I managed to read this year. At 1x speed and an average of 4 hours 15 minutes per day, I can get through 7 book in a month. By comparison, at 1.75x speed, I can get through almost 13 book in the same month. Over the course of an entire year, that’s 150 books! But as I didn’t make this change until more than halfway through the year, I adjusted my goal to something I still thought of as a stretch: 120 book for 2018.

The Goodreads Reading 2018 Reading Challenge

Goodreads has an annual reading challenge where you can set a goal and track your progress, along with that of your friends. So I went into Goodreads and set of goal of 120 books. It looked to be a lot more books than what I was seeing for many people. Indeed, it turns out that the average goal for the Goodreads challenge this year is 59 books. My goal of 120 books is double that. I figured I’d come close, but fall a few books short.

Then, over the weekend, this happened:

2018 Reading Challenge

I finished my 120th book in early December. It’s hard to believe, even with the evidence right there in front of me. And given that I’ve been averaging 14-15 books/month for the last few months, and that the second half of December I’ll be on vacation, I think it is safe to assume that I’ll finish 2018 in the neighborhood of 135 books.

Goals for 2019

So what is my goal for 2019? I’m tempted to set a goal of 148 books for 2019. That may seem like an odd number to pick, but there is some logic to it. Assuming I finish 14 more books this year, 148 books next year means that my last book of 2019 will be my 1,000th book since I started keeping my list in 1996.

Reading History

That is a stretch goal if ever there was one, but I think stretch goals are good, and it gives me something with extra meaning to aim for.

Anyone else have reading goals for 2019? Let me know in the comments.

And for those wondering about the best books I’ve read in 2018, I’ll have a post on that–in January. I don’t think it is fair to put out a “best of” list for 2018 before the year is over. Back in 2016 the best book I read that year was Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen. I didn’t read that book until the end of December. So look for my “best of” list in January.

Biblio Curiositas

Sitting on the sideline at my son’s basketball practice I was reminded of a mild malady from which I suffer: biblio curiositas. A medical dictionary might describe such an illness as a sudden, urgent desire to know what it is that person sitting next to me is reading. I’m paraphrasing, of course. Still, I find that when I see someone reading nearby, friend or stranger, I need to know what it is they are reading.

The mechanics of this can be tricky. Even if I know the person, they are often engrossed in the book (making me all the more curious) and I am loathe to interrupt and break the spell. I know all too well the magic of that spell and can become surly when someone breaks it for me. Instead, I will glance over and see if I can make out the cover.

This works about 50% of the time. After all, if I am sitting on the person’s right, the cover is almost impossible to see. So I will look for an excuse to move to the person’s left. I found myself in this very situation at the basketball practice. I had a half a Subway sandwich in my lap and wolfed it down quickly in order to have some trash to throw away. That allowed me to walk back to my seat from the reader’s left. Unfortunately, this particular reader had the book flat in his lap and I couldn’t make out anything.

I could have asked when he paused to check his phone. But honestly, I hate it when people ask me what I am reading because it breaks the flow and spoils the spell. “Whatcha reading?” someone asks, and I’ll usually hold up the book so they can see the title. “Oh, that looks interesting,” they say, and with that single phrase judge the book by its cover, “what’s it about?” which leads off into the mundane world, far off from the magical place I was held spellbound a few moments earlier. I realize the irony in this, but what can I do, it’s this disease?

Instead, I’ll keep casting glances at the book trying to tease out what it is from various hints I catch: an author’s last name, the title of a chapter. Meanwhile, all of this has taken away from my own reading. Instead of enjoying whatever it was that had engrossed me moments before, I’m trying to figure out what this fella’s engrossed in. I realize the irony here, too, but I am helpless.

Kindles and e-book readers have made this maddeningly more difficult. If someone has a Kindle propped on their knees instead of a meaty hardcover, it is virtually impossible to figure out what they are reading, short of asking, and we’ve already been there.

So difficult is the task of teasing out the titles of these books that they become their own reward. I’ve taken to collecting these titles, the ones I uncover anyway, the way a lepidopterologist collects their brightly-winged specimens. I jot these precious titles in my Field Notes notebook even if I never plan on reading them. The effort is too much to waste. My most recent specimen, successfully collected (at great effort) at the very basketball practice herein described: Chocolate City: A History of Race and Democracy in the Nation’s Capital by Chris Myers Asch and George Derek Musgrove.

Biblio curiositas is not limited to what I nearby person is reading. If I see books anywhere, I need to know what they are. Like a prospector panning for gold, I need to filter through them in search of a gem. Over the Thanksgiving weekend, we headed out to Woodlawn and toured an old plantation house. On the same property, a few hundred yards away, is the Pope-Leighty house, a Frank Lloyd Wright house custom built for a fellow who really wanted a FLW place of his own. While Peter, our guide, described the architectural detail of the living room of the 1,200 square foot house, I faced the wall-to-wall built-in bookshelves at the back of the room, skimming the titles there as quickly as I could.

If someone is reading a book in a TV show or movie, I want to know what it is they are reading. If I happen to recognize the book, I squeal with delight.

Science fiction conventions are a particularly dangerous place for someone with biblio curiositas, as one might imagine. With people scattered throughout the hotel lobby, restaurant, and bar, noses deep in books, such places are minefields, making it nearly impossible to cross a room without stealing a glance or two or three or four.

As I said, biblio curiositas is a mild malady, but it does have one benefit that makes up for all of its symptoms: there is no known cure. If you’ve got the disease, you’d got it for life. That makes me happy.

1,000 Books To Read Before You Die

The only advice, indeed, that one person can give another about reading is to take no advice, to follow your own instincts, to use your own reason, to come to your conclusions. If this is agreed between us, then I feel at liberty to put forward a few ideas and suggestions because you will not allow them to fetter that independence which is the most important quality a reader can possess. — Virginia Woolf, “How Should One Read a Book?”

This quote opens a new book called 1,000 Books to Read Before You Die by James Mustich. The book caught my attention when I saw it on a list of “years best” books, thus making it a bit meta. I’m not a big fan of “years best” lists when those lists emerge before the year is out, but I can’t help but be attracted to books that are essentially lists of other books.

1,000 Books to Read Before You Die

I ordered a hardcover edition of Mustich’s book and it arrived over the weekend. It is a big book, 948 pages, and contains an alphabetically listing of one man’s idea of a thousand books to read before you die. Each entry contains information about the book in question, as well as the author’s own comments. The book is chock full of quotes, picture of book and authors. It’s really rather delightful. I wanted the hardcover edition in order to be able to mark it up with my own notes.

At the back of the book is a handy checklist of the 1,000 books included. I spent an hour perusing the list, gleefully making a check beside each book I have already read. I was confident I would have read many of these books already. It turned out I had read 59 out of 1,000, or just about 6% of the total.

Here are the 59 books I have read. They are listed in the order the appear in the checklist. If the book has a number it is the number from my list of books I’ve read since 1996. If the book says “BL” it means I read it before I started tracking what I read.

  • BL – The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
  • 748 – The Education of Henry Adams by Henry Adams
  • 17 – Foundation by Isaac Asimov
  • 18 – Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov
  • 19 – Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov
  • 62 – The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester
  • 37 – Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
  • 254 – The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown
  • 276 – A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
  • 277 – Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card
  • 811 – The Power Broker by Robert A. Caro
  • 162 – Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland / Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll
  • 716 – The Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry-Garrard
  • 163 – The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie
  • 168 – The Hunt for Red October by Tom Clancy
  • 186 – Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke
  • 95 – Carrying the Fire by Michael Collins
  • 714 – A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
  • 722 – Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard
  • 196 – The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas
  • 217 – Founding Brothers by Joseph J. Ellis
  • 253 – Pattern Recognition by William Gibson
  • 682 – The Firm by John Grisham
  • 577 – Blue Highways by William Least Heat-Moon
  • 174 – Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein
  • 290 – A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway
  • 574 – The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway
  • 302 – Dune by Frank Herbert
  • 412 – Carrie by Stephen King
  • 472 – 11/22/63 by Stephen King
  • 713 – Endurance by Alfred Lansing
  • BL – A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle
  • BL – The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis
  • BL – The Call of the Wild by Jack London
  • BL – The Prince by Niccolò Machiavelli
  • 453 – A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin
  • 200 – Truman by David McCullough
  • 358 – A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr.
  • 218 – The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt by Edmund Morris
  • 560 – The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien
  • 826 – All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque
  • 201 – Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J. K. Rowling
  • 42 – The Dragons of Eden by Carl Sagan
  • 250 – The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
  • 311 – The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger
  • BL – Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak
  • BL – Hamlet by William Shakespeare
  • BL – Henry V by William Shakespeare
  • BL – Macbeth by William Shakespeare
  • BL – Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare
  • 121 – City by Clifford D. Simak
  • 780 – Sailing Alone Around the World by Joshua Slocum
  • 197 – Longitude by Dava Sobel
  • 248 – The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
  • 244 – Travels with Charlie by John Steinbeck
  • 524 – Dracula by Bram Stoker
  • 511 – Walden by Henry David Thoreau
  • 805 – The Double Helix by James D. Watson

There’s obviously a lot missing from my list with respect to Mustich’s 1,000 books. But, I have a list of over 800 books of my own, most of which are not on Mastich’s list, so we are probably even.

The great thing about a book like this is that it can help ease the passage of those times when I can’t figure out what to read next. There are lots of books that I want to read, and browsing the list and then reading a little bit more about a book can help pique my interest. In reviewing Mustich’s list, several books jumped out as ones that I would like to read. These include:

  • Meditations by Marcus Aurelius
  • All the President’s Men by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward
  • Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino
  • Silent Spring by Rachel Carson
  • O Pioneers by Willa Cather
  • Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes
  • Their Finest Hour by Winston Churchill
  • The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri
  • The Civil War by Shelby Foote
  • The Day of the Jackal by Frederick Forsyth
  • The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon
  • Alan Turing: The Enigma by Andrew Hodges
  • Les Misérables by Victor Hugo
  • The World According to Garp by John Irving
  • The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James
  • The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind by Julian Jaynes
  • The Boys of Summer by Roger Kahn
  • Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer
  • The Spy Who Came In From the Cold by John le Carré
  • The Journals of Lewis and Clark by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark
  • Einstein’s Dreams by Alan Lightman
  • The Executioner’s Song by Norman Mailer
  • Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry
  • The Diary of Samuel Pepys by Samuel Pepys
  • Up From Slavery by Booker T. Washington
  • Naturalist by Edward O. Wilson

Lists like these are fun. They are fertilizer for the mind, and they help me figure out what I want to read next, when I find myself in the doldrums. Mustich’s book isn’t only a great reference, it is beautifully done, and fun to flip through, look at the pictures, and read the quotes scattered throughout.