Thankful for Books

one of my bookcases

This time of year we often reflect on those things that we are thankful for. Toward the top of the list are things like family and friends, good health, good fortune. Below that level is where things often start to vary for people. I was trying to think of about the things that I was thankful for after family and friends, good health and good fortune. What I came up with was books. I am thankful for books.

From a young age, my parents emphasized the importance of books and of reading. My mom told me that books could take me anywhere and teach me anything. I was four or five when she told me that and I took it to heart. My dad read to me often. Because of this, I learned to read quickly and from an early time, books have been an important part of my life. Indeed, for the last 25 years, books mark important events in my life like a kind of bibliographical calendar.

More recently, I’ve come to realize something else about book that I am thankful for: that I am in the fortunate position to buy one whenever I feel like it. This wasn’t always the case. I can remember many times when I was younger where I would look longingly at books, but not have the money to buy them. When I did buy a book, it was a weighty decision to buy a new hardcover for $19.95 when money was tight and that $19.95 was really needed for the gas or electric bill.

Today, however, if there is a book that I want, I buy it without worry. We don’t spend a lot of money on fancy cars, or expensive clothes or furniture. But when it comes to books, I allow myself some extravagance. I might buy an audio book and then decide I want the Kindle edition as well. Sometimes, for books that I really like, I’ll pickup a paper version in addition to have on my shelf. Sometimes, I’ll discover a rare edition online and spend a little more than I might otherwise spend to get it. By doing this, I am taking small advantage of the good fortunate we’ve had to act on what my parents taught me when I was a youngster. Because of that, I sit in my office today, surrounded by books that have taken me everywhere, and taught me countless things.

No investment I have made has given more of a return than books. Twenty dollars spent on a hardcover returns not only hours of enjoyment in reading, but countless times its value in the lessons I take from it, whether the book is fiction or nonfiction. Books taught me the difference between a specialist and a generalist, and have turned me into the latter, something else for which I am grateful this time of year. Reading books taught me how to write and writing has become my avocation, more for me to be thankful for.

I am surrounded here in my office my somewhere around 1,200 books, collected slowly over a lifetime. On my digital bookshelves, there are another 1,200 audio books and 500 or so ebooks. I could go on and list why I am thankful for each and every one of them, but I will spare you that. Instead, I’ll just say that I spent a lot of time thinking about how lucky I am to be able to read, to have passion for reading, to enjoy books, and to be in the incredibly fortunate position to acquire and accumulate them. For much of my life, I knew what it was like to look upon bookshelves with envy and longing. To be able to own my own books and read them is something for which I will be forever thankful.

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Best Books of the Year Lists

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Impatience seems to get the best of us when it come to best of the year. We are ready for the year to be over in October. November and December seem abandoned when it comes to the best-of-the-year.

A year, as I understand it, is 12 months, which in turn represents 365 and one quarter days, or a single trip of planet Earth around the sun. I mention this because the Best Books of the Year lists are starting to come out. Here is one from the Washington Post. Here is one from the New York Times–the Times refers to these books as “notable.” Goodreads has their voting going on now, with winners announced on December 9. None of these lists seem to be for a full year. For instance, for the Times and Post, what happens to books that come out today, or next week, or in a month? Are books that come out in November and December in some kind of limbo from which they can never emerge? These best-of-the-year lists remind me of cereal boxes that, when first opened, appear to be only three-quarters full. What happened to the rest of the cereal? At least the cereal boxes have an excuse: product may settle while shipping.

I also list the best books I read each year, but I’ve taken to doing that in January of the following year. So the best books I read in 2020 was posted on January 1, 2021. Why can’t newspapers and websites wait until they year is over before posting their best-of lists? One argument that I have heard is that these lists come out before the holidays in order to drum up sales for the books in question. Fine, but then don’t call them “best of the year” lists.

Early best of the year lists make it so that no one wants to release books in November and December. It means that there is a dearth of interesting books coming out the last two months of the year. When I search for upcoming books in, say, March or June, or October, I can often find a dozen or more than I want to read. In November or December, I only ever find a few. What does it say to an author about the priority of their book when a publisher announces that it will be published on, say, the last Tuesday of November? I often end up re-reading books in these months, something reliable like One Man’s Meat by E. B. White, or 11/22/63 by Stephen King.

I don’t think I am going to convince the Times or the Post or Goodreads, for that matter, to change their ways, but I am going to continue to hold my own best-reads-of-the-year lists until early January.

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Thanksgiving Morning

cooked turkey on table

Sometime in the middle of the night, I woke from an usually pleasant dream. I dreamt that I had submitted a novel manuscript to TOR, and at meeting for something, I was handed a sheaf of paper. The top page I cast aside, and beneath it was the first page of a contract for the novel. It had the title on it (which I don’t remember) as well as two columns of notes from various editors about what to keep and what to take out. This, of course, is odd for a book contract, but then, I haven’t had any real experience with book contracts. I remember being so happy, I felt I might burst into tears. Also, on the contract, it indicated how much I’d be paid: a $5,000 advance, $1,000 upfront, an additional $2,000 upon turning in the manuscript, and a final $2,000 on publication. I was thrilled. Then I woke up and it took me a few seconds to realize that no, I hadn’t actually sold a a novel to TOR. It had been a dream.

I got up at 6 am, dressed, and headed out for my morning walk. I walked in silence, watching the sky brighten in the east. At the 7-Eleven I walk to, I bought an orange juice, like I always do. Then I headed back out into the cold for the walk home. As I rounded the corner from the store, I saw there on the sidewalk a $10 bill. I looked around to see if there was anyone walking by who might have dropped it, but the street was empty, so I picked it up. Fortune, it seemed, decided to buy my an orange juice in lieu of selling a novel to TOR.

On my way home, I saw one of the foxes that I often see on my morning walk. I tried to get a picture of it on the trail, but it dashed into the woods and sat on the remains of a fallen tree. I tried to get a picture of it there from a distance, but it something of a fuzzy blur. If you look closely at the center of the photo, you’ll it staring back at me.

fox in the woods

A little further down the bike path, I ran into a bunch of deer. They were crossing the path some distance in front of me, but didn’t really move away when I passed, and were kind enough to allow me to photograph them. In return, I warned them of the fox just up the way.

When I got home, all the kids were awake, and my brother-in-law had started making coffee. Since Kelly and I don’t drink coffee, it made for a usually pleasant smell in the house. I shed my vest and hat and built a fire in the fireplace. The kids (ours and my sisters) huddle around the fire and started watching Home Alone 2. Thanksgiving Day has started.

Happy Thanksgiving!

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“Low Fat” Foods

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There are certain foods for which “low fat” should be forbidden. Cream cheese is one example. Lately, I have seen low fat cream cheese in our refrigerator. They don’t call it low fat. They call it “light” cream cheese. The purpose of light cream cheese is lost on me. What is one supposed to do with it? Certainly not spread it on a toasted bagel. Light cream cheese has all the flavor of dried Elmer’s glue. Spreading light cream cheese on a bagel ruins the bagel.

Egg nog is another example where “low fat” makes no sense. The whole point of egg nog is the fat. I could see an “extra fat” egg nog variety. But low fat? Where is the fun in that?

Milk comes in a variety of fat and fat-free states. I prefer “whole” milk. Whole milk contains 4% fat. Next rung down on the ladder is “low fat” milk, which contains half he fat of whole milk, or 2% fat. I can tolerate low fat milk, especially since I am usually outvoted by everyone else in the family. Another step down and you have 1% milk. This works in a pinch. For instance, if I wake up in the middle of the night with heartburn and the only milk available is 1% milk, I’ll drink it to sooth the burn. Finally, there is non-fat milk. As a kid, I called this water milk, because it taste more like water than milk. Worse, it tastes like watered down milk, which tastes terrible. If I wake up with heartburn and all that is in the refrigerator is nonfat milk, I suffer through the heartburn. It is better than the taste of nonfat milk.

Of cream cheese, egg nog, and milk, the only one I partake of regularly is the latter. There’s nothing quite like a tall glass of cold milk. There’s nothing quite as bad as a tall glass of cold non-fat milk. I’m reconciled to drinking “low fat” milk because I have milk almost every day. Egg nog is seasonal. Cream cheese is occasional. They are infrequent enough where the full fat versions are called for.

There are certain foods where low fat would come in handy, if it didn’t alter the flavor. Low fat bread would be good. I eat a lot of bread. Low fat bacon, on the other hand, makes absolutely no sense. The best part of bacon is the fat. Low fat butter isn’t worth it to me. I don’t use butter often, but when I do, it is usually to add flavor to the bread I am eating. Less fat always seems to mean less flavor, at least to my taste buds.

I’m not sure where I was going with all of this. Mostly, I think I was annoyed by the low fat cream cheese in the refrigerator. Not only does it taste like dried Elmer’s glue, but it doesn’t spread well, either.

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A Programming Reminder for Practically Paperless

Just a reminder that I am taking this week off from the Practically Paperless posts. Lots of holiday preparations going on, and I wanted a little time to relax. Episode 8 will be back here next week, Tuesday, November 30.

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Prepping for the Holidays

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For as organized as I like to think I am, I am terrible at prepping for the holidays. I’ve lost count of how many trips to the grocery store we’ve made at this point. We are having my sister and her family over for Thanksgiving. Preparations began a few weeks ago when we ordered a pre-cooked turkey and some mashed potatoes from Whole Foods. I like a relaxing Thanksgiving, where the family can spend quality time with one another without being overly concerned about cooking. A pre-cooked turkey means (a) all I have to do is heat it up, and (b) a delicious bird, no matter what, but mainly because I am not destroying it by trying to cook it myself.

In the past we’ve ordered a full Thanksgiving meal, but this year, we ordered the turkey and mashed potatoes, and figured we could handle the stuffing, gravy, and other simple sides ourselves. The “other simple sides” meant a trip to the grocery store to buy stuffing. We bought extra stuffing because I make turkey hash the day after Thanksgiving and stuffing is one of those things that there never seems to be enough of. We bought vegetables, and gravy, and cranberry sauce. We have rolls to make in the oven.

We got to thinking it would be good to have some snacks during the day so a few days later we were back at the store for cheese, crackers, chips, salsa. Of course, Thanksgiving isn’t the only meal we’ll be having together, since my sister’s family will be here for several days. We added a run to Costco for blueberry muffins.

I thought we were low on beverages so this morning I went to the store to pick up some more soft drinks. This evening, it occurred to me that we didn’t have an onion, and I need an onion for the turkey hash. Then, too, we were running low on some gingerbread cookies we like. As I type these words, Kelly has run off to Trader Joe’s to get a few extra boxes of those cookies for good measure.

There is going to be some cold mornings so we made a trip for some extra firewood. And I’ve promised my brother-in-law a 6-pack of beer and some tequila. On Wednesday, therefore, there will be a trip to a local market that has a massive variety of beer from around the world.

While I can’t be certain, I suspect there will be a trip or two to the store tomorrow for something.

The whole point of this obviously rigorous planning on my part is to avoid stores of any kind on Thursday and Friday. To make sure we avoid any stores on Friday, when everyone is rushing to the stores for Black Friday sales, we’ve obtained tickets for our two families for Mount Vernon. We’ve been to Mount Vernon several times, but my sister and her family haven’t. It is a good time of year to visit. When it is cold out, the often have hot cider available. Still, I am not convinced we will manage to avoid a grocery store on Thursday or Friday. Every year, no matter how well we plan, it always seems as if we have to run to the store for something.

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10 Evergreen Posts

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Among the pieces of advice I’ve seen on the Internet for bloggers is that bloggers should focus on writing “evergreen” posts. An evergreen post is one that doesn’t age, doesn’t get out-of-date, and is always useful to the people who find it. It is a post that does a lot of work for you after it is written because of its utility. People who read evergreen posts might decide to read other posts you’ve written. What none of this advice seems to tell you is how to write an evergreen post. I know that I’ve never intentionally written such a post. And yet, with more than 7,000 posts here on the blog, I was bound to get lucky and have at least one turn out to be evergreen.

As it turns out, there are several evergreen posts here, and it boggles my mind as to why some of them make the list. Setting aside posts like my Going Paperless posts, which were popular but not necessarily evergreen, here are 10 posts that people keep coming back to year after year. These are posts that have had tens of thousands, or in some case, hundreds of thousands of views since I’ve written them, right down to this very day. I’ve included the year they were originally published after each post in the list.

  1. 5 Tips for Getting the Most Out of FitBit Flex (2013)
  2. If you are planning on reading Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series… (2009)
  3. The Death of Marigold Churchill (2014)
  4. Writing with the Google Chromebook (2013)
  5. Kindle Samples Save Money! (2010)
  6. 10 Simple Steps for Creating an Annual Holiday Letter (2011)
  7. The Ghosts of “White Christmas” Past (2016)
  8. Stephen King’s Favorite Stephen King Novel (2015)
  9. My Bad Habits (2016)
  10. 15 Use Cases Comparing Ebooks to Traditional Books: An Illustrated List (2012)

Okay, some of these make sense. Seasonal posts, though unintentional on my part, have a natural boost when the season rolls around. So posts like number 6 and 7 above I might expect to be evergreen. After all, Bing Crosby’s rendition of Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas”, which he first recorded in 1942, is still making the top 10 lists every holiday season, nearly 80 years later.

Some I understand, but were complete accidents. #2 on the list, about the order of reading Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, has been the second most popular evergreen post on my blog for 12 years now, long before the Apple TV+ series came out, which gave the post something of an additional boost. People who are interested in the series search for what order to read the books in and my post is a top Google result. I get that.

But #3 on the death of Marigold Churchill has always baffled me. I wrote that post more than 7 years ago, after reading about her death in William Manchester’s 3-volume biography of Winston Churchill, and it has been a perennial draw for some reason. I’ve even ask readers why this post is so popular, and I still don’t know that I understand why.

Perhaps the most perplexing of all is #9 on my bad habits. I see a fair number of views on this post every single day and I just don’t get it. It is not a particularly good post. I can tell by the tone that I wrote it when I was in an Andy Rooney state-of-mind. I was trying to be funny and a little tongue and cheek, but I’m not really sure I succeeded on either count. And yet that post remains evergreen.

The lesson for me in all of this is that what becomes evergreen is one part effort (you have to write something for it to be read) and two parts luck. To be perfectly honest, I’m not sure I could have intentionally made any of these posts evergreen if I had tried.

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Retro Posts, Week of 11/14/2021

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For those who don’t follow along on Twitter or my Facebook page, I post a link to “retro post” once-a-day, selecting from one of the thousands of posts I’ve written here on the blog over the last 15+ years. Here are the retro posts for this week. My general rule is not to link to anything I’ve written in the last 365 days. This week, the theme is about science fiction conventions I’ve attended.

You can find last week’s posts here If you want to see these as they appear each day, you can follow me on Twitter or my Facebook page.

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A Quiet Morning Walk

bike path

For the last half year I’ve been up early and out for a 2-1/2 mile walk without fail, rain or shine. Until Friday, that is. I was getting over a cold and woke up Friday morning thinking it would be better to sleep a little longer. I decided, reluctantly, to skip my morning walk. I thought I might get out later in the day, but the day got busy and so Friday became the first day in recent memory when I didn’t get out for a walk.

It happened Saturday, too. It was cold Saturday morning, I decided to light a fire in the fireplace, and it was so nice that I stayed in again. I didn’t get out for a walk Saturday either.

So I was determined to get out for a walk this morning. And at 6:28 am I was out the door. It was cool, about 35 °F. But I got out there. It was different than my previous walks, however, because it was a quiet morning walk.

Normally, as I head out the door, I queue up whatever audiobook I am listening to and listen to my book for the entire walk. I can become so engrossed in the book as to miss who said hello or good morning to me as I walk. I haven’t yet been hit by a car, so there is some of part of me looking out for my safety, but apparently not any social graces. My walk takes about 45 minutes, which means I get a guaranteed 45 minutes of listening time each day. And since I generally listen at 1.7x speed these days, that’s the equivalent of about 1 hour 15 minutes of audiobook.

This morning was different. I decided not to listen to anything while I walked. Instead, I’d allow my mind to wander, not focused on listening to anything in particular. I hoped that the wandering would lead to some ideas for the story I am currently writing. I think it worked. My mind, free from other distractions, wandered. I heard the early morning birds singing. I watched as a fox sat down on the bike fifty yards in front of me, and then dash into the woods as I got closer. I watched a second fox race across the bike path to follow it a few seconds later.

It was nice walking, just me and my thoughts with no go between. I’d hope that maybe, just maybe, I’d come up with a title for the story I’m writing, and I came up with at least a possibility. I also came up with a way to simply some of what I was trying to do in the story in the first place.

The walk got me thinking: there are probably a lot of reasons why I went through a serious, multi-year bout of writer’s block. But one of those reasons may have been that I gave myself no time to think and dream. I became increasingly obsessed with reading in every free moment I had, which meant there was no time for daydreaming, except maybe in the shower. And I’d sped up my showers so that they lasted just a couple of minutes. Upon returning from my walk this morning, I decided that, at least for a while, I’m going to take quite walks. I’m going to give up the guaranteed 45 minutes of audiobook listening in favor of 45 minutes of daydreaming. It may not solve all of my issues with with fiction writing I’ve had these last few years, but maybe it will help a little.

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The Newly Inconvenient Common Cold

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Catching a cold used to be an annoyance. In COVID times, it is particularly inconvenient. I speak from experience as the cold swept through our household last week. People complain about masks, but I’ve got to say that one advantage is that they keep colds away. Whereas the cold used to run through our house at least twice a year, I think this recent bout was the first in nearly two years. In addition to keeping COVID at bay, masks keep the cold away. Still, they aren’t perfect and the cold managed to find its way into our house and sinuses.

The main inconvenience of the common cold during COVID times is having to act perfectly healthy when out in public. These days, the slightest sniffle draws glances. A cough raises eyebrows. And a sneeze sets off all kinds of alarms. To avoid all of this, I braced myself in every public place, telling my body to shut up until I had scanned my groceries and made it out of the store. Once in the car, I could go to pieces, sneezing, coughing, eyes watering.

Sneezing in public is just a nuisance these days. If anyone is nearby I feel compelled to turn to them afterward and say something like, “Allergies!” while rolling my eyes. They inevitable smile, but what I see in their eyes is: LIAR!

The kids all had colds, too, and that means keeping them home from school for a day or two because cold symptoms are inconveniently similar to COVID symptoms. Never mind that we have all been vaccinated (the girls have had their first shot, and are awaiting their second). “It could be a breakthrough case!” a school nurse says. We kept one kid home on a Friday, sending them back to school on Monday, only to get a call from the school later that morning telling us to come pick him up, and to keep him at home until we have a negative COVID test.

We had the negative COVID test result before the next school day, but it was inconvenient to have to go an get it. (Admittedly, however, it was free, easy, there was no wait, and we had the results 12 hours after taking the test.)

The biggest inconvenience is that there is no obvious way to tell the difference between COVID and the cold without a test. Everyone wants everyone else to think they just have a cold. Everyone else believes that the sneezing person over there has COVID, not a cold, even though they themselves just sneezed, and yeah, it’s only a cold. (Or “allergies.”)

I hated having colds before the pandemic and I hate them even more now, infrequent though they may be. I look forward to the day when we have simple, over the counter home-COVID tests. The test kits should be designed with a special sticker that turns green when the test is negative. That way, I could slap the green sticker on my jacket, and head out into the world coughing and sneezing into my mask, and everyone can see that my COVID test was negative. It’s just the newly inconvenient common cold.

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Should I Read The Wheel Of Time: A Follow-Up

me holding a copy of wheel of time

A few days ago, I asked if I should read the Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan. Normally when I ask questions like these, I get a couple of answers, but for some reason, this time, I got many more responses than I expected. The responses came as comments to the original post, on Twitter, and on Facebook. I thought I should follow-up here, summarizing the comments.

  • A significant majority of people who replied to my query said that it was worth reading at least the first 3 books in the series.
  • For a few people, they couldn’t make it through the first book (or in at least one instance, even the first page).
  • A significant majority also said that the books started to slow down beginning around the 4th book in the series.
  • There were a few people who made it all the way through the books and who said it was definitely worth it.

So, what does that mean for me? Well, it seems clear to me that it is worth trying to read at least the first few books in the series. To that end, I started reading The Eye of the World today. Of course, it also means that I don’t have to race through the entire series one book after the other. I’ll read one, and if I like that one enough, I’ll read the next. One book at a time.

I will say this, however: it is those few people who made it all the way through that give me hope. I’ve enjoyed books in the past that others thought were boring. I’ve struggled through books that were difficult but ultimately rewarding. Every quest has to have its element of hope. It was with a great deal of trepidation that I started Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive books, but I am so glad that I did. I think there is hope here, too, and hope is part of what makes a story great. Of course, I’ll keep you posted on my progress and what I think of the books as I go along.

Thank you to everyone who provided answers to my question. I’m grateful for you taking the time, and for many of you who provided a rationale for your answers as well. You are awesome!

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When Books Don’t Live Up To Re-Reading

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Way back in May 2000, I discovered a tattered copy of Debt of Honor by Tom Clancy in The Iliad Bookshop–one of my all-time favorite bookstores. The back copy of the book interested me, and so I bought the used paperback, took it home, and began reading. I was immediately gripped by the story. I tore through that roughly 1,000-page book in the space of week. And because it ended in a cliff-hanger, I went on to read the even longer Executive Orders. I remember really enjoying those book.

A few days ago, I pulled out Debt of Honor as I floundered about trying to figure out what to read next. Maybe returning to an old book that I enjoyed would be just thing I needed. I started to read it–I didn’t remember much of it more than 20 years later so it sort of seemed new to me. At the same time, what was such an enjoyable story for me 20 years ago was suddenly marred by what I could only think of as bad writing. The writing was so bad this second time around that I couldn’t take it. I gave up on the book, despite enjoying the story.

It got me wondering how many books I’ve read that, upon re-reading, wouldn’t live up to that first time. I remember a few years back trying to re-read Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury. When I first read that book 25 years ago, it instantly became my favorite novel. But until a few years ago, I never tried reading it again. When I did, I found that while the writing was wonderful, the story flagged for me, and lost its wind about halfway through. I gave up on the re-read.

There are books I remember reading that really wowed me. I remember reading Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton a few years before the film came out and I really enjoyed that book. I remember reading Jumper by Steven Gould and loving that book, too. But I wonder, given my experience, if I would enjoy them a second time? My gut tells me that I would not–at least not as much as the first time.

That’s not the case with all books I’ve read before. I’ve read 11/22/63 by Stephen King 7 times and each time I think it gets better. I find the same to be true to It by Stephen King. I’ve read One Man’s Meat by E. B. White 4 times and I look forward to each time I read it, delighted by how good it is, and never let down by it so far. I’ve read Isaac Asimov’s entire Foundation series at least 5 times–but the last time I read it was 16 years ago and I have this feeling that if I read it again, I wouldn’t enjoy it as much as I used to.

What is it that makes me enjoy re-reading some books that I loved, and dislike others that I loved? In both cases, I’ve often read a lot more and much more widely than I had the first time I read a book. So I bring to subsequent readings all that I have read and learned since. If I thought a book was well-written, and coming to discover far better writing over the course of subsequent decades, than what I think of as good writing today is different from what it used to be. Does that mean that the books that I can re-read and enjoy stand the test of time, and all of the reading I have done since? Or is there something else at play?

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