Tag: books

Book Smart

close up photo of stacked books
Photo by Artem Beliaikin on Pexels.com

Is it cheating if your experience comes from books? Say, you’re chatting with friends and during the course of the conversation, someone comments on the beauty of Westminster Abbey. You jump in and agree to its beauty, but what really astounds you is a certain place in the Nave where you find yourself standing among the final resting place of Charles Darwin and Isaac Newton and Michael Faraday and others. Your friends nod in agreement. Suppose then that one of the friends asks when you’d been to Westminster? You’d calmly say you’d never been there, never even been to London. You’d read about Westminster Abbey in a book and the picture painted with words on the page was so vivid, it was as if you had been standing among those luminaries of the ages. Does it count? Is it cheating?

I have been to Westminster Abbey, but there are plenty of places I haven’t been, and plenty of things that I haven’t seen or done for which I consider myself fairly well-versed from the reading I do. Indeed, it seems to me that nearly every conversation I engage in conjures memories of a book I read that relates to the subject at hand. Last weekend, I was chatting with a group of friends and the conversation veered into pandemics and vaccinations. I mentioned that despite being more technically advanced than we were 250 years ago, the people of Boston at the dawn of the American Revolution were extremely wary of the smallpox vaccine, despite how devestating the disease was. I knew this, not because I lived in Boston in 1776, but because I’d read about it in David McCullough’s John Adams and in Stephen Fried’s Rush: Revolution, Madness, and the Visionary Doctor Who Became a Founding Father and most recently in Rick Atkinson’s The British Are Coming.

The conversation drifted to masks, and I mentioned how prevalent masks were in San Francisco during the Spanish flu of 1918-19. One the folks turned to me and asked, “Do you know where that flu started?” and without hesitation, I said, “In Kansas.” I knew it, not because I lived in that small Kansas town 103 years ago, but because I read John M. Barry’s The Great Influenza.

I remember a time when I was very young–possibly before I could read–back when my parent’s still read to me, my mother explaining that books could take you anywhere. I took that literally back then and my attitude hasn’t changed much today. People call this “book smart.” Book smart is often seen as derogatory, as in, “that fellow is book smart, but he’s got no street sense.” Of course, there is something to that, but that doesn’t mean that street sense can’t come from a book. When I read nonfiction, I am always on the lookout for practical lessons. One example out of countless: after reading William Manchester’s massive, 3-volume biography of Sir Winston Churchill, I went through my notes and teased out 3 productivity tips from Churchill himself.

I learned why keeping a diary can be useful from Isaac Asimov (via his memoirs). I learned how to keep a diary from John Quincy Adams (reading his diaries and using them as a model). I learned about commonplace books from Thomas Jefferson I didn’t learn any of this in school. It came from reading book, after I was finished with school and my real education began.

I have written before in my belief that grade school taught me how to read well, high school taught me how to think well, and college taught me how to learn well. When I graduated, I was ready to begin learning. Since then, I’ve read 1,102 books. I could read them well because of grade school. I could think about what I was reading thanks to high school. And I’ve learned far, far more than I ever learned in my K-through-college years thanks to college. I feel like I’ve gained a wealth of practical knowledge from the books I’ve read. And so I don’t see being book smart as a bad thing. After all, books have made me smarter than I might otherwise have been. And we can use all the smarts we can get.

The question is: can reading a book ever provide the equivalent experience to doing the real thing? Can you ever know what it is like to wander the Nave of Westminster Abbey and feel the weight of all those who came before? Does it even matter? People sometimes seem offended when I tell them that my experience with some place came not from being there in person, but from reading about it in books. When this happens, I think about the countless people who don’t have the means to travel anywhere, but can walk to their local library and read about places and take pleasure from that reading. Is that experience any less for that person than actually visiting the place?

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More Enhancements to My New Reading List Page

Yesterday I introduced a beta version of my new reading list–everything I have read since 1996–hosted here on the blog as opposed to in GitHub where I’ve been keeping it the last several years. If you’ve been checking out the page, you may have noticed some changes in the last few hours. If you want to check it out, you can find it here:

What I have read since 1996

It is still in beta, still a work in progress, but here are some of the enhancements I’ve added since yesterday:

  • Switched to a different table tool, which is simpler but more functional (so the table may look a little different than it did before).
  • The table is still sortable, but I’ve fixed the date sort so that it now behaves correctly when sorting the date.
  • Removed the “Format” column from the table and replaced it with an icon ahead of each title. The legend at the top of the table provides an indicator of the format in which I read the book.
  • Fixed many problems with bad symbols in the data. I still have more to do there.
  • You can now search the list! Type anything you want into the search box above the table and if it is in the list, it should find matches. For instance, to see how many times I’ve read E.B. White’s One Man’s Meat, I just type it into the search:
  • Converted the “Format” column to a “Topic(s)” column which is useful for searching for books by topic. For instance, how many Presidential memoirs have a I read1:
  • I removed the Length/Pages column and replaced it with what I call BEq. “BEq” stands for “Book Equivalents.” I took an average of the length of all 1,100 books that I’ve read on my list, and it turned out that the average book length is 410 pages. I then degreed that for my purposes, 1 book equivalent = 410 pages. I like this number better because some years I read fewer, longer books, some years many shorter books. The BEq gives me a nice way of seeing how much more or less I read a year focused length not books. A BEq of 1.00 means a book of 410 pages. A nice side effect of this is that a BEq of 2.00 is a book of 820 pages. Have I read any books that are longer than 3 BEqs? It turns out I have read 4:

As I said this is still a work-in-progress. Here are some of the things I will working on over the weekend, so you can expect to see things change more:

  • I noticed that my data export was imperfect and some titles don’t match the authors correctly. I’ve been fixing these as I go along.
  • I still have to go through an add format icons to about 7/10th of the books on the list.
  • I still have to complete adding topics so that all of the books have topics.
  • I also need to add all of the 2021 books to the list.

Once I’ve gotten those things done, my next steps are:

  • Add related posts to relevant titles. You’ll see a handful of these in the current data, but I’ve actually written on the blog about many of the books on the list, and I plan to try to link to the posts from the list as best as I can. Here are some examples of what is there now:
  • I’m toying with the idea of having “top” page for the list which would have a table of individual lists by year along with some stats. Clicking on a year list would take you to a table like the ones above, but filtered for the year in question. There would still be a page for viewing the full list.
  • I want to add pages for things like recommended books, or themed lists.

So, those are the changes that I’ve made so far, and some of what you can expect over the next few days. The feedback I’ve gotten from those of you who have provided it has been incredibly helpful, so keep it coming. I’d like this to be as useful and fun for you as it is for me.

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  1. Note: I’ve only added topics to about 1/5th of my list so far, so these examples are incomplete.

Beta-Testing My New Reading List

ETA: I’ve made some additional enhancements since writing this post.

A few weeks ago I mentioned that I would be adding some new features here on the blog. For one of those features, I’d planned to move the list of everything I’ve read since 1996 back here to the blog. I recently began that process and now have a page ready in beta for people to take a look at:

What I Have Read Since 1996

A few notes about this initial testing phase:

  • Currently, the list includes what I have read from 1996-2020. I have not yet added the 50 or so books I have read in 2021. That will be coming shortly.
  • I have not yet enabled responsive design, so it may not look right on mobile devices, yet
  • You can sort the columns by clicking on the sorting arrows. Sorting on the Finished column doesn’t work right yet because I don’t have the date formatting correctly.
  • To get back to the default sort, sort on the first column.
  • The Related Posts column is intended to be a place where I will link to posts I’ve written about the book in question. I’ve added one example so far.
  • Want to see the longest book I’ve read? Do a descending sort on the Pages column

If you are curious to see an example without clicking on the link, here’s a screenshot:

screenshot of my new reading list page
Screenshot of my new reading list page.

My goal here is to be able to provide a single authoritative place I can point people to for a list of everything I’ve read. Ideally, I’ll be able to add links to related posts for additional context for a given book. A few things I’ve been thinking about but am on the fence on:

  • I’d like to have one big list, but I will likely break it into pages by year before rolling it out officially. This will allow me to have a “top page” with a table that lists each year, along with some stats for the year and links to other things like recommended reads, etc.
  • I’d like to add an icon in front of the title to indicate the format in which I consumed the book (paper, ebook, audio, etc.)
  • I’d like to add an indicator for books that I recommend. Maybe a star at the start of the column? Or just a bold column? I’m not really into 5-star ratings so that’s a nonstarter for me.

Finally, keep in mind that I will be tweaking this as I have time, so you may see things change or disappear. But I wanted to get the basics out there for folks to see.

If you take the time to check it out, I’d love to hear your feedback. Please, let me know what you think, good or bad. I want to make this as functional as I can manage. Leave your thoughts in the comment. Or, if you prefer to provide them directly to me, shoot me an email.

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Going on a Book Spree

Sometimes the bibliophile in me gets the better of me and I go on a book-buying spree. A big spree like this doesn’t happen often, and when it does happen, it is usually because of some sale or deal. I went on such a spree yesterday, and in this case, the deal was Audible’s “Eureka” sale. They had audio books on sale for $5-7 each. I picked up a bunch of them.

If these were physical editions, I might feel weighted down, and possibly even guilty about the decreasing amount of shelf space at my disposal. Fortunately, there were all audio books and they can all easily fit into my pocket, along with the other 1,100 or so audio books I have accumulated.

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Audio, Paper, Ebook, Shoot! (Or, My Book Format Preferences)

For most of my life, if I wanted to read a book, I had to have the book in my hands. There had to be enough light to see by, and I couldn’t really do anything else while I was reading. Even a TV in the background was too distracting for me. Then, in 2009, I got my first Kindle device and my first ebook, which happened to be Jack McDevitt’s Polaris. It was so convenient to be able to get the book instantly and not have it take up any space on the shelves, especially considering the size of the apartment we were living in, with a baby due to arrive any day. In the months that followed, I accumulated and read more ebooks that paper books. Then in February 2013, I set aside my perceptions of audio books, and gave my first one a try. I loved it. From that point right down to today, audio books are my primary format for reading books1.

Given that today, I can get most books in any of three formats (audio, paper, and ebook), how do I go about choosing which to get? There are two ways to answer that question: my ideal book format preferences, and practical book format preferences. Below from left to right is a paper, ebook and audio book I’ve really enjoyed so far in 2021.

My ideal book format preferences

  1. Paper books. Anyone who loves reading and loves books knows that there is something about the tactile nature of holding a paper book in your hands that makes it a full sensory experience. There is the heft of the book. The feeling of the pages. The scent that the pages give off when you riffle them. Some books are beautiful to look at. Big books make a satisfying thud when you close them, and the sound of pages softly turning provides a pleasant heartbeat rhythm to read by. My ideal book format is paper for all of these reasons. And ideally, I am sitting in some quiet place, an enclosed porch looking out over a lake while rain patters on the roof; a beach, with the sound of my kids playing in the sand. The chair in my office while a snow storm brews outside. The book transports me and leaves me where I am all at once.
  2. Audio books. In the absence of a paper book, an audio book serves as a nice substitute. Audio books don’t have the same tactile qualities of paper books, but they have an added dimension that paper books lack: a narrator who gives a performance while reading the book. A good narrator can make a mediocre book tolerable. A great narrator can make a poor book enjoyable, and what they can do to a great book is really remarkable.
  3. Ebooks. Ebooks take no physical space, so I can accumulate a lot of them without worrying about filling my office and the rest of the house with books. Ebooks also allow me to get books instantly. Unlike paper books, there is no practical way to get an ebook signed. There is also no practical way to display ebooks on your bookshelves, so unlike paper books, they serve a strictly utilitarian purpose, and ideally, I would use them only as a last resort, when paper or audiobook editions were unavailable.

My practical book format preferences

1. Audio books

Years ago I had a realization that I would never be able to read all of the books I wanted to read. I decided that it was worth finding was to read as much as I could manage. Up to that point, I’d been reading between 30-50 books a year, but beginning in 2018, I stepped things up. I read 130 books that year, and 110 the next. The numbers have continued to stay high, and a large part of this is due to audio books.

Audio books allow me to read when I am doing other tasks that don’t take much brain power. Prior to audio books, I could not read while on long drives, or while doing chores around the house, or while exercising or out for my morning walks. Since I started listening to audio books, I have filled these moments in addition to the time I’d normally spend reading. I have also worked my way up from listening to audio books at 1x speed to listening to nonfiction at 1.8x – 2.0x (depending on the narrator), and fiction at 1.5x.

In every sense, audio books are the most practical format to allow me to read as much as I possible can in the available time. They are my first choice when it comes to reading a book these days.

2. Audio books in combination with ebooks or paper books

If audio books have a downside, it is that there is not yet a good method for taking notes in them. There is no practical way of highlighting passages or jotting comments in the margins. There are no margins! What I will often do with a book for which I think I will want to take notes, therefore, is listen to the audiobook in combination with either the ebook or the paper edition. What determines this secondary edition is typically (a) do I already own the paper edition, and (b) price. Often, you can get the ebook edition and then “add on” the audio book edition at a reduced price. If the reduced price is less than the cost of an audio book credit, I’ll usually just get the audio add-on with the ebook.

When I am listening to the audio book, I follow along in the ebook or paper book so that I can highlight relevant passages, or make notes. If I happen to be doing something else like walking, exercising, driving, or doing chores, I try to remember the places where I want to highlight or note, and then come back to them in the ebook or paper editions when I have the chance. This isn’t ideal, so I am interested in ways that audio books can be more interactive in terms of highlights and notes. Maybe a voice-activated system can control this better, e.g. “Highlight that last paragraph and add note to highlight: See also xyzzy,”

3. Ebooks

If an audio book edition is not available (increasingly rare these days for newer books, and getting rarer even for older books), then I’ll resort to an ebook edition. I’ll often resort to the ebook edition even if a paper edition is available out of practical concerns for cost and space. (Ebooks are usually, but not always, less expensive than their paper counterparts.)

It is easier to pull notes and highlights from ebooks, but even there, the system of highlighting and taking notes still feels clunky to me. I like scribbling in the margins, arguing with the author there, or noting something that made me laugh. I like making my own index of my notes in on the blank pages at the front of the paper editions–something I can’t do with an ebook because there are no blank front pages. My use of ebooks here is entirely practical.

4. Paper books

These days, paper books are a kind collector’s item for me. With limited shelf space in my office, and with a kind of collection of books established, I am picky about what I add to the collection. It needs to be worthy. Most often, I will buy new hard cover editions of books from authors I admire in order to add them to an existing collection of their books. Also, rare used books fall into this category. Or any used book that catches my eye in a book shop. Since I don’t get to book shops frequently, and I try only to buy books outside the chain book shops, adding these books doesn’t happen often. I will order paper books from Amazon. But I also order special editions of books I like. For instance, many of the beautiful editions of Stephen King books I own come from Cemetery Dance publications. They make works of art.

The problem with paper is more than one of space, it is one of time. There is no way I could read as much as I do with paper books alone, not while I still hold a full time job, am helping to raise three kids, writing here every day, and doing everything else I have to do. It just wouldn’t be possible. And so, as much as paper books are my ideal form for reading, from a practical standpoint, they don’t align as well with my goal of reading as much as I possibly can in the time I have available.


Do you have a favorite format you like for reading? If so, I’d love to hear about what it is and why in the comments.

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  1. Given that the underlying text is the same, I use the term “reading” interchangeably for paper, audio and ebooks.

Really. Big. Books.

Beach reading for the long weekend

There is something about really long books that I find irresistible. The longer the better. As a bibliophile, Really. Long. Books. are almost a fetish with me. I suppose that part of it is simply that when I am reading a good book, I never want it to end. I find myself looking to see how much more I have left before it is all over. With a really big book (which I will hereafter refer to as an RBB), I might be 500 pages in and still have 600 pages to go. That is always heartening, especially when I am enjoying what i am reading. If I read a review of a book and somewhere it mentions its RBB-ness, positively or negatively, I immediately have to investigate.

What constitutes an RBB? The answer is different for everyone. For me, when a book hits at least 700 or 800 pages, it’s an RBB. I was thinking about RBBs because this evening, I began reading David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, which at 1,079 pages, certainly meets my RBB criteria.

RBBs can be challenging for a number of reasons. They are so long that I sometimes make it further into an RBB than I might a book of normal length before deciding it doesn’t work for me. RBBs are an investment, but they also require trust. You have to have a good sense of what you think you’ll like when you invest time in an RBB. When an RBB works out, it is great, but it also takes longer to read than your normal-sized book. In the time it would take me to read Infinite Jest, for instance, I could read five normal-sized books. That makes for another challenge, one I’ve often heard from magazine editors when accepting or rejecting a novelette or novella: is this long story worth the space that two or three shorter stories might take? Or, for my RBB, is the book worth the time that three or four other books might take?

Not every RBB I’ve tried works out. Earlier this year I tried reading Gödel, Escher, Bach by Douglas Hafstader, which, at just over 700 pages, barely qualifies as an RBB. But I couldn’t get through it.

Some RBBs I’ve read several times. Stephen King’s It is one example.That book is over 1,000 pages and I have read it at least five times.

I love RBBs, but there is something I love even more than an RBB: a series of RBBs. These are not easy to come across, but late last year, I began reading Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archives series. The first book in the series, The Way of Kings is just over 1,000 pages. Each subsequent book gets longer and longer until the forth and most recent is over 1,200 pages. And there are supposed to be 10 books in this series when it is finished! I’ve read the first three so far, and will eventually get around to the fourth.

There are also series of RBBs that are nonfiction. Perhaps my favorite is Will and Ariel Durant’s Story of Civilization which is an 11-volume history of human civilization. The first book came out in 1935 and the last in 1975. Many of the books in this series are in the 800-900 page range, with the forth installment, The Age of Faith, being the longest at nearly 1,200 pages. The 11 volumes total 13,549 pages. I’ve read the first six books in the series.

Some RBBs I’ve collected but not yet read. I got them because they were RBBs but also because the subjects were fascinating and I was amazed that there could be such detail in a subject to warrant the length. There are books that sit on my shelves, calling to me now and then, but which I won’t likely get to until I have time to concentrate on them more fully. Two examples: Stephen Jay Gould’s The Structure of Evolutionary Theory, which comes in at around 1,400 pages; and Bert Hölldobler and Edward O. Wilson’s The Ants, which is an RBB both in page count and stature. The book is enormous!

I don’t know if I will make it through Infinite Jest or not. I know it doesn’t qualify for what many people consider to be beach reading, but that’s what I am taking with me to the beach. There’s nothing quite like sun, surf, sand, and a good RBB to keep your mind occupied while your kids are bury you in the sand.

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My Book Collection: A Library and Antilibrary All in One

I am trying to remember what my book collection looked like in high school. It was, at most, half a shelf of paperbacks. Probably ten or fewer. Until I headed off to college, most of the books I read came from the Granada Hills branch of the Los Angeles Public Library. In those days before college, it often seems like I spent a large chunk of my summers in the library. Once in college, however, I began to buy books and keep them. As Dickens said, it was the best of times and the worst of times for collecting books. The best, because I had my own space, and a small bookshelf on which I could keep my nascent collection; the worst, because I could not really afford to buy books, and always did so with trepidation and anxiety.

I went to school in the age before ubiquitous digital cameras and I know of no film of my burgeoning collection in its earliest stages, but if memory serves me, there were several Piers Anthony books, mostly paperbacks but a few hardcovers, especially of his newer stuff. There were some Harlan Ellison books, including a copy of Deathbird Stories, which still sits on my shelves today. It contains “The Whimper of Whipped Dogs” one of the scariest stories I’ve ever read. There was a paperback copy of Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton, and there was a paperback copy of Jumper by Steven Gould. By the time I was close to graduation in June 1994, there was a hardcover copy of I. Asimov by Isaac Asimov. It, and two other books, one Tony Robbins and one books on note-taking that was a game-changer for me, but which I’ve lost to the ages, made of the trio of nonfiction books on my shelf. I think that by the time I graduated, I had 15-20 books, not counting books for school.

Twenty-seven years later, my book collection has grown from those 15-20 volumes to something over 1,000 paper volumes. Eleven bookshelves fill three sides of my office. And while there is room to grow, it is extremely limited and that limited room has dictated how I add to my collection over time.

the books behind my desk
The books behind my desk.

The books that make it onto the shelves, the ones that survive the occasional purges and donations to local libraries and schools, are there for two reasons: (1) they are part of what I think of as a collection, one that has value to me; and (2) they are there as a reference for me to use when needed.

With each move, my books collection has grown as space permits. At some point, I began to think of it as a library as much as a collection. And with space limitations, what goes into the library is dictated by its value to me as a collector’s item. This became much easier to do when e-books and audio books made it easy to get a book that takes up no physical space. Books that I want to read but that don’t need to be part of a physical collection go into the digital library. Books that I want to be able to hold in my hands, books that have special value to me, go on the shelves.

Back when I started collecting books in college, e-books were nowhere in my imagination. When they first came out, I was dubious, as any bibliophile might be, but their convenience and ease of access quickly outweighed any objection I might have had to not having a physical copy in my hand. I bought my first e-book in 2008, and as of this writing, there are 512 e-books in my virtual library. I had a harder time with audio books. For a long time, I thought I could not listen to an audio book, that the added dimension would not work for me. Boy, was I ever wrong! Today, I use the term “reading” even when I listen to an audio book because I firmly believe they are equivalent–at least in terms of the text. As of this writing, I have 1,090 audio books in my Audible library. Putting all of this together, I have about 2,700 books in my collection, accumulated over 27 years, for a growth rate of about 100 books per year on average.

That’s a lot of books. Of the books sitting on the shelves in my office, or in virtual libraries in Amazon and Audible, I’ve probably read less than half. That number–the number of books I own but haven’t yet read–continues to grow as I accumulate more books. In a recent post, my friend Mike refers to these books–those that he owns but hasn’t read–as his TBR books (to-be-read) and they can feel daunting. Why, one might ask as he does in his post, should one continue to accumulate new books when there are already so many books on your shelves that you haven’t read?

I had an intuition for why I continue to do this, but it wasn’t until I read a post on Brain Picking’s about Umberto Eco’s antilibrary that I fully understood what it was I was doing. The key passage in that piece was a quote about Eco’s thoughts on books:

The library should contain as much of what you do not know as your financial means, mortgage rates, and the currently tight real-estate market allows you to put there. You will accumulate more knowledge and more books as you grow older, and the growing number of unread books on the shelves will look at you menacingly. Indeed, the more you know, the larger the rows of unread books. Let us call this collection of unread books an antilibrary.

Reading is, and always has been, the primary way I learn things. I’ve often said that grade school taught me to read, high school taught me to think about what I read, and college taught me to learn. Since then, reading has been all about learning for me. Despite taking AP classes in biology, and physics, as well as chem and o-chem in college, I continue to believe that almost everything I’ve learned about science, I learned from Isaac Asimov. I continue to accumulate books, despite having more unread books than read ones, for the very reason Eco describes: unconsciously or not, I want my library to contain as much of what I don’t know as I can manage. Mike’s TBR books are my antilibrary.

The other side of my office and most of the other bookshelves.

My library has gone through occasional purges, some of them tougher than others. The biggest and most recent was one in which I donated more than 200 books. These were books that I felt would not really damage my collection if they went away. They included nearly 100 Piers Anthony books that I’d painstakingly accumulated from those high school days. Indeed, I kept only a few Piers Anthony book, ones that I particularly enjoyed read, and one, Race Against Time, that I remember first reading in the Granada Hills library sometime in the 1980s and absolutely loving as a kid. I got rid of most of the Tom Clancy books I’d picked up, and all kinds of paperbacks. What stayed was the nonfiction, the stuff I hadn’t read, the stuff I didn’t yet know about.

My collection includes rare books, some of them dating back to 1865. I’ve got many signed books, most of which I was able to get signed myself, and quite a few by people who I’ve become friends with in my time as a writer. Many of the books in my collection are used, and there are all kinds of wonderful things that I’ve found in those used books. I have many first editions, and some rare editions of books by writers I admire, for instance, first editions of Isaac Asimov’s Annotated Gilbert & Sullivan and Asimov’s Annotated Don Juan. (His Annotated Paradise Lost still eludes me.) It contains an almost complete collection of original Astounding Science Fiction magazines from 1939-1950, many of which I’ve written about in my Vacation in the Golden Age series, and several of which are signed by Jack Williamson and A. E. von Vogt. It also includes a complete run of my favorite science fiction magazine, Science Fiction Age.

I am delighted sometimes, just sitting in the rail-chair in my office, surrounded by my books. I used to think it was the books themselves that delighted me, but what I realize now is that what I have collected is much more than book. It is a collection of things that I don’t yet know, but they are things that are within my grasp. All I have to do is reach for a shelf, pull out a book, sit down and begin reading.

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Wanted: Good Books on the Science of Dreaming

The emphasis here is on science. My understanding of current theories of why we dream, based on articles I’ve read in science-based publications like Scientific American, is that dreaming helps convert short-term memories to long-term memory. What I am looking for is a book-length treatise on the science of dreaming. It can be a history of the science: what we’ve learned from our first investigations down to the present; or it can be a book describing the current scientific theories on why we dream, and the mechanisms that influence those dream.

When I search for books on “science of dreaming” I get a lot of noise that seems to divide into two major groupings: (1) how to lucid dream; and (2) how to interpret dreams. I could care less about either of these. I’m not trying to become aware that I am dreaming when I am asleep and to take control and start flying around my dreamscape. Nor do I particularly care about how I might interpret what it is I am dreaming about. Given what I have already read about dreams, the latter is more or less meaningless, the brains reaction to firing neurons while committing memories to longer-term storage. What I want to know more about is the research and study that has gone into dreaming.

I am sleeping better than I used to, and I am grateful for that. But despite sleeping well, I wake from most nights feeling worn out from the endless parade of dreams that I’ve been having over the last several months. These are vague dreams, but they seem to be constantly in the background. I wake from them in the middle of the night only to have them resume after I fall asleep. They are not frightening, or particularly exciting, but they are exhausting and they take away from what could be a really good night’s sleep.

I understand (from what reading I’ve done about dreaming) that we all dream, even if we don’t remember what we dream about. What I am looking for is if there have been studies or research done on what external triggers might effect what I will call the “volume” of dreaming. What I’d like the be able to do is turn down that volume for a while. Ideally, I’d like to mute it. The dreams can continue in the background as they always do, but I’d rather not be aware of them for a while. I just want a good night’s sleep. I’d like to do this, of course, without the aid of any pharmaceuticals.

So, I am looking for books on the science of dreaming. Maybe I should be looking for books on consciousness more broadly, but I have a narrow focus here. So far, I have found two possible candidates: a book called When Brains Dream: Exploring the Science and Mystery of Sleep by Antonio Zadra and Robert Stickgold; and The Secret World of Sleep: The Surprising Science of the Mind at Rest by Penelope A. Lewis.

Does anyone have other recommendations on the science of dreaming? If so, please drop your recommendations into the comments. I’d be grateful.

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The Irony of Four Thousand Weeks

Sometimes I don’t recognize the problem that is right in front of me. Take, for instance, the book I am currently reading, and nearly finished with, Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals by Oliver Burkeman. I started this book just after finishing The Big Roads by Earl Swift. Sometimes I finish a book in the middle of the day and immediately start the next one, but this was one of those times when I finished the book later in the day, and didn’t start Four Thousand Weeks until the following morning. I set out on my 6 am walk, and began listening to the audiobook edition.

Four Thousand Weeks is a book I needed to read. It has a lot to say about how we perceive time, how we perceive busyness, and the many, many traps that lie between the two. For instance, the more books I read, the more books I feel I need to read (butterfly effect of reading, folks). Knocking one book of my list adds three or four more to that list. It’s no different with tasks. The quicker you get through your to-do list, the more you find you have to add to it until you realize that you’ll never have an empty list and I’ll never read all of the books ever written.

So there I am on the bike path at 6:10 am listening to Four Thousand Weeks. For the last several years, I’ve tried to read at least 100 books each year. Audiobooks help greatly in this regard because I can multitask and I’ve gradually worked my way up to listening to most books at 1.8x. That’s the speed at which I’d listened to The Big Roads, and it was the speed I was listening to Four Thousand Weeks as I walked up the one steep hill on the bike path. At the top of the hill, I paused to jot down a note, and a few steps later, I paused again, and then again. And it was there, jotting down the third note that the irony of the situation dawned on me: here I was, multitasking, getting in my morning exercise while tearing my way through another book at 1.8x speed–a book that happened to be about how on average we live four thousand weeks, and maybe we should rethink the pace of our lives and all we are trying to accomplish in that time.

I slowed the speed of the audiobook down to 1.5x.

Often when I read nonfiction, I’ll have either a paper or e-book edition along with the audiobook so that I can more readily highlight passages or jot notes in the margins. Indeed, I have the e-book for Four Thousand Weeks in addition to the audiobook, and later that morning, using notes I’d jotted on my walk, I went back and highlighted passages. But circumstances were such that I mostly listened to the audiobook without following along in the e-book. And as I hit the last chapter, I realized that this book was too important, had too much good things to say, things I needed to hear, to rush through it.

So I am doing something I have done only once before1 since starting my list of books that I’ve read since 1996: I am re-reading Four Thousand Week immediately after I finish it. This second reading will be without the audiobook. It will be me sitting with the e-book, thinking carefully about what I am reading, and being more thoughtful about it. When I have finished it a second time, you can be sure I’ll share my thoughts with you. There are things that I have sensed in Four Thousand Weeks that warrant this closer reading.

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  1. I loved Bruce Springsteen’s memoir Born to Run so much that I started it over as soon as I finished it the first time.

Thoughts on The Big Roads by Earl Swift

When I use something, I like to know about it. I’m interested in the history of things and how they came to be. I’ve used computers for decades, but only recently spent a month or so reading in earnest on the history of computing. I’ve used newspapers for nearly as long, and have always been fascinated by how they work. I’ve read book like Ben Bradlee’s A Good Life: Newspapering and Other Adventures, or books like Doris Kearn Goodwin’s The Bully Pulpit. Knowing about the things I use help me to see them in new and different lights, or simply better appreciate them for what they are.

Sometimes, however, the things we use are so ubiquitous that we don’t think about them in a conscious way. I’ve written, for instance, about the many road trips we’ve taken over the years, most recently to Niagara Falls. You can’t take a road trip with roads, and yet roads are so ingrained in our lives, that we almost don’t think about them. Or, as Earl Swift writes in his book The Big Roads: The Untold Story of the Engineers, Visionaries, and Trailblazers Who Created the American Superhighways,

They’ve grown so central to life in a country utterly beholden to the car that they’re almost invisible to most of us, one of those features of the landscape that we take for granted even when we’re on them.

I discovered Swift’s book in the best possible way: by accident. I was roaming our local library branch with the girls when I spotted it on a shelf and it caught my attention. Having just returned from a road trip, I was curious about how our highway system had come about. I knew little, other than that Eisenhower was involved somehow. Swift’s book turned out to be the perfect thing to feed my curiosity.

In an engaging story, Swift covers the history of roads in America from their beginnings. He reviews the birth and growth of the automobile, and then the expansion of a road network across the country to support those vehicles. He details the birth of the concept of a national highway system from its earliest days, decades before Eisenhower, and the eventual evolution of the modern interstate system we have today. Swift tells the story in the best possible way for a book this: through the people involved in its creation.

The story is about more than just the design and need for a system. It covers the politics of its development, how it was financed, the struggles along the way. And it touches on many things related to the roads, like the chain restaurants and hotels that grew alongside the interstates. There was even 3 pages on South of the Border, which we’ve driven past two dozen times, but at which we’ve never stopped. Those 3 pages convinced me that next time, we should.

Perhaps most interesting to me was an observation Swift made about the original vision for the highway system and what it has become today:

Thomas MacDonald and Herbert Fairbank [visionaries involved in the creation of the system] didn’t see it coming, but the system of interregional highways they envisioned is today a place unto itself, divorced from the territory through which it passes. With rare exception, a sense of place, of uniqueness, is undetectable from the off ramp. In place of a local barbecue joint, an exist in the Carolinas is likely to offer an Arby’s or a Chik-fil A. Southern greasy spoons are miles off the main line, shouldered aside by Waffle House and Cracker Barrel. The loathed hot dog stated of the thirties has been replaced by McDonalds.

This resonated with me. Driving long distances on the interstates, as we do when we drive up to Maine or down to Florida, there is a ubiquitousness that separates the stretch of road from the rest of the world. Without road signs, pulling off at an exit ramp in South Carolina looks the same as in Hartford, Connecticut. The feeling I sometimes get is that it is almost as if the interstate is another dimension, a kind of parallel world, a thin place, as Stephen King might say, one from which we can see our world, but at a distance, as if looking at it on a television screen. If you could peel the interstates and their hotel and restaurant-populated exits away from the earth, it could be its own world. I’ve often felt this below the surface, the separation between the the road and the land, but Swift hit the nail on the head with his description of it.

I think perhaps this is why I deliberately avoided the interstates on our most recent road trip, driving west across New York state on blue highways. What a difference it made. We could see the land, the beautiful scenery, and at times we could drive thirty minutes or more without spotting another car on the road.

The interstates were invented for speed and safety, and they get us to our destinations quickly. As the kids have gotten older, what used to be a 3-day drive down to southern Florida now takes two days. And we’ve driven from Orland back to the Washington, D.C. area in one full day. But there is a trade off for the speed and safety. You lose the character of the places you pass through. They are blurs, names on a GPS screen. You lose the taste of the local food, and laughs of the local people.

The interstates were constructed to get us quickly over long distances, but like flying over the country, there is a lot of miss when you are on them.

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A Revolutionary Cemetery

Across the street from our house in Warwick, Rhode Island, beyond the backyard of our neighbors, an old cemetery was perched atop a small hill. The cemetery was surrounded by a low stone wall. A rusty iron gate opened into the cemetery on one side of the wall, but I never remember using the gate. We always just hopped the wall. The cemetery itself was strange and a little scary to the ten-year old I was at the time. I never dreamed of visiting it at night. Gravestones were scattered about, almost at random. Bramble and thorny vines seemed to overgrow the center of the cemetery so that only the outskirts were bare. Trees loomed over the entire space, which couldn’t have been more than half an acre.

The name of the cemetery was Carpenter-Wightman Cemetery. I didn’t learn that until decades alter. Walking around the cemetery was strange. The ground had a hollow thud to it as we stepped through it. Many of the graves were so weatherworn that it was impossible to read the inscriptions on them. But there were several graves that stood out. They weren’t larger than the other, or brighter. They all had a dull, aged look, but these specific gravestones had rusted bronze emblems buried into the earth before them. They were, I eventually learned, markers signifying that the person buried there was a veteran of the American Revolution.

I thought about this cemetery a lot as I read Rick Atkinson’s The British Are Coming, the first of a three-volume history of the American Revolution. I’ve read many histories of the Revolution, and Atkinson’s was vivid, especially where the battles were concerned. I find that he really tries to put you in the midst of the fighting to see what it was like rather than to glorify it. War is gruesome, and it was the description of one battle after another, that had my thoughts returning to the cemetery on the hill. For instance, Atkinson writes,

Sparks ignited the powder, first tearing off the rammer’s arm, then detonating with such violence that six men “were blown all to pieces by imprudence,” a passing mariner named Christopher Prince reported. “Their legs, arms, and bodies were all separated, so much so that we put them all on two handbarrows and carried them up to the Bowling Green, and dug a hoel and put their remains in it and covered them over.”

As a kid, walking through the cemetery, I didn’t think much about the history of it. Today, I get something of a shiver to think that I was standing in front of the graves of men, some of whom were fighting for the American cause, others simply because that’s what they thought they should do.

Aside from the battles, it was interesting to read so many descriptions from the diaries of people living in that period. Atkinson located so many diaries from the period that it seemed that everyone kept a diary. A single diary, of course, can give a skewed view of any situation, but in aggregate, I think they help to form a good picture.

Once again, history demonstrates that behaviors we think are new and strange, behaviors we sometimes don’t understand, are not new at all. They are just new to us. One example came early in the book, when discussing smallpox in Boston:

A report in late March noted that thirty-eight smallpox patients were quarantined on a hospital scow in the Charles River, “some distance from the wharf.” Freeholders voted to continue a recent ban on inoculations; many now feared that it posed a greater risk of epidemic than natural infection.

How many people in that little cemetery, I wondered, were planted there because of smallpox?

One amusing line came from King George III, who supposedly,

once asserted that seven hours of sleep sufficed for a man, eight for a woman, and nine for a fool.

My favorite parts of the book, however, were not the pitched battled, but rather the descriptions of the people involved, be they ordinary citizens, just trying to make a living, or the extraordinary people whose names we know today. This book wasn’t among my favorite books on the Revolution, but every book serves a purpose. This one put me in mind of that cemetery from my youth. It also suggested further investigation of two other people I’ve often been curious about: King George III, and Henry Knox, the bookbinder-general.

In November, a massive 800-page biography of King George III is coming out, titled The Last King of America: The Misunderstood Reign of George III by Andrew Roberts. It’s on my to-buy list. I also picked up Henry Knox’s Noble Train: The Story of a Boston Bookseller’s Heroic Expedition that Saved the American Revolution by William Hazelgrove. This is the great thing about the butterfly effect of reading. Even books that don’t completely wow me can still lead me in new and interesting directions.

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The Story Used Books Tell: An Illustrated Tale

Used books are great for many reasons. After having served one life, they are sent into the world to serve others. There is a smell to used books that bibliophiles appreciate. The pages yellow, they often look used. The binding might be split, the cover might be missing a corner. I like to think of them as well worn. For me, used books feel more comfortable than new books.

Used books have a story tell, one beyond the words on their pages. Some used books come complete with highlights and marginal notes. Sometimes you can see where someone stopped reading. Other times, used books are filled with unexpected treasures that enrich the book and its story.

Years ago, I got a 2-volume set of Civil War books from a cousin who was going through her father’s attic after he’d passed away, The History of the Civil War in America by John S.C. Abbott. volumes I and II. These are first editions, volume I having been printed in 1865 and volume II coming along a year later in 1866. It was hard for me to believe these books were that old given the good condition they were in. I was convinced a few years later when flipping through the first volume, I came to this unusual bookmark within.

an open copy of THE CIVIL WAR IN AMERICA, Vol I with a crisp $100 Confederate note stuck in as a bookmark

At first I wondered what would compel someone to use a hundred dollar bill to mark a page in a book, but I suppose in the aftermath of the Civil War, Confederate money wasn’t worth very much, so marking a page provided some amount of utility.

Our church has an annual book fair and a few years ago, I picked up a complete hardcover set of Dumas Malone’s Jefferson and His Time. All 6 volumes cost something like $5. I took them home, and found a place on a shelf for them and didn’t return to them until a year or so later when I was reorganizing my bookshelves. There, I discovered two amazing things. First, tucked into Volume I was a 1986 obituary of Malone from the Washington Post, written by Martin Weil.

clipping of Dumas Malone's obituary, found in Vol I of Jefferson the Virginian

As it happens, Weil still writes for the Post, and when I discovered this clipping, I sent him an email telling him about what I’d found, and he wrote me a nice reply.

The second thing I discovered were that volumes I and VI in the collection I’d picked up were signed. I wonder if the people who gave the set away realized this?

signed copy of The Sage of Monticello

I once picked up a 4-volume set of H.G. Wells’ The Outlines of History and flipping through them one day, found this American Legion note being used as a bookmark. The note indicates their next meeting will be on May 14, 1947, which means whoever stuck it between those pages did so nearly 75 years ago.

Vol I of The Outlines of History with an American Legion note from 1947 slipped in as a bookmark

Later, the (same?) person opted to use this little slip to mark a page. After that, they must have run out of things at hand because they began folding the pages. Seeing a page folded like this, I wonder if the person ever made it past that page?

In a copy of The Wellsprings of Life by Isaac Asimov, I found this business card? from someone in Canoga Park, California.

copy of The Wellsprings of Life with a Penneys business card

I’ve discovered letters, receipts, and bookmarks within the used books I’ve gathered. But the most common thing I find are autographs. I rarely notice this ahead of time. Two examples follow, both obtained at the wonderful Iliad Bookshop formerly in North Hollywood (and now in Burbank, I believe) in the late 1990s. First, in a copy of Will and Ariel Durant’s The Lessons of History, I discovered after I’d brought it home, that it was signed.

Second, in a copy of In Joy Still Felt, the second volume of Isaac Asimov’s autobiography, I also discovered that it had been signed. It is one of three Asimov books that I have with his autograph, none of them, alas, was I able to ask for on my own.

Signed copy of In Joy Still Felt by Isaac Asimov

Reading a used book, no matter what it is about, I feel like I am in some kind of communion with those who held the book before me. What did they think of it? Did they like it, hate it? Sometimes, marginal notes or underlined paragraph’s give hint. Sometimes, the book has a name inside: “FROM THE LIBRARY OF…” and I wonder what that person might be doing today, or if they are still alive.

I’ve often daydreamed about writing something in a book before giving it away, especially one which is well worn, with plenty of annotations and scuffs. It might say something like, “Dear Reader of the Future, I wonder what your world is like as you sit down to read this book. I wonder what you’ll think of it. I wonder what you’ll think upon seeing this note from the past. Will it be, as Seneca once wrote, that ‘there will come a time when our descendants will be amazed that we did not know things that are plain to them?’ What things are plain to you, that were not plain to us here in 2021?”

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