Tag: books

Reading All the Books

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Now and then I lament that there will never be enough time to read all of the books I want to read. I could spend lifetimes reading books that have already been written, without even scratching the surface. And that wouldn’t count all of the new books that are constantly being released.

I touched on this most recently back in 2017, when I wrote a pair of posts on the mathematics of reading (part 1, part 2). Around the same time, I wrote a lengthy entry in my diary that delved into my own personal mathematics of reading, trying to figure out how I could cram more reading into my day. Since 2013, I’ve taken advantage of audiobooks to be able to read while doing other things: commuting, walking, exercising, doing chores around the house, waiting in lines, etc. This diary entry explored increasing the speed at which I listened to audiobooks steadily over time. Indeed, in 2018, I managed to read 130 books, and another 110 in 2019, both a dramatic increase over previous years.

These days, I find myself listening to audiobooks at 1.7x and occasionally, 2.0x for certain narrators (like Grover Gardner, for instance) and that helps. I’ve made such a steady increase in the speed that I listen to the books since 2013 that 1.7x sounds perfectly normal to me.

I thought that these 2017 ruminations on the finite amount of reading I could do in a lifetime were among the earliest I’d had, brought on my reaching middle-age, perhaps. But I was wrong. Among the treasures I discovered recently in some of my older writing was an early lament in the “so many books, so little time” vain. On March 20, 1995 (over a year before I began keeping a diary, when I was just approaching 23 years old), I wrote the following to a group of friends.

March 20, 1995, Installment 17

While we are on the subject of numbers, I mentioned last time how I had recently began to feel that I would never be able to read everything I want to read in my lifetime. I thought about this more last night, and the thought became so terrifying as to shake me from my sleep. Allow me to explain.

I realized sometime earlier this month that there are far too many books in the world than I would ever be able to read in my lifetime. Far, too many. When I was younger, I used to be kept up all hours of the night in fear, thinking about death. I eventually ourgrew that fear and it has never bothered me since. However, the feeling of terror I had last night was far worse than any feeling of terror I had toward death. I realized that I wouldn’t even come close to reading all the books there are to be read. I tried to calm my thoughts by telling myself that I would only read books I felt compelled to read, which would certainly narrow the field quite a bit. But this realization soon turned to horror as well. In the ten years that I have been reading science fiction, I have only barely scraped the tip of the iceberg. And that’s just science fiction. I realized, with horror, that all of the books which I skimmed over in high school (when I was stupid and lazy) I also wanted to read, not to mention books I heard about, as well as all the new books coming off the presses by the thousands each year.

At the beginning of the year, I made it part of my resolution to read 100 books this year. When I saw that wasn’t going to happen, I was quick to revise my goal to fifty, which I can do, but will be tough. In order to help organize myself, I began three lists. I began these lists a week ago. One list is a description of what I read each day (so I don’t duplicate unless I choose to). Another list is a list of what I want to read next; this is my main list, and I go through the list in a first-in-first-out manner. The third list is a “wish list” of book and stories I want to get.

Part of my realization (and terror) last night came from those lists. You see, it took me a week to complete I. ASIMOV. It seems like a long time, but I was only reading about 100 minutes a day, and since I was reading an average of 70 pages an hour or so (quite a bit!) eight days isn’t so bad. The problem was the phenomenon that occurred in that period of one week. My list of books and stories I want to read, the one which had only one book at the beginning of the week, now had EIGHT books on it. (Five book, and three short stories, to be truthful). Suddenly, my list had grown by eight weeks. (Working full time, and writing [regularly again, finally] three nights a week, I estimate I can still read 1 book a week). At that rate, my list would grow eight times faster than my reading, so that after one year of reading, I would complete about 50 books (not bad, and far above the average), but my list will havew grown to 400 books and/or stories! By the time I am seventy, my list of books still to read will be longer than all the books I have ever read all together.

I will forever be in a deficit.

This may not seem like a big deal to most people, but to me it is. I wish that I could read all the books there are in existance, yet I know that I will not be able to. In some ways this is a tragedy. I’m trying, though. I am currently reading THE GODS THEMSELVES (Isaac Asimov), and next week I’ll be reading four short stories, and the following three weeks will consist of ALICE IN WONDERLAND, DANTE’S INFERNO, and THE ILIAD. So I’m trying.

But I’ll always be behind, and I doubt that my efforts to catch up will ever be successful. Still, it’s a good excuse to read profusely, something which I love to do (as I’m sure you guys know.)

I found these ruminations of mine very interesting. I wrote them down 27 years ago and today, found a few enlightening things in them:

  • In the piece I mentioned “in the ten years I’ve been reading science fiction.” That seems to cement when I first started reading science fiction to when I was 12 and about to turn 13 years old. That seems right to be, looking back on it. I would have been in 7th grade and I think that is right around the time I discovered a Piers Anthony book called Race Against Time in the Granada Hill branch of the Los Angeles Public Library. It was not the first science fiction I’d read, but it might have been the one to lead me to other Piers Anthony books, something I obsessed over for a time.
  • I had a goal back then to read 100 books/year. I didn’t actually meet this goal, or come close to meeting it until 2018, some 23 years after first writing it down.
  • I mentioned keeping some lists of books, including books that I’d read. I don’t remember these lists, but they were likely precursors to the list of books I’ve read since 1996, which I started keeping about 9 months after writing this piece to my friends, and which I have maintained ever since.
  • I lamented that the list of books I wanted to read grew faster than the books I actually read, probably my first inkling of what today I call the butterfly effect of reading.

It was fun to revisit that piece of writing when I was still a brash 22-year old. Today, I am still occasionally frustrated that I can’t read as much as I’d like to. But with age, I’ve come to be grateful for the books I have read. And I’d like to think that that 22 year old version of me would take some satisfaction knowing that in the years since, I’ve managed to read about 1,200 books.

I suspect, however, that he’d scoff at that. “Only 1,200?”

Written on April 12, 2022.

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A List of Books to Read

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Today I jotted down a list of books to read. I think it serves as a good, real-world example of how the butterfly effect of reading works on me. It started on my afternoon walk. I was listening to the final volume of William L. Shirer’s memoir, A Native’s Return and Shirer mentioned Winston Churchill’s obituary and then recounted some of the brief interactions he’d had with the Churchill. I’d read William Manchester’s 3-volume biography of Churchill 8 years ago, and it impressed me. I was particularly moved by a passage about the death of Marigold Churchill, his daughter. I was reminded that I’d always wanted to read Churchill’s World War II memoir, the full version of which fill six volumes. I scratched the word “Churchill” on my list.

Shirer also mentions Thucydidies in his memoir, and that reminded me that I’ve wanted to read The History of the Peloponnesian War. In my Field Notes notebook, I wrote “Thucydides.”

Thucydides got me thinking about ancient histories. Hadn’t I picked up a copy of Herodotus’s Histories? “Herodotus” went on the list.

In the chapters discussing his book, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, which I recently read, Shirer mentions that in length, it is almost as long as Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. That’s another history I’ve wanted to read for a long time. I scratched “Decline and Fall” on my list.

The chapter I was listening to ended, and I decided to walk the rest of the way home in silence. I thought about the things we needed to do before our road trip down to Florida two days hence. One thing the those semi-annual trips to Florida meant was 4 days of driving–two down and two back–during which I could spend 8+ hours each day listening to audiobooks. What books would I want to listen to?

There was that new biography of Harry S. Truman that had come out, The Trials of Harry S. Truman: The Extraordinary Presidency of an Ordinary Man, 1945-1953 by Jeffrey Frank. I scribbled “Truman” on my list. And there was that cleverly titled book, The Joy of x: A Guided Tour of Math from One to Infinity by Steven Strogatz. I wrote “Joy of x” on my list.

I glanced up at the sky. It was a slate gray, overcast and gloomy. For some reason I thought of the moon, and that in turn reminded me that I’d seen a new book come out by Fred Haise, an astronaut on Apollo 13. As someone who has consumed dozens of books on the space program, and especially Apollo, I decided that this would make a good read for our trip. I jotted “Fred Haise” on the list.

My mind drifted back to my recent reading, which contained a lot of World War II. I’d read John Toland’s The Rising Sun, and Shirer’s Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. Shirer knew a lot of people, especially journalists, and I thougt about a passage he mentioned about John Hersey, author of Hiroshima. Hadn’t I picked up that book while I was reading Toland? “Hiroshima” went on my list. Of course, Shirer was a journalist, and I once thought about being a journalist–even going so far as to take a minor in the subject. Was there another journalist I could read about?

I pulled out my phone and scanned the list of books I’d recently obtained. Among them was Carl Bernstein’s Chasing History. “Bernstein” went on my list.

That was 9 books. I felt like I needed one more for an even ten. Right there below Bernstein’s book was another book I had recently acquired, Baseball in the Garden of Eden by John Thorn. Since the baseball season was about to start, I added “Baseball book” to the list. Here then, is the page from my Field Notes notebook containing a list of books to read.

a page from my field notes notebook with my list of books

This is a good list. I may not get to all of these books right away, or in this order. The butterfly effect of reading is unpredictable. But it’s a useful list to have going into our trip down to Florida.

ETA (4/27/2022): Since writing this post I’ve read the Truman biography, and The Joy of x. I also read another biography of FDR (not on the list above) and a biography of George Marshall. And I am, at the moment, almost finished with Carl Bernstein’s memoir, Chasing History.

Written on April 6, 2022.

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Real Science Books

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In the taxonomy of categories that bookstores–online and physical–provide, the category of “science” is frequently far too broad. For one thing, it is often combined with other categories, as in “Science and technology.” When that happens, the science part seems to lose out.

Each Tuedsay, when new books are released, I head over to Audible to see if there are any new releases I might be interested in. I have a process that I follow. I don’t skim all of the new books. Instead, I skim certain categories. I usually start with “Biographies & Memoirs,” followed by “History” and then “Science & Engineering.” Lately, however, a lot of the books I’ve found listed under “Science & Engineering” are dubiously classified as such.

Growing Lavender for Profit: The Complete Guide to Building a Successful Lavender Business by Aaron Martinez is categorized under Science & Engineering. “Business & Careers” seems like a better category for this book.

Sweet Surprise: A Secret Weight Loss for Over 40, Hormone Balance, Stop Sugar & Refine Carb Cravings, 21 Days Sugar Detox for Your Best Beach Body by Triya Redberg is categorized under Science and Engineering. The only thing that remotely calls to mind “science” in this title is its length. Call me skeptical. This book seems better suited toward “Relationships, Parenting & Personal Development” because of the latter in this catchall category.

There are several survialist books that appear under “Science and Engineering.” I think this is sneaky. We all know that this is not what we mean by science or engineering.

Selling Cars: A Step-by-Step Car Selling Guide for Beginning Used Car Dealers and Entrepreneurs — from a Licensed Car Dealer’s Perspective by Dr. Ezekiel Fierce Zeke is categorized under “Science and Engineering.” Here, I take it that the taxonomers meant “social engineering.”

As far as I know, the authors of these books don’t categorize them themselves, and so they are not at fault for this. Indeed, they may be dismayed at having their books put into the Science and Engineering bucket in the first place. Surely “Self-Help” sells better than science.

Still, fully one third of the new science and engineering books released this week on Audible were not remotely close to what I think of as science and engineering. I feel like science and engineering is getting short shrift here. When I think of books of science, I think of the kind of books that Carl Sagan and Isaac Asimov wrote. I think of books by Martin Gardner and Stephen Jay Gould and Neil deGrasse Tyson. I think of books by Katie Mack or Sy Montgomery. In short, I think of book that contain ample quantities of, and are mostly about the physical sciences, the scientific method, the history of science and related mathematical branches. Selling used cars, growing lavender for profit, and rapid weight loss are nowhere on this list.

We should be able to do better than this.

Written on March 16, 2022.

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What It Means to Read a Book

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A troll on Reddit1 had a post in r/books that berated anyone who considered listening to an audiobook “reading.” Their post has since been deleted (possibly they realized how silly they sounded) but part of their claim was that it wasn’t reading unless you were doing it with your own eyes and brain.

I posted a brief, mild objection to that claim, but I figured I could elaborate at length here by asking what it means to read a book.

I have previously written that when I listen to an audiobook, I colloquially refer to “reading” the book. My reasoning is that how I consumed the book is less important than the discussion of the book itself. Also, if I say, “I recently listened to…” it inevitably leads to a discussion about the mechanics of audiobooks, which further digresses from the point of the conversation.

For anyone who is still learning to read, the act of reading words from a page is important to build the skill. There is no doubt about that. But at some point, at least based on my own experience, the skill plateaus. At least, I’ve gotten to a point where I don’t feel like my abiliity to read is getting noticably better, even though I read more than ever before.

Once the skill has been established, however, what matters most to me is the content. Let’s use a real example. I am currently reading The Rising Sun by John Toland. And when I say “reading” I mean mostly listening to the audiobook. That said, I frequently take notes when I read so I also have an old paperback edition of the book that I follow along with.

Now, if I listen to the audiobook and you read the paperback, we can both still have a detailed and in-depth discussion of the book and will recognize what the other person is talking about. I didn’t use my eyes and you didn’t use your ears, but we both consumed the same content and ended up at the same place. That seems to be the most important thing.

And besides, the idea that reading has to be done with one’s eyes must be incredibly insulting to blind and otherwise visually impaired people who read using their fingers. Add my old college pal Rusty (who was blind) to our little reading group and let him read a Braille edition of The Rising Sun and he, too, can discuss the decline and fall of the Japanese empire along with us. We are all on the same page, so to speak.

Content is what matters. I’m reminded of a passage from Isaac Asimov’s memoir In Memory Yet Green, when he describes the oral exams for his Ph.D in biochemistry. He was asked by one of his examiners how he knew the potassium iodide he used was indeed potatssium iodide. Asimov responded, “Well, sir, it disolves as potassium iodide does, and yields iodine as potassium iodide does, and it gives me my end point as potassium iodide would, so it doesn’t matter what it really is, does it?” The same can be said for reading The Rising Sun on paper, on audiobook, or in Braille. The words are in the same order, so what does it matter?

Indeed, content is so much the key to this that I find myself getting annoyed when the content doesn’t quite line up. While the audiobook version matches the main body of text in the paper edition, the footnotes in the audiobook are sometimes truncated. That annoys me and I find myself pausing the audiobook at every footnote I come across in paper edition so that I don’t miss any.

Reading in its broadest sense, which encompasses consuming written content in different forms, is one way that we learn new things and improve ourselves. It should be accessible to everyone, and yet there are people who struggle with it and potentially miss out on its benefits. Moreover, before young children have the ability to read we read to them. Audiobooks are a great tool for bridging this gap, bringing content and knowledge to people who might not otherwise get it.

For me, reading a book is to consume its content. The method of consumption may go through your eyes, your ears, or your fingers, but they are just conduits to your brain which is where the magic happens.

When I say I read a book, it means I may have listened to the audiobook, or read the paper or e-book edition, or any combination thereof. How I consumed it shouldn’t matter. What matters is what I got out of it.

Written on March 12, 2022.

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  1. Can you believe such a thing?

My Desert Island Bookshelf

Given how much I read, I am occasionally asked what my favorite book is. My answer is the same as when my kids ask me what my favorite food is: it depends. With books, especially, I’m no longer certain I can say I have a favorite. I don’t rate books because I don’t find much objective value in rating systems. Instead, I simply indicate if the book is one that I would recommend and/or read again.

Friends, however, rarely let me get away with this answer. They want something definitive. Again, it varies based on all kinds of factors. For instance, my favorite baseball book is currently Joe Posnanski’s The Baseball 100, which recently unseated W. P. Kinsella’s Shoeless Joe on my personal best-baseball book list. My current favorite fiction series is Craig Johnson’s Longmire books.

My clever friends try another tact: what if you were stranded on a desert island? What book would you want with you then?

Put that way, I have an answer. Indeed, I have a bookshelf just in case such a situation arises. Of all of the books sitting on the shelves in my office, there is a single shelf that I consider to be my desert island bookshelf. The shelf contains the 11-volume Story of Civilization series by Will and Ariel Durant, as well as four other books by the Durants, including their Dual Autobiography. If pressed, this would be my desert island bookshelf.

Why The Story of Civilization, the first of which was published in 1935 and the final volume in 1975? Certainly some of the material is outdated, and new discoveries have supplanted what is in these books. Even so, these eleven volumes provide a history of human civilization that is epic in scope and meticulous in detail. And best of all: I simply love Durant’s writing style. His style can make any subject seem interesting. Then, too, I feel for the Durant’s as I read each volume. You can see from the introductions to each book how the project grew far beyond their original expectations, but they kept going.

The books highlight the key figures of history, so I’d never been lonely for company. But the books also provide a picture of what life was like for the average person, too. The story of civilization is also the story of war and art and literature and science, and thus, I have all of these fascinating subjects as company. At more than 10,000 pages, it would take a while to get through the entire series, so that when I started over again at the beginning, the early parts would seem fresh and at the same time, I’d have additional context from the later volumes. It seems to be I could never be bored with these books on my island.

As it happens, I’ve considered the question of desert island books before. Way back in 2007, I mentioned Will Durant as an author whose books I’d want with me if I was stuck on a desert island for 20 years. In 2014, I considered this question again, and again come up with Will Durant’s Story of Civilization as my desert island books. And in 2017, I once again considered this question, and once again gave as my answer, the Durant’s Story of Civilization as the books I’d want with me on a desert island.

I am nothing if not consistent.

Now if I could only figure out how to take this bookshelf with me when traveling by plane over water, or by sea, so that I have it with me in the unlikely even that I am stranded on a desert island.

Written on March 5, 2022.

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3 Elements of Good Fiction

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These days I mostly find myself reading nonfiction. I am interested in the world and how it works and nonfiction helps to satisfy that interest. This wasn’t always the case. I read a lot more fiction growing up. There were times growing up when I found nonfiction boring. Frequently the reverse is true today. I see lots of recommendations for novels that I can barely get into. After giving up on a few novels in recent months, I got to thinking about this. I thought about the novels that I raced through, and those in which I couldn’t make it past a few pages. In doing so, I identified three elements that will virtually guarantee I’ll finish a novel. These are (in order of importance to me):

  1. A good story
  2. An entertaining story
  3. Good writing

1. A good story

Story is the most important thing for me. If the story is not interesting (or nonexistant) then I am really unlikely to finish a book. I think this is why I enjoy Stephen King novels so much. For all the criticism I read of his work, he knows how to tell a good story. It doesn’t matter to me how long the novel is. If the story is good, the longer the better. I want to be immersed in story. Brandon Sanderson is another great story-telling, and depsite his Stormlight Archive novels being over a thousand pages each, the story maintains them. I finished each of those books wanting more.

There are novels that I have wanted to read that just don’t have a good story. A good story has to hook me right away. I recently tried reading Ulysses by James Joyce, but there was no hook to it. I couldn’t find the story, and gave up.

I sometimes feel shallow when I think of this, but novels, for me, are really no different than TV shows for people who enjoy visual media.

Recently, I started re-reading Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan novels. These are examples of novels with good stories. I’ve binged nearly four of them in less than a week. It’s the reading equivalent of binging a series on Netflix.

2. An enteraining story

In addition to providing a good story, a novel needs to be entertaining. This is entirely subjective, and I’m not sure I could describe what elements make up an entertaining story. It’s like pornography: I know it when I see it. Intersting characters, novel ways of presenting scenes, vivid imagery, pacing, all of it comes together to make an entertaining story. Stephen King and Brandon Sanderson are masters of these elements.

3. Good writing

When I read a novel, I’m generally looking for the first two elements. I want to have fun. I want a good story and I want to be entertained. Good writing is nice, but not necessarily required. I thoroughly enjoy Lee Child’s Jack Reacher novels, but I wouldn’t say that the writing is the best I’ve ever encountered. One of the reasons Stephen King has become one of my favorite novelists is because he’s got all the tools: good, entertaining stories with good writing. (For two understated examples, check out From a Buick 8 and Joyland.)

Craig Johnson’s Longmire novels are examples of good, entertaining stories, backed by good writing. Brandon Sanderson’s novels and Patrick Rothfuss’s novels hit all three of these buttons for me. So do Barry N. Malzberg’s novels.

Tom Clancy’s novels are great stories, with a lot of entertainment value, but I wouldn’t say he set the world on fire with the quality of his writing. It was good enough to get the pictures in my head and make for an enjoyable read, but nothing more.

Like I said, I’m pretty easy-to-please when it comes to fiction. I want a good story, one that entertains me. If there the stories happen to be well-written, that’s a bonus, but not a must. If I start a novel and don’t see at least the first two elements quickly, it is extremely likley that I won’t finish it. I’m okay with that.

Written on February 23, 2022.

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Rereading Books

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I was reading the new Ken Follett novel, Never recently and while it was interesting, it was moving too slowly for me. When a book isn’t working for me, I don’t hesitate, I set it aside. I set the Follett novel aside and began reading a book on the history of Ireland. We are planning a trip to Ireland this summer and I felt I needed to know something of the history of the place I am visiting. Still, the Follett novel had me wanting to read some spy novel just for fun.

Coincidentally, I introduced the boy to the film The Hunt for Red October not too long ago, and through that film, Jack Ryan and his exploits. I remember when I first read Tom Clancy back in the late 1990s. I found a tattered copy of Debt of Honor at the Iliad Bookshop in North Hollywood and I tore through that book faster than I had any book in quite some time. It ends in a cliff-hanger so I immediately read Executive Orders. Once I finished that, I went back to the beginning and red the other Jack Ryan novels.

It occurred to me that maybe I could re-read the Jack Ryan novels–at least the first 8 that Clancy wrote himself–to satisfy my spy novel craving. It got me thinking about re-reading books in general.

I wrote about this several years ago, giving the reasons why I occasionally re-read books. Looking at that post, my reasons still hold up. I re-read a book when I’ve really enjoyed it. I sometimes re-read when I don’t remember much from the first time around. Then, too, re-reading often brings out additional context because I’ve read more widely since the previous reading. Re-reading a book because I enjoyed it is often the case with fiction; re-reading for memory or context I do mostly with nonfiction.

The book that I have re-read most is Isaac Asimov’s memoir, I. Asimov, which I have read 15 times. I used to read all 3 of Asimov’s autobiography volumes each April, starting with this one. It has been nearly 12 years since I last read that book, however. I re-read less than I used to.

I’ve re-read the complete Foundation series at least 5 times. I’ve read my current favorite novel, Stephen King’s 11/22/63, seven times, most recently in 2018. I’ve read my favorite presidential biography, John Adams by David McCullough, three times.

I’ve read Patrick Rothfuss’s Kingkiller Chronicle twice, and I would read the books again, if I saw an official announcement that book 3, The Doors of Stone had a release date.

I’ve read my favorite essay collection, One Man’s Meat by E. B. White, five times. That is my go-to book when I get stuck and can’t figure out what to read next.

Only once have I read a book and then immediately re-read it. That was Bruce Springsteen’s memoir, Born to Run. I read it while on vacation in Florida in December 2016, and when I finished it, I went right back and read it again.

As for Tom Clancy, I have read the first three Jack Ryan books twice. So if I do end up reading them again, it will make for a third time.

Sometimes I feel guilty about re-reading books. The time I spent re-reading a book is the time I could be spending seeking new territory, so to speak. But then I remember that I generally re-read something I enjoyed, and I can’t complain about doing something that I enjoy now, can it?

Written on February 15, 2022.

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Book Banning: An Alternate History

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I have a theory of learning, based largely on my own experience, that goes somthing like this: Elementary school taught me how to read. High school taught me how to think critically about what I read. College taught me how use those skills to learn. It seems ironic, but after passing through sixteen years of schooling, I was finally ready to learn. And that is what I have tried to do ever since. I graduated from college in 1994. In 1996 I began keeping a list of books that I read. In the 26+ years that I’ve maintained that list, I’ve read 1,135 books. Thanks to my elementary school education, I was able to read those books in the first place. Thanks to high school, I was able to think critically about what I read. And thanks to college, I’ve managed to learn something new from every single book I’ve read since.

The news lately contains reports of increased book banning across the country. My critical eye warns me that it is hard to say if such an increase is really happening, or just being reported more. A recent example: a school board in Tennessee banning the book Maus by Art Spiegelman. From what I can tell, the book was banned because of the swear words it contained. The argument from one of the school board members was that a student using such language in the school would be up for disciplanary action, therefore, why have a book in the library that uses this language?

The critical thinking I learned in high school has some objections to this argument, but others writing about the book ban have covered those objections exhaustively. I want to take a different approach to looking at this trend in book banning, a kind of alternate history, if you will.

I am the product of public libraries and public school systems. The first library I was ever introduced to was the Franklin Township Library in Somerset, New Jersey. I was five or six years old. My mom took me, as I recall, and I was amazed by all the books they had. My mom had told me that books were a way to explore just about anything. I landed on a copy of a book called The Nine Planets by Franklyn M. Branley. The tagline on the book was “exploring our universe” and I was hooked. I checked that book out again, and again. It introduced me to astronomy, and more broadly, to science. I discovered a majesty in the idea that we were just one small planet in the larger universe. I discovered comfort in the idea of the scientific method: that you could learn new things from experimentation; that you could apply knowledge and reason to problem-solving. Of course, as a six year old, I didn’t think all of this at the time. But I recognize the sense of wonder it instilled in me. That one book set me on a path that led me to where I am today. What success I have had in school, in life, and in my career, has come from the ideas initially stirred in my by that book.

Now: what if that book had been banned?

The Nine Planets
My copy of The Nine Planets by Franklyn M. Branley.

The reason the book is banned doesn’t matter so much as the inability to access it. I’m not saying that the reason for the ban isn’t important, but from a practical standpoint of someone with the limited access and resources of a six-year old, the fact is that whatever the reason, I can’t get the book in my library.

It is possible that I would have stumbled upon some other book that stirred similar emotions and ideas within me. There had to be something already there inside me that made the book resonate with me to begin with. So it is possible that some other book would have done the trick. But book-banning is a slippery slope, and this is where the reason for the ban is important. If The Nine Planets had been banned because school board members objected to the message it presented to impressionable students–perhaps that the book described a creation of the universe that varied from a view held by the school board members–then it would make sense that other books that varied from this view might also find themselves on the banned book list. That would make it less likely that I would encounter the ideas that led to my success in life–at least at such an early age. Would I be the same person I am today if The Nine Planets had been banned?

There seeems to be concern among school boards that lean toward banning books that the messages in these books are so powerful that they will do some kind of permanent damage to students. That message could be something simple, like the use of swear words. It could be something more complex, like causing one to question how history has been taught, or reckoning with the past. Let’s set aside, for the moment, the fact that swear words are everywhere these days, from the titles of books, to the pages of newspapers, to broadcast television, to meetings in the workplace. Instead, I want to look at my own experience.

I’m not one to use swear words. I don’t object to them out of any moral or prudish ground. There are two reasons I avoid using them: (1) it was how I was brought up, and (2) I enjoy the game of finding better ways to say the same thing without using swear words. Growing up, my parents made it clear to me that I shouldn’t use bad language, and to this day, I can’t use it around them, even when they use it themselves. But as I said, I am product of the public libraries. After we moved to Los Angeles, when I was in sixth grade, I began making regular visits the the Granada Hills branch of the Los Angeles Public Library. There, I had access to books and I sampled everything. I read books on science, on history, on technology, psychology, even books on Gregg shorthand. I read fiction and that fiction sometimes contained swear words. I never felt put off by that. It never made me want to use swear words either. Indeed, the phase in my life when I swore most, was after hanging out with friends who thought it was fun to do it. So it was friends, not books or movies, that cajoled me for a short time into regular use of profanity.

Now: what if those friends had been banned?

Well, in all likelihood, I would not have gone through a short period (mostly 7th grade) where I swore like a sailor everywhere but in my house. That’s no big loss. In all likelihood, too, however, I would have missed out on the good parts of those friends, the camaraderie, the way friends point out your faults so you are aware of them and can improve, the building of social relationships, the fun we had. That is a big loss, and it seems to far outweight the swear words they encouraged me to use.

I attended a humanities magnet high public high school in Los Angeles. We read a lot of books during my three years there, and I suspect many of those books would be looked on sourly today by the school boards banning books like Maus. We read Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions, which contained some graphic illustrations that we all laughed at. We read Jerzy Kosinski’s The Painted Bird in which a woman was raped with a bottle. We read plays involving incest (Oedipus Rex, Hamlet). Not only did we read them, but we had to write critical essys about them–we had to think about what we were reading. None of this did any harm to me that I am aware of. I didn’t read Breakfast of Champions and immediately begin doodling anatomy in my notebooks. I was a little startled by the scene in The Painted Bird but saw it for the verisimilitude that it was. I was bored by Oedipus Rex, but enjoyed Hamlet, although not as much as, say, Henry V. But these books and others became whetstones for critical thinking. Writing about them helped to sharpen my thoughts.

Now: what if those books had been banned?

I’m not sure a humanities magnet program can exist without such books, so the immediate impact is to destroy a program that taught me how to think critically and how to write well. Would I have done as well on my college entrance exams without such critical thinking? Without training in writing well? Would my college application essays have been as compelling? For that matter, even assuming I got into a college, would I have succeeded in the manner I did without that honed critical thinking and ability to write? Would my interests in reading have waned? Would I have tried writing fiction, as I did beginning in my junior year? Would I have sold any of what I wrote, as I ultimately did? And what of nonfiction? Would I have dared to write essays for magazines? What about this blog? Would it exist?

It is easy for a school board to ban a book. And then another. And then another. It is easy to make the argument that the books can be had elsewhere–just not in the school or town library–if you have the money to purchase it. It is easy to see book banning as an action with no real impact beyond the political message it is intended to convey to satisfy certain constituents. It is much more difficult to see how a student not having access to a book can impact the course of their life. After all, it’s just a book, right?

And yet, there are books that are the very anchor to billions of lives: The Bible, the Quran, the Vedas and the Upanishads to name just a few. These are books that impact lives every day. So who is to say that the real impact of banning The Nine Planets would be nothing more than a political message. In my case, this was the book from which my curiosity grew. This was the book that began to teach me how to think about the world. This was the book that started me on a path of reading for something beyond just entertainment. This was the book that made me a student who wanted to learn what was being taught and apply it beyond just a test. This was the book that inspired my desire to learn new things for as long as I possibly could. This was the book that has led me to read 1,135 books since leaving my formal education behind. This is the book that will keep me reading and learning until the end.

I ask again: what if that book had been banned?

Written on January 27 and February 9, 2022.

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My Harlan Ellison Collection

Staring at my books the other day, I pulled Harlan Ellison’s Slippage collection off the shelf and sat down to read my favorite Harlan Ellison story: “The Man Who Rowed Christopher Columbus Ashore.” This story is one of a handful that I consider perfect stories. I’ve read the story five or six times and it gets better each time–an attribute that all perfect stories have. I’ve written elsewhere about Harlan Ellison. But today, I got to thinking about the Ellison books I’ve managed to collect over the years.

It’s not possible for me to read just one Ellison story, so I pulled my fairly battered copy of Deathbird Stories off the shelf and read “The Whimper of Whipped Dogs” which is one of the scariest stories I’ve ever read.

Holding that copy of Deathbird Stories, I realized it was the first Harlan Ellison book I ever bought. I bought sometime during my junior year in college–call it 1992. I’d heard of Ellison, but I’d never read anything by him. I was spurred to do so by the early issues of Science Fiction Age, which introduced me to so many writers I would come to enjoy.

Money was not easy to come by in those years, and forking out $9 for the Colliers trade edition of Deathbird Stories was a big financial commitment for me. But it was also one of those investments that I can never put a price on because it introduced me to Ellison’s writing and paid me back more than I could have imagined. Finding a great writer is like finding a rare gem. Ellison was one of those gems.

The next book I managed to get was Angry Candy, which I read over and over again because it and Deathbird Stories were the only Ellison books I had. In my senior year, I located used hardcover copies of Dangerous Visions and Again, Danergous Visions. I remember reading those books while visiting my girlfriend at the time at UC Santa Cruz.

Once I graduated and started my career, I began to buy more Ellison books. I built my collection gradually. I lived in Studio City, not far from Dangerous Visions bookshop, which I frequented regularly. I met Harlan there on several occasions when he signed books, and so quite a few of the books that I bought there are signed. I bought all of the new books and collections that came out, and located more used editions. They were all wonderful, but some were truly amazing. The special edition of Mephisto in Onyx was one amazing one. Another was Mind Fields, containing the incredible art work of Jacek Yerka, for which Harlan provided a story for each piece of art.

In used bookstores I located worn (but wonderful) paperback copies of older Ellison books like Web of the City, The Deadly Streets, and Memos From Purgatory. I found a well-worn copy of Gentleman Junkie which I’ve read over and over again. I located a copy of Harlan’s rock-n-roll novel, Spider Kiss. The smells that still cling to these books remind me of those days when I was still discovering his work.

I collected Harlan’s essays as well. I located copies of The Glass Teat and The Other Glass Teat, Harlan Ellison’s Watching and An Edge In My Voice. Harlan signed many books for me over the years, including my copy of The City on the Edge of Forever and his screenplay for I. Robot. He signed that one for me in 1994, and I was sad because Isaac Asimov had been dead for two years, and I imagined how amazing it would have been to have both their autographs in the book.

It is fun to skim through the books on my shelves and pull one off, as I pulled Slippage off the shelf a few days ago. It brings back fond memories and reading those stories and essays again, I often find new aspects. A book or story is never the same with each reading. It ages along with you, and gains new perspectives and connections as you gain new perspecties and experiences.

Written on January 28, 2022.

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7 Books I’ve Always Wanted to Tackle

books on wooden shelves inside library
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There are certain books* that intrigue me as particular challenges. These are books that I’ve always wanted to tackle, but haven’t yet summoned the courage to do so. None of these books are particularly short. So there is a big commitment involved for each of them. Then, too, there are not particularly easy, which means streching my comprehension to the limits, which, while mind-expanding, can be exhausting. Still, these are books I definitely want to tackle at some point in the future. I own several of them already, and in at least one case, the book has been sitting on my shelves for more than twenty years.

Here are some of the books that I’ve always wanted to tackle.

1. Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon

Over the year I’ve read excepts from Gibbon’s masterpiece. I’ve seen it quoted in countless places. But I’ve always wanted to read it myself. This was a favorite of, among others, John Adams and Isaac Asimov. I think it would be particularly enlightening in our current political climate. I suspect there are many lessons to take from these volumes. It is a heady and lengthy undertaking. I have the Everyman’s Library edition and also the audio book edition from Audible (which is something like 120 hours!)

2. The Structure of Evolutionary Theory by Stephen Jay Gould

I always enjoyed Stephen Jay Gould’s essays, and I especially like his book Triumph and Tragedy in Mudville which was all about baseball. The Structure of Evolutionary Theory was his magnum opus. I remember getting it sometime before August 2002, because I remember sitting on my deck in Studio City, California with this book in my lap attempting to read the first chapter.

The book defeated me then, but every time I see it on my shelf, it calls to me. For whatever reason, I am particularly attracted to long books, and this one, at nearly 1,400 pages may well tip the scales at the longest book I’ve ever attempted. It is also heady stuff, but I’ve always found Gould’s writing to be both clear and fascinating.

3. The Ants by Bert Hölldobler and Edward O. Wilson

I’ve read and enjoyed 4 of Edward O. Wilson’s books, and I recently finished reading Richard Rhodes’ biography of Wilson, Scientist: E. O. Wilson, A Life in Nature. His writing about ants fascinates me. The Ants was one of the books for which Wilson won a Pulitzer prize (the other was On Human Nature). I got this book a couple of years ago, started reading it, and then realized I was biting off more than I could chew at the time. But I still want to go back to it.

4. The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William L. Schirer

Here is another long book that I’ve always wanted to tackle. I’ve read a lot about the Second World War, but very little of it has been about what happened inside Germany to bring the war about. Schirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich attempts to tell this story and it is a book that I’ve wanted to tackle for a long time now.

5. Greater Gotham by Mike Wallace

Back in 2006, I read Gotham by Mike Wallace and Edwin G. Burrows. It was a fascinating history of New York City from its inception as a Dutch colony to it becoming a unified city in 1898. It was also a lengthy book, and is, of this writing, the longest book I’ve ever read.

Years later, Wallace wrote a second volume, Greater Gotham, almost equal in length to the first, but instead of covering several centuries, it covers barely 20 years, the history of New York City from 1898 to 1919. Having read and enjoyed the first book, I have no choice but to tackle this second volume at some point. Already, I wonder if a third volume is in the works.

6. A Study of History by Arnold Toynbee

Toynbee was a phenomenon in his time. I’m not sure if his theory of history still holds up today or not, but I understand that these were popular and fascinating books at the time they were published. I’ve acquired the first four volumes in the series. I believe there are a dozen in total.

7. Science and Civilization in China by Jospeh Needham

I’d never heard of Jospeh Needham until reading Simon Winchester’s book The Man Who Loved China–a book that I’ve read twice now. I’m fascinated by Chinese history because I know so little about it, but what really attracted me to this series (besides its title words “science” and “civilization”) is Needham himself. I’m amazed by people who can spend their entire careers on a diving deeply into a single subject. It’s what fascinated me, in part, about Will and Ariel Durant’s Story of Civilization and Dumas Malone’s 6-volume biography Jefferson and His Times. There are many volumes to Needham’s series and they are hard to come by, but I’ve managed to acquire four of them, which is enough to get me started, once I’m ready.

Are there books that you’ve always wanted to tackle? Let me hear about them in the comments.

Written on January 16, 2022.

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Reading Challenge, 2022

adult blur books close up
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Since 2018 I have participated in Goodreads‘ annual reading challenge. I do this more for fun than anything else. Reading itself is a pleasure for me. The challenge is always how much can I possible read in the limited time that I have. The Goodreads challenge is a fun way to help me focus on this, the way a FitBit challenge can be a fun way to exercise.

In the last four years I have completed the challenge twice. In 2018 I set a goal of reading 120 books and I read 130. In 2019 I set a goal of reading 110 books and read 112. In 2020 and 2021, I didn’t complete the challenge. I read 88 books in 2020 (out of 110) and 79 out of 100 last year1. I’m not disappointed when I don’t complete these challenges. After all, 81 books in a year is still a lot by any standard.

The challenge counts books and that is a hard thing to estimate in advance since so many books vary in length. I have a tendency toward longer books, and if you look at the list of books I’ve read since 1996, you’ll notice that I don’t count the pages read, but instead, I made up a statistic I call “Book Equivalents” or BEq for short. BEq is based on the average book length I’ve read over the last 25+ years, which turns out to be 410 pages. A 410 page book, therefore is equal to 1 BEq. A 600 page book would be equal to 1.46 BEqs while a shorter, 200 page book would be equal to 0.49 BEqs. This allows me to normalize how much I read and compare from year-to-year more readily than the number of books I read. Goodreads, of course, doesn’t track reading this way and on their challenge, I count a book as a book regardless of my book equivalents, but it is the BEqs that really matter to me.

For instance, though we are not quite halfway through January (as I write this), I have not yet finished a book. According to the Goodreads challenge I am 3 books behind schedule. There are two reasons for this. The first is that I did almost no reading during our final week on vacation while we were at Walt Disney World. The second is that the book that I started at the end of 2021 (I count a finished book by the date I finish it not the date I start it) was Gore Vidal’s massive United States: Essays 1952-1992. This book is 1,295 pages, or 3.16 BEqs. As I will finally finish this book today, you see that, based on BEqs, I’m right on par for the year, even though Goodreads counts this massive tome as a single book. (Fair enough.) Indeed, this book is the third longest book I’ve read in the 26 years I’ve been keeping my list. The two books that are longer? The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York by Robert A. Caro, coming in at 3.28 BEq which I read in 2018; and Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 by Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace, which stands at the top at 3.47 BEqs. I read this one way back in 2006.

My reading frequently comes in waves, often driven by the butterfly effect of reading. I’ve read as many as 20 books in a single month (once) and there have been months (long ago) when I read no books. These days, I usually get through between 5-10 books per month, but things that throw me off. Last year, I was distracted for two months by listening to back episodes of the Tim Ferris Show Podcast when I would normally have been listening to an audio book. I don’t regret this, but it explains why my reading was so low in the spring. Here is what my book counts and BEqs looks like since 1996. You can scroll in the window to see more years.

In 2022, I am attempting once again to read at least 100 books. As I tend toward longer books, this is frequently a challenge. To do that, I need to finish a book every 3-1/2 days. Given that an “average” book for me is 410 pages, that means reading 120 pages every day of the year. Most of the reading I do is through audio books, and I frequently listen to audio books at 1.7x. Take the case of United States. The book is 1,295 pages. The audio book is 60 hours long. One hour of listening time is equivalent to about 22 pages of text. However, because I listen to the book at 1.7x, the book is really 35.3 hours of listening time for me. That means 1 hour of listening time covers 37 pages of text. Assuming my average read to be 410 pages, the 120 pages I need to get through each day requires 3-1/4 hours of listening time. I usually aim for about 3-4 hours of listening time throughout the day, so this goal seems achievable to me.

For those who might want to follow along in my reading challenge in 2022, you can find me on Goodreads. Of course, I’ll also be updating the list of books I’ve read since 1996 as I finish each book so you can always check there. And if you have a reading goal for 2022, I’d love to hear about it in the comments.

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  1. The image below shows 81, but I think I have 2 books in my Goodreads data marked as finished that I haven’t actually finished. I need to go and correct that data.

On the Road with Stoker and Ebert

A little over a week ago we hit the road for our holiday vacation. All of the preparations were done. At 7 am, as planning, I pulled the car out of our driveway for the 560 mile drive to our hotel on the I-95 corridor in Savannah, Georgia. We have been doing these holiday road trips since 2012, driving the approximately 1,000 miles from our house in Virginia to Kelly’s mom’s house in the southern gulf coast of Florida. We didn’t do the holiday trip last year because of Covid–the first time we’d not gone down to Florida for the holidays since 2009, when Zach was an infant.

We generally do drives like these in two days, with the first day being the longer day. Back when the kids were younger, we did them in 3 days, but now, we like getting to our destination as quickly as possible. It was unseasonably warm when we left the house, the temperature right around 50°F. I prefer it to be cold with a light snow flurry when we leave. It makes it that much more fun when we cross the St. Mary’s river from Georgia into Florida the following morning, and I roll down the window and feel the warm air in December.

The first day’s drive takes about 9 hours, depending on traffic. I drive the whole way. Kelly acts as “cabin resource management.” The kids have their phones and iPads and plenty to entertain themselves. Over the years, we’ve taken to packing food with us on the initial day so that we can minimize stops. I look forward to these drives because it means I can get in a lot of reading–audio books, of course. Indeed I got nearly 7 hours of listening time in on the first day, with just over 5 hours on the second.

There are a number of books I’d planned on reading while on vacation. I’ve already written how I planned to spend some time in Florida with Mel Brooks. For the drive, I decided to go back to the early days of my audio book reading, way back in February 2013, and look at books that I’d obtained but never read, or never finished. I picked two to get me down to Florida: Life Itself by Roger Ebert and Dracula by Bram Stoker. The latter I had read back in 2013, but it was a blur in my mind and I felt I needed to read it again for clarity.

I actually started Life Itself a day or two before we left for our vacation. I remember ordering it–it had to be one of the first 10 audio books I’d ever gotten–back in 2013, but for some reason, after ordering it, I never got around to reading it. I’m so glad that I did. Ebert’s memoir is wonder and insightful, especially in light of the illness that plagued him in the final years of his life. I love reading books about journalists (for instance, Ida Tarbell, Ben Bradley) and Ebert was a newspaperman through and through. I loved his descriptions of the people he knew, and especially enjoyed his descriptions of travel all over the world. I also picked out some of the advice he gave by way of example. For instance, writing about his newspaper days, Ebert said,

Lyon watched as I ripped one sheet of copy paper after another out of my typewriter and finally gave me the most useful advice I have ever received as a writer: “One, don’t wait for inspiration, just start the damned thing. Two, once you begin, keep on until the end. How do you know how the story should begin until you find out where it’s going?”

The first of these confirmed for me what I do here on the blog. It is impossible (for me at least) to have new inspiration every day. Some day, I feel like I have no good ideas to write about. But the show must go on, so I pick a less inspired idea, and set about writing. In summing up this advice, Ebert writes,

These rules save me half a career’s worth of time and gained me a reputation as the fastest writer in town. I’m not faster. I spent less time not writing.

That last is pure gold, especially in these days of distractions and the accompanying distraction-free writing tools. If there is a single explanation to how I manage to write every day on the blog, and to produce well over 300,000 words a year here it is this: I try to spend less time not writing.

I finished Roger Ebert’s memoir somewhere in northern North Carolina, and almost without pause, started listening to Bram Stoker’s Dracula. The edition that I am listening to has an “all star” cast that includes Alan Cumming, Tim Curry, Simon Vance, Katherine Kellgren, Susan Duerden, John Lee, Graeme Malcolm, and Steven Crossley. Normally, I’m not fond of “full cast” audio book performances, but Dracula‘s epistolary form lends itself to this perfectly. It is a joy just to listen to.

It also reads as a remarkably modern novel with suspenseful story-telling, and engaging characters. There are things that are still not entirely clear to me, a how Van Helsing knows so much about vampires in the first place, but I can set that aside as unessential in favor of the story itself. It is not a monster story, it is not the stories portrayed in the Christopher Lee movies I used to watch on Saturday afternoons on Creature Double Feature in the early 1980s. Instead, it is the story of science and technology overcoming darkness

The book took me through North Carolina. Our brief stop in Fayetteville for gas and a restroom break was rushed because I wanted to get back to the story. South Carolina was a blur, for I had by then left Transylvania and made my way back to London. The following morning, a we crossed from Georgia into Florida, I witnessed the sad demise and destruction of Lucy Westenra and the chilling scene in the crypt.

We arrived at our destination with just over 2 hours left in the book. I was tired from two days and 1,000 miles of driving, but as I went to sleep, I drifted off looking forward to how Mina and Jonathan Harker, Van Helsing, Seward, Morris and the others would ultimately defeat the Count.

These were great road trips books. Not all of them are. And since the drive home always seems longer than the drive down, I am already trying to figure out what books would make good companions for our return.

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