Tag: reading

De-Automating My Reading Notes: A New and Better Way For Capturing My Reading Notes in Obsidian

Way back in February, I wrote a post on how I capture my reading notes in Obsidian. I had been using Obsidian for a little over a month and was blown away by its features. It had just about everything I’d been looking for in a notes tool. I quickly hacked together some scripts and proceeded to begin gathering all of my reading notes in Obsidian, using a kinda-sorta Zettelkasten framework.

In the nine months since I wrote that post, a lot has changed. This was brought home to me when a reader asked me how I got notes from paper books and articles in Obsidian. My original post focused on Kindle notes. What about paper books? It just so happened that I recently finished re-reading One Man’s Meat by E. B. White, and I marked up a bunch of stuff along the way–in the paperback copy of the book. It occurred to me that over these nine months, I’ve started to stray from the automated model in favor of a more manual approach to my notes. This is a lesson I learned from the automation I originally set up: the automation was nice, and efficient, but it was also detached and remote. The notes felt distant; I frequently never even reviewed them. And even the UID titles my script generated was distant and meaningless. What started out as something cool and interesting, proved less useful than I thought.

That’s the way it goes when experimenting to find the best way something works for me. Here, then, is how I capture my reading notes in Obsidian today–call it de-automating my reading notes, or switching to manual override.

Reading Notes In Obsidian: A Case Study Using One Man’s Meat.

There are three things that I do when reading a book to get my notes into Obsidian. First, I read the book and mark it up along the way. Second, I created a source note for the book, that acts as a kind of map of content (MOC) for that book. Third, I review the notes I took, decide which are worth capturing as a separate linked not, which are worth noting in the source MOC, and which are safe to ignore. Call these three parts reading, prepping, and curating, and creating.

Reading

Everyone has their own way to read to learn. For me, if I’ve got a book in my lap, I also have a pen handy to underline passages or make marginal notes. To help find the places I markup after I’m finished, I keep spare sets of Post-It Flags handy. Each place I mark up, I stick a flag. When I’ve finished reading a book, it frequently looks something like this:

My marked up copy of One Man’s Meat

The colors don’t mean anything. I rotate through the 5 available colors in the pack. The placeholders they represent vary. Sometimes it is an underlined passage with a marginal note. Sometimes it is an underlined passage without a note. Sometimes I’ll put the letters “ph” in the margin beside the passage because I like the way it was phrased. If I pause to think about what I just read, I err toward marking it. I don’t go and create my note in Obsidian right then and there. Experimentation has taught me that if I wait until I finish, some of the passages I marked aren’t really worth capturing.

Prepping and curating

When I finish reading a book, I do a couple of things. I update Goodreads. I update my list of books I’ve read since 1996. And then, I go back to the book and review the flags I’ve left. I go through all of them, deciding in the overall scheme of what I just read, they are worth keeping. If I don’t think the note is worth keeping or recording, I’ll pull out the flag. Of course, my underlined passages and notes are still there, but the flag is there to tell me if I should collect that note in Obsidian. Whatever flags remain mark things I want to capture.

Next, I create a source note in Obsidian. A source note is a note that represents the book I am reading. In this case, the source note is my note that represents One Man’s Meat. I have a top level “Reading” folder in Obsidian with two sub-folders: Sources and Commonplace. Source notes go into my Sources folder. I have a template for Source notes to ensure there is consistency in their formatting and content. I discuss and other templates I use with Obsidian in Episode 8 of my Practically Paperless with Obsidian series. When I first created the source note for One Man’s Meat, it looked like this:

Creating

Once I’ve got my source note, and I’ve whittled the flags down to those that I want to keep, I begin adding my notes to Obsidian. I do this manually, reading from the highlighted passages, typing them into a note in Obsidian, and then adding any necessary meta-data. In general, I capture notes in 2 ways:

  1. Capturing a passage in its own separate note and then link to that note from the source note (MOC) using a transcluded link so that the full note will show up in preview mode. I use this method when I think the highlighted passage and my related notes on it might ultimately be linked to other things than the source note itself. For instance, here is a note from White’s essay “Removal” which I created as a separate note. I then link back to the note on the Source note. (I’ll give an example shortly.)

2. Sometimes, I just want to capture a thought that isn’t really a separate note itself. In this case, I’ll just include it as a bullet in the source note. For instance, in White’s essay “Movies”, I have the following bullet point in the source note:

When all of these notes are created, the source note serves as a master for everything I noted in the book. Since One Man’s Meat is a collection of essays, I list out all of the essays and then using transcluded note links to link to the notes I created for each essay; or, I just add bullet points beneath that essay. The images below show what my source note for One Man’s Meat looks like. It is a long note with the transcluded links so I’m just showing the first few screens of the note:

The notes that appear in boxes are actually separate note files in my “Commonplace” folder that are included in the source as transcluded links. You’ll also see that for some essays, I had no notes, but I included the essays there because (a) thought it would be useful, and (b) if I read the book again, I may add more notes. There are 55 essays in the book so you can imagine this source file going on and on like above with my notes.

Some lessons learned

Just because I changed the way I get my reading notes into Obsidian does not mean my original method didn’t work. It just didn’t work as well for me as I thought it would. My initial idea was that I’d save myself a ton of time by automating as much of the process as possible. But I found that I didn’t really absorb my notes when doing that. It was only when I was culling, curating, and typing in my notes manually that they began to resonate with me.

For that reason, I no longer automate my Kindle notes either. I use much the same process as I’ve outlined above, only instead of using the Post-It flags, I use Kindle bookmarks to mark those notes that I want to keep. This has worked much better for me.

I also found that I was defeating myself by automating the titles of the reading notes with UIDs instead of readable titles. I found that for search purposes, it was far better to have a title like “E. B. White on productivity” than something like “0afe6881-6060-4dd0-8a27-2e91ed323ebc” even if the important text was searchable within the note. For skimming search results, I’ve found that a useful title for a note is key.

One more challenge

Between paper, Ebooks, and audiobooks, the toughest challenge is gathering notes for audio books. But I’ll save that for a future post.

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Visiting with Mel Brooks in Florida

cover for Mel brooks all about me

Mel Brooks new book, All About Me: My Remarkable Life in Show Business, made its debut on Tuesday. I had pre-ordered it and awoke Tuesday morning to the cheerful news that the book was available and we might see our first snow of the season. The snow failed to make an impression but the book has put me in a quandary all day: should I start it now, or wait a few weeks?

After a monthlong spell of not being able to figure out what to read, I went with an old reliable and re-read One Man’s Meat by E. B. White for the fifth time. That seemed to get me back on track. I finished the book at lunchtime, and of course, I am eager to start the Mel Brooks memoir. I’ve seen him on TV lately and there are few people I think of as funnier than Mel. But there is reason to wait. In a few weeks, we’ll be heading to Florida for our winter vacation, and I really want to save the book for when I am down there.

At the end of 2015, while on vacation in Florida, I began reading Dick Van Dyke’s memoir My Lucky Life In and Out of Show Business. I would listen to the audio book (narrated by Van Dyke) while walking on the two mile loop of a bike path that circumnavigate’s the community where my mother-in-law lives. It was winter, but it was 80-degrees. I wore shorts as I walked, an in these 2-mile spurts, I listened to Dick Van Dyke tell stories of his life, his career, and Hollywood. I like it so much that when I finished it, I immediately began another Dick Van Dyke memoir, Keep Moving, and Other Tips and Truths About Aging. I found that I couldn’t get enough.

I followed those up with two Carl Reiner memoirs, I Remember Me, which I read poolside, and I Just Remembered which I listened to as we began the 1,100 mile drive back home. It was wonderful having Carl in the car with me, regaling me with stories of the borsht belt, New York, and Hollywood. The drive was long and I wanted more, so I listened to Carol Burnett’s This Time Together to finish out the drive.

Still not satiated, upon arriving home, I spent that cold, snowy January reading Norman Lear’s Even This I Get To Experience, Garry Marshall’s My Happy Days in Hollywood, and Tim Conway’s hilarious What’s So Funny?

In 2018, while in Florida for our holiday break, I found myself listening to Bing Crosby: Swinging on a Star: The War Years, 1940-1946 by Gary Giddins, and I called it a tradition. In 2019, while walking that 2-mile bike path each morning, I listened to The Ride of a Lifetime: Lessons Learned from 15 Years as CEO of the Walt Disney Company by Bob Iger, as well as George Lucas: A Life by Brian Jay Jones, and also Anything You Can Imagine: Peter Jackson and the Making of Middle-Earth by Peter Jackson. Holiday vacation in Florida had become a time for guilty pleasure reading, and one of my guilty pleasures are Hollywood memoirs.

But a special subset of those memoirs are those by folks who have been in the business for fifty, sixty, seventy years: the Dick Van Dykes and Carl Reiners and, yes, the Mel Brookses.

I recently wrote about my favorite place to read: it is in hindsight. I look back fondly on those sunny, warm walks in winter, passing through the shade of palm trees while lizards and other reptiles (and not a few rabbits) scamper, slither and hop out of my way. I lose myself in those books and in that atmosphere. There is a strange juxtaposition: it is winter and holiday season. Indoors, the air conditioning keeps the Christmas trees comfortable. There are holiday cookies, Christmas masses and dinners, decorations and presents. Yet outdoors it is summer, and there is something out these memoirs that I just enjoy so much.

So while I am eager to listen to Mel Brook’s memoir–which is narrated by Mel Brooks, just as Dick Van Dyke and Carl Reiner and Carol Burnett and Tim Conway narrated theirs–I want to keep my tradition going. So I am going to wait a few more weeks, though it pains me, until we are once again in Florida, the entire family now fully vaccinated, the grownups boosted, carefree for a long holiday, and listen to the book then.

In the meantime, I have to figure out what to read–and hope that Mel Brooks, now 95-1/2–proves that he really is the Thousand Year Old Man, so that I can send him a note when I finish reading the book.

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My Favorite Place to Read Is In Hindsight

Over the holiday weekend we kept an almost constant fire burning in the fireplace. At times, while the kids and their cousins played together downstairs, the grownups sat on the couch facing the fire, and chatted, dozed, and occasionally read our books, the pages softly turning in the gleam of the fire. It seems like a perfect place to read, and I have spent many and enjoyable hour on that couch reading. But it is not currently among my favorite places to read. As it turns out, all of my favorite places to read are in hindsight.

There is a carrel in the Granada Hills branch of the Los Angeles Public Library that I loved to read in when I was twelve or thirteen. During the oppressively hot summer days in the San Fernando Valley, I’d walk the mile from our house to the library, doing my best to stay on the shady side of the street. Stepping into the library was like stepping into an oasis in the desert. The doors would open with a whoosh, and you could feel the cold air pour from the building. After spending a considerable time perusing the shelves gathering books, I’d take my harvest to one of the carrels that patrons used for reading. There, the carrel, the library, everything, would disappear while I read.

Years, later, after I’d graduated from college and started at my job, I would drive from the Valley out to Pacific Palisades, park the car alongside a park that overlooked the Pacific Ocean and sit on a bench to read. There, with an ocean breeze blowing and a quiet surrounding, I read several books, including William Gibson’s Idoru and Damon Knight’s Humpty Dumpty: An Oval.

For many years, on an early April Saturday, I’d head over to the local Swenson’s in Studio City, sidle into a booth, order a chocolate milk shake, and crack open In Memory Yet Green, the first volume of Isaac Asimov’s autobiography. There, with my shake in a glass and a refill off the side, I would sit for an hour or more reading the first few chapters of that book, oblivious to most of what was going on around me. To this day, however, the smell of an ice cream shop pulls me back to Swenson’s.

Returning from a vacation in Hawaii in 2005, I arrived at the Lihue airport around 6 pm for a 10:30 pm flight back to Washington, D.C. via Los Angeles. The United counter didn’t open until 6:30 pm and once I was checked into my flight, I found my way to an outdoor patio. I’d picked up a mai-tai along the way, and sat on a bench with the mai-tai and a copy of Never Have Your Dog Stuffed by Alan Alda. With the trade winds blowing around me, I read, and sipped, and read, and sipped, and sniffed the air. I began to wish that my flight would be delayed until morning. I could sit there reading and sipping and sniffing all night.

My cousin belonged to a fishing club in Vermont and would take me there from time to time. The club was deep in the Vermont wilderness. There was no electricity at the clubhouse, but there was a generator. My cousin taught me to fly fish there. I would take a rowboat out into the lake, fish for a little while, and then, find a shady spot along the short and read. After a while, I’d return, and we’d clean and grill our catch. When it rained, there was a screened in porch and I would sit on that porch with the sound of the rain tuning everything else out reading.

In Castine, Maine, I visited some family. At night, in my room, I noticed how dark and silent it was. I sat up in bed with a light on, reading John Adams by David McCullough for a good part of the night. The silence and darkness gave me some hint of what it might have been like for Adams in Braintree, reading by candlelight, warmed by a stove. What places those books must have taken him!

But my favorite place to read was on the porch of an apartment I rented for several years in Studio City on Tujunga Avenue between Ventura Boulevard and Dilling St., just around the corner from the Brady Bunch House. It was a first floor, corner apartment and had a wraparound porch. I spend hundreds of hours sitting on that porch with my chair propped back, my feet on the railing, and a book in my lap. I must have read a hundred books on that porch in the years that I lived there. In my memory, the weather was always perfect, the scene always serene, even when the street was blocked off while filming a scene from Magnolia1 there. Of all the places I’ve read, that porch is my favorite.

It may be that in ten or twenty years from now, the places I read today will be among my favorites. I enjoy sitting out on our large deck with a book. I like sitting on the couch in front of the fire. There is a chair in my office surrounded on three sides by my books where I like to read. But for me, a favorite reading place becomes so only in hindsight.

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  1. At the time, the guy in the craft services truck told me that it was “a William H. Macy movie called The Rose.”

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

me holding a copy of wheel of time

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

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

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

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

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

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When Books Don’t Live Up To Re-Reading

adult blur books close up
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Should I Read the Wheel of Time Series?

I have on my desk the newly issued The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan, a tie-in release for the series on Amazon Prime that premiers on Friday. I’m thinking about reading it. I was never much of a fantasy reader until I watched the very first episode of Game of Thrones when it made its HBO debut. As soon as I saw the episode, I tore through the (then) first four of George R. R. Martin’s series. His books turned me onto fantasy. That said, when the series ended, I still hadn’t read A Dance of Dragons, and I suppose I never will at this point. With this new Eye of the World series coming out, I thought maybe I should get ahead of the curve and start reading the series now so that watching it won’t make me not want to read the books.

I’ve heard mixed things about these books. Some people swear by them. Other people say that they are pretty good, but become long winded later on. I can’t imagine the series ends that way, however, given that Brandon Sanderson finished the books after Robert Jordan’s death. I really enjoyed Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive–at least the first four books that have been released thus far.

One reason for reading the series is that it is complete. Martin’s isn’t complete yet. And Patrick Rothfuss’s Kingkiller Chronicles, which I absolutely loved, is not yet complete–and I’m somewhat skeptical that it ever will be. With Jordan’s series, I can start it knowing that if I like the first book, I don’t have to wait for the second, third, or the fourteenth for that matter.

The books are long, the entire series coming in at just under 12,000 pages or 4.4 million words. Using my BEq measurement (“book equivalent”–see what I have read since 1996 for more information), those fifteen books displaces 29 other average-length books that I might have read in their place. Is the series worth passing for now on 29 other books? I guess what I am asking is: is the story compelling? Am I going to want to keep turning pages well after bedtime, the way I felt when reading The Way of Kings or Rhythm of War?

I’d be interested in what folks who have read the series have to say about it. I’ve glanced at the comments and review in places like Amazon and Goodreads, but I read reviews much because too often I’ve found that what random reviewers say doesn’t mesh with my own experience. I’d rather get feedback from my readers who’ve read some or all of the series. Did you like it? Did you make it all the way through? Was it worthwhile? If you gave up, why? Let me know in the comments!

ETA: See my follow-up with what people suggested.

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You Better Promise Me We’ll Be Back In Time

first fifteen lives of harry august cover

On the first date I went on with my wife of 13+ years, I was reading The Best Time Travel Stories of All Time edited by Barry N. Malzberg. I’ve always enjoyed time travel stories. I’ve always wanted to write one, but they are difficult to write because the obvious time travel tropes have been done over and over again. I particularly enjoy those time travel stories that find an original twist. So I was pleasantly surprised when I sat down a few days ago to read The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North.

This was a terrific time travel story with a unique twist: certain people, when they die, reset back to the beginning of their life, but retaining all of their memories. They are then able to communicate with others like them by passing messages to the future (via carvings in stone, or hidden messages in plain sight); and they can communicate with the past by telling people about the future when they are “reborn.” This was also just a plain enjoyable spy-versus-spy story, well executed, and with a satisfying ending that stayed within the limits of the rules of the universe as setup by Claire North.

A big part of what delighted me about this book is that these types of time travel stories–one that have an original twist, that is well-executed–seem so rare to me. In reading The First Fifteen Lives… two books with fairly similar ideas came to mind. The first was Timequake by Kurt Vonnegut, in which through some strange universe gymnastics, everyone jumps from 2001 to 1991, and then has to relive the decade, making all of the same decisions as they originally did. The other book I was reminded of was Robert J. Sawyer’s Flashforward, in which everyone passes out at the same instant and each person has a brief vision of the future.

There are other time travel stories I’ve enjoyed. My personal favorite (and still one of my favorite novels period) is Stephen King’s 11/26/63. The novelty there is that when you go back in time, you reset everything to the exact date and time in 1958. So if you back in time and make changes, those changes will propagate to the future and stick–until you go back in time again, and everything is reset. You could be gone 20 years, but only 2 minutes passes in the present.

Another favorite of mine is one that Barry Malzberg mentions in The Best Time Travel Stories of All Time, but is too long to reprint there: Up the Line by Robert Silverberg. This is the time travel story to end all time travel stories and the ending is about as brilliant as one can get in a time travel story.

The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger had an original twist to it, traveling through time being a kind of genetic disease. Pete Hamill’s Forever, though not strictly time travel had time travel tropes in that the main character could not die, but as the title suggests, lives forever, so long as he never leaves the island of Manhattan. He spends centuries there.

Two fun time travel novels include The Accidental Time Machine by Joe Haldeman, and Time Traveler’s Never Die by Jack McDevitt. Connie Willis has done several time travel novels, but my favorite of hers and one of the better time travel novels I’ve read is Blackout / All Clear. Bonus points for all of the World War II era history.

Sometime I will try writing a time travel story of my own. But not until I return from the future and can be sure that my idea is still unique and not overused.

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Books That Reduced Me To Tears

rhythm of war cover

Kelly saw me sitting in the office on Monday, tears streaming down my face. “What’s wrong?” she asked. I hesitated. I was a little embarrassed and not sure how to respond. Finally, I said, “It’s this book I’m reading.” The book in question was Rhythm of War by Brandon Sanderson, book four of THE STORMLIGHT ARCHIVE. Spoiler alert if you haven’t read the book and are planning to: the scene I’d just finished was one that involved Teft and Moash toward the end of the book. If you’ve read it, you know the scene I’m talking about.

I finished the book on Monday. As it turned out, those tears were the first of many that I shed, some sad, some happy, in the last 200 pages of that 1,200 page long book. In fact, I can’t remember crying as much as I did in the last 200 pages of the book than in the last 20 years of my life. To me, that says a lot about the story. Set aside the genre, the writing style, the writing itself. If a story can draw those emotions from a reader, well, there’s something there. I wish I could tell a story that well.

There are writers that are good with endings, they can stick the landings. Others not so much. I’ve heard readers complain about Stephen King’s endings, although I don’t mind them. The end of 11/22/63 always brings me to tears (“How we danced!”). And I should know. I’ve read the book 7 times. The same is true for the end of Forward the Foundation by Isaac Asimov, which I have read at least 5 times1, although for slightly different reasons. As Janet Asimov wrote in I. Asimov, “Forward the Foundation was hard on him, because in killing Hari Seldon, he was killing himself.”

It takes skill to build up a story to the point where readers care enough about the characters that they affect them emotionally. Thinking back over the stories that I have written and published, there is only one that, upon re-reading, has the potential of doing this to me: “Gemma Barrows Comes to Cooperstown.” The ending of this story gets me on the rare occasions that I re-read it. I did something right in this story. I’d like to be able to find that again.

I began reading THE STORMLIGHT ARCHIVE last November, and raced through the first three books (more than 3,000 pages total) before 2020 was over. Then I moved onto other things, before I decided last week to try to catch up and read Rhythm of War. When I finished, of course, I wanted to read book 5, but as far as I can tell, the next book in the series isn’t due to be released until sometime in 2023. Probably late 2023.

It’s always difficult to finish a good book and find another good one. I struggled, as I often do after finished a good read. I finally settled on The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North. By the time you are reading this, I should have finished that book.

I find it amazing that words on a page can produce these emotions. Screenwriters, actors, directors, and musicians combine their talents on screen and on stage to produce moving stories, but there, you have images and music to manipulate your emotions. With a book, it’s just you and the words on the page. I think that’s what I love so much about being a writer. How can I make someone feel with just words on a page? It is also what is perhaps the most intimidating thing about being a writer, at least for me.

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  1. I say “at least” because I read it at least once before I started keeping a list of everything I’ve read in 1996.

Pamela Paul Is Reading My Mind

There is an almost perfect bookstore that I wander into every day. The entrance to the store steps down onto an old, beige carpet with spots showing its age. Immediately to the right and left are four floor to ceiling bookcases . Another four smaller bookcases line the wall to the left, with three more on the opposite side of the store. On the right hand side of the store on a single shelf, are the reference books. It’s incredible but this bookstore is like walking to my brain. There are some 200+ volumes by Isaac Asimov, some rare, a few signed. There are signed Ray Bradbury books, a complete used set of Will and Ariel Durant’s Story of Civilization. There is a shelf and a half full of Harlan Ellison books, with at least a dozen signed. Everywhere I look, there are books that I would choose for my own collection. There are even magazines, a complete run of Science Fiction Age and issues from Astounding between 1939-1950. They even have books and magazines with my own stories in them! It is an unusual bookshop in that none of the more than 1,100 books on the shelves are for sale. It is, of course, my office.

This is as close as I can come to describing the feeling I got upon reading Pamela Paul’s wonderful new book, 100 Things We’ve Lost to the Internet. Paul is the editor of The New York Times Book Review. She wrote another wonderful book a few years back, My Life With Bob, which detailed her “book of books,” the analog equivalent to the list of books I’ve read since 1996. As the title of her new book suggests, it is a collection of 100 short essays about things we no longer have thanks to the Internet, things that I remember well from the days before the Internet. Paul laments the loss of these things in an engaging fashion that appeals to people of a certain age. Below that age threshold and the reader might be mystified. The 100 things she suggests and the way in which she discusses them is eerily close to what my own list would include. Indeed, while reading the book, I kept thinking to myself, hey, I’ve written about that. I’ve written about that, too. And that.

Let me gives some examples of the 100 things that Paul says we’ve lost to the Internet that I’ve also written about here on the blog. Keep in mind that these are things we have lost to the Internet.

Pamela PaulMe
Chapter 13: The Phone Call.When A Phone Is No Longer A Phone (2021)
Chapter 16: The School LibraryThe Nine Planets by Franklyn M. Branley (2010)
Chapter 21: The Family MealRushing Through Dinner: A Tale of the Twenty-First Century (2021)
Chapter 25: SolitudeQuiet Places (2019)
Chapter 28: Losing Yourself in a ShowWhy I Can’t Watch Movies Anymore (2021)
Chapter 36: The PaperDo Fifth-Graders Still Learn to Read the Newspaper (2019)
Chapter 42: PatienceHave You Seen My Patience (2017)
Chapter 46: Looking Out the WindowThe Evolution of Road Trips (2015)
Chapter 51: Leaving a MessageRetiring My Voicemail (2013) (One thing that I do not lament)
Chapter 53: MapsMap Reading Is a Dying Art (2016)
Chapter 55: Handwritten LettersLetters vs. Email (2018)
Chapter 58: SpellingSpelling Snobs (2021)
Chapter 60: Wondering About the WeatherTalking About the Weather (2021)
Chapter 76: PenmanshipCursive Handwriting (2017)
Chapter 86: Movie TheatersWhy Go To the Movies? (2017)

One of the essays (Chapter 41) was about the Spanish-English Dictionary. It lamented how these are no longer needed, now that Alexa or Siri could translate just about anything for you. I heard that and had to smile because here, beside my desk is a Spanish-English Dictionary sitting atop a copy of Don Quijote de la Mancha. I have been (very slowly) trying to make my way through the book as a way to beef up on my Spanish.

As I read 100 Things We’ve Lost to the Internet, I kept finding myself muttering under my breath “Yeessss! Exactly!” It really felt like Pamela Paul was reading my mind. It wasn’t a scary feeling, but a delightful one. She captures each lost thing perfectly, and her descriptions put me in mind of those things that the Internet has taken away. I felt joy and wistfulness at the same time. If my reaction to Paul’s book is any example, I can’t see how it could be anything less than a runaway bestseller–and deservedly so.

Recently, I’ve started to read aloud to the kids. We do it for a short time each evening, as a kind of family activity. The first book they picked was Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. However, I’ve made a promise to myself to mix nonfiction into these readings, and I think the next book will be 100 Things We’ve Lost to the Internet. I think it will make for lively discussion.

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Ronnie, Reacher and the Babe

covers for the boys, better off dead, and the big fella

I felt like I was getting a little behind in writing about some of my recent reads, so I thought I’d tackle three of them in a single post: The Boys by Ron Howard and Clint Howard; The Big Fella: Babe Ruth and the World He Created by Jane Leavy; and Better Off Dead, book 26 in the Jack Reacher series by Lee Child and Andrew Child.

The Boys: A Memoir of Hollywood and Family by Ron Howard and Clint Howard

It is rare that I read two really good books in a row. I savor those moments because usually, when I finish a book that I think is fantastic, it is often hard to find one that gives me as much pleasure. It happened recently, however. After finishing Joe Posnanski’s outstanding book, The Baseball 100, I cracked open the new memoir by Ron Howard and Clint Howard, The Boys: A Memoir of Hollywood and Family. Actually, “cracking” it open is a figure of speech. I listened to the audiobook, which was narrated by the authors, and what I delightful read.

You have to understand that Hollywood memoirs are a guilty pleasure of mine. I’ve read a bunch of these memoirs over the years, sometimes in big gulps. I like the behind-the-scenes stories, I like learning about the process of making films and television shows. So when I saw that Ron and Clint Howard were coming out with a memoir, I was eager to read it. Also, I was a big fan of Happy Days as a kid, and I’ve enjoyed many of the films that Ron Howard has made over the years. I’ve also enjoyed the performances of his brother, Clint, in shows like From the Earth to the Moon and Apollo 13, although he is known for much more than that.

The memoir takes us from Ron Howard’s birth through Happy Days and the beginning of his directing career. What I really liked about it was that it was equal part Hollywood and family. The Howard Boys talked much of their lives growing up, as well as their parent’s aspirations. Their folks were down-to-earth people, which comes across in how Ron Howard seems in his life. But I also enjoyed the behind-the-scene parts, learning how television shows and movies were made as Ron and Clint grew up, and their involvement in popular televisions shows as child actors. There wasn’t much ego in this book, and that is part of what made it such a great read.

The Big Fella: Babe Ruth and the World He Created by Jane Leavy

The one-two combination of Posnanski’s The Baseball 100 and the Howards’ The Boys makes for a tough act to follow. Joe Posnanski’s book had me back in a baseball mood, and I’d been wanting to read Jane Leavy’s biography of Babe Ruth, The Big Fella: Babe Ruth and the World He Created for a while. I’m glad I finally got around to it. The book is a phenomenal piece of baseball history, well-researched and covering the Babe’s entire life. I learned more about him than I had ever known before.

Leavy’s approach framed the life of the Babe through a 1927 tour he made with his friend Lou Gehrig arranged by their manager/agent, Christy Walsh. Indeed, as much as the book was a biography of Ruth, it was also a biography of Walsh, who took control of Ruth’s career and finances early in his career, and steered him to financial success, despite Ruth’s wont to spend, spend, spend. Walsh was almost as fascinating as Ruth, a super-agent before such a thing actually existed.

A testament to any author is, having read one book, wanting to read another. I came away from The Big Fella wanting to read more by Jane Leavy. She has written a biography of Mickey Mantle, and one of Sandy Koufax. But I am especially interested in her baseball novel, Squeeze Play.

Better off Dead: Jack Reacher #26 by Lee Child and Andrew Child

I read my first Jack Reacher novel in 2015. It was okay. Fun. A nice break. I read the second Reacher book a year later. Again, fun, but nothing spectacular. Then, in the winter of 2018, I caught a bad case of the flu, despite getting my flu shot, and I ended up in bed for a week. I had just finished reading the 3-volume Autobiography of Mark Twain and was looking for something light, that I could read quickly, under the covers, with a fever. So I picked up Reacher, Book 3. I made it through 4 books that week, and three more the next. By the end of March, I’d gotten through 21 of them. They were fun, escapist, just what I needed. Since then, I’ve continued to read them as they come out.

But I am beginning to think that the end is near. I read the most recent entry in the Jack Reacher series, Better Off Dead in just about a day. I wasn’t impressed. In this one, Reacher ends of in the middle of a potential terrorist attack, and he kicks ass, as he usually does. But it just fell flat too me. It never felt as if he was in any real danger. There was no depth to the story. Even the point of view, back to first person after many novels in the third person, didn’t help.

The older books were much better. I especially liked the books when Reacher was still in the military, and worked with his friends, several who were recurring characters. This one just felt phoned in. At one point in the book, Reacher talks about maybe one day, settling down, getting a house, “But not any time soon,” he says. I think maybe it is time for Jack Reacher to reconsider.

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12 Books I’m Looking Forward To, October 28, 2021

pile of assorted novel books
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I am pretty far behind pace on my reading this year. I try to read 100 books/year, and as of now, I am 17 books behind. There are a lot of reasons for this. There have been distractions. The kids are getting older and there are a lot more events to attend. I had a busy year at work, which often consumed some of my evenings as well as my days. I’ve read some longer books than usual. I have been writing for the blog every day. For about 2 months I got completely sucked into podcasts. It’s not a big deal, but it is something I notice. Anyway, I was looking at my list of books I’m looking forward to and there are some new ones coming out, and some old ones I’ve been wanting to read. Here are the books that I am looking forward to right now, always with the caveat of the butterfly effect of reading:

Are there books that you are looking forward to? Should I be looking forward to those as well? If so, let me know what they are in the comments.

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Best Book in the Last 125 Years

books in black wooden book shelf
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

The New York Times Book Review is celebrating its 125 anniversary. As part of the celebration, they are asking everyone to nominate the best book of the last 125 years. There is no definition of what “best” means. A recent correspondent asked me what I would pick for the best book in the last 125 years. I’m not sure I’m qualified to answer that question. I haven’t read nearly enough books to get a sense of the wide variety of what has been published in that time. Even on existing lists I am woefully under-read. Take Modern Library’s Top 100 Nonfiction Books of the 20th Century. Of the 100 books on that list, I have only read 13.

I imagine that some people would pick their favorite book, other people what they think is the “best” book. It is likely that some people will pick books that they haven’t read simply because other people think it is good, or popular. The Bible will get picked a lot but since that book has been around far longer than the last 125 years, I don’t think it will count. There are no real guidelines. Fiction and nonfiction are equally acceptable. The only stipulation is that the book must have been published in the last 125 years–that is, after 1896.

After a fair amount of thought, here is how I replied to my correspondent:

I’d probably blend my definition to include favorite and important. I don’t know if I could settle on one. I’d like to pick Will and Ariel Durant’s The Story of Civilization, but that is 11 volumes and I’ve read the first six of them so far. Another might be The Education of Henry Adams by Henry Adams, which just makes the cut, since it was published early in the 20th century. Turing’s Cathedral by George Dyson tells the story of how we got to our modern digital age. Given where the future is headed, The Double Helix by James D. Watson could be the best—if the last 50 years have been about digitalization and the hackers that created our modern digital world, the next 100 or 150 years might be about genetic hackers, the coders of the future. Then again, for pure joy, maybe Shoeless Joe by W. P. Kinsella is the best of the last 125 years. Thing is, for every book I’ve read there are tens of thousands that I haven’t and how many of those might qualify for “best”?

My correspondent suggested Silent Spring by Rachel Carson, which has been on my list for a long time now, but which I haven’t read yet. My correspondent also suggested that maybe the best way to think about it is to play the desert island game–you are stranded and you can only pick one book: what would it be?

That makes things easier, as I have thought about that often. If I could count Will and Ariel Durant’s 11-volume Story of Civilization as one book, then that would be my pick, hands down. With those 11 volumes, I’d never really feel alone. I’d have thousands of figures from across the entire span of human civilization. I could read about their art and science, their culture and religions, their work lives and leisures. It would all be there.

If I had to be one book, however, just one, that is much more difficult. Indeed, if I reimagined the New York Times question, and asked myself “What is the best book I’ve read in the last 25 years–regardless of when it was published?” I’m not sure I could answer it. I suppose I could go through the list of books I have read since 1996–1,110 of them as of this writing, and pick out the best book from each year to get a Top 25. Even from those 25, it would be difficult to whittle the list down to one “best” book. I could make the argument for The Sweet Science by A.J. Liebling–a collection of essays on, of all things, boxing. But the writing! I could make the argument for The Library Book by Susan Orlean because libraries meant so much to me growing up, and this book is about the Los Angeles Public Library, one of which I made enormous use as a teenager. I could make the case for 11/22/63 by Stephen King, still my all-time favorite novel, even ten years after I first read it. Or The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes. Or The Bully Pulpit by Doris Kearns Goodwin. Any of these and a dozen others could be my “best” with equally compelling reasons.

I’m probably overthinking all of this. But I take lists like these seriously since I use lists like these for recommendations, and I want to trust the judgments that they contain within their enumerated titles.

If you want to nominate your candidate for best book, head over to the New York Times Book Review and fill out their form. And if you can manage to whittle your list down to a single best book, and care to share, let me know what it is in the comments. I am always looking for the best books to read.

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