Tag: reading

The Pull of Science Fiction

sky earth space working
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Lately, after several years away, I am once again feeling the pull of science fiction. I’ve found myself staring at the s.f. books on my shelves, picking one up and starting it, and then decided that it wasn’t what I was looking for and trying another one. I continued to read other things–I’m back on a baseball kick right now, and in the midst of Jane Leavy’s biography of Babe Ruth, Big Fella. But the pull of science fiction has been there in the background, like the subtle gravity well of some distant planet.

When I started to write s.f., my experience with it was fairly limited. I’d read a lot of Piers Anthony, some Isaac Asimov, and Harlan Ellison, and not a whole lot else. The first s.f. magazine I read with any regularly was Science Fiction Age, not long after it debuted in the early 1990s. Back then, most magazines suggested reading the stories they contained to get a feel for what they published. I rarely did that (SF Age was the main exception). I was too impatient. Besides, I wanted to write my stories, not stories like the ones I read in the magazines.

I was young and naive.

Perhaps this is why it took me 14 years of writing and submitting before I finally sold a story. Or perhaps it took that long to hone my craft to the point where it was salable. Who knows?

In the fall of 1997, I read Age of Wonders by David G. Hartwell and in the immediate aftermath of that book, I expanded my range in the s.f. world, reading in rapid succession books like The Stars My Destination, Rogue Moon, The Demolished Man, and Dying Inside. It was a beginning. A decade later, I read another fantastic Hartwell & Kramer book, this time, The Hard S.F. Renaissance. It was then that I decided that I enjoyed “short” s.f. more than novels. The shorter pieces seemed to pack more of a punch, they were necessarily more dense, and they seemed to experiment more than novels, perhaps because the overall investment was less. Not long after that, I began selling to Analog.

Still, my experience with “current” short fiction was limited. I read stuff my friends wrote and published. I occasionally read beyond that. Mostly, I spent my time vacationing in the golden age of science fiction, reading issues of Astounding Science Fiction from cover-to-cover beginning with the July 1939 issue. I discovered some wonderful gems in there. I even wrote a guest editorial in Analog, “Gem Hunting” about these wonderful stories.

At some point, the stories I was writing began to change. They began to be less science fictional, although always retained at least a tenuous connection to the genre. Whatever passion I had seemed to be fading, and I pretty much stopped reading s.f. altogether, with a rare interlude here or there. I tried not to worry about this, too much. I was reading a lot of nonfiction and enjoying it, and fiction took away from that.

Lately, though, the pull is back. I decided to go back to the beginning and try reading some short s.f. I pulled out The Year’s Best Science Fiction, Volume 1, edited by the late Gardner Dozois, and began reading it. So far, it seems to be sticking. I’m reading it for pleasure, dipping in during idle moments when I don’t feel like continuing the book I am reading. But I’m also doing it with a curiosity. What made these stories the best of the year? I’m taking a lot of notes. I am, in short, doing what I should have done from the beginning: reading the stories that were published in the magazines to get a sense of what they were looking for.

I don’t know where it is going or how long it will last. What I am most hopeful about is finding the real gems among these volumes. It’s hard to know what story will turn out to be a gem, but it’s like what they say about pornography: I know it when I see it.

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Books I Don’t Remember Well

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I saw some debate online recently about whether or not it is rude to an author not to finish a book of their that you start. I don’t think it’s rude. It’s pragmatic. Not every book works for every reader. Time is limited. So one must spend that time wisely. For me, that sometimes means quitting a book as soon as I don’t find myself drawn into it. There are too many other books waiting in the wings.

Sometimes, however, even when I do finish a book, it doesn’t stay with me. I may enjoy the book while I am reading it, but all memory of it vanishes after a time, and although I see it on the list of books I’ve read, I could give on the most vague descriptions of what the book is about. I was thinking about this today because I started reading Voyage by Stephen Baxter today, looking for a little science fiction interlude. I read this book back in September 1998, and although I remember it was some kind of alternate history, I remember almost nothing else about it. Granted, this was in the days before I started taking notes on books I read. Still, it was a little unsettling to realize that while I had read the book, I couldn’t remember it.

I decided to go through my list and see how many examples of this I could find. Here are some of the results:

I find it interesting that most of these are works of fiction. I seem to have a better recall for nonfiction than for fiction. In a way this makes sense. Fiction is more ephemeral and there is less to connect it to, while nonfiction fits in the larger mold of the world. I can always find connections of one work of nonfiction to another, often several others. Fiction can connect to other fiction, of course, and occasionally to nonfiction, but it doesn’t seem to have the same staying power in my memory.

I remember where I was or what I was doing when I read most of these books. I remember driving to the cliffs in Pacific Palisades and sitting on a bench overlooking the ocean while reading Idoru, for instance. I recall sitting in my office in Santa Monica early in the mornings (around 5:30am) reading Voyage, or sitting on the deck in from of my apartment in Studio City, chair tipped back, and feet up on the railings, reading Does America Need a Foreign Policy? I remember reading Bright Shiny Morning when Kelly and I were in the midst of planning our wedding. It’s just the content that is a blur. Of all of these, the one I most regret no remembering is East of Eden which I can recall enjoying, even if I can’t recall why I enjoyed it.

Fortunately, in a list of more than 1,100 books that I’ve read since 1996, there are only a handful that I don’t really remember at all. And in the last 10 years or so, the only one on the list that draws a blank is Tip of the Iceberg. For that one, at least, I have brief notes in my journal that I wrote at the time I finished it (something I began to do with all of the books I read when I rebooted my journal in 2017).

journal entry for tip of the iceberg

At some point, I’ll probably go back and re-read these to see what it was that I have forgotten.

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Thoughts on Travels With George by Nathaniel Philbrick

One subset of travel books that I enjoy are those that mix travel with some theme of discovery. John Steinbeck’s Travels With Charley is the model from which many of these books have taken their example, and Nathaniel Philbrick is quick to admit that Steinbeck served as a model for his entry in this sub-genre, Travels with George: In Search of Washington and His Legacy. I like books like these because they mix history with travelogue in a way that often makes a stark comparison between then and now.

Books in this sub-genre are often attempts at taking the temperature of the general public on some topic. In his wonderful book The Longest Road, Philip Caputo was asking the question: what held the country together? In their book Our Towns: A 100,000 Mile Journey into the Heart of America (my favorite book of 2020) James and Deborah Fallows travel the country by air in a single-engine plane learning how, despite problems, people are finding solutions.

Nathaniel Philbrick sets out to follow the route George Washington took just before and after his inauguration, when he visited each of the new states to get a sense of the country for which he had just fought for independence, and for which he has just been elected President. This captured my interest in colonial history, in presidential history, and in travel, and I enjoyed the book. I listened to the audiobook, narrated by the author and it was a delight.

Up to this point, I’d only read one full biography of George Washington, Ron Chernow’s Washington: A Life. What Philbrick was doing in Travels with George was not writing a biography, but following Washington’s path through the states, and along with way, separating myth from history, and coming face-to-face with the paradox that Washington, in addition to being the first president of a republican democracy founded on the principle that all men are created equal, was also a slave owner.

Where Philbrick delves into separating the myth from the history was among my favorite parts of the book. How many places claim the label “Washington slept here”? Through careful study of source material, Philbrick was able to identify several such claims as impossible. Washington was clearly somewhere else at the time. I was also moved by Washington’s affection for his soldiers, even years afterward. Still, an important thread throughout the book is the struggle to understand Washington the slave-holder versus Washington the defender of liberty.

Philbrick makes much of his journey with his wife, and their dog, meeting interesting people along the way, and occasionally getting snarled in traffic; the routes they take avoid the interstates since those roads didn’t exist when Washington made his grand tour.

This was an enjoyable read that gave additional insight into parts of Washington’s life I hadn’t been acquainted with. But perhaps the most valuable thing I took from the book was Philbrick himself. I enjoyed his writing, his style, and his narration. He’s another writer, like Philip Caputo and James and Deborah Fallows that I can look forward to reading more from. Already, I’m eager to delve into his history of Nantucket Island, Away Offshore, as well as his book In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex. Sometimes, nothing is more valuable than finding a reliable writer you enjoy reading.

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A Book I’m Looking Forward To: The Baseball 100 by Joe Posnanski

cover of the baseball 100 by joe posnanski

Every now and then I discover a new book that really hits the sweet spot for me and I can’t wait to read it. Most recently it was The Baseball 100 by Joe Posnanski. I love baseball, and I have a think for the rich history of the game. Just do a search for “baseball” in the list of books I’ve read since 1996 and you’ll see just how much I’ve read on the subject. Indeed, baseball writing is an art form in its own right. There are sportswriters, and there are baseball writers. I sometimes daydream that I could be the latter. I especially love baseball essays. And this book is a collection of 100 essays about the lives of the 100 greatest players of the game, according to Joe Posnanski.

My hardcover edition of the book arrived yesterday, and I am itching to get started reading it. First, I have to finish the book I am currently read, a fascinating biography of Henry Adams, grandson of John Quincy Adams, who, though born in 1838, lived long enough to witness Babe Ruth play baseball. In addition to baseball, I have a thing for the Adams family. But once I finish the book, with should be sometime today, I am eager to start this new baseball history. Perfect timing, too, since October, in addition to being a rare month for boys1 is also magic time in the baseball world.

Anyway, if you are wondering what I am reading this weekend, now you know.

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The Power and Beauty of Slow Books

There are some books that I read quickly. I finish them off in a few hours. There are other books that take longer because they are much longer reads. In December, for instance, I began reading Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive books. Those are really big books, and even at my usual pace, it took me the better part of a week to finish just one of them. Then there are slow books.

Slow books are book that seem almost designed to be read slowly. These are not boring books; I don’t me slow in terms of pacing. Rather, these are books that I need to savor, and that, like a rich chocolate cake, I can’t take in large doses. I call these slow books because it can take months for me to finish one. Take, for instance, my current slow book, The Diaries of John Quincy Adams.

Each night, before I go to sleep, I read a few of JQA’s diary entries, making my way from the beginning and following along with Adams’ thoughts and opinions as his life progresses. Some nights, I read a single entry, which may be half a page. Other nights, I might read two, three, or more. Usually, I don’t spent more than 10 minutes, but I do think about what Adams writes, occasionally conversing with him in the margins. For instance, the other night I came across this passage in which Adams records his arguments from a debate class at Harvard. Within it he writes:

But when the Passions of the People, conscious of their Liberty and strength are raised, they hurry them into the greatest extremities; an enraged multitude, will consult, but their furry and their Ignorance serves only to increase their Obstinacy, and their Inconsistency.

“From 1787 Adams foresees 2021,” I scribbled in the margin beside this passage. But of course, this isn’t a hard prediction to make if you’ve read a lot of history, and Adams’ certainly had by this point. I’ve read quite a few presidential biographies, and in my own estimation, John Quincy Adams was probably the most intelligent person ever to serve as President of the United States. I don’t say he was the best. His father, John Adams, is my favorite president, but I also don’t consider him nearly the best either. I appreciate JQA’s intelligence and thoughtfulness, however, and also his refection and attempts at self improvement. In another passage, he writes,

I believe I should improve my reading to greater advantage, if I confined myself to one book at a time; but I never can. If a book does not interest me exceedingly it is a test to me to go through it; and I fear for this reason, I shall never get through Gibbon. Indolence, indolence I fear will be my ruin.

In the margin I wrote, “Me, too.” I know just how JQA feels. I should focus on only one book, but there are so many out there, and so little time.

Even while reading other books, each night, I dip into JQA’s diaries and read some more. It is the perfect kind of book to read before bed. It settles my mind. It narrows my focus away from all of the usual distractions of the day. JQA didn’t have constant notifications popping up on his iPhone. Other distractions, perhaps, but not that one. His eyes weren’t glued to screens for the better part of the day. This is why I try to read slow books on paper. The last few minutes before bed are spent off screens, looking at the printing page, scribbling thoughts in the margins. A slow book like this helps clear my head before bed.

How slow is a slow book like this? Well, the 2-volumes in this set (not nearly Adams’ complete diary but representative selections from it) total about 1,400 pages. Some nights I get through half a page, others two or three. Occasionally I skip a night. Call it two pages per night. At that rate, it will take about a year to get through each volume. That’s okay, though. It is something I look forward to before bed each night, and it means that I can put off trying to figure out what my next slow book will be for another two years or so.

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Thoughts on Franklin D. Roosevelt: A Political Life by Robert Dallek

There are certain people I can read about endlessly. John Quincy Adams is one. And Franklin D. Roosevelt is another. In the former case, I’m fascinated by who I think was probably the most intelligent president the United States ever had. In the latter case, I’m amazed that a person such as Roosevelt happened to be in the right place at the right time with the right set of skills to lead the country out of dark times. I’ve read two previous biographies of FDR: Doris Kearns Goodwin’s outstanding book, No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt on the Home Front in World War II, and Jon Meacham’s Franklin and Winston: An Intimate Portrait of an Epic Friendship. The former focused on the years of the Second World War, and the latter on the extraordinary relationship between FDR and Winston Churchill.

But I still thoroughly enjoyed Robert Dallek’s Franklin D. Roosevelt: A Political Life, which more broadly captures Roosevelt’s political gifts throughout his life, although focusing primarily on his presidency. One reason I can keep reading about FDR is that he is endlessly fascinating. Born to privilege, he aimed to help the masses. Paralyzed from the waist down due to polio, he nevertheless maintained a generally cheerful disposition. He had his darker sides: his affairs, as well as his decision to set aside the rights of Japanese American citizens during the Second World War and collect them in camps. People loved him and people hated him. In the polarizing times that we live in today, there is something reassuring that democratic politics, at least, has always been polarizing and what we are experience today is more of the same. History, as the saying goes, is doomed to repeat itself.

I’m also impressed by hard workers, and those who don’t give up. Despite his inability to use his legs, FDR won election as president in a dark time, and through will and hard work, brought about changes that pulled the nation from the brink of disaster. During the war, even as his health declined, he worked tirelessly–and to the detriment of his own well-being–to see the fight through to the end. Dallek’s book provides a view of Roosevelt as a shrewd politician, and a leader through tough times. Despite all of that, he could be self-deprecating, relating the following story:

“Eleanor was just in here after a morning appointment with her doctor. ‘So, what did he say about that big ass of yours?'” Franklin reported himself as asking. “Oh, Franklin,” she replied, “He had nothing at all to say about you.”

His relationship with Winston Churchill was well-documented in Jon Meacham’s Franklin and Winston, to say nothing of William Manchester’s outstanding 3-volume biography of Churchill. What struck me reading Dallek’s book was the sheer coincidence of two capable, and charismatic leaders rising to power at a time when the world needed these leaders. It is coincidences like this that make history so fascinating, and so arbitrary.

The biggest irony of Roosevelt’s life is that he worked himself to death to see the Allies win the war, only to die before Germany and Japan surrendered. He died 18 days before Hitler’s suicide. I’ve read several dozen biographies of U.S. Presidents and I almost always come away from them not understanding why anyone would want the job. It is a job for which there is no adequate job description, a job for which, no previous experience can truly prepare you. It is a job that visibly ages the men who have taken it. And it certainly took Roosevelt’s life. I was returning from my morning walk, listening to the audio book edition of the book when FDR died, and though I knew it was coming, it still brought tears to my eyes. I had the feeling, expressed so well by Winston Churchill on learning of Roosevelt’s death:

I felt as if I had been struck a physical blow. My relations with this shining personality had played a large part in the long, terrible years we worked together. Now they had come to an end, and I was overpowered by a sense of deep and irrepressible loss.

I didn’t want the book to be over. I didn’t want it to be over so much, that I queued up another FDR biography, H. W. Brand’s A Traitor to His Class: The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, which I plan to read sometime in the next couple of weeks.

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Book Smart

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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More Enhancements to My New Reading List Page

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

What I have read since 1996

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beta-Testing My New Reading List

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

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

What I Have Read Since 1996

A few notes about this initial testing phase:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Going on a Book Spree

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

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

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Thoughts on When Brains Dream by Antonio Zadra and Robert Stickgold

Recently, I asked about good science-based books on dreaming. In my initial exploration, I’d come across two books, and picked one of them, When Brains Dream by Anthonio Zadra and Robert Stickgold to see if it fit the bill. It turns out I made a good choice. Zadra and Stickgold’s book is a survey of the history of dreams, dream research and what we know about why we dream. Part lit-review, part explanation of the science involved in sleep and dreams, I found the book to be a good introduction to something which I know very little about in scientific terms. People have all kinds of notions about dreams, but I was looking for a book that was grounded in science and this one fit the bill.

I was introduced to Freud’s theory of dreaming in high school. Even then, I found it to be something less than scientific and more like a fad diet. The scientific study of dreams is somewhat sparse before Freud, it seems, but Freud borrowed liberally from those who did study before him. I think my notion that Freud’s theories were mostly unscientific were confirmed in the review of the science of dreams up to and through Freud’s tenure.

That said, I fell into the camp of believing that dreams were mostly meaningless, a side-effect of memory processing. But as Zadra and Stickgold write:

Some believe that science has already shown that dreams are merely the meaningless reflections of the random firing of neurons in the sleeping brain. Nothing, we believe, could be further from the truth, and we argue almost the exact opposite of each of these claims.

Zadra and Stickgold’s research centers around a framework they’ve developed called NEXTUP: network exploration to understand possibilities. Briefly, NEXTUP,

proposes that dreaming is a unique form of sleep-dependent memory processing that extracts new knowledge from existing memories through the discovery and strengthening go previously unexplored weak associations.

If I understand what I read correctly, these weak associations account for why we dream of things that may be tangentially related to events of the day, but not directly related. These weak associations can also account, in part, for why dreams sometimes seem so bizarre.

The book details the standard set of dreams that people have, which is alway surprising, but their NEXTUP model explains this neatly. I’ve always thought it strange that we have common dreams like forgetting an exam, and I’ve often wondered what people six thousand years ago (before exams) dreamed about in their place. Possibly, they didn’t. When I read The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind by Julian Jaynes, what I gleaned from it (it was a very challenging read) was that our idea of consciousness emerged only recently, with the birth of civilization, and that prior to civilization, humans awareness was not what we call consciousness today. Maybe they didn’t dream the same way we do?

Another one of these dreams is losing control of a vehicle. I’ve occasionally had a dream where I am backing up a car, and the brake doesn’t seem to work, or the car goes spinning out of my control. Apparently I am not alone.

The book goes into all aspects of dreaming, including nightmare (and how they differ from night terrors), and even lucid dreaming. The book is heavily footnoted, and frequently refers to the studies and experiments used to tease out what we know about dreams today.

I wanted to learn more about dreaming because I’ve been going through a spell of dreams that have me waking up feeling exhausted each morning, no matter how well I sleep otherwise. These dreams are vague, but busy, always busy, and when I wake up from one in the middle of the night and finally get back to sleep, another one starts up. I awake feeling wiped out. This has been going on for a while now, and part of my reason for reading about dreams was to learn if there was any way to tune down this noise so that I wake feeling refreshed, and not like I just ran marathon. So I was surprised and delighted when I discovered the following passage in a section describing types of dreams:

Imagine that every time you woke up, you felt exhausted, not because you slept poorly but because your nights were filled with long, tedious dreams of incessant physical activity such as repetitive housework or endlessly slogging through snow or mud. If this describes your nightly dreaming and ensuing daytime fatigue, you may suffer from epic dreaming.

Right there on the page was the perfect description of what I have been going through. Epic dreams. Even the name sounds cool. Or as my kids might say, “Epic.” How lucky was I to find just what I was looking for on my first try! I felt elated. And then I read on:

Not much is known about this pattern of excessive dreaming other than that it affects women more than men. Sleep lab assessments usually come up clinically normal; and though the seemingly relentless dreams are followed by feelings of fatigue or exhaustion upon awakening, emotions within epic dreams are usually described as neutral or entirely absent. Even when epic dreaming occurs alongside nightmares, it is the impression of dreaming all night long that pushes these people to seek help. Psychological, behavioral, and pharmacological treatments for epic dreaming have proven largely ineffective. (Bold text mine.)

Naturally, the one problem I came looking for, I found, and that one problem has no known solution.

Still, the book was a success. It was an engaging read, and it gave me the scientific overview of dreaming that I had been looking for. I learned that what I am experiencing is called epic dreaming, and that there isn’t much I can do about it. That’s something. Anyone who is interesting in the science of dreams, should find this book informative and engaging.

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

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

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

My ideal book format preferences

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

My practical book format preferences

1. Audio books

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

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

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

2. Audio books in combination with ebooks or paper books

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

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

3. Ebooks

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

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

4. Paper books

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

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


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

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