Intergenerational Book Sharing

I got the idea for this essay after reading John Scalzi’s blog post “An Anecdotal Observation, Relating to Robert Heinlein and the Youth of Today.”  Scalzi is a successful young science fiction writer who gave his daughter a Heinlein novel to read that was a favorite from when he was her age.  The novel was Starman Jones, and it was a favorite of mine too.  His daughter didn’t care for the Heinlein book.  My wife and I don’t have kids, but over the decades I’ve known an lot of parents who have tried to get their kids to read books they enjoyed as a kid.  Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t.  What’s great about this article is the hundreds of responses Scalzi got that provides a wealth of examples.

There’s a lot going on here.  For example, many people claim books become dated.  Well, that’s true if the child has grown up enough to know the book is dated.  Many readers said they read their favorite books to their kids when they were quite little and their kids loved the stories.  If you are seven years-old, do you know the difference between Treasure Island and Starman Jones?  Do pirates and space explorers have any context to date?

Many other people pointed out that young readers have much better books to read today.  If I could time travel back to 1964 and give my younger self a set of Harry Potter books, which would I prefer:  Heinlein or Rowling?  I’m thinking the 1958 Have Space Suit-Will Travel was the perfect book for me to love at age 12 in 1964, but it probably won’t mean much to many 12 year-olds today.  Even the Harry Potter loving kids might have a hard time getting their kids to read the Rowling classics.

If you’re thirteen years-old and discover The Beatles, does it matter if it’s 1964 or 2014?  Teen love doesn’t seem much different today than it did then, and today’s pop music isn’t that much more sophisticated except for the four-letter words and explicit sexual references.  Sure a teen in 2014 can tell there’s a major pop-culture difference between The Dick Van Dyke Show and Breaking Bad.  So some books might be timeless like a Beatle song.

kiss me deadly

When I was twelve, my dad read westerns and Mickey Spillane type thrillers, and my mother loved mysteries.  They didn’t try to get me to read what they liked.  And of the books they read as a kid, they were pretty silent.  My dad once mentioned The Hobbit, which came out around the time he graduated high school, and my mother always talked about Little Women, but I’m not sure at what age either of them read these books, but I’d guess in the 1930s.  Neither meant much to me in the early late 1950s and early 1960s when I started reading, and when I read them both when I was older, they were good, but not defining.

Now my parents hated rock music, and tried to get me to like their favorites like Perry Como and Dean Martin, but I declined.  And my sister and I were always at war with my parents over what to watch on TV.  I’m afraid we were selfish little shits.  My dad loved Bonanza, but we’d throw teenage tantrums if we couldn’t watch The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.  We were probably too self-centered to take reading recommendations.

What’s weird is now that I’m 62 I’d be cool with listening to Frank Sinatra and reading Kiss Me, Deadly.  My dad died when he was 49 and I was 18, and like I said, we never had kids.  So I’m an island in the intergenerational pop-culture sea.  I’ve always loved the Heinlein juveniles, and wished they had become classics that all kids love—but that’s a silly sentimental desire on my part.  I’m not sure if they deserved to be read by all kids.  Of course, I’m not sure if all kids need to read the College Board Recommended Novels either.

Why do we want our kids to read the books we loved?  To make them like us?  To share what we liked?  To give them a leg up on finding the good stuff?  Most of the people who posted replies to the Scalzi blog listed books they discovered and loved as kids.  Are our literary first loves so important?  If you look at the College Board list of recommended novels below these are evidently what society thinks kids should read and know.  I’m skeptical.  I can’t believe these are the absolute best 100 novels everyone should experience as cultural literacy.  Maybe these are the ones easy to teach.  I’d do a lot of arguing over these titles.  I’m an atheist, but even I would expect The Bible to be on the list.

I’m not sure the College Board list is any more valid than Scalzi and I wanting kids to read Heinlein.  I’m fond of Heinlein for sappy nostalgic reasons.  What would be the real reason to make a kid read a book?  I’m a life long bookworm in my social security years and have only read 42 of the College Board books.  Let’s get real.  How many classic books should a kid read before he gets out of high school?  This is only a recommended list anyway, so few people actually expect kids to read them all.  But how many books should a well educated kid read that represents a well rounded cultural education?

I’d cut the list down to 24, and make sure those 24 are books everyone should know as adults and would speak from one generation to the next.  But that’s me playing king of the book world.  There’s only one book from the list below that I’d claim should definitely be on the list of 24 – Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. 

When I think about it, there’s damn few books I think we should make kids read, and what they would be would be hard to decide.  My second book for the list would be Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, and it’s not even on the College Board list.  My two would be it for 19th century English novels.  Picking two 19th century American novels would be very hard and inspire me to write a very verbose essay.

Is there a minimum number of books everyone should read?  That’s getting too much into common core thinking.  Are there books so good we should try to get everyone to read them?  Are there books we loved that define our childhood that we should expect our kids to read? 

I do find that I feel closer to people who have read and loved the books I loved.  My friend Charisse has read most of the books on the College Board list, so we have lots to talk about.   I feel Charisse and I have a stronger connection than I do with people I know that we share no books in common.

Maybe society is putting too much hope in specific books, and what’s important is we all read a lot of books and then try to find out the books we’ve each read that connect us.     

Achebe, Chinua Things Fall Apart
Agee, James A Death in the Family
Austen, Jane Pride and Prejudice
Baldwin, James Go Tell It on the Mountain
Beckett, Samuel Waiting for Godot
Bellow, Saul The Adventures of Augie March
Brontë, Charlotte Jane Eyre
Brontë, Emily Wuthering Heights
Camus, Albert The Stranger
Cather, Willa Death Comes for the Archbishop
Chaucer, Geoffrey The Canterbury Tales
Chekhov, Anton The Cherry Orchard
Chopin, Kate The Awakening
Conrad, Joseph Heart of Darkness
Cooper, James Fenimore The Last of the Mohicans
Crane, Stephen The Red Badge of Courage
Dante Inferno
de Cervantes, Miguel Don Quixote
Defoe, Daniel Robinson Crusoe
Dickens, Charles A Tale of Two Cities
Dostoyevsky, Fyodor Crime and Punishment
Douglass, Frederick Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass
Dreiser, Theodore An American Tragedy
Dumas, Alexandre The Three Musketeers
Eliot, George The Mill on the Floss
Ellison, Ralph Invisible Man
Emerson, Ralph Waldo Selected Essays
Faulkner, William As I Lay Dying
Faulkner, William The Sound and the Fury
Fielding, Henry Tom Jones
Fitzgerald, F. Scott The Great Gatsby
Flaubert, Gustave Madame Bovary
Ford, Ford Madox The Good Soldier
Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von Faust
Golding, William Lord of the Flies
Hardy, Thomas Tess of the d’Urbervilles
Hawthorne, Nathaniel The Scarlet Letter
Heller, Joseph Catch-22
Hemingway, Ernest A Farewell to Arms
Homer The Iliad
Homer The Odyssey
Hugo, Victor The Hunchback of Notre Dame
Hurston, Zora Neale Their Eyes Were Watching God
Huxley, Aldous Brave New World
Ibsen, Henrik A Doll’s House
James, Henry The Portrait of a Lady
James, Henry The Turn of the Screw
Joyce, James A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
Kafka, Franz The Metamorphosis
Kingston, Maxine Hong The Woman Warrior
Lee, Harper To Kill a Mockingbird
Lewis, Sinclair Babbitt
London, Jack The Call of the Wild
Mann, Thomas The Magic Mountain
Marquez, Gabriel García One Hundred Years of Solitude
Melville, Herman Bartleby the Scrivener
Melville, Herman Moby Dick
Miller, Arthur The Crucible
Morrison, Toni Beloved
O’Connor, Flannery A Good Man Is Hard to Find
O’Neill, Eugene Long Day’s Journey into Night
Orwell, George Animal Farm
Pasternak, Boris Doctor Zhivago
Plath, Sylvia The Bell Jar
Poe, Edgar Allan Selected Tales
Proust, Marcel Swann’s Way
Pynchon, Thomas The Crying of Lot 49
Remarque, Erich Maria All Quiet on the Western Front
Rostand, Edmond Cyrano de Bergerac
Roth, Henry Call It Sleep
Salinger, J.D. The Catcher in the Rye
Shakespeare, William Hamlet
Shakespeare, William Macbeth
Shakespeare, William A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Shakespeare, William Romeo and Juliet
Shaw, George Bernard Pygmalion
Shelley, Mary Frankenstein
Silko, Leslie Marmon Ceremony
Solzhenitsyn, Alexander One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich
Sophocles Antigone
Sophocles Oedipus Rex
Steinbeck, John The Grapes of Wrath
Stevenson, Robert Louis Treasure Island
Stowe, Harriet Beecher Uncle Tom’s Cabin
Swift, Jonathan Gulliver’s Travels
Thackeray, William Vanity Fair
Thoreau, Henry David Walden
Tolstoy, Leo War and Peace
Turgenev, Ivan Fathers and Sons
Twain, Mark The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Voltaire Candide
Vonnegut, Kurt Jr. Slaughterhouse-Five
Walker, Alice The Color Purple
Wharton, Edith The House of Mirth
Welty, Eudora Collected Stories
Whitman, Walt Leaves of Grass
Wilde, Oscar The Picture of Dorian Gray
Williams, Tennessee The Glass Menagerie
Woolf, Virginia To the Lighthouse
Wright, Richard Native Son

JWH – 7/21/14

Reading: A Compulsion, An Addiction, Or Obsession?

Is it possible to read too much?  Can words, like calories, be over consumed?

Like the little robot, Johnny Five, in the film Short Circuit, I constantly crave more input.  I’m not as bad as Teddy Roosevelt, who would grab a few words while waiting for a person to walk across the room to meet him, but I’m close.

The Bully Pulpit 

That anecdote I got from reading The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism by Doris Kearns Goodwin, an epic volume where she profiles presidents Teddy Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, their parents and wives, and the famous muck raking reporters from McClure’s Magazine they knew during the Progressive Era.  It seems like in every case, for both men and women, they all credit books as the defining influence of their lives.  Roosevelt was a very compulsive reader and claimed he read a book before breakfast each day.

We educate ourselves by reading.  We evolve empathetically by reading.  We nourish our souls by reading.  So, can there be too much reading?  I ask this because here are the books and magazines I’m currently reading, or trying to read.

keep the aspidistra flying

Keep the Aspidistra Flying by George Orwell.  I got the Kindle and Audible edition on sale recently.  I first read this book back in the 1970s, it’s about a young man, Gordon Comstock, in 1934 England, struggling to be a poet and refusing to worship the God of money.  I’m at the six hour mark, out of nine, but switched over to The Bully Pulpit to get ready for the non-fiction book club discussion in February.  I’m now 12 hours into its 35 hours.  I keep meaning to jump back and finish those last three hours but The Bully Pulpit is absolutely captivating.


I saw Our Mathematical Universe by Max Tegmark at the bookstore Sunday and just had to have it, so I ordered it from Amazon when I got home, and it was here Tuesday.  I’ve only just started it, but wished I could give up everything else to read it. I’m on a physics kick at the moment, so I crave it’s words and charts.

short night of the shadow catcher

I’m reading Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher by Timothy Egan for my local potluck supper book club.  I’m just up to chapter 3.


Reading The New York Review of Books is like having a heroin pusher for a best friend.  I’m on the third article, “A New Populism?” which reviews Social Democratic America by Lane Kenworthy, which would be a wonderful book to read after The Bully Pulpit, because Bully mentions 19th century populists as well as reformers and progressives.  Instead I went to the library and got two books reviewed in the second article, “Beneath the Stars.”

ava gardnerBarbara-Stanwyck-cover

I haven’t started either, but I’ve been itching to take the time to jump into both because I’ve been watching Gardner and Stanwyck movies on Warner Archive Instant lately.  I have a thing for old movies, and even though it’s not as relevant as physics or history, it does obsess me.


Everything makes me want to read books.  I saw the recent biofilm The Invisible Woman about Charles Dickens’ affair with actress Nelly Ternan, which made me go out and buy, Charles Dickens: A Life by Claire Tomalin.  Time and again I return to the 19th century.  Growing up I was crazy in love with science fiction and the future, but now that I’m living in the 21st century, I spend a lot of time exploring the 19th century.  But I still read a lot of science fiction.  This week, I’ve been reading short stories, hoping they will inspire me to write short stories.


The Classic Science Fiction Book Club is reading one story a week from The Science Fiction Hall of Fame.  Of course, I also need to get started on the March book for them too, The Robots of Dawn by Isaac Asimov.  Science fiction has always been fun and addictive to me, but as I’ve gotten older, reading non-fiction has become more addictive.

the robots of dawn 

I’m also rereading and studying The Trouble with Physics by Lee Smolin to write a comprehensive review.  I just finished it a few days ago, but it was so exciting that it’s thrown me into a science reading jag.  I listened to it first, but now I’m reading the Kindle edition trying to outline all it’s points.


I keep How To Read Like a Professor by Thomas C. Foster by my TV chair to read during commercials.  Each chapter makes me want to read another classic book.

How to Read Like a Professor

And this might be TMI, but I keep On Writing Well by William Zinsser on my oldest Kindle in the bathroom for study while I’m occupied.

On Writing Well

I also read a lot of magazines, and these have came in the mail in just this past week.  If halfway through the Scientific American, and read the short pieces in The Rolling Stone.  As soon as I finish this essay I’m going to read more from these magazines as I listen to music.  That’s become my late afternoon habit now that I’ve retired.



smithsonianMusic-Drake-Rolling Stones

And this doesn’t count the dozens of magazines I try to keep up with at Next Issue.  I pay $15 a month for 130 titles for tablet reading.  Nor does this count the many books I’ve started last week and haven’t gotten back to yet.  I try hard to get to The New Yorker, Wired, Entertainment Weekly, Popular Science, Consumer’s Reports, Shutterbug, Popular Photography and Vanity Fair – but I’d like to read even more.  I seldom finish any of them.  I find most magazines, even the ones that I’d never buy like Vogue and Field and Stream often have one great article.

Nor does this list of reading material cover the daily consumption of websites I visit.

Do you see why I’m wondering if I have a reading problem?  If brains could get fat on words, I’d have a head the size of Texas.

When I write these blogs, I partly write them for writing practice.  Each day I attempt to find a topic and make it interesting.  But I also write because it’s therapeutic, like talking with an analyst.  I’m thinking out loud, trying to put two and two together.  This essay is my way of asking myself:  Do I read too much.  And if I read too much, what’s a reasonable amount of daily reading?

On one hand I feel I’m retired and should read as much as I want, or as little as I want.  But on the other hand, I feel all this reading should go towards a purpose.  While struggling to review The Trouble With Physics I realize how little I retain.  It’s a damn shame that all this good information should go in one ear and out the other.

Doris Kearns Goodwin spent seven years writing The Bully Pulpit and it reflects a massive amount of reading for research.  I wonder if I should focus my reading addiction on a single subject and try to write a nonfiction book?  Before I retired I dreamed of writing a novel, but I just don’t have the daily urge to write fiction.  I do love to write blogs and nonfiction essays.  That’s why I’m experimenting with my review of The Trouble With Physics – I’m actually doing a lot of research to write a longer essay.

Right now my daily reading feels like I’m just gobbling down M&Ms – it’s a compulsive craving.  And although I feel any reading is good for me, because new ideas provides fertilizer for my neurons, I can’t help but want all my data input to be put to some constructive use.  I’d like to think of good reading as healthy food, and writing as healthy exercise, for my mind.  If I just read books and didn’t blog, I don’t think I’d be anywhere near as happy as I am now.  And I think I’d be happier if my reading was more focused.

JWH – 2/27/14

2013 Year in Reading

The older I get, the more I feel my reading life is fading away.  I was born to read.  Reading has shaped and defined my existence.  So it’s scary to think that I’m running out of reading time.  Even if I live another 20 years, that’s only 1,040 books at this year’s pace.  That seems like a lot, but it’s a finite number.  Picture an hour-glass, but instead of grains of sand, imagine tiny little books falling through the narrow waist of the time.


I retired this year on October 22nd, and assumed I’d start reading books like crazy.  When I worked, I read about one book a week.  I hoped after retiring, to read two books a week – instead it’s one book every two weeks.  Damn.  That’s not what I planned at all!  I’ve only been able to catch up to my yearly average by quickly finishing off several half-read books.

As 2013 closes out, I contemplate the power of less, both having less time, but also wanting and owning less, so I can focus clearly on my goals, and I realize I need to change my attitude toward reading.  More than ever, I want to make every book count.  This might sound contradictory, but I’m thinking I need to read less too.  Instead of consuming books in great numbers, I should savor and study them.  But what if that means I have 300 books left?

In 2012 I read 49 books and I wrote in my 2012 Year in Reading that I wanted to read 12 novels, 12 science books, 12 history/other non-fiction books in 2013, and hopefully 12 of those would be published during 2013.  Well, I didn’t do so good, especially with science books – I didn’t read any science books at all!   I did read one math book.  Plus, I only read just seven 2013 books (I did read eleven 2012 books, so I’m close).  I read 24 fiction books, twice what I wanted.

When I look at the list below I realize that some books were definitely worth my reading time, but others, even ones I really enjoyed, weren’t.  I’ll rate the books I felt added much to my life with up to 5 pluses (+), but any book I didn’t rate means I could have skipped without impact.  Some of these were lots of fun, but I need more than just fun.

Books Read in 2013

Favorite Fiction

  1. Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell
  2. The Short Stories Volume 1 by Ernest Hemingway
  3. Confessions of a Crap Artist by Philip K. Dick
  4. The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
  5. The Long Tomorrow  by Leigh Brackett

Favorite Nonfiction

  1. Half-the-Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn
  2. The World Until Yesterday by Jared Diamond
  3. The Unwinding by George Packer
  4. The Voice is All by Joyce Johnson
  5. Other Powers: The Age of Suffrage, Spiritualism, and the Scandalous Victoria Woodhull by Barbara Goldsmith

Order of Reading

  1. Confessions of a Crap Artist (1959) – Philip K. Dick (+++++)
  2. Half-the-Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide (2009) – Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn (+++++)
  3. Beautiful Ruins (2012) – Jess Walters (+++)
  4. The World Until Yesterday (2012) – Jared Diamond (+++++)
  5. At Home (2010) – Bill Bryson (+++)
  6. Redshirts (2012) – John Scalzi 
  7. The Wrecking Crew (2012) – Kent Hartman (+++)
  8. The Sheltering Sky  (1949) – Paul Bowles (+++)
  9. Hull Zero Three (2010) – Greg Bear
  10. Wishin’ and Hopin’(2009) – Wally Lamb
  11. Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking (2012) – Susan Cain (++++)
  12. Other Powers: The Age of Suffrage, Spiritualism, and the Scandalous Victoria Woodhull (1999) – Barbara Goldsmith (++++)
  13. The Searchers (2013) – Glenn Frankel (+++)
  14. Heaven is for Real (2010) – Todd Burpo
  15. Darwinia (1999) – Robert Charles Wilson
  16. Society’s Child (2008) – Janis Ian
  17. We Can Build You (1972) – Philip K. Dick
  18. Oz Reimagined (2013) – edited by John Joseph Adams
  19. Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us (2009) – Daniel Pink (+)
  20. Word Freak: Heartbreak, Triump, Genius and Obsession in the World of Competitive SCRABBLE Players (2001) – Stefan Fatsis (++)
  21. The End of the Affair (1951) – Graham Greene (++)
  22. Mrs. Dalloway (1925) – Virginia Woolf (+)
  23. The Fault in Our Stars (2012) – John Green (++++)
  24. The Sense of an Ending (2011) – Julian Barnes (++)
  25. Why Are You Atheists So Angry: 99 Things That Piss Off the Godless (2012) – Greta Christina
  26. The Next 100 Years:  A Forecast for the 21st Century (2009) – George Friedman
  27. The Heart of Darkness (1899) – Joseph Conrad (+)
  28. Life As We Knew It (2006) – Susan Beth Pfeffer (+)
  29. The Ballad of Bob Dylan (2011) – Daniel Mark Epstein (+++)
  30. 2312 (2012) – Kim Stanley Robinson
  31. The Cuckoo’s Calling (2013) – Robert Galbraith (J. K. Rowling)
  32. Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls (2013) – David Sedaris
  33. Door Wide Open (2001) – Joyce Johnson
  34. The Unwinding – (2013) George Packer (+++++)
  35. The Year’s Top-Ten Tales of Science Fiction 5 (2013) – edited by Allan Kaster
  36. Euclid’s Window (2001) – Leonard Mlodinow (++)
  37. The World Jones Made (1956) – Philip K.  Dick
  38. The Long Tomorrow (1955) – Leigh Brackett (++)
  39. Lightspeed Year One (2011) – edited by John Joseph Adams
  40. One and Only (2011) – Gerald Nicosia and Anne Marie Santos
  41. Po-boy Contraband (2012) – Patrice Melnick
  42. The Voice is All: The Lonely Victory of Jack Kerouac (2012) – by Joyce Johnson (++++)
  43. The Year of Magical Thinking (2005) – Joan Didion (++++)
  44. Boys Adrift (2005) – Dr. Leonard Sax (++++)
  45. One Summer: America 1927 (2013) – Bill Bryson (++++)
  46. The Power of Less (2008) – Leo Babauta (+)
  47. Wheat Belly (2011) – William Davis MD (+++)
  48. The Short Stories Volume 1 (2002) – Ernest Hemingway (+++++)
  49. Distrust That Particular Flavor (2012) – William Gibson (++)
  50. Pulphead (2011) – John Jeremiah Sullivan (+++)
  51. Leviathan Wakes (2011) – James S. A. Corey
  52. Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) – George Orwell (+++++)

Reading Plans for 2014

Once again I want to read less science fiction and more science, fewer fiction titles and more nonfiction.  Of course I’d like to read all +++++ books, even if I only read half as many books total.  I find it tragic that I forget what I read so quickly.  What a crying shame it is to take in so many fascinating facts that flee my mind in just minutes and hours.  Shouldn’t I be doing more rereading than reading, studying, rather than rushing by all those scenic words?

Going through my bulging bookcases, here’s what I’m pulling down to pile beside my reading chair, hoping to read in 2014.

  • On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes (2013) – Alexandra Horowitz
  • Grain Brain (2013) – David Perlmutter, MD
  • Time Reborn (2013) – Lee Smolin
  • The Goldfinch (2013) – Donna Tartt
  • Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011) – Daniel Kahneman
  • The Beginning of Infinity (2011) – David Deutsch
  • Darwin’s Armada (2009) – Iain McCalman
  • The Best Writing on Mathematics (2013) – Mircea Pitici, Editor
  • The Fallacy of Fine-Tuning: Why the Universe is Not Designed for Us (2011) – Victor J. Stenger
  • Waging Heavy Peace (2012) – Neil Young
  • Your Inner Fish by Neil Shubin
  • Mathematics: The Loss of Certainty by Morris Kline
  • Touching the Rock: An Experience of Blindness by John M. Hull
  • The Social Conquest of Earth by Edward O. Wilson
  • Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meaning of Life by Daniel C. Dennett
  • Euclid in the Rainforest: Discovering Universal Truth in Logic and Mathematics by Joseph Mazur

JWH – 12/27/13

2012 Year in Reading

By the way, just to be upfront about things, when I say “read” I often mean “listen” – but I consider consuming books with eyes, ears or fingertips to be reading.

This is the 5th year I’ve done these annual reading summaries.  Writing about reading is turning into an enlightening subject because over time I can see my reading habits evolving and showing trends.  I’ve been logging what I’ve read since 1983, and I’ve often wish I had started recording which books I read right from my very first book.  (Just some advice to any bookworm tykes reading this.)

I kept a reading log once before, in the early 1970s when I was in college and had a lot more free time, and I read 452 books in 18 months.  I hate that I lost that list.  That epic reading period was mostly short science fiction paperbacks.  I’ve always read mostly science fiction, a smattering of science, a handful of history books, and a few odds and ends.  Since I’ve started these yearly summaries I always end up wishing I’d try more variety.  I slowly have.

In 2012 I read 49 books.

I again read too much science fiction this year, but then I’m in the Classic Science Fiction Book Club.  I’m also addicted to audiobooks and love to listen to all the old science fiction novels I first discovered back in the 1960s.  I ended up reading to 22 science fiction books, way more than I should because I only read three actual science books.  I’d be a lot more impressed with myself if I had read 22 science books and only 3 science fiction titles.  Resolutions for next year:  read only one SF book a month and read at least one science book a month.

Of course that brings up the whole fiction versus nonfiction guilt that I have.  For me fiction is more fun, but nonfiction is more rewarding.  Fiction can be deeply philosophical and observant of reality, but usually it’s just escapism.  Science fiction is known for its sense of wonder, but none of the SF books I read this year could touch A Universe From Nothing, From Eternity to Here and The Mind’s Eye for their overwhelming sense of wonder.

Regarding the quality of fiction, the most thought provoking novels I read in 2012 were:  Anna Karenina, A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man, Freeman, On the Beach, The English Patient, The Age of MiraclesFrankenstein, Ready Player One and The Windup Girl.   If I was honest with myself, I’d stop reading so much old science fiction because it’s just not that worthwhile.  However, nostalgia often overwhelms my to read impulses.  Science fiction imprinted on me at that impressionable age of 12 and I’ve never been able to give it up the habit.

I did read eight history books this year and they were so rewarding that I feel I need to up their number next year.  My yearly averages for books read usually runs around four a month.  See my past years 2011 (58), 2010 (53), 2009 (40), and 2008 (45).

For 2013 I’d like to aim for a monthly mix of:

  • 1 novel
  • 1 science book
  • 1 history/other nonfiction book
  • 1 new (2012/2013) title per month.

I’d also like to read one big classic novel during the year.  This year was Anna Karenina.  I’m thinking about Les Misérables for 2013.

Besides loving audiobooks, I love reading new books that just came out. It’s great fun to discover books published during the year and promote them with your friends and then have those books validated at the end of the year by showing up on Best Books of the Year lists. This year’s discoveries was Full Body Burden by Kristen Iverson and The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker, but sadly they were only on a couple best of lists. I didn’t read Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo until after I saw it on a zillion lists this month, so it doesn’t count.


Every year when I write this summary of books read, I also think about which books I want to read for the next year.  Since I have over 500 unread books sitting on my physical bookshelf, and over a 100 unread audiobooks sitting in my digital bookshelf, I should be concentrating on clearing out my backlog, but that doesn’t happen.  Many of the books on my list below were bought just before I read them.  I’m in three online and one local book club that discusses 5 books a month.  That’s dictating too many of my reads – 19 this year.  Obviously I didn’t read all 60 discussed books.

I would like to participate more in the book clubs, read more books off my to be read pile, as well as read as many new books as possible.  That’s only possible if I read more books.  I could give up television, but I’m not sure I can digest more than a book a week anyway.

In a perfect world, every book I read should be thought about for hours, researched, studied, discussed in a book club, and reviewed for my blog.  To do all that would require 10-30 hours each week depending on the size of the book.  Most books are 10-20 hours of listening time.  Anna Karenina was 42 hours long, and it took me three weeks to finish.  As a hobby I’m pushing my limits as a bookworm.  I know bloggers who read 100+, 200+ and even 300+ books a year and write reviews.  There are some real super-bookworms out there.  I’m just not one of them.  I can accept my smallish total if I read 52 great books each year.  My goal is not to read more books, but better books.

Most of the books I “read” every year are books I listened too.  I just don’t have much time for eyeball reading anymore.  Theoretically, I might average two books a week, one listening and one reading, but I’d need to find more La-Z-Boy reading time, and that’s hard.  I do watch a lot of TV and listen to a lot of music, so I suppose I could sacrifice some of that time.  But do I want to be more of a bookworm?  Sometimes I think I should be less of a bookworm, and do more active things.  Or instead of reading books I should be writing them.  I’m happy with the book a week pace.  It would be nice to actually hit 52 books a year though.

Here are my favorite books I’ve read this year.  Only the first was actually published in 2012.

Novel of the Year

   The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker

Nonfiction Book of the Year

   Eden’s Outcasts by John Matteson

Classic Science Fiction Book of the Year

   The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham

Modern Science Fiction Book of the Year

   Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

Most Recommended Book This Year

   The Merchants of Doubt by Naomi Orekes and Erik Conway

Books Read in 2012

  1. The Gnostic Gospels (1979) – Elaine Pagels
  2. Tunnel in the Sky (1955) – Robert A. Heinlein
  3. Ready Player One (2011) – Ernest Cline
  4. 1959 (2009) – Fred Kaplan
  5. The Ecstasy of Influence (2011) – Jonathan Lethem
  6. Midnight Rising (2011) – Tony Horowitz
  7. The Forge of God (1987) – Greg Bear
  8. A Universe from Nothing (2012) – Lawrence M. Krauss
  9. Life (2010) – Keith Richards
  10. The Swerve (2011) – Stephen Greenblatt
  11. Pushing Ice (2005) – Alastair Reynolds
  12. Anna Karenina (1877) – Leo Tolstoy
  13. The Year of the Quiet Sun (1970) – Wilson Tucker
  14. Embassytown (2011) – China Miéville
  15. Let’s Pretend This Never Happened (2012) – Jenny Lawson
  16. The Last Starship From Earth (1968) – John Boyd
  17. Little Women (1868) – Louisa May Alcott
  18. Beyond This Horizon (1948) – Robert A. Heinlein
  19. The Day of the Triffids (1951) – John Wyndham
  20. Glory Road (1963) – Robert A. Heinlein
  21. Assignment in Eternity (1953) – Robert A. Heinlein
  22. Merchants of Doubt (2010) – Naomi Orekes and Erik Conway
  23. A For Andromeda (1962) – Fred Hoyle and John Elliot
  24. Imagine (2012) – Jonah Lehrer
  25. The Age of Miracles (2012) – Karen Thompson Walker
  26. The Listeners (1972) – James E. Gunn
  27. The Year’s Top Ten Tales of Science Fiction (2009) – edited by Allan Kaster
  28. Full Body Burden (2012) – Kristen Iversen
  29. The Black Cloud (1957) – Fred Hoyle
  30. Freeman (2012) – Leonard Pitts, Jr.
  31. The Mind’s Eye (2010) – Oliver Sacks
  32. Horseman, Pass By (1961) – Larry McMurtry
  33. From Eternity to Here (2010) – Sean Carroll
  34. Ubik (1969) – Philip K. Dick
  35. A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man (1916) – James Joyce
  36. The Dog Stars (2012) – Peter Heller
  37. Eden’s Outcasts (2007) – John Matteson
  38. Aftershock (2010) – Robert B. Reich
  39. Frankenstein (1818) – Mary Shelley
  40. Mrs. Robinson’s Disgrace (2012) – Kate Summerscale
  41. The Windup Girl (2009) – Paolo Bacigalupi
  42. The English Patient (1992) – Michael Ondaatje
  43. Space Cadet (1948) – Robert A. Heinlein
  44. The Worst Hard Times (2006) – Timothy Egan
  45. On the Beach (1957) – Nevil Shute
  46. Jumper (1992) – Steven Gould
  47. Behind The Beautiful Forevers (2012) – Katherine Boo
  48. Revelations  (2012) – Elaine Pagels
  49. The Wizard of Oz (1900) – L. Brank Baum

I’ve annotated this list with links to my reviews.

The last book I read in 2012 was The Wizard of Oz in anticipation of Oz the Great and Powerful that comes out in Spring 2013.

JWH – 12/19/12

Why Do I Read Science Fiction?

My friend Laurie called me today to ask, “Why do you read science fiction?”  Laurie is a professor of reading education at the university where I work and she’s writing an article on book clubs and reading.  She told me about an essay she read on why women read romance novels and she thought about me and my love of science fiction.


That’s a good question I told her.  Why do any of us do the things we do?  If you’re a college football fanatic can you explain why?  If you’re a CPA, can you tell us about the path you took to get into that profession?

I am a lifelong science fiction fan.  I don’t like mysteries.  I don’t like thrillers.  I don’t like romance novels.  I love movie westerns but seldom read western novels.  I like science fiction movies, but they aren’t my favorite movies.  I think literary novels are the most rewarding books to read, yet I still spend most of my reading time consuming science fiction novels.  Why?

Discovering the Science Fiction Genre

I assume, as a professor that specializes in reading, Laurie wants to know how to get kids and adults involved with reading.  Maybe she assumes if she knew why bookworms want to read she could help non-readers find the books they will like.  There is some truth to this.  When I was in the third grade my teacher and parents sent me to summer school because they claimed I couldn’t read well.  My problem wasn’t reading, but what to read.

I remember going to my first summer school reading class.  It was cramped wedge shaped room, that was really a storage closet for books.  There were few places to sit.  The teacher told me to pick out a book from a twirling rack of paperbacks.  I took my time and carefully selected Up Periscope that, if I remember right, was a Scholastic paperback for kids, meaning it was probably abridged.  I started reading it.  I got into it.  As far as I can remember, the summer school teacher never gave me any lessons in reading – he just provided fun books to read.  Hell, I knew how to read.  Up till then I didn’t have anything worth reading.


So, starting in the fourth grade I began prowling the school library at Lake Forest Elementary in Hollywood, Florida for interesting books.  Then we moved to Homestead Air Force Base in 1961, while I was in middle of 5th grade, and my dad took me to the base library.  That’s where I discovered proto science fiction books.  During these years Alan Shepard and John Glenn made their historic flights into space.

At this time I didn’t know there was a category of books called science fiction.  As a kid growing up with television in the 1950s I saw a lot of science fiction movies and television shows.  I’d watch The Wizard of Oz every year on television.  I watched Topper and other fantasy and SF shows.  They weren’t a special genre yet.  I also loved cartoons, westerns, sitcoms and everything on TV pretty much.

patchwork girl of oz

The first books I remember discovering at the Air Force Base Library were the Oz books, and one of my favorites was The Patchwork Girl of Oz.  I read all the Baum titles, but didn’t like the Thompson books that were written after Baum died.  I then switched to Danny Dunn, Tom Swift, Tom Swift, Jr. and Hardy Boys books.  I still didn’t know there was a genre called science fiction.  My reading was unguided, but it was shaped by the books in the library.  I guess access to books is a big factor.


In the sixth grade, my teacher Mrs. Saunders read us books after lunch, and she got me hooked on A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle.  I think that got me to realize that there were far out books that weren’t part of a children’s book series.  I remember going up and down the shelves at school looking for books that had space ships on the cover.  There weren’t that many.  I found Jules Verne and H. G. Wells this way though, but still didn’t realize there was a category of books called science fiction.

I suppose if Laurie knew exactly what book to give a potential reader she could capture them for life.  But how does she know what book?  Maybe that’s what her article will be about.


When I wasn’t reading I was watching TV shows like The Twilight Zone.  It was wonderful.  Beginning in the fall of 1963, when I was starting the 7th grade, and still only 12, The Outer Limits came on.  I was addicted to it right from the start.  We moved temporarily back to Hollywood, Florida, right around the time JFK was killed, and then to rural South Carolina, where we lived out in the country and I had a 35 mile school bus trip twice a day.  During this time I got out of the reading habit.  Playing in the woods every day was more exciting, but I still discovered Journey to the Center of the Earth, The Time Machine and Dolphin Island by Arthur C. Clarke that year.

This is another clue.  I’ve always read less when I had more exciting things to do.  If you want to hook people on books, get them to read when there’s not much to do.

Then in the second half of 1964 we returned to Florida, and I started 8th grade at Homestead Junior High where I had a very special English teacher.  I wish I could remember her name, but she had one teaching technique that changed my life.  She offered to raise any student’s grade one letter if they’d read 6 books, 6 magazine articles and 6 newspaper articles each 6 week period and write a report on them.  And she provided a list of approved authors.  On that list was Robert A. Heinlein, so I read The Red Planet for the first of many times.  I wanted more Heinlein and rode my bicycle over to the Air Base Library and asked the librarian about Heinlein.  The airman took me to the adult side of the library and showed me the science fiction section, which contained dozens of Heinlein novels.

This is when it all fell into place and I finally discovered a category of novels called science fiction.  I had finally found my genre.  Some people will read anything, and other people like to stick to what they like.  How can you interview a person and quickly determine their genre?

The Importance of Teachers and Libraries

You will notice in the above narrative that three teachers played a very important role in helping me to discover science fiction.  First, the summer school reading teacher, second Mrs. Saunders my 6th grade English teacher, and finally my name forgotten 8th grade English teacher.  Later on my 12th grade English would turn me onto literary books like A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man, The Stranger, Catcher in the Rye,  etc.  None of these teachers told me to read science fiction.  They just presented a selection of great books and I responded to the ones that resonated with my soul.

Another factor in this narrative is libraries.  I have very fond memories of libraries, especially the Homestead Air Force Base Library – it’s legendary in my memories.  I needed libraries until I could earn my own money and go to bookstores.  When I got my first punch the clock job at 16, I bought the 12 Heinlein juveniles directly from the publishers with my first paycheck.  I was so hooked on reading at a young age that books were my primary form of entertainment.  I’m not sure that can be quickly instilled in a grown person.

But Does This Answer Laurie’s Question?

My history so far explains how I discovered certain books, but it doesn’t explain why I wanted to read them in the first place.  I loved my childhood, and I’m very nostalgic about growing up, but I had alcoholic parents and we moved around an awful lot.  I went to a lot of different schools.  If we play the home shrink self-examination game I have to figure I read books to escape a stressful environment.   So why science fiction?

I was born in 1951, and Sputnik was launched when I was in 1st grade.  We landed on the Moon the summer I finished the 12th grade.  Alan Shepard took his 15 minute flight into history when I was in the 4th grade.  I grew up with NASA and my formative school years covered Project Mercury, Gemini and Apollo.  I was influenced by NASA, rock and roll, television and movies.  The undercurrent of the 1960s was all about the future and revolutionary social change.  How science fiction is that?

As a little kid I couldn’t buy into religion.  I didn’t believe in heaven, but wished to go to outer space.  I didn’t believe in God, but thought wise aliens might come down from the skies.  I didn’t believe in life after death, but life extension might be possible.  Science fiction promised a future reality that seemed far more real than the religion of the older generations.

Making Friends with Other Science Fiction Fans

Because my family moved around so much I got good at making friends, and I always found a best friend quickly.  The quality I looked for most in a friend was the love of science fiction.  I told Laurie if she wanted to understand this aspect of becoming a science fiction bookworm then all she needed to do was read Among Others by Jo Walton.  There’s a reason why Among Others has won all the science fiction and fantasy awards – it speaks to my kind.  Laurie, maybe you can hook people on books if you can find what books friends will read together?

among others

Why Do I Continue to Read Science Fiction?

To be honest, I can easily find books I like better than science fiction, but I often stick to the genre because growing up programmed me to love science fiction.  I keep reading science fiction hoping to find books that have the same sense of wonder I discovered in childhood.  I don’t often find it, but sometimes I do, like with Ready Player One by Ernest Cline or Spin by Robert Charles Wilson.

Laurie, among science fiction fans we talk about a quality that makes science fiction great:  sense of wonder.  I grew up in an age of wonders, and science fiction just happened to have more wonder than any other form of literature.  But I think science fiction represents a deeper desire.  At least for me, science fiction promised travel to far out places, to greener pastures.  It hasn’t delivered though.

To understand this very deep driving force Laurie, you’ll have to read a novella, “The Star Pit” by Samuel R. Delany.  Follow the link to my review.  It’s a story about people facing limitations.  We’re all fish in an aquarium, poking our heads into a glass wall hoping to swim further.   It was written by a young black gay man in the middle of the 1960s and he knew about limitations and used science fiction as a metaphor to explain the crush of living with barriers.

I think “The Star Pit” is the key to understanding how to find books that people will love – it requires finding stories people will identify with at a deep emotional level.  “The Star Pit” is about a father who lost contact with his children due to alcoholism and wild living.  Years of regret later, the man hires an older teenager who is wild and unmanageable, and tries to be his mentor.  That kid is envious of an even younger teenager who is wilder still.  All three characters are tortured by what they can’t have in life.  I read this story when I was 16 and wanted far more from life than I could ever have, and “The Star Pit” made a lasting impression.

“The Star Pit” meant so much to me because I had an alcoholic father who couldn’t communicate with me, and I was a teenager who did drugs to go to far out places.  I imagined my dad as a boy wanting to be a pilot, and I was a son that wanted to go into space, and neither one of us could ever get off the ground.

What readers want is emotional, intellectual and psychological resonance.

Starting with my earliest books I picked out stories about characters going on amazing fantastic adventures.  Oz and Outer Space are otherworldly destinations that I can never reach.  The reason why I loved “The Star Pit” at 16 is it helped me realize I’ll never get where I want to go and I have to learn to accept that.  I knew my father, because of his drinking, failed to learn that.

Science fiction is a substitute for all the places I’ll never reach in this life.

JWH – 11/13/12

Reading in the Second Half of Life

I started reading Anna Karenina this week.  I’ve never read Tolstoy before, I guess I wasn’t old enough.  Last year my favorite novels were The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope and Middlemarch by George Elliot.  Those stories are a far cry from the science fiction I grew up reading.  My story tastes have changed as I’ve gotten older.  I still read science fiction, I just finished Pushing Ice by Alastair Reynolds, but characters seldom seem real in science fiction, not like those in the classic and literary novels.  The same is true of movies and television, where I once thought The Matrix brilliant, now I find the sublime in Downton Abbey.


At sixty I can look back and see my reading life changed around fifty.  Starting at twelve until my college years my reading life had been shaped by the science fiction of Robert A. Heinlein, but even before that, I can remember hazy days of grade school, and the earliest novels I remember reading on my own were the Oz books by L. Frank Baum and the Danny Dunn and Tom Swift, Jr. series.  My early life of reading was inspired by escapism, fantasy and science fiction.  But then, isn’t the youthful literary work of humankind about myths, fantastic creatures, gods, epic voyages,  magic and faraway places?

Don’t we all come down to Earth when we get old?  More and more I prefer nonfiction and history to fiction, but when I read fiction I crave literary works whose authors were careful observers of the realistic details of living.

Getting old for me means paying more attention to the real world and less to the fantasy worlds.  All fiction is fantasy, but I grew up reading fiction inspired by fantasy worlds, and now that I’m getting old I prefer books inspired by this world.  I wonder if this trend continues as I age, will I give up fiction altogether and just read the here and now?

I’ve often compared my reading habit to a drug addiction, and my belief in science fiction to religion, but then Marx said religion is the opiate of the people, so the two overlap.  When we are young we want reality to be more fantastic than it is.  We want to fly.  We want super powers.  We want to be protected by powerful beings.  Comic book super-heroes are no different from the gods of mythology.

As the years pile up the fantastic fails us like our fleshy passions.  As our bodies decay, we are forced to face reality.

Why after fifty, is James Joyce’s Ulysses so much more an adventure than Homer’s?

Konstantin Levin becomes more fascinating than Valentine Michael Smith.

When I was young I wanted to be John Carter, now I rather be John Bates, the valet in Downton Abbey.

Who knew Earth would become more far out than Mars.

JWH – 3/27/12

2011 Year in Reading

2011 was an above normal reading year for me where I read 58 books, more than I did in 2008 (45), 2009 (40), and 2010 (53).  I’m in three book clubs.  One for science fiction where I read two books a month:  one classic and one modern.  But I don’t always read both.  I’m also in an online club for reading non-fiction, and a local supper club that also reads nonfiction.  If I kept up with the clubs I’m committed to 48 books a year.  I try.  It’s fun reading books that I can discuss with other people.

My reading goal every year is to read at least 10-12 books published during the year and I read 11 this year.  I like reading new books because it’s exciting to discover something great as it comes out and then help spread the word about them.

I’m able to read so many books because I listen to audio books.

Outstanding Non-Fiction Books Read This Year

  • The Information (2011) – James Gleick
  • The Warmth of Other Suns (2010) – Isabel Wilkerson
  • The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (2010) – Rebecca Skloot
  • The Blank Slate (2002) – Steven Pinker
  • Empire of the Summer Moon (2010) – S. C. Gwynne
  • Cheap (2009) – Ellen Ruppel Shell
  • The Greater Journey (2011) – David McCullough
  • The Last Gunfight (2011) – Jeff Guinn

Outstanding Fiction Books Read This Year

  • The Way We Live Now (1875) – Anthony Trollope
  • Doc (2011) – Mary Doria Russell
  • Among Others (2011) – Jo Walton
  • Middlemarch (1874) – George Elliot
  • The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (2007) – Sherman Alexie
  • True Grit (1968) – Charles Portis
  • Wonder (2011) – Robert J. Sawyer

This is more titles than I normally list as my favorites of the year, but I was really impressed with all of these books, and they really are outstanding.  I’ve never read Trollope before, but I just loved The Way We Live Now.  I’m already anxious to read it again.  Mary Doria Russell did a fabulous job of historical research to flesh out Doc Holliday and the Earps in her new novel Doc.  It’s interesting to contrast this with the The Last Gunfight which was nonfiction, and also excellently researched.  Russell’s next book will be set in Tombstone, so I’m anxious to see what she does with that legend.  At the science fiction book club we were all blown away by Among Others by Jo Walton, since it’s love letter to science fiction fans.

All the nonfiction titles I list above are heavy duty books in their own way.  The Information is just huge in scope and like the old Connections TV show with James Burke covering territory over centuries.   The Warmth of Other Suns and The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks are both tremendously enlightening books about African-American history, but they also say volumes about 20th century American history.  Empire of the Summer Moon, The Greater Journey and The Last Gunfight all expanded my knowledge of 19th century history.  I thought Cheap was just going to be a fun throw-away book that we read for my local book club, but it’s turned out to be very useful in understanding our current economic problems.  The Blank Slate is an intense look at human nature that I wish I could memorize.

Books Read in 2011

  1. True Grit (1968) – Charles Portis
  2. The Man Who Folded Himself (1973) – David Gerrold
  3. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (2010) – Rebecca Skloot
  4. Among Others (2011) – Jo Walton
  5. I, Robot (1950) – Isaac Asimov (2nd time)
  6. Time for the Stars (1956) – Robert A. Heinlein (5th time)
  7. Flashforward (1999) – Robert J. Sawyer
  8. The Blank Slate (2002) – Steven Pinker
  9. Cheap (2009) – Ellen Ruppel Shell
  10. The Currents of Space (1952) – Isaac Asimov
  11. Brain Wave (1954) – Poul Anderson
  12. Middlemarch (1874) – George Elliot
  13. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (2007) – Sherman Alexie
  14. The Good Book (2009) – David Plotz
  15. Do Gentlemen Really Prefer Blondes? (2008) – Jena Pincott
  16. A Million Miles in a Thousand Years (2009) – Donald Miller
  17. The Moral Landscape (2010) – Sam Harris
  18. Forged (2011) – Bart D. Ehrman
  19. The Man Who Loved Books Too Much (2009) – Allison Hoover Bartlett
  20. Wonder (2011) – Robert J. Sawyer
  21. The Way We Live Now (1875) – Anthony Trollope
  22. Rite of Passage (1968) – Alexei Panshin (3rd time)
  23. The History of the World in Six Glasses (2005) – Tom Standage
  24. The Warmth of Other Suns (2010) – Isabel Wilkerson
  25. Mildred Pierce (1941) – James M. Cain
  26. Radio Free Albemuth (1985) – Philip K. Dick
  27. The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid (2006) – Bill Bryson (2nd time)
  28. When HARLIE Was One (1972) – David Gerrold (2nd time)
  29. The Mote in God’s Eye (1974) – Niven/Pournelle
  30. A Tale of Two Cities (1859) – Charles Dickens
  31. The Ten-Cent Plague (2008) – David Hajdu
  32. A World Out of Time (1976) – Larry Niven
  33. Second Variety and Other Stories (2010) – Philip K. Dick
  34. Calculating God (2000) – Robert J. Sawyer
  35. Destiny Disrupted (2009) – Tamim Ansary
  36. Feed (2010) – Mira Grant
  37. Letter to a Christian Nation (2006) – Sam Harris
  38. 1959 (2009) – Fred Kaplan
  39. The Life of Pi (2001) – Yann Martin (2nd time)
  40. Empire of the Summer Moon (2010) – S. C. Gwynne
  41. Alas, Babylon (1959) – Pat Frank
  42. The Clockwork Universe (2011) – Edward Dolnick
  43. Earthlight (1955) – Arthur C. Clarke
  44. A Canticle for Liebowitz (1959) – Walter M. Miller, Jr (2nd time)
  45. The Information (2011) – James Gleick
  46. The Zookeeper’s Wife (2007) – Diane Ackerman
  47. Soulless (2009) – Gail Carriger
  48. Stand on Zanzibar (1968) – John Brunner (2nd time)
  49. Aegean Dream (2011) – Dario Ciriello
  50. SuperFreakonomics (2009) – Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner
  51. In Other Worlds (2011) – Margaret Atwood
  52. Galactic Patrol (1950) – E. E. Smith
  53. In the Garden of Beast (2011) – Erik Lawson
  54. Bossypants (2011) – Tina Fey
  55. Empire Star (1966) – Samuel R. Delany
  56. The Greater Journey (2011) – David McCullough
  57. The Last Gunfight (2011) – Jeff Guinn
  58. Doc (2011) – Mary Doria Russell

Reading Goals for 2012

Every year I want to read more new books and hopefully explore new reading territory, but after chronicling my reading habits for four years I definitely see trends.  I hate to say it, but I need to ditch some science fiction books to read more science books.  And I’d like to read more novels written by people from other parts of the world.  Eva at A Striped Armchair inspires me with her wide-ranging reading habits.

Happy New Year to All – let’s hope all the unemployed find jobs in 2012.

JWH – 12/31/11

A New Kind of Reading: iEssays

What’s the best economic model for finding the absolute best essays to read?

I decided to go paperless with my periodical reading back in February, 2008, and my last magazine subscription (Popular Photography) has finally run out.  At one time I subscribed to over 20 magazines. I love magazines, and I spent six years working in a periodicals department at a university library back in the 1980s. 

At first this effort was to do my part in fighting global warming, but over the last few years I’ve realized that magazines aren’t the most efficient way to read about the world.  Out of a year’s worth of The New Yorker, I might only read 1/20th of the printed pages, and it was probably less.  I now subscribe to The New Yorker on my Kindle, but I don’t even look at every issue, so I’m wasting my money.  I do wish I read each issue cover to cover because it’s a great magazine, but in reality I spend far more time reading on the Internet.  There’s something compelling about jumping from one web site to the next grazing on information.

Long before the Internet was a gleam in its designers’ eyes, magazines and newspapers were the world wide web of information.  Most print magazines and newspapers have a web presence today, and they all compete for eyes and dollars, while still trying not to compete against their own print editions, but I can’t imagine that lasting for many more years.  With ebooks, smartphones and tablets all offering periodicals and news reading apps, how can paper periodicals compete?

I wish I could take a news pill every morning and just know what’s happening around the world, but that’s not possible – yet.  But here’s the modern reality of reading – petabytes of data are being created daily, but we all still live in a 24 hour world, and at most I might spend 7 of my 168 weekly hours keeping up the world by reading short non-fiction essays, and when I’m busy or lazy it’s a lot less.

The Challenge of Keeping Current

We live in exciting times, and this is a happening world, but it is surprising how ill informed we are about what’s going on.  For most of my life I’ve watched the half-hour evening news and then supplemented it with some magazine reading, and figured I was doing pretty good keeping up with current events.  But I realize now that I’m not.  Too much of the evening news on television is worthless.  Are daily stories about natural disasters, politics, and economics really that valuable to keeping up with external reality beyond our tiny lives?

In any 24 hour period, what really are the most worthwhile stories to know about?  Let’s say we spend 60 minutes a day, whether surfing the net, scanning RSS feeds, watching television, reading a newspaper or magazine – what’s the most productive way to spend those 60 minutes in terms of learning about what’s going on in reality?

Generally, we all have a passive attitude towards acquiring news.  We take in whatever’s in front of us, whether it’s the NBC Nightly News or  But what if we read with conscious intent?  What if we systematically reviewed data sources ourselves, instead of letting editors at newspapers, magazines and TV shows decide what we need to know?

The Old Way

Before radio and television, people read newspapers.  Your daily paper might present 25 stories and you picked the ones you wanted to read.  With mass broadcasting on radio and TV, news was bundled into shows of 30 or 60 minutes and you just sat through all the stories, even if you really weren’t interested in all of them.  If you wanted to know more you subscribed to magazines and hoped they presented in-depth coverage for stuff you missed from your newspaper, radio and TV.  Before the plague of attention deficit syndrome hit the world, magazines often presented long essays, thousands of words on a topic, offering far more data than you’d get in a one hour documentary.

The Current Way

The Internet publishes thousands, if not millions, of stories every day.  There are many ways of finding stories to read.  You can go to a editor driven sites like Google News, MSN, Slashdot, Engadget, or any of countless other outlets and scan for interesting items to read.  Or you can go to social sites like StumbleUpon or Digg and hope serendipity will bring you a great news surprise.  Or, you can add all your favorite sites to a RSS feed reader and try to manage the internet fire hose of data that way.

With the advent of the tablet computer we now hold a magic magazine that can overcome the limitations of the printing press. 

The Better Way?

Money makes a great editor, in more ways than one.  I guarantee if you go buy copies of The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The New York Times, Scientific American, or any of the many top printed periodicals and read the longest articles you’ll get the best bang for you reading time.  These publications pay writers top dollars and there is a kind of survival of the fittest in information quality going on.  However, we still have the problem of subscribing to paper copies, or tediously searching the net for the web editions.  And whether we pay for paper copies or subscribe to digital editions, we’ll buy a lot of content we won’t read.

What we need is the iTunes of essays, iEssays or a Readers Digital Digest.  Articles under 1,000 words should be 49 cents, 1,000-4,999 should be $1, and stories greater than 5,000 words that aren’t considered books, should be $1-3.  If you buy one $5.99-6.99 magazine a week, you’re spending a $1 a day for essays, and I doubt many people would read more than one long essay a day, so these prices are about equal to average magazine reading.  Leave the under 500 word content to free web sites supported by ads.

Picture The New York Times Most Popular section but getting content from hundreds or thousands of magazines, newspapers and web sites.  This is how I read the NY Times, start at this page and only reading the best/most popular articles.

At our iEssays site, we could follow best seller lists set up by topics to quickly find the Hit Essay of the Day from a variety of subject categories.  They can also keep lists for Hits of the Week, Month or Year.  Imagine sitting down with your iPad once a day with the intent of spending 30-60 minutes reading a very high quality article and you’re willing to spend a buck.  This would definitely weed out the crap and silly stories you mind at most social news sites. 

And it’s important that the site not charge a subscription for the whole site.  What we want to do is generate hit essays like iTunes creates hit singles.  It would be important to still read newspaper sites or watch TV news to get a general impression of the news, but if you wanted to really learn something new every day about the world, I think the iEssays would be the best way to go.

Also, to help the survival of the fittest process, I think as part of your purchase you get to send an article to up to five friends, or link it on your blog.  So articles could be promoted up the Hit List by purchase votes, recommendation votes, or link hit votes.  The New York Times allows free reading to its articles if they come in via links.  I think that’s an innovative way to promote stories and still collect payments.

And finally, I think the iEssays should be an app that stores your purchased articles forever in the cloud, so they become part of your digital memory.


I’m not expecting this system to supplant subscription systems.  Most people prefer passive news gathering.  Most people are happy to subscribe to a newspaper or magazine and just skim and read, tossing the issue out when they are done.  But I think there’s enough people like me who are annoyed at buying far more content than we read, and wanting to get the most for our money.  It’s like cable TV plans, spend $60 a month and get 200 channels.  Some people don’t mind channel surfing, but I don’t.  Not only would I like a la cart cable, I think I’d like to buy television by the show.

Unless magazines and newspapers go the way of subscription music, I’d prefer paying by the article rather than the issue.  I pay $4.99 a month to Rdio and get to listen to essentially everything.  I use its social tools and charts to narrow my listening.  But I think by the essay pricing would help me find the best article reading the fastest.

Right now The New York Times charges $20 a month for unlimited tablet access.  That seems way too expensive when compared to what I get from the music business.  If The New York Times also presented content from many major newspapers and magazines, then I might consider a $20 monthly bill, like how I spend for TV and movies through Netflix.  But the NY Times is trying to price their digital newspaper like the old paper copies, and this is different world.  Netflix and Rhapsody are changing content pricing models in people’s minds and I don’t think they will go away.

I think the Rhapsody pricing model is superior to the iTunes pricing model, which is superior to the old CD pricing model.  iTunes sells hits, and I want to buy hit essays.  I don’t want to buy whole papers and read just a handful of its stories.  I want either the Netflix/Rhapsody model which is gigantic piles of content for one low monthly price, and I’d use built in tools to find what I want, or I want the iTunes model, where I buy just the hits. 

When it comes to reading quality essays (or short stories and poems for that matter), I predict the price per song model is superior for quickly finding the best reads.  And ultimately I think more writers and publishers would benefit from this model too.  If I spent $20 a month for The New York Times I doubt I buy any only periodical.  Which is why I can’t make myself spend $20 for one online newspaper.  If they added 20 top magazines to their deal, I would gladly pay $20 a month, but I’d rather pay $1 an article for an even larger pool of hit providers.

The monthly library model like Netflix and Rhapsody is great for music, movies and TV shows if you like to try out lots of different songs or programs.  But reading is different, at least for me.  I have a limited amount of time I spend reading, and I only want the very best stories to read.  It’s like people who prefer iTunes to Rhapsody.  They just want to get a few hits to play and aren’t concerned with trying out one or two dozen new albums a week.  That’s why I think some enterprising Readers Digest wannabes should apply the iTunes model to creating iEssays.  Or if the Best American Series editors came out with a monthly digital issue rather than a series of books once a year.

JWH – 7/17/11

12 Ways for the Kindle to Compete with iPad

The Kindle is clunky!  As a paperback book replacement, the Kindle is superior to the iPad because of size and weight.  However, as a magazine, newspaper, television and computer replacement, it fails miserable by contrasting it with the iPad.

Robert L. Mitchell, over at Computerworld writes “Why iPads will beat e-readers,” and he makes some very good points.  Basically he asks why have two devices when one will do, especially one that does so much more.  For most people this will be very true, but not all, and the not-alls can still be millions of bookworms.  Not everyone is ready to spend $500 for a reading gadget, but some people are ready to spend $139, and millions more would get into the game if the Kindle was $49.95, one tenth the price of the iPad.  The real question is:  Is the Kindle good enough in the long run?  If you could buy an iPad for $139 how many people would even think of purchasing a Kindle?

My biggest gripe with my Kindle 3 is not the e-ink display but the user interface – the Kindle is clunky at best, compared to the uber-elegant iPad.  How can Amazon fix the Kindle so its users would no longer feel iPad envy?  Can the Kindle be marketed as a single task device in such a way that it doesn’t psychologically compete with the iPad at all?

The problem is the iPad can be a universal ebook reader and that’s why people see the iPad as competition to the Kindle.  Plus the iPad can host thousands of dazzling programs on a beautiful and elegant screen.

The iPad proves that a touch screen is the perfect user interface (UI) for tablet size devices!  The Kindle 3’s buttons and UI is a major leap forward over previous models, but it’s nowhere near the quantum leap of touch screen tablets.  My biggest gripe against the iPad is it’s way too heavy to be a book.  If you’re the kind of person that reads for less than an hour a few times a week, the iPad is fine.  But if you read hours a day, seven days a week then the iPad is clunky and chunky.  This leaves room for Amazon to compete.

Amazon can go in two major directions.  First, it can continue to be just a book replacement device or second, it can go into the tablet competition arena.  And since Kindle software is already on all the major tablets, it’s doubtful that Amazon needs to market its own general purpose device unless it wants to compete with the Color Nook, which is essentially a half-ass Android tablet, and B&N’s attempt to beat E-ink technology.  But at $250, it’s too expensive for most people wanting to get into the ebook reading.

Does Amazon really need to make money in hardware sales?  Does it really matter what platform Amazon’s customers read their books on?  Now that the ebook market has exploded, and readers are accepting the idea of buying ebooks, does Amazon even need to sell Kindles?  Does it even need to sell ebooks in the Kindle format exclusively?  Amazon’s real competition is not the iPad, but Apple.  Apple now sells music, movies, audio books, ebooks, television shows – much of the same content that Amazon is pushing, and a reason to want Android tablets to succeed.  And how does Amazon compete when Apple takes in a 30% profit margin on anything Amazon sells on Apple devices.

Amazon needs to beat Apple, not the iPad, and the best way for that to happen is if Android phones and tablets outsell iPhones and iPads.  Or if Amazon has a device that its loyal customers love more than an iPad.  For the Kindle device to succeed it must be the ultimate ebook reader – and it wouldn’t hurt if it was $49.95 or less.

Here are a number of ways the Kindle could be improved.

  1. E-ink technology limits what Amazon can do with the design of the Kindle.  If Amazon could meld touch screen technology with the e-ink display it could simplify the device by jettison most of the buttons, and vastly improving the user interface.
  2. Add support for EPUB standard – that way EPUB could become the web standard for free ebooks and that would actually help the Kindle.  It would also let Kindle users get library books from Overdrive and NetLibrary, also helping sales.
  3. Make a deal with B&N to support each other’s book formats, so Kindle users could buy from B&N, and Nook users could buy from Amazon.  Hey, the competition is with Apple.
  4. Work extremely hard on the ergonomics of the device so it’s easier to hold and read than any mass market paperback, trade paper or hardback book.
  5. Make the device indestructible so people feel its safe to take their Kindle anywhere something you won’t do with an expensive iPad or Android tablet.
  6. Make the price cheap enough so people will want one for every family member, nor feel kicked in the gut if they loose one.
  7. Work out a scheme for family and friends to share books.  If I owned two Kindles so my wife and I can read the same book, we’d have to have both devices on one account name just to keep us from having to buy two copies.  Being forced to share an account means we can’t have separate libraries.  And if we’re reading the same book at the same time the auto book marking feature would get messed up.
  8. Develop a home page that’s a metaphor for a personal library system.  A Kindle can hold thousands of books theoretically, but not practically.  Amazon needs to make an app like iTunes to manage all the content on the Kindle – but it needs to be far better than iTunes.
  9. Improve the way magazines and newspapers are presented and stored on the Kindle – and aim for cheaper subscription costs than what people have to pay on the iPad.
  10. Most books, especially fiction, do not have photos and illustrations, so it’s easier for E-ink to compete with LCD displays.  It might be better to concede multimedia to the tablet competition, and make the Kindle the absolute best text to brain interface that bookworms can buy.
  11. Make it a snap to transfer text from the Internet and the computer to and from the Kindle.   Getting text to and from the iPhone/iPad/iPod touch can be annoying because of all the security and restrictions Apple uses to protect the user.  It would be fantastic to have a plugin for my browsers that would scrape a web page and put the text content into my Kindle for reading later in the comfort of my recliner.  But just getting .txt, .pdf, and .doc files to and from the Kindle is still cumbersome, and it can’t handle .epub at all.  This would be supported by #8.
  12. Find a software solution to make the Kindle a lifetime library of reading – right now I feel compelled to delete books and docs from the Kindle to keep thing clean and easy, but if the UI was better my Kindle could be a portable library of lifetime reading.  One solution is to provide a lifetime library in the cloud for your loyal users.

I use my Kindle most for reading free stuff off the Internet.  There are short stories and essays on the Internet that are too long to read sitting at the desk so I like to put on the Kindle, plus there are thousand and thousands of free novels, especially classics.  I do buy Kindle books, especially when they are cheaper than buying printed books, but the prices for ebooks have shot up which makes them less appealing.  If I see a reprint of an old science fiction book for $7.99 or $9.99 I just say no.  If it’s $4.99 I think hard about it.  If it’s $2.99 I jump.  $4.99-$7.99 competes with buying used hardbacks for collecting and sharing.  I’d rather buy a used hardback and give it to a friend than buy a Kindle book at the same price.  Sorry Amazon, but sharing books is a factor. 

If the Kindle book is cheaper than a used hardback I think, cool, I’m building an electronic library.  But even that desire is limited because the current UI makes collecting books a chore because of clutter and harder navigation.  I seldom reread books, but sometimes I’d like them for reference, so it’s a toss-up for whether or not to keep them.  I’d love to have a system for building an electronic library of everything I’ve read.  If the Kindle offered such software I’d be more likely to buy Kindle books to keep in my lifetime library.

Right now when I power up my Kindle I see a long list of books, magazines and other documents waiting to be read.  If I want I can archive stuff to an even longer list.  That’s a mess.  What’s needed is a library system for e-readers, something that’s probably only possible with a touch screen UI.

Amazon needs to get some savvy librarians to work on this task.  I can picture the opening screen having the following buttons:

  • Read [it remembers where I left off]
  • Bookmarks/Search
  • Novels
  • Nonfiction
  • Magazines
  • Short Stories
  • Poems
  • Essays
  • Newspapers
  • Documents
  • Notes

What I want is a way to organize my digital book collection and help me find stuff.  And this points to a major flaw of the iPad as an ebook reader.  If you have books in Kindle, Stanza, iBooks, Nook, and other readers on the iPad, and you subscribe to magazines and newspapers, each in their own app, and you collect documents in all kinds of apps, finding stuff will be tricky because it’s all over the place.

I wish my Kindle had a detachable handle, like a church fan handle, but with a trigger to page forward.  Even though it’s much lighter than the iPad, it gets tiring to hold.

But the biggest trouble Amazon will have when competing with tablets is whether or not people start carrying tablets around with them like cell phones.  If everyone gets that addicted to their tablet, then people won’t want a Kindle.  Thus, if Amazon wants to stay in the ebook device business they will have to come out with a tablet that competes with the iPad, or join forces with Android tablet makers.  However, I don’t think people will carry tablets everywhere.  Smartphones will be it, so having a smartphone that can connect with a lifetime library in the cloud could be another big selling point.

I think the Kindle can compete if it becomes a super-book and doesn’t try to be anything else.  A tablet is really a computer without a keyboard, it’s a general purpose device, and as long as it’s heavier and more expensive than a single purpose ebook reader, ereaders have a chance to compete.

JWH – 3/26/11 (Mine and Susan’s 33rd anniversary)

How Can Bookstores Compete with

Last year I had four large bookstores I could visit.  My favorite is Davis-Kidd Booksellers, a chain in Tennessee.  The other three are Borders, Barnes & Noble and Bookstar.  This year Bookstar closed, and the future of Borders is uncertain.  And the parent company of Davis-Kidd filed for bankruptcy, but luckily, the Memphis store was the robust one of the group and is continuing to operate. 

My wife and I were shopping at Davis-Kidd last night because I had gotten an email saying everything was 20% off March 18.   When we went to check-out we found the 20% only applied to its Members club, which costs $25 a year.  The book we were buying to read for our book club, The History of the World in 6 Glasses by Tom Standage was $15.95.  We had decided to buy it because of the sale, otherwise we thought $16 was too much for a paperback.  When we found out we weren’t going to get the sale price left the store without it.  The same book at Amazon for $10.56, or $8.61 for the Kindle edition.  We would have paid $13.60 for the book locally, but not full list.

Now I like supporting my local bookstores and buy a fair amount of books from them at full price, but mostly I buy their remaindered books.  Hardbacks have gotten too expensive to buy new at list price, so I enjoy getting a book I want when they are discounted.  We were disappointed to leave the store empty handed and annoyed that we had been enticed to a sale that we weren’t entitled to use.

This got me to thinking, how should local bookstores compete with Amazon?  Are bookstores failing because they charge full price when online retailers are always offering sales?  If the price of the book were the same I would probably always buy locally.  I will buy loads of books when they are for sale at remaindered prices.  But unless it’s something special I need immediately, or for a gift, I just won’t buy books at list price anymore.

The History of the World in 6 Glasses is also available for the Kindle for $8.61.  I have a Kindle but my wife doesn’t.  She does have an iPhone with the Kindle reader.  So we could save even more money by buying the Kindle edition.  By the way, if a married couple both want to read the book on a Kindle they have to buy two Kindles and register them to the same account.

Local bookstores have to compete with discounted books sold online and with emerging ebooks.  Competing will be tough, but I think it will still be possible.  Right now books best read on ebooks are words only books, especially fiction.  But nonfiction books with photos, diagrams, maps, etc. don’t work well on ebook readers.  Any book you just want to flip around and discover things randomly doesn’t work well as ebooks.

Bookstores will have the advantage on selling books you want to look at, and for selling books you don’t know you wanted to buy until you see them, either because of illustrations, or because you are just shopping for a sale like going through the remaindered titles.  But can bookstores make it without selling fiction?  Fiction is perfect for ebook readers, especially for hardcore bookworms that read one book after another.

Amazon has been selling used books for years and I often buy them over new books when shopping Amazon.  I’m thinking local bookstores should start selling used books, especially upscale collector editions.  Local bookstores have online stores beat when it comes to tactile browsing, and thus should succeed with books that are appealing as objects, like special editions, rare editions, or heavily illustrated books.

One of the books we read for our book club is Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture by Ellen Ruppel Shell.  It’s a history of shopping, sales and marketing, and one of the lessons is buyers don’t like to pay full retail, and yet bookstores try to compete with online stores by selling at full list price.  If they want to stay in business they will have to stop that practice.  Davis-Kidd got us in their store last night with the promise of 20% off, but it turned out to only be for their club members.  They need to make 20% off their standard price for everyone and see if they sell more books.  I know I’d buy far less books at if they did.

They also need to get more remaindered books – because that’s what keeps me shopping regularly at their store.  But if they also had a nice selection of used books that would get me shopping more often.  But it can’t be crappy books like you find at the library book sale.  They need to be beautiful books, in near mint condition, great dust jackets, something people would want to own for their physical beauty and collecting appeal.

Davis-Kidd and Borders also sell music, but they have full priced CDs which I won’t buy.  If they priced CDs closer to what Amazon, or even Target does I’d browse their selection every week.  Bookstores might also  consider selling LPs.  LPs are making a comeback and their large beautiful covers could be a big selling point.  If fact, music publishers who want to sell CDs should package them in collector picture books editions that sell in bookstores.

And I think the publishers should make special editions of new books that appeal to the visual buyer.  And they shouldn’t be $99, but priced for impulse buying.  I wouldn’t buy a $19 CD, but it it came with a beautiful book for $19 I would.  Ditto for DVD movies.  However, if they are expensive I’ll just shop Amazon looking for 40% discounts.

I love going to book and record stores, but I don’t buy like I used to.  Bookworms love bookstores, but if it came down to a choice between Amazon and Davis-Kidd, I’d take Amazon.  Amazon is actually far more helpful at selling books because of the customer reviews and other sales information at the site.  The assumption is human help is better than software, but it’s not.  Bookstores are great for browsing the visual and tactile qualities of books, for random impulse buying and instant need.  They need to capitalize on these functions.  Otherwise, books as a commodity are better marketed on the web.

JWH – 3/19/11


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