My Cambrian Period of Science Fiction

Over much of my youth, I read lots of science fiction in very limited ranges. I discovered Piers Anthony in junior high school and read everything of his I could get my hands on. I did the same with Isaac Asimov. Rarely did I venture beyond. Twenty years ago, however, an event took place that I look back on as the beginning of my Cambrian period of science fiction.

I had just finished reading the first book in the new Foundation trilogy, Foundation’s Fear by Gregory Benford. I’d read the book with some trepidation. I loved the Foundation series and I was worried that I might not like the newly authorized books. I came away from Benford’s book relieved, and it would have been natural for me to find another Asimov book to tackle, but instead I picked something all together different.

I started to read Age of Wonders by the late David G. Hartwell. I’d picked up the book at the Dangerous Visions bookstore in Sherman Oaks, California. I no longer recall why I decided to start reading a nonfiction literary review of science fiction’s literature. But I did. I finished the book in late September 1997, and thereafter, my Cambrian period of science fiction began.

Within the next two months, I broadened my reading in science fiction more than at any other time in my life. I read Bester for the first time, devouring The Stars My Destination and The Demolished Man. I read A.J. Budrys remarkable Rogue Moon and was introduced to a side of “beaming up” that I’d never considered before. I read Robert Silverberg’s Dying Inside, still in my mind one of the greatest novels I’ve ever experienced. I read Phillip K. Dick’s Time Out of Joint and a year later wondered if The Truman Show was an homage. I spent nearly two weeks closely reading Robert Heinlein’s The Past Through Tomorrow. I read Barry Malzberg’s Beyond Apollo and Galaxies. I read Bradbury’s The Illustrated Man. And I read Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War, starting the book as I awaited jury duty at the Hollywood courthouse. By the time it was over, two months had passed.

In the twenty years since, I’ve read a lot of science  fiction. So much that I’ve more or less burned out it–except for rare things. But whenever I scan my reading list, and see that Cambrian period from September through early November of 1997, I feel echoes of the sense of wonder that occurred repeatedly over the course of 8 weeks.

The Paradox of Journaling

I am fascinated by journals and diaries. My own diary was inspired by Isaac Asimov, after I learned he started a diary on his 18th birthday, and kept it up through his entire adult life. My own diary lasted about a decade, and then morphed into the blog I’ve had for the last dozen years.

An article in the November issue of the Atlantic on Thoreau’s “masterpiece” got me thinking about journals. Each time I read about John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Henry Adams, or Henry David Thoreau, I am always astonished at their ability to keep a journal. Part of it is what they have to say, and part of it represents a barrier that I keep running into each time I try to start a journal anew. I call it the paradox of modern journaling.

My paradox is based on two seemingly simple requirements I have:

  1. Be consistent.
  2. Have a journal that is readily and easily searchable.

Being Consistent

I was most consistent when I wrote my journal on paper, in At-A-Glance Standard Diaries, one for each year. Consistency was driven in part by the medium: the Standard Diaries I used had a single page for each day which limited how much time I spent writing in my journal. My journal was Asimovian, the opposite of Thoreau. I recorded my social calendar, my achievements, and little else.

Still, it was easy to be consistent. I took the volume with me when I traveled. All that was required to keep it up-to-date was a pen or pencil. I didn’t worry about power outages or wireless Internet access. If I missed a day, I could always go back and make it up. Occasionally, a page was blank, and I learned not to worry too much about that. Consistency is about habit, and habit, for me, is a forgiving bullseye.

Readily and easily searchable

Asimov’s rational for starting a diary was simple: he was often frustrated by the way people misremembered the past, and it wanted a place to preserve events. It would be a handy reference book. That logic fit well with my thinking, and was part of the reason I started my own diary.

What I found, however, was that my Standard Diaries, though good for consistency and habit-forming, were not very good for searching. On occasion, when I needed to find out when a particular event happened, I’d go searching through the volumes. If I had a good sense of timeframe, the search was relatively quick. But if I was searching for something that took place years earlier, or something that was obscured in my memory, I could spend an hour or more flipping through the volumes to find what I was looking for.

Writing on the blog was different. Because my writing is in digital form, it is usually easy to find what I am looking for. But I was never as consistent on the blog as I was in my Standard Diaries. And that is only part of the paradox.

The Persistence of Memory

Writing a journal in digital form, whatever that form might be, has many advantages. I can type much faster than I can handwrite. There are no physical impediments—pages, margins, volumes—to how much or how little I write. What I write is readily searchable. And, in theory, in digital form, with backup in place, what I write is readily preserved.

The thing is, I have never been as consistent typing my journals as I have been handwriting them into books. I don’t know why this is. I can’t explain it, and I don’t even have a theory.

Moreover, I have found that while it would seem that my digital journals are more preservable than my physical ones, I suspect the opposite. All of my Standard Diaries sit on shelf, along with my books, collecting dust, but safe, in the same form they’ve always taken. My digital writing, however, is scattered. This blog makes up some of it. I have various text files that have come and gone over the years. The very lack of consistency in digital form makes preserving it more precarious.

This seems true, generally. John Adams’ diaries have been preserved over the centuries. They have even been digitized for a curious public. Thoreau’s journals have also been preserved, and some of them are also available for people to read. These journals have survived centuries, but I can’t even consistently keep a journal online for decade.

Part of this comes from how we host our journals. Blogs are hosted by companies that come and go. What happens when they go? Diaries that sit on our shelves have no such dependency. There is always the risk of flood or fire, but no more than the risk of losing digital data.

Instinct tells me that good old-fashioned paper is the way to go for a consistent journal. And yet, paradoxically, those Standard Diaries I have are hard to search through.

The Story of My Life

Once I had children, my rational for journaling changed. I still think of my journals as a kind of almanac of my life, reference books, if you will. But I also think of them as representing the story of my life—one that might interest my kids as they get older. I see my journals as something to pass down to them, so that they can know their dad in ways that don’t come up in the ordinary course of life. This means preserving the journals in a way that will survive the constantly changing technical world.

Paper diaries have shown persistence through the ages, if for no other reason than paper has been around far longer than its digital cousin. So paper would seem to be the way to proceed going forward. But paper is hard to search. Maybe the answer is a compromise: keep my journal on paper for consistency and persistence, but scan the volumes into digital form to allow for better searching, and a hedge against physical disaster.

How I Lost 10 Pounds In One Month

I was a skinny kid until I turned 40. I never had to worry about what I ate. I never gained much weight. I never went on a diet. After 40 things started to change. What I ate mattered more. I started putting on weight. I started noticing that I was putting on weight. I could see it in my face when I glanced in the mirror.

Whenever I want to make a significant change, I always have to think about it for a long time. I wanted to start to control my weight as far back as a year ago. But I wasn’t ready until recently. I was browsing on Facebook and came across a post by my friend, Michael Burstein, who talked about his own weight loss, and how he’d gone about it. Unlike most diets I’ve seen advertised, Michael’s was simple, and sensible.

So on Sunday, August 27, decided I was ready and I started a diet for the first time in my life. I tipped the scale at 182 pounds at the time. As of this morning my diet has lasted 31 days, and when I weighed myself, I found that I was 172 pounds. I’d lost 10 pounds in one month!

How’d I do it? Well, I just followed my friend Michael’s wisdom: I limited myself to 1,600 calories/day.

Of course, things were a little more complex than that.

Writing down what I ate

While I do enjoy tracking things, I’ve never enjoyed tracking calories. It seems overly cumbersome, and I have yet to find something better than a plain old notebook to handle this–which is exactly what I did this time.

I used on of my Field Notes Utility ledger notebooks to track my calories each day. But I had a few rules about tracking calories to make my life simpler:

  1. I would always round to the nearest 5 calories. If something was 167 calories, I’d write in 170. If it was 206, I’d write 205.

  2. In the ledger column, I’d keep a tally of how many calories I had left in the day, to help make decisions.

  3. If I didn’t know an exact calorie count, I wasn’t going to sweat it. I’d make my best guess, and move on.

  4. If I went over on a given day, well, I’d just try to do better the next day.

I think writing it down was a big help, especially in the decision-making process.

Deciding what to eat

I quickly found that I had to make decisions: eat that 400 calories muffin, or east something that is only 100 calories, and use the spare 300 calories for 2 Coke’s later in the day.

Being on a diet means having to give up things. But I didn’t want to be miserable. I enjoy my caffeine: Cokes and Red Bull, and I didn’t want to give them up. So I worked very hard to ensure that I didn’t have to. Eventually, I settled on a pattern that seems to work for me:

  • About 400 calories at breakfast
  • About 300 calories at lunch
  • About 300 calories at dinner

The remaining 600 calories are for enjoying my Cokes, Red Bulls, and the occasional cookie.

Remarkable, this worked for me, and I watched in surprise as my weight steadily began to drop. Not right away, not much in the first week, but pretty consistently thereafter.

Other adjustments

There were a few days while on a vacation at a resort where we had buffet dinners and breakfasts. At first, I tried to stay on track, but decided that it wasn’t worth the effort for a day or two, so I gave myself the okay to eat whatever I wanted. It was fine. When we got back home, I was back on track with my 1,600 calories.

Sometimes, I’ll see the kids eating ice cream and it looks so good. But given the tradeoff between the calories for the ice cream and the calories for the Coke, I’ll pick the Coke every time.

My meals are smaller than they were. 300 calories too often looks like a lot less than what I am used to. But I found that after a little while, I’m not hungry anymore, and I don’t really think about it.

Some interesting stats

Of the 31 days so far, I came in over budget (more than 1,600 calories) on 15 different days, or about 50% of the time. 9 of those 15 time were in the first 15 days of my diet.

When I did go over budget, I did so by an average of 148 calories per day. So even though I went over budget, instead of 1,600 calories/day I was consuming 1,748 calories per day, still below what I was eating before.

On 9 days, I came in under budget.

Some final thoughts

When I started this, I expected it would take longer than 31 days to lose 10 pounds. I’m pleased with the results, but I am not finished. I’m looked to get down to 168, another 6 pounds or so from where I am now. Looking in the mirror, I can already see the difference, and I can definitely feel the difference. It has been a long time since I have felt over-stuffed.

I haven’t been doing any exercise beyond my usual daily walks as part of this diet. My focus has been on what I eat. More exercise comes later. But even before that, I have to figure out–most likely through trial and error–how much I can bump up my daily calories in order to maintain my final weight once I reach it.

Why I Am Sticking with CrashPlan

Earlier this week CrashPlan announced that it was getting out of the consumer backup market and focusing on the business market. When I first saw the announcement, I was dismayed. I’ve been a loyal CrashPlan customer since at least 2013, I think, and their product has worked well for me. At least according to what I saw on Twitter, a lot of people felt the same way, and felt, understandably, betrayed by CrashPlan.

CrashPlan offered several options, including moving to CrashPlan for small business or switching to Carbonite. I brooded over this for a while, and finally decided to stick with CrashPlan. I did this for several practical reasons:

  1. Despite the recent announcement, CrashPlan has been extremely reliable for me for the last four years. On a couple of occasions when I have required major restores, the service has worked perfectly. On the more frequent times when I have had to restore a file or two, it has also served me well.

  2. Moving to an entirely new platform would take a lot of time. I’d be moving to something unfamiliar, and it would take a while to get established on that platform, and get all of my data backed up there. Staying with CrashPlan means they convert my account and nothing changes. All my backups are still active. It is virtually instantaneous.

  3. The move to CrashPlan for Small Business actually saves me money in the short term. I did the math. With CrashPlan for Home, I was paying $149/year for unlimited backups to 3 computers. My subscription is up in July 2018. Moving to CrashPlan for Small Business means that I get that service for all three machines for the next 10 months at no additional cost. As part of their special offer, however, I get the next 12 months on CrashPlan for small business at a discounted rate, 75% of their regular plan. Their regular plan is $10/month per machine. For me that would amount to $360/year. But at 75% off it means that from July 2018 – July 2019, I pay $90 for the year. That’s $60 less than what I am paying right now. True, beginning in August 2019, I’ll be at the normal rate of $10/month per machine (or whatever the going rate is at that time), but 2 years is a long time, and things can change. I’m willing to take my chances.

So I converted my CrashPlan for Home account to a CrashPlan for Small Business account. It was quick and easy, and all three of my machines are now using the Small Business version of CrashPlan.

This worked out for me, but I understand that it doesn’t work for everyone who is affected by this change. It is a particularly difficult change for people who used CrashPlan’s peer-to-peer backup service, which is going away as part of this move. I had to evaluate what would work best for me, given the situation, and it turned out that, for me, sticking with CrashPlan and switching to their Small Business plan was the quickest, easiest, and least expensive option.

Interactive Books

Growing up I learned to treat books with a peculiar reverence. There were rules I picked up along the way, often from school, but sometimes from other places. Among those rules were:

  1. Do not break the spine of a paperback book.
  2. Do not dog-ear a page to mark your place.
  3. Do not write in or otherwise deface the book.

As a child these rules were as unbreakable to me as any rule decreed from on high. As an adult, I look back on these rules with sadness and scorn. Books are meant to be interactive, and all three of these rules prevent one from properly interacting with a book.

If I was giving advice to my kids today, I’d revise these rules. Here are Jamie’s Rules for Interactive Books.

1. Break the Spine of a Paperback Book

Books are meant to be read. I used to read paperbacks in such a way as to avoid breaking their spines, but I was always uncomfortable and could never fully sink into the book. Hold a book however makes you comfortable. If that means cracking its spine, crack it. It is much easier to break the spine of a paperback and lay it flat on the table beside your ham and cheese sandwich than it is to try holding a book in one hand and eating the ham and cheese with the other.

2. Dog-ear the Page to Mark Your Place

If a bookmark is not readily available, dog-ear the page to mark your place. What does it hurt? The book is not screaming out in pain, and you’ll find where you left off that much easier. If pages were not meant to be dog-eared, books would still be made of stone. I still try to avoid dog-earing pages when I can. I use business cards as bookmarks, but I am constantly losing my bookmarks, and I am no longer afraid to dog-ear a page to keep my place.

Both of these rules allow books to take on a used, well-worn feel. That’s how books should look. My bookshelves are filled with a thousand books, many of which are well-worn. I much prefer looking at well-worn bookshelves than the pristine shelves you find in Barnes & Noble and places like that. Well-worn books remind me of libraries.

3. Write In Your Books

Writing in a book makes it your own. It is the ultimate form of interaction. As a child, my schools discouraged writing in books as the books had to be reused again and again by other students. This made it hard for me to write in books as I got older, but I eventually shed those fears. I write in books constantly these days. I highlight passages, I make notes in the margins. I can come back to the book and see my thoughts, what passages impressed me. Those, along with the dog-eared pages and the cracked spines provide a kind of archeological history of my interaction with the book.

These are the rules that I am teaching to my kids. Books are containers of knowledge. They are meant to be interacted with. Reverence for books is not found in a physical form (after all, there are e-books, and audiobooks) but in their content.

Our Summer Vacation

I am just back from a big family vacation. To celebrate my parent’s 50th wedding anniversary, we rented a big house in the wilds of Vermont. My brother and his family, my sister and her family, my family, and my parents all spent a week there. It was isolated. That meant no cell service, but it also meant clear night skies with more stars than I can recall seeing in many years. After the week in Vermont, me, Kelly, and the kids headed to Newport, Rhode Island for a few days.

It was a fun vacation, but not a relaxing one. We kept busy. Here are some of the things we did:

  • Visited a local farm.
  • Attended a Vermont Lake Monsters baseball game. It had everything. Home runs, wild pitches, balks, pass-balls.
  • Hired a photographer for a big family photo shoot. I’m not sure we got a picture with everyone smiling at once.
  • Visited the Ben & Jerry’s factory. It was late in the day and we didn’t want to wait for the tour. Instead, we visited the graveyard of retired flavors.
  • Visited a children’s science museum on a rainy day in which everyone else in the State of Vermont had the same idea.
  • Looked at Jupiter and Saturn through my binoculars. Many of the kids saw the Galilean moons for the first time.
  • Cooked lots of food. Even so, I came home 3 pounds lighter than when I left. I’m not kidding: this was a busy vacation.
  • Had lots of bonfires at night. Then took showers before bed to wash the smell of the bonfire away so as to avoid making the bedsheets smell like smoke.
  • Went tubing down a river.
  • Walked through the nearby town and bought $16 worth of books at their book festival on the green.
  • Saw several covered bridges.
  • Hiked down into Quechee Gorge. Hiked back up again. Both ways, with the baby strapped to me.
  • Spent time at a local lake. Took the Little Miss out in a kayak. We went to the very center of the lake, where it was peaceful. It was probably the quietest moment of the vacation.
  • Toured three of Newport’s famous mansions.

It was great to spend time with the extended family. I don’t get to see my brother and his family very often and to spend a week together was a lot of fun. But it was exhausting, and I woke up this morning feeling worn out and in desperate need of a vacation.

One remarkable thing happened on vacation: I did not touch a keyboard or a look at a computer screen for 11 consecutive days. I found that I didn’t miss it either. I returned from vacation wondering how I could spend less time touching keyboards and looking at computer screens.

Now, I am counting the days to our winter vacation in December. Vacations are funny like that.

Verizon vs. Me

When we bought our house 8 years ago the previous owner had subscribed to Verizon’s Fios services. We opted for Cox instead of Verizon. It is a decision I have never regretted. The few times we’ve had an issue with our cable or Internet over the last 8 years, Cox has always resolved the problem quickly. Their customer service is friendly, and helpful.

Each week for the last 8 years I get a mailing from Verizon urging me to switch to their service. Sometimes this is little more than a cardstock advertisement. Other times, it is a more elaborate campaign, a thick fancy envelop that looks like it is stuffed with lots of important things. What it is stuffed with is nothing more than an offer to switch to Verizon.

Week after week, year after year, these mailings get tossed in a wastebasket that sits just inside the front door. The entire purpose of this wastebasket is to catch the week’s load of junk mail, unopened. I have never responded to Verizon, never taken them up on their offer to switch. I am happy with Cox and the service they provide.

Does Verizon not take the hint? You’d think after something on the order of 416 mailings, someone at Verizon would get the idea that I am not a likely customer. You’d think that their sophisticated software would parse out the fact that I have never shown any interest in their service, despite 416 attempts to get me to switch.

I often imagine someone in a cubicle at Verizon, looking through the data, and saying, yeah, we’ve sent him 416 mailings, and he hasn’t switched yet, but the 417th mailing will be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. This is the same person, I imagine, who is certain that the next lottery ticket they buy will hit the jackpot.

And how much it is costing Verizon for me to ignore them? Let’s say that all-in, each mailing costs $1 (postage, preparation, materials, labor, everything). $416 bucks is a lot to invest on someone who obviously is not switching to your service.

I feel badly about this. So let me help you out Verizon, as plainly and simply as I can:

I’m happy with Cox, and I have no plans to switch to Verizon. Period. End of story.

I Read More with Audiobooks

I began listening to audiobooks in 2013. I did this out of curiosity, but also as a way of trying to get more reading in each day. I wasn’t sure if this would work. After all, narrated books are slower than reading to yourself. (This assumes you don’t speed up the narration.) On the other hand, I can listen to audiobooks at times when reading would be impractical: commuting, exercising, and doing chores around the house, for instance. Still, it wasn’t clear that listening to audiobooks would lead to more reading–until now.

I recently tweaked the reading list I’ve been keeping since 1996. I added page counts to the list. For audiobooks, I added the page count, and listening time. I wrote a script to produce nice little summaries of my reading. Here is what my reading looks like over the last 21-1/2 years:

Reading List Summary

The green hash marks represent paper books. The blue plus signs represent ebooks, and the yellow @ signs represent audiobooks. Since 1996, I’ve read a total of 683 books, for more than 270,000 pages worth of reading. That averages to 31 books per year, and about 12,500 pages per year. The average book length over the course of 21-1/2 years is 404 pages.

In order to see if I have read more with audiobooks, I needed to establish a baseline: how much did I read before audiobooks? I started reading audiobooks in 2013, so I ran a summary of my reading through 2012. Here is the results:

Reading list thru 2012

In the 17 years between 1996 – 2012, I read 501 books, not one of which was an audiobook. I averaged 29 books per year. The average book was 386 pages. And here is the key statistic for our purposes today: I averaged 11,381 pages of reading each year.

Next, I ran a summary of my reading since 2013, when I began reading audiobooks. Since I want to capture complete years, I ran this through 2016. That gives me four years of reading data with audiobooks. Here is the results:

Reading List 2013-2016

Between 2013 – 2016, I read 159 books, 132 of which were audiobooks (that’s 83%). I averaged 39 books per years, ten more per year than the previous 17 years combined. The average books was 459 pages, which tells me I was reading longer books in those 4 years. Most telling, I averaged 18,255 pages per year. When compared to the 11,381 pages of the previous 17 years, it is pretty obvious to me that audiobooks let me get in more reading than before I listened to them.

An interesting side-note: When I started keeping track of the books I read in 1996, I did so with the goal of trying to read a book a week; that is, 52 books a year. In the 21-1/2 years since, I hit and exceeded this goal only once. That was in 2013, my first year listening to audiobooks. I read 54 books that year, most of which were audiobooks.

Goodreads and an Updated Reading List

Over the holiday weekend I took another look at Goodreads to see if it had improved at all in the years since I gave up using it. It hadn’t. There were a few more features, but it was still just as cumbersome to use as I remembered, and the UI is pretty awful. After playing around with it, I decided to keep with my simple, text-based reading list.

I did, however, decide that my list could use some sprucing up. To that end, I made two changes to the list:

  1. I converted it from a .txt file to a .md (Markdown) file. This was entirely cosmetic. In Markdown format, the file looks better when browsed in GitHub, where I host it.

  2. I added page counts to each of the books in the list. I’ve been wanting to do this for a while, but didn’t have the time, and then I brute-forced my way through it over the weekend.

As of today, there are 682 books on my reading list since January 1, 1996. Given my current pace, I think it is reasonable to assume that I will hit 700 books before the year is out.

For those who want to see the list, the most recent version is always available on GitHub.

Time Off

My absence here has been noted, so I wanted to pop in for a moment and assure everyone that I am fine. The day job is very busy, family life is busy, and I needed some time off something in order to ease the passage of the day, so I am taking some time off here.

Meanwhile, I’m getting some more reading done, and I’m trying to help out more around the house. I catch the occasionally ballgame now and then.

No doubt I will be back, once I have given myself a suitable break. I just wanted everyone to know why you haven’t seen me here in a while.

“You Should Read This!”

My favorite lists are reading lists. To-do list may be a necessity for someone with a flighty memory like mine. Grocery lists help keep the fridge (and our bellies) full. Reading lists are a delight. I have kept a list of every book I’ve finished since 1996. I wish I’d started sooner. I enjoy finding other people’s lists, and that is why I broke a rule, and found myself skimming a LinkedIn post the other day with Bill Gates’ summer reading.

I broke a second rule that day. I read the comments. It serves me right. The rules are there for a reason. What would civilized society be without rules? The comments on any major online publication provide a good illustration.

For the most part, they weren’t too bad. The most annoying comments were the many people who thought they were clever by telling Mr. Gates they were surprised not to find their book on the list, and kindly providing him with a link to the Amazon purchase. Also annoying were those people critical of Mr. Gates’ reading choices.

Perhaps the most common comment of all were those people who insisted on telling Bill Gates which books he should | must | just has to read. I’m going to let you in on a little secret I’ve been keeping for a long time. I rarely read books that people recommend to me.

I can no longer recall how many times I’ve been caught reading a book by a friend, a colleague, or even a stranger, who, upon seeing what I am reading, will say, “Have you ever read SUCH-AND-SUCH? You just have to read it.” Family members have recommended books that have gone unread by me. I don’t think I am ever rude about it, and I will often pull out my notebook and jot down the title and author. But I am really just being polite. The chances of me reading a book recommended to me is pretty slim. Looking through the list of books I’ve read, there are probably less than ten that were recommended by someone else. Less than ten. Out of nearly 700.

Reading is a personal thing to me, and few people know my tastes as well as I do. That is not to say that I don’t branch out, or try new things, but usually, recommendations come from what I happen to be reading. For instance, I recently finished a biography of the great sportswriter Red Smith. Within the book, I read how Smith was once interviewed by Jerry Holtzman for his book No Cheering in the Pressbox. I knew right away I wanted to read that book and I made a note in the margin (something I frequently do while reading) to look it up.

Annotation

For me, reading is like flying a kite: I go where the wind takes me. I think back to books that my teachers recommended I read while in school. (I could choose not to read the book, but it might affect my grade.) With only a few exceptions did I actually find the recommendation interesting, insightful, or enjoyable.

I tend to read in phases. Right now I’m in the midst of a baseball mania. I’m on my 10th baseball book in less than a month. Someone might see me reading a biography of Casey Stengel and say, “You should really read The Last Season by Phil Jackson.” Sure, they are both sports books, and both written by people who played and managed their respective sports, but one sport is not the other. I have no interest in basketball.

Many recommendations come as non-sequiturs. I could be reading a collection of Andy Rooney essays, and a friend might suggest whatever bestseller he or she just finished. It might even be a book that I’d be interested in reading, but there’s no way I’m going to stop what I am reading for that. And since I usually know what I am going to read next, there’s no point in adding it to an imaginary list of stuff I will read one day. Maybe I’ll get to it and maybe I won’t. A book has to hit me at just the right time and place, otherwise, I’m not interested.

I try to keep this in mind when I recommend books to others. When I write a review, I try to cast it as a book I enjoyed, and here’s why. I try hard not to say, “You should read this!” although, as my dad will attest, I am not always successful.

I appreciate the thought behind book recommendations, but four decades of reading have created a reading style and pattern of thought that is just not geared for generalized book recommendations. This is true for Bill Gates, too. I read through his summer reading list and nothing on the list stirred my interest.

The Best Books on Writing

I have had dozens of great writing teachers over the years. The best writing teachers were those that taught through example: Isaac Asimov, Stephen King, and most recently, Red Smith. The lessons I took from these three writers were more valuable than any lesson I ever saw in a how-to book on writing. I’m always suspicious of how-to books on writing because nearly every writer works differently. Something that works well for the author of a how-to book does not necessary work well for the reader of such a book.

My approach to learning to write has been different. I’ve read lots of books about writers (autobiographies, or biographies) and tried to find those writers whose work styles are similar to my own. It is much easier for me to take lessons from writers who think like I do than it is for me to try to change my behavior based on a series of exercises and instructions in a how-to book.

Isaac Asimov’s 2-volume autobiography In Memory Yet Green and In Joy Still Felt (which clock in at over 1,500 pages in total) is one of three best books on writing that I’ve ever come across. The book is an incredibly detailed account of the first 58 years of Asimov’s life. In its introduction, Asimov justifies his reasoning for such a lengthy tome:

At twenty-nine, I had never published a book. Now I have published two hundred. There seems to be a widespread belief… that no one can possibly write two hundred books of both fiction and nonfiction, in dozens of categories at all age levels, without being, somehow, an interesting person.

Asimov goes on to then give the reason I found the book so useful for learning to write:

Besides, it might be helpful to ambitious young people or to curious not-so-young people to see How I Did It.

That is, the book details how one writer made his slow, methodical way into print. The lessons are far more practical than anything I’ve seen in how-to book on writing because you get a peek into how one writer actually did it. And in Asimov’s case, how he became so prolific and successful. It is not a get rich quick manual; it is not a manual on how to write the next bestseller. Asimov didn’t write his first bestseller until 1981, two years after the autobiography first saw print.

The lessons in Asimov’s biography went beyond the craft of writing. It was from this book that I learned a lot of the business of writing, and my worldview was formed through Asimov’s eyes.


For craft, Stephen King’s On Writing is the best book on writing that I have come across. Parts of On Writing form more of a traditional “how-to” for writing, but the emphasis in those part are on the basic tools that all writers need. Good spelling and grammar, a grasp of the language, some basic skill to begin with.

King’s book was a revelation to me. I’d been flailing around, before I’d read On Writing. I’d sold two stories, and was trying to figure out what my process was. Reading how King worked, I realized that we worked similarly and he had figured out a way that worked well for both of us. He refers to his method as writing with the door open, and writing with the door closed. In his first draft, he tells himself the story, no one else. It can be messy, and disjointed. The important thing is getting the story out. In the second draft, he writes with the door open, telling the story to the reader. This is much easier for me, once I know the story. I found this method to be incredibly useful, and I’ve stuck with it ever since.


Red Smith was a famous sportswriter from the late 1920s through the early 1980s. I was recently reading a collection of his columns, and found them to be so good that I just had to find out more about the man. It turned out that the person who wrote the forward to the collection, Ira Berkow, had, in the mid-80s, written a biography of Red Smith called Red: The Life & times of a Great American Writer. I procured a copy and set to reading it. I was immediately engrossed.

It is one of the best biographies of a writers I’ve come across, and it contains countless lessons in the craft of writing–through the example of one writer. Smith was prolific in the sense that he write a thousand-word column every day. That takes stamina. It takes even more stamina when you don’t get it right the first time. As readers we see only the finished copy, and we might be forgiven for believing that what we are reading came out of the typewriter or word processor exactly as we see it.

The Smith biography showed that even the best try and try and try to get it right:

He’d sit at the typewriter and paper would pile up. You know, false leads, crazy leads. He’d crumble ’em up and throw ’em away. Until finally he got what he wanted, and he’d bat it out in an hour or an hour and a half.

Smith learned to write surrounded by interruptions, something that I had to learn to do when I realized that often the only time I had to do writing was when the kids were home and the TV was blaring in the background. Smith learned how to adjust his writing when necessary. After selling a piece to the Saturday Evening Post

Smith understood that if he were to continue selling to the slicks, he must of course avoid the “sportswriter’s occupational ailment of overwriting.”

Lessons like these, lessons based on life-experience, have been far more useful to me than any single lesson in a how-to book on writing. They have been more valuable than any single creative writing course, or even feedback from a writer’s group. These kinds of lessons have made me a better writer, and it is part of my continuing education to see out more books like these, and read about writers I admire, in an effort to find ways of improving my own writing.

I am lucky to have had Isaac Asimov, Stephen King, and Red Smith in my corner.