When I started reading in the late 1970s, all books were on paper. There were hardcover books, and paperbacks. There were trade paperbacks, and an occasionally rare edition. But they were all paper.
I began keeping a list of the books I read in 1996. Even then, it wasn’t until my 408th book in June of 2009, thirteen years after I started the list, that I read my first e-book, Polaris by Jack McDevitt. Jump ahead another four years to February 2013, and that’s when I listened to my first audiobook, Misery by Stephen King.
It seems to me that each form of book has its own character, and that there are tradeoffs one has to live with when choosing a format.
The character of audiobooks
These days, the vast majority of the books I read are audiobooks. (I use the term “read” for audiobooks as a shorthand. I’ve discussed my thoughts on reading vs. listening to audiobooks elsewhere.) Of the 823 books I’ve finished since 1996, 282 of them (34%) are audiobooks. Although I was skeptical about audiobooks for a long time before I tried them, I enjoy them today for two main reasons:
I can read more with an audiobook. I can read at times that I would not be able to read a paper or e-book: commuting to work, working out, walking in the park, doing chores around the house. Since I started listening to audiobooks in 2013, I have steadily increased the speed at which I listen to books. These days 1.5x speed sounds perfectly normal to me, and I’ve read quite a few books recently at 1.75x speed.
The narration often adds a dimension that just isn’t there on paper. This is particularly true in fiction, although I’ve experienced it in nonfiction books as well.
The character of e-books
I’d say my least favorite way to read a book is as an e-book. I’ve read only 58 e-books since that first one in June 2009. They are my format of last resort. I stare at a screen enough these days, and I find myself tiring out faster when reading an e-book than reading a book on paper. There is something cold about an e-book that I can’t quite put my finger on. You can’t interact with an e-book in the same way you can with a paper book.
This goes for magazines as well. A number of the magazines I subscribe to offer digital access, but the digital versions can’t really compare to the print version. National Geographic is a good example. As beautiful as the interface is in digital format, I prefer to read the printed issues.
E-books have two advantages over paper books: portability and size. There is no such thing as a stack of e-books. That’s great for travel, but sad when I consider how much I enjoy browsing my bookshelves, or stacks of books on my desk or nightstand. E-books are also more portable than paper. I can read an e-book on my Kindle device, and if I forget that device, I can always pull the book up on my phone.
But the coldness remains. Somehow, an e-book always feels like cheating to me, a feeling I don’t have when listening to an audiobook.
The character of paper books
Despite my love of audiobooks for allowing me to read more, there is something about the character of a paper book that can’t be replicated in a digital medium. Sometimes, I will listen to an audiobook and follow along in the paper book. I did this recently while re-reading It by Stephen King. I had a thick paperback copy that was relatively untouched when I started. Just riffling the pages, and smelling the accumulated scents of the book was an olfactory delight impossible to duplicate in digital media. I love the smell of books, especially used books. I love the smell of book stores. It adds character to a book that you just can’t get from an audiobook and certainly not from an e-book.
Then there is the tactile sensations, the feeling of the pages. The copy of It I was reading had tissue thin paper very smooth to the touch. This spine of the book was stiff when I started, and ridged with a geological record of my journey by the time I finished. Those tactile qualities are absent from audiobooks.
As I read, I often highlight passages, and write in the margins. I make the book mine. Audiobooks are terrible for this. You can make “clips” but the mechanism to do this is clumsy and awkward, and virtually useless. E-books have done a better job with highlighting, but the highlights look too antiseptic, and the notes are hidden from the page. I would like it much better if you could mark up an e-book page free-form, they way I mark up paper pages. Sometimes I’ll underline a few lines. Sometimes I’ll circle an entire passage. Other times I’ll write in the margins. I want to be able to see these at a glance as I flip through a book. You just can’t do this in audiobooks, or e-books.
My desire to read as much as I can keeps me using audiobooks, although I sometimes listen along with a paper copy that I can markup. I’ve come to look forward to some narrators as much as I do the authors. But my first love is paper. The smell of the pages, their texture, the sound they make when you riffle through them, and the markups (mine, or in the case of used books, sometime someone else’s) brings a character to an individual copy that makes each one unique.
I have a love/hate relationship with sequels. With very good books, I always want more. In nonfiction, this could be something like Edmund Morris’s biography of Theodore Roosevelt, which came out in 3 separate volumes spanning several years. For fiction, Patrick Rothfuss’s Kingkiller Chronicles comes to mind. I loved the first two books in the series, but have been waiting a long time now for The Doors of Stone.
There is also a difference in reading a completed series, and reading each volume as it appears. Think of the wait a person would have if they read Will Durant’s Our Oriental Hertiage when it first came out in 1935. The 11th and final volume didn’t appear until 40 years later in 1975. Or consider the wait someone would have if they picked up a copy of Jefferson the Virginian by Dumas Malone in 1948 and didn’t get to read the final volume, The Sage of Monticello until 1981. I read all six of those Malone book over the space of two years. A forty year wait makes the 7 years since the last Kingkiller book seem small.
There is something to be said about consistency. Take the Jack Reacher books by Lee Child. About this time each year, a new Reacher book appears. A books has appeared, consistently since 1997. Having already read the first 22 books in the series, I am already itching for Past Tense, the 23rd book in the series, at the end of November.
For me, the longest wait for a sequel has been over 17 years as I write this. Back in 2001, I came across Gary Giddins’s biography of Bing Crosby, Bing Crosby: The Early Years: 1903-1940. Crosby is my all-time favorite entertainer. I love his music, I enjoy his movies, and I was delighted to find a new (at the time) biography about him. I dove right into the book, and I wasn’t disappointed. The title also made me happy, for it implied that this was the first a a multivolume biography. And so I waited.
Years passed, then a decade with no sequel in sight. I would search online and find rumors that maybe a book was being written but there was no publisher for the book. Then maybe no sequel was being written after all. It was impossible to tell. Then, late last year, the rumor appeared to be confirmed that a second book had been written and would be coming out sometime in late 2018.
I am thrilled to say that day has come. I pre-ordered the book on Amazon as soon as I saw it, and today, the book is coming in the mail. I have already received my “Your order is on the way” notice from Amazon. Before long, I will have in my hands Bing Crosby: Swinging on a Star: The War Years, 1940-1946 by Gary Giddins. And it only took 17 years of patience.
Actually, this gives me hope. If I can wait 17 years for the second volume of a Bing Crosby biography, then I can be equally patient for The Doors of Stone or The Winds of Winter. I certainly don’t hold the wait against the authors. As a writer, I know how hard it can sometimes be to get a story just right. But as a reader, when something is that good, I want more as soon as possible.
Perhaps this is another symptom of the instantaneous gratification that so dominates our society. I wonder if Durant readers were equally impatient between 1935 when Our Oriental Heritage came out and 1939 when The Life of Greece was published?
I imagine there is no need to tell you what I will be doing this evening. I imagine it will only take a few days to get through the new Bing Crosby bio. Which brings me to my final complaint about sequels. I empathize with people who are willing to wait for an entire series to come out before they read it–although I don’t have the willpower to do it myself. That’s because, after 17 years of waiting, it will take me 2 or 3 days to tear through the book–and if there third volume, then the waiting begins all over again, with the clock reset to 00:00:00:00.
When it comes to book ratings I am not fan. One reason I have been reluctant to use a system like Goodreads is because it seems to be centered around a 5-star rating system. (Another reason is the mishmash user interface that is overly busy and confusing.)
What’s wrong with a 5-star rating system? As a consumer of such a system, I find it difficult to know what each level means? It seems to me that some books that get 5-stars are books that I know I wouldn’t like, and others that get 3-stars are book I know I’ve loved. That isn’t particularly helpful. Ah, but there’s a density to the system as well! If 50,000 people give a book 5-stars that’s got to mean something, right? Sure! It means 50,000 people might like a book–or perhaps that 100 people really enjoyed it and 49,900 ranked it highly so as to seem not out-of-step with the rest of society. Either way, it still doesn’t tell me if I will like the book. The only way for me to know is to read the book. And that is a judgement call.
Early on, when using a tool like Goodreads, I would rank books. Over time, however, I have stopped because I don’t find it helpful. In my own list, I don’t rank books. Instead, I answer two simple questions:
Is this a book I would consider reading again someday?
Would I recommend this book to someone asking for a book on a particularly subject?
If the answer to both these questions is “yes”, then I mark the book as one I would recommend, and move on. To me, that seems much more useful than a 5-star rating. Part of my problem with the 5-star rating is that there is no consistency of measurement. Even I don’t know what I mean when I rank one book 4-stars and another book 5-stars. What is the difference? What pushed that book up one star? It is much easier for me to say, sure, I’d absolutely read the book again, or recommend it if someone asked me if I knew of a good book on, says, boxing in the 1950s.
Book reviews are almost as useless to me as ratings. Almost, but not quite. Too many reviews I’ve read outside professional forums (i.e. review columns in newspapers and magazines) are critical of things completely unrelated to the context of the book under scrutiny. “This book is way over priced–1-star!” “When my book was delivered it was damaged.” Too many reviews seem to focus on the author and not the content. There are also those reviews that give too much away, or try to be too erudite. I wrote a review column for a magazine for a year or so, and in my reviews, I tried (a) to keep them short, (b) to focus on what I liked about the book in question, and (c) relate it to other things that happened to be on my mind when reading it. Those are the kinds of reviews I would find useful.
Still, reading, like writing, can be a lonely business, and in an effort to be more social about it, I have started to update Goodreads again. You can find what I am currently reading on my Goodreads page. You can also find what I have read in the past there, although I still consider this list to be my authoritative source. There are a few caveats:
I’m not rating the books.
I am writing short reviews, but I wouldn’t necessary call them reviews. When I finish reading a book, I generally scribble some comments about it in my journal. I am writing for my review a cleaned up version of what goes into my journal, which may or may not be useful as a review. You’ll have to skim through a few of them to find out.
Sometimes a single line from a book really knocks me in the gut. Earlier this week I was reading Turn Right at Machu Picchu by Mark Adams. Adams was chatting with his guide, an Australian named John, when John said, “People used to be travelers. Now they are tourists.” I paused to jot down the quote and as I did, the truth of it, at least as it pertains to me, really began to sink in.
One of the things my mom told me when I was young was that books could take me anywhere. In recent years, I have taken that to heart. Busy as we are, we don’t have much time these days for travel and adventure, so I have been getting mine through books.
Reading Cannibal Queen by Stephen Coonts, I’ve flown in a biplane to all of the lower 48 states. I’ve sat as a passenger with William Least-Heat Moon while reading Blue Highways and have twice traveled the roads of the country with John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley. I’ve gone into the Amazon with David Grann’s Lost City of Z.
What all of these books have in common is that they are stories of travelers not tourists. When I read, I tending to be the former, but when I travel, I tend to be the latter.
My wife and I recently celebrated our 10th anniversary. We are not big on gifts, but we got each other something for our 10th, and what my wife got me was a frame map of the United States complete with pins so that we can mark all of the places we’ve been together. I got started almost at once, pinning those places that we have been together (or with our kids).
We’ve been all over the east coast and in most cases, we’ve driven the places marked by those pins. We like road trips. Sometimes, we go to the same place over and over again. We always drive down to Florida in December because we have family there. We often drive up to Maine in the summer for the same reason. Occasionally we pick a place because we’ve never been. This summer we took a road trip through parts of North Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, and West Virginia.
These are fun trips, but we are tourist on these trips. We stopped at Dollywood, and hiked in the Great Smoky Mountains, and spent a night in Gatlinburg. We visited Nashville and the Country Music Hall of Fame, and Andrew Jackson’s home, Hermitage. In Kentucky we toured Mammoth Cave. These were fun and it was a great trip, but Mark Adam’s guide’s words still sting me a bit. We were tourists, not travelers. I want to be a traveler, not a tourist. I know there is an important difference, but I am not entirely sure I know what that difference is.
Our map shows only the United States. We’ve been outside the U.S. together. We’ve been to the Caribbean, and Cartagena, Colombia. We’ve been to Panama, and ridden a train down the length of the canal. We’ve been to the rainforests of Costa Rica, and climbed waterfalls in Jamaica. But in all those places, too, we were tourists and not travelers. Somehow, I need to learn that difference. It seems vitally important.
In the meantime, I plan to continue my travels through books. I enjoyed Mark Adams’s Turn Right at Machu Picchu and discovered he has a much more recent book, Tip of the Iceberg about his adventures in Alaska. I also plan to spent time flying around the Alaska bush with the late bush pilot Don Sheldon. He’s appeared in several of the Alaska books I’ve read and his story sounds fascinating.
When it comes to discussion of books the three words I most dread are, “You should read….” I have developed a process for discovering books I want to read and I put my entire trust in that process. I call it the Butterfly Effect of Reading. I believe it is a result of the freedom I have had since I was very young to read pretty much whatever I wanted. I’ve gained a trust in my ability to know what will interest me far better than anyone else.
Before discussing the Butterfly Effect of Reading, I want to touch on two other reasons why I dread those three words. In both cases, it’s not that I don’t think I’d like the recommendation being offered. Instead, it’s that I know that it will likely be a very long time, if ever, before I read the recommended book and that fills me with guilt. After all, someone has gone out of their way to make a recommendation. It seems the least I could do to read what it is they are recommending–or at least give it a try. But there are two problems:
Call the first “typecasting.” When people learn that I have written science fiction stories, they seem to immediately assume that I enjoy science fiction movies. This is despite my having said it repeatedly here on the blog, at conventions, and elsewhere, I am, generally speaking, not a fan of sci-fi movies, and I rarely, if ever watch them. Similarly, if people know I am a science fiction writer, they will often recommend science fiction books to read. But I don’t really read much science fiction anymore. I have, at least for the time being, lost interest in it. Or better yet, I have gained interest in other things.
Second is what I would call “synchronicity.” Unless someone is regularly consulting my reading list, it would be hard to know what topic is currently occupying my mind. Upon learning I am a reader, a friend might suggest the latest Vince Flynn novel, when, in fact, my state of mind is centered around mid-twentieth century history. The recommendation someone makes, “You should read the latest Vince Flynn novel,” might be a perfectly valid one, and the book might be one I enjoy, but there is no way I am going to give up what I am reading at the moment to switch to the Vince Flynn novel. We’re just not mentally in sync on what we are reading.
Back to the Butterfly Effect of Reading: Even if the Vince Flynn recommendation is something that I would like, I can never commit to it until I am ready, and it is hard to say when I will be ready because of the butterfly effect of reading. Much of what I read next is based on what I am reading now, but only in a random sort of way. For example, I am at the time of this writing reading The Fifties by David Halberstam. I often have a short list of the next few books I’d like to read. That list, when I started The Fifties, included Up From Slavery by Booker T. Washington, and Rush by Stephen Fried. But that small queue is very sensitive to what I am currently reading. So, as I read the chapter in The Fifties on the arms race and the making of the h-bomb, I was reminded of my long-standing desire to read Dark Sun by Richard Rhodes. (The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Rhodes was so good I read it twice.) Suddenly, Dark Sun went to the top of the queue. A chapter I read today may send me off in another direction. I have a great deal of trust in my own sense of what interests me, and especially in how this butterfly effect of reading works upon me, and that takes precedence over all recommendations from others.
The Butterfly Effect of Reading works in other ways. Last week, I was in Denver for a work-related conference. One of the speakers at the conference was Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Charles Duhigg. I was, at the time, reading Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin. After listening to Duhigg speak, I was impressed and decided to bump his book, The Power of Habit up toward the top of my queue. I read it a few days ago, and enjoyed it.
Sometimes the Butterfly Effect of Reading acts as an alert for a set of mental lists I keep: authors I like or books I am anticipating. I know, for instance, that the new Stephen King novella, Elevation is coming out at the end of the month. That will jump onto my queue, bumping other things already there. Ditto for the second volume of Gary Giddin’s biography of Bing Crosby, Bing Crosby: Swinging on a Star: The War Years, 1940-1946, set to hit bookstores around the same time as Elevation. And each of these books holds its own set of random connections, which may push the books that are in my queue today further down the line. You can see, therefore, that recommendations I get from friends might get shunted again and again until it becomes embarrassing to admit that I have not yet checked out the book.
When discussing books with friends, I try hard to avoid saying, “You should read…” unless I am explicitly asked for a recommendation. When I write about the books I read, I try to cast my writing as books that I enjoyed. There is absolutely no way I can tell if you would enjoy them. I do this because I am sensitive to the hypocrisy of recommending books when I don’t take well to such recommendations myself. I am not always successful, but I always bear it in mind.
My butterfly effect method of finding what to read has its flaws. As someone recently pointed out to me, my reading list would likely be enhanced by increased diversity in authors: more women and people of color. While this is certainly true, my methods for choosing what I want to read often overrides other sensibilities. My willpower is weak in this regard. I can stand in front of a display of cakes and cookies and without a second thought, ignore it and pass it by. But despite my efforts to maintain a disciplined queue of books I want to read next, something else will catch my fancy and I’ll throw it all out the window for that one read. This has been the way of things since at least college, when I had to read something for class, but would often put it off because I found something more interesting to read first.
For me, the Butterfly Effect of Reading is one of the most wonderful thing about books. In some respects, it is like the World Wide Web with hyperlinks acting as the connective tissue between seeming disparate topics. With the Butterfly Effect, those links remain unseen until I stumble right on them. There’s no advanced warning, no blue underlines calling them out. They are hidden doors that remain undiscovered until you realize you are standing before one, and dare to open it and see what’s inside.
Over the last twenty five years, I have kept a journal more often than I have not. Over the last 14 I have written more than 6,000 posts on this blog. Over the last 11 years I have tweeted more than 25,000 times. There’s a lot for me to look back on if I wanted to learn something about myself. Despite all of that, when I want to know the story of my life (at least since 1996) I turn to my reading list.
I have kept a list of every book I have finished since January 1, 1996. The entries are brief. Each book gets a number. I record the title, the author, the medium (paper, e-book, audiobook), the number of pages (or listening time) and the date I finished reading it. If I like a book enough to want to read it again (or recommend it, if asked for a recommendation), I mark it with an asterisk. The list has been with me for nearly 25 years, growing one entry at time, at what often feels like a snails pace. The most recent entry, made just a few days ago, is as follows:
805. The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA by James D. Watson; 256pp/4:11 (9/23/2018)
This reading list, the master source of which is kept in a red covered, college ruled Composition notebook, acts as a kind of memory primer for the story of my life. I can flip to any page in the book (I’ve filled 35 pages so far), randomly point to an entry, and at once can recall where I was, and what was going on in my life while I was reading the book in question.
In addition to the entries I make into my Composition book, I replicate the entries in a text file which I make available online, for those who might be curious.
Such lists seem pretty hard to come by, but they do exist. The reading list I’ve followed along the longest, that seems similar in character and format to my own is Eric W. Leuliette’s “What I have read since 1974“. Another one is none other than Art Garfunkel’s reading list–which goes back to 1968. Strangely, though, I’ve been hard-pressed to find many others. I think Goodreads might have killed the notion of a simple list of books one’s read, or at least vastly overcomplicated it.
I was glad, therefore, to discover Pamela Paul’s book, My Life With Bob: Flawed Heroine Keeps Book of Books. The “Bob” to whom Paul refers is her “book of books,” a list of all the books she’s read from the time she was a teenager. The book itself uses her book of books as a focal point for a literary memoir. It made me think about my own version of Bob:
For a book to get on the list I have to finish it. I am surprisingly strict at enforcing this rule. To be otherwise would be to somehow cheat myself. Paul also tracked books she didn’t finish. I think my list would be at least twice as long if I tracked books that I didn’t finish.
What constitutes a book? Here I am less strict and give myself the benefit of the doubt. For instance, I’ve included on my list all of the issues of Astounding Science Fiction I read for my Vacation in the Golden Age series, even though they are magazines. I justified this to myself by saying that, at around 60-80,000 words per issue, they were as long as a book. A handful of novellas have made it onto the list, but always when they were in the form of a standalone book. And I’ve counted audiobooks as books because the text is the same as the printed book, which is good enough for me.
Paul argued that her book of books was revealing about herself and she was reluctant to share it with others. I am the opposite in this regard. While the list might be revealing, the context surrounding the books is virtually invisible except to me. Then, too, I make the list available in part because I wish there were more lists like this available to peruse for suggestions.
I have, over the years, pulled various metrics from my reading list. Here are some interesting stats:
The 805 books I’ve read amounts to 330,802 pages, or about 14,300 pages per year over the 23 year period I’ve kept the list.
The average length of a book on the list is 410 pages.
The longest book I’ve read is Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 by Edwin G. Burrows. It was 1,424 pages. I have read 14 books that are 1,000 pages or longer.
In 2013 I started listening to audiobooks in addition to reading e-books and paper books. The volume up my reading has gone up dramatically since. The table below illustrates the impact of the change
The list is fun for pulling out these statistics, but perhaps even more, the list tells the story of my life better than anything else I have written. Opening randomly to page 26, my eye falls on entry number 625:
655. This Old Man by Roger Angell, 320pp (11/25/2015)
Despite this being nearly 3 years ago, I still remember walking to a nearby ABC store to pick up some tequila for margaritas while listening to the book. Seeing the title brings me back to that walk. Another random roll and we land on:
431. Booklife by Jeff VanderMeer, 329pp (7/13/2010)
Seeing this entry, I am suddenly seated in a bar at Logan Airport, waiting for my flight back from a recent Readercon, and the time slipped by unnoticed as I am totally absorbed by this original book on the writer’s life. A flip back to the very beginning of the list:
7. A Tour of the Calculus by David Berlinski, 331pp (3/31/1996)
I don’t remember much about the book, but I remember sitting on the balcony of my small Studio City apartment, with my chair tilted back against the wall, reading this one.
At a glance, I see a title and am somewhere else. Blue Highways by William Least-Heat Moon (no. 577) puts me on the long drive from Virginia to Maine. Wise Man’s Fear by Patrick Rothfuss (no. 653, second time reading the book) transports me to a cool fall evening watching my son at soccer practice while I listen to Nick Podehl’s wonderful narration. I see book no. 199, John Adams by David McCullough, and it is nighttime in Castine, Maine. Everything is silent and out the windows it is pitch dark, and there I am in the midst of the American Revolution.
On September 11, 2001, I was reading Salem’s Lot by Stephen King (book no. 208). On the day my grandfather died I was reading Gateway by Frederik Pohl (book no. 300). On the day Frederik Pohl died, I was reading Salinger by David Shields and Shane Salerno (book no. 539).
On the day my son was born I was reading Polaris by Jack McDevitt (book no. 408), the very first e-book to appear on my list. When my middle daughter was born, I was reading Astounding Science Fiction, April 1941 edited by John Campbell (book no. 464). And on the day my youngest daughter was born, I was reading Up Till Now by William Shatner (book no. 650).
There aren’t a lot of things I really enjoy browsing, but a good, simple reading list is one of them. It’s too bad that Goodreads has put such simple lists on the endangered species list.
Over the last few years I’ve read several books that I enjoyed so much, I wanted to know more about their authors. I recently completed Dumas Malone’s 6-volume biography of Thomas Jefferson, Jefferson and His Times. It took Malone decades to complete. I was fascinated by the sheer dogged persistence of someone completing such a monumental task. It seemed like it was more than a task. It felt like a quest.
I have also read the first four volumes of Will and Ariel Durant’s 11-volume Story of Civilization series. I’ve loved those books not just for the history, but for the wonderful writing style. The first volume of the series was published in 1935, years before the beginning of the Second World War. The final volume was published in 1975. All told, it took the Durants 40 years to write the books.
As interesting as I have found these books, I am equally intrigued by the authors. I want to know more about them. After completing Jefferson and His Times, I did some searching and found My Long Journey with Mr. Jefferson: The Life of Dumas Malone by William C. Hyland. This biography was just as enjoyable as the story of Jefferson’s life.
At present, I am also reading A Dual Autobiography by Will and Ariel Durant, hoping gain insight into the authors of such a massive history of civilization.
I have come away from these books with a similar insight I’ve taken from books like Red: The Life and Times of a Great American Writer by Ira Berkow, One Man’s Meat by E. B. White, and Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process by John McPhee: these writers of vastly different backgrounds, and writing on vastly different subjects all managed to do the writing and research without the aid of computers and the Internet.
Much of the shop talk I’ve been involved in with other writers centers around the tools we use: word processors, thought-organizers, outlining tools, citation aids, search engines, discussion boards, etc.
I don’t know why it fascinates me, but I love reading about early twentieth century reporters and writers and how they worked in those seemingly dark ages of technology. They took notes on paper. There were no voice recorders so some reporters learned shorthand. They did research in libraries, and often traveled the world (as the Durants did) as part of their effort to get to source material.
Entire multivolume books were written longhand, the paper handed to typists who produced manuscript copy which served as the basis for the text of the book. While there may have been frustrations over poor ribbon quality, or somewhat messy copy, no one was complaining that their typewriter was “frozen” or that they forgot to save their work for the day. Things like spell-checking didn’t exist in their present form, but were easy enough with a dictionary at hand.
It also seems like these writers provided a treasure trove to archivists that modern writers may lack. Edits can be seen on the page in these old manuscripts. First drafts are often handwritten with cross-outs, corrections, and marginal notes right there on the yellowing pages. It is easy to see the transformation of research notes into final book form because every step is preserved on paper. Today, even a first draft in a word processor is not quite the same as a first draft on paper. Typos, corrections, and changes of thoughts vanish in the digital ether and all we see is the resulting text, not the thought process behind it.
Perhaps I am romanticizing the labor that went into production of epics works like The Story of Civilization or Jefferson and His Times. It is entirely possible that the Durants and Malone complained bitterly about the inadequacies of the typewriter and pen, the limitations of the card catalog and carbon paper. But I’ve found no evidence for this. I think the Durants and Malone and many others could be as productive as they were, and could produce massive volumes of well-researched material as readily as they could because they were not distracted by the bells and whistles of technology. They didn’t worry about formatting and style sheets and the format of the files they saved, and whether or not they saved them, or were working on the right version of the document. They focused on the content and the tools were simple enough to not intrude on that process.
I often daydream of being a sportswriter like Red Smith, sitting in a smoke-filled press box, with a portable typewriter before me, watching a ballgame unfold below as I tap away at the noisy keys, knowing that what I wrote on the pages that emerged from my typewriter would appear in newspapers across the country the following day.
“There is no Frigate like a Book to take us Lands away.” —Emily Dickinson
The importance of books
My parents taught me the importance of books. They surrounded me with books, read to me, and encouraged my love of books. As a child of the 1970s, I was lucky: There were 3 television stations, and no video games to serve as a distractions. I remember my mom telling me that books could take you anywhere. I knew that she didn’t mean literally, but I learned that my imagination filled in enough of the gaps to make the distinction meaningless. Books could take me anywhere.
I remember staring at the books in my parent’s and grandparents house longingly. Once I could read, I read the titles and authors and they were like magic incantations: Eye of the Needle, The Thornbirds, Hunt for Red October, Tropic of Cancer, and mysterious names like John Le Carre, which I always pronounced, “la car.”
Learning to read
I learned to read in grade school. In Kindergarten we had this wonderful flip-board story about Milton the Monkey and his adventures. Each adventure tackled a letter of the alphabet, one for the capital and one for the lowercase. That is how I learned the alphabet.
The process of learning to read is a blur. Today, it feels like something I have always known. But I do remember sounding out L-O-V-E and the thrill I felt in the achievement stayed with me right down to this very moment. I remember struggling with words early on, especially when reading aloud. I remember wondering if I would ever be able to read as smoothly as my teachers or parents read. It seemed like it would never happen, but eventually it did. I remind my kids of this today, as they learn to read.
In first grade I discovered a book called The Nine Planets by Franklyn M. Branley. The book was midwife to love of science and astronomy. I checked our of the library repeatedly, and can remember reading it, so I was reading (haltingly) in first grade.
There were other books along the way: abridged and illustrated editions of Robin Hood and Treasure Island that seemed daunting. There were four of the blue bound Hardy Boys books on a shelf. I remember being fascinated by Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing (read in third grade). I looked forward to the Weekly Reader. I picked out books on ghost stories, and mysteries, sometimes combining the two, as in The Mystery of the Green Ghost. There were books on Bigfoot and UFOs. There was a fantasy book, David and the Phoenix, which may well have been the first novel that I read on my own. Today it would be called a YA novel. There was a remarkable story I read in my four or fifth grade reading textbook called “How Baseball Began in Brooklyn.” I have never been able to find it again, but it was wonderful.
Libraries and the great awakening
As a small boy, I went with my mom to the Franklin Township library, near my house. I remember the stacks of books and I couldn’t believe that so many books could possibly exist in the world. And I could actually borrow these books. It was amazing.
I was always fascinated by the school library. When we moved to New England when I was in second grade, the school library was a big open area between corridors. Books lined the walls. The center had tables and displays, and smaller bookcases. Just walking along the shelfs, looking at the book spines was a thrill.
It was when we moved to Los Angeles, when I was in sixth grade, that I really discovered the power of the library. I would walk to the Granada Hills library, about a mile or so from my house. In the summers, the walk was hot, but the library was air-conditioned and blessedly cool. It was at this library that my reading expanded.
I had mostly read fiction with an occasional nonfiction book. But once I had access to the Granada Hills library, I experimented with everything. I could spend what seemed like hours walking through the stacks. I’d take some books and sit at a reading carrell, flipping through the pages, skimming here and there. I realized that if there was something I wanted to know about I could look it up in the library. I was fascinated by the card catalog, and became a whiz at using it to find what I was looking for. It’s hard to describe the feeling, but I suppose it is something akin to an amateur golfer finding in a golf course, everything they could ever want.
Oddly, I have no memory of my high school library, but in college, the library was a like temple to me, and I’d often seek out desolate, quite places where I could study and stare at the books that surrounded me.
Using the tools
By the time I reached high school, I knew how to read. I mean that I don’t think I read any faster today than I did when I was in high school. What high school taught me was how to think critically about what I read. Looking back, I consider myself a naive reader before high school. I never really thought to question what I read, or apply what I read in one domain of knowledge to another domain of knowledge.
All of that changed in high school. I went to a humanities magnet high school in Los Angeles in the late innings of the 1980s. We didn’t have traditional English and History classes. Instead, we rotated through a set of four “core” humanities classes: philosophy, literature, social institutions, and art history. These classes taught me how to think about what I read, and exposed me to the kind of reading I had never come across on my own. We read Plato and Socrates. Some of it was boring, but the parts that weren’t made it worthwhile. We read Shakespeare. We read Vonnegut and Richard Wright. It was in high school that I began to form my own opinions about what I read, rather than regurgitate summaries. I decided, for instance, that Henry V was my favorite Shakespeare play, and the Tempest was my least favorite. It felt good to have opinions!
We read books I would never have chosen, but was grateful for reading: Day of the Locusts, The Painted Bird, and Ragged Dick to name just a few.
One of the biggest takeaways from high school was that so long as you felt you understood what you were reading, and had some sense of the context of it, you could disagree with your teachers, and others on what was good and bad. I never liked A Tale of Two Cities and the fact that I had to read it in school nearly turned me off of Dickens forever. This confidence has had positive and negative side-effects. I never worry about differing in opinion on a book with friends or family. On the other hand, I rarely ask for or take recommendations from people I know, simply because I know my own tastes better than anyone else. This is unfair to others, true, but I put some of the blame on being forced to read things that I didn’t like. I dread little more than the words, “You should read…”
Learning to learn
College taught me to use those these skills to learn. It seems to me that the wide variety of classes I took in college (from cultural anthropology to organic chemistry to constitutional law to entomology to history and film) provided different tools for learning, all of which depended on reading and books.
Constitutional law taught me how to write a succinct argument.
Organic chemistry taught me the importance of showing my work. Before organic chemistry, I had the neatest lab books, everything copied neatly over from my original notes. After organic chemistry, my lab books and other notes were far more messy because I worked out everything there, crossed out (but didn’t erase) my mistakes. They became a kind of history my progress.
Classes on political theory taught me how to do proper research.
Classes on journalism taught me the conciseness of reporting. Often in meetings to this day, I try to focus on the who, what, when, where, how, and why to get the point as quickly as possible.
By the time I completed four years of college, and walked away with a B.A. in political science and journalism, I had all the tools I needed to begin learning in earnest.
II. Why I read
“Books became his academy, his college. The printed word united his mind with the great mind of generations past.” —Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.
My informal education
I read to learn. I read because just when I was in the optimal position to continue my formal education and really start to learn, I went out and got a job. I read to provide myself with an informal education using the tools I learned from my parents, grade school, high school, and college. It turns out that this informal education has now lasted nearly a quarter of a century, and is far better than anything I imagine a graduate education in a specialized field could have provided me. But it is never enough. I always want more. As John Adams once said, “I read my eyes out and can’t read half enough… the more one reads the more one sees we have to read.”
I call it an informal education, but only because it has less structure than what a university setting might provide. The structure is straight-forward. In late 1995 I set a goal: read one book per week, or 52 books per year. In order to track my progress, I needed to track what I read. Thus, my reading list was born.
In learning to read, I’d learned to learn. Now I wanted to learn as much as I could. About everything. And so, I started my list and the first entry was for a collection of Isaac Asimov science essays, recorded as book #1 on my list. 22 years later, I just passed my 800th book.
The butterfly effect
My education is guided by a principle akin to the butterfly effect. I might read a book about Leonardo da Vinci and end up, ten books later on a book about Alaska:
Leonardo Da Vinci by Walter Isaacson
The Man Who Loved China by Simon Winchester
Genghis Kahn and the Making of the Modern World by Jack Weatherford
Paper: Paging Through History by Mark Kurlansky
The Map That Changed the World by Simon Winchester
The Stranger in the Woods by Michael Finkel
The Lost City of Z by David Grann
Walden On Wheels by Ken Ilgunas
1491: New Revelations of America Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann
Coming into the Country by John McPhee
This butterfly effect controls my curriculum and is the best force for education that I have ever encountered. While occasionally, one book logically follows another, sometimes there are odd jumps. I read the book on Genghis Kahn after reading an article in Money magazine about the richest people in history relative to the current dollar. (Khan was one of the richest.)
The butterfly effect acts as a kind of natural selection for reading. I don’t know exactly how it works, but I have discovered that its selection of books has gotten better over time. While I don’t rate books (I think rating books is silly), I do mark a book as one I’d recommend or read again. The number of books so marked has increased in frequency over time. This tells me that whatever force is at work behind this butterfly effect, is getting better over time.
I practice what I call applied reading. I try to take something practical and useful from everything I read. Sometimes, that comes in the form of other books to read. Other times, it is practical, real-world advice that I can apply to my life. The best self-help books out there are the stories of remarkable achievements other people have made. For instance, the best books I’ve read on project management didn’t come from the Self-Help shelf. One was The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes. The other: Moon Lander: How We Developed the Lunar Module by Thomas J. Kelly. Both of these books described how real people solved real problems in the real world, and I took invaluable lessons from these books that have helped my manage projects at work.
I am constantly marking up the books I read. I learned long ago that to learn the most I can from a book, I need to make it mine. I underline passages and write in the margins. Looking at a book I read reveals much about what I was thinking about while reading it. This helps me apply what I read.
Knowledge is power
Education is the foundation of a democracy. When education fails, that foundation begins to crumble. For me, it is a lifelong pursuit. That foundation needs constant reinforcement. I can’t force others to want to learn new things, but I can learn new things myself, and in doing so, I can do my part to help keep that foundation intact.
As Thomas Jefferson once said, “Educate and inform the whole mass of the people. They are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty.”