Category Archives: reading

84 Charing Cross Road

And sometimes, desperation and persistence wins the day. I have been going through an unusually dry spell in terms of what to read next. I am reading, slowly, The Great American Sportswriter edited by Schulian, but I’m taking it in bite-sized chunks. I have struggled and struggled and struggled to find something that will awaken me from this summer drowse and fill the world with color. No Cheering from the Press Box, edited by Jerome Holtzman riled me from this slumber for a moment, but that was way back in June.

Last night, out of a combinations of boredom and desperation, I flipped through every page of James Mustich’s 1,000 Books to Read Before You Die in the hopes of finding something. As I reached the Ds, I considered re-reading Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, which I recall loathing in junior high school when I had to read it. This is the level to which I have fallen. I told myself I was being noble by giving a second chance to a book that a teenaged version of me scorned. But I pressed on. I made it through the entire book, skimming, at least, every entry, and making note of a few: Dispatches, Notes on a Cowardly Lion, A Book of One’s Own, Ongoingness, Lonesome Dove, The Diary of Samuel Pepys.

As I drifted off to sleep, bookless, one of the titles lingered in my thoughts, more of a place than a title, really, 84 Charing Cross Road.

This morning was beautiful: sunny and clear, with the humidity blessedly vanished, and temperatures in the upper 60s. I headed outside for my morning walk, and took in the wonderful weather, and that was the last time I noticed it. Or anything else on my walk for that matter. I began listening to the audiobook version of 84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff, and I was lost in the delightful letters between a New York Bibliophile, and the employees of Marks & Company Antiquarian Booksellers, lead primarily by Frank Doel. Those letters were wonderful, and Hanff’s witty style put a silly grin on my face for the entire morning.

Though short, this has to be one of the best books I’ve read all year. It surprised me, caught me off guard, and quickly and dramatically transformed my desperation into gratitude. But there was also a sadness. It is unlikely that a story such as this could ever happen again. People just don’t write letters anymore, for the most part. And a correspondence such as this could not be replicated in e-mail; it is not, I have found, a medium that lends itself to a literary style.

Sometimes, a book like this is just what I need to stir things up, and before I know it, I find that there is indeed plenty out there that I am interested in reading. I am hopeful that is precisely what happened here this morning.

Prediction Algorithms: You Might Also Like…

Amazon is a fairly poor predictor of what I might like to read next. For some reason, their algorithms just don’t work well on me. I am trying to think of a time when Amazon suggested a book, and I thought, Yes, that is exactly what I need.

I’m thinking about this today for two reasons: first, because I’m in one of those in-between states, where I can’t quite figure out what to read next; and second, because of an Amazon email that’s been sitting in my inbox since yesterday with a subject: “Discovery your next read.”

The email was well-timed, what with me at sea between books, so of course I took a look at it. The list offered ten possibilities broken into five groups. They are as follows:

Recommended for you

  • Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott. I suspect this is because I recently read The Destiny Thief: Essays on Writing, Writers and Life by Richard Russo. Okay, maybe this is a fair recommendation, but there is a little luck involved here, as I will explain shortly.
  • The Pioneers by David McCullough. This would be a great recommendation, right up my alley, if not for the fact that I have already read it.

Based on your reading

  • Bridge of Sighs by Richard Russo. This is a better recommendation than the Anne Lamott because I just finished reading Empire Falls. See, I went from reading about Russo to wanting to read his writing, not more about writing. That’s the problem with the Lamott recommendation–well, one of them, anyway.
  • Plain Text: The Poetics of Computation by Dennis Tenen. I suspect this is because I am partway through a fantastic book called Track Changes by Matthew Kirschenbaum, a history of the word processor. The only problem is, I’ve stalled on that book, not because it is bad–it is fantastic. But I am looking for something else at the moment. That makes Plain Text interesting, but not right for the moment.

Inspired by your wishlist

  • The Joy of x: A Guided Tour of Math from One to Infinity by Steven Strogatz. It does sound interesting, but no, not now.
  • Sync: How Order Emerges from Chaos in the Universe, Nature, and Daily Life by Steven Strogatz. Order certainly emerged from chaos here, where I got not one but two books by Strogatz, someone I’ve never heard of. What is on my wishlist that inspired these recommendations?

For you in biographies and memoirs

  • Ten Innings at Wrigley by Kevin Cook. Okay, I have this audiobook, and it is downloaded to my phone, which is what I do for books that I plan on reading in the near future. This is a good prediction and recommendation, and I’ll give Amazon credit for this one.
  • For the Good of the Game by Bud Selig. Interesting that both recommendations are related to baseball. This would be a good recommendation as well, yet once again, I have already read this book. Indeed, I enjoyed it so much I sent Selig a note, and even got a response from him!–Although it is possible the response I got was a form letter.

For you on Amazon charts

  • Where the Crawdad Sings by Delia Owens. I’m sure it’s a great book, but it’s not up there on my radar anywhere.
  • The New Girl by Daniel Silva. Not sure why Amazon would recommend the 19th book in a series when I haven’t read the first 18.

Okay, so if I were generous, I’d say that generally speaking, Amazon made 3 good recommendations: The Pioneers, Ten Innings at Wrigley, and For the Good of the Game. The problem is that I have already read two of those, so in practice, Amazon made only one good recommendation. One is better than none, I suppose, but it doesn’t encourage me to take their recommendations seriously.

There are two problems, as I see it:

First, Amazon doesn’t seem to know which books I have read and which I haven’t. I mark books “Finished” on Goodreads, which Amazon owns, so they have access to that data, and could, in theory, use that to eliminate recommendations and replace them with others. Moreover, I have finished 365 audiobooks on Audible, which Amazon also owns, and from which, they should be able to tell what I have finished and what I haven’t. That seems like a simple problem to fix.

The second problem is more complicated. Predictions work better, I suspect, for readers who read primarily within a set genre or two. But what of an eclectic reader, someone who reads, say, a classic collection of sportswriter interviews, and follows that up with a Hollywood memoir, after which he reads a book about NASA engineers, and then just for kicks, a book on the White House chiefs of staff. I suspect Amazon’s algorithms are good at saying, “If you liked the Kingkiller Chronicles, then you should try…” But how good are they at making recommendations for someone like me, whose whimsy is often guided by the butterfly effect of reading? Given that series of four books I j just listed, what direction does an algorithm take?

I empathize with Amazon’s prediction bots at times like these, when I am floating on an ocean with no interesting books in sight. Today, just to read something I started The Great American Sports Page: A Century of Classic Columns from Ring Lardner to Sally Jenkins. Maybe this one will take.

Halfway Through the Goodreads 2019 Challenge

Today I finished my 50th book of 2019, a few weeks ahead of pace. The book was On Democracy by E. B. White. It is an aptly-timed collection of White’s essays and comments on democracy and freedom, put together by his granddaughter, and with an introduction by Jon Meacham.

Last year, I read 130 books. I aimed for 100 books this year because I’d planned to read a few books which I knew to be particularly long. At this point I am 5 books ahead of pace, and I plan to gain some more ground before the end of the month with several books that I mentioned the other day. That will allow me to tackle some of the longer books in the second half of the year, including over the summer.

2019 Goodreads Challenge

Re-reading Stephen King’s Dark Tower Series

A few days ago, I began re-reading Stephen King’s Dark Tower series. I first read the series over a period of about 2 months in the summer of 2013. I have always enjoyed King’s books, but had not gotten around to the Dark Tower because I didn’t really know what it was, or if I would like it. By the time I finished the series, I found that I did like it, although I found it to be a little uneven in places. My favorite books in the series were (1) Wizard and Glass and (2) A Wind Through the Keyhole.

The first time around, I listened to the audiobooks. This time, I am reading the paper books. Not the e-books–the paperback editions of all 8 books. I am doing it slowly and carefully, and with a yellow #2 pencil in hand, doing lots of underlining and making marginal notes along the way.

It’s true, having been through the series once, I know the story and the outcome, but knowing that, and knowing how many tendrils the Dark Tower books send out into other stories by King, a more careful reading exposes more of the story that I realized the first time around. Indeed, the first time around, I found The Gunslinger (the first book in the series) to be a bit slow and difficult. This time, more than two-thirds through the book, I am finding it almost new, and revealing.

Of course, I am particularly looking forward to re-reading Wizard and Glass and A Wind Through the Keyhole, but for now, I am completely enjoying the immersion in the world that King has created in these books. I am roaming through them a second time, and knowledge of that first time through has not completely left me. It makes a careful reading that much more enjoyable.

The Lure of Long Books

When I was little and just learning how to read, I recall looking at the 10 page book that I had to tackle with dismay. It would take me forever! to get through that book. It was a slow, painstaking process, and by the time I made it through, I often felt discouraged. I remember my mother encouraging me by telling me that through books, you go could anywhere and do anything. That helped, and eventually with time and practice (lots of practice!) I got better at reading, to the point where I found it to be a delightful activity.

Yesterday, for the first time in a while, I walked to the local Barnes & Noble for the sole purpose of browsing. I didn’t plan to buy any book (nor do I). I just wanted to wander the shelves and peek at things. While browsing, I noticed an interesting phenomenon that I’d never really been aware of before. I paused more in front of long books than short ones. And I realized a truism for me that I’d never thought about before: I am attracted to long books.

What is a long book? It is different for everyone, but for the sake simplicity, for me, let’s call a long book anything longer than 800 pages.

Over and over again, I found myself pausing in places where thick paperbacks sat on the shelf. I’d pick them up and flip through them, wondering, what makes the book so interesting that I’d be willing to spend so much time with it? Or put another way: what story takes 800 pages to tell?

I don’t know why I like long books so much. I suspect it has to do with not wanting a good story to end. When I am reading a particularly good book, I find myself constantly checking to see how much of the book remains, and as the pages dwindle, I grow sad that the book will soon be over. The longer the book, therefore, the longer it lasts.

I suppose I think of books like vacations. Short books are like weekend getaways. Your average 300 or 400 pager might be like heading off for a week’s vacation. But the long books–those are the big vacations: 2 or 3 weeks away, no cares in the world. You never want the vacation to end.

Looking through the list of books I’ve read over the last 20 years, I see plenty of long books. But there are, perhaps, 6 look books that, as I read them, I didn’t want them to end. In the order that I read them they are:

  1. The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes
  2. Shogun by James Clavell
  3. Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 by Edwin G. Burrows
  4. It by Stephen King
  5. 11/22/63 by Stephen King
  6. Wise Man’s Fear by Patrick Rothfuss

Long books have been much on my mind lately because I recently finished reading James A. Michener’s memoir The World Is My Home, and having done so, have been interested in reading some of his novels. He is famous for monstrously long novels, like Hawaii, and Texas. Indeed, in casting my memory back in time, I can recall browsing bookstores, and lingering over his books because they were so big.

I have read other big books. I’ve read all of George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones books for instance, and enjoyed them, but not with quite the same passion that I enjoyed the six  books listed above. I can’t say why exactly. I’ve read many of Will Durant’s histories, and enjoyed those as well, but again, not with the same pleasure as the 6 books above. Whether the long book is fiction or nonfiction hardly matters. I think what makes for the right recipe is that the book sweeps me away, totally and completely. The book becomes that vacation from the rest of the world, a vacation that I simply don’t want to end.

Before I start reading a long book, I experience that same sense of anticipation I get before going on vacation. The mountain of pages (whether they are physical or digital) hold all of the hope and excitement of a vacation. It is a form of potential energy, and I often think to myself, “I’ve got this whole book in front of me.”

Perhaps that is why, when I finish a particularly good long book, it is so difficult to figure out what to read next.  I have immersed myself in someone else’s head for so long that I need some time to recover and gain my senses before I can actually settle on another book that I will enjoy.

Whatever the reason, there is a lure to long books. I am drawn to it like a siren’s song, and once I’m in its grasp, I am its prisoner for as long as it will hold me.

The Difficult Art of Undistracted Reading

Over on Medium, Hugh McGuire has an interesting piece asking, “Why can’t we read anymore?” The first line of the piece immediately triggered my skepticism radar:

Last year I read four books.

Uh-oh, I thought, this is going to be one of those pieces bemoaning the fact that there just isn’t anything good to read out there anymore. But of course, that is not at all what the piece was about. In fact, I found McGuire’s article an interesting argument for what happens to us in an instant gratification, attention-grabbing culture. Reading is harder because there are more distractions. Reading is harder because we compare reading to other exercises that grab our attention and reward it quickly (but often trivially). I might not have believed this, if I hadn’t experienced it myself more and more frequently.

Last year, I read 37 books. This year, so far, I’ve read 21 books.

Sounds like a lot, but these days, the vast majority of my reading is done while doing other things. Of the 58 books I’ve read in the last 21 months 51 of them (88%) were audiobooks. Audiobooks allow me to read while I walk1. They allow me to read while I do my chores. Without this time, the vast majority of my reading simply would not get done.

But there is a plus and minus to listening to audiobooks. The plus is that it can be done while doing other things. The minus is that I have found myself more and more distracted when I am not doing other things. If I am just laying in bed listening to an audiobook, I find myself catching up on blogs or Twitter at the same time. The result, of course, is that I miss passages, I have to rewind, or I only pay half-attention to what I am listening to. Why this happens has a lot to do with what Hugh McGuire writes about in his article. I started listening to audiobooks as a way of finding more time in the day to read. But it has ended up being my primary method for devouring books, even when I am not doing other things.

Part of this is the lure of the narrator. A good narrator adds a dimension to an book that is lacking on the page itself. But the reason I started with audiobooks was to take advantage of the low-brain power time–like my daily walks, or on long drives. I should not be listening to audiobooks before bed because the other distractions become too tempting.

McGuire proposes five things he has started doing to change his behavior and get more out of his reading. I’ve tried a few of those things myself, but the one thing I haven’t tried is “No smartphones or computers in the bedroom.” Because I listen to audiobooks, I have my phone with me.

McGuire reads with an e-ink reader, however, and this was the key insight for me. I have a Kindle Paperwhite, and the big benefit of this device is that it is not connected to the Internet. I can read on the device without being tempted to look at Twitter or Facebook, or catch up on blogs. So I am going to try to read (as opposed to listen) more in the evenings using my Kindle Paperwhite in an effort to have more distraction-free reading time. We’ll see how it goes for a while, and I’ll report back in month or two.

  1. As I have said elsewhere, I use the term “read” for simplicity. I understand that there is a difference between reading off the page and listening to a narrator read off the page.

What I Have Been Reading, End of Summer 2015 Edition

I have not written much about my reading lately, so I figured I should say something about it, now that the summer is rapidly coming to an end (the Little Man starts 1st grade on Monday!). The list of books I have read since 1996 has grown by about 7 books over the summer. 4 of the 7 books have centered around Theodore Roosevelt. One of the books was Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, which I can’t recall haven’t read prior this reading. One of the books was Judy Blume’s Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, which I read to the Little Man, and which I hadn’t read since I first encountered it in 3rd grade. Last, but not least, was Dreaming In Code by Scott Rosenberg.

You’ll see that I have not read any science fiction. The last original science fiction book I read was Jack McDevitt’s Coming Home back in April. While I won’t say the science fiction gene has withered within me, I will say that my interests have been moving in other directions. Nonfiction, and particularly good biographies (like Edmund Morris’s bio of Theodore Roosevelt) or journalistic books like Scott Rosenberg’s Dreaming in Code star has risen in my view. That said, the science fiction/fantasy world is by no means off limits to me.

At present, I am reading Patrick Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind1. I started this book once before and got sidetracked with other things, but I have made it far enough this time around to where I think I am hooked. This is fantasy, and it wasn’t until I read George R. R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones a few years back that I really enjoyed fantasy novels. But I’m enjoying this one, so far.

In another branching out of sorts, I am going to try Chuck Wendig’s Star Wars: Aftermath, when it comes out. I think it will be the first time that I have ever read a tie-in novel to some movie universe2. If I enjoy Wendig’s book, I may end up reading it to the Little Man, who has grown fonder of Star Wars than I am.

Otherwise, I don’t expect these trends to change much in the near future. The bulk of my to-be-read list consists of nonfiction books: biographies, histories, more journalist takes on various subjects.

What have you been reading? Anything to recommend? Drop your lists and suggestions in the comments.


  1. Which was published on my birthday back in 2007.
  2. I read Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton, and Jumper by Steven Gould, but I read both of those novels before the movies came out. And besides, they are not really tie-ins.

Maintaining My Reading List as a GitHub Repo Using Atom 1.0

At the end of this year, my reading list will be twenty-years old. The list has evolved over time from simple, to complex, and back to simple. But over the course of the last two decades, it has always been available online in one form or another. When I started keeping the list, it was a simple HTML page. It evolved into a sophisticated relational database. When social media sprouted, it moved into places like GoodReads and LibraryThing. But eventually, I found that I had the most flexibility, and easiest maintenance, if I just kept the list as a plain text file on Dropbox.

While I was playing around with Atom1.0 , GitHub’s open source text editor, it occurred to me that I might be able to squeeze out even more functionality from my plain-text reading list. So I created a new repository on GitHub, my reading-list repo, and checked in my plain text file. To what end?

Commenting on the books I read

I’ve often wanted to write brief comments on the books that I read, but I’ve never been happy with the interfaces of places like GoodReads or Amazon reviews. I’m not interested so much in writing a review of the book, or giving it starts. I just want to capture some thoughts.

But my list is a plain text file, and capturing thoughts about a book, given the format of the list, would make it awkward at best. It occurred to me, however, that if I had my reading list in a GitHub repository, then each time I added a book to the list, I’d have the ability to add a commit comment when I checked in the list. That commit comment could give me the opportunity to include my thoughts about the book, without messing up the integrity of the list itself.

So that is my plan. Beginning with book #609 (Colonel Roosevelt by Edmund Morris, which I am reading now), I will add my thoughts about the book as a commit comment, when I check-in the list. To see my thoughts about a book, one needs only go to the commits page for the master branch, which looks something like this at present:

Reading List Commits

One huge advantage to all of this is that I can do it all from a single place–namely, my text editor. I was playing around with Atom this morning, and after installing the git-plus package, I discovered that I never have to leave the text editor to make, comment on, and commit changes to my reading list.

Using Atom to update and comment on my reading list

It works something like this:

First, I open my reading list in Atom. I have a command line alias to do this. Just type

reading

at the command line and hit enter. The current file opens up in Atom. I go to the end of the file, and add the book I just finished reading. (I’ll use Colonel Roosevelt as an example, even though I haven’t finished it yet.) I can easily see which files in the repo have changed and which lines have been updated or changed in the file.

Reading list in Atom

When I am ready to checking and commit the file to GitHub–and thereby add my thoughts on the book I just added–I can do it directly from the editor:

Add, commit, and push

After selecting “Add All Commit and Push” I get another editor window that prompts me for my commit comment. This is where I’d add my thoughts about the book:

Commit thoughts

As soon as I save this, the file is committed to the GitHub repo and pushed to the master branch. Anyone who wants can see it in the list of commits:

Commits list

Now I have a nice tidy way of adding thoughts about the books I read without messing up the integrity of the list, and without every having to leave my text editor. But wait, there’s more!

Subscriptions and discussions

Because the list is checked into a GitHub repository, it comes with all of the features and functions of a GitHub repo. Other GitHub users can subscribe to the repository, and get notifications when it is updated–that is, when I comment on the book I just read.

Moreover, anyone can click on a commit, and see my thoughts, and, if they so choose, add comments of their own:

Commit comments

I understand that some of this stuff is beyond what the average person might do, but I have been fascinated by the potential of GitHub for uses beyond just that of maintaining code. And when there is seamless integration, like that built into Atom, it makes it a no-brainer solution for maintaining my reading list.

My Summer Reading List, 2015 (Sort of)

Obviously, we still have a month to go before summer officially begins, but a few nights ago, I jotted down the following list of books, all of which I am interested in reading in the near future1.

  • The Fifth Heart by Dan Simmons (reading this now)
  • Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin
  • The Bully Pulpit by Doris Kearns Goodwin
  • No Ordinary Time by Doris Kearns Goodwin
  • Finder’s Keepers by Stephen King
  • The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt by Edmund Morris2
  • Theodore Rex by Edmund Morris3
  • Colonel Roosevelt by Edmund Morris
  • The Autobiography of Mark Twain by Mark Twain
  • Life on the Mississippi by Mark Twain
  • One Summer by Bill Bryson
  • Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr. by Ron Chernow
  • The Wright Brothers by David McCullough

What’s on your list?

  1. I say “near future” but my experience has been that when I post lists, I sometimes stick to them, and sometimes ignore them completely. What I read next can sometimes be a spontaneous decision.
  2. A re-read, although it’s been more than 13 years since I last read this book.
  3. Also a re-read.

600 Days of Writing and 600 Books Read

I wasn’t going to make a big deal about hitting 600 consecutive days of writing–which I will hit later today when I get my writing in. I’d promised that my next major milestone would come on August 23, 2015–that’s when I’ll hit 763 consecutive days. On that day, I will have more consecutive days of writing than Barry Bonds has home runs.

But, as sometimes happens, an odd coincidence has forced me to mention the fact that I have hit 600 consecutive days. It just so happens, that I am also reading my 600th book since January 1, 1996. Hitting 600 consecutive days of writing at the same time that I am reading my 600th book seemed interesting enough of a coincidence to mention it here.

What is the book? Well, it will depend on which one I finish first. (I only add a book to my list once it is finished.) I am 5/8ths of the way through The Stand by Stephen King1 as part of my Stephen King Re-Read. I am reading this book mostly in the evenings before bed.

I am also reading2 Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer. I’m listening to this while on my daily walks, and while doing chores around the house. It is a toss-up as to which one I will finish first, but whichever one I do finish first will be book #600 since 1996.

So how much writing have I done in 600 days? Well, not counting today (since I haven’t written yet), I’ve written just under 540,000 words. That’s an average of about 900 words/day. That means at my next major milestone–763 consecutive days–I should be close to the 680,000 word-mark.

I just did a little math, and if I can maintain the 900 words/day pace, I’ll hit 1 million words on about August 5, 2016, which would (coincidentally) be my 1,111th consecutive day of writing.

  1. The original 1978 version, not the uncut version released in 1990.
  2. Listen to.

Stephen King Revisited

I have been having a lot of fun following along on Richard Chizmar1‘s Stephen King Revisited blog, as he attempts to re-read every Stephen King book in chronological order. After each book, he posts an article, as there usually several others as well looking at the work through various contexts. It’s been great fun, and as I might have expected, it’s made me want to follow along in a more literal sense–by doing this myself.

I waffled over this for several weeks, and finally decided to give a try. Chizmar is already on King’s 4th book, Rage, a book that is no longer in print, and one of the few King books I don’t already own in one form or another. So I have some catching up to do. I started re-reading Carrie yesterday, and found it to be completely enjoyable. Yes, I am reading stuff I’ve already read, but I’m having fun doing it.

I’m not planning on posting the kind of detailed essays and articles that Chizmar is doing on his site, although I may comment over there from time-to-time. And I’ll probably write about those books that I haven’t read before. Like Rage, which I ordered, used a few days ago, and which is scheduled to arrive in the mail sometime today.

I’m also trying to figure out a way to post my progress for those who are curious. More than likely, I’ll have a link on this site that you can go to see my overall progress. Stay-tuned for more on that.

Even if you are not revisiting Stephen King yourself, I’d encourage you to check out Chizmar’s Stephen King Revisited site, if you are at all interested in King’s work.

ETA (1:00 pm): The mailman delivered The Bachman Books, which includes Rage a little while ago. So I am all set for a long time.

  1. Publisher of Cemetery Dance.

I opted for The Talisman by Stephen King and Peter Straub

In regard to the last post on Stephen King books that I haven’t yet read, I got quite a few recommendations, and enough to change my mind about what I was thinking about reading next. Instead of Insomnia, I’m now reading The Talisman by Stephen King and Peter Straub.

Just in case folks were wondering what I settled on.