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Bullet Journal: One Book to Rule Them All

I recently began using a Bullet Journal. Longtime readers who recall my going paperless days might find this odd. My going paperless experiment was just that–an experiment to see how far I could go without paper. Eventually, I decided that there were good reasons (for me) to continue to use paper. I’ve been carrying around Field Notes notebooks for years. I use notebooks for work, and large Moleskine notebooks for my journal/commonplace book. So why a Bullet Journal, and why now…?

I. Why Bullet Journal?

Moving back to paper

To understand why I opted for a Bullet Journal, you first have to understand how I work today. After going paperless for many years, I opted to circle back to paper. There were several reasons for this, but the most important to me were:

  • I was tired of spending my day staring at screens.
  • I was frustrated by the complexity of apps available for the simple things I wanted.
  • I was impressed by a remark Walter Isaacson made in his book Leonardo Da Vinci.

Isaacson pointed out that more than 7,000 pages from Da Vinci’s notebooks survived to today–a stretch of 500 years. He asked how many of our tweets and Facebook posts will survive even 50 years. Paper, it turns out, is a durable medium of information storage.

My notebooks

Field Notes

Over the last few years, I have used notebooks with increasing frequency. It started with my discovery of Field Notes notebooks in June 2015. Since then, I have a Field Notes notebook with me at all times. I use it as my short-term memory, and in the years since, I have filled 16 of them.

A page from my first Field Notes notebook (June 2015)

Composition Books

A little over a year ago, I began using traditional Composition Books for all of my work notes. I use these for everything:

  • Meeting notes
  • Capturing step-by-step instructions
  • “Lab” notes for when I am coding or trying to figure something out.
  • Outlining presentations I have to give.
  • Notes from conferences

They all go into these Composition Books. I like them because they have 200 page each which means one book usually lasts me a couple of months. The result is a kind of chronology of my day-to-day work. I number each book, and the pages in each book, and have started to do some light indexing of them to make things easier to find.

Commonplace Book/Journal

I have also been using a large Moleskine Art Collection sketchbook as my commonplace book/journal. I’ve filled nearly three of these books over the last year. I use them as a kind of paper-based multimedia collection of longer form writing. I write about my day, or notes and thoughts on books I’ve read. I record kids’ milestones, and paste in pictures from trips we take. I figure that someday, my kids might find it amusing to rummage through these books to see what my life (and theirs) was like when we were all younger.

One thing I did in these books from the start was to sequentially number each entry. This sequencing continues from one book to the next (I don’t start over at 1 again). This means I can index it to the entry number as opposed to a page number. It makes things less complicated.

A typical page in my commonplace book

But something was missing

I’ve grown used to this division of notebook labor. I have my Field Notes notebook with me all the time. I’m always jotting stuff down, and it often proves useful when I summarize my day in my commonplace book.

Occasionally, I’d find myself making to-do lists in my Field Notes notebook. Or I’d note a task from a meeting in my Composition Book. But I had no good way of finding all of these spurious to-do items, and no good mechanism for checking them off and making sure they were completed.

Over the years, I’ve used many different to-do apps. I probably stuck with Todoist the longest, but I found that (a) even that made it too complicated to quickly capture tasks, and (b) it required me to have some kind of device nearby to do so. Several people had told me about Bullet Journal, but it wasn’t until recently, as I started to prepare for our December vacation and felt overwhelmed with tasks, that I decided I needed to do something to manage the work coming out of my notebooks. So I bought the Bullet Journal Method by Ryder Carroll, and read it. It made sense to me, and I decided to give it a try.

II. My Bullet Journal

Filling a gap

Almost at once, I saw exactly where a Bullet Journal would fill a desperately needed gap: the One Book to Rule Them All.

In this revised system of mine:

  1. My Field Notes notebook is still my short-term memory, and I still carry one with me wherever I go. Now, however, if I have a task, I can add it to the Daily Log in my bullet journal so that I don’t lose track of it.
  2. My Composition Books aren’t going anywhere either. They now act as the raw, detailed notes for all work-related things. Tasks can go into my Bullet Journal, and for my larger projects, I now have collection in my Bullet Journal that I use to better manage those projects. The nice thing is that if I have a task in my bullet journal, I can add a reference back to the more detailed notes in the composition book just by adding a number, e.g. “see 4.129” (book 4, page 129).
  3. My commonplace books still acts as the place I do my longer-form writing. If there is something I want to refer to here from my Bullet Journal, all I do is refer to the entry number, e.g. “see #921.”

Rookie mistakes

Choosing the wrong notebook

Though it seems that most Bullet Journalists use the Leuchttrum 1917 notebook (or the official Bullet Journal variant thereof), I decided I would try to use a Field Notes notebook instead.

It took me one day to realize the problem: in that day, I’d filled up 18 pages of a 48-page notebook. I thought it would be useful to be able to carry the notebook in my pocket, but I could see that it wouldn’t be useful to have to carry dozens of them around with me.

At the same time, I saw a number of examples of interesting things, especially the Calendex idea–a combination calendar and index. That wouldn’t work in a small book like the Field Notes version. And so I bit the bullet and ordered a couple of Leuchttrum 1917 notebooks and that is what I have been using since. Turns out, I like it much better than the Field Notes notebook for this purpose.

Smudging the structure

I liked the Calendex and that was one of the first things I Leuchttrum 1917 bullet journal. But I quickly realized the pen I use, a black Pilot G-2, smudges when used for things like the structure of a page:

My calendex, smudges and all

I’m not giving up my Pilot G-2, which is my favorite pen, so what I decided instead was that I would do structure work using a pencil. In the image above, you can see the left page was done in pen (and is smudged) but the right page structure was done in pencil. Works for me!

Look and feel

There are some amazing looking bullet journals out there. It seems to me that for many people, a bullet journal is as much a form of artistic expression as it is a productivity tool. I found myself going down a rabbit hole of sites and videos of incredible journals, and I was flooded with all kinds of ideas–until I put on the brakes and a basic goal:

  • Keep it simple: my goal is for function not necessarily a beautiful book

If I didn’t set this goal, I could spend days envying other people’s examples and not using my own book for the purpose I have.

Four days in

I’m four days into my Bullet Journal, and I really like it. I am still getting used to things like the daily reflections. 

A page from my daily log

At first I was a little confused between what goes in the monthly log, future log, and what goes on the daily log, but I’ve settled on some simple rules that  work well for me so far:

  • Daily log is for capturing stuff without much consideration–just getting down and out of my head.
  • Monthly log/future log is for tasks that I have thought about and decided they are worth recording there.
  • Don’t migrate tasks to the daily log from other places unless it is a priority.

I’ve also managed to create some collections. I have one for planning what we need for our vacation later this month. I have another one for a work project, and yet another for a project in which I am archiving all my old stories. 

I’ve also used it for notes for things like blog posts. Indeed the images of notebooks that I sketched out at the beginning and middle of this post were born on a page in my bullet journal:


I’m just getting started, but so far, I like what the bullet journal is doing for me. It is serving as the central nervous system for all of my other notebooks and already helping me get a better grasp on the tasks that have been growing wild.

And if any bullet journalists have suggestions, please drop them in the comments!

Backlots of the Mind

When I read book, I see what’s happening in my imagination. Over the years, I seem to have developed a stock of stages that serve as the default placeholder for many common settings that I come across. I call these stages the backlots of the mind.

I was recently re-reading Stephen King’s novella “1922” which takes place on a Nebraska farm in the early 1920s. I’ve never been to Nebraska, but when I was a kid, I visited a relative’s farm in Utah on several occasions. My memories of that Utah farm served as the backlot to the farm in Nebraska. King then added the stage dressing required to make that backlot unique to his story. Indeed, any time I read about a farm–the farm into which Ray Kinsella carves a baseball field in Shoeless Joe for instance–I begin with my backlot Utah farm.

When I read of a completely fictional place, like the University in Patrick Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind, my backlot comes from my memories of walking around the Oxford campus on a visit to England many years ago.

This is as true for nonfiction as it is for fiction. When reading John Adams by David McCullough, and picturing John Adams’ farm, Peacefield–a place which I’ve never visited–I use as my mental backlot the New England farms I’ve seen in Sturbridge, Massachusetts. When reading Tales of the South Pacific by James Michener, I used as my backlot memories of my visit to Princeville, Hawaii on the north shore of Kauai.

When a writer describes someone living in a small house, I imagine the house I rented while living in Maryland. If a scene takes place in vast forested land, I often default to memories of walking through Huntley Meadows Oark. Even in a science fiction story that describes something that doesn’t exist today–Asimov’s Foundation for instance–I find myself resorting to familiar backlots for reference points.

Other times, I don’t have backlots adequate to serve my purposes. In these cases, I have to rely more heavily on the author’s descriptions and draw on other related memories. Reading Endurance by Alfred Lansing, I had no experience Antarctica. Instead, I relied on memories of videos and shows I’ve seen of Antarctica to help fill in the blanks. Reading Shogun by James Clavell, I was almost entirely at the mercy of the author’s descriptions. Fortunately, he did a good job and I really enjoyed the book.

I was thinking about these backlots recently because they provide an important insight into the relationship between a writer and a reader. As a writer, no matter how much detail I provide on a scene, the picture I have in my head will never match that of the reader’s. Every reader brings their own backlots to a story and that is what makes the story unique. I’ve recently started to write again, and I am trying to take this lesson to heart. As a writer my job is to provide just enough detail to let the reader fill in the rest from their own backlots. If there’s an important detail, I’ll add it, but otherwise, it seems better to allow the reader’s imagination to do the work. It makes the story more their own. Still, I sometimes think about books like Endurance and Shogun where I had no backlots to help me out. Surely there are people reading some of my stories who have no backlots for what I am writing about. This is one of those things that makes writing a particular challenge. How much or how little do you assume about a reader?

Some of these backlots change over time, but the most basic ones seems to stay the same. I kind of like that. It brings a familiarity to unfamiliar places between pages. Familiarity helps ease me into a book, and I imagine the same is true for readers of my own stories.

Casting a Spotlight on Importance of Use Cases

A few months ago, we started experiencing some problems with the cable box in our bedroom. It had served diligently for seven years there, and who knows how many years in other places prior to its arrival in our little abode. The cable people came out, examined it, and determined that it was an ancient relic. They provided us with a much newer model, and once again, all was well.

The first evening with the new cable box, however, I discovered a problem: the clock display on the front of the unit was so bright in the darkness of the room, that it cast a blue-green glow throughout the room. I like the room to be dark when I sleep, but the eerie  aurora-like glow of the digits bothered me.

 I spent some time the next day seeing if there was some function in the new cable box that allows for dimming the brightness of the clock. I spent 15 minutes or so searching for such a feature, and unable to find one, I gave up. Instead, I came up with a low-tech solution: each night before going to bed, I block the clock using a paperback book (usually a well-worn copy of A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens).

This low-tech method has been in place for a few months now, and it got me thinking about the importance of use cases. Lots of people have TVs in their bedrooms, and presumably, many of these TVs are connected to cable boxes. It seems reasonable to assume that some people like darkness when they sleep. That said, it was clear that this was not a use case considered when testing out this cable box model. It has all kinds of cool features, but it lacks the simple ability to dim the clock display.

I try to keep this in mind at the day job when I am the one making decisions about what features to include or exclude from a particular product or system. Considering all of the reasonable use cases (and to me, the brightness of the display is perfectly reasonable, we see it in most major operating systems today) helps to make better products.

ETA: A commenter on my Facebook page pointed to a possible solution. I looked at it and discovered I was looking in the wrong place for the setting I wanted. Now, when the box is off, the clock is off, too! Thanks, Ben Wilson!

Inside My Notebooks

Over on Instagram, I have been posting photos from various pages of my notebooks. I’ve been posting about one a day as a way of giving folks real-world examples of the kind of stuff that goes into my paper notebooks–much as I posted about the kind of stuff that went into my digital notebooks in Evernote. Here are a few samples:

Notes on the order in which I plan to read Stephen King’s short fiction.
A page from my journal with notes from Everything’s Eventual.
Some notes on the best books I’ve read in 2018, so far. 
Some notes from our 2016 trip to Disney World

If this is the kind of thing you are interested in, you can find more over on Instagram (@jamietr). 

P. S.: This was my first WordPress 5.0 post, using the new Gutenberg editor. I love it!

Reading Goals for 2019

I didn’t have a specific reading goal for 2018. That is, I didn’t say to myself, I am going to read 50 books this year. Way back when I started keeping my list of books in 1996, I did have a goal: Read one book per week. It seemed reasonable at the time, and yet I never managed to make that goal until 2013, when I read 54 books.

Setting a goal

Having a book count as a goal is tricky. Books vary in length. This year, for instance, the average length of books I read was 473 pages. But there is wide variation. The shortest book I read this year was The Testament of Mary by Colm Tóibín, which came in at 96 pages. The longest book I read this year was The Power Broker by Robert A. Caro, which exceed 1,300 pages. I read 16 books this year that I consider to be “long” book, each exceeding 700 pages. Such variation makes it difficult to set a specific number of books as a goal.

As most of the my reading comes through audiobook, I rely more on how much time I can spend listening to books each day. Audiobooks makes it easy to listen to books while doing other things: working out, commuting, doing chores around the house, waiting in line, watching your kid’s soccer or basketball practice. Audiobook turn out to be one of my best productivity tricks. Early in the year I set a target of 3-1/2 hours of listening time per day.

From that start, I looked at what the average length of a book I’ve read since I started listening to audiobooks in 2013. It turns out to be 453 pages, which translates into an average of 17 hours, 45 minutes of listening time per book. Well, knowing that, and with a target of 3-1/2 hours of listening time per day, I knew it would take me about 5 days on average to finish a book. And knowing that, I could make a reasonable estimate of how many books I could listen to in a year. That came out to about 73 books, far more than any previous year.

Adjusting the goal

At first, that number seemed completed unreasonable. In 22 previous years the best I’d ever done was last year when I finished 58 books. 73 books would be a 25% increase over last year.

Two things combined to change my outlook:

First, I found that I was regularly exceeding my daily goal of 3-1/2 hours of listening time. For instance, last month, I averaged 4-1/4 hours of listening per day. I keep a little heat map of this data, and here’s what it looks like for November:

Reading Heatmap

Second, over the last 5 years that I’ve listened to audiobooks, I’ve steadily increased the speed at which I listen. I started at 1x and after a long time, moved to 1.25x. Early this year, I moved to 1.5x. Then, this fall, when a new Audible app update introduced the 1.75x speed, I started listening at that speed. Each jump takes some getting used to initially. For the most part, these days, I listen to nonfiction at 1.75x and fiction at 1.5x. When I try to listen to a book at 1x these days, the narrator sounds as if they are on quaaludes.

This had a significant impact on how much I managed to read this year. At 1x speed and an average of 4 hours 15 minutes per day, I can get through 7 book in a month. By comparison, at 1.75x speed, I can get through almost 13 book in the same month. Over the course of an entire year, that’s 150 books! But as I didn’t make this change until more than halfway through the year, I adjusted my goal to something I still thought of as a stretch: 120 book for 2018.

The Goodreads Reading 2018 Reading Challenge

Goodreads has an annual reading challenge where you can set a goal and track your progress, along with that of your friends. So I went into Goodreads and set of goal of 120 books. It looked to be a lot more books than what I was seeing for many people. Indeed, it turns out that the average goal for the Goodreads challenge this year is 59 books. My goal of 120 books is double that. I figured I’d come close, but fall a few books short.

Then, over the weekend, this happened:

2018 Reading Challenge

I finished my 120th book in early December. It’s hard to believe, even with the evidence right there in front of me. And given that I’ve been averaging 14-15 books/month for the last few months, and that the second half of December I’ll be on vacation, I think it is safe to assume that I’ll finish 2018 in the neighborhood of 135 books.

Goals for 2019

So what is my goal for 2019? I’m tempted to set a goal of 148 books for 2019. That may seem like an odd number to pick, but there is some logic to it. Assuming I finish 14 more books this year, 148 books next year means that my last book of 2019 will be my 1,000th book since I started keeping my list in 1996.

Reading History

That is a stretch goal if ever there was one, but I think stretch goals are good, and it gives me something with extra meaning to aim for.

Anyone else have reading goals for 2019? Let me know in the comments.

And for those wondering about the best books I’ve read in 2018, I’ll have a post on that–in January. I don’t think it is fair to put out a “best of” list for 2018 before the year is over. Back in 2016 the best book I read that year was Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen. I didn’t read that book until the end of December. So look for my “best of” list in January.

Biblio Curiositas

Sitting on the sideline at my son’s basketball practice I was reminded of a mild malady from which I suffer: biblio curiositas. A medical dictionary might describe such an illness as a sudden, urgent desire to know what it is that person sitting next to me is reading. I’m paraphrasing, of course. Still, I find that when I see someone reading nearby, friend or stranger, I need to know what it is they are reading.

The mechanics of this can be tricky. Even if I know the person, they are often engrossed in the book (making me all the more curious) and I am loathe to interrupt and break the spell. I know all too well the magic of that spell and can become surly when someone breaks it for me. Instead, I will glance over and see if I can make out the cover.

This works about 50% of the time. After all, if I am sitting on the person’s right, the cover is almost impossible to see. So I will look for an excuse to move to the person’s left. I found myself in this very situation at the basketball practice. I had a half a Subway sandwich in my lap and wolfed it down quickly in order to have some trash to throw away. That allowed me to walk back to my seat from the reader’s left. Unfortunately, this particular reader had the book flat in his lap and I couldn’t make out anything.

I could have asked when he paused to check his phone. But honestly, I hate it when people ask me what I am reading because it breaks the flow and spoils the spell. “Whatcha reading?” someone asks, and I’ll usually hold up the book so they can see the title. “Oh, that looks interesting,” they say, and with that single phrase judge the book by its cover, “what’s it about?” which leads off into the mundane world, far off from the magical place I was held spellbound a few moments earlier. I realize the irony in this, but what can I do, it’s this disease?

Instead, I’ll keep casting glances at the book trying to tease out what it is from various hints I catch: an author’s last name, the title of a chapter. Meanwhile, all of this has taken away from my own reading. Instead of enjoying whatever it was that had engrossed me moments before, I’m trying to figure out what this fella’s engrossed in. I realize the irony here, too, but I am helpless.

Kindles and e-book readers have made this maddeningly more difficult. If someone has a Kindle propped on their knees instead of a meaty hardcover, it is virtually impossible to figure out what they are reading, short of asking, and we’ve already been there.

So difficult is the task of teasing out the titles of these books that they become their own reward. I’ve taken to collecting these titles, the ones I uncover anyway, the way a lepidopterologist collects their brightly-winged specimens. I jot these precious titles in my Field Notes notebook even if I never plan on reading them. The effort is too much to waste. My most recent specimen, successfully collected (at great effort) at the very basketball practice herein described: Chocolate City: A History of Race and Democracy in the Nation’s Capital by Chris Myers Asch and George Derek Musgrove.

Biblio curiositas is not limited to what I nearby person is reading. If I see books anywhere, I need to know what they are. Like a prospector panning for gold, I need to filter through them in search of a gem. Over the Thanksgiving weekend, we headed out to Woodlawn and toured an old plantation house. On the same property, a few hundred yards away, is the Pope-Leighty house, a Frank Lloyd Wright house custom built for a fellow who really wanted a FLW place of his own. While Peter, our guide, described the architectural detail of the living room of the 1,200 square foot house, I faced the wall-to-wall built-in bookshelves at the back of the room, skimming the titles there as quickly as I could.

If someone is reading a book in a TV show or movie, I want to know what it is they are reading. If I happen to recognize the book, I squeal with delight.

Science fiction conventions are a particularly dangerous place for someone with biblio curiositas, as one might imagine. With people scattered throughout the hotel lobby, restaurant, and bar, noses deep in books, such places are minefields, making it nearly impossible to cross a room without stealing a glance or two or three or four.

As I said, biblio curiositas is a mild malady, but it does have one benefit that makes up for all of its symptoms: there is no known cure. If you’ve got the disease, you’d got it for life. That makes me happy.

1,000 Books To Read Before You Die

The only advice, indeed, that one person can give another about reading is to take no advice, to follow your own instincts, to use your own reason, to come to your conclusions. If this is agreed between us, then I feel at liberty to put forward a few ideas and suggestions because you will not allow them to fetter that independence which is the most important quality a reader can possess. — Virginia Woolf, “How Should One Read a Book?”

This quote opens a new book called 1,000 Books to Read Before You Die by James Mustich. The book caught my attention when I saw it on a list of “years best” books, thus making it a bit meta. I’m not a big fan of “years best” lists when those lists emerge before the year is out, but I can’t help but be attracted to books that are essentially lists of other books.

1,000 Books to Read Before You Die

I ordered a hardcover edition of Mustich’s book and it arrived over the weekend. It is a big book, 948 pages, and contains an alphabetically listing of one man’s idea of a thousand books to read before you die. Each entry contains information about the book in question, as well as the author’s own comments. The book is chock full of quotes, picture of book and authors. It’s really rather delightful. I wanted the hardcover edition in order to be able to mark it up with my own notes.

At the back of the book is a handy checklist of the 1,000 books included. I spent an hour perusing the list, gleefully making a check beside each book I have already read. I was confident I would have read many of these books already. It turned out I had read 59 out of 1,000, or just about 6% of the total.

Here are the 59 books I have read. They are listed in the order the appear in the checklist. If the book has a number it is the number from my list of books I’ve read since 1996. If the book says “BL” it means I read it before I started tracking what I read.

  • BL – The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
  • 748 – The Education of Henry Adams by Henry Adams
  • 17 – Foundation by Isaac Asimov
  • 18 – Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov
  • 19 – Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov
  • 62 – The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester
  • 37 – Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
  • 254 – The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown
  • 276 – A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
  • 277 – Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card
  • 811 – The Power Broker by Robert A. Caro
  • 162 – Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland / Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll
  • 716 – The Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry-Garrard
  • 163 – The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie
  • 168 – The Hunt for Red October by Tom Clancy
  • 186 – Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke
  • 95 – Carrying the Fire by Michael Collins
  • 714 – A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
  • 722 – Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard
  • 196 – The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas
  • 217 – Founding Brothers by Joseph J. Ellis
  • 253 – Pattern Recognition by William Gibson
  • 682 – The Firm by John Grisham
  • 577 – Blue Highways by William Least Heat-Moon
  • 174 – Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein
  • 290 – A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway
  • 574 – The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway
  • 302 – Dune by Frank Herbert
  • 412 – Carrie by Stephen King
  • 472 – 11/22/63 by Stephen King
  • 713 – Endurance by Alfred Lansing
  • BL – A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle
  • BL – The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis
  • BL – The Call of the Wild by Jack London
  • BL – The Prince by Niccolò Machiavelli
  • 453 – A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin
  • 200 – Truman by David McCullough
  • 358 – A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr.
  • 218 – The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt by Edmund Morris
  • 560 – The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien
  • 826 – All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque
  • 201 – Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J. K. Rowling
  • 42 – The Dragons of Eden by Carl Sagan
  • 250 – The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
  • 311 – The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger
  • BL – Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak
  • BL – Hamlet by William Shakespeare
  • BL – Henry V by William Shakespeare
  • BL – Macbeth by William Shakespeare
  • BL – Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare
  • 121 – City by Clifford D. Simak
  • 780 – Sailing Alone Around the World by Joshua Slocum
  • 197 – Longitude by Dava Sobel
  • 248 – The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
  • 244 – Travels with Charlie by John Steinbeck
  • 524 – Dracula by Bram Stoker
  • 511 – Walden by Henry David Thoreau
  • 805 – The Double Helix by James D. Watson

There’s obviously a lot missing from my list with respect to Mustich’s 1,000 books. But, I have a list of over 800 books of my own, most of which are not on Mastich’s list, so we are probably even.

The great thing about a book like this is that it can help ease the passage of those times when I can’t figure out what to read next. There are lots of books that I want to read, and browsing the list and then reading a little bit more about a book can help pique my interest. In reviewing Mustich’s list, several books jumped out as ones that I would like to read. These include:

  • Meditations by Marcus Aurelius
  • All the President’s Men by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward
  • Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino
  • Silent Spring by Rachel Carson
  • O Pioneers by Willa Cather
  • Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes
  • Their Finest Hour by Winston Churchill
  • The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri
  • The Civil War by Shelby Foote
  • The Day of the Jackal by Frederick Forsyth
  • The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon
  • Alan Turing: The Enigma by Andrew Hodges
  • Les Misérables by Victor Hugo
  • The World According to Garp by John Irving
  • The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James
  • The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind by Julian Jaynes
  • The Boys of Summer by Roger Kahn
  • Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer
  • The Spy Who Came In From the Cold by John le Carré
  • The Journals of Lewis and Clark by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark
  • Einstein’s Dreams by Alan Lightman
  • The Executioner’s Song by Norman Mailer
  • Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry
  • The Diary of Samuel Pepys by Samuel Pepys
  • Up From Slavery by Booker T. Washington
  • Naturalist by Edward O. Wilson

Lists like these are fun. They are fertilizer for the mind, and they help me figure out what I want to read next, when I find myself in the doldrums. Mustich’s book isn’t only a great reference, it is beautifully done, and fun to flip through, look at the pictures, and read the quotes scattered throughout.

Vacationing in Bookland

It recently occurred to me that books are like vacations. There is often an extended period of anticipation, during which I eagerly look at the calendar each morning to see how much longer before the book comes out. Then there is the journey, the act of reading the book and experiencing all it has to offer. About halfway through the book I get that uneasy feeling. It’s halfway over. It’s three-quarters over. Gosh, how I wish this book was just 100 pages longer. And then, all too soon, the book is finished, and while the experience had been a great one, I’m left feeling a little empty inside. How could it have gone by so fast?

I’ve experienced this a few times recently. A week ago Lee Child’s latest Jack Reacher book, Past Tense came out. I’d been looking forward to it for a month or so leading up to it. I devoured the book, and before the sun had set on that same day, I’d finished it. I think of books like these as weekend getaways. The anticipation is fun, but I go into it knowing that the book won’t last long. Weekend getaways are more frequent than more elaborate vacations, and I know I have others coming up to look forward to. Today, for instance, John McPhee’s latest collection, The Patch arrived, and another weekend getaway gets underway.

The Patch by John McPhee

Then there are books like Gary Giddins’s Bing Crosby: Swinging on a Star: The War Years, 1940-1946. I’ve been anticipating this book for 17 years. When the book finally arrived, I tried to savor it. Though it appeared at my door two weeks ago, I am only 400 pages through its 700 pages of close print. I am working my way through it slowly, reading it carefully, trying to soak up every bit of it. Each dip I take is like a fine meal and I don’t want to miss any of it. I know that I am more than halfway through the book, and dark thoughts about another 17 year wait before Volume 3 have started to creep in. Still, I force them back. A book like this is like a once-in-a-decade vacation, and I know when it is over, it will be a while before I get to experience something like it again.

Often when I finish a good book, I have a difficult time settling into the next one. That’s not much different than returning from vacation and settling back into the home routine. We head to Florida for several weeks each holiday season. We leave our house on a cold, and sometimes, snowy day, and 24 hours later, we are driving across the border into Florida, where the temperatures are in the 80s. The return trip is the reverse, leaving that warm weather for snow, sleet, and cold. Vacations mask reality and coming back to that reality can be hard. That is the way it is for me with a good book. I struggle with what to read next, often starting half a dozen books before finally settling on something.

I try to keep those weekend getaways coming. In the near future, I’ve got Franklin and Winston by Jon Meacham lined up. I’ve got The Big Fella: Babe Ruth and the World He Created by Jane Levy, and Rocket Boys by Homer Hickam, and If Wishes Were Horses by W. P. Kinsella, and All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy. These mini-vacations are like waypoints on the way to our real vacation, now less than five weeks away.

There is one difference between books and vacations that I should mention: books are cheaper than vacations.

The Character of Books

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:

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

It by Stephen King

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.

The 17-Year Itch: Or, Waiting for the Sequel

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.

And 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.

Bing Crosby Swinging on a Star

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.

On Book Ratings and Reviews

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:

  1. Is this a book I would consider reading again someday?
  2. 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:

  1. I’m not rating the books.
  2. 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.

If these caveats don’t scare you away, feel free to friend me on Goodreads.

People Used to Be Travelers

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.

I have a particular fondness for Alaska. I’ve been there with John McPhee in his outstanding book Coming into the Country. I returned there with Ken Ilgunas’s Walden on Wheels. I’ve spent time there with James Campbell in two of his books, Braving It and The Final Frontiersman. I can never seem to get enough.

I’ve traveled roads with journalists like Philip Caputo, who drove from the tip of Key West, Florida to Prudhoe Bay, Alaska in The Longest Road; and with Charles Kuralt in Charles Kuralt’s America and Life on the Road.

I’ve sailed around the world with Joshua Slocum in Sailing Alone Around the World and I’ve survived at sea for 76 days in Adrift by Steven Callahan. I’ve gone from the earth to the moon in Andrew Chaikin’s A Man on the Moon.

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).

Pin map of US

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.