Articles I Read – Week of 10 Feb 2019

A lot of driving this week. I had to drive to Pittsburgh for work on Wednesday and then back home on Thursday. Yesterday we drove up to New York for the long weekend. I still managed to read an article each day and my backlog of magazines has been shrinking nicely, just as the March magazines have started to roll in. Here are the articles I read this week:

Six Years of Audiobooks

I finished my very first audiobook, Misery by Stephen King (narrated by Lindsay Crouse) on February 23, 2013. I was thinking of this yesterday because it’s been just about six years since that first audiobook, and a strange thing happened.

I was in the carpool lane at my kids’ school sitting in the rain and waiting for the kinds to emerge from the building. I was listening to an audiobook, of course, The Stephen King Companion by George Beahm–a remarkable book for any Stephen King fan–and happened to glance at the Audible app to see how much time I’d listened so far. I accidentally clicked on the Total tab instead Daily tab, and this is what I saw:

Audible Listening Time

I happened to glance at the app just as I hit 6 months of listening time. In my head, I immediately thought back to when I started, and realized that it was February 2013–six years. I had spent a full half year out of the last 6 years doing nothing but listening to audiobooks. Put another way, since February 2013, 2 hours of my day each and every day are spent listening to audiobooks.

When you have been blogging as long as I have (since late 2005, with well over 6,000 posts to show for it), you are bound to see changes. I’m often amused by a post I wrote in 2012 where I claimed, unequivocally, that audiobooks were not for me. It turns out that audiobooks freed me up in more ways than one.

From January 1996 to mid-February 2013, a span of 17 years, I read 501 books, or about 29 books a year on average. From mid-February 2013 to right down to the present moment, a span of 6 years, I read 360 books, or about 51 books a year. Of those 360 books, 318 were audiobooks.

I’ve long since given up the debate on whether or not reading or listening to an audiobook amounted to the same thing. I think they do, and that satisfies me. (Abridgments, on the other hand…) Audiobooks have allowed me to read far more than I could before. In part this is because I can multitask while I listen to a book, with varying degrees of success depending upon what I am doing and what I am reading. In part this is because I’ve learned to listen at increasingly faster speeds. The book I’m listening to now is playing at 1.75x speed, for example.

But the availability of audiobooks have allowed me to branch out to things I might not otherwise try. (I read William Manchester’s three volume biography of Winston Churchill, for instance, which I might not have done were it not available as an audiobook and I could listen to it while walking and exercising.)

Whereas I naively complained in 2012 that I preferred my own internal voice to that of any voice actor, I have found that some narrators add a dimension to a book that pushes it over the top. Craig Wasson did this for Stephen King’s 11/22/63. I will seek out narrators and often find books I might not have read because I enjoy the narrator so much.

There are still some areas where audiobooks have problems. It’s not easy to highlight passages in an audiobook. Over time, I’ve learned that if I want to take notes on an audiobook, I’ll usually have the e-book edition (or a paper edition) handy to mark up alongside the audio version.

It was pretty amazing to see that total time roll over to 6 months. I suspect it won’t take me another 6 years to get to 12 months, however. The pace of my reading has picked up, thanks to audiobooks. Last year I read 130 books, more than doubling the number of books I read in any prior year going back to 1996. I expect to read at least 100 books this year. That’s an average of about 140 hours of listening time each month, or 1,680 hours of listening time each year. At that rate, it will only take me about 2-1/2 years before I reach 12 month of listening time. Check back with me in August 2021 and let’s see how close I come.

Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood

I watched Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood when I was little. As a child of the 1970s, I can recall sitting our family room in front of a television (one that you tuned by turning knobs and for which an occasional visit from a television repairman was required) watching Sesame Street, Electric Company, and, of course, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. It was delightful, therefore, to read Maxwell King’s biography of Fred Rogers, The Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers.

Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood

I was surprised to learn things about Fred Rogers that I never knew: he came from a wealthy family, with a strong sense of giving back to the community; he was musically gifted; he attended Dartmouth for a time. He was an almost unwilling celebrity, and nearly everyone who knew him said that he really was like the way he was on his television program. Kids were not seeing a persona, but the real man. It was amazing to learn all of the people he influenced over the years. David McCullough–author of my favorite biography, John Adams–has called Fred Rogers the greatest teacher of the 20th century.

I’ve sat here for several minutes trying to recall what I thought of the show when I was three or four years old, but the memories are vague and blurry. I can remember watching the show. I can remember being a little afraid of some of the puppets on the show. But I also remember I loved the trolley.

King’s book talks about how Rogers deliberately slowed down the pace of his show, taking his time, because he was concerned about the programming kids were getting, everything so face-paced. Things have only gotten faster. My own kids watched shows like Chuggington and Cayou when they were very little. They never got into Sesame Street. About the closest any of my kids came to Mister Rogers was my youngest daughter, now 2-1/2 years old, who loves Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood.

When I read something, I often take notes, jotting things in the margins, or copying passages into my journal/commonplace book. I try to apply what I learn from my reading in practical ways. After finishing The Good Neighbor, I had a desire to do that. My kids are all of a generation where videos need to be fast-paced to grab attention. I wondered what it would be like for them to sit down and watch an episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Could they even sit through one?

I doubted my older kids could, but yesterday afternoon, I took my 2-year-old upstairs and we put on an episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood from 1971. Then I sat back and waited to see if she’d tolerate it.

She loved it. She recognized some of the songs, of course, from Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood. She was a little perplexed to see the Daniel Tiger puppet–which doesn’t much resemble the cartoon character. But she followed along with the program just fine. I watched the show, too, flashing back to my own youth, but also keeping an eye on my daughter’s delight.

This morning, after we took the older kids to school, my youngest said, “Daddy, can I watch a show when we get home?” This is her usual question after drop-off.

I had to work so I told her she could watch a show until her nanny arrived. “What do you want to watch?”

I expected her to saySuper Why or Daniel Tiger, or “YouTube!” What she said was, “Can I watch Mr. Rogers?”

It made me feel that I had some how leveled up on this whole parenting thing.

Articles I Read – Week of 3 Feb 2019

A few weeks ago I wrote about how I was going to start reading one article a day to better keep up with all of the magazines I subscribe to. Two weeks in, I thought it might be interesting to list out the articles I ended up reading each week, with links if they are available online, and perhaps an occasional comment. Here, then, are the articles I read the week of 3 February 2019. Bold titles indicate articles I particularly enjoyed.

  • 2/3/2019 – “Solo” by Mark Synnot, National Geographic, Feb. 2019. Alex Honnold attempts a free solo climb of El Capitan.
  • 2/4/2019 – “Guardians of the Tiger People” by Adam Piore, Scientific American, Feb. 2019. How people and technology are protecting uncontacted tribes in Peru. (Requires subscription to read online article.)
  • 2/5/2019 – “A Town In Between” by Joyce Kryszak, Down East, Dec. 2018. A profile of Lubec, Maine.
  • 2/6/2019 – “An Unthinkable Sacrifice” by Kristen Romey, National Geographic, Feb. 2019. Archeologists discover some of the largest caches of child human sacrifice. (May require a subscription to read online article.)
  • 2/7/2019 – “The Real Roots of American Rage” by Charles Duhigg, Atlantic, Jan-Feb 2019. A long piece on the pros and cons of anger in society.
  • 2/8/2019 – “American Rhapsody” by Jeff Macgregor, Smithsonian, Nov 2018. A profile of some of the last nature grassland in Kansas.
  • 2/9/2019 – “Dr. Elon & Mr. Musk” by Charles Duhigg, WIRED, Feb. 2019. A profile of Elon Musk’s recent quirky behavior at Tesla.

Baseball’s Latest Rule Proposals

Allow me to channel Andy Rooney for a few moments.

Major League Baseball is at it again, considering three rule proposals that chip away at the history and integrity of the game. One proposed rule would add a 20 second pitch clock. You read that correctly: a clock. In baseball. It shows just how far Major League Baseball had drifted from the roots of the game. I’m reminded here of presidents who don’t know the price of a gallon of milk. There is no clock in baseball. That’s part of what makes the game unique, and it is at the core of how the game is played.

Another proposed rule would require any pitcher to face a minimum of three batters. This cuts down on platooning, but in reality, it speeds up the pace of the game because you don’t have as many pitching changes.

A third proposal would make for a “universal DH” bringing the dreaded DH to the National League beginning in the 2019 season. The DH allows for more potential hitting, but takes away more of the subtle strategy that makes NL games so interesting.

What do these three proposals have in common? They attempt to increase the pace and action of the game in order to keep the attention of viewers, who might change the channel when they feel a game is moving too slowly.

In reality, I don’t believe any of these changes would significantly speed up a game. A pitch clock might hustle the slower hurlers on the mound, but it would have no effect on the pitchers who have a quick delivery. Maybe you shave a minute or two from a game. The same is true for pitching changes. You shave a minute or two here and there. A better way would be to require a pitcher to be ready when he leaves the bullpen. He gets to the mound, and starts to pitch, no need for additional warmups. In reality, this is not about speeding up the pace of the game but providing the illusion that the game is moving faster.

And for what? Isn’t the pace of life fast enough already? One thing I love about watching baseball is that life slow down for a while when I watch a game. I immerse myself not just on the action on the field, but in the history behind all of that action.

These rule changes put baseball in danger of morphing into something else entirely in order to retain viewers and fans. The irony is that those viewers want to see a baseball game. With the way things are going, what they’ll see is something that doesn’t take quite as long to play, but it won’t be a baseball game.

Lunch Breaks

A BLT I'm particularly proud of
A BLT I’m particularly proud of.

Lunch breaks have long been a favorite part of my day. When I first started working at my company, way back in 1994, I would have lunch every day with a group of colleagues. We’d walk over to Third Street in Santa Monica, and eat at an international food court–one that is no longer there, alas. We’d do this nearly every day, regardless of the weather. Often we’d talk about work, but we tried hard not to talk shop. This went on for years.

When I transferred to our Washington, D. C. area office in 2002, things changed. Most of the people I worked with on a day-to-day basis were still in Santa Monica. I began spending my lunches by myself in my office. It was a quiet time I looked forward to. I would read, but often, I would quickly eat my lunch and then put my head down on my meeting table and nap. I’d fall asleep within a minute and sleep for half an hour, almost always waking feeling refreshed.

Somewhere in early 2013, when I began to listen to audiobooks, my lunch habits changed again. I often ate my lunch while I worked, and then, during my lunch hour, I’d walk two or three loops around the the block listening to books. These were, I think, my favorite lunch hours, with the exception of those first few years in the mid-90s when I’d hang out with my work friends.

These days, I work mostly from home. Each evening at dinner, my older daughter asks all of us what our favorite part of the day was so far. Often, mine is my lunchtime. I usually dash over to Subway for a six-inch turkey sub, which I bring back home. I sit at my desk and listen to a book, or catch up on a magazine article. I close my work laptop during this time and avoid looking at my phone. It’s not Thoreau’s Walden, but it’s probably as close to it as I’m going to get for some time.

Writers Debates

Writers can be a contentious lot. A thread I saw on Twitter yesterday reminded me of the kinds of things that polarize writers. While there are many topics over which writers can disagree, two jumped out at me as being particularly overdone these days:

  1. Traditional vs. self-publishing.
  2. Don’t work for free vs. write for “publicity”

As I read the thread, I felt increasingly compelled to offer my opinion, but wisely decided to switch back to the book I was reading (Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air–climbing Everest seemed much safer than wading into the Twitter skirmish) and provide some thoughts on these subjects here on the blog.

Traditional vs. Self-Published

I can state unequivocally that one of these is better than the other–for me. I wouldn’t presume to say that one is better than the other for anyone else. I think that goes to the root of the debate: some people feel their way is the best (or only) way to do something for anyone. I can only speak for myself.

I have pursued traditional publishing because that’s the route that writers I most admire have taken, and I want to be like them. I find a measure of satisfaction selling to professional markets, where the stories are vetted by editors, and only those they deem worthy of taking up space make it into print. For me, it is difficult to tell if I am getting better at my craft from one piece to another. One measure of success for me, therefore, is my ability to sell stories. For the first fourteen years I tried my hand at writing and submitting, my stories were rejected. At first, they were rejected with form letters. Then, as time passed, I got an occasional comment back on a story from editors. I took this as a measure of improvement. Then I sold a story; then another. Each subsequent sale, told me that I was getting better at my craft.

I also went the traditional route because it provided a way for me to learn and improve. Professional editors, once they finally started buying my stories, or providing feedback on those pieces they passed on, proved to be a great source of learning for me. They helped me to understand what makes a story work, and moreover, why some stories don’t work.

Finally, I’ve stuck with the traditional route because I have no interest in the ancillary parts of the business. I’m not very good at copy-editing and proofreading my own writing. I have absolutely no interest in the mechanics involved in building e-books, nor do I have any desire to learn about the ins-and-outs of what makes an e-book sell on Amazon. I don’t want to spend much time promoting my stuff. I have limited time to write and I’d prefer to use that time writing. Perhaps I’m missing out on readers, but it’s a tradeoff I’m willing to make.

That said, I have friends who are very successful at self-publishing, and I admire their commitment (to say nothing of their fan base) to what it takes to be successful in the self-publishing world.

Don’t work for free vs. write for publicity

I tend to side with the “don’t work for free” camp, but once again, this is how I prefer to work, not how I think the rest of the world should work. In the Twitter debate I saw last night, someone objected to the statement “Don’t work for free” with the argument that only a successful writer who is making money can make this statement.

But how, exactly, does a writer become successful? Most have to go through the same paces that all writers go through. Isaac Asimov spent the first eleven years writing nothing but stories before he finally moved onto novels and books and even then, it took a few years and a hundred or so books before he was a real success. At the time Stephen King submitted Carrie, he was a virtual no-name, and Doubleday took a chance on him. It was a chance that paid off both ways, but like all writers, King had to earn the success.

To put it more succinctly: the modest success I’ve had selling stories and articles was earned through some amount of skill, a lot of hard work and perseverance, and a measure of luck. I didn’t start out by selling my first story and everything thereafter, and I suspect most writers don’t either.

I said that I tend to side with the “don’t work for free” camp, but it is not an all-or-nothing proposition for me. Where it seems appropriate, I’m happy to do some writing for free. This blog is one example. I’ve written numerous guest posts for for friends. I do this because I enjoy it, but also as a way of paying forward the advice, assistance, and camaraderie I’ve received over the years.

It seems to me that frustration lies at the heart of many of these debates. It is incredibly tough to get rejection after rejections, most if not all, without even a reason for why the story was bounced. I understand that frustration well–I lived it for fourteen years. I may have complained about it from time-to-time, but I never blamed the system for my failure to sell stories. Possibly, the system hindered me along the way, but the only thing I could control was my own writing, and whether or not I’d continue to send stories out, despite the rejections.

Very early on in my writing career, long before I ever sold a story, and submitted stories to markets without much consideration of guidelines, I took Piers Anthony’s attitude. I read a lot Piers Anthony at the time, and he was of the mind that if an editor rejected the story, the problem was with the editor, not the story. This is a good defense mechanism, but it wasn’t until I discarded that attitude and replaced it with one where I intended to learn as much as I could from the hints provide, and try to improve with each story. Those hints were few and far between at first. A few words from Kris Rusch at F&SF, or a helpful observation from Algis Budrys at Tomorrow. Over time, they became more frequent, and I learned what I could from them.

Writers debate all kinds of things: what tool to use, whether to outline or write by the seat of your pants, self-publish or submit to traditional markets, work for publicity or insist on being paid. These debates can be fun, and at times contentious. Over the years, these debates have taught me two things about my own writing:

  1. Figure out what works best for me (it took me a long time to do this) and once I’ve done that, stop worrying about what other writers do because:
  2. Spending time debating these things takes time away from writing. And writing is the only proven way I know of improving my craft.

A Study of History

Yesterday’s mail brought Volumes 2 and 3 of Arnold Toynbee’s A Study of History. I now have the first 4 of the 12 volumes that make up the series. These books have not been easy to find. The original hardcover editions can go for hundreds of dollars. I was lucky to find paperback editions from 1962. I wasn’t sure what condition they’d be in when they arrived, but it turns out all four volumes are in good condition.

With the first four volumes in hand, I think it is safe for me to start reading them. This will be a slow process for several reasons. First, I usually read more than one book at a time, giving preference to whatever book I’m listening to on Audible. Only when I hit my target listening time each day do I feel okay with turning to whatever I happen to be reading in paper or e-book form. Given how much I depend on audiobooks these days, I don’t always have much time left for anything else.

Second, these are dense books, with small print. On some pages, the footnotes (even smaller print) take up most of the page. Then, too, as I’ve discovered by reading the first few pages last night, Toynbee’s style of writing is very different (and somewhat more convoluted) than Will Durant’s. All of this forces me to slow down as I read in order to take in as much as I can along the way.

The series of books is laid out as follows (bold items are ones that I have in my possession at the time of this writing):

  1. Introduction – The Geneses of Civilizations, Part One (1934)
  2. The Geneses of Civilizations, Part 2 (1934)
  3. The Growths of Civilizations (1934)
  4. The Breakdown of Civilizations (1939)
  5. The Disintegrations of Civilizations, Part One (1939)
  6. The Disintegrations of Civilizations, Part Two (1939)
  7. (A) Universal States; (B) Universal Churches (two separate volumes in the paperback edition) (1954)
  8. Heroic Ages – Contacts Between Civilizations in Space (Encounters Between Contemporaries) (1954)
  9. Contacts Between Civilizations in Time (Renaissances) – Law and Freedom in History – The Prospects of Western Civilization (1954)
  10. The Inspirations of History (1954)
  11. Historical Atlas and Gazetteer (1959)
  12. Reconsiderations (1961)

I figure that by the time I finish reading Volume 4, enough time will have passed to allow me to located relatively affordable paperback editions of the remaining eight books.

Why read a history text published so long ago? One might as well ask why read Gibbon. I can think of three reasons that make sense to me.

  1. I’m fascinated by lifelong efforts like this. I read and enjoyed Dumas Malone’s Jefferson and His Time (6 volumes that spanned more than 30 years). I’ve made it halfway through Will Durant’s Story of Civilizations, 11 volumes of which span 40 years of effort. Toynbee’s effort similarly spans 40 years.
  2. I’m interested in the subject. History fascinates me. That wasn’t always the case. I remember in grade school thinking that history was pretty dull. That was because it was nothing more than names and dates. But in 5th grade, we studied early American history (Revolutionary War, etc.) and, living as I did in New England at the time, it came to life. The places were places I knew, and had been to. My perspective on history changed after that. I’ve also found, that very little that happens in the world today is new. There is often precedent for it in the past.
  3. I’m fascinated by the evolution of discovery. “Facts” change over time. This is true in science as our knowledge of a subject increases; it is also true in history as new information is uncovered, and new evidence (archeological, and otherwise) is located. In Malone’s biography of Jefferson, Malone was fairly adamant that Jefferson’s affair with Sally Hemmings was little more than rumor, something that DNA and modern science proved him wrong about. Reading older works of history allows me to see this evolution in action.

Indeed, Toynbee makes this point explicit in his preface to the paperback edition of Volume 1:

The size of the work’s field has determined its length, and its unavoidable length has made it take a long time to write. The general plan of the work was put on paper in 1921; Volume 12 was published in 1961. The intervening forty years brought with them a number of changes, and these have left their mark on the text as this has been gradually written and published…

…The additions to past history that were made during the eventful forty years 1921-1961 are appreciable in their quantity, and significant in their effect, even when viewed in the perspective of the preceding 5000 years of human history. They make the retrospective picture of these last 5000 years look perceptibly different, as seen from the standpoint of the year 1961, from the picture as seen from the standpoint of 1921

A Study of History, Vol 1, p. viii

It is this last point that fascinates me particularly for two reasons: first, because it provides insight into how we learn about the pas; and second, because implicit within it is the knowledge that in the future, we may understand things differently with increasing knowledge and insight.

In the meantime, you can expect periodic updates on my progress through these volumes, slow though it may be.

Essays of E. B. White

I recently re-read Essays of E. B. White. Having done so, I am finally in agreement with those who call White the greatest essayist of the Twentieth century–at least of those that I have read. I returned to White in part to escape what seems to me a simpler time (a false notion, I’m sure, but it’s there nevertheless). What is it about White’s essays that so fill me with joy? In a biographical Afterword to the collection, Hal Hager quotes White himself with a reason:

“I discovered a long time ago,” White wrote in a letter, “that writing of the small things of the day, trivial matters of the hearth, the inconsequential but near things of this living, was the only kind of creative work I could accomplish with any serenity or grace.”

Writing today often feels like a race to make everything written seem the most important, most consequential thing out there. “Click bait” is but one symptom of this clamor for attention. It is a race fueled by clicks, views, and impressions, more the coinage of the Internet than Bitcoin will ever be. Sturgeon’s rule still applies: most of what is written is trivial (I am no exception), and much of it is poorly written. White’s writing provides me with a safe harbor from this clamor. His writing helps to quiet the mind, and slow the pace of life. In “Home-Coming,” for instance, White writes about his drive from New York to Maine, and how the scenery has changed over the years. He observed:

Steering a car toward home is a very different experience from steering a car toward a rostrum, and if our findings differ, it is not that we differed greatly in powers of observation, but that we were headed in different emotional directions.

Our drives to Florida and Maine reflect some of this need to slow down the pace of life. And there is a different experience driving home than to another destination that I don’t experience with other modes of transport, particularly airplanes. Up in the sky, I am too far removed from the world to see the details I see on the highways.

White’s essays show that it is the pace of life that changes, but the familiar remains the same. Writing about a hurricane in “The Eye of Edna,” White comments on the fever and frenzy of radio weather broadcasts:

It became evident to me after a few fast rounds with the radio that the broadcasters had opened up on Edna awfully far in advance, before she had come out of her corner, and were spending themselves at a reckless rate.

Inhabitants of any region that receives snow will recognize this behavior today, in a time when satellites and weather models can better predict the path of storms–and yet the weather reports still open up far in advance of the storm.

White can be prophetic. In his classic essay, “Here is New York,” he was frighteningly prophetic in his vision of how destructible such a dense city as New York has become. He’s not talking about fire, either.

The city, for the first time in its long history, is destructible. A single flight of planes no bigger than a wedge of geese can quickly end this island fantasy, burn the towers, crumble the bridges, turn the underground passages into lethal chambers, cremate the millions.

White finds joy in transportation. He laments the demise of the Model-T in “Farewell, My Lovely!” and while cars have improved dramatically in the decades since, with all kinds of innovations that simplify the act of driving, these same improvements have abstracted the simple mechanical basis of the automobile to the point where even a seasoned mechanic like my grandfather complained that he had difficulty working on the “newer” cars.

White waxes poetic over the joys of sailing (something still very simple and mechanical, but something that has grown increasingly expensive) in his essay, “The Sea and the Winds that Blow.” His essay “The Railroad” is a eulogy for what was once a majestic form of transportation. A similar eulogy is required today for the bygone days when airline travel was fun and original.

White’s essays provide me with an escape from everything that announces its self-importance. His language is careful, his tone casual, and his manner is always self-deprecating, but certain. In his essay on Don Marquis, White writes:

There are plenty of loud clowns and bad poets at work on papers today, but there are not many columnists adding to the belle lettres, and certainly there is no Don Marquis at work on any daily.

Nor is there, alas, another E. B. White.

Feeling My Age

Every now and then, I look in the mirror and begin to feel my age. I’m no longer ten years old, when dreams of becoming a Major League baseball player or NASA astronaut were still possible, if unlikely. I know, for instance, that I am pretty much past the point of competing with twenty-somethings at a baseball tryout. Playing shortstop for the New York Yankees is no longer in the cards (which I why I wrote a story about a fictional Hall of Fame pitcher a few years back).

Sometimes, staring into the mirror, I wonder if I will ever get into shape again. It seems an uphill battle. I’ve grown to despise working out for the sake of working out, and would much prefer some kind of practical activity (wood-splitting comes to mind) from which I can derive both exercise and useful material. But where’s the time?

That’s why I was delighted by an article I read in the February issue of Down East magazine last night. (I love Maine, we often visit during the summers–summahs–like true summahpeople, and I’ve subscribed to Down East for several years now as a way have having a bit of Maine with me all year round.) The article, “Ocean’s 7” by Will Grunewald is well-worth reading. It’s about Pat Gallant-Charette, and her efforts at completing the Ocean 7 challenge–7 different open water marathon swims that few people have managed to complete.

What I found most remarkable about the story is that Gallant-Charette really didn’t get started with this kind of swimming until she was 47 years old. She competed in her first Peaks challenge at 48, and for a time, held the record as the oldest person to swim the English Channel. When she attempts the final of her Ocean 7 challenges in New Zealand, she’ll be 71.

This came across as something of a relief to me. It told me that age matters much less than will-power. I can sometimes summon the will-power to do something when I really want to, and knowing that made me feel better about looking in the mirror, and at my 47th birthday, looming this March.

What I Read in January 2019

I finished 6 books in January. Compared to last January, it’s a little better, as I read 6 books in January 2018. But compared to my monthly average for 2018–12 to 15 books per month–it seems disappointing. My main form on self-education and entertainment is reading. This is why I don’t watch much television, see movies, or play video games.

Except, this month, I did start playing a video game. As a mentioned in an earlier post, after reading Blood, Sweat, and Pixels by Jason Schreier, I was fascinated by the concept behind the Witcher 3 game. I bought the complete edition for Xbox, and in the last two weeks of January, poured about 30 hours of my time into the game–30 hours that would have gone toward reading.

My Audible listening time, October – January

My reading has been down, generally, since October, but December was more of an exception because we were on vacation for nearly 3 weeks. January’s decline (I had barely 70 hours of audiobook listening time) was due entirely to Witcher 3. I’m hoping to get back on track in February. Here’s what I read in January.

The Renaissance by Will Durant (#849)

The Renaissance

I first learned of Will Durant’s Story of Civilization series reading Isaac Asimov’s autobiography in the mid-1990s. The 11 volumes seemed daunting then, but it wasn’t until I read the first volume that I fell in love with Durant’s style of writing. Since then, I have been slowly making my way through each volume. I completed the longest volume, The Age of Faith, last year.

Volume 5, The Renaissance, covers the Italian renaissance in Durant’s unique and fascinating voice. He is the only writer for whom I can tolerate descriptions of sculpture and pottery because he is so clearly excited about his subject.

Blood, Sweat, and Pixels: The Triumphant, Turbulent Stories Behind How Video Games Are Made by Jason Schreier (#850)

Blood, Sweat, and Pixels

This was the book that led me to Witcher 3 and is therefore directly responsible for me getting through 6 books in January in stead of 10 or 12. But this was a good book. Video games are difficult to make, and stories occasionally appear about the conditions under which developers work. Schreier interviewed staff at 10 gaming companies and studios in an effort to answer if these conditions were the exception or the rule. It would seem they are the latter. This is a great look at the inside world of video game development. But be careful: it may lead you to hours of unplanned time in front of the Xbox.

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari (#851)


This book kept popping up in various lists and a friend of mine was reading it so I decided to give it a try as well. I read most of the book on an airplane to Los Angeles and it was an interesting read. It covers a lot of ground that has been covered in more detail in other books I’ve read.

For me, the most interesting part of the book was the observation Harari makes about the ever-increasing pace of life, as passage of which I wrote about earlier this month.

Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness by Sy Montgomery (#852)

Soul of an Octopus

This book may have been an Audible Daily Deal, I can’t recall exactly. But it’s whimsical title caught my eye, and I actually enjoyed the book. Sy Montgomery has a delightful writing style, and her enjoyment in exploring the octopuses comes through clearly.

Essays of E.B. White by E.B. White (#853)

Essays of E. B. White

There are some books that act upon me as the sun acts upon Superman: the books recharge me, and especially my creative energies. Stephen King’s 11/22/63 is an example of a novel that does this for me. Essays of E.B. White is collection of nonfiction essays that does the same for me. I read this book last January, and re-read it last month as a way of re-charging those creative batteries. Of the 31 essays in the book there are quite a few standouts:

  • “Home-Coming” about driving into Maine after being away for a time.
  • “The Eye of Edna” which goes to show that the media hysteria surrounding weather events is nothing new.
  • “Here Is New York” which is E. B. White’s classic panegyric to New York City.
  • “Farewell, My Lovely” which is a combination love-letter and Dear John letter to the Model-T Ford.
  • “Once More to the Lake” is about returning to a childhood spot in Maine with White’s own son.
  • “The Sea and the Winds that Blow” shows White’s passion for sailing and the sea, and the occasional need to be alone.
  • “The Railroad” is a eulogy to the once mighty mode of transportation.

The Spy and the Traitor: The Greatest Espionage Story of the Cold War by Ben Macintyre (#854)

The Spy and the Traitor

This book had been sitting in my to-read pile for a while. What a book! It is the story of Oleg Gordievsky, a Russian spy secretly working for the British as a double-agent. The first two thirds of the book builds up Oleg’s story, and provides a fascinating picture of how spy craft really works.

The last third of the book is a James Bond-like race out of Moscow as we follow Gordievsky on his harrowing escape from Soviet Russia. This was a true nail-biter, and despite being tired, I kept reading late into the night to find out what would happen next.

I’m hoping to be more productive on the reading front in February. It’s a short month, so I will be happy if I can get 10 books read in February. Among the books I plan to read this month are:

  • Henry David Thoreau: A Life by Laura Dassow Walls
  • The Big Fella: Babe Ruth and the World He Created by Jane Leavy
  • Hershey: Milton S. Hershey’s Extraordinary Life of Wealth, Empire, and Utopian Dreams by Michael D’Antonio
  • Octavia Gone: An Alex Benedict Novel by Jack McDevitt (this doesn’t come out until May but Jack has kindly sent me an ARC and I can’t wait to read it.)
  • Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan by Herbert P. Bix
  • Growing Up by Russell Baker
  • Arkwright by Allen Steele

This list is, of course, subject to the Butterfly Effect of Reading.

Cleaning House

I just realized that I forgot to post today. Normally I’d have something writing-related posted, but I’ve been busy with work and with cleaning up stuff around the house, particularly my office, which just went through its biggest purge in a few years. I’ll try to make up for this with a post tomorrow.

Currently reading Henry David Thoreau: A Life by Laura Dassow Walls, and this is also my 4th day of trying to read one magazine piece each day. So far, so good.

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