There is a scene in one of the Harry Potter films where Harry and his friends end up in a treasure vault which has been boobie-trapped with a “Gemino Curse,” a variant of the Doubling Charm. Each thing touched, instantly doubles. Touch those things and they double. This continues without end. I have sympathy for Harry in that scene. I know the feeling. Each book I read spawns more books to read. And those books spawn more books. This continues in an endless doubling, tripling, quadrupling that has been growing increasingly doubtful of my ability to read every book ever written.
At various times, my to-be-read list can have anywhere from dozens to scores of books on it, each one of which is a butterfly’s flap to who knows how many other books to read.
This was illustrated to me in a stark way this afternoon, after I began playing around with the Mind-Map plug-in to Obsidian, my new favorite text editor. I was trying to see how my reading had progressed–and how Mount To-Be-Read had grown–since the weekend, just a few days ago.
I picked the New York Times Book Review as my starting point. (The Washington Post and a few other lists may have been involved as well.) From this I started listing out the books that interested me and that I ultimately read. From there, I began listing books I came across in those books that interested me and that I either noted on my list, or read. From there… well, you get the picture.
This formed a simple outline in my text file, and with a few keystrokes, I’d turned it into a mind-map:
Since Sunday, I’ve read 3 of the books on the mind-map (Probable Impossibilities by Alan Lightman, In Praise of Wasting Time also by Alan Lightman, and When Einstein Walked with Godel by Jim Holt). I’ve also nearly finished (as in I will finish it this evening.) The three books that I have finished spawned eight other books that have since been added to the mountain that is my to-be-read list. If we go with 2.67 new books per book I read, those eight newly added books will spawn 21 more books to add. Those 21 books will spawn 56 additional books.
You get the idea. I’m reminded of poor Ali Sard, in Dr. Seuss’s Did I Ever Tell You How Lucky You Are?. Ali is the one who had to mow grass in his uncle’s back yard, quick-growing grass:
On Saturday, May 23, I finished reading The Reformation, Will Durant’s 1,000 page book on, well, the reformation in Europe. There was a nice symmetry to the length being about 1,000 pages since this was also the 1,000th book I finished since I started keeping a list in January 1996. That is a span of over 25 years. For those curious, here is graphical breakdown of those years:
For those unfamiliar with my list, I keep it using a few simple rules:
Only a book that I finish gets on the list. Unfinished books don’t show up.
I don’t rank books, but a book that I would read again, or recommend, I’ll make bold on the list.
Re-reading a book counts as a finished book. Thus, the list is a list of all books I’ve finished, even those read multiple times. It is not a list of distinct titles.
What constitutes a book? I use my judgement. There are a few short books (#789 The Testament of Mary is one. But I also counted the full issues of Astounding that I read for my Vacation in the Golden Age as books since they were of equivalent length.)
I finished the very first book on my list, From Earth to Heaven by Isaac Asimov, on January 13, 1996. I was in New York at the time, on vacation. I can no longer recall what possessed me to start keeping a list. It is possible that I had already come across Eric W. Leuliette’s list of what he’s read since 1974. In any case, I managed to keep the list going in various forms and mediums. Twenty five years later, I finished my 1,000th book. The canonical list has, for some time now, resided in a Leuchtturm1917 notebook. Here’s the first page with entries from 1996, and the most recent pages leading up to and including my 1,000th book:
Sometimes I’ll add some additional notes in the notebook that don’t appear on any of the other forms of my list.
So, it took me 25 years to finish 1,000 books. That’s somewhat deceptive, however. From 1996-2012, I read either paper or the occasional e-book. In that time, I completed about 500 books. That’s about 16 years or about 31 books per year, on average. In early 2013, however, I decided to give audiobooks a try as a way of allowing myself to get more reading done. Since 2013, I’ve read an additional 500 books, so that’s 500 books in 7 years or about 71 books per year on average. My page has been increasing!
In 2017, I decided to see how much I really could read, given the freedom audiobooks provided, and the fact that I had slowly been increasing the speed at which I listen to audiobooks. (Today, I usually listen to a book at somewhere between 1.5 and 1.75x normal speed, depending on the narrator). I set a record in 2017, reading 58 books that year. But that record didn’t last long. In 2018 I read 130 books; in 2019, 113 books. So far in 2020, I’m on pace to read 110. Indeed, I sort of sprinted to the 1,000th book milestone. At the beginning of May I’d read 983 books. That means I read an additional 17 books (including 2 books that were over 1,000 pages each) in the first 23 days of the month. It is, by far, a record-breaking month for me, and one that I am not likely to repeat for some time.
Given the pace I’ve set for the last 3 years, I’d predict, assuming no significant changes, that I’ll finish my 2,000th book in July 2029, a little more than 9 years from now. What took me 25 years to do the first time, should be much quicker the second time.
The books that I read run the gamut of the Dewey Decimal System. While I haven’t looked recently, I think nonfiction outpaces fiction about 60/40. In the last 3 years, it’s probably more like 70/30.
Why read so much, and why list it out? Well, I’ve said elsewhere how I look at my reading as my real education. I learned to read in grade school; I learned to think critically in high school; I learned to learn in college. Once college was over, i was finally prepared to learn–and then had to enter the workforce. So reading is my way of learning. The list acts a reminder of what I’ve read (and what I’ve learned), but also a kind of literary autobiography. I can look at the list and for nearly any book on it, I can recall where I was and what was happening in my life when I read it.
And what about before the list? I’ve often wished I started my list much earlier. I was 24 years old when I started it and 2 years out of college. Looking back over that time, and thinking about books I read in college, and high school, books I read in grade school. Books I got from Weekly Reader and checked out of the library, children’s books that I read on my own or with help from my parents, I’d estimate the total to be not more than 500 books, and probably somewhat less than that.
When I finished the final words of Will Durant’s The Reformation on Saturday, I was sitting out on the deck, enjoying sunshine. I had a quiet, private moment of achievement. Then I started on the next book. I jumped from the middle ages in Europe to the present achievements in physics with Brian Greene’s latest, Until the End of Time, which I’ll like finish today and mark down as book #1,001.
I occasionally get questions about my reading and my list. If you have any, feel free to drop them in the comments below. I’ll do my best to answer them.
Now that 2019 is officially in the record books, I present my list of best reads of 2019. Keep in mind that this is not a list of books published in 2019. Some of the books on my list are books published in 2019, others published decades earlier. It is, simply, a list of the books I most enjoyed in the last year.
A few stats on my reading from last year:
I read 113 books, for a total of 43,820 pages.
80 books were nonfiction, 43 were fiction.
The longest book I read was 882 pages.
The average length of a book in 2019 was 387 pages.
On average, I finished one book every 3-1/4 days; that’s a little over 2 book per week on average.
And now, the best books I read in 2019 in the order that I read them.
Blood, Sweat, and Pixels: The Triumphant, Turbulent Stories Behind How Video Games are Made by Jason Schreier
As someone who manages software projects, I’m occasionally interested in how it is done in the real world. I’ve always been fascinated by the construction of video games, even if I am not an avid player, so this book was a perfect mix. It portrayed an array of games and game companies, including Witcher by CD Projekt Red. It was because of this book that, in January 2019, I took the rare move of buying Witcher 3 and playing it, and moreover, winning it and its add-ons. It supplanted the Ultima games as my favorite.
The Spy and the Traitor: The Greatest Espionage Story of the Cold War by Ben Macintrye
This real life story of double-agents and spies was fascinating. It was like The Americans, but nonfiction, and like a good thriller, it kept me reading, virtually unable to put the book down.
The Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers by Maxwell King
I watched Mister Rogers as a kid, and I was delighted by this biography by Maxwell King. I read it while in Pittsburgh for work, so I had a sense of the place where Rogers grew up and where he created much of his art.
American Moonshot: John F. Kennedy and the Great Space Race by Douglas Brinkley
I’ve read most of the books about the Apollo program and the lead-up to it, so I was excited to see something new. This book took a different approach than many of the other more technical books I’ve read. Brinkley tells the political story of the moon race, with fascinating insights into all aspects of the project from the selection of James Webb to run NASA and much more.
No Cheering in the Pressbox by Jerome Holtzman
This is an old sports classic, but it was new to me, and it was probably my favorite book of 2019. Holtzman collected a kind of oral history from sportdwriters going back to the early 20th century, and published a collection of interviews with those writers that were a fascinating look at the job of sportswriting, and the evolution of that job. It was reading this book that I realized the job of sportswriter (in the 20th century) seemed like the ideal job.
84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff
I often enjoy books on books. I came across Hanff’s wonderful epistolary book at time when I was struggling to find what to read next. I pulled out my copy of 1,000 Books to Read Before You Die and went through it page, by page, until I came to this book. It sounded fascinating, a New York bibliophile writing to a London bookshop for recommendations and orders, and the friendship that evolved in the letters across the pond.
The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal
I don’t read much science fiction anymore, but I’d been hearing good things about Mary’s book, and Mary is one of those writers I trust, so I decided to give this one a try. What a treat! It is an alternate history of the space program, and it is extremely well done. First and foremost, Mary tells a great story, which is always the primary consideration for me. She narrates the audiobook, and anyone who knows Mary knows what a talented voice actor she is. This book was pure fun, and I’ve had the sequel queued up for some time now. I’m looking to read it later this year.
The Cold Dish by Craig Johnson
I enjoyed the Longmire TV series, and decided to give the original Craig Johnson novels a try. I started at the beginning and was hooked. Although I list only The Cold Dish here, I actually read all 15 books in the series, as well as the short fiction featuring Walt Longmire. I fell in love with the books, the characters, the style in which they are written. George Guidall narrates the audiobook, and he has become Walt Longmire to me, more than Robert Taylor ever was. These books redefined what a character novel could be.
The Ride of a Lifetime: Lessons Learned from 15 Years as CEO of the Walt Disney Company by Robert Iger
I forget how I became aware of Iger’s book, but I was a little skeptical when I started it. It sounded more like a self-help book, but turned out to be a rather remarkable memoir of Iger, who started in a lowly job with ABC and worked his way up to the CEO of the Walt Disney Company. As someone who has worked for the some company for 25 years, I was impressed by this, and Iger’s story was a fascinating one.
A few other notes on what I read in 2019:
The most intellectually challenging book I read was The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind by Julian Jaynes. This stretched me to my limits and I’m still not sure I understood all of what Jaynes was saying in that book. But sometimes, I need to push myself, and this was one of those times.
My biggest disappointment this year was Blue Moon by Lee Child, the latest Jack Reacher installment. I’ve enjoyed all of the Reacher books to date, and had been looking forward to this one since it was announced. But the book itself fell flat for me, seeming almost a caricature of Reacher. In part, I think this was do to the extraordinary character and storytelling ability of Craig Johnson with his Longmire books. I got spoiled by Longmire in between Reacher books.
With the first half of 2020, I should finish the 1,000th book I’ve read since 1996. I wonder what that book will end up being? It’s impossible to predict, what with the butterfly effect of reading fluttering its wings.
With less than 20 days remaining in the year, I debated writing my “best reads of 2019” post, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. This is not the best books of 2019. Best-of-the-year posts start as early as November, and it is a bitter disappointment to books born and read in the last 30-45 days of the year. Books born in the late months of the year get overlooked on best-of lists because of their birthdate. Review editors want the lists in time for the holiday shopping season. It doesn’t seem fair to me and I won’t condone such behavior by participating in it. My “Best of 2019” list will come out after the new year has been put to bed.
Instead, I looked at the stacks of books, physical and virtual, patiently awaiting my attention. I decided to list the books I plan to read before the decade is over and the roaring twenties begin.
Let’s start with what I am reading at the moment: Disney’s Land: Walt Disney and the Invention of the Amusment Park That Changed the World by Richard Snow.
I recently read An Army at Dawn by Rick Atkinson. This is the first volume of a trilogy that describes the liberation of Europe in the Second World War. After the current book, I’ll likely start on The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943-1944 and follow that up with The Guns at Last Light: The War in Western Europe, 1944-1945 both by Atkinson.
Earlier this year, I picked up a copy of Ballpark: Baseball in the American City by Paul Goldberger. The book looks beautiful, almost textbook quality, and looks fascinating. It should also provide a lighter fare from the battles of Europe.
Sticking with the baseball theme, I’ve been wanting to read Jane Leavy’s biography of Babe Ruth, The Big Fella: Babe Ruth and the World He Created, for some time now. Add that to the list.
Finally, if I can manage it, I want to tackle H. W. Brands’s latest book, Dreams of El Dorado: A History of the American West.
That’s a lot of reading to squeeze into the last 20 days of the year, but I’ll be on vacation for the last 10 days or so and will have more time than usual. The Atkinson books are long, so realistically, I might only manage to make it through those books before the year is out.
I present this list with the usual caveats, especially recalling to you the butterfly effect of reading which more often than not has its way with me.
And I see as I complete this that my monthly Audible credits have arrived, which means I can begin to scout out what books I will read in 2020. The first book I read in the 2010s was C. M. Kornbluth by Mark Rich. I wonder what the first read in the new decade will be?
I’ve now been reading e-books for more than 2-1/2 years. For the 37 years prior to that, I read paper books exclusively. For a while now, I’ve been meaning to compare the two forms of book in some reasonable and understandable way, but I was hard pressed to come up with a format for such a comparison. Then it dawned on me: use cases!
By day, I am a software developer and creating use cases is an important part of the construction and testing process. A use case is used to describe a real-world use of how the product in question might be used. So I came up with a number of use cases for e-books to see how they compare with traditional books. 10 of these use cases demonstrate (I think) how e-books are superior to traditional books. The remaining use cases demonstrate areas in which traditional books still have an edge over e-books.
My e-book reader, for the purposes of this exercise is my iPad 2, using the Kindle App for iPad. I’m sure I didn’t capture every possible use case, but these are the ones I seem to deal with most frequently.
1. Finding a book on the bookshelf
Depending on how many books you have, and how organized you are, this can be a fairly daunting task for traditional books. Here is an picture of me illustrating the use case by searching for a book on my shelves:
I used to have my books organized alphabetically by author, and then chronologically within the author. That fell by the wayside the last time I moved. While they are arranged alphabetically by author, they are completely random within a given author. That may not sound like trouble, but for someone who has several hundred Isaac Asimov books, for instance, it can make any one book tricky to find.
I’ve gotten an unusual number of friend requests on Goodreads recently and so I thought I’d take a moment to clarify a few things about my various book and reading lists in the social networks arena.
Yes, I am on Goodreads, and the list of books that I have read can be found there. I am also a Goodreads author. However, I am generally behind in updating Goodreads and so there are some gaps. Still, most of what I have read can be found there and so it might be useful, especially if you are using some of its “similar to” functionality. I’ll try to be better about keeping it up-to-date. If you are on Goodreads, feel free to friend me there.
Yes, I am also on LibraryThing, but my library is more than a year out-of-date at this point, and I don’t foresee any time in the immediate future where I will be able to remedy that. Keep that in mind if you are browsing my books there.
Only books which I actually finish end up on this list. There are many book in which I don’t finish and if I don’t finish them, they don’t get a number and don’t go on the list.
If I read a book more than once it will appear on the list more than once and get a second (or third, or fourth) number. This is because the list is a historical reference for me, not just a listing of the unique books that I have read.
Short stories, and magazine reading does not go on the list, EXCEPT:
Recently, I have been adding issues of Astounding Science Fiction that I have been reading for my Vacation in the Golden Age to the list. This is because I read the entire issue cover-to-cover and because each issue is about as long as a typical novel. Besides, its my list and my rules.
Bold items on the list are particular favorites of mine.
Blue items on the list are books that I read in e-book format, most often either on my Kindle, or the Kindle app for the iPad.
I’ve been enjoying Life on Mars on ABC. I may have mentioned somewhere that I was puzzled by a few things–like why Sam doesn’t "prove" he’s from the future by making a specific prediction. But it seems that, for now, the writers are avoiding the issue. Nevertheless, I enjoy the show. One thing I really like about the show is the music. Unlike most shows these days, Life on Mars is not making use of the latest hits by Dido or The Fray (or any other CW-like music). Instead, because the events take place in 1973, they are using some good classic rock from that time period. In other words, the music has been great!
I’ve been working on putting together a playlist of the songs that they’ve used so far. Here’s my list:
Everything I Own (Bread)
Reeling in the Years (Steely Dan)
Life on Mars (David Bowie)
Spaceman (Harry Nilsson)
Sweet Lucy (The Propositions)
We’re an American Band (Grand Funk Railroad)
Going to Make a Time Machine (The Majestic Arrows)
Tuesday’s Dead (Cat Stevens)
Wild in the Streets (Garland Jefferys)
I’m Gonna Keep on Loving You (Kool Blues)
He Keeps You (Boscoe)
Anywhere In Glory (The Mighty Indiana Travelers)
Everybody is a Star (Sly & the Family Stone)
Black and White (Three Dog Night)
Mother and Child Reunion (Paul Simon)
Rock and Roll (The Velvet Underground)
Bang a Gong (T. Rex)
Lucky Lady (Jones Brothers)
20th Century Man (The Kinks)
Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress (The Hollies)
Long Promised Road (Beach Boys)
Sweet Cherry Wine (Tommy James and the Shondells)
I’m Chief Kamanawanalea (The Turtles)
Just a Little Lovin’ (Dusty Springfield)
Reflections of My Life (Marmalade)
All the Way to Memphis (Mott the Hoopie)
Get Down (Gilbert O’Sullivan)
I am a Rock (Simon and Garfunkel)
Ground Zero (Chris Cornell)
Signs (Five Man Electric Band)
Baba O’Reily (The Who)
Little Willy (The Sweet)
Out of Time (The Rolling Stones)
There you have it. Now isn’t that a cool play list?
Since I’m talking about books so much this morning, I figured I post something I’ve been meaning to look at for some time now: my highest rated authors. The data comes from my reading lists, which I have kept since January 1, 1996. In order to generate the following data, I filtered it for fiction only, and only those authors for which I had read, and rated 5 or more books.
For fellow database nerds, my exact SQL query was:
SELECT Author1, COUNT(Rating), AVG(Rating) FROM ReadingList WHERE Fiction = ‘y’ GROUP BY Author1 HAVING COUNT(Rating) >= 5 ORDER BY 3 DESC
I rate the books I read on a scale of 1-5 stars.
Here are the (relatively unsurprising) results for fiction authors:
Sawyer, Robert J.
Malzberg, Barry N.
Clarke, Arthur C.
Heinlein, Robert A.
It’s a little embarrassing to find Clarke and Clancy tied for 8th place. I feel like I enjoy Clarke’s stuff more than Clancy. I read Clancy’s "Jack Ryan" novels in a whirlwind vacation week in the summer of 2000 and haven’t returned to them since. I keep reading Clarke, but at least one of his books, The Fountains of Paradise, underwhelmed me. As for Piers Anthony: I read a lot of PA growing up, before I ever kept my lists. At one point, I went back and reread the first 10 books of the Xanth series. I think this was late 1999. That’s why he shows up on the list. His score might have been higher if I included stuff from before the list like Macroscope or Tarot.
It would seem that I can’t produce a list of highest rated fiction authors without showing the list of highest-rated non-fiction authors. If we go based on the same criteria, the list looks like this:
Ambrose, Stephen E.
So there you have it. Isaac Asimov takes top position for both categories. In the fiction category, most of my favorite authors make the list. A few are missing, probably because I’ve read less than 5 books each (Bester and Kornbluth, for instance.)