Archives for category: Reading

That the Victorians were worried that reading would make you go blind had, I’m sure, more to do with the lighting conditions available at that time rather than any special problem with the mechanics of reading. Just see young Abe trying to read by firelight. Fast Company’s cautionary story of reading’s toll on the eyes comes to us via Kathy Sandler’s blog Publishing.Technology. Innovation.

When I was in school, a place by and large built during the Victorian era and thus in spots rather sparingly lighted, we were constantly being warned about blindness, but generally for more earthy reasons. Reading was definitely encouraged, and teenage boys are the last group to have concerns about loss of eyesight, or anything else that might be said to be bad for you.

Of course as long ago as Socrates we were being warned of the dangers of reading and writing. There’s always a reliable group of misery-guts lurking about eager to tell us that anything we like doing is liable to be bad for us. Remember just a few years ago how it was ebooks that were going to destroy our eyesight, especially that bright light boring into our eyes in the dark if we were rash enough to read in bed with the lights off. The Best of Health tells us that no real research has been done on this issue, and then goes on to warn us against close detailed work, lack of daylight, and even too much education: “studies have suggested a correlation between higher rates of short-sightedness and long hours spent studying at school. For example, as many as 80-90% of school-leavers have short-sightedness in certain parts of East and South East Asia.” Dr Ghosheh warns us about Computer Vision Syndrome, but does allow that you can also damage your eyes reading a printed book too. Clearly ignorance really is bliss; though some of us may prefer informed and short-sighted to ignorant and eagle-eyed.*

On the other hand though reading is meant to be good for your health. What is a concerned citizen to do?


*Vision Source suggests that “you should follow the 20/20/20 rule. When reading, look at something 20 feet away for 20 seconds every 20 minutes.” Also useful to stop and think about what you’ve been reading.

While I’m writing this I do stop from time to time to stare at the cliffs of the Palisades on the other side of the Hudson. Unfortunately the leaves are all gone now.

Good advice from a tweet by The Scottish Book Trust.

We’ve moved on. No longer can we tolerate, let alone desire, Alfred, Lord Tennyson almost singing “The Charge of the Light Brigade” at us. Those who want that can go to YouTube, where there is a recording of the bard which has miraculously survived along with four other poems.

Atlas Obscura goes on about this elevated, chant-like approach to verse reading. They report on some academic research which was utterly amazingly able to find distinctions between poets reading their poems, and a bunch of random Ohioans chatting. The researchers would like to emphasize that their “study is far too small to draw any major conclusions”, so resist the temptation to make any generalizations about people in formal settings tending to speak more formally than those in informal settings. Worth checking out however is their link to Audre Lorde charmingly performing her “1984”.

W. B. Yeats, who appears to talk in poet voice when he’s just chatting, justifies this incantatory, rhythmic approach by quoting William Morris, “It gave me the devil of a lot of trouble to get into verse the poems I am going to read, and that is why I will not read them as if they were prose.”

This style of delivery seems utterly Victorian but it lasted into the 20th century: here’s Carl Sandburg reading “Grass”, a real vocal extravaganza. The poem was written in 1918, but this recording must have been made after 1942 since the poet adds Stalingrad into this reading.

The reading style gradually fell out of favor, though it makes its come-back in lots of places. Ezra Pound tended to sing, and T. S. Eliot uses a modified chant. Unsurprisingly Dylan Thomas tended towards the incantatory in his reading. Robert Lowell and Mark Strand have hints of poet voice, though they do more nearly steer toward what we seem to want now: a straight reading with at most a certain rhythmical dragging to remind us we are listening to a poem. No more the incantatory priest inspiring the congregation: I guess that’s a bit like the post-Latin church too.

Does rap unexpectedly represent a bit of a throw-back?

If I’m reading a long, heavy book, I often like to read the print edition when I’m at home and take out my iPhone and read an ebook, if I have one, when I go on the subway. Unless I stop reading the print version at a chapter break, this usually involves a few minutes fiddling around in the ebook locating where I’ve got to.

Here’s a neat idea. Papego offers a free app which lets you switch smoothly from your print book to a digital text. You scan the last page read in the print edition, and the app will take you to the same point in your ebook. Publishing Perspectives provides the details.

Papego is a German company, and their app is currently only available for German texts. The app would allow you to read up to 25% of the book on an e-reader free of charge if the publisher of the book has previously signed up and paid Papego a smallish fee — about $10 for a 300 page book. Maybe the publishers who have paid the fee see the system as a way of selling more books: remove barriers between readers and publishers and more stuff will be sold. I do like the idea, but I can’t decide whether it would affect my decision to buy any particular book. I suppose there are readers who would be swayed. But many?

And of course you might want to own a full electronic text as well as a print book, as having the system shut down after you’d done your 25% e-reading in the middle of a train ride might prove terminally annoying. And this might also be figured in to the publishers calculation. There has occasionally been talk of supplying an e-text free with the purchase of a print book. Thus far we have managed to resist this temptation, whose only benefit would seem to be a one-time opportunity to jack up book prices, so having customers motivated to buy an ebook after having bought the print edition sounds almost irresistible.

Montaigne asserted “I may be a man of fairly wide reading, but I retain nothing. . . I would very much love to grasp things with a complete understanding, but I cannot bring myself to pay the high cost of doing so. . . From books all I seek is to give myself pleasure by an honorable pastime; or if I do study, I seek only that branch of learning which deals with knowing myself and which teaches me how to live and die well.” He sought “to become more wise, not more learned or more eloquent.” It’s a relief to note that he too didn’t retain as much as one might like from the books he read. When I was a student I was assured that the aim of education was not to knock facts into my head: it was to teach me how to look up information when needed. At the time this meant navigating books. Now maybe it’s degenerated to Googling.

Montaigne’s remarks come from Joseph Epstein’s essay at FirstThings in which he tells us that he reads for style, not information, or even wisdom, though he may hope to pick up a little of those too. He’s indisputably a bookman. Along the way he tells of his work as literary executor of Edward Shils, who had 16,000 books in his Chicago apartment plus another 6,000 or so in a house in Cambridge, England. His will called for the books to go to the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, but they had to decline because they hadn’t the space for so many books, nor could afford the approximately $100,000 needed to ship and catalog them. Epstein says he sold most of the books to a private dealer for $166,000. I occasionally wonder what will happen to the books which threaten to push us out of this apartment, after I’m no longer around to gaze upon them. It sounds like my fallback of the library may well be a non-starter. Here comes the Strand?

One’s time is always limited, not only as one gets older — it just seems more immediate then — and selecting books to read is a bit of a lottery. After all you can’t really tell if a book is worth reading until after you have read it. Schopenhauer has typically stern advice, advice which certainly helps: “The art of not reading is a very important one. It consists in not taking an interest in whatever may be engaging the attention of the general public at any particular time. When some political or ecclesiastical pamphlet, or novel, or poem is making a great commotion, you should remember that he who writes for fools always finds a large public. A precondition for reading good books is not reading bad ones: for life is short.” So basically, avoid the bestseller lists.

As a sort of counter-balance please see Rosie Leizrowice’s piece How to choose books you’ll actually read at The Ascent. She’s got no time for Schopenhauerian rigor. BookRiot reveals to us that Britney Spears also lives a bookish life, having been launched on this pilgrimage by Harry Potter.

A bookish life must be what I’ve lived. There are people who work in book publishing without letting “the book” become overwhelmingly important to them. I was never sure why such people chose to work in the same place as I did: they could probably have made better money elsewhere. It was usually a fairly low-pressure life, it’s true, though when there’s a panic there’s a big panic. It’s not like the food business, say: nobody risks their life as a result of reading a book — the nearest one comes to danger is the risk of a bookcase falling on top of you. I gravitated to the production and manufacturing end of things because panic was more likely there, and I rather enjoyed overcoming panics. But always first and foremost to me was the book and its content. If you are dealing with 20 or 30 books a week, there have to be many of them that you can’t find time to read. I can honestly say, though, that there were very few that I wouldn’t have liked to be able to read. One of the best feelings in publishing (for me) is opening that carton of sample copies sent straight from the end of the binding line. Here at long last it is, that object you’ve been wrestling with all along the line. Proofs late? Budget shot? Too many AAs? Index not done? Error in artwork? Jacket doesn’t fit? Paper late? Now all is forgiven: here it is. Nobody’s seen it before. Just let me read it!


Be careful. Your bad habits could still get you in trouble.

Tweet from Michael G. via Open Culture.

I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised that To Kill a Mockingbird turned out to be America’s favorite book. Despite the potential turn-off of often being required reading in schools, almost everyone has read it on that account, and it does have an iconic film adaptation rattling around in one’s head. What did surprise me was the number of books on the list I wasn’t aware of: starting off with number 2, the Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon who was there to accept the applause. You can watch the Grand Finale here.

If you don’t see a video here, please click on the title of this post in order to view it in your browser.

It turns out that I do recognize the stars of the TV show, Outlander (about to start its fourth season) from promotional Tweets I’ve gotten over the years, but I’d no idea that there were books lurking behind. “Scottish Highlands, 1945. Claire Randall, a former British combat nurse, is just back from the war and reunited with her husband on a second honeymoon when she walks through a standing stone in one of the ancient circles that dot the British Isles. Suddenly she is a Sassenach—an “outlander”—in a Scotland torn by war and raiding clans in the year of Our Lord . . . 1743.” Wow: is walking through a standing stone exactly what they mean? If the effect of doing so it to transport you back two centuries, maybe it is. The show’s obviously got everything.

Here are the top 15 of America’s favorite books:

  1. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  2. Outlander (series) by Diana Gabaldon
  3. Harry Potter (series) by J.K. Rowling
  4. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
  5. Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
  6. Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
  7. Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White
  8. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
  9. Chronicles of Narnia (series) by C.S. Lewis
  10. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
  11. Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery
  12. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
  13. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
  14. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
  15. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Game of Thrones surprises by not getting any higher than 48th place. There it’s behind even The Count of Monte Cristo. That White Teeth isn’t ahead of Americanah seems back-to-front. But there it is. The people have spoken. To a large extent the exercise points up the importance of a television of cinema version in spreading the word. Word-of-mouth was always the best book marketing tool. The cynic lurking within me wonders if many of the volumes were voted for out of piety rather than as a result of frequent re-reading.

I do hope that at least a few non-habitual-readers were motivated by the whole exercise actually to read a book. I may have to look at the Outlander series.

You can do the math. This Medium piece The Simple Truth Behind Reading 200 Books a Year walks you through it. The only thing stopping you from reading 200 books a year is apparently a lack of will power! Warren Buffett can do it, so why not you? His recipe for success: “Read 500 pages like this every day. That’s how knowledge works.” Dead easy.

Well, hang on a bit. We do often get tired, and may then be unable to knock off our 400 words a minute. Actually when you come down to it 400 words a minute is quite a clip. Even the lower level of 200 (the piece tells us Americans read at an average of 200-400 words per minute) is not undemanding.

Readingsoft sets a test so you can determine your reading speed. The piece you read is all about speed and reading, so is relevant to the task at hand. When you finish there are questions to measure your comprehension.* I managed 219 words per minute with pretty good comprehension, but I did feel I was reading fast, and would have slowed down under non-test conditions. You just can’t read for hours on end at top speed and with full concentration — well, at least, I can’t. We have to allow after all for those interruptions when a Cooper’s hawk flies by, (or was it a sharp-shinned hawk?), or when you need to blow your nose, or take a drink, or even maybe just think about what you’ve just read. Maybe you have to look back a few pages to remind yourself what the word is for those bits of a glove that fit between the fingers (fourchettes, for those not currently reading Philip Roth’s American Pastoral) — and your wpm rate goes out the window and off with that hawk.

So by allowing for life to go on simultaneously while we are reading I suspect we have to allow that average wpm to go down to something like 100, which may even be a bit optimistic. This means that the Medium calculation for reading 200 books is going to commit you to 1,668 hours of reading each year. This is still less than we apparently spend watching television, so might still be doable: after all it’s only 32 or so hours a week, about 4½ each day. But I’m not sure how you’re going to be able to fit in the time to select enough books with a page count of 200 or less. Of course there are some, even quite a lot, but there are many, many burdensomely long ones which you’ll have to avoid if your will power drives you to get to 200 in the year. I wonder if careful training would enable you to double your throughput by simultaneously listening to an audiobook and reading a print edition of a different novel? Would that count?

Being retired, I read a whole lot, and I managed a paltry 60 books last year. Warren Buffet may make his 200, but most of us have to be content to make less than him, both in book and money terms.

Here’s another test, that for me at least yields a different result. See also Speed reading.


* One flaw. The questions don’t really require you to have read the piece. As the offer multiple choice answers  common sense will navigate you through with relative ease.

The Travelodge chain has bothered to compile a list of books left behind by their guests in their British hotel rooms. Apparently they’ve had to deal with 70,000 abandoned books this year.

The top twenty forgotten books thus far in 2018 as recounted by Travel & Leisure are:

  1.  “The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood
  2.  “The Couple Next Door” by Sharri Lapena
  3.  “Bad Dad” by David Walliams
  4.  “Origin” by Dan Brown
  5.  “The Secret” by Rhonda Bryne
  6.  “The Girl on the Train” by Paula Hawkins
  7.  “Paul O’Grady’s: Country Life” by Paul O’Grady
  8.  “Sharp Objects” by Gillian Flynn
  9.  “Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Getaway” by Jeff Kinney
  10.  “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” by J.K. Rowling
  11.  “Secret Garden: An Inky Treasure Hunt and Coloring Book” by Johanna Brasford
  12.  “IT” by Stephen King
  13.  “The World’s Worst Children” by David Walliams
  14.  “Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them” by J.K. Rowling
  15.  “Big Little Lies” by Liana Moriarty
  16.  “All Out War: The Full Story of How Brexit Sank Britain’s Political Class” by Tim Shipman
  17.  “Harry Potter: Coloring Book,” Warner Bros.
  18.  “Thirteen Reasons Why” by Jay Asher
  19.  “Donald Trump: The Art of the Deal” by Donald Trump
  20.  “Disney Princess Beauty and the Beast Magical Story,” Disney

Now of course to get on the list a book has to be quite popular: a lot of people have to be carting it around. But is that all? Doesn’t leaving your book behind imply a sort of loss of interest. After all if you were really into the book, in that can’t-put-it-down sort of way, well, you sort of wouldn’t be able to put it down, would you? One or two of the books might be thought of as falling squarely into that category. Unsurprisingly several children’s books figure: always difficult to get them to focus on packing.

Many of the guests leaving books behind did report that they did so because they’d finished the book — though one wonders who was asking them.

Perhaps even more fascinating is Travelodge’s list of odd things left behind in rooms.

Link via BookRiot, 4 September 2018.

The Guardian assures us that sales of The Wonky Donkey have “gone through the roof” after three million people have viewed this YouTube video of a granny reading the book.

Laugh. You can’t avoid it. Just like yawning, laughing is infectious. The grandson appears however to be stoically immune.

Link via LitHub.