Archives for category: Reading

Everyone in publishing just knows that women are the ones who buy books, especially fiction books. It’s just one of these pieces of common knowledge that everyone accepts without ever really thinking about it. (Have booksellers have been asked about this? Amazon of course must know, but probably isn’t telling.) Here’s a piece from The Washington Independent showing confirmatory results about male/female reading and book buying from a 2018 survey, although it was only a “survey of over 2,400 people from around the world”.

We are often assured that ladies were the main consumers of fiction in the nineteenth century: see an earlier post on a Lancashire book club. I do think the claim is largely true despite obvious exceptions to the rule: for instance many mathematicians are male and have been known to buy a book or two, and probably most of the people who buy Wisden’s Almanack are men, though copies may often enough be purchased for them by mothers, wives, girlfriends etc. (Note however that the most recent edition features a female cricketer on the cover: they’ve been rather more successful than their male counterparts in recent years.)

Perhaps boys just enjoy running around making noise rather than sitting quietly reading a book. I would certainly have had to plead guilty to this charge. One should note however that of course there have been lots of books directed at the male child, and many have been very successful. Biggles was a huge British case in point. In America The Hardy Boys are surely meant for an audience of boys, similarly Captain Underpants.

I often go on about how publishers are merely the agents of their authors — taking the manuscripts these authors bring to them and preparing them for sale to an eager public. But of course, not all publishing follows that pattern. There are significant bits of publishing where the authors act more like freelance employees and write at the direction of the publisher. Children’s books are often created this way. I worked for a few years at a company where we churned out books for pre-teen girls, all notionally written by a couple of celebrity siblings, but in reality written by a team of professional writers paid a fee for their work. The books were created by and printed by this book packager, and then the finished books were sold to a large publisher who’d sell them through the book trade — and sell them very well: first printings were usually 150,000. The game came to an end when the “authors” started quite publicly doing non-pre-teen things like going out on dates, and having a general good time at college. I never thought it was the pre-teen readers who abandoned these books; it was the aunties and grandmas who refused to lay down their money for the benefit of such “badly behaved girls”.

Tying your books to a celebrity is a tried and true way of guaranteeing a good sale, but obviously carries the risk of the celebrity losing their popularity, or in the case of kid’s books, simply growing up. Of course, other strategies exist: don’t tie your heroes to living people, and they can remain the right age for ever and ever. Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys exemplify this trick. Crime Fiction has a story (link via Literary Hub) about such branded series.

I may never have wondered about the gender distribution of book buyers and readers, but the OUP blog has, and makes a fist of explaining the phenomenon of apparent female bias. Turns out that the real question should be Why do girls outperform boys on reading tests around the world? In the end it seems to be because we apparently arrange things so that they’ll be this way. Psychology Today tells us about a recent survey that found that on average parents spent 3 minutes more daily reading to a girl than to a boy; and this grosses up to 100 hours a year. It’s not nature: it’s all nurture. We appear to want our boys to be reluctant readers. Or to put it the other way, we think boys should all be running around shouting!

OK, it’s short, and it may take you longer to queue up to get it for free than it’ll take you to read it, but who wouldn’t like a free short story from one of the three vending machines which have just been put up at Canary Wharf? The Guardian brings us the story.

Here’s one at the station, where it looks like it may risk getting in the way of rush-hour commuters.

Photo: Sarah Lee/The Guardian

I noted these machines a couple of years ago. According to another Guardian story, the same French company, Short Édition, is the one supplying the machines. They have many installations around the world: you can find a map here which you can enlarge to see where to go to get your stories. New York’s a desert: the nearest are the three machines in Boston and three in the Philadelphia area. (You can, it seems, also read the stories online at the Short Édition site.) Obviously someone has to pay for these machines, the writing, the paper, the maintenance. Another Guardian story tells us “The cost is borne by businesses, which are encouraged to install the machines as a way of improving customer experiences and preventing people from getting cross or bored.” Well, OK. Let’s hope these businesses continue to think it a good idea. I’m not expecting the New York subway system to spend part of their anticipated windfall from congestion charging on short stories. Inevitably they’re not even going to be getting enough fully to replace the 100-year old points. Maybe we need a wealthy commuter.

Here’s a promo video showing Francis Ford Coppola getting on board — but, more importantly, also showing the machine in operation.

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

Thanks to Nathan Barr for the link.

From a tweet by The Scottish Book Trust.


Reading the same book one hundred times in ten years is a whole lot of rereading. Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations must really ring Ryan Holliday’s bell. He justifies his choice at Medium.

As time slips by, the question of whether or not to reread a particular book yet again becomes more and more pressing. I once pronounced (many years ago) that I wouldn’t mind it if for the rest of my life I just reread William Faulkner’s novels over and over again. Is it because of the all-or-nothing-ness of that statement that I’ve hardly opened a book by Faulkner since then? Yes, yes: you love this book, but what reason does that give you to believe that out there there aren’t other books which you’ll love just as much? In a way, of course, what’s the point in indulging in that search? Say you did find what you considered the perfect book for you — would that condemn you to rereading it eternally? Why wouldn’t you have to think that an even more “perfect” one remained yet to be discovered? I think we don’t read books in order to enjoy reading them: we read books in order to enjoy having read them. Why wouldn’t we enjoy conquering new worlds?

I reread quite a lot of books, but it’s a rare event that I turn the last page of a book and immediately start at the beginning again. In fact I think it’s probably a unique occurrence. I last did it in 1997 when I read Henry Green’s Living twice on the trot. I’m not ruling out the possibility that I might have done something like this as a child, but I’d very much doubt it: playing touch-rugger on our ideally proportioned front lawn with my chums was much more of a priority. That I’d certainly have done over and over again.

Sorry Mr Holliday, I haven’t even read Meditations once. May be too dangerous to make the attempt now.

In the context of turning over stones with exciting new things under them, I once agin recommend Neglected Books.

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.