Archives for category: Reading

We are always being told that being read to and living in a house with stuffed bookshelves is what it takes to make a child into a reader. While I was growing up the bookshelves were certainly stuffed, but often it was stuff other than books which was mainly contributing to the chaos. No doubt this explains my refusal to arrange my own bookshelves in any order other than the utterly random. I contend that I have a sort of internal map and can locate most books to within a couple of square feet — except of course when I can’t. I was trying to find A Child’s Garden of Verses the other day, but am now reduced to wondering if I gave it away to granddaughters. There’s also a nice old hardback of Edward Lear which is infuriatingly hiding from me. My one exception to this chaos-rules rule is my Library of America books which are in alphabetical order by author, but since they all look exactly the same, this is almost essential, isn’t it? I find I mostly find books by visualizing what they look like and this then yields to a location where a thing that looks like that turns up.

But nobody would have ever described me as a bookworm until I got a job in book publishing. Access made an addict of me. (I didn’t try to get into the business because I loved books: it’s the other way round.) As a child I was more interested in playing touch rugby and riding my bike around town with Muckie, Hugh and Jock. I was generally able to say I was reading a book and not be telling a lie, but it wasn’t that important to me. I think that the way to “make” a bookworm is probably to deprive a child of freedom and companionship. If you lock a child alone in a library they’ll probably come out a reader. To turn this around: I think it is utterly inappropriate to try to make a child be anything, especially a reader. Give them the opportunity, yes, but don’t try to direct them.

The Guardian asks 10 children’s laureates to tell us how the trick can be done. I can’t agree with Michael Morpurgo that a love of reading can start at school: my recollection is that everything I was made to read at school became the object of hatred and aversion (except strangely Goethe’s poems. Thanks Jack Hammer.) I empathize with Quentin Blake’s Oliver Twist problem. I still see that book in the small, loathed, blue cloth edition (Nelson’s?) I was forced to read at school. Like him I did manage to get back to Dickens in later life, but not until I was into my forties. Chris Riddell opines “The greatest barrier to children’s literacy is the lack of a librarian in a school” and goes on to credit his school librarian’s recommendation of The Catcher in the Rye with making him into a reader: a bit circular I fear. I have never been involved with a school that had a librarian, and find the idea rather extravagant!

The laureates write entertainingly but don’t really explain how to turn kids into bookworms — but then who’d expect that such a thing could really be achieved. If it happens it happens. For kids thus afflicted I’d strongly recommend a job in book publishing.

Mental Floss seeks to provide an answer to this question by giving you a reading test prepared by Lenstore, Vision Care Experts. Well, I guess being able to see the words is an essential first step, though speed-reading glasses would be a great invention.

I’m not really sure what I think about this scandal, word of which, now that Nora Roberts has become involved, has started to hit our in-boxes. Of course I think copyright should be defended, but . . .

The Digital Reader gives us a good round-up of the facts. Brazilian “author” Cristiane Serruya has apparently been gaily selling 95 (and counting) books which are largely plagiarized. Ms Serruya is described as a “bestselling” writer, but I’ve not managed to discover what that means in terms of books sold and money made. The books she is accused of plagiarizing are listed at Caffeinated Fae. Many authors are frustrated; Ms Serruya has blamed lazy ghostwriters in her employ; and now Ms Roberts is suing.

There is a section of the book-buying public which really goes in for volume. These voracious readers chomp their way through 10 or more ebooks a week, mainly genre fiction like romance. The arrival of self publishing with its low prices has been a god-send to these insatiable customers. I wouldn’t be surprised if whatever it is these readers are seeking when they devour a book may be provided just as well by rereading the same stuff under a different title as reading something for the first time. I don’t know enough about the nature of romance writing, but I suspect that there are in any case a limited number of plots, changes on which are regularly rung. Readers are presumably seeking something beyond pure originality. Ms Serruya is providing a service for nympholectors, and maybe that’s OK. Of course Nora Roberts would like to get paid for her writing, but the truly voracious have probably bought her books already, and remain blissfully ignorant of any repetition in a book by Ms Serruya!

Richard Hershberger writes about this category of super-reader at his 2-part post at Ordinary Times saying “My final anecdatum is from Reading the Romance, a classic sociological study of romance readers by Janice Radway, first published in 1984. Her research included a survey of romance readers’ reading habits. The sheer volume of, um…, volumes is impressive. Over half reported reading between one and four romances a week, and more than a third between five and nine a week. Four readers claimed between fifteen and twenty-five. This seems implausible, and Radway is skeptical, but that isn’t the point. Neither are the absolute numbers, lest we get bogged down in discussions of self-reporting, small sample size, and sample selection. What comes through is that there is a body of readers for whom the word ‘voracious’ exists. These are people whose primary leisure activity is reading, and they read a lot.”

Whether Amazon should be required to stamp out hyper-commercial activity like Ms Serruya’s, as The Digital Reader suggests, seems a bit dubious to me. I’m not sure that there’s any requirement on a regular bookstore to guarantee that every book they stock is clear of plagiarism and any other illegality. Just because we can imagine some sort of AI plagiarism-detection program that could suss out duplication doesn’t mean that we have to build and deploy it. The present situation seems perfectly adequate: a law suit is the way to go. Yes, not all the affected authors can afford to bring a law suit, but then their “losses” are presumably also smaller. And, cynically, “all publicity is good publicity”.

I wondered whether there was any evidence of the number of ebook purchases by top nympholectors, but wasn’t able to find anything. In the physical world, according to The Telegraph Britain’s most avid reader is Louise Brown, aged 91, who has borrowed 25,000 books from the Castle Douglas library over the years. A brief search has failed to turn up information on who holds the record for ebooks consumed. Given that Ms Brown had actually to lug the books to and from the library, her record deserves to be in a category of its own. No doubt had she been born a bit later she would be deep into ebook consumption.

The One Book, One New York book for 2019 has just been announced: it is Patti Smith’s Just Kids. Goodreads describes it thus “In Just Kids, Patti Smith’s first book of prose, the legendary American artist offers a never-before-seen glimpse of her remarkable relationship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe in the epochal days of New York City and the Chelsea Hotel in the late sixties and seventies. An honest and moving story of youth and friendship, Smith brings the same unique, lyrical quality to Just Kids as she has to the rest of her formidable body of work — from her influential 1975 album Horses to her visual art and poetry.” Epochal days? I seem to remember constantly threatening bankruptcy, but as Ms Smith said on WNYC when the announcement of her book’s selection was made, the great thing about the city then was that it was so “economically welcoming”.

Do literacy programs like Big Reads really work? asks Terena Bell at The Outline. (Link via Literary Hub.) Nancy Pearl got the ball rolling in 1998 with Seattle Reads and that seems to have been successful: by 2005 Seattle was adjudged the nation’s most literate city. The overall answer to Ms Bell’s question seems to be that these mass reading programs probably do work, but we can’t really tell. Maybe we should all just ask our local bookstores if nomination has a noticeable effect on sales: I had a little difficulty locating a copy yesterday, partly because it’s on reserve for class reading at Columbia University. This morning Amazon says they’ve only got three copies of the paperback left in stock, though it doesn’t show in their top twenty bestseller list.

In the meantime: get out there and buy a copy from your local independent bookstore. Your reading schedule kicks off on 10 May with an event at Symphony Space as part of the PEN America World Voices Festival.

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.