Archives for category: Reading

Well, OK, you could read a book in a pub as Kieran Devlin claims he loves to in his piece at The Independent. Or more accurately now, once upon a time you could, and who knows maybe there’ll still be pubs there when we eventually get back to what’ll pass for normal whenever that time comes.

In my experience the pub has always been too crowded, noisy, boisterous and flood-prone to allow of any such solitary activity. If you were rash enough to take a book to the pub, you would be likely to leave it there at the end of the evening. Still, if there’s social distancing — if pub and social distancing can coexist in the same sentence — you could I guess read in one if you insisted on it. For Mr Devlin to justify his claim by citing the many pubs which appear in fiction is surely no more valid than recommending microwaved meals on the basis of novels depicting transatlantic flying. Or recommending reading in lectures on the basis of the fact that there exist fictional portrayals of lectures. I needed no justification for reading in lectures: how else is a guy meant to keep up if the afternoon’s devoted to rugby and the evening to the pub? The ingestion of four or five pints of bitter is not a good basis for close reading so the evening was out for study of anything other than the brewer’s art.

Mr Devlin touches on the pub crawl, another university test of endurance. The number of pubs in King Street, Cambridge is sadly reduced nowadays, and the few remaining ones must be shuttered these days — I can’t remember how many there were in my day. The King Street Run involved drinking a pint in each, and there were too many of them to remember after a pint in each of the first few.

NY Eater guides you to drinking holes in our city with literary associations, a virtual tour with some nice photos conducted by Robert Sietsema. We’re all about virtuality and history in Manhattan now: as Mr Sietsema concludes all the up-and-coming writers now live (and presumably hang out in bars, in so far as that’s still part of the life-style) in Brooklyn. DNAInfo follows them, allowing you to cut to the chase by learning about literary pub crawls in Brooklyn. Tradition lives on in our shuttered historical theme park of a home borough: Literary Pub Crawl has been living up to its name in Manhattan for 22 years.

Here’s a Dublin version, a Boston one, and Edinburgh too. Never quite sure what this means as far as popularity goes, but #literarypubcrawl is a hashtag on Twitter.


Natalie Jenner, in this piece from LitHub, expresses surprise that lots of readers live with the idea that a book should only be read once. I’m surprised too, though I can accept that there are lots of people who want never to have to read a book in the first place. It seems obvious to me that if you’re a book reader you’d want to read the good ones more than one time. But I suppose there must be people who regard each book as a hurdle to be jumped over, and yet remain eager readers. Ms Jenner is obviously a rereader: she is the author of The Jane Austen Society: A Novel — you’ll never guess which books she likes to reread!

I have just finished rereading All the King’s Men, by Robert Penn Warren, having recently finished for the third or fourth time his Brother to Dragons, an amazing verse “novel” about Jefferson’s nephews.

All the King’s Men must have the best first few pages ever written (and the rest’s great too) describing a car hurtling up a new concrete slab highway in the unnamed southern state in which the action takes place. The author manages to slip in all the themes of the book in tiny imperceptible asides in the first half a dozen pages. It’s almost as if with these pages, and a biography of Huey Long, you could just stop there. It’s one of those books I was keeping for rereading on that famous rainy day. Well, I think it’s now raining: you begin to wonder if you don’t do it now might you run out of time!

Can you believe that there was once a time when you could buy an almost 500-page novel for $1.25? That catch line is a bit unfair to Willie Stark: he just knew how to win elections and was determined to get his way, which really was designed to force good things on the simple folk. The imprints page provides a wildly comprehensive printing history, something I’ve often called for, but here even I have to wonder if this isn’t way over the top. I must have bought this book almost immediately upon landing at JFK — after all it had printed two times in 1972, and 1973, and it wasn’t till July 1974 that I touched down. We always thought that mass market paperbacks didn’t stick around too long in bookstores: this copy had to have been there more than six months! I was primed for Robert Penn Warren, having had an American friend in Cambridge, UK who’s PhD was about him; so no doubt it was the first “American” book I read.

This book was reprinted by letterpress from stereos — you can see evidence of damage to the edges in a few pages. Stereos are sheets of metal moulded from the type or more accurately from a mould of the type charmingly named a flong. They would be remounted on the press whenever more copies were required, but, life being what it is, they might suffer a bang on the corner when being handled, and this can be detected by a few lines of type strangely compressed at the edge of the measure.

In this case they obviously imposed the job by aligning at the foot. The evidence is provided by page 401, where you can see that the typesetter allowed an extra line’s space between the final word of the chapter and the bottom of the page which is indicated by the folio. (In my post on Measurement I told you that printers mostly stripped up to the head of the page: but not always. Here the position of the folio is exactly consistent throughout the book, so aligning on that should have worked.) Can this single misalignment mean that a correction was made to this page? Someone would surely have noticed this error after four or five printings: the top line ends up in danger of being trimmed off. Maybe the stereo for this page got so badly bashed that a replacement had to be made, and the flong wasn’t available for some reason.

Folded into the back of the book, and explaining the need for tape on the cover, is an essay by the author about the creation of the book from the May 31, 1981 issue of The New York Times Book Review. O glorious days in which that publication could include a five page serious critical essay! Apparently the novel started its life as a verse play entitled Proud Flesh. Warren was working at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge while Huey P. Long, the “Kingfish” was governor, and taught Julius Caesar to a Shakespeare class which included Long’s daughter Rose. Warren set his play aside for a few years and when he came back to it realized the category error. He reworked the piece in Minneapolis, Washington, DC, and finished it in New London, CT. The piece ends “The book appeared on August 19 [1946]. The first major review took it to be an apologia for fascism. . . . Well. . . . Further the deponent saith not.” Good to see that reviewing standards are still being maintained.

Rather satisfying to be able to reconstruct so much from a single copy. The paper has obviously yellowed. You didn’t print mass market paperbacks on anything other than groundwood — newsprint, which is just paper made from the whole log, from mechanical pulp, not from chemical pulp which removes the lignin and other impurities which lead to acidic yellowing, brittleness, and eventual disintegration. The binding’s had to be supported by taping, and the title/verso has worked loose, but otherwise the book is holding together fine. As someone who worked for years at making these damn things I never use any violence when I read a book, and this one will stand my rereading it a couple of more times.

See also Rereading.

Can’t remember the title or author, but want to identify that book that won’t leave you alone? Here’s help provided by Make Use Of (Link via BoingBoing and LitHub.) Follow that link if you want to explore any of the options they give: they provide all the links.

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

Kafkaesque, according to The Oxford English Dictionary’s deadpan definition, means “Of or relating to the writings of Franz Kafka; resembling the state of affairs or a state of mind described by Kafka”. Merriam-Webster helpfully adds, with a little less circularity, “having a nightmarishly complex, bizarre, or illogical quality”.

Open Culture brings us this 2016 video talk by Noah Tavlin on the adjective, and they tell us Mr Tavlin has also provided guidance on the related term Orwellian. There’s a link to his Orwell TED Talk at the Open Culture site.

If you don’t see a video here, please click on the title of this post so that you can view it in your browser. And if one video isn’t enough — and with all the spare time we now have, when can one video ever be enough? — here’s another. It has a biographical introduction (he blames Daddy) and rather more gruesome graphics:

Kafka is quoted in the video talk as having written to a friend: “I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound or stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow to the head, what are we reading for? So that it will make us happy? . . . Good Lord, we would be happy precisely if we had no books . . .” Well, there you have it — just buckle down to it; read more books; suffer more; you know you love it.

The UK government has finally decided to remove its 20% Value Added Tax from digital publications. Print books are not subject to VAT, and it has always seemed odd that the ebook version should be. Explicitly the government links this change to people’s having to stay home and read during the current lockdown.

Everyone is gobsmacked: nobody ever expects governments to do the right thing without maximum Sturm und Drang, and sanctimonious political rhetoric in abundance. Here’s the Publishing Perspectives story about the change.

Lit Hub obliges with a list of 50 contemporary novels over 500 pages long. That’s a lot of reading. But we’ve presumably all got the time these days. Order them from Bookshop.

Don’t overlook the old books though, for instance War and Peace, which I’ve just started again. It really is wonderfully and cunningly constructed with a surprisingly delicate touch. But I find myself less and less tolerant of Natasha Rostov every time I reread the novel. Tolstoy does seem able to overlook her silliness: maybe you had to be there. I’m already well past Austerlitz, in parallel to my The Dynasts project, now at an apparent standstill. I’ve almost caught up with Tolstoy Together, an on-line book club/discussion being moderated by Yiyun Li.

Now we are all meant to have so much free time, I find it a struggle to fit in all the activities. I don’t feel like I’ve got any spare time to participate in group discussions! So on I read, silently, while my wife, working at home beavers away at the other end of the room. The nineteenth century is a goldmine of novels of length and not just those baggy Russians: Dickens, Eliot, Trollope, Victor Hugo, Balzac, heck Sir Walter Scott. This may be your Clarissa moment. Get to it! Ars longa, vita brevis. You might also consider catching up with the complete novels of Henry James. Not enough? His Complete Stories also await: they stretch over five volumes in the Library of America. And if you’ve never considered it (even if you have) John Dos Passos’ U.S.A. is worth a long look.  (Also available from Library of America.) I am still officially working my way through the Aeneid in the original Latin (Loeb edition with translation on facing page) but that’s another project at a standstill I have to confess.

Publishers Weekly brings us the inspiring news that we have a legal right to literacy. The U. S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, ruling on a case brought by Detroit Public School students, has determined that literacy is a Constitutional Right. Just as the price of liberty is eternal vigilance, so the price of literacy must be eternal reading. So get to it. Use it or lose it.

Well, it’s true that what was judged to be a Constitutional right was a basic education, part and parcel of which is presumed to be the ability to read and write. The Court held “that access to a basic minimum education ‘that can plausibly impart literacy’ is a fundamental, Constitutionally protected right.” One dissenting judge snorted “This positive right to a minimum education will jumble our separation of powers.” Hey, if you can’t win on the merits of the argument, object on an irrelevant issue. Let’s fight for any local administration’s right to keep its people in blissful ignorance!

What is the literacy rate in the USA? Hard to know, it turns out. Literacy is not a line you cross: it’s a continuum along which you progress. Wikipedia tells us that the most basic definition of literacy is “people age 15 and over who can read and write” which seems to me to be so vague as to mean virtually nothing, but is the definition used to tell us we Americans have a 99% literacy rate which apparently ranks us 28th in the world according to The World Factbook! Wikipedia goes on to say “NCES statistics reported that 19 percent of adults in the U.S. cannot read a newspaper or complete a job application, and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development found that 50 percent of U.S. adults cannot read a book written at an eighth-grade level.” Is an American who is able to read Chinese but not English literate? Obviously yes, and obviously no. ProLiteracy informs us that “Children of parents with low literacy skills have a 72 percent chance of being at the lowest reading levels themselves. . . 70% of adult welfare recipients have low literacy levels . . . Nearly half of American adults have difficulty understanding and using health information . . . about 50 percent of the 2 million immigrants that come to the U.S. each year lack high school education and proficient English language skills . . . Seventy-five percent of state prison inmates did not complete high school or can be classified as low literate.” We’ve all met people grasping a piece of paper with an address on it asking for directions to what’s written there. But of course, with a 99% literacy rate there’s no reason why we should do anything about this issue!

The Modern Language Association takes a rather pessimistic view of trends in literacy in our nation.



Publishers Weekly‘s article introduces us to the Rallying Round #BooksAreEssential campaign, from which this picture is lifted.

Essential, books do indeed seem to be to many people, and during our current supply disruption, these folks have been working out new ways of getting hold of them. Online sales in many different varieties have taken off. Curbside continues. Some stores are packing and shipping to customers. Bookshop is booming: it passed the landmark of returning $1,000,000 to independent bookstores yesterday. People who want books are finding a way to get them. These determined book-buyers are the ones who give us hope that things may eventually return to “normal” or something which will at least resemble the old normality.

Governments have yet to acknowledge the idea that books might be essential. Printers in for instance Pennsylvania were initially told to shut down, but were eventually allowed to operate because they do “essential things” like printing inserts for pharmaceutical companies — not because publishers needed them to keep printing books. Luckily this also they can do.

The use of the word “essential” in connection with books seems utterly anodyne to me. It may be a bit of an exaggeration: I mean nobody’s going to get ill because they don’t have enough books, but hyperbole is a perfectly respectable part of rhetoric. But some object. This piece, guest written at Publishers Weekly, takes exception to the labelling of books as essential, since “Crucially, essential is a term applied to people—it is an acknowledgment that workers are what stitch our communities and what’s left of our economy together.”

OK. Nobody would ever suggest that our essential workers don’t deserve thanks and support, way beyond our 7pm applause, but just because we have named them “essential workers” doesn’t mean that “essential” ceases to carry the range of meaning which the word has always had. Air is essential to life, as indeed are the essential workers. It’s essential that we get our bathroom redesigned: in a somewhat less essential way. Just because we are all talking about “corona virus” doesn’t mean we have to stop using the word when referring to the measles virus, or to a computer virus, or that the famous beer, or that neighborhood in Queens have to change their names. Words can label more than one thing: books are clearly not essential in the same way that essential workers are, but essential they can still be. And by the way The Los Angeles Times reminds us that marijuana supply has been deemed essential in California but not books. An argument about vocabulary is of course utterly trivial: one wonders if these young literary agents have ever used hyperbole in describing one of their books to a publisher — and if not, why not.

I’m not sure just what the #BooksAreEssential campaign is meant to achieve. Is it addressed to legislators? I suspect it’s eventually nothing more than a feel-good gesture, just reminding the few people who happen to see some evidence of it that they might think of reading during these troubled times. Nothing wrong with that.

Digital Publishing 101 has a thorough post explaining how Amazon’s ranking algorithms work. For self-publishers keen to game the situation this sort of information is no doubt invaluable. One point they make is that as Amazon’s bestseller rankings are based on unit sales rather than dollar sales, it makes sense to start your e-book out cheap, and raise the price once it’s established. Readers in the Know has similar post encouraging self-publishers to maximize their sales.

I find it a little hard to understand why people care about ranking algorithms. Obviously there’s a minor interest in which book has sold the most copies, but “algorithm” is surely a bit of a fancy label for a process of adding 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 . . . Wikipedia provides a bit of the mathematics involved in ranking, for those with a curiosity gene.

I suppose there are people out there who want to read the same book that everyone else is reading, and for them the sales rank must have some significance. An algorithm designed to figure out what books would, in suitability rank, be the “best” books for you to read next, just seems like something a bored computer programmer would get up to in an idle moment. You really need a computer to tell you what you want to read?

The Digital Reader of 20 November 2014 brought us a story of a ranking algorithm of the less sales-oriented kind.

Machine-Learning Algorithm Can Rank the World’s Most Notable Authors, But Can it Identify the Most Worthwhile?

If it’s possible to judge an author’s notability based on their Wikipedia entry then Dr Allen Riddell of Dartmouth College has you covered.

Earlier this month Riddell published a paper which laid out his algorithm for generating an independent ranking of notable authors for a given year. he developed it with the goal of helping Project Gutenberg and other digitization projects focus on digitizing the public domain works of the most notable authors.

According to MIT Technology Review:

Riddell’s approach is to look at what kind of public domain content the world has focused on in the past and then use this as a guide to find content that people are likely to focus on in the future. For this he uses a machine-learning algorithm to mine two databases. The first is a list of over a million online books in the public domain maintained by the University of Pennsylvania. The second is Wikipedia.

Riddell’s begins with the Wikipedia entries of all authors in the English language edition—more than a million of them. His algorithm extracts information such as the article length, article age, estimated views per day, time elapsed since last revision, and so on.

The algorithm then takes the list of all authors on the online book database and looks for a correlation between the biographical details on Wikipedia and the existence of a digital edition in the public domain.

The article goes on to say that the algorithm can also rank authors by specific categories of interest, and not just a broad ranking across the calendar year in which an author died. For example, the top-ranked female American writer is Terri Windling, the top-ranked Dutch poet, Harry Mulisch, and the top-ranked President of France is Charles de Gaulle.

You can find Riddell’s website here, and his paper here (PDF).

This is a good idea, but even though Riddell says his ranking system compares well with existing rankings compiled by human experts, I still want to see a human hand in this decision.

Sometimes notability isn’t the best way to judge an author’s value. I was reminded of that point by one of the stories in this morning’s link post. The Boston Globe profiled a small publisher who had, over the course of his career, published two Nobel prize winners:

Boston publisher David Godine likes to say he specializes in books nobody buys, and that includes the works of French writer Patrick Modiano, whose novels about memory and war earned him the 2014 Nobel Prize for Literature.

Godine found Modiano by “asking European publishers to recommend their best writers — not their best-selling writers”. Modiano was relatively unknown in English before he won the Nobel Prize, and even though he has a sizable Wikipedia entry he still stands as a reminder that the obscure can be worth more than the notable.

An author who died in obscurity 50 years ago might only be known to scholars and not have a lengthy Wikipedia entry, but might have written Nobel-worthy work. But you might not know that without asking an expert, which is why I think the human touch is still required.

What do you think?

Should I be interested in the fact that America’s top-ranked female writer is Terri Windling (1958 –  ), not say Emily Dickinson, Edith Wharton or some other piker like that? Maybe the algorithm included a requirement that she be alive. Not sure what to make of the discovery that Harry Mulisch (1927-2010) is the top-ranked Dutch poet. He did do a few poetry books, but published tons of novels, a few of which appear to be available in English translation. But ranking is just ranking. It doesn’t have to mean anything more.

Faced with help like this in figuring out what the “best” of everything is, one wonders how soon we’ll get an app that reads the book on our behalf and feeds back to our brain what it is we ought to think about it. In a way, come to think of it, I guess ranking algorithms already get pretty close to this — after all why does the machine have to bother with reading the book. It can just tell us what we “think” straightaway. Then we won’t have to worry about “the best”, “the most notable”, “the most important” any longer, and can spend all our time dozing on the couch in front of a television with the sound turned down — ‘cos who wants to bother with the effort of listening?

He it is who’s reputed to have been the first person to have read to himself silently. Here he is at it.

Ambrose (339-97) was born in Trier in the Moselle valley, son of the Praetorian Prefect of Gaul (we think). He became a lawyer, and in 370 was appointed governor of Aemelia and Liguria, headquartered in Milan. He became bishop of Milan in 374 as a result of public acclamation: the crowd he was addressing started shouting for him to take the place of Bishop Auxentius who had just died, although at the time, according to The Oxford Dictionary of Saints, Ambrose hadn’t even baptized as a Christian. However within a week all the “t”s had been crossed and “i”s dotted, and he was consecrated bishop.

We all know, don’t we, that in ancient days people who’d read would always read aloud, and that the idea of reading silently was an exciting innovation attributed (by Saint Augustine in his Confessions) to Saint Ambrose? Despite copious evidence to the contrary, some cited in Mr Fenton’s piece linked to below, it was German scholarship that battened onto this idea and ran with it. Here’s Friedrich Nietzsche refusing to beat about the bush: “The German does not read aloud, does not read for the ear, but merely with his eyes: he has put his ears away in the drawer. In antiquity, when a man read – which he did very seldom – he read to himself . . . in a loud voice; it was a matter for surprise if someone read quietly, and people secretly asked themselves why he did so. In a loud voice: that is to say, with all the crescendos, inflections, variations of tone and changes of tempo in which the ancient public world took pleasure.” (Beyond Good and Evil, section 247.)

It turns out that this idea is just plain wrong, being based on a mis-reading of Saint Augustine. What Augustine was really commenting on (in Book VI, Chapter 3*) was Ambrose’s keen focus on what he was reading, and his refusal to share what it was he was reading. Augustine wanted him to read it, and then read it aloud again so that everyone present could share and discuss the text. This Ambrose wouldn’t do, didn’t have time to do, and fame followed. Nietzsche’s authoritative assertion is on the face of it idiotic, implying as it does that the time-traveling philosopher was there, hiding behind a pot plant listening to the noise. How else would he “know” that reading aloud was reading really loud?

James Fenton explored the myth at The Guardian in 2016, and sets us right. There are just some “facts” that want to be. There’s nothing we can do about them: although they are wrong, most of us unthinkingly accept them as true. Everybody knows that . . . x, y and z. In the scheme of things reading out loud is not too significant a thing to fixate on. Fear of measles vaccine is a tougher nut.


* When he was reading, his eyes went over the pages and his heart looked into the sense, but voice and tongue were resting. Often when we came to him (for no one was forbidden to come in, and it was not customary for visitors even to be announced) we found him reading, always to himself and never otherwise; we would sit in silence for a long time, not venturing to interrupt him in his intense concentration on his task, and then we would go away again. We guessed that in the very small time which he was able to set aside for mental refreshment he wanted to be free from the disturbance of other people’s business and would not like to have his attention distracted; also we thought that he might be taking precautions in case, if he read aloud in the presence of some eager and interested person, he might have to give a lecture on the obscure points in the author whom he was reading, or enter into a discussion on the questions of difficulty, with the result that, after he had spent time on this, he would not be able to read as many books as he wanted to read. (Rex Warner’s translation.)