Archives for category: Reading

125 books about Brooklyn may seem a bit excessive, but clearly the temptation was too great for the Brooklyn Public Library, who, in celebrating their 125th anniversary, have compiled just such a list.

Don’t want such a narrow geographical focus? Here’s the New York Times with “The 25 most significant New York City novels from the last 100 years“. This is an immensely long piece, so here are the 25 titles:

No Henry James? No Edith Wharton? Anyway I fear I have a bit of reading before me. Do we now look for the Queens Public Library system to pick up the gauntlet? It was founded in 1907.

Open Culture brings a link to this literary map of Edinburgh. As the organizers say “We have created a very large database of place-name mentions in more than 600 books that use Edinburgh as a setting. We have then extracted the sentences immediately surrounding each mention and included those as an excerpt in our database. The data has then been mapped onto the city via the place-name mentions, and can be explored through a mobile app and online interface. With LitLong, you can walk your own paths through the resonant locations of literary Edinburgh.”

Plan your visit here. If you follow along with the readings as you go you’ll be going pretty slowly. For instance in Advocate’s Close, where we had dinner about two months ago (just on the right there), you’ll have readings from five different books to peruse as you come down a hundred yards of steps.

Ever cringed at the sight of someone licking their thumb in order to flick over the pages of a library book? Or their own book, for that matter? Or maybe even just the thought of unwashed sweaty fingers is enough to keep you away from the public library. We keep getting told how there’s a whole mass of sloughed-off skin cells lurking in our bedding: I even got an email the other day proposing to sell me a product which would help me to get rid of them! Well, even without thumb-licking we cannot avoid leaving our personal traces all over any book we read. (You’ve never found a hair in a gutter?) I try to comfort myself that the effects of such traces wear off after a few days and will be gone by the time I borrow the book, but of course that’s nonsense. Don’t get too upset though — this is true of anything we handle, so don’t stop reading. Maybe wash your hands more often as instructed by the CDC while singing Happy Birthday twice through.

Proteomics is the study of proteins — and as proteins tend to survive better than much genetic material they are an important source of knowledge about ancient DNA. Paleoproteomics is the result. It’s not about Jurassic-Park-like dinosaur cloning — proteomics can potentially reveal information about ancient peoples and artifacts.

Of course it’s hard to get hold a bit of any ancient relic in order to grind it up and subject it to testing. Matthew Collins, Professor of Palaeoproteomics in the Department of Archaeology at the University of Cambridge (happy to see the Cambridge archaeology department is still out front on the science of archaeology), emphasizes how difficult it is for conservators to yield up for testing any tiny bit of their unique charges, and this obviously slows down the analysis of ancient materials. In order to obtain samples for analysis Professor Collins makes use of the rubbings that conservators routinely make with erasers when they are cleaning their charges. “Since 2011, Collins has used the rubbings to gather biological information about medieval European cattle, sheep, and goats.”

Professor Collins is quoted in a New Yorker piece (referenced by Emma Smith: Portable Magic: A History of Books and their Readers, Allen Lane, 2022) describing the work of Pier Giorgio Righetti and Gleb Zilberstein on testing old manuscripts for what biological evidence they might retain. But of course it doesn’t just have to be manuscript you test: “In 2015, researchers at the Folger Shakespeare Library, in Washington, D.C., swabbed the gutter of a Bible from 1637 and found DNA belonging to at least one Northern European, who had acne.” Kissing the bible was not uncommon behavior (probably still is) among the committed: traces of proteins from drips from medieval lips and noses have been detected on the tenth century York Gospels. Learning that, if you’re upset about skin cells in your bedding (or worse bedbugs in library books), you’re probably never going to open any second-hand book again. But it’s obvious that such research can potentially yield fascinating information about who’s handled a particular book. Presumably, for instance, we might be able to prove just how much attention Samuel Richardson actually paid to Lady Bradshaigh’s annotations of Clarissa by finding his dabs all over it. Or finding traces of the sweat of Ezra Pound’s brow all over the manuscript of “The Wasteland” could be interesting — more interesting if it was some other poem I suppose.

Confronting the testing = destruction problem, Zilberstein has adapted a food packaging ethylene-vinyl-acetate film to pick up a range of chemicals from old and valuable objects without damaging them. Finding morphine all over Michael Bulgakov’s manuscripts may not be too earth-shattering, since we kind of knew he was addicted, but a second test “picked up twenty-nine human proteins, mostly from sweat and saliva, including three biomarkers of the renal disease that killed Bulgakov, in March, 1940.”

The Folger research referenced above comes from their Project Dustbunny, described here in Washingtonian. That test took place in 2015 and inaugurated the project.

Dustbunny involves going through the books swabbing the gutter margin: presumably not every gutter of every book. The dust thus recovered is stored in a bio-archive, where it will sit until it can be scientifically analyzed. Heather Wolfe, the Folger’s curator of manuscripts says “It’s not just a collection of texts but this biological archive that we need to preserve for future research we can’t even conceive of.” Professor Collins has been advising the Library on how they might best proceed with testing.


* Always a bit risky to embark on the explication of a pun: but my title is a bit of a pun. The word “reading”, as well as its obvious sense, is also the British term more or less equivalent to what in America we mean by “majoring in”.

Much more fascinating than the Strunk and White* kind of style are the rumors “that celebrities and fashion influencers [are] paying someone to select reading material for them to carry in public.”

The New York Times Style Magazine (o tempora, o mores: Style Magazine!) carries an account of the alleged book stylist by Nick Haramis. (Thanks to Nate Hoffelder for the link, which is doubtless hiding behind a paywall.) What a career opportunity for a superannuated publisher: get a job advising film stars which books they should be seen carrying in order to maximally impress their fans.

If you can’t access the NYT story, don’t worry; it concludes inconclusively that nobody can/will confirm the existence or non-existence of this book stylist. A sample of the article’s style: “The worlds of literature and fashion have flirted with each other since long before Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe tied the knot in 1956, but in the past few years, books have become such coveted signifiers of taste and self-expression that the objects themselves are now status symbols.” Now that can’t be bad, can it? Signifiers of taste!

For similar, if less public, book styling services, see my post Personal book curation. Celebrities who’d just had their “libraries” set up for them might be expected to go for the book handling service proposed in The Irish Times by Flann O’Brien and mentioned by Emma Smith in her Portable Magic: A History of Books and their Readers (Allen Lane, 2022). O’Brien proposed a service that would rough up your books to make them appear thoroughly used. They’d riffle pages, turn down corners, leave thumb prints and break spines. The tippy-topmost level of service would include “Not less than six volumes to be inscribed with forged messages of affection and gratitude from the author of each work”. What celeb could resist?

Of course many people have recently been falling victim to the urge to “style” their book collections now that we spend so much time in Zoom meetings. Sitting in front of your bookshelves is a nice way to project an intellectual air.

Style is a word with an interesting history. It originally meant “An instrument made of metal, bone, etc., having one end sharp-pointed for incising letters on a wax tablet” — what we’d think of as a stylus. Its metallic pointiness then seems to have gotten it implicated in stabbings, as a sort of dagger. One of the Oxford English Dictionary‘s early examples of its use as a metaphor for literary work dates from 1655:  “But Princes swords are sharper then their styles”, which perhaps makes playful reference to that dagger meaning. Still you can see how the characteristic way you write could eventually come to be metaphorically conflated with the instrument you used to do so.

In the publishing business it is perhaps the OED‘s definition 21d which first leaps to mind: “The rules and methods, in regard to typography, display, etc., observed in a particular printing-office” and by extension, publishing office. This of course is the sense used in the title The Chicago Manual of Style, which is ultimately just a codification of the house style of the University of Chicago Press. Personally, as attentive readers may already know, I consider Cambridge University Press’s house style to be more stylish than Chicago’s or indeed Oxford’s.

Style in the sense of “the author’s style” resists definition: it’s one of those things where all you can really say is that you know it when you see it. Satiric novelist Sam Riviere writes in his recent novel Dead Souls (all one long, 300-page paragraph — now there’s style of some sort!) that the designers of novel software QACS (Quantitative analysis and comparison system) designed to deplagiarize novels, “also had in their sights that most elusive quality, the style of the work, which would be objectively defined at last, locked down, taking into account the frequency and emphasis of specific words, the frequency and emphasis of specific sounds, and perhaps even—the engineers refused for now to be drawn on this point—the indivisible emotional components, below the surface, underpinning everything.” We still await this important development. Tim Parks reviews Dead Souls at The New York Review of Books. (No doubt paywall protected.)


* Strunk and White: The Elements of Style began life as a 43-page self-published booklet used by William Strunk Jr. in his classes at Cornell. E. B. (Andy) White was one of his students in 1919 and used “the little book”. In 1957 he was commissioned by Macmillan to revise the book for the college market. Strunk, who had died in 1946, had focussed on nuts and bolts advice on what was right and what was wrong, such advice delivered as series of sharp commands — “Do not join independent clauses with a comma”, “Do not break sentences in two”, “Use the active voice”, “In summaries, keep to one tense”, “Omit needless words”. Professor Strunk was nevertheless willing in theory to accept some rule-breaking. “It is an old observation that the best writers sometimes disregard the rules of rhetoric. When they do so, however, the reader will usually find in the sentence some compensating merit, attained at the cost of the violation. Unless he is certain of doing as well, he will probably do best to follow the rules.” White added the only chapter on style “in the sense of what is distinguished and distinguishing”. In our personal quest for style, the best we can do is follow all those nuts and bolts directives, or at least those that we don’t chose to disagree with, and hope that the cleaned-up, straightforward result will reveal what we’d like to think of as our style. Probably will.

Generations of American students have bought Strunk & White which is now in its fourth edition. Maira Kalman did an illustrated version in 2005. That book has a Foreword by Roger Angell, White’s stepson, who just died on May 20th at the age of 101. Like his stepfather and his mother, Angela was a New Yorker writer.

One of the guilty pleasures of working in publishing is that you get out of the habit of paying for books. That’s (partly) why we all have so many of them. (See Free books.) It’s a slight paradox that employees find it harder to get a free e-book than a print copy. If your job involves accessing the company digital archive, you can of course just send a copy of the e-book file or a PDF to your home e-mail, or more discretely download it to a thumb-drive. But copying a file just seems more like a premeditated theft than does “forgetting to bring back” that hardback you took home to read.

This is strange, since for the publisher the cost represented by staff members helping themselves to print books is not nothing, whereas with an e-book it actually is virtually nothing. No doubt management will eventually get around to a policy of encouraging staff’s sticky fingers into the digital realm rather than the physical. Maybe remote working has already encouraged this.

One of the delights of the e-book world is though, that unless you are hung up on reading the latest books, you can get almost anything free somewhere or other on-line (legally, I mean, without indulging in straight theft via pirate sites). The Digital Reader made The Drop-Dead Simple Guide a couple of years ago, but its lessons remain useful. I subscribe to the Kindle Daily Deal, and most of the e-books I do pay for I buy at a discounted price. (Old habits die hard.)

The whole question of how to get boys to read books is of course thoroughly fought-over terrain: see for instance Books for the boys. We all kind of “know” that young boys are less keen to sit quietly and read than their sisters; but so what? (Even if it’s true.) Janssen Bradshaw writing at Brightly (link via Shelf Awareness for Readers) tells of a list of recommended books helpfully compiled by his eleven-year-old daughter. They “were an even split between books with male protagonists and female protagonists. Still, many parents couldn’t fathom that their sons might enjoy these books because a girl recommended them.” With parents with that sort of wisdom, is it any surprise that kids often have difficulty growing up smart?

I’ve been wondering about this tweet from Neglected Books, a website I greatly admire: “I urge all literate men to set aside at least one year to reading only the work of women. I did it in 2015 and found it so mind-opening that I carried on for a second year”. I couldn’t decide whether this tweet raises an interesting question, or is just plain silly. Surely In order to find reading women authors a mind-opening experience, would I not need to have come from a place where I’d been intentionally reading only male authors? Which I don’t think I have. Well, of course I can check. Of the fifty books I managed to read in 2021, thirteen of them were by female authors. (I did finish the year strong with five of the last eight by women.) Am I in need of remedial work? I’ll have to think about this.

But are there any real differences between books written by men and women? What constitutes a man’s book as against a woman’s? I’m not sure I really know what’s different in Middlemarch as against let’s say The Old Wives’ Tale. I don’t mean that I find it hard to remember which one is which: I just find it hard to figure out what it is that might signal to me that one is written by a woman and the other by a man — and why I should care anyway. Not sure I’ve ever had the thought “Maybe I should read a book by a woman now” — or its opposite.

Are there more books by women than men or fewer? The Pudding has an article entitled The Gender Balance of The New York Times Bestseller List which crunches the numbers.

Of course this chart is only a reflection of bestsellerdom — might it be that lower down the sales ranking the picture would look different? The article hints that the gender imbalance goes right back to the publishing house. Or is it that men just churn out more manuscript than women rather than publisher prejudice? In any case it does seem that a bit of a convergence is under way. Even a genre like romance was heavily male-dominated in the fifties, but ratios are now reversed — as you can see in another chart at The Pudding piece.

Just read whatever you want. If it’s good, it’s good; if it’s not, too bad — but it won’t have anything to do with the gender of the author.

Let it never be said that we don’t care about purity and innocence in this country. We care deeply: it often seems to me that the less pure and innocent we as individuals are, the louder will we shout in defense of innocence and purity in others. There seems to be a concerted move on the part of ultra-conservative enthusiasts to take over school boards and ensure that no child be exposed to any radical political or social ideas in their school or its library. The idea that our youth could be exposed to ideas they might need to think about is just too terrifying for many Americans to contemplate. See here a CNN report on a recent book burning staged by a pastor in Tennessee seeing off such dangerous “accursed” printed matter as the Harry Potter books and Twilight. Thank god, we might sigh, that someone’s willing to step up and protect us from such evil!

Publishers Weekly has a historical piece on the subject of banning books by Harvey J. Graff. And here’s a second piece from the same source.

Calling for the banning of a book is one of the most efficient political acts you can carry out. Because the book in question is alleged to be evil, enthusiastic banners will know that the last thing you can afford to do is actually read it! Just keep it out of sight (and mind), or better, get rid of it, and we’ll all be safe, they seem to believe. The evidence — the book in question — which someone has asserted is wicked, should never be examined — that would be to encourage the very process we are all dedicated to avoiding. It’s all just like witch trials: chuck ’em in the pond: if they float they’re guilty, if they sink and drown then they were innocent. After all, these guys know that scientific research has proved to them that the only reason anyone might turn out to be LGBTQIA+ is because they read about it in a book! Is there a connection here between the lack of the ability to read a book, and an excessive respect for the power and effect of so doing?

Despite all the turmoil, we should note that a recent survey conducted by the American Library Association indicates that 71% of Americans oppose efforts to remove books for our libraries. That 29% make a lot of noise. (Who are those Independents?)

In 1982 the Supreme Court pronounced on the matter of banning books from schools in the case of Island Trees School District v. Pico, and reached a split decision ruling against the local school board and reinstating the books at issue, but leaving the legal issue tangled and unclear. In a broadcast at On the Media, Arthur Eisenberg, the lawyer who argued the case, regrets not having thought of arguing on the basis of the budgetary aspects of the school board’s activities, a money argument which might have created a precedent enabling us to avoid all today’s shenanigans.

The American Library Association keeps tabs on book banning. Their claim “Books usually are challenged with the best intentions — to protect others, frequently children, from difficult ideas and information” strikes me as going a bit too far. I cannot agree that protecting others from difficult ideas is in anyway a good reason for banning a book, and I think the ALA would really agree: they are just bending over backwards here to sound “fair”. One can see that a part (a good part) of the conservative impulse to prevent discussion of, for instance, gender identity is to spare children from distress. What also needs to be borne in mind though is the distress felt by a child who has to keep quiet about an issue which seems altogether fundamental to them. I don’t think people should ever be “protected” from ideas and information. We absolutely need to confront difficult issues and think (or discuss) our way through them. If a book exposes a child to ideas it is too young to take on board, then it won’t be able to take them on board. On the other hand, if the child can figure out what’s going on in the book, they’ll be perfectly able to deal with the ideas which are probably not altogether unfamiliar to them. What do parents imagine children talk about when they hang out together?

What real harm could anyone suffer from reading J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Toni Morrison’s The Beloved, or Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, four much banned volumes? You may not like them. You may resent having to think about some injustices. You may even disagree. But harm?

TODAY: Penguin Random House is organizing a virtual event this evening. Ibram X. Kendi, Nikole Hannah-Jones, and Nic Stone will lead the discussion at their Banned Books Virtual Event. To register for this free event click here.

See also Book burning.

Here’s a surprisingly interesting infographic from Global English Editing, forwarded by Book Patrol.

You can enlarge it by clicking on the image. Click twice!

For a more localized graphic see Reading habits from 2014.

Naomi Baron reports, in a talk to the New York Book Forum, that during the pandemic there has been a shift in students’ attitudes toward reading on screen. 23 minutes into her video talk she tells us that two thirds of responders said they get tired reading a lot on a digital screen and 53% missed reading more print.

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

Professor Baron’s research shows not only that comprehension and test results are better when print-based, but that students also prefer print to screen reading. I’m delighted to accept her findings, and to suppress my suspicions that if you ask students about how they’d prefer to read their study materials the answer will always be in some way, any way, please, please, any way which is different from the way we now have to do it! Best would be not having to read at all, or even better, study at all!

But what the optimal methodology may or may not be is probably irrelevant. I dare say sitting with a philosopher, well let’s not tip-toe around the issue, sitting there with Aristotle himself and going through the text of Nicomachean Ethics word by word with him might be the “best” way to understand the work, but frustratingly this methodology isn’t available to most of us. At the end of the day we study what we study in the ways we can. And if we can study Nicomachean Ethics by accessing it free online instead of going out in the wind and rain and plonking down a few dollars to buy a printed copy, I suspect that’s what most of us are going to do. We don’t live in a “chose the ideal” world, we live in a “whatever works” one. And nobody can argue that reading Aristotle in any which way is better than refusing to read Aristotle because you can’t persuade him to sit with you, or because you don’t own a copy of the Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy edition.

I’ve written about Professor Baron’s research before.

Clive Thompson has built a search engine designed to deliver random public domain books. He describes the effort at Medium (Link via Nate Hoffelder’s Monday Morning Coffee email).

This tool, which you can find here, is designed for serendipity, not for directed research. Keep your query simple and see what you get. Search for a single word, name, or place, or a simple concept. Don’t fancy the first hit? Do the same search again, and something else will come up. Warning: you can waste a lot of time reading the stuff that this app will deliver to you — but of course part of the charm is the suspicion that just round the next corner is something really worthwhile.