Archives for category: Reading
Scene from White Lotus, a wild and crazy HBO series

Everyone knows that male genes equip us guys to recognize that a woman reading a book in public is only doing so because she really wants to get a guy to talk to her. Ever-chivalrous, we stand ready to relieve the terrible situation. LitHub brings us an extended examination of this phenomenon.

In defense of these guys — it is a truth universally acknowledged that women read more books than men. So for a non-reading idiot, doesn’t seeing someone of the opposite sex buried in a book carry an implied reproach — which calls for blustering self-justification. Testosterone is well known to enhance the rational functioning of the brain, so it’s no surprise that guys often manage to put two and two together to yield twenty-two. Alcohol acts as an efficient catalyst of testosterone in its brain-numbing action, but, whatever your gender, a bar is never a great place to try to read.

Ask a stupid question I responded to learning that The New York Times, as part of its celebration of a century and a quarter of its Book Review section, was asking its readers what the best book of the last 125 years might be.

Now the waiting is over; The Times has decided.

Well, there were certainly worse candidates on the short leet, so maybe we should be relieved that the winner is To Kill a Mockingbird. A well-loved book of course, a book read by lots and lots of schoolchildren in America (no doubt the reason for its vote-pull), but the best in any category other than “Books by Harper Lee“? At least it wasn’t A Gentleman in Moscow.

A disappointed Ulysses will just have to be content with whatever attention comes along with his centenary this year.

Mark Billingham, addressing the Cheltenham Literature Festival recently, decreed “That book has got to set its stall out in 20 pages. I used to be a stand-up. I couldn’t walk out on a stage at the Comedy Store and go: ‘Stick with me, I’ll get funny in about ten minutes.’ There has to be something within the first chapters that’s got me interested or hooked or engaged or, really, what’s the point?” Mr Billingham’s comment comes from Robert Gray’s column at Shelf Awareness; you need to scroll down all the way to get to it.

Maybe he’s a fast reader, but I think twenty pages is far too many. (Nancy Pearl is quoted as  advocating her Rule of 50.)  We used to joke that we were able to reject unsolicited manuscripts from the slush pile by simply looking at the first sentence! If still in doubt we’d turn to the end and read the last sentence. Sometimes that might actually be enough, but nobody could afford the time for twenty pages.

Mr Billingham “confessed to giving up on five out of every ten books he starts because ‘life’s too short . . .'” Noble aim, but one I find it hard to put into operation. Once you’ve invested the time to read twenty pages, there’s a sort of puritanical-work-ethic forcing you onward. OK a single sentence won’t do it, but a half dozen pages seems about the right amount to me — any more and your time budget starts insisting on being optimized by getting to the end. I start to speed up, to read only with the eyes as Arnold Bennett nicely puts it in The Old Wives’ Tale. After a few pages of skimming along though I have to admit just reading words without understanding is even more of a waste of time, and that a frank abandonment makes more sense.

Can’t be dealing with the sentimentality of Rupert Hawksley in The Independent: “It’s an insult to authors not to finish each and every book you start“. Just ‘cos you wrote it, don’t mean I gotta to read it. Isn’t buying the damn thing enough‽

See also One sentence is enough.

This is the season for those best book of the year lists. I bitched about this a couple of years ago.

The New York Times however invites us to vote on a much bigger question: what’s the best book of the past 125 years. “In October, editors at the Book Review asked you to help us choose the best book of the past 125 years. We received thousands of nominations — including novels, memoirs and poetry collections — from readers across the world. We narrowed those submissions down to 25 finalists.”

The list is shocking, though I suppose if you ask people a question like that you shouldn’t be too amazed to find the results slewed to the last decade: who can remember what they read twenty years ago. Many of them are perfectly good books; but contenders for “the best”? I’d say that any book you could name from 100 or more years ago would be better than two-thirds of the books on this list — in order to be remembered that long the book’d have to have something going for it, and I’m afraid some of the 25 have nothing. The oldest book is Ulysses (1922) followed by The Great Gatsby (1925) and Gone with the Wind (1936). Of course age is equally not a guarantee of quality, but I have read several of these recent books, and one, which shall be nameless, could get on my list of the worst books of recent years, certainly the most over-hyped. Another contender, Richard Powers’ Overstory (2018) is certainly a good book; but better than The Golden Bowl, The Red Badge of Courage, The Sound and the Fury, The House of Mirth, Sons and Lovers, etc., etc.? Well, it’s silly to expect anything meaningful from a newspaper survey I guess.

NPR, as they do every year, show lots of books of the year. Given that their list includes almost four hundred books it is more of a selection engine than a best book listing. I’ve mentioned this annual list before, under the heading Conciergerie. You can access their lists for previous years at the top of their page, and narrow your search by category buttons on the left hand side.

LATER: See Best of the best? for the outcome.

Paul Powlesland sends via Twitter these pictures of an enthusiastic attack on a paperback by some mice.

The book his mice devoured with such gusto was Robert Macfarlane’s The Old Ways. Mr Powlesland’s absence from his cabin evidently lead to a lack of crumbs being dropped on the floor, so what’s a mouse to do? Improvise. Strange, isn’t it though, that the mice seem have just torn out bits of paper, not actually consumed them? Were they looking for the good bits? It looks like the spine may have been a special target, and I guess this means the glue in the binding contained some nourishment, or maybe just tasted good.

The first picture puts me in mind of the discussion in a post of a few years ago, Is this a book? about whether individual pages or words scattered about still can be regarded as a book. If all the words are there do they really have to be in the right order to qualify? And what if some of them are in a mouse or two?

Cf. Taste in books.

Cabbie Blog brings us notice of a book of London cab prices from 1824. He runs a few calculations comparing 1824’s fares with today’s — pity the poor horses; they’re not that different. Before the taximeter was invented in 1891 (giving taxis their name: as a contraction of taximeter cab) London cab prices had either to be negotiated or looked up in The Hackney Coach Directory compiled by James Quaife. There’s a PDF at Google Books. The task of compilation was made more manageable than you’d imagine because cabs were only allowed to pick up passengers at 84 fixed locations. Extrapolations would be made for drop-off points not listed, and instructions on this are included in the introduction. Nonetheless the book contains 18,000 fares. 

Fares were calculated by distance travelled (though there are instructions on charges for waiting time) and the introduction helpfully tells us to “take the first coach or chariot on the stand; for the smallest extent of ground added to any fare mentioned in the book, will generally make it six-pence, and in some cases, a shilling more.” No mention is made of any kind of resentment by the guy at the head of the line if a cabbie at the back “stole” his fare, but the consequences might be expected to be serious. Still at a time when you could go from Bishopsgate to Herne Hill for 6/-, an extra 6d does seems significant. How did they measure distance before the taximeter? Not one assumes by the average length of the horses’s stride. Maybe they had one of those clicker things that counted the rotations of the wheel and multiplied by its circumference?

Hackney* doesn’t refer directly to the London Borough of Hackney — as far as anyone can be sure. The Oxford English Dictionary sort of waves its arms in despair, suggesting as etymology “Probably < the name of Hackney, formerly a village in Middlesex (now a borough in London; 1198 as Hakeneia , 1236 as Hakeneye ), probably with reference to supply of horses from the surrounding meadows.” which has all the marks of romantic fiction and wishful thinking about it. In my lifetime Middlesex was to the west of London, the borough, a horse of a different color, is in the east. However it does seem that Middlesex extended to the edges of Essex at one time (which is logical I guess), so perhaps Hackeneia is to be found in E8.

For readers affected by the romance of the taxi cab, Cabbie Blog also brings us a post reviewing a few novels featuring taxi cab drivers. He links to another one.


* The earliest use of the word “hackney” (13th and 14th century) is in reference to a horse used for riding — a hack in today’s usage, though that shortening is in itself quite early. Thence it moved to a horse for hire, and eventually to the whole kit and caboodle. Samuel Pepys is the source of the OED‘s earliest quotation using the word to refer to a cab, which he did in 1664.

Attempts to derive “hackney” from Anglo-Norman or ultimately Latin seem doomed to failure, as all hackney-type words in other European languages appear to originate significantly later than the Middle English word.

The metaphorical adjectival usage as in e.g. “a hackneyed phrase” is surprisingly early. OED’s earliest quote dates from 1590.

The Pew Research Center has done the research, and Shelf Awareness sends us the news.

Frankly the news seems rather encouraging to me. 77% of respondents had read at least one book. Of course we’ve no idea what “book” might mean to them all, or indeed whether they actually did finish (or even start) their book. That 23% group of non-readers is apparently exactly the same size as was discovered in the Pew survey of 2014. Should we have hoped for a decrease in the non-reader percentage? Probably not: seven years isn’t too long. Long term it’d seem inevitable to me that reading percentages would rise as more and more people receive more and more education.

A different Pew story tells us “Several years of Pew Research Center survey data indicate there has been little change in the share of adults consuming e-books or audio books. The new survey shows that 27% of Americans read an e-book in the past 12 months – up from 17% in 2011. But that figure is statistically similar to the size of the e-book reader population captured in a Pew Research survey in 2014. Audio book consumption has remained stable, with 12% of Americans saying they listened to a book that way.”

How many books are we talking about?

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

I also wrote about the Pew report in 2018.

This just makes sense — project the text on the ceiling for reading in bed. It’s perhaps not altogether surprising that the idea was acted upon during World War II for injured soldiers.

Here’s an email from Professor Matthew Rubery of Queen Mary University of London:

SHARP members in London are invited to a live demo of ‘projected books’ taking place on Saturday, 13 November 2021 at the Royal Hospital Chelsea. Here’s a brief description of the event:

Learn how to read on the ceiling using ‘projected books’, a little-known invention that made it possible for thousands of people with disabilities to read after the Second World War. This device consisted of a slide projector adapted to display images of microfilmed books above hospital beds to entertain military veterans while recuperating from war injuries. A live demonstration using one of the original Argus projectors will show how this technology worked before giving visitors a chance to try reading a projected book for themselves.

This will be an in-person, drop-in event held at the Royal Hospital Chelsea. It is part of the Being Human festival, the UK’s only national festival of the humanities, taking place 11-20 November 2021. For further information please see

Tickets are available here:

Baldwin, Michigan, Public Library reports on a donated projector they got in 1947. Apparently such microfilm books were published by the company Projected Books, Inc. from the 1940s through the 1970s.

Seems to me this idea needs to be adapted to work with your ebooks library on your iPhone. After all we can get alarm clocks that’ll project the time onto the bedroom ceiling.

Via The Passive Voice comes this reflection from The Atlantic on the ebook vs p-book disagreement.

The author, Ian Bogost of Washington University in St Louis cites lack of care and attention to design and structure as one of his beefs with the ebook. This is fair enough but is only significant (to me anyway) when it comes to non-fiction. Reading a clunkily designed story isn’t really much different than reading a layout beauty, but endnotes, graphs, tables, maps, cross references — forget about it! Professor Bogost goes on to allow himself to be a bit too dismissive of the production standards of self-published books. There are lots of self-publishers who care (one at least of whom is a regular reader of these posts), and there are, one has to confess, lots and lots of traditionally published books which appear to have had no in-house attention. One sometimes gets the impression that you need to be a bestseller to get a copyeditor assigned to you in a trade house — not I hasten to add that bestsellers are uniformly well written, or that the special consideration always works.

Bookishness seems to be the explanation for such attitudes. But not so much the conventional view of bookishness — which I think of as denoting someone who’s always reading a book and always loves to tell you about it. It’s what your basic attitude towards the word “book”. If your inner idea of a book involves paper etc., then it’s unlikely you’re going to want to read everything on the Kindle. If you think of a book as something wider ranging, either as anything that can be read like the a newspaper or a theater program, or just as “content”, then medium is likely to become almost irrelevant.

One cannot repeat it often enough, but publishers are not engaged in any battle against ebooks. Their attitude towards this format is governed by the fact that most people still want to buy the paper thing. More profit is available from an ebook, because reproduction costs are minimal, so in principle publishers should favor them, but if people won’t buy the things, what are you meant to do? Will things change? Of course — we just don’t have any idea in which direction they’ll change.

. . . went up 21% in the second half of 2020. Publishers Weekly shares the joyous news.

The information comes from The Bureau of Labor Statistics American Time Use Survey.

Of course we should be happy about so much more reading, but during shutdowns what else was anyone going to be doing anyway? And, just to keep us grounded, if not fully buried, the report goes on to confess “The data shows [sic] that reading of all kinds increased from just under 17 minutes per day in 2019 in the same timeframe to just over 20 minutes in the comparable period last year.” Hardly enough time to open the book and find your place.

And prepare to be depressed when you discover that the survey shows that television watching increased during the same time period by 19 minutes for an average total of 3.1 hours a day. Think how many book sales that amount of time spent reading might imply. Still business is booming on 20 minutes. Thank you.