Archives for category: Reading

“Reading novels needs almost as much talent as writing them” as radical writer X. Trapnel used to say. Even if not sitting there looking over the reader’s shoulder, an author must wish for a reader who will bring completion to the work offered up in hope.

In his cabin by Walden Pond Henry David Thoreau reflected that “To read well, that is, to read true books in a true spirit, is a noble exercise . . . It requires a training such as the athletes underwent, the steady intention almost of the whole life to this object. Books must be read as deliberately and reservedly as they were written.”

To a large extent I look on my university education as a training for reading novels. Not that I was tasked with reading a single novel written in English while I was there: it’s just that “education” is/used to be all about beefing up your critical faculties. My education (and life) seem to me to have prepared me for little more than the reading of books. Not that I’m complaining: it’s nice work if you can get it  — just hard to find someone to pay you a large wage for it. Obviously work in a publisher’s office is a good option: I can remember rubbing my hands together and giggling to myself “They’re paying me to read books; and before anyone else is able to read them too!” One is overwhelmed by the sight of a publisher’s reader like Edward Garnett directing the likes of Conrad and Lawrence to make this or that cut, such and such a rearrangement in the first drafts of texts which are now iconic. And they’d meekly follow his direction! Of course a hundred years makes a big difference in the fame and authority of an artist — Conrad and Lawrence had yet to become giants — but still . . .

Readers, even readers long after publication, can be said to have a role in creating the work of art: an intelligent, sensitive reading will make a novel come alive in ways it never could if just read through for the story only, or more extremely, just left unopened! Ralph Waldo Emerson was onto this. In “The American Scholar” he tells us “There is then a creative reading as well as a creative writing.” Kurt Vonnegut neatly described reading as “the only art form in which the audience plays the score”. John Cheever said “I can’t write without a reader. It’s precisely like a kiss — you can’t do it alone”. The reader is an essential part of the tale. Almost inevitably there’s now a branch of literary theory called reader-response criticism which maintains that only when the reader engages with the text is its real existence activated. This critical stance would seem to demand that you consider a large number of independent works of art all budding forth from the author’s single root stock: one for every creative reader. This must make the writing of criticism quite difficult, as you would logically need to talk to everyone who’s ever engaged with the text before you can confidently assert what it is!

But should the reader’s role extend back into the writing process? Here’s a piece by Vanessa Lafay about using readers’ reactions to inform the writing process. Crowdsourcing is easy enough nowadays, but is it a good idea when it comes to the creative arts? Yes, no doubt, if your primary motivation is to write a book which will sell more copies; probably not if you hope for literary immortality, though lightning can of course strike in the most unlikely places.


Since they’ve been incorporated into the Common Core documentation, Lexile scores are being printed on more and more children’s books as a supposedly value-free method of indicating reading level. As the Lexile website says “In order to Lexile a book or article, text is split into 125-word slices. Each slice is compared to the nearly 600-million word Lexile corpus – taken from a variety of sources and genres – and words in each sentence are counted. The sentence length and difficulty of the vocabulary is examined throughout the book. These calculations are put into the Lexile equation. Then, each slice’s resulting Lexile measure is applied to the Rasch psychometric model to determine the Lexile measure for the entire text.” (The use of “Lexile” as a verb perhaps reduces one’s confidence in the ability of these guys to adjudicate on reading.)

The difficulty of a book may not just be down to its sentence length and vocabulary, which is what Lexile measure, though they are quite up-front about this. The Digital Reader calls the whole thing into question because of some admittedly fairly surprising results. Still a guide is just a guide. There may be features other than Lexile score which might lead a teacher to assign To Kill a Mockingbird over Mr Popper’s Penguins.


I suppose this is all valuable in some sort of way. Standardizing our assessment tools is a laudable aim. But I can’t buck the feeling that a teacher, a parent, a friend, reading with a child will be liable to know just as much about that child’s reading abilities as any amount of scientific-looking analysis can tell them. On an idiot level: if you only read stuff Lexile tells you you can read, how do you ever progress to reading something more complicated? Struggling with unfamiliar vocabulary is something we all cope with, regardless of our age and experience. Still, we live in an age where having teachers think for themselves is seen as a danger: we appear to need to control everything.

Rudyard Kipling wrote lots about dogs. Here’s a piece from Interesting Literature analyzing his poem:

The Power of the Dog

There is sorrow enough in the natural way
From men and women to fill our day;
And when we are certain of sorrow in store,
Why do we always arrange for more?
Brothers and sisters, I bid you beware
Of giving your heart to a dog to tear.

Buy a pup and your money will buy
Love unflinching that cannot lie
Perfect passion and worship fed
By a kick in the ribs or a pat on the head.
Nevertheless it is hardly fair
To risk your heart for a dog to tear.

When the fourteen years which Nature permits
Are closing in asthma, or tumour, or fits,
And the vet’s unspoken prescription runs
To lethal chambers or loaded guns,
Then you will find – it’s your own affair, –
But … you’ve given your heart to a dog to tear.

When the body that lived at your single will,
With its whimper of welcome, is stilled (how still!),
When the spirit that answered your every mood
Is gone – wherever it goes – for good,
You will discover how much you care,
And will give your heart to a dog to tear!

We’ve sorrow enough in the natural way,
When it comes to burying Christian clay.
Our loves are not given, but only lent,
At compound interest of cent per cent,
Though it is not always the case, I believe,
That the longer we’ve kept ’em, the more do we grieve;
For, when debts are payable, right or wrong,
A short-time loan is as bad as a long –
So why in – Heaven (before we are there)
Should we give our hearts to a dog to tear?

Kipling, obviously, often wrote about animals, introducing us all to Indian wildlife. He was a dog lover and unsurprisingly wrote about dogs because doggy books always appeal to a large public. Thy Servant a Dog, which Kipling published in 1930, is one I recall from childhood  — a bit too sentimental.

There’s a bit of a vogue nowadays for more scientific investigations of dogs (and other creatures). I learned a lot from Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know by Alexandra Horowitz, the title of which is based on Groucho Marx’s alleged remark*: “Outside of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend. Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read.” Dogs sell books. I recently heard of one publisher’s entire inventory being cleaned out because some celebrity recommended their book as one of the ten best books about dogs. Word of mouth is always the best publicity, but you can’t beat barking from a celebrity mouth.


* No one seems able to pinpoint the original Marxian source. Quote Investigator suggests that someone else (a certain Jim Brewer) was in fact the originator.

Mike Shatzkin has caught the bug. His latest post at The Idea Logical Company is entitled “The written word is losing its power and will continue to”. What is it that makes these literate guys lose all hope in what they claim is such an important part of their world? Is Mr Shatzkin just feeling guilty about watching too much TV recently? Has he too become obsessed with curling?

David L. Ulin in his The Lost Art of Reading (a title fortunately contradicted by his text) quotes Nicholas Carr moaning “I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory.” He doesn’t notice any incongruity in expressing this brain-dead claim in the course of writing a 300-page book, self deprecatingly called The Shallows. Come off it guys. Why is it only good to read in the way you were brought up reading? There is in fact much more reading going on today than ever before. Does it really matter how long the texts involved are, or what the words used are describing? Reading seems to me to be reading. If you want to complain that not enough kids are reading Swiss Family Robinson, go ahead: just don’t expect too many people to pay any attention to you.

The literal meaning of “the written word” does not have to mean just words written on paper — amazingly enough there’s writing on other things like . . . oh, I don’t know; maybe TV screens, busses, walls, sandy beaches, packages of lettuce, and of course the internet. According to Mr Ulin, “In December 2009, a study by the Global Information Industry Center at the University of California, San Diego, found that, ‘in 2008, Americans consumed information for about 1.3 trillion hours, an average of almost 12 hours per day. Consumption totaled 3.6 zettabytes and 10,845 trillion words, corresponding to 100,500 words and 34 gigabytes for an average person on an average day.’ One hundred thousand words is the equivalent of a three-hundred-page novel.”

Just let that sink in. The equivalent of a three-hundred-page novel. Every day. Everyone.

This has to be an exaggeration of course. A UC, San Diego discussion, where the report can be downloaded as a PDF, reveals that 67% of the bytes are consumed as games, while 41% of Americans’ “information hours” are spent watching TV, while 16% are spent on the internet. But just because it’s labelled “game” or “TV” doesn’t mean that there’s no reading involved. Still, we might cautiously see the daily word intake as a 300-page novel with 60% illustration, so it might look more like a 300-page graphic novel or a 120 page novel.

Human nature makes us react to that reduction from a 300-page novel to a 120-page novel by saying “I knew that was all nonsense”. But, hold on a minute: can you credit every American reading the equivalent of a 120-page novel every day? Reading has never had it so good.

Every generation grows old to bitch about the generations following after them who are, by doing things their own way, quite obviously doing things wrong. But notice over the last few days how quickly the #NeverAgain movement has gained momentum after the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting and become a real force simply by responsible use of social media — and all this achieved by those teenagers we’ve loved to write off as being totally lost to the world because they never take their faces out of their smart phones. And of course the curmudgeons all know that these kids never read, because reading text messages is not what they think of when they think of reading!

We’re all still reeling a bit from Hachette CEO Arnaud Nourry’s casually dropped judgement from his recent interview with Scroll, to the effect that “The ebook is a stupid product. It is exactly the same as print, except it’s electronic. There is no creativity, no enhancement, no real digital experience.” However, reading on, I’m forced to the conclusion that what Mr Nourry really thinks is stupid is not the ebook itself so much as book publishers’ attempts to develop it; that the ebook as we’ve presented it is “unintelligent” — lacks the intelligence that the digital format so obviously invites. As he goes on to say: “I’m convinced there is something we can invent using our content and digital properties beyond ebooks but I reached the conclusion that we don’t really have the skills and talents in our companies because publishers and editors are accustomed to picking a manuscript and creating a design on a flat page. They don’t really know the full potential of 3-D and digital. So we acquired three video game companies in the last two years to attract talent from different industries and see how we can nurture one another and how we can go beyond the ebook on digital. We need to offer different experiences to our consumers.” 

Now of course a man in charge of a world-wide media conglomerate should one might assume be able to express himself clearly and without ambiguity. To say the ebook is stupid is really no different from saying the paperback format is stupid. It just doesn’t have a lot of meaning. Worse, it provides a red rag to the commentariat who can read Mr Nourry’s remark as another example of publishers’ benighted prejudice against the digital hordes. So glaringly obvious is this “error” that one is tempted to assume that Mr Nourry may in fact have been misquoted: surely, whatever you might believe about the relative desirability of print and digital, it’s unlikely that “stupid” would be the word you’d choose.

It is true that the ebook hasn’t really changed anything much — access yes, but the basic experience, not so much. Reading an ebook or a print book ends up being basically the same experience: it’s the book that you’re reading, and the effect on you of War and Peace is liable to be very similar whether you read it on an iPhone, on a Kindle, as a hardback, as a paperback or even as an audiobook. The economics of TV and cinema make watching War and Peace quite different though, and what Mr Nourry is perhaps stumbling towards is a book-based product which differs from the original to a similar extent. Not sure I feel in need of such a thing, but of course I don’t really know what I’m talking about as it hasn’t been invented yet.

It’s not that people aren’t trying. “Between the web and social media, I read more than I ever have — and yet I read fewer books than ever. Reading over all my notes about the future of reading, I see I have reported it out of hope that books will evolve to repair what other technologies have started to break: my ability to concentrate over hundreds of pages.” Thus Casey Newton in his pean to Amazon on The Verge. His piece reports on developments under way at the Kindle lab in Sunnyvale, CA. I must admit that such changes as he mentions seem incremental rather than transformative. Transformative seems however to be what Craig Mod is after (and perhaps Mr Nourry). In his much referenced piece at Aeon Mr Mod blames Amazon for not developing the Kindle more than they have. Fiona Smith-Strickland echoes Mod’s complaint at Gizmodo. Mod shows (at the very end) one fairly dramatic ebook development at Bret Victor’s Communications Design Group research laboratory in San Francisco. But who is going to pay for this sort of work? These sorts of thing are always nice as R&D, but in the real world people probably just aren’t willing to fund them by paying more for their ebooks, are they? Not me, anyway.

Echoing Casey Newton’s plaint, Hugh McGuire says he now can’t read more than four books a year in this Medium piece. He defines his “problem” thus:

  1. I cannot read books because my brain has been trained to want a constant hit of dopamine, which a digital interruption will provide
  2. This digital dopamine addiction means I have trouble focusing: on books, work, family and friends.

People like to write this sort of stuff, but it doesn’t have to mean what they think it means. This inability to concentrate on a book is blamed by the writer on the internet and the pleasure hit he gets when he follows up a link. But there’s really a much simpler explanation: he has two daughters, aged four and two. What reasonable human being thinks there’s any chance of their reading more than four books a year under these conditions? Your focus (thank goodness, Hugh) is elsewhere. The solutions you propose for your supposed problem are radical (no TV after dinner? — What about the World Series?) and they will help, but not in the way you think. They’ll help because with kids you need more sleep.

Of course all this will have settled down and seem quaint when we have moved on and invented the “whizzblook” or whatever the as yet uninvented electronic extension of the book book turns out to be named. I’m sure the invention will happen, just as I’m sure it’ll have as little to do with books as movies do today. After the “whizzblook” has come along I suspect book publishers will get on with publishing their books pretty much as they do today in all the stupid formats we’ve learned to love: hardback, paperback, ebook, and anything else we will have dreamed up by then.

Isn’t it likely to be simpler just to get another pillow? But this photo does indicate one of the difficulties of reading in bed: posture. Still, like so many things, if you are used to half-an-hour’s reading every night with your head propped up and neck bent forward, you will quickly get used to it. The fact that these fancy glasses never caught on suggests that they were indeed the solution to a non-existent problem. Heavy books do present a challenge for the bed reader (just as they do in the subway).* Still, if you’re deeply engaged in the book the balancing act you have to perform with that 1,000-page volume will recede into irrelevance. Last November Robert Gray had a nice piece about reading in bed at Shelf Awareness. Read it at his blog, Fresh Eyes Now.

I wonder if there are any physical commonalities with books for bed reading: do people chose thin volumes over massive tomes. For myself I can detect no avoidance of heavy books, though I probably tend to steer away from heavy (in the sense of serious subject matter, requiring constant thought and analysis) for bedtime reading. But of course, if I’m fascinated by this book on quantum mechanics, I’m not not going to read it at every available moment.

Author Howard Jacobson (who shockingly confesses to having abandoned reading in bed in favor of television) calls  in his Guardian piece for someone to write a history of reading in bed. Tough research project for a book history grad student looking for a thesis subject! Is he generalizing from his own experience when he claims that the practice has declined overall? Until the research is done we won’t know (if then, since historical data will be recoverable only via unreliable often boastful memory) but my bet is that the amount of reading in bed hasn’t declined at all. We readers should never forget that reading is a minority interest — not because of smartphones, but because it always was, and always will be. There have always been relatively few readers, and thus also relatively few readers-in-bed. There’s no way to reach any conclusion about numbers — but of course demography is our friend here: if 10% of people read in bed, that means that there are many more of them today than there were 50 years ago. That we continue to think of reading in bed as a sort of norm is evidenced by the first question in the New York Times Book Review‘s weekly column “By the Book” which is always “What books are on your nightstand?”. One may be able to detect a slight tendency for self-aggrandizement in the answers given: there’s certainly no shortage of heavy tomes.

Having been brought up in the north, reading in bed, seasonally at least, was almost unavoidable. If you have to go to bed at 9pm you’ve still got a good hour, hour and a half of summertime daylight to encourage you to keep going. I remember (no doubt in the winter) a lot of under the bedclothes with a torch (flashlight) reading too. I suspect — well, more than suspect, insist — that adult reading in bed is merely a continuation by alternate means of being read a bedtime story by a parent. We all acknowledge how important in the making of a reader is that parental service: I think I can remember (though I really know I can’t) the moment when I told my mother not to bother, I’d take over from here on.

Now those purveyors of sleep, hotels, are more aggressively getting into the book business. Some are furnishing their rooms with books which they will be happy to sell you, having a small inventory in the cellar. Here’s Bustle telling us of room-book-service at a Paris hotel. Is a hotel room with a few books not bibliophilic enough for you? Then you’ll relish the news from Atlas Obscura that you can book a room in William Ewart Gladstone’s library in Hawarden, Wales. The Poetry Brothel appears to be aiming in a slightly different direction, one which doesn’t involve beds.


* Actually I think big thick, oversized books present a problem anywhere really. Maybe we can get some requirement added to our next copyright revision law that books may not weigh more than 1 or 2 pounds. War and Peace in three volumes is a much preferable offering (to me anyway) than one single podgy book. Costs more of course.

The statistics we get given tend to focus on “the number of people who have read a book in the last year” which never really means very much to me. There are books and books, and readers and readers. Looking up Akita and Doberman Pinscher in The American Kennel Club’s Complete Dog Book is a bit different from reading War and Peace from cover to cover, but both of course would count as “reading a book”. Robert Gray had a piece in Shelf Awareness last December about Christmas gift books for non readers which may be found at his blog Fresh Eyes Now. I guess that converting a non-reader into a reader would rank as a good deed, however reluctant the non-reader might be to agree that being made to take up a novel was a good thing. Mr Gray reports on the regular seasonal query “I need to find a book for my uncle.” — “What kinds of books does he like?” — “Oh, he doesn’t read.” Still, it must be worth keeping trying: as he says, a Gary Snyder poem at the right moment can be transformative.

“I was impressed for the ten thousandth time by the fact that literature illuminates life only for those to whom books are a necessity. Books are unconvertible assets, to be passed on only to those who possess them already.” Thus Anthony Powell* in The Valley of Bones, which is the seventh novel in A Dance to the Music of Time; surely the only dodecology in mainstream English literature — though there does also appear to be a series called Dead Song Legend Dodecology by the determinedly prolific Jay Wilburn. However he appears thus far not to have written beyond Number 4.

I guess it is true that you can’t impress a non-book-person by citing bookish evidence. They will either not notice, or, if they do realize you are referencing a book, believe that you are being condescending (which you probably are anyway). At the most trivial level there’s no point in remarking to someone that a person is behaving a bit like Emma Bovary, if your interlocutor has never heard of or read the book. Nick Jenkins, the narrator of A Dance to the Music of Time spends a lot of time keeping quiet about his being an author, that being a red rag to the bulls he moves among especially in the wartime army.

The American philosopher Richard Rorty described the novel as “the characteristic genre of democracy, the genre most closely associated with the struggle for freedom and equality”. He believed that reading novels was a primary way of gaining understanding of fellow humans of types we might not encounter in our daily life, and that this consequently enabled us better to deal with them. Hard, to me, to argue with that, but then books are to me a necessity, and (mostly) readily convertible assets.

If hitting people over the head with a book is no way to influence their thinking, how much less must be writing about the making of these unconvertible assets. Of course I never expected there would be a large audience for my lucubrations on the making of books (of which fortunately there is no end: Ecclesiastes 12.12. But do beware: much study is a weariness of the flesh). I am very grateful for the select, but far from insignificant group of readers who follow this blog.


* Pronounced “Pole”, of course. The only other time I’ve known the name pronounced that way was Powell House at school, which we tended perhaps more to pronounce as “Poe-ull”.

The Ladies’ Book Society, Clitheroe, of which Antiquates reports in their sale catalog that they could “find no information, was evidently a well organised and relatively affluent concern, with printed distribution lists, specific rules for the length of time allocated for reading (generally a week per volume), and meetings ‘the second Thursday in April and October’. Books were distributed in a certain order – apparently passed on between the members – although manuscript annotations to the printed lists suggest occasional variation was acceptable. The distribution lists suggest a largely bourgeois membership; however it should be noted that social order was clearly upheld, with one ‘Lady Ribblesdale’ (presumably Adelaide Lister, d. 1838) appearing at the head of the only list design that contains her name.”

Books at the time (1824-29) were usually sold in unbound form with their purchasers arranging for binding in leather in their own style. Here however we see in the photo at the bottom of this page, books bound in boards, presumably by the publisher, for use in provincial society in a reading group setting. One assumes that Miss Garnett, at the end of the list, was the lady organizing the whole thing, and that the books would end up with her. It’s actually a bit hard to see who got this book first: if it was really Mrs Carr, then it would seem it took exactly one year for the book to go around the whole Society. Maybe it actually began with Miss Helen Aspinall.

I suppose it’s possible that part of Miss Garnett’s duties would be arranging with a local bookbinder the cheaper binding up of the sheets. I imagine her driving the whole thing; calling on ladies in turn in order to pick up volumes and pass them on to the next lady on the list over tea. After all most of the script on the borrowing list appears to be from the same hand. I wonder if such reading club activity was ever described in a 19th century novel — surely it must have been.

Clitheroe is a smallish town on the Ribble,  35 miles northwest of Manchester, and no doubt the ladies in the Book Society were mostly supported by agriculture, cotton mills and the professions. Clitheroe Castle is reputed to be one of the smallest Norman keeps in England: a backhanded sort of distinction. I notice there’s a Miss Whalley on the list, while Miss Taylor lower down appears to live in Whalley, which is a village four miles south of the town. That Antiquates describes Clitheroe as being part of Georgian Yorkshire can surely not be right: the border between Yorkshire and Lancashire did jump about a bit in the Forest of Bowland, but surely Clitheroe must always have been well on the red-rose side of the line.

Link via Jeff Peachey.

Robert McCrum seems to be an inexhaustible list builder. Here’s his ongoing list at The Guardian of the 100 best nonfiction books written in English. He’s up to number 97. Reading this lot represents a serious commitment, but on you go.

He introduces the series on a BBC podcast which can be found here. His interview starts at about 22 minutes in.

A couple of years ago I reported on his 100 best novels list.

Three weeks later: Here’s the complete final list.

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

Link via The Scholarly Kitchen.