Archives for category: Reading

Expenditure on reading has again declined. Does this matter?

The US Bureau of Labor Statistics tells us that for 2019 the average expenditure per household for all forms of entertainment reading (i.e. not textbooks, but including newspapers and magazines) was $92. Might we think that half of that $92 was spent on books? If so, I’d have thought that was a pretty decent sum all things being considered. There appear to have been 132,242 consumer units (what we’d call households) in America in 2019, so half of $92 multiplied by households would come to over $6 million.* Don’t know about you, but I’ll settle for that.

Many see the news as a cause for concern and believe that the publishing industry should do something about it. In a piece by David Rothman at TeleRead Thad McIlroy scolds, “The book publishing industry largely sells to the same well-heeled audience, year after year. The audience increases slightly as additional literate graduates enter the reading world — then declines with the deaths of the heavy-reading seniors.” Yes, yes, traditional book publishing is a mature industry. Might be nice if we could look for mass increases in our customer base, but there are certain barriers to entry — you have to want to read a book, and be able to do so ( — which doesn’t just mean being capable of reading. You’ve got to have a bit of peace and quiet and quite a fair serving of spare time, as well as the wish and ability to concentrate on the task at hand. Plus of course it calls for a bit of surplus income. Would that all these things were more widely distributed in our population.) The overall market for books isn’t infinitely expandable — in fact I suspect we’ve gone about as far as we can go. As (and if) education rates increase, new recruits will be constantly available, but don’t look for leaps and bounds. Obviously we always have to be ready for “the deaths of the heavy-reading seniors”.

What isn’t at all clear is whether the $92 cited by the Bureau of Labor Statistics includes sales of self-published and indie-published books — I bet it doesn’t, as I don’t think there’s any real way to discover these numbers. Also the figures have, obviously, got to leave out of account reading of library books, borrowed books, found books, second-hand books, books you’ve owned for years and so on. They are reporting expenditures after all.

It’s always fun to have a go at publishing. It’s something you care about and it looks so inviting. But what is your target? What is publishing? When you address it there’s nobody there to hear. Publishing is made up of lots of individual companies, and each of these companies is made up of lots of different individual people. There’s no collective entity which can agree or disagree with your wish that publishing should do more market outreach, and thus no entity that can do anything about it. Does Mr McIlroy really think that Random House, The University of Chicago Press, The New Press, The American Chemical Society ,and so on should be spending money on outreach to non-readers? Why would they not focus their marketing expenditures on people who they think might e likely to buy their product. Industry associations do do a little outreach: Get Caught Reading still exists, though such initiatives really just end up preaching to the choir.

We’ll have to wait a year or so to get the 2020 numbers, but we all anticipate, don’t we, that expenditure on entertainment reading will have increased during our year of coronavirus?


* Oops. As all too frequently my grasp of large numbers manifests itself as a problem. As David Rothman gently points out in a comment “You need to add some zeros to when you talk about “132,242 consumer units” in the US. The correct number would be 132,242,000. Times $46, that would be $6.07 billion.” A somewhat bigger number! I once had a boss who used to tell me ” Don’t tell me it’s a large number of dollars — give me the number”.

May not be your cup of tea (nor mine) but fan fiction is wildly popular. So popular that Vice’s Motherboard tells us that users crashed one of the main sites, Archive of our own recently. (Link via Kathy Sandler’s Technology • Innovation • Publishing.) Apparently fan-fic has been becoming more and more popular all through 2020. Will this end up being one of these lockdown trends which turn into a permanent feature of our lives? Like maybe remote working, Zoom meetings, grocery deliveries and mask-wearing?

When I wrote about the serialized novel in 2015, I was focussing on printing books in chapter lots. I wasn’t thinking that there was going to be an app designed to deliver books to you in 20 minute segments. Mashable, via The Digital Reader, now tells us about Serial Reader. Once we get back to commuting, this sort of episode-based reading might well be attractive. If you have a twenty-minute journey maybe this service would fit the bill, though most people’s commutes are I suspect longer than that — and then you’ve got the journey home too. Still I guess I could see reading a book one way on the subway every morning without getting too impatient for the next installment.

Publishing books in installments has of course got a long history, but we keep discussing it as if it was a gift brought to us by the wonders of the internet. See for instance Wired‘s article about Serial Box, an audiobook equivalent, delivered via Book Business Magazine. Do we not remember that Dickens’ novels were published in weekly installments, as was The Turn of the Screw (in Colliers Weekly)? Just because we do things one way now, doesn’t mean we were unable to figure out other ways in the past.

American Libraries Magazine brings us a brief report (via Kathy Sandler’s Technology • Innovation • Publishing.): “Overdrive reports that libraries all over the world collectively loaned more than 289 million ebooks in 2020, a 40% increase from 2019. Audiobooks also gained last year, but not as much as ebooks because people were commuting less. The report says 138 million audiobooks were checked out in 2020, a 20% increase from 2019.”

Now let us not be beguiled into over-interpreting this information, either as evidence of digital triumph or as presaging the death of print. Remember that most libraries were shut for most of the past year, and the library borrowing of physical books, in so far as it was allowed to take place, was hedged about with all sorts of restrictions. Thus we would expect people to have increased their borrowing of ebooks: it was just so much easier than getting hold of a printed library book. It does seem that reading qua reading had a bumper year in 2020 as we all looked around for things to do while stuck at home.

Whether this “preference” for ebooks will turn into a permanent change of behavior remains to be seen. No reason to fear such an outcome however — publishers are in the business of facilitating reading after all. And librarians always have storage problems for all those print books. Still, for myself, I suspect things will revert to the norm when we are all liberated.

It is true of course that book publishers are still feeling our way forward on the “right” terms under which they should supply ebooks to libraries. We can work it out.

The Wine Society advises us that RLS called wine “bottled poetry”. They provide a few literary wine references. No doubt you can come up with others.

“Accept what life offers you and try to drink from every cup. All wines should be tasted; some should only be sipped, but with others, drink the whole bottle.”
Paulo CoelhoBrida

“As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture, and as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans.”
Ernest HemingwayA Moveable Feast

“Wine initiates us into the volcanic mysteries of the soil, and its hidden mineral riches; a cup of Samos drunk at noon in the heat of the sun or, on the contrary, absorbed of a winter evening when fatigue makes the warm current be felt at once in the hollow of the diaphragm and the sure and burning dispersion spreads along our arteries, such a drink provides a sensation which is almost sacred, and is sometimes too strong for the human head. No feeling so pure comes from the vintage-numbered cellars of Rome; the pedantry of great connoisseurs of wine wearies me.”
Marguerite YourcenarMemoirs of Hadrian

“The fragrant odour of the wine, O how much more dainty, pleasant, laughing (Riant, priant, friant.), celestial and delicious it is, than that smell of oil! And I will glory as much when it is said of me, that I have spent more on wine than oil, as did Demosthenes, when it was told him, that his expense on oil was greater than on wine.”
François RabelaisGargantua & Pantagruel

“I rejoiced in the Burgundy. It seemed a reminder that the world was an older and better place than Rex knew, that mankind in its long passion had learned another wisdom than his.”
Evelyn WaughBrideshead Revisited

‘A Drinking Song’
Wine comes in at the mouth
And love comes in at the eye;
That’s all we shall know for truth
Before we grow old and die.
I lift the glass to my mouth,
I look at you, and I sigh.
W.B. Yeats

“. . . There’s wisdom in wine, goddam it!’ I yelled. ‘Have a shot!’”
Jack KerouacThe Dharma Bums

I often wondered what Hippocrene was — though clearly not enough to look it up: it would appear that the dull brain perplexes and retards in this context too. (It’s actually a spring on Mount Helicon, sacred apparently to the muses.)

O for a beaker full of the warm South
Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene,
With beaded bubbles winking at the brim,
And purple-stained mouth;
That I might drink, and leave the world unseen,
And with thee fade away into the forest dim.

As far as I can discover Hippocrene doesn’t actually bubble forth in the form of red wine as Keats seems to imply.

If you want to get in on this book/wine, wine/book thing, maybe you (if female) could join the Book & Wine Club. They say they have groups in New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami, Washington DC, Philadelphia, Portland, Raleigh, and Toronto. I would imagine their activities are a bit restricted just now though.

This site might be good as a quizzy pastime, as well as a way to generate suggestions of different new books to read. Recommend me a book invites you to read the first page of a book and then guess what book it is. You can go on and on.

Actually I do think reading the first page is good way to recognize a book you might want to read. (I found a couple.) In dealing with the pile of manuscripts which would come in over the transom publishers often/usually would make their assessment on the basis of the first sentence — if it doesn’t make you want to read on, you don’t. If it does, you’d next look at the last page. Attention piqued? Back to page one and start in again.

Link via Book Riot.

Take any data set and slice and dice, and you can come up with whatever you want, so of course you shouldn’t put too much weight on this research into generational differences in reading preferences. Even the definition of generations is a variable. Still, The Passive Voice gives us this list of reading preferences by generation which originates at the BookBaby Blog.

  • Gen Z prefers fantasy to other genres.
  • Millennials read more books than other generations.
  • Gen X reads more online news than other generations.
  • Baby Boomers rely on best-seller lists to find their books.
  • The Silent Generation spends the most time reading each day.
  • A preference for physical books spans all generations.

Perhaps it’s not too surprising that the silent generation would spend most time reading: after all if you are chatting all the time it’s hard to focus on your book. (Plus of course, more obviously, the silent generation is now the retired generation, so much time is available.)

This information is gleaned from this infographic created by Best By the Numbers.

St Jerome translated the Bible into Latin: his version is now referred to as The Vulgate. He also wrote commentaries on the Gospels: maybe he is being shown here making a note on one of the Gospels while working in his garden. Not everyone of course would chose to prop up their copy on a skull.

Trinity College, Cambridge. Crewe 167.24. The portrait of St Jerome: an engraving by Francesco Bartolozzi, after a red chalk drawing by Guercino

Picture from Trinity College Library’s blog.

Jerome, Eusebius Sophronius Hieronymus, was born around 347AD at Stridon on the border between Dalmatia and Pannonia (in Bosnia today).  Artists love to depict St Jerome in a desert setting, often accompanied by a lion, and why wouldn’t they? The pull of the exotic is ever strong. However he seems to have spent only about five years of his 70+year life in the wilderness. His hermit service was spent in the desert at Chalcis, 25km southwest of Aleppo, and about the same distance southeast of Antioch. Chalcis seems to have been a bit of a crowded desert site, as it was a popular place for hermits to hang out. How many hermits can gather in a smallish desert and still count as socially distancing? While he was there in his cave he gave up reading the classics and set to learning Hebrew. The Oxford Dictionary of Saints tells us that Jerome “had a difficult, cantankerous temperament and a sarcastic wit which made him enemies.” He seems to have travelled quite widely in Gaul, Dalmatia, Syria, Rome, Constantinople. He started his standard Latin text of the Bible in Rome (382?) where he stayed but three years, becoming then a sort of tour guide to a group of Christian ladies. As The Dictionary puts it “His relationship with them gave rise to scandalous gossip, largely unjust”. (One has to wonder about the force of that “largely”.) One these Christian ladies ended up founding a convent in Bethlehem in which Jerome spent the remaining years of his life as a monk. In 420 he died there and was buried in Bethlehem, beneath the church of the Nativity, though his body was subsequently moved to Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome.

He was canonized in 1767 and his feast day is 30 September — so I’m posting this a week too late. Sorry.

St Jerome is apparently patron saint of librarians and libraries as well as archivists, translators and encyclopedists. It seems this library honor is also claimed for St Catherine of Alexandria (the one who was broken on the wheel, the symbol of my College, which however spells her name with an “a”.) No problem — I guess you can’t get too much supernatural assistance in sorting out your shelving system. St Catharine was demoted from sainthood in 1969 on the grounds that she probably never existed, but was reinstated in 2002.

For a short time (how short I’ve no idea, but the clock started ticking on 27 September, so act soon) the 92nd Street Y is allowing you to watch Jeremy Irons reading T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. They also provide a link to a 1950 reading by Eliot of some of his poems. Here’s a YouTube recording of the poet/publisher reading his Four Quartets:

Don’t see a video here? Please click on the title of this post in order to view it in your browser.

Eliot’s reading is, perhaps understandably, quite different from Irons’ version. In keeping with modern sensibilities Mr Irons reads the poems in an almost conversational tone, and to my ears does an excellent job. Unsurprisingly he makes one or two trivial slip ups — changing an “a” to a “the”, or omitting an article here or there. He has to backtrack a couple of times to correct a misread word, but the effect is not at all distracting: you’d do this yourself after all. Only once does he provide what I take to be the wrong emphasis. Eliot employs “poet voice” though certainly nothing like the full-blown exaggeration of the Carl Sandburg reading I linked to in my post of that name!

Four Quartets has a peculiar significance in my life. When I left Britain to come over to New York in 1974, my colleagues had a whip-round and bought me a silver circlet which I’d wear on a leather thong around my neck in the days when I was a bit cooler than I now am. The circle has words inscribed on it from Burnt Norton. (The back says RJH · UK · USA · 1974.)

That I misidentified the source when presented with this tribute, tying it to W. B. Yeats’ “turning in a widening gyre”, remains a source of embarrassment — but hey, what are you going to do? I was just a production guy! With the Four Quartets emphasis on beginnings and ends I like to think the motto expressed a hope that I might come back from my “exile”.

Thanks to our friend Jadviga Villa for the link to the Jeremy Irons reading.

Looking for something off the beaten track? BBC Culture has got Cameron Laux to ask a bunch of writers for nominations for a list of the best early novels you’ve never heard of. (Link via Shelf Awareness for Readers.) One or two of the books were familiar to me: we even read Machado de Assis’ The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas in our departmental book discussion group at OUP! Naturally they have an edition. Well worth a look. — Surprised there’d be a Stock Planning Department book club? Hey; we’re in book publishing!

It goes without saying that there must be any number of novels you’d enjoy reading but never will. Of course we’ve not got the time, even these days, but many excellent books just end up being forgotten. This was the original impetus behind the New York Review Books Classics series, which started out bringing back into print good books which had dropped off the radar. Almost everyone’s got a candidate or two for resurrection. Neglected Books provides a valuable service in this area. If you just kept up with their output of newly rediscovered works, you’d be busy, busy, busy; and very well read.

Not great (mostly) and not all forgotten — but undeniably good value at $1.99 — is the Kindle “book”, 20 Must Read Classic British Mystery Novels. From the sublime of Conrad’s The Secret Agent and Ford’s The Good Soldier, to the less than sublime The Paradise Mystery by J. S. Fletcher, you’ll be happy for months: and all at 10¢ a book.