Archives for category: Reading

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.


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.

MIT has put together a writing bot which is churning out horror stories. BookRiot brought the news. Future Tense at Slate has an account. Shelley, as they have named the machine, after Mary Shelley, can be visited at this link. Shelley will generate stories in collaboration with readers, via its Twitter account. The stories can be read online, or on your Twitter feed if you prefer. Here’s an image of the beginning of one of the stories.

In a world where robots are already writing quite a lot of pieces in newspapers, I wonder what happens to copyright in such things. The case of Shelley is even more complex, being a collaboration partially written by a non-human. See Copyright for robots.



Photo from

Since 1865 torcedores, cigar rollers in Cuba have been being read to as they work. The lectores sit on a raised platform or a high chair and read from newspapers, magazines and books.

The Economist‘s story focusses on the H. Upmann factory in Havana, where their lector has read them The Count of Monte Cristo three times since she started working there in 1992. (Montecristo is one of their cigar brands.)

This short (fictional) film focusses on the troubles of a lector in Ybor City, Florida in 1924 dealing with the threat of radio. His edition of Robert Louis Stevenson looks suspiciously like a modern Barnes & Noble de luxe edition to me.

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

According to the Economist piece today’s Cuban lectores have coopted radio to broadcast their readings to cigar workers in other departments, those containing despalilladoras, rezagadores and escjedores who work in rooms other than the one in which the lector sits. There are still about 200 lectores at work, and UNESCO is considering making them part of Cuba’s cultural heritage.

Sure beats “Music while you work”, the background noise to mill work in my youth.

We are all inclined to judge our contemporaries, especially the younger generation, as lacking all discipline — strict adherence to which was of course so signally a feature of our youth. In particular we inveigh about shorter and shorter attention spans allegedly being visited upon our young people by social media and the internet.

In 1681 Richard Waller addressed himself “To the Reader” in a manuscript volume, The Poems of Albius Tibullus, advising his attention-span-challenged readers: “I have divided some of the Elegies into three or more Parts which I did to render them more taking and agreeable to the Genius of the Age; their length being tedious to a light, airie, & volatile witte.”

Our contemporary light, airy, and volatile Twitter-wits turn out to be rather similar to their confrères of 330 years ago. But old men are expected to be curmudgeonly and bitch about the genius of the age. Here’s George Steiner having a go in 2011: writing of the language of philosophy and poetry discussed in The Poetry of Thought, he allows as how “the vocabulary and grammar in which it is set out, are already archaic. . . They accord poorly with the reduction of literary texts on screens or the anti-rhetoric of the blog. . . The new technologies pluck at the heart of speech. In the United States, eight- to eighteen-year-olds log about eleven hours of daily engagement with electronic media. . . Silence and privacy, the classical coordinates of encounters with the poem and the philosophic statement, are becoming ideologically, socially suspect luxuries.”

Now that book is by no means an easy read (but it is nevertheless available out there and must be being read by some), but whatever Professor Steiner may say that’s not how the world looks to this anti-rhetorical blogger. When I was young I knew many a volatile wit, including myself — I can actually remember the moment at which I discovered that concentration was achievable. No doubt there are still lots of unwilling school-children, but the rates of frivolity and seriousness have to be similar to those in the past: human nature didn’t go through an evolutionary change in a generation. Indeed now I see both under- and post-graduate enrollment in universities at rates we’ve never had before, sales of books at record levels, mass audiences for poetry readings, more and more writing creative as well as functional, and serious philosophical engagement in unexpected places.

But pay attention all curmudgeons — the world is of course going to hell in a hand-basket.

Can it really be true that a Japanese bookshop/hotel allows you to sleep among the stacks? Publishing Perspectives tells us the unlikely story. I wonder how much reading in bed you are allowed to do? Guests falling asleep over an expensive volume and crushing it when they turn over during the night makes for significant stock-shrinkage risk.

Books are well established as sleep aids of course. We know of many a book which is all too effective in this regard, no matter what time of the day one engages with it. The BBC radio program, “A book at bedtime”, began in 1949 with a 15-part reading of The Three Hostages by John Buchan. The program was a steady presence in my childhood, though I don’t recall listening in any regular way. I do think this is a good use of the airwaves, especially now that audio books are gaining in popularity and respectability. Being read to is a great way to fall asleep (educators claim it as the foundation of children’s literacy, though I think they focus on the reading rather than the falling asleep). Reading in bed is also better for your mind than a sleeping pill: it often seems to take effect all too soon. Reading a print book is allegedly better for this purpose than e-book reading, though this bright screen effect is not something that seems to stop me dozing off.

If you don’t have the energy to do it yourself, and you can’t find anyone to read you to sleep here are several options reviewed by The Guardian. Of course the advantage of having a parent or other live person read to you is that they can stop when you doze off. The machine will just go on reading, leaving you to figure out where you’d got to — something which is often hard enough if you lose your bookmark while wide awake.

The Global Read Aloud program is introduced at Book List Reader. This year’s event kicked off on 2 October and ends on 10 November. The idea of Global Read Aloud is that groups of children around the world have the same book(s) read aloud to them, by librarians or teachers, and share follow-up projects and reactions with others elsewhere. The idea that kids may take to the book because of the on-line interaction is probably a good one. The organization claims that over 2 million kids have participated since the program’s inception in 2010. Of course the trick is to get the parents to stop regarding book reading as a school activity and figure out that this is a good idea which they themselves might take it up at bedtime.

In response to a comment to the post Mind games in June I wondered why nobody had capitalized on the fact that we are able to read text using only the top half of letters — the space saving would be huge. I thought I was making a joke, but here comes word from Jeff Peachey’s blog that The Mechanics’ Magazine, Museum, Register, Journal, and Gazette had announced on September 30, 1843 that someone had taken out a patent on this very idea.






I quote the issue date of The Mechanics’ Magazine carefully, because one might be forgiven for thinking that it really came out on April 1st.

It’s probably reassuring that there really isn’t anything new under the sun, though it would seem that nothing came of this patent — or are there condensed books lurking unread in the basements of deposit libraries awaiting discovery?

JetBlue (with Random House Children’s Books) started Soar with Reading in 2011. They are distributing 100,000 free books in Fort Lauderdale this summer. San Francisco has just won the vote to be the city in which they’ll give books away next year, beating out New York, Boston and Los Angeles. $2,750,000 worth of books have been donated since 2011.

Anything we can do to encourage children to read is clearly valuable.

Many a Book Token I received as a child in Scotland. They were never exactly what you wanted, as they carried that hint of “this will be good for you”, but they were obviously much better than socks or hand-kerchiefs. In those days the Book Token would be a little greeting card, costing 3d, into which the bookseller would stick a sort of postage-stamp-like thing which indicated how many pounds the purchaser had paid to their local bookshop, and thus the amount you could spend in your nearest shop. All bookshops accepted them in those days.

Book Tokens were first introduced in Britain in 1932; a brainwave of Harold Raymond, publisher at Chatto and Windus. Booksellers were skeptical, seeing the whole process as a fiddly additional cost. They were eventually mollified by the evident success of the scheme, and importantly by the additional discount they were granted on books thus sold. As Iain Stevenson tells us in Book Makers, “Part of the antipathy . . . arose from confusion with the gift vouchers provided by the tobacco manufacturers Wix and Sons with Kensitas cigarettes.” Among the gifts for which these cigarette “tokens” could be redeemed was a list of 450 different books. Booksellers pointed out that the cost of the cigarettes you’d need to buy in order to qualify for a free book came in many cases to less than the retail price of the book. This objection evaporated when Wix withdrew the vouchers in 1933.

Reverse of Lackington token. From Bryars & Bryars

As close readers of this blog may recall “book tokens” had in fact been invented rather earlier. In the late 18th century James Lackington at The Temple of the Muses, had issued medallion-like tokens which could be exchanged for books. Bryars and Bryars give more details of these tokens.


Book Tokens still exist in Britain, but unsurprisingly they are now little electronic debit card things. The National Book Tokens site provides a lot of information. We don’t have anything exactly similar over here in America: an Amazon gift card can be frittered away on anything, even, god save us, groceries! You can in fact buy a gift card for “mind food” — a subscription to Kindle Unlimited, but as the Amazon help page emphasizes you can trade it in for a general Amazon gift card if you don’t want to be lumbered with anything as boring as buying an ebook. In January The Digital Reader (and Shelf Awareness) reported on Amazon’s testing title-specific Kindle gift cards — I don’t know whether the test is still on-going, and what may have been learned. The Digital Reader post mentions a few other similar failed initiatives.


Howard Jacobson says children may become illiterate because of apps like Twitter. The Bookseller‘s headline writer reports him as saying that Twitter “will” make them illiterate. Does The Bookseller really think I wouldn’t have read the item without the scare headline?

As evidence for his already extravagant claim, Jacobson advances the fact that Twitter has ruined his own memory: has he considered that it may have something to do with his age? He will be celebrating his 75th birthday tomorrow!

To my mind literacy is literacy, and if you’re reading and writing Tweets, Instagrams, text messages, you are being literate. Of course we may be moving to a world where you won’t need to waste time keying in text and it’ll all come to you telepathically — or at least audibly. Maybe people will stop reading, but that’ll be because something easier/better has come along. Technological change is nothing more than change — something nervous conservatives seem to think of as terrifying. But even conservatives appear to have been able to bring themselves to take up smartphones.

As it happens the article points to research showing that “e-books positively impact teenage boys’ reading motivation and skills”.