Archives for category: Reading

Twitter (who else) has told us the exciting news that our president has actually enjoyed a book. The man who claims to be too smart to need to read books has tweeted his appreciation of one — Reasons to Vote Democrat by Michael J. Knowles. The joke of course is that this is a blank book. Ha, ha, ha; or as he puts it “Ho! Ho! Ho!”, perhaps trying to elbow in on Santa-Clausian ratings. As The Guardian says in its “review” of this and other examples of the satirical-wannabe genre, “These blank books make the Ladybird parodies, and the Blyton-spoof Five on Brexit Island, look like Jonathan Swift.”

The fact that we are able to persuade people to hand over cash for this sort of thing (a remark which might of course apply to much of trade publishing) is a tribute to the publishing industry’s ability to make money out of moonshine. Of course a blank book does give you something in which to draw pictures, write a diary or commonplace book, take lecture notes, or in the case of my own crazy Dynasts project,* write out a fair-copy of a classic text.

Publishers used to make up dummy copies of many (maybe most) of their books so that they could make sure the jacket would fit. These dummies consisted of blank pages, in the paper and number required for by the book waiting to be printed, bound in a case using some bit of cloth left over in the bindery. Usually you wouldn’t waste time stamping the spine, so it would only be a hand-written annotation in the front that would tell what book this dummy was representing. Many of them were rather nice objects, and I have over the years accumulated quite a collection of them, many of which were passed on to granddaughters as pastime projects. (I fear they showed signs of inhibition when faced with a leather-bound volume stamped Holy Bible on the spine.) Unfortunately publishers have now managed to figure out that measuring carefully works just as well as making a full dummy and costs a lot less.

Blank books have been a staple of the marketplace since the later years of last century. Moleskine appeals to the top end of this market, where customers seem to think that writing in a Moleskine will make them write like Hemingway. But buying one of these “satirical” books with a jokey title on its spine is perhaps a less than ideal way to acquire a notebook. It often seems that people have money to burn.


* For any who care I can now report I am about half way through, on page 359. We are up to 1809 (Part 2, Act II, Scene IV), and are now having to recognize that there may not be enough pages in my dummy OED volume to take us to the end of the drama. It’ll be a close run thing. The problem will have to be dealt with when we eventually get there. I’m having to resist the urge to use less and less illustration. Just drafted the bayonet charge of the English down the hill at Talavera. The pencil sketch is made from the camera lucida app, and then inked over, which has been half done here.

If Ray Kurzweil says it’s possible who am I to disagree? Cathy O’Neil’s piece at reports on an interview of Kurzweil by Neil deGrasse Tyson in which the claim is made that books may well one day be directly uploaded to your brain via some tricky nano-bots floating around in your bloodstream.

But I’m not sure the examples given are the right ones. Uploading The Brothers Karamazov or War and Peace directly to your brain would of course save a lot of reading time — but then so too would not starting them in the first place. Is what we get from these books, or any novel, the sort of thing that would be provided by the entire text suddenly appearing in your mind? One has to assume that the entire text would be instantly and completely available to you upon upload, something which is not my experience with the conventional method of upload, reading. By the time you’ve reached chapter 100 you may hate that character you loved at the start, and you may now be a little hazy about what went on in chapter 2. If it was an important thing this might necessitate a refresher return to the beginning. Nothing wrong with this: it’s just how it is, and is part of the pleasure of reading. Our minds cannot remember everything all of the time, and our attitude towards people develops as we get to know them better, or indeed as we see more or less of them. As you read through a book you develop expectations, hopes and fears concerning the characters and the events to which they are exposed. A nano-robotic one-off upload would bypass all this and leave you with the whole thing, just sitting there. With any story it’s more about the journey than it is about the arrival.

Now if direct upload isn’t the way we want to interact with fiction, it may well be better suited to things like The Driver’s Handbook, The Elements of Electronics, How to Win at Poker, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Plumbing Repair, Sibley’s Guide to Birds. Just imagine living with someone who had ingested the entire Encyclopedia Britannica. Talk about a know-it-all — though we probably wouldn’t, because by then knowing everything would no doubt be boringly commonplace.

Link via The Digital Reader.

See also Direct to consumer

Hans Holbein

Literary Hub brings us this handy ready reckoner so you can figure out how many books you’ll be able to read between now and your actuarially forecasted death. I was actually quite encouraged by my result, especially as they seem to make no adjustment for the obvious fact that after you stop working you have a lot more time available for reading.




25 and female: 86 (61 years left)
Average reader: 732
Voracious reader: 3,050
Super reader: 4,880

25 and male: 82 (57 years left)
Average reader: 684
Voracious reader: 2,850
Super reader: 4,560

30 and female: 86 (56 years left)
Average reader: 672
Voracious reader: 2,800
Super reader: 4,480

30 and male: 82 (52 years left)
Average reader: 624
Voracious reader: 2,600
Super reader: 4,160

35 and female: 86 (51 years left)
Average reader: 612
Voracious reader: 2,550
Super reader: 4,080

35 and male: 82 (47 years left)
Average reader: 564
Voracious reader: 2,350
Super reader: 3,670

40 and female: 85.5 (45.5 years left)
Average reader: 546
Voracious reader: 2,275
Super reader: 3,640

40 and male: 82 (42 years left)
Average reader: 504
Voracious reader: 2,100
Super reader: 3,260

45 and female: 85.5 (40.5 years left)
Average reader: 486
Voracious reader: 2,025
Super reader: 3,240

45 and male: 82 (37 years left)
Average reader: 444
Voracious reader: 1,850
Super reader: 2,960

50 and female: 85.5 (35.5 years left)
Average reader: 426
Voracious reader: 1,775
Super reader: 2,840

50 and male: 82 (32 years left)
Average reader: 384
Voracious reader: 1,600
Super reader: 2,560

55 and female: 86 (31 years left)
Average reader: 372
Voracious reader: 1,550
Super reader: 2,480

55 and male: 83 (28 years left)
Average reader: 336
Voracious reader: 1,400
Super reader: 2,240

60 and female: 86 (26 years left)
Average reader: 312
Voracious reader: 1,300
Super reader: 2,080

60 and male: 83 (23 years left)
Average reader: 276
Voracious reader: 1,150
Super reader: 1,840

65 and female: 87 (22 years left)
Average reader: 264
Voracious reader: 1,100
Super reader: 1,760

65 and male: 84 (19 years left)
Average reader: 228
Voracious reader: 950
Super reader: 1,520

70 and female: 87.5 (17.5 years left)
Average reader: 210
Voracious reader: 875
Super reader: 1,400

70 and male: 85 (15 years left)
Average reader: 180
Voracious reader: 750
Super reader: 1,200

75 and female: 89 (14 years left)
Average reader: 168
Voracious reader: 700
Super reader: 1,120

75 and male: 87 (12 years left)
Average reader: 144
Voracious reader: 600
Super reader: 960

80 and female: 90 (10 years left)
Average reader: 120
Voracious reader: 500
Super reader: 800

80 and male: 89 (9 years left)
Average reader: 108
Voracious reader: 450
Super reader: 720

imagesAccording to The Independent, President Obama recommended 79 books to us in one way or another. The total is really more than that: although Self Reliance, Team of Rivals and All the Light We Cannot See are in the list twice, there are several series listed as well which must inflate the total well beyond a hundred.

My earlier post POTUS picks links to yet more book recommendations President Obama made to us. The guy could sure read fast. There are also links in that post to his conversations about books with Marilynne Robinson.

Whatever the number of books he recommended, we should be grateful on this Inauguration Day to have had such a well-read and thoughtful president. The 45th President will probably not be recommending books. Tweets seem to be his favored medium: so sad.

The Independent‘s list is as follows:

1. Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life, William Finnegan

2. H Is for Hawk, Helen Macdonald

3. The Girl on the Train, Paula Hawkins

4. Seveneves, Neal Stephenson

5. The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead

6. All That Is, James Salter

7. All The Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr

8. The Sixth Extinction, Elizabeth Kolbert

9. The Lowland, Jhumpa Lahiri

10. Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates

11. Washington: A Life, Ron Chernow

12. Song of Solomon, Toni Morrison

13. Moby Dick, Herman Melville

14. Shakespeare’s Tragedies

15. Parting the Waters, Taylor Branch

16. Gilead, Marylinne Robinson

17. Self-Reliance, Ralph Waldo Emerson

18. The Bible

19. Lincoln’s Collected Writings

20. Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. Du Bois

21. Self-Reliance, Ralph Waldo Emerson

23. Gandhi’s autobiography  (#22 is missing from the list)

24. All the King’s Men, Robert Penn Warren

25. Best and the Brightest, David Halberstam

26. The Federalist, Alexander Hamilton

27. Theory of Moral Sentiments, Adam Smith

28. Cancer Ward, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

29. The Power and the Glory, Graham Greene

30. The Quiet American, Graham Greene

31. Working, Studs Terkel

32. The Naked and the Dead, Norman Mailer

33. One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel García Márquez

34. The Golden Notebook, Doris Lessing

35. The Woman Warrior, Maxine Hong Kingston

36. Redwall series, Brian Jacques

37. Junie B. Jones series, Barbara Park

38. Brown Girl Dreaming, Jacqueline Woodson

39. Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad

40. All the Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr

41. Nora Webster, Colm Toibin

42. The Laughing Monsters, Denis Johnson

43. Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth and Faith in the New China, Evan Osnos

44. Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, Dr. Atul Gawande

45. Cartwheeling in Thunderstorms, Katherine Rundell

46. The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Richard Flanagan.

47. The Hardy Boys series, Edward Stratemeyer

48. Treasure Island, Robert Louis Stevenson

49. Of Mice and Men, John Steinbeck

50. The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald

51. Where the Wild Things Are, Maurice Sendak

52. Team of Rivals, Doris Kearns Goodwin

53. The Golden Notebook, Doris Lessing

54. Various writings of Reinhold Niebuhr

55. Lush Life, Richard Prince

56. Philosophy & Literature, Peter S Thompson

57. Collected Poems, Derek Walcott

58. Cutting for Stone, Abraham Verghese

59. To the End of the Land, David Grossman

60. Lessons in Disaster, Gordon Goldstein

61. The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, Edmund Morris

62. John Adams, David McCullough

63. Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison

64. Plainsong, Kent Haruf

65. The Way Home, George Pelecanos

66. Hot, Flat, and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution, Thomas L Friedman

67. What Is the What, Dave Eggers

68. Netherland, Joseph O’Neill

69. Common Wealth: Economics for a Crowded Planet, Jeffrey D. Sachs

70. Defining Moment: FDR’s Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope, Jonathan Alte

71. FDR, Jean Edward Smith

72. Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, Steve Coll

73. Unequal Democracy: The Political Economy of the New Gilded Age, Larry Bartels

74. Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, Doris Kearns Goodwin

75. Fates and Furies, Lauren Goff

76. Harry Potter series, J.K. Rowling

77. Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights, Salman Rushdie

78. Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn

79. The Three-Body Problem, Liu Cixin


I fondly remember the Lecturae Dantis, a series of lectures from 1969 to 1984  at Cambridge University which would read and explicate one canto of the Divine Comedy at a time. I always meant to go to more of them. Fortunately CUP published a couple of volumes containing some of the lectures. The term originally referred to live readings of the cantos, but has evolved to include academic commentary. Lots of places have them, and here’s a link to the series at St Andrews University, where you can view the lectures on most of the 100 cantos (they are up to Paradiso 3).

1465028Publishing Cambridge links to this new University series, Cambridge Vertical Readings in Dante’s Comedy, which covers three cantos in each lecture, one from Inferno and the same numbered canto from Purgatorio and Paradiso. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given interest in numerology, there are connections between cantos numbered the same in the three parts as well as significance in multipliers and sums of the numbers. There are links to 32 (thus far) lectures. Is it numerologically significant that the one missing item from the set appears to be Cantos 32?


I’ve alluded to the typeface Dante™ before. It was designed by Giovanni Mardersteig for the Officina Bodoni between 1946 and 1954. Dante got its name from the first book it was used for in 1955, Boccaccio’s Trattatello in Laude di Dante. Officina Bodoni was a fine press printer run by Mardersteig: it’s named after Bodoni — it is not to be mistaken as a continuation of Bodoni’s own Parma operation. Mardersteig was born Hans Mardersteig in Weimar in 1892. In 1922 he founded his press in Switzerland, moving on to Verona five years later. The design of Dante was influenced by Francesco Griffo’s work, and Mardersteig also designed a font called Griffo, as well as one called Zeno. His press printed high-quality work, including work for The Limited Editions Club. After his death in 1977 his son, Martino Mardersteig took over the operation of Stamperia Valdonega, their more commercial operation, but occasionally would print a book on his father’s hand presses under the Officina Bodoni imprint. John Dreyfus’ Giovanni Mardersteig: An account of his work, printed and published by Officina Bodoni in 1966, is unavailable at Amazon.

A recent book, still available in the stores, in which Dante was used is Paper: Paging through history by Mark Kurlansky. This is the colophon, which shows a paragraph set in Dante.


There’s a link to a reading of Caroline Bergvall’s VIA: 48 Dante Variations at my earlier post Translation — Style.

Forget it if you had assumed that live readings of poetry or short stories were a recent phenomenon. Go back a couple of thousand years, and public readings were the norm.

In its review of T. P. Wiseman’s The Roman Audience the TLS tells us that Wiseman’s “thesis is simple: all literature, thoughout Roman history, was first performed in front of public audiences, and only secondarily released in book form”. In the second volume of The Cambridge History of Classical Literature E. J. Kenney tells us that we can assume that all Roman literature was written primarily to be heard. He points out that it was difficult for Roman authors (in the absence of what we would recognize as a publishing industry) to correct errors in any works they had already sent out into the world, and that as a result authors were inclined carefully to test-run their works by reading them before small, perhaps friendly, audiences, and to use the resulting comments to revise and correct. Horace recommends that intending authors should keep their manuscripts by them for nine years before publication so that they can garner enough private criticism.

This process of reading your works before an audience was called recitatio. Professor Kenney continues, “In the first century A.D. the recitatio became a regular feature of the literary life of Rome, as numerous contemporary references indicate. Some of these occasions were private and were genuinely intended to elicit criticism final publication. However, for writers who were in any sense professional – i.e. who depended on writing for their living – the recitatio was primarily a form of advertisement or puffing.”

Public reading/chanting /singing apparently became all the rage in the early years of the Empire in Rome. The Believer has a piece by Tony Perrottet. Many of the contemporary references to recitatio are negative: it seems the élite quickly became exasperated by excessive public reading by no-talents. Anyone could get up on stage and perform, and apparently did, with the result that the quality on offer kept on declining. Cheerleaders were often employed to lead the crowd in acclamation. Perrottet tells us “The standard cry was Euge! Euge!—’bravo’ in ancient Greek, the favored tongue for Roman snobs.*” Private readings in private houses could still provide a less chaotic experience, but we cannot be surprised to discover that the very popularity of the form lead to its degradation. All this negativity may merely be a function of the accidents of survival: so much of what was written in Roman times has been lost. Of course if a reading of your work was an integral part of the editorial/revision process, this is perhaps something you might not publicize in the very work itself.

An embryonic publishing industry was getting going by the start of the 1st century A.D. Jerome Carcopino writes in Daily Life in Ancient Rome, “Scholars and men of letters in Rome knew nothing for two centuries of what we mean by ‘publishing’. Down to the end of the republic, they made copies of their own works in their own houses or in the house of some patron, and then distributed the manuscripts to their friends . . . The multiplication of public and municipal libraries resulted in the rise of publishers (bibliopole, librarii). The new profession soon had its celebrities: the Sosii, of whom Hoarace speaks, who had opened a shop for volumnia at the exit of the Vicus Tuscus on the Forum.”

The reading police seem to insist that we use our eyes only if we are to qualify for their special club. Having a book read to you apparently doesn’t count. This is of course nonsense. You read a book to access the information or enjoyment it contains. To say that hearing a book isn’t reading it, is a bit like saying eating a yoghurt is impossible, since consuming it is a non-chewing activity. Audiobooks are booming. Audible projects two billion hours of book listening for 2016, which is double the 2014 number. “According to a company spokesperson, Audible members on average listen to books about two hours a day, averaging 17 books a year” reports the Los Angeles Review of Books. Their review is mostly on the subject of a perceived decline in reading!


*One might note that such “snobbishness”, if that’s what it is, lives on — do we think “bravo” and “encore” have roots in ancient English?

Do you really need help deciding which book to read next? Early last year The Digital Reader told us about five sites which offer this service.

My feelings about this are mixed. Given that I’ve sat on the link for over a year one might posit a certain lack of interest. I mean — if you can read, surely you can decide what to read next.

I ended up test-driving them, using Loving by Henry Green as the not common, but not utterly obscure test case. The first site, What Should I Read Next, returned no result, though when I deleted the author’s name it hopefully delivered ten other books entitled Loving; well nine actually as one was a duplication. The second Your Next Read did register a hit: I was offered six editions of the self-same book, one other book by Green, plus a book about a dog called Henry, no doubt a lovable scamp, and a collection of sermons by John Henry Cardinal Newman. The Fussy Librarian involved me signing up, so I resisted the temptation and moved on to The Book Seer. He did pretty well offering me five other books by Green, all from the same publisher, and a not altogether idiotic group of five other titles from the same source (New York Review Books). Which Book works in a different way: you have to select the sort of book you are looking for by indicating how Happy/Sad, Funny/Serious etc. the book you’re looking for should be. My crazy selection did turn up some books which looked interesting.

As the commenters on The Digital Reader post vociferously pointed out there are several other options. I didn’t sign in to Goodreads. This may be a fatal blow to my bona fides as a researcher, but I get enough e-mail guff from Goodreads that I don’t want to encourage them to send any more.  These sorts of site are probably fairly easy to construct. If you Google “What book should I read next?” you’ll get lots of them. As to whether they help anyone — who can know?

In conclusion, if I am sitting around in vacant or in pensive mood, I might just consult The Book Seer, with the expectation of finding something useful. A idle few minutes could be filled at Which Book.

Go to Slate and you can click on this tree of allegedly funny books selected by a succession of their authors. (Link via Peter Ginna.) At Slate you can click on each image and get details.


I suspect that working your way straight through all 82 books might prove no laughing matter.


The Future Today Institute’s comprehensive forecast was forwarded by Digital Book World.

Apparently ha-ha predictions of automatic transmission from the brain of the author to the brain of the reader may be on their way to becoming less of a joke.


This slide from the Future Today Institute’s slide presentation is of course unreadable here. It is slide 53, if you want to go to the report via the link above. Alternatively, this is what it says under the heading Examples:

We don’t recognize it as such but we are actually living in an age of digital telepathy, where information can be transmitted via direct input. At the University of Washington’s Center for Sensorimotor Neural Engineering, researchers have built a system allowing one person to transmit his thoughts directly to another person. Using electrical brain recordings and a form of magnetic stimulation, one researcher sent a brain signal to another person elsewhere on campus, using his finger to tap a keyboard. Scientists at Barcelona’s Starlab fitted a brain-computer interface on a man in Kerala, India and instructed him to simply imagine how he was moving his hands and feet. His thoughts were sent to a man in Strasbourg, France wearing a TMS robot, which delivered electrical pulses to his brain. When the man in India thought about moving his feet, the TMS caused the man in France to see light, even though his eyes were closed.

Under What’s Next they discuss medical applications to help victims of stroke and traumatic brain injury. These sorts of application are obviously likely to be first fruits. But can we resist the thought that with a few years of development we can achieve direct communication from an author’s brain to readers around the world? This sounds like it might be a bit exhausting for the author, so of course the communication will no doubt be with an author-brain-surrogate and the rest of us. What price publishers when we eventually achieve unmediated links between your brain and mine? I always thought that Isaac Asimov’s electronic books in The Foundation series were much too primitive to match the rest of the technology.

I did a rather puzzled post on this subject a year ago.

The Chronicle of Higher Education presents On Not Reading by Amy Hungerford. Academics are the main candidates for this ailment (and not just those in David Lodge’s universe). The amount of material you have to work through is obviously a bit of a problem if as a literary scholar you chose to study contemporary literature rather than earlier periods. Students of classical Greek literature may bemoan the amount of material that has been lost: the student of the contemporary novel has to decide which of thousands of books he/she will not read. Shouldn’t we really feel sorrier for the former though?

Classical studies as a consequence of the scarcity of texts perhaps have developed a methodology of intensive textual analysis. If you only have a couple of brief or even partial texts from your chosen author you are liable to end up reading them differently than you or I would read the latest Jonathan Safran Foer. I was always a bit annoyed at the idea of R. W. Chapman of Oxford University Press applying the methods of classical textual reconstruction to Jane Austen’s text. This resulted in the addition of lots of commas, which he was able to deduce she had really intended should be there.

Ms Hungerford piece is entertaining but she goes a bit adrift when she suggests “Because more books are published than ever before, thanks to the birth of desktop publishing software in the 1980s . . .”. Can we really attribute an increase in books published to the birth of the word processor? Sure, computers make it easier to compose a book, but isn’t this a bit like attributing the rarity of chairs dating to the seventeenth century and earlier to the invention of the machine-driven lathe?

Firstly, I suspect (because one can’t really know) that many more books were written in the olden days than we imagine. I’ve just been reading Ruth Scurr’s excellent John Aubrey: My Own Life (NYRB 2016). Aubrey’s a case in point. He wrote constantly and was obsessive about preservation, altogether appropriately for an antiquary, and worried about his manuscripts being lost after his death. In the end he managed to scramble out one book before he died. For the next couple of hundred years nothing happened. By the end of the 20th century about 10 of his works had been rescued — his manic directions that his papers should be stored in the Ashmolean, (now in the Bodleian) had worked, and his writings were eventually excavated. How many a “mute inglorious Milton” has the luck to have his writings survive, and then almost as luckily, found?

Secondly, the surge in numbers of books published results primarily from the commercial muscle-flexing of the post WWII publishing industry. When you figure you can make money off almost anything, then almost anything will find its way to the marketplace. Desktop publishing happened along coincidentally, and just made the supply of the voracious press that much more efficient — it didn’t cause the hunger though. Clearly we none of us can avoid awareness of the recent the explosion of output occasioned by the invention that consists of a) the internet, b) Amazon, c) the e-book and d) self-publishing. With all that coming at us refusing to read is merely inevitable.

The one way in which Ms Hungerford’s claims against desktop publishing ring true is that I do believe that the ability simply to revise your work without laboriously retyping pages of it, did result in longer and longer books. (See Bloat.) She cites David Foster Wallace’s arrogance in wanting to make his Infinite Jest lengthy and obscure so people would have to read the book twice. Still we’ve had plenty of long books from before the days of on-line writing, and obscurity is by no means a consequence of modernity however much it may be attractive to some its practitioners.

I believe it was Sir Francis Bacon who was said to be the last person able to claim to have read every book ever written, though other claimants exist, notably John Milton. Whoever it may have been — the point is they had to be wrong, because so much of what had been written had been lost or never even found in the first place. This of course just reinforces my cynicism about such claims: surely anyone who’d be in any position even to think about making the claim would know that it was a ridiculous thing to say. No doubt we could track this bit of urban myth back to some biography or other in which the hagiographer writes “X was so well-read that it might be said . . .”.

In this context the BBC’s graphic animation linked to in my recent post Get on with it may be relevant.