Archives for category: Reading

. . . 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.

Reporting on an Oxfam survey of readers’ preferences as between ebooks and printed books, Study Finds tells us that only 16% of the (2,000, UK) respondents prefer an ebook. They admit that “over a third of respondents (35%) enjoy buying paper books because that allows them to proudly display them on their bookshelf as a background during Zoom meetings.” (Link via The Passive Voice.)

This seems to me to be highly suggestive sign of our times. Behavior in online meetings is still evolving. Making a good impression is obviously an important element — we have to break into a house-cleaning frenzy before any such online dates. You want folks to think you are on top of things, and of course, really smart. It was ever thus: a potent motive for your book collection has always been the casual displaying to your amazed visitors of the breadth and depth of your interests. I remember my ex-boss surveying our bookshelves as he walked into my apartment — “Ah ha, I see you’ve got a first edition of The Cantos” he intoned after a couple of minutes of silent scrutiny before he could even be introduced to anyone else. (I didn’t and don’t). But you can’t help checking out a bookcase-full of books, can you? In our dining-room one wall is covered in bookshelves, and there always seems to be someone with their gaze apparently fixed in the middle distance ignoring everyone else, screwing up their eyes to read yet another title. I’m often sneaking a look at my fellow travelers’ books on the subway; not that I care, but it’s just interesting to know what others are reading. And seeing a book you helped make being read on the A train is a huge dopamine boost. Encountering a Kindle or an iPhone makes such snooping almost impossible. This might even be advanced as another reason to disparage ebooks!

Now that so many television broadcasters have been working from home it’s become obvious that they spend a good deal of care and attention fixing up the bookshelves which appear behind them. It seems to have become acceptable (though personally I wonder) to display your own recent book face out right behind your left shoulder. A nice little vase of color-coordinated flowers is another popular element. And some really abstruse academic tome is often a nice touch: oh, he cares about Boolean algebra! I spend a good deal of time trying to identify their books, though Public Television’s fuzzy-screens, designed to make everyone look less old, do tend to make this tough.

I wonder if publishers have twigged to the product-placement implications of all this. We pay for bookstore premium space, as in end-caps and front-of-store tables, so why not during the television news? And broadcasters can of course figure out that their workers don’t have to be working from home in order to have interesting, revenue generating products peeking over their shoulders.

The Scholarly Kitchen brings this story by Todd Carpenter about the origin of the ebook, an event which took place fifty years ago already. The Declaration of Independence went online on 4 July 1971, having been typed in by Michael S. Hart. Thus began what turned into Project Gutenberg, masterminded by Mr Hart.

Michael S. Hart. Photo: Wikipedia

Project Gutenberg, a wondrous resource, has more than 60,000 works freely available. However “Project Gutenberg is hardly the world’s largest free book repository. The Internet Archive, by comparison contains some 2.3 million texts. HathiTrust contains 8,415,795 book titles.”

John Thompson’s The Book Wars recounts the recent digital revolution in the book business. This Scholarly Kitchen review suggests that academic publishing has blazed the trail through the digital developments, and that trade publishing is scrambling to catch up.

Nobody can doubt that the ebook has established itself as a fundamental part of the publishing scene. Contrary to many a commentary, publishers are not reluctant to sell ebooks: they are just reluctant to give them away in an unrestricted way. Clearly we have yet to work out what the right method of supplying ebooks to libraries might be. The conflict is between the “right” of readers to be able to borrow books from their library unrestrictedly, and the “right” of the author (and of course the publisher) to be remunerated for their work. From the reader’s perspective an ideal world might be one in which you could log on to your library’s website and borrow a digital version of any book you might want. After all, with the limitation that there has to be a copy there, this is how it works with library borrowing of physical books. When a publisher sells a physical book to a library they accept that the library will be able to lend this copy to as many people as want to see it, and can keep on lending it till it falls apart and they need to buy another copy. Doesn’t work like that with an ebook. Sell a library an ebook file and an infinity of readers can borrow it free of charge, simultaneously and for ever. Publishers want to sell ebooks to libraries, though some of the rhetoric you see might make you think the opposite. They just don’t want to sell ebooks to libraries in a way which is tantamount to making the book generally available free of charge online. A compromise is needed. Maybe we’ll get one.

As usual academic books present a completely different scene. Print sales of monographs continue to decline, and may well vanish fairly soon, in step with inevitable (and much needed) improvements in the digital presentation of academic material online. It’s possible, even probable, that the digital format will become the only format for the academic monograph; (though it will probably make sense to set your monographs up for print-on-demand manufacture too). However scholarly materials are usually accessed digitally as part of a subscription bundle — e.g. Oxford Scholarship Online. OUP’s Annual Report for 2021 tells us they have gotten 25,000 books online. This sort of subscription business just isn’t an easy option for trade publishers. While academic publishers do publish many individual ebooks, the bulk of access to monographs (and journals) tends now to be via a subscription by the institution. But note that, in round terms, according to the AAP’s monthly sales figures, university press print book sales came to about $3 million, while ebooks accounted for just $700,000. Where, if at all, subscription revenue for online collections was includes is not clear.

Writing before the pandemic Niko Pfund and Mandy Hill (of OUP and CUP) wrote in detail in The Chronicle of Higher Education (paywall protected) about the evolution of the monograph. OUP and CUP’s joint report on the use of the monograph shows that the format isn’t going away and that its salvation seems almost inevitably to involve digitization. As open access becomes more and more desired (and available) the key question becomes who’s going to pay the costs of publication.

Dr Syntax (Peter Ginna) has been quiet for a while but now he weighs in on the alleged danger to the publishing industry of Substack, which is getting into the book subscription business. They will be releasing Zack O’Malley Greenburg’s new book, We Are All Musicians Now in weekly installments.

Like so many innovations, subscribing to books (which of course isn’t new anyway) doesn’t have to represent an either/or, live or die choice to book publishing. If someone wants to read a book in weekly parts, and as Mr Ginna points out, end up paying quite a bit more than they would if they’d just waited till the whole thing was available in book form, what’s wrong with that? The book publishing business has managed to survive customer choice as between a hardback and a paperback, an audiobook or an ebook as against any printed version, and I’ve no doubt we’ll sail happily through any upcoming subscription craze. It’s not as if publishing came to a standstill after Dickens stopped publishing his novels in weekly installments. It’s just another way of offering the product. As long as people are willing to buy that product, publishers are going to be happy to keep on providing it in whatever shape people want.

See also Subscription publishing.

Odd book, The Swiss Family Robinson. It’s the sort of thing you’d get as a birthday present from an aged aunt, arriving in a more of less handsome jacketed hardback edition with old-fashioned line illustrations, the first of which, a frontispiece, would be printed in four colors. Robinson Crusoe and Gulliver’s Travels were others of these tomes which one’s elders and betters persisted on pushing on reluctant children. I was resistant to all of these improving volumes, though I did get at Robinson Crusoe and Gulliver’s Travels through the illustrated classics format.

The Swiss Family Robinson was written, appropriately, by a Swiss writer Johann David Wyss (1743–1818), and was first published in 1812. I have just learned from Wikipedia that the Robinson in the title is a direct reference to Robinson Crusoe, and is being used (in the German original, Der Schweizerische Robinson) in the sense of “castaway”. The title makes no reference to family, meaning simply the Swiss Robinson, thus The Swiss castaway. I suppose if I’d buckled down and read the damn thing back then I might already have known this delightful little factlet.

Not your usual pub conversation starter, but Peter Cook and Dudley Moore never needed much to get their circular improvised chats under way.

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

Crusoe’s Books, in a post entitled “Performative Reading”, tells us that Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s First Minister cunningly uses her reading habit as a bit of sly self-promotion. “Two days after the death of the Duke of Edinburgh, Nicola Sturgeon, leader of the Scottish National Party and First Minister of Scotland, delivered the following panegyric: ‘He was a thoughtful man, deeply interesting and fiercely intelligent. He was a serious bookworm – which I am too – so talking about the books that we were reading was often, for me, a highlight of our conversations.’ For many months in the Scottish press, Sturgeon had been characterized as a ‘bookworm’ based on the regularity with which she publicly tweeted about the many books she had read. In her reading endorsements, Sturgeon has always been careful to avoid overly popular titles, her recommendations tending to fall on the worthy side of middlebrow. What Sturgeon has always performed in her declared reading choices, and with impeccable consistency, is a proud Scot, cosmopolitan in outlook, with a healthy regard for social justice.”

We used over here to get periodic reading suggestions from our president, and indeed President Obama is still releasing occasional lists of books to read. In his case we cannot now regard this sort of thing as political self-promotion. Barack Obama isn’t running for any office, and one fears that demonstration your status as a bookworm might actually be a negative at the polls over here! His involvement in books continues: he just gave the closing address at this year’s American Library Association Annual Conference.

So performative reading as Crusoe’s Books writes about it means something more like self-promoting reading rather than reading as a performance. They are contrasting it with anti-social reading, where the book acts as a defensive shield. As everyone knows (wrongly as it turns out) it was Saint Ambrose who “invented” silent reading. No matter when the idea came up, for most or our history reading has of necessity been reading out loud. Reading to yourself requires you to be able to read; something which was less widespread in the past. In last year’s film News of the World Tom Hanks portrays an itinerant news broadcaster, traveling around the “Wild West” reading newspapers to paying crowds. A classic of performance reading is the BBC broadcast “A Book at Bedtime”. Charles Dickens made a bunch of money giving dramatic readings of his works on world tours. A pale reflection of this sort of thing may be seen in today’s “events” held by bookstores in promotion of new books. The established pattern for such events is the author reads a couple of sections from their book, and is then questioned by an interviewer and by the audience. That these events have now evolved into international gatherings by virtue of the necessity of making them virtual during the pandemic, begins to get us back towards a sort of Dickensian reach.

The Passive Voice sends us a story from The Guardian about Goodreads. Myself, I’ve never found Goodreads to be much use, but I can’t see any reason to get very excited about it. As I never look at it it never bothers me, so why should I bother about it? I have to delete the odd email is all. People who feel a need for the support of others in their journey though life should be allowed to share their thoughts about what they’ve liked to read and might like to read next. Just because you are not one of that group is no reason to disallow it.

Reading isn’t a contest, even a contest against yourself. So you read 50 books last year? So what? Doesn’t mean you must read 51 this year. (I have to admit the page count of a book has crossed my mind when in December I’ve just finished a book and could possibly squeeze in another during the year. But I insist I’ve always managed to withstand the novella temptation. Still, if you record your reading, there’s always that temptation lurking there.) Some reading is for information or education of course, but by and large we read to be entertained. You are a sorry victim of competitiveness if part of the entertainment consists of the number of titles, pages, words you’ve read.

That said, there are 4,038,924 participants in Goodreads’ 2021 Reading Challenge. They have pledged to read an average of 49 books each during the year for a total of 203,872,985 books. Hard to disparage that sort of market potential!

Isn’t it only just that an under-appreciated group should at long last be getting some attention? Those enraged parents who spend so much time and energy saving our children from the evil influence of liberal books are now being noticed with the inauguration of Ban Books Week.

The picture shows Executive Director, Sean Spicer, the last president’s unforgettable press secretary (until he wasn’t any more) discussing the exciting plans. Spicer is quoted as sagely opining “Censoring books is an area where many people in our divided country can find common ground”.

This story, and a lot more unbelievable book news, can be found at Shelf AwarenessApril Fool’s Day issue.

Alloa Academy Library tweeted this Scottish Book Trust answer to the question, adding “Reading has the power to change your life and is one of the best ways to look after your health and wellbeing”:

What more need one say? Well, it can also be quite amusing. Or kill a few hours.

The health and wellbeing bit might need to be approached with a bit of caution: don’t go reading your health encyclopedia or, nach Wunsch, your Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures as an alternative to getting the doctor to treat your broken arm. “Knowing the truth” doesn’t really hack it when it comes to setting bones, though Mary Baker Eddy may have been a pioneer of what we now call the placebo effect. I’m sure books have placebo effects.

Sounds like a bit of a joke but here you can hear this new typeface earnestly introduced by a spokesperson from RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia.

Apparently the idea is that if you have to struggle to get the information, you’ll be able to remember it better. This idea, which is dressed up with the scientific-sounding name “desirable difficulty”, may or may not be nonsense. Make the typeface hard to read, and the reader will work harder at understanding it. This rather calls into question efforts to design text pages with a typeface which makes it easier for dyslexics to cope. If there’s any basis to this desirable difficulty study plan wouldn’t it be desirable to instal 40 watt bulbs in all libraries, and few of them at that? Or set textbooks in 5 point type and print them in pale grey ink? It might also be considered wise to make students do their homework in noisy pubs: not that any of them would ever have thought of that for themselves. Or maybe to forbid them to do their homework at all, or even to prevent them from attending class. “We’re not going to tell you what it is you need to know, but the test’s next week.”

The concept of desirable difficulty was apparently invented in 1994 by Robert A. Bjork, a UCLA psychologist. It is good to know that he is also the discoverer of the “directed forgetting paradigm” — the full service: can’t get that Sans Forgetica text out of your mind, here comes directed forgetting.

Sans Forgetica makes you think of a Costa Brava seaside resort with one or two too many margaritas on board — maybe the beach is where we should all be going to study.

Notice of this story comes via The Passive Voice, where there are further links to pieces in Wired and in Science Daily. The Science Daily article indicates that the jury is actually still out on whether this desirable difficulty does or does not increase learning.

In my schooldays the preferred method was not so much desirable difficulty (Latin has that inherently anyway) rather it was “desirable fear” — the technique of beating knowledge into the brain via the backside. It never worked either.