A Reading Plan For An Aging Brain

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, August 24, 2015

I no longer read to kill time because I’m running out of time to kill.

This essay is for bookworms who are getting older. I’m not sure younger readers will appreciate what I’m going to write about unless they are trying to anticipate getting older like I am now. I’m discovering in my sixties that things are changing once again, adding to that illusion that every decade of life is different.

Getting old is fascinating. You expect your attitude towards life in your autumn years to feel the same as it did in your middle years when you planned your retirement. It hasn’t worked that way for me. Even my relationship with books has changed. I assumed I’d get to read more books when I retired, but I’ve discovered I should intentionally read less. I want to read more, the hunger is there, but the urge to read parallels my sex drive; my mind is still horny but my body has lost it’s enthusiasm. My motto for aging is, “Do more with less.”

The-Signature-of-All-Things

I wish I could read a book a day like super-bookworms Liberty Hardy and Eva at A Striped Armchair, but I can’t. Those women are in their twenties. There were a couple phases in my life when I read a book a day, but reading was about all I did. Now, that I’m 63 and retired, I have plenty of time to read, yet I find I can only read so much before my brain gets mushy. Don’t get me wrong, I can still read all day long and finish a book in a day, but I must tune into a reading mode where words flash by mind like a ticker tape—I’m entertained but I remember little. Imagine a diet of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream for every meal and snack. Such fare will keep you filled up but will it give you any lasting nutritional value?

I’ve read 49 books so far this year. I was on a two books a week pace until July. If I hustled, I could speed back up and finish 102 books in 2015 if I wanted. I still have the vitality to do that, but something has changed. Knocking back book after book just doesn’t feel right. I can’t imagine reading 300-400 books a year like Liberty Hardy. Here’s the rub, now that I’m starting to age, what I want from books is changing. The thrill of quantity is flagging. When you’re young, you want to do it all, and you’re sure you can. Now I’m starting to understand bucket lists. I don’t think I’ll be kicking a bucket anytime soon, but who knows? Youth is full of infinities, I’m learning getting old is all about finite mathematics.

When I go to bookstores, or the library, or read book reviews and book blogs, I encounter hundreds of books I want to read. I ache to be immortal and read them all. I’m giving up my New Year’s goal to read 100 books this year. Just reading a book is no longer enough. It’s like watching television, seeing one show after another in the evening, and realizing the next morning you’ve already forgotten what they were. Realizing that I’m forgetting more and more inspires me to hang on harder and harder. Learning what’s important involves the mathematics of limitations.

Don’t think I’m depressed, or let these thoughts depress you. It’s just a new game, with new rules to make life interesting. Limits have their own pleasures.

Instead of rushing to page one of the next book after reading “The End” of the last book, I want time to think about what I’ve read, to put my impressions into writing, and chat up the book with my bookworm friends. Slowing down my reading pace helps remember. I’m tired of reading only to forget. If reading slower with fewer books means I can retain more, then that’s my new reading plan.

Remember the ending to Fahrenheit 451? Where all the book people are living in the forest. Each person has chosen a book to memorize. I don’t picture myself doing that, but I can picture myself learning to know a finite number of books very well. I expect my sixties to be a decade where I define a set of my favorite books I want to study. Sure, I’ll keep reading new ones, but because of my memory problems I feel compelled to gather books I want to remember. I’m sure as my memories fade, this list will dwindle. It will become a tontine, and one book will be the last to leave my thoughts.

I’ve been a bookworm all my life, and proud of the vast number of books I’ve read, but I now question that sense of pride. It’s probably great to be a voracious reader in the first half of life, but in my waning years becoming a selective reader is becoming necessary. I won’t stop reading new books, because discovering a great new book is one of the better thrills of life. However, my willingness to give them the hook is going to seem downright cruel.

Back in 2002 I had a reading renaissance when I discovered audio books. Reading books with my ears was much slower than reading with my eyes, and I learned to appreciate savoring words rather than speeding past them. It’s time for another reading revolution. I need to change things up again. Here’s the thing, my mind is still pretty sharp, but I can tell it’s in decline. My short term memory is beginning to flake out, and my long term memory feels overstuffed—like I have to erase memories to make room for a new ones.

Reading just to be reading means most of what I take in leaks out of my short term memory before I can use it. And I worry reading new books might be erasing memories of old books. It’s time I defrag my brain and run a disk cleanup. One way I’ve found to preserve old memories is to reread books. Another way is by making lists, writing blogs, talking to friends.

The first stage of my reading plan is to review my books read log and create a list of books I want to get to know intimately. I want stay with these books so they stay in my memory. I’m still anxious to read new books, especially nonfiction, but I’m going to be more selective. It distresses me that I spend so much time taking in new information only to forget it.

Where learning to read slower was the key to my first reading renaissance, learning to take notes will be essential to my second. If a book isn’t worth studying like one in a college course then it isn’t worth my reading time. If the book isn’t a 9 or 10 on a ten point scale, it won’t be reading worthy. Now this might sound too monkish, but there’s a method in my madness. I’m a book junky, an old and jaded one, and if my fix doesn’t have the purity of Walter White’s blue meth, then the high I get won’t feel worthy of the brain cells I sacrifice. After a lifetime of reading, I crave intensity.

I want to read books where the names of the characters stick with me like the names of old friends. I want to read books where writers explore themes with the insight of great philosophers. I want to read books where the prose inspires me to write. I want to read books where the settings feels as vivid as my memories of all the places I lived. I want to read books where the characters struggle to map uncharted reality so well I could follow their trail. I want to read books that show me how other people think and feel that’s both different from the way I feel and think. I want to read books that make me feel I’m seeing more of the world than even the most hardened world travelers. I want to read books that take me up and down the centuries just like I had a time machine. I want to read books that make me feel overwhelming emotions like my favorite music. I want to read books that let me know what it’s like to be people not like me.

And I want to remember those books…

Fifty Novels To Remember

I’ve probably read more than two thousand books, but this short list are the ones that haunt me. I’ve read hundreds more that wowed me at the time, but I’m not sure how well they will linger in my memories. This is my tentative list to work with at the moment. If I reread one book a month, I could reread a list of sixty books every five years. I will need to rethink this list because I only have six women writers—but I have ten slots to fill if I stretch it to sixty books. And I cheated with the Robert J. Sawyer books, which were published as a trilogy, but I consider them one story.

I think these books have stuck with me for philosophical reasons. For some reason they resonate with my unconscious mind.

  1. 1719 – Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe
  2. 1813 – Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
  3. 1861 – Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
  4. 1868 – Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
  5. 1871 – Middlemarch by George Elliot
  6. 1875 – The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope
  7. 1877 – Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
  8. 1883 – Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson
  9. 1895 – The Time Machine by H. G. Wells
  10. 1900 – Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser
  11. 1902 – The Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
  12. 1905 – The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton
  13. 1912 – Riders of the Purple Sage by Zane Grey
  14. 1913 – The Patchwork Girl of Oz by L. Frank Baum
  15. 1920 – The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
  16. 1926 – The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
  17. 1928 – Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D. H. Lawrence
  18. 1936 – Keep the Aspidistra Flying by George Orwell
  19. 1945 – High Barbaree by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall
  20. 1949 – Earth Abides by George R. Stewart
  21. 1949 – Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell
  22. 1949 – The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles
  23. 1951 – The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger
  24. 1952 – Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
  25. 1953 – Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
  26. 1955 – Tunnel in the Sky by Robert A. Heinlein
  27. 1956 – Time for the Stars by Robert A. Heinlein
  28. 1957 – On the Road by Jack Kerouac
  29. 1958 – Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote
  30. 1958 – Have Space Suit-Will Travel by Robert A. Heinlein
  31. 1959 – Confessions of a Crap Artist by Philip K. Dick
  32. 1960 – To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  33. 1961 – Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
  34. 1962 – Hothouse by Brian Aldiss
  35. 1962 – The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick
  36. 1966 – Empire Star by Samuel R. Delany
  37. 1968 – Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick
  38. 1969 – Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
  39. 1972 – When HARLIE Was One by David Gerrold
  40. 1974 – Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig
  41. 1980 – Timescape by Gregory Benford
  42. 1986 – Replay by Ken Grimwood
  43. 1989 – Hyperion by Dan Simmons
  44. 1996 – The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell
  45. 2001 – The Life of Pi by Yann Martel
  46. 2009 – Wake/Watch/Wonder by Robert J. Sawyer
  47. 2009 – The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi
  48. 2011 – The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore by Benjamin Hale
  49. 2012 – The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
  50. 2013 – The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert

By the way, I cheated with Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which is a memoir, but it feels like a novel to me.

JWH

Does Anyone Actually Read the Paper Version of Wired Magazine?

By James Wallace Harris, Monday, July 6, 2015

I find it almost impossible to read the print edition of Wired magazine. Ditto for Vanity Fair. The emerging trends in magazine graphic design keeps me from reading my favorite magazines printed on paper. Why? Is it because I’m too old to appreciate modern layouts? Are my eyes too ancient to see their tiny typefaces? Is my brain too slow to comprehend their fire hose content? Have I been corrupted by reading on the web or tablet computers? I’m sure all of those things are true, but, could their graphic design be flawed? Have we pushed beyond the limits of Gutenberg?

Wired layouts

The Atlantic and Harper’s offer the most comfortable reading for me. The New York Review of Books and The New Yorker are in the middle of my comfort zone. If you study the design of the six magazines I’ve mentioned so far, there’s an obvious pattern. The harder to read magazines have more areas on the page vying for my attention. If a two-page layout has ten things shouting at my eyeballs I just turn the page. The two NY titles are pretty good at displaying reading content, but their ads are very distracting. The New York Review of Books is printed in large format making it hard to hold. And I hate to say it, but The New Yorker cartoons distract me.

In many ways, all these magazines are easier to read from the web or tablets. It seems print magazines are trying to compete with digital layouts and they’re ruining  print aesthetics. The web and tablets offer flexible font sizing that help readers, but print magazines keep making their text smaller. New layout techniques on tablets offer even better reading experiences by providing modes to separate words from images. I now prefer to read Wired or Vanity Fair on my iPad.

Reading on the web has several advantages over print and tablet. I can clip articles to Evernote, or save them to Instapaper. I can email articles to friends. I can highlight and copy content to my blog. I can follow their hyperlinks. Plus, I don’t end up with piles of paper to recycle. And of course, web editions are free.

The print edition of Wired is beautiful—but busy. I’m sure the editors find their large layout boards easy to study, and feel their content outstanding and obvious. However, when it’s all squeezed down to the size of the printed page, the content looks like information overload puked onto paper.

I’m quite honest when I ask, “Does anyone read the print edition of Wired magazine?” Yes, it has a stunning layout. And it has an amazing array of trendy new ideas presented in innovative visual ways. I enjoy flipping through the pages, and gazing at bits of things, but I can’t read it.

Are the days of printed periodicals over?

JWH

When Does Nonfiction Go Stale?

By James Wallace Harris, Friday, June 19, 2015

When does a newspaper transform from news to wastepaper?  How old do the magazines at your dentist office have to be before you sneer at reading them? When does a science book become a history book? Why don’t we have classic nonfiction books like we have classic novels? What’s so important about new information as opposed to old information? If you found a two week old newspaper in your house you’d immediately throw it away, but if you found a 1832 newspaper in your attic you’d treasure it. How many bestselling novels from 1955 are still read today versus the nonfiction bestsellers from that year? When The Bible and The Iliad were written there was no distinction between fiction and nonfiction.

Sometimes it seems the books I enjoy reading the most are novels from the 19th century and the nonfiction books just published that are getting a lot of buzz. The only nonfiction book I can remember reading from the 19th century is Walden; or Life in the Woods  by Henry David Thoreau. I’ve always meant to read On the Origins of Species by Charles Darwin.

I started reading Darwin Among the Machines: The Evolution of Global Intelligence by George B. Dyson, a book I bought new back in 1997, but just now getting around to reading. Dyson is the son of Freeman Dyson, and the author of the more recent book Turing’s Cathedral (2012), which I bought and is also lying around here waiting to be read. I wonder if I’ve waited too long to read Darwin Among the Machines, because I’ve read The Information (2011) by James Gleick and The Innovators (2014) by Walter Isaacson, as well as many other books about artificial intelligence and information theory since 1997. However, Dyson has a unique approach to the history of thinking machines, starting his story with Thomas Hobbes and his book Leviathan. Dyson even ties in H. G. Wells and Olaf Stapledon. This is the kind of book I would write if I had the discipline to write books.

Darwin Among The Machines by George Dyson 1997 1st printing

Yet, I wonder about reading such an old book when there are so many newer books waiting to be read. Is there a Read By date for nonfiction books?

Dyson opens with,

“Nature (the Art whereby God hath made and governes the World) is by the Art of man, as in many other things, so in this also imitated, that it can make an Artificial Animal,” wrote Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) on the first page of his Leviathan; or, The Matter, Forme, and Power of a Common-wealth Ecclesiasticall and Civill, published to great disturbance in 1651. “For seeing life is but a motion of Limbs, the beginning whereof is in the principall part within; why may we not say that all Automata (Engines that move themselves by springs and wheeles as doth a watch) have an artificiall life?”¹ Hobbes believed that the human commonwealth, given substance by the power of its institutions and the ingenuity of its machines, would coalesce to form that Leviathan described in the Old Testament, when the Lord, speaking to Job out of the whirlwind, had warned, “Upon earth there is not his like, who is made without fear.”

Three centuries after Hobbes, automata are multiplying with an agility that no vision formed in the seventeenth century could have foretold. Artificial intelligence flickers on the desktop and artificial life has become a respectable pursuit. But the artificial life and artificial intelligence that so animated Hobbes’s outlook on the world was not the discrete, autonomous mechanical intelligence conceived by the architects of digital processing in the twentieth century. Hobbes’s Leviathan was a diffuse, distributed, artificial organism more characteristic of the technologies and computational architectures approaching with the arrival of the twenty-first.

The trouble is Dyson wrote this sometime before 1997, and artificial intelligence has come a long way since then, beyond what Dyson could imagine eighteen years ago. Yet, what he’s really writing about are the centuries of thought before the 20th century on the subject – and that is mostly new to me. The common starting place seems to be with Babbage and Ada Lovelace, so it’s rather interesting that Dyson starts with Hobbes.

I guess it depends on what I’m enjoying learning. I seem to have two modes of interest. First is, what’s happening right now. The second is, how did we get here. Should I spend my time reading about the current state of global intelligence, or study the history of how someone imagined it would be hundreds of years ago?

I could be reading The Fourth Revolution: How the Infosphere is Reshaping Human Reality published 9/1/14 by Luciano Floridi. The Fourth Revolution is a book Hobbes would have found very interesting.

I wish I could read, digest and summarize a book in my blog in three or four hours. It takes me one or two weeks to read a book, and often longer to digest. If I really get caught up into a book I want to follow its leads and tangents. Just reading the first chapter of the Dyson book makes me want to go read about Thomas Hobbes. But do I need to spend so much time thinking about the 17th century when I live in the 21st? Tim Urban claims in “The AI Revolution” that the years 2000-2014 experienced as much progress as all the progress in the 20th century, and that the years 2015-2021 will speed even faster through that same amount of new information.

I am reminded of an old play title – Stop the World I Want To Get Off. Of course, I’m also reminded of that bestseller of the 1970s, Future Shock. Maybe it would easier on my mind to read Thomas Hobbes than Luciano Floridi. Yet, isn’t it sort of sad, that whatever nonfiction book I’ll read will be out-of-date in just a few years. If I had a good memory, I could tally up a very long list of nonfiction books that promoted some kind of far out idea as a possible understanding of how reality works yet has since been forgotten. How many people remember The Naked Ape by Desmond Morris or The Origins of Consciousness if the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind by Julian Jaynes?

Not only do we surf the web, but we surf the current state of knowledge by reading the latest nonfiction books. New information flows into creation far faster than we can gain wisdom from processing that data. Is it practical for me to stop and read a book from 1997? Dyson was working to make sense of 1996.

Quite often new popular science books rephrase the same histories the older books covered. How many popular physics books have I read that summarized Einstein’s discovery of general relativity or  Kurt Gödel’s incompleteness theorems? Generally my knowledge of science lags far behind it’s discovery. At least I gave up on String Theory before The Big Bang  characters did.

I read for fun, so does it matter when a book is published if it’s fun to read? I’m not a scientist, so I don’t need to be up on the latest theories. I can never understand science at anything more than a popular science level, which is essentially at a philosophical level. And at a philosophical level, Darwin Among the Machines is still a fun read.

The problem that continues to nag me is whether or not I’m being the most efficient reader I can be. I only have a few more years left to live, and I want to cram in as much knowledge as possible. I know it leaks out my brain as fast as I consume it, but overall, a little residue remains and it feels like I’m progressing in my understanding of reality.

The decision to read an old nonfiction book versus a new nonfiction book must be made on how much knowledge will it add to my overall collection. That means I must choose between a writer who is carefully digesting a lot of historical information versus a writer who is reporting a lot of new information.

JWH

Reading a Newspaper–Old Style

By James Wallace Harris, Friday, February 27, 2015

This past weekend, I decided to buy a physical copy of The New York Times Sunday edition because they were advertising the revamped magazine section in my digital edition. I figured it might be fun to read a newspaper again, by holding it. Sort of a little nostalgia trip. Sad to say, it was a sad trip, I got very little wistful fun going back this time.

One of the very first things I noticed about the physical paper was the low-resolution of the print. It was a smudgy, dull gray. Many pages looked blurry. The screenshot I took below from the NYT’s web site of it’s .pdf of the front page is many times sharper and easier to read. Just click on the image to enlarge it. I wish my digital subscription included a full .pdf version of the paper. It would solve many of the criticisms I have for reading newspapers old style.

NYT-Feb22

There are many pluses to reading a newspaper the old fashioned way. First and foremost, I’m not at the computer. I spend a lot of time at the computer, on my tablet, or using my smartphone. So, returning to the tactile physical world is a real plus. The next advantage I noticed to reading the newspaper like I once read it, is the random nature of the content. Even though I subscribe to the digital edition of The New York Times, I read it very selectively, mainly by cherry picking the most interesting articles from the most emailed page. That means I don’t see a vast majority of the paper. Flipping through the entire paper shows me stories I would never read online because I would never search them out. The print layout is random, but holistic too. I looked at all the book reviews, rather than selective one as I do when online reading.

Strangely enough, the print ads are more appealing than online ads, even though most of them are a low-rez gray mush. In fact, the ads are so interesting, I would probably enjoy looking at the full paper each day on screen with a .pdf version. I have a 27” monitor which is great for reading online.

The magazine section, printed in color on slick paper, does beat the web visually. The new magazine section is like a real magazine. It’s easier to hold and read than the newspaper itself, which makes me wonder if print newspapers shouldn’t use that format?

Lastly, I get more of a feel of what’s going on around New York City from reading the print edition, than I do reading the digital edition.

The digital edition can easily feel like a world news paper. If I worked at it, I could dig through the entire paper by lots of online clicking, but I doubt I could see everything I saw by just laying the paper on the table and flipping page after page. But this brings me to the negative aspects of reading the pulped tree edition.

The font is tiny on the paper edition. Too small to enjoy reading. Generally, for any article that caught my eye, I’d just read the first few paragraphs, and then I told myself, if the article was appealing, to look it up later for online reading. I only pay for the web page edition, so I have no idea what the paper looks like on a table or smartphone. However, reading it online is much easier than reading in print. My Chrome browser sizes everything for my poor old eyes.

The physical paper is hard to hold and read. I had to sit at a table and lay it flat. But when I found something I wanted to read, I had to hold the paper up, and even fold it to get a comfortable reading distance and handhold. And I was very disappointed with the photos, both the news pictures, and the ads. There was an ad for model ships that really caught my eye, but the printing looked like 3D print without the glasses. And strangely enough, I missed the interactive slideshows and videos from the online edition.

Reading the newspaper again reminded me of one of the very annoying things I always hated about newspaper but had forgotten. Turn to page xx really bugs me. Do you turn now and read, and then jump back, or do you keep flipping pages and try to remember to spot the article you had started reading awhile back?

It’s sad to say, I just didn’t like reading the physical newspaper. It had a momentary cool factor of reminding me of the old days, but that wore off pretty quick. And when I was through, I felt guilty because I had a pile of paper that needed recycling. Some tree gave it’s life so I could read the paper, and now I was just going to throw it away. In a couple years I’ll probably buy a paper again, hoping to find that old pleasure of newspaper reading I had growing up, and probably once again I’ll realize why we move on with new technologies.

JWH

Three Useful Internet Sites for a Dynamic Reading of Ulysses by James Joyce

By James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Reading Ulysses by James Joyce can be very difficult, even daunting. Many well read readers consider Ulysses the number one novel of all time, because of it’s rich complexity and advanced writing techniques. Joyce intentionally made Ulysses a reading challenge, full of Easter eggs for readers to find and decipher, making it a novel worthy of multiple readings.

I have tried reading Ulysses before, but even after reading Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man three times, I wasn’t ready. One major barrier for me is my poor reading skills. I’ve been conditioned to read fast, always wanting to know what’s going to happen, by the plot driven novels of my youth. Ulysses is more like a great painting that you must study slowly and carefully, and for most of my life I never had the patience.

The range of what I could read took a quantum leap forward in 2002 when I started listening to audio books. Listening makes me read slow, and that changes everything. Also, professional readers showcase writing far better than my own inner voice. It’s like the difference between reading poetry and hearing it read aloud. Quality fiction should be heard. It should sound dramatic and dynamic, even poetical. Bad writing sticks out when read aloud. Once I started listening to Ulysses I could get into it. But still there was much I was missing.

Ulysses is famous for its stream of conscious writing techniques. If you just read it with your eyes, it’s easy to confuse the narrator with inner monologues. And even good audio book narrators don’t always distinguish between the two.

Ulysses is also full of allusions to real world and literary history, using colloquial and idiomatic words and phrases that are long out of fashion. Plus Joyce frequently cites lines of Latin, songs and poems that well educated people knew back then, but most people don’t know about today.

Luckily, I’ve stumbled upon two sites on the internet that are wonderful tools for helping me to read Ulysses in a very efficient manner. The first is  The Joyce Project that features an online version of Ulysses. Now most people hate reading online, but I have a major reason to get over that prejudice. The second site that I use is an audio performance of Ulysses at Archive.org. I read online as I listen to this online recording. This recording is very special because they use different actors for different characters, and they use a special effect for when Joyce is having his character speak in their internal voice. This is a tremendous advantage for understanding Ulysses. And I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to hear Joyce read by someone that can pronounce everything correctly, and even offer good accents.

As an extra bonus, The Joyce Project has an annotation mode you can turn on, and certain words and phrases will appear in color that you can click on to read for elaboration. What I do is read and listen to each episode, and then go back and click on all the highlights. Here’s what the plain text looks like, then with the annotations highlighted, and then with the pop-up for the first annotation.  Clicking on the image will enlarge it.

The Joyce Project 1

The Joyce Project 2

The Joyce Project 3

But what works really well is to open the The Joyce Project and the Archive.org audio player windows so they overlap, like this:

Read and Listen

This allows me start and stop the audio easily as I read, in case I do want to stop my reading to study an annotation.

Finally, there’s a third dimension to using the web for reading and studying Joyce – there’s a goldmine of supplemental material. I’m not pursing the study guides on my first reading except in a very limited way. Ulysses is a black hole for scholarship.

One site that is frequently recommended to me is Frank Delaney’s podcast re:Joyce. Delaney does one podcast a week and is up to #245, but only to episode five in the novel. He estimates it will take him 25 years to finish the project. Delaney is a famous author and broadcaster, and knows Joyce’s Ireland, so his rich voice and literary experience makes him a great guide for traversing the land of Joyce. His enthusiasm enhances the enjoyment of reading Joyce.

I figure the first two tools, the annotated text and the performance narration, are the two best tools I’ve discovered for reading Ulysses for the first time. And the Frank Delaney podcast is a wonderful supplement for those people who want to take their first step into Joyce scholarship.

JWH

Self-Psychoanalysis By Studying My Reading Habits

By James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, January 20, 2015

People in the 19th century had the bumps on their heads examined to reveal their personalities. I find examining the books on my bookshelves to be more enlightening.  Going through my library, culling books I won’t read, and reorganizing the rest, is revealing  my preoccupations with various subjects I’ve had for a lifetime. I’m surprised by the diversity of topics, and their stark limitations. Look at your books to see how your personality is revealed, or when you visit a friend, glance across their volumes.

have-space-suit---will-travel 

The majority of my books are science or science fiction. But with each, I can see if I have definite sub-interests. I have many books on physics and astronomy, and very few on biology and geology, and none on chemistry. I have quite a number of books on science history. I have maybe two dozen books just on brain research, and just as many on evolution. I used to have shelves of books on observational astronomy, but I’ve gotten rid of them because I gave away my telescope. I never could see well with my scope, and it was always very inconvenient to drive out to the club’s observation site. So my astronomy interests shifted to books on cosmology and space science. I love books on discovering and researching the cosmic background radiation. I have a few books on early man and anthropology and wished I knew more.

My science fiction reveals a partiality to Robert Heinlein, Samuel R. Delany and Philip K. Dick for nostalgic reasons, a smattering of SF novels from the last 25 years, and quite a number of anthologies and yearly best of collections of short stories ranging from the 1940s to the present. I have about two dozen books on the history of science fiction. I have many volumes on science fiction art. I should admit, that my interest in Heinlein, Delany and Dick is dwindling because my interest in newer writers is growing.

I feel bad about abandoning old friends, but sometimes you just have to move on. And that’s an important revelation too. I can only pursue a very limited number of subjects and authors.

I have fair amount of contemporary literature, as well as classic American and English novels. I have damn few novels written by people other than British and American writers. That’s rather narrow minded, but I do have lots of books by women, and a fair number by African-American authors. Because I know only English, the few French and Russian novels are translations.  No Spanish, Italian and German books at the moment, but I have read some in the past. I have also read a few books by people from Africa, but mostly South Africa. And I’ve read a few books from Asia. My literary awareness of South America and Central America is very close to zero.

I have a couple shelves of biographies. I’ve seem to specialized on Charles Darwin, Mark Twain, Jack Kerouac, Bob Dylan and The Beatles, but I have at least on volume on H. G. Wells, Jules Verne, Rudyard Kipling, Anthony Trollope, Charles Dickens, Margaret Fuller, Louisa May Alcott, L. Frank Baum, D. H. Lawrence, Edith Wharton, Wyatt Earp, Alan Turing, Neil Young, Steve Jobs, and books about the music groups Buffalo Springfield and The Byrds. Plus many bios and histories of people I can’t recall at the moment.

I’m also into certain historical subjects. I have lots of books on the 19th century for some reason, especially literary and scientific history, but many books on Boston, the Transcendentalists, and the wild west. I have several books on computer history, including one just on the ENIAC machine.

I probably have two or three dozen books on books. Book history, the histories of magazines, the history of the printing press, collecting books, classic books, western canon books, and many books on the best books to read in a lifetime.

I do have a number of books on feminism, a few on black history, and a number of ecology. Since the 1960s I’ve followed these subjects in a peripheral way. I also have some books on world cultural and economic problems. And a number of anthropology and sociology type books. All of these reflect a general interest in social issues and a desire to learn about my fellow humans on lifeboat Earth.

Even though I’m an atheist, I have many books on Christian history and The Bible – but I’m giving them away. I have several of the history of religion, and I’d like to know more about how religion developed in Neolithic times. I’d like to know more in general about how early man got from living in the forest to living in cities, and what they may have thought or believed. And I have many books on philosophy. However, my interest in Christian history is fading at the moment. In comes and goes over the years. But I think I’ve read enough to understand how Jesus was made into a deity to satisfy me for now. I’m still fascinated by the early intellectual development of the Christian church, and the impact Greek philosophy had on it.

I have many books on art history and photography. I’m not sure about keeping these. It’s not that I’m losing interest, but art books are big and heavy, and I seldom get them out to look at. Instead, I like finding copies of famous paintings and photographs and putting them on my desktop background, which rotates a new image every minute. Sometimes I just sit and watch my 27” screen show famous paintings or historical photographs. Often when I get into a particular painter, I’ll search out many of their paintings to collect digitally.

I had about twenty mathematic textbooks because I’ve always dreamed of returning to study math where I left off in college. But I realized that’s not going to happen, so they are in the pile to go. I did keep a handful of math history books, and a couple books on statistics, but I doubt I’ll even get to them either. I think my math days are over.

I have no books from these popular genres: mysteries, thrillers, espionage, romance, porn, historical novels, and contemporary best-sellers. I do have a smattering of young adult novels like the Harry Potter series, The Hunger Games trilogy, His Dark Materials trilogy. I have no books on sports, opera, poetry, politics, guns, automobiles, airplanes, gardening, boating, decoration, architecture, flowers, pets, fishing, hunting, travel, jewelry, collecting, clothing, and the list goes on and on. It would be fascinating, but time consuming, to make a list of all subjects I’ve tuned out.

I used to have a great number of books on old movies and film makers, but they’ve mostly been given away over the years. There are probably many subjects I’ve pursued at one time but no longer chase.

This bookish psychoanalysis makes me want to broaden my interests, and specialize more deeply. I think I should read more books about all the countries of the world. I’m currently listening to Age of Ambition about China by Evan Osnos and its riveting. Another thing my self-analysis reveals is how I follow certain ruts, but I’m not systematically learning anything. I feel like I know a lot about the history of science fiction, and I can blather on about a dozen more subjects, but not convincingly. I could teach courses in science fiction, but not anything else. 

Last night I watched a writer from Entertainment Weekly talk to Charlie Rose about the Oscars. I was amazed at the precision of his diction and the mastery of his knowledge. He made me envious to be able to talk about more subjects. I think science fiction is the only subject I could talk about with such erudition, but not with the same comfort of public speaking. I’ve read many books about Mark Twain, but I could only discuss his work and life in a stumbling way. Ditto for cosmology and computers, two other subjects I’ve spent years studying. This makes me feel jealous of people who can regale people at parties on numerous subjects so easily.

Since I’ve known a lot of teachers and professors, I’m used to talking to people who show great confidence in their knowledge. Most people just gab about what they know, and what they know is usually sparse and jagged. I always love meeting a person who’s in love with their topic, even if it’s a topic I have no interest in like baseball or fashion, because they inhabit their subject with such a comfort and confidence that their enthusiasm is infectious. Sadly, most people just natter about what they heard on the news late night, or relate a story about a co-worker.

Part of my failure at expressing the interests of my personality is poor memory. I’m not very good at verbalizing my thoughts, often stumbling over the language, but it’s my erratic memory that keeps me from being more coherent.

As I reorganize my bookshelves, putting books together by topic, I realize exactly what my interests are. I’ve often wondered if I could program a robot to have my personality. When I thought about what personality is, I concluded it’s the subjects my soul are attracted to at any given moment. Back in the sixties they had a saying, “You are what you eat.” I believe our personality is “You are what you think.”

What’s weird is my interests really haven’t changed much my whole life. My reading interests have stayed close to the same subjects since I became a bookworm in grade school. They’ve gotten far more sophisticated, but like I said, I follow certain ruts. Which makes me wonder if I started reading and studying new subjects if it would change my personality.

The most painful revelation of this study is how much I’ve forgotten. I’ve read thousands of books, but forget 99.999% of what I read. That’s demoralizing.

This is a superficial flyover of analyzing my personality. If I really wanted to understand myself, I’ll need to meditate on why I chose all these topics as my own. Why did I become a science fiction guy instead of a sports guy? That will take much deeper thought than I have time for now.

JWH

Picking 52 Books to Read in 2015

By James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Last year I read 67 books. At first thought, I wondered if I could read 100 books in 2015.  But I neither want to spend all my time reading, nor do I want to be in a race to finish 100 books. Reading one book a week is a nice pace for me, however for many years now, I’ve been buying about five books a week. This certainly presents a problem if I don’t want to speed up my reading pace.

To complicate the situation, I’ve been buying some rather outstanding books that I’m lusting to read soon. I’ve gathered books for decades in anticipation of retiring. I thought for sure retiring would let me read 100-200 books a year, but after my first year of not working I’ve discovered I’m not inclined to be a superbookworm. I now have more books than I could read in five retired lives. Once on my bookshelf, books are out-of-sight out-of-mind, leaving me literary hungry to prowl the bookstores. I need to fix that.

Since I’m always compelled to start projects I never finished, I thought this week’s ambitious endeavor would be to go through my physical bookshelves, my library at Audible.com and my Kindle library at Amazon.com and pick the 52 books I’d most loved to read most. To nag myself daily of this project, I thought I’d pile them up somewhere very visible so they will sneer at me to be read. But since so many are digital, invisible from view, I figured I needed to slightly amend that inspiration. Thus the muse for this blog post. I’ll make a list that I will meditate on daily, and keep it near the pile of physical books that are begging me to be read.

Here are the 52 books I’d love to read in 2015. I’d be immensely satisfied with myself if I did, and very proud if I read half their number. They will be in no order – just listed as I pull them from the shelves and stack them in their special pile. This is a nice snapshot of my interests at the beginning of 2015. It will be revealing to see how I do at the beginning of 2016. I’m pretty sure I’ll have read 52 books, but will it be these books?

I know myself well enough to know I won’t stick to the plan exactly, but I’m curious how close I can get at predicting my reading future. I know I will read a bunch of science fiction books I haven’t listed, and books for my book clubs that haven’t been selected yet. I will promote these books when we nominate books though, so I can get some extra incentive to read them. In fact, some of the books listed here are books I was supposed to read in 2014 for book clubs, but didn’t. And some of these books are ones I’ve started and never completed.

What’s interesting, is 52 books is probably more books than I read to get my Bachelor’s degree. And this list covers a lot of subjects. If I do read and comprehend them, it will be like getting another degree.

  1. This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate by Naomi Klein
  2. The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce Ulysses by Kevin Birmingham
  3. The Age of Atheists: How We Have Sought to Live Since the Death of God by Peter Watson
  4. Ulysses by James Joyce
  5. The Man Who Knew Too Much: Alan Turing and the Invention of the Computer by David Leavitt
  6. Grace Hopper and the Invention of the Information Age by Kurt W. Beyer
  7. ENIAC: The Triumphs and Tragedies of The World’s First Computer by Scott McCartney
  8. Old Friends by Tracy Kidder
  9. What Makes This Book so Great by Jo Walton
  10. Consciousness Explained by Daniel C. Dennett
  11. Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge by Edward O. Wilson
  12. Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other by Sherry Turkle
  13. On Writing Well by William Zinsser
  14. Lord of the Flies by William Golding
  15. The History of Mr. Wells by Michael Foot
  16. About Town: The New Yorker and the World it Made by Ben Yagoda
  17. Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth and Faith in the New China by Evan Osnos
  18. Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies by Nick Bostrom
  19. It’s Complicated by Danah Boyd
  20. The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution by Francis Fukuyama
  21. This Will Make You Smarter: New Scientific Concepts to Improve Your Thinking by John Brockman
  22. Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry
  23. Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meaning of Life by Daniel C. Dennett
  24. The End of Growth: Adapting to Our New Economic Reality by Richard Heinberg
  25. Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahnerman
  26. Civilization: The West and the Rest by Niall Ferguson
  27. The Social Conquest of Earth by Edward O. Wilson
  28. Can You Forgive Her? by Anthony Trollope
  29. The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science by Richard Holmes
  30. Turing’s Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe by George Dyson
  31. The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined by Steven Pinker
  32. Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets by Nassim Nicholas Taleb
  33. Before the Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors by Nicholas Wade
  34. The Dream of Reason: A History of Philosophy from the Greeks to the Renaissance by Anthony Gottlieb
  35. The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin
  36. Atonement by Ian McEwan
  37. The Math Book by Clifford Pickover
  38. Mathematics: The Loss of Certainty by Morris Kline
  39. A Path Appears: Transforming Lives, Creating Opportunity by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn
  40. Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software by Steven Johnson
  41. Darwin Among the Machines: The Evolution of Global Intelligence by George B. Dyson
  42. The Roads to Modernity: The British, French, and American Enlightenments by Gertrude Himmelfarb
  43. The Meaning of Human Existence by Edward O. Wilson
  44. A City So Grand: The Rise of an American Metropolis, Boston 1850-1900 by Stephen Puleo
  45. The Closing of the Western Mind: The Rise of Faith and the Fall of Reason by Charles Freeman
  46. The Violinist’s Thumb by Sam Kean
  47. Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
  48. How To Live or A Life of Montaigne by Sarah Bakewell
  49. Glut: Mastering Information Through the Ages by Alex Wright
  50. The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields
  51. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves
  52. Children of God by Mary Doria Russell

JWH