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.


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.


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 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 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.


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.


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.


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 and my Kindle library at 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


2014 Year in Reading

By James Wallace Harris, Thursday, January 1, 2015

Since 1983 I’ve kept a log of books read, noting the title, author and the date I finished the book. Over the years this has proved very rewarding and useful. This year I switched from using an old notebook to using the spreadsheet in Google docs because it allows me to search and order my list in different ways.  The spreadsheet also allowed me to add some new columns of information to collect – year published, type, and the format of the book I read. I wish I had started this log with the first book I ever read on my own back in grade school, whatever that was. I think it was a Scholastic abridgement of Up Periscope by Robb White. In the early 1970s I kept a similar log for 18 months, when I dropped out of college and read 479 books. I wish I had that list now. The older I get the more I wish I had systematically documented my life.

This year I read 67 books, up from 52 in 2013, 49 in 2012, 58 in 2011, which was my last big reading year. I thought I might read over 100 books this year since 2014 was my first full year of retirement. I know many bookworms that do read 100, 200 and even more books a year. I don’t think I’ll ever be that kind of bookworm. I’m guessing between 50-75 books is the most I can digest in one year.

I believe this year I read more nonfiction books than in past years, with 29 out of the 67, and more new books, 26 of the 67 were published in 2013 and 2014, which was my reading goal from 2013. My complete list of books read in 2014 is at the bottom of the essay. In the past I’ve listed my top five favorites, but this year I read so many great books I’m listening my top ten.

Favorite Novels Read in 2014

  1. Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote
  2. Stoner by John Williams
  3. House Rules by Jodi Picoult
  4. Possession by A. S. Byatt
  5. Timescape by Gregory Benford
  6. Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
  7. The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
  8. Summertime by J. M. Coetzee
  9. Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng
  10. The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

Favorite Nonfiction Books Read in 2014

  1. Capital in the Twenty-First Century by Thomas Piketty
  2. The Trouble with Physics by Lee Smolin
  3. Time Reborn by Lee Smolin
  4. The Beginning of Infinity by David Deutsch
  5. The Innovators by Walter Isaacson
  6. The Bully Pulpit by Doris Kearns Goodwin
  7. Short Night of the Shadow Catcher by Timothy Egan
  8. How Jesus Became God by Bart D. Ehrman
  9. Hellhound on his Trail by Hampton Sides
  10. Factory Man by Beth Macy

That doesn’t mean the other 47 books were bad, but these were the standouts. Every year I try to read one large 19th century classic. This year I read The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James. It was very good, but not great.  I also like to read old forgotten science fiction novels, and the two I picked this year, Goslings by J. D. Beresford and Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman both dealt with imagining societies of women without men. Both were engaging reads, but on the esoteric side. I only recommend them to historians of feminism and science fiction. But both were big fun to me.

I also like rereading science fiction novels I first discovered as a teen to see how they hold up. Two of my favorites from the 1960s were Nova by Samuel R. Delany and Dimension of Miracles by Robert Sheckley. Both from 1968. I still like them, and even admire them, but the tides of time are eroding their once beautiful beaches.

As an experiment, I read one book, Timescape by Gregory Benford, and then a week later listened to it, which I wrote about in “Printed Book v. Audio Book.” The experience only validated what I’ve known for years, and that is I get far more out of fiction when I listen than when I read with my eyes.

Novel and Nonfiction of the Year


I wish the Capote novel wasn’t always overshadowed by the Audrey Hepburn film. I love the movie, but the novella is on much higher plane of existence than the movie.  I didn’t discover that until this year. When I image searched on “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” all the pictures were from the movie. Even when I added “paperback” – Audrey’s beautiful face dominates. Listening to the Michael C. Hall narration of Capote’s story brought the story to life far differently from my own reading year’s ago. I’m such a poor reader of fiction that I should always leave the job to experts. I did find this old Signet paperback cover that helps forget Audrey’s, but it’s still not a cover the book deserves.

The reason why I picked Capital in the Twenty-First Century is because it’s a magnificent work of history, literary commentary and economic insight. It’s also a very significant book everyone should read.

Reading Log for 2014

Title Author Pub. Finished F/NF Format
The Beginning of Infinity David Deutsch 2011 Jan 11 NF Audio
The Master Colm Tobin 2004 Jan 16 F Audio
The Portrait of a Lady Henry James 1881 Feb 01 F Audio
Difficult Men Brett Martin 2013 Feb 06 NF Audio
The Goldfinch Donna Tartt 2013 Feb 06 F Kindle
Citizen of the Galaxy Robert A. Heinlein 1957 Feb 10 F Audio
David and Goliath Malcolm Gladwell 2013 Feb 13 NF Library HB
Dawn Octavia Butler 1987 Feb 13 F Audio
The Trouble With Physics Lee Smolin 2006 Feb 21 NF Audio
The Bully Pulpit Doris Kearns Goodwin 2013 Mar 08 NF Audio
Keep the Aspidistra Flying George Orwell 1936 Mar 09 F Audio
House Rules Jodi Picoult 2010 Mar 20 F Audio
Short Night of the Shadow Catcher Timothy Egan 2012 Mar 28 NF Library HB
Time Reborn Lee Smolin 2013 Mar 28 NF Audio
The Major of MacDougal Street Dave Van Ronk 2006 Apr 01 NF Audio
Ava Gardner: The Secret Conversation Peter Evans 2013 Apr 06 NF Library HB
Die Empty Todd Henry 2013 Apr 08 NF Audio
Brittle Innings Michael Bishop 1994 Apr 10 F Hardback
In the Heart of the Sea Nathaniel Philbrick 2000 Apr 18 NF Audio
Accelerando Charles Stross 2005 Apr 29 F Audio
The Robots of Dawn Isaac Asimov 1983 May 06 F Audio
Goslings J. D. Beresford 1913 May 10 F Audio
All Flesh is Grass Clifford Simak 1965 May 11 F Paperback
Odds Against Tomorrow Nathaniel Rich 2013 May 17 F Audio
On Looking Alexandra Horowitz 2013 Jun 03 NF Audio
The Martian Andy Weir 2014 Jun 09 F Library HB
Possession A. S. Byatt 1990 Jun 11 F Audio
Robert A. Heinlein – volume 2 William H. Patterson 2014 Jun 23 NF Hardback
Survivors Terry Nation 1976 Jun 28 F Trade PB
How Jesus Became God Bart D. Ehrman 2014 Jul 07 NF Library HB
Capital in the Twenty-First Century Thomas Piketty 2014 Jul 17 NF Audio
Did Jesus Exist? Bart D. Ehrman 2012 Jul 19 NF Library HB
The Bell Jar Sylvia Plath 1963 Aug 03 F Trade PB
Herland Charlotte Perkins Gilman 1915 Aug 08 F Audio
Factory Man Beth Macy 2014 Aug 20 NF Audio
The Postman David Brin 1985 Aug 21 F Library HB
Wide Sargasso Sea Jean Rhys 1966 Aug 25 F Trade PB
Ancillary Justice Ann Leckie 2013 Aug 26 F Audio
Breakfast at Tiffany’s Truman Capote 1958 Aug 27 F Audio
The Second Machine Age Brynjolfsson & McAfee 2014 Sep 04 NF Audio
Lock In John Scalzi 2014 Sep 08 F Audio
Dimension of Miracles Robert Sheckley 1968 Sep 10 F Audio
The Everything Store: Jeff Bazos Brad Stone 2013 Sep 13 NF Library HB
Stoner John Williams 1965 Sep 15 F Audio
The Perks of Being a Wallflower Stephen Chbosky 1999 Sep 18 F Audio
The Death of Ivan Ilyich Leo Tolstoy 1886 Sep 19 F Audio
Home is the Sailor Robin Lee Graham 1983 Sep 25 NF Library HB
A Separate Peace John Knowles 1959 Oct 03 F Trade PB
My Life in Middlemarch Rebecca Mead 2014 Oct 07 NF Audio
Hellhound on His Trail Hampton Sides 2009 Oct 09 NF Library HB
Fire and Rain David Browne 2011 Oct 13 NF Audio
Hieroglyph Finn & Kramer 2014 Oct 21 F Audio
The Collapse of Western Civilization Oreskes & Conway 2014 Oct 31 NF Kindle
The End of the World Martin H. Greenberg 2010 Nov 06 F Audio
The Five Elements of Effective Thinking Burger & Starbird 2012 Nov 10 NF Audio
Disgrace J. M. Coetzee 1999 Nov 10 F Trade PB
Nova Samuel R. Delany 1968 Nov 14 F Hardback
The Shallows Nicholas Carr 2010 Nov 19 NF Audio
Summertime J. M. Coetzee 2010 Nov 26 F Hardback
Life After Life Kate Atkinson 2013 Nov 29 F Audio
The Innovators Walter Isaacson 2014 Dec 02 NF Library HB
The Glass Cage Nicholas Carr 2014 Dec 05 NF Audio
Timescape Gregory Benford 1980 Dec 13 F Library PB
The Secret Life of the Grown-Up Brain Barbara Strauch 2010 Dec 16 NF Audio
Timescape Gregory Benford 1980 Dec 22 F Audio
Daring Gail Sheehy 2014 Dec 26 NF Library HB
Everything I Never Told You Celeste Ng 2014 Dec 31 F Audio

Plans for 2015

I want to continue reading even more nonfiction and newer books. Like I wrote the other day, I’m ready to leave the 20th century behind. My goal is to read two-thirds nonfiction next year, with most of them published in 2014 and 2015.


Printed Book v. Audio Book

By James Wallace Harris, Monday, December 8, 2014

I am reading and listening to the same book, Timescape by Gregory Benford. This 1980 science fiction novel is about the year 1998, and the Earth suffering from an environmental collapse. The reason it’s science fiction is because the people in 1998 find a way to send a message back to people in 1962 to tell them to stop doing what they’re doing. I first read Timescape back in the early 1980s, just after it came out, and then listened to it in 2007. I’m reading it again this month for a book club, but as an experiment, I thought I’d listen to what I just read a week later. This has proved to be a fascinating experiment.

When I started routinely listening to audiobooks in 2002, I discovered just how bad a reader I was. Even though I was a lifelong bookworm, and thought myself a great reader, audiobooks revealed I wasn’t. My inner narrative was sketchy and wimpy compared to what I heard by professional narrators. This was true for a number of reasons, but mostly because I read too fast. I was skimming, rather than reading. There is more to reading than finding out what happens next. A great book will be rich in details, its scenes dramatic, and its characters full of distinctive voices. Speed reading tends to gloss over the details, flattens the drama and eliminates the voices.

A dozen year later, I now read much slower. I work very hard not to skim. I keep an eye out for the clues the author gives to imagine the dramatic interaction of the characters, and their personal voice. I’ve come a long way, but not far enough. I’m rereading Timescape because I’m leading a book discussion group, and I’m summarizing each chapter.  I concentrate harder on the details of the prose and take notes.

Then a week later, I decided to listen again to the same story. As I progress over each chapter, I remember reading the words. I’m don’t think I skimmed much at all, but it’s still very obvious that I’m not getting the dramatic intent of the story. The book is narrated by Simon Prebble, and he brings so much more nuance to the story. Prebble is not making stuff up, the clues to how the characters should sound are in the narrative, I just don’t imagine the drama in my head when reading compared to what I hear in the audiobook.

Strangely, listening to an audiobook is like using a magnifying glass to examine the details of writing. Benford has created characters with distinctive voices and psychologies. He even gives his sister-in-law, Hilary Foister, credit for helping him with the British portion of the story. For instance, I’m always jarred when British people drop the definite article, like when they say, “go to hospital” or “go to university.” I don’t know why we want the definite when declaring generic places, but that’s how it is. When reading that kind of thing in Timescape I didn’t notice it, but I did when listening.

When Renfrew meets Patterson for the first time he experiences a number emotions.  Renfrew grew up a working class kid that’s made it to Cambridge, to become a physicist,  and meets the upper class Peterson, a politico who’s going to evaluate his budget for a highly theoretical experiment in times when many are starving. Renfrew is very tense, and class conscious.

     “Good morning, Dr. Renfrew,” The smooth voice was just what he had expected.

     “Good morning, Mr. Peterson,” he murmured, holding out a large square hand. “Please to meet you.” Damn, why had he said that? It might have been his father’s voice: “I’m reet please to meet ya, lad.” He was getting paranoid. There was nothing in Peterson’s face to indicate anything but seriousness about the job.”

Do you feel the paranoia from reading it? I did a little, but I felt it more when listening. Prebble even does the father’s voice with the accent and different tone, a tiny flashback. The two men sound different in the narration, sounding like what Benford tells us they sound.

This rather plain passage presents all the essential details, but when I listened to Prebble read it, I got the feeling we were decoding more of Benford’s intent. I even picture how Benford imagined the scene and wrote it. Charles Dickens was famous for acting out his characters and scenes as he wrote them. I think most good writers, even if they aren’t hammy would-be actors, at least mentally picture their scenes in a dramatic way, and hear the voices of their characters. If you read very fast all characters sound the same – your inner voice.

When readers decode fiction they can reconstruct the scene in an infinite number of ways.  I tend to think most of us readers don’t do a lot of decoding, but merely grab the basic information to move the story forward and rush on to the next fact. I have met people who claimed to see novels acted out in their heads, but I don’t.

However, when I listen to an audio book read by a great narrator, I do. It’s like a book is a freeze-dried drama and the narrator is the water that reconstitutes the story. I think this is true because the audiobook goes at a very slow pace, the pace of speech. That gives my mind time to feel the words which triggers images. Finally, the professional reader colors the narration with a rich reading voice that adds addition textures.

Benford is not a great literary writer, but Timescape is far more literary than most science fiction novels. Timescape won several awards and has been added to many best book lists. I think it succeeded because it stand outs among other science fiction novels as better written and more character driven. It also stands out because of its serious extrapolation and speculation – it’s not your typical sci-fi escapism. And I feel listening to Timescape magnifies its higher qualities beyond what I was able to perceive by just reading the book with my inner voice – which is quite plain.

As a person who’d love to write fiction, I hear in Benford’s story what I’m missing in my own writing. The details I notice under the magnification of audio narration reveal qualities in writing I aspire to acquire. I think listening to audio books can be a superior way of decoding fiction. I wonder how blind people running their fingers across the Braille page compare what they take in by touch to what they hear with their finally tuned ears. Thousands of years ago when humanity transitioned from an oral culture to a written culture, I wonder if they missed what went away when they started reading silently.

As a lifelong book worm I’ve been conditioned to seeing words, but now I’m learning what it means to hear them.


How Many Novels Can Be Our Best Friends?

By James Wallace Harris, Monday, November 10, 2014

Is it possible to know a book like a good friend? Does reading a book one time give us that best friend closeness? People often say a book changed their life, so we know some books can inspire great passion by what about lasting relationships? Does one reading let us experience the full intent of a book? I’ve read some of my favorite books many times, but I doubt I could analyze them with any depth, not like a professor of literature does with a classic. I’ve found entertainment rather than enlightenment in the books I’ve consumed. I want to change my ways. I want to pick some books and get to know them very well.

The old saying, “Too much of a good thing can be a bad thing” can be applied to almost anything. However, when I ask, “Can we read too many novels” I’m going beyond that. Most people read for pleasure. Reading is an escape, and it’s fun, so what’s the harm of reading as much as we want? Even that line of attack is not where I want to go. Sure, there’s more to life than reading books, but it’s up to all of us to decide if we read too much. When I ask, “How many novels can be our best friends” I’m asking if some books deserved to be more than just read quickly to find out what happens in the end.

Asking questions is a way to explore deeply into a subject. But I’m not questioning the value of reading for fun, I am wondering if always reading a new book isn’t hurting my ability to appreciate novels at a higher level. I’m wondering if reading too many books is like having too many friends. Are my relationships with books, even my most favorite, really just acquaintances and not close friendships? I’m not suggesting I find my perfect reading companion and become best friends forever, although that might lead to the deepest understanding possible for a novel. I am asking if reading too many books makes us miss out on the depth that novels can give us.

If you’ve ever read any great literary criticism, you’ll know that some people get a lot more out of a novel than the average reader. Just read an issue The New York Review of Books or The London Review of Books and tell me how sophisticated of a bookworm you feel afterwards.

I admit my fiction habit, is one where I consume mass quantities of words. I read in a hurry to finish, and then rush to the next story anxious to have another page turning narrative to follow. Lately, I’ve been researching the topic of effective thinking, and I realize that even though think about books more than your average bookworm, I’m far from being in the professional leagues of story masters.

This leads me to wonder if I shouldn’t have books that I get to know very well. And how many books should be on that list? Could I ever claim to be a true friend to one hundred books? I doubt seriously if I could even memorize the titles of one hundred books, so one hundred is probably too many. However many there should be, I should be able to recite their names as if they were my children. Yet, over a lifetime, I’m guessing we find between 25-100 books that resonate so well with our souls that list could be our reading fingerprint.

In Fahrenheit 451 the characters became one book they memorized. I don’t want to be monogamous to one book, but I wonder how many literary companions I could pick and still be faithful to them all? If all seven billion plus people on this planet made a list of favorite books, how many books would it take before we’d all have a unique list? Would any two people on planet Earth pick the same 15 books? Or does it take 20 or 25 before absolute uniqueness shows up? Wouldn’t it be strange if it was as small as 8? Tragically, there are millions, maybe billions of people that don’t read for fun at all.

Another way to approach this problem is to ask how many books would I’d be willing to study in 2015, including reading criticism for each novel, and to write an essay that explores the deeper knowledge I’ve discovered about story. As someone who daydreams about writing a novel, this could be very educational. Right off the bat, I’m thinking twelve, one for each month. But is that too ambitious? Are there even twelve books I’d devote extra time to in 2015?

How shall I pick? I could easily select twelve old favorites I’ve reread many times, but to be honest, they’d include a lot of books I learn to love as a kid, and they’d mostly be science fiction. Obviously I should pick old favorites that still have depths to explore, or pick new books I feel will expand my literary knowledge. But they also need to be books I’d be willing to read again and again. I can imagine picking twelve and breaking up with nine after I’m done. If I continue to pursue this quest I expect in several years to have a dozen books I’ll really feel are my best fictional friends.

I want to reread some books to get more out of them, and I want to read some new books that will push my reading skills. I wanted to pick mostly famous books so there will be plenty books about those books. I’m also thinking I’d like read books that have been made into movies, just see to how they are interpreted. I’m pretty sure I want books that have audio editions, so I can read and listen. Here’s a list of books I’m considering getting to know in 2015:

  1. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (1813)
  2. Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert (1857)
  3. Out Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens (1861)
  4. Crime and Punishment by Fyordor Dostoyevsky (1866)
  5. The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope (1875)
  6. Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser (1900)
  7. The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton (1920)
  8. Ulysses by James Joyce (1922)
  9. The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann (1924)
  10. Journey to the End of The Night by Louis-Ferdinand Céline (1932)
  11. Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston (1937)
  12. Native Son by Richard Wright (1940)
  13. Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry (1948)
  14. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov (1955)
  15. Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe (1958)
  16. The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing (1962)
  17. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Márquez  (1967)

Mostly these are new books I hope I’ll love to get to know, but a few are old books I want to reread because I think I missed a lot the first time around. In some ways I feel like I’m moving into a new phase of life, because none of these books are science fiction. I’m not giving up on science fiction, but I feel I’ve overdone the genre. I do think I’ve reached a stage where I could pick my 25-50 all-time favorite science fiction novels. For the last ten or twelve yeas I’ve been rereading the science fiction books I read when I was in my teens and twenties, and most didn’t hold up. My ultimate list will be those that do. Sadly, most novels don’t even deserve to be read once. Most of us are pretty slutty when it comes to going to bed with a book. There are a lot of faces and names we’ve quickly forgotten. Is it any wonder that I’m asking if we have too many one-night reads, and not enough serious literary relationships?