Rethinking Book Buying and Collecting

By James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Marie Kondo in her book the life-changing magic of tidying up: the Japanese art of decluttering and organizing has me rethinking my feelings about buying and collecting books. Her chapter on tidying up bookshelves is more than just about culling books, but how we think about them. Most bookworms love owning thousands of books. I’ve own as many as ten thousand in my lifetime—although I never read that many.

Kondo challenges us to think about why we keep books. Which leads me to wonder why I buy books. I was just at the bookstore with a gift card in hand. With each book I picked up I asked myself, “Will I read this book right away? If read it right away will I keep it? If I don’t read it right away how long will I wait to read it? And if I never read it, how long before I  give it away?”

A year ago I wouldn’t have left the bookstore empty handed, but today I did. There are a number of ways I’ve changed. First, in tidying up my books I’ve given away hundreds of them. Many of those were not read, but had been sitting on my shelves for years or decades. Tidying up has made me aware of the hundreds of books I still own waiting to be read. I’ve been keeping a books read log since 1983, and in recent times I’ve also noted in what format I read the book. Most were digital audiobooks, but of the ones I read with my eyes, ebooks are starting to overtake print books. Finally, I’ve also subscribed to which is a rental library for ebooks, audiobooks and digital graphic novels. For $8.99 a month I have access to thousands of books and audiobooks. Scribd tends to have older titles, exactly the kind I find when shopping for used book bargains.

I was spending $50-100 a month on used books and Kindle/Bookbub ebook specials. That $8.99 deal gets me more books by renting than I was by buying. So why should I buy? I’ve mostly stopped buying movies since I became a Netflix subscriber, so I think the same thing will happen with books now that I’ve become a Scribd member. Marie Kondo would be so happy.

Yet there’s more to owning books than the urge to collect. We keep books for sentimental reasons, because we feel we might reread them, or they will be reference books. I’ve always kept books because I have a crappy memory and feel I need the book as external memory. In contemplating my feelings for tidying up my bookshelves I realized its very rare for me to go back to a book. I cling to my favorite books because its an emotional way of believing those books are a part of me. One revelation is my favorite stories will always be a part of me as long as I remember those stories, and it doesn’t matter if I own the delivery mechanism in which I read their words.

I also realized that any book I want to read again is a week away via ABE Books for a few dollars, or instantly available by ebook. And it gives me a good feeling to think other people could be reading my favorite books if I let them go. So I did.

What scares me now is I might let all my books go. I’ve always loved to have people see my library. It’s my only impressive visual quality. Can I imagine being the bookworm I am without a wall of books to prove it? There is another revelation that Marie Kondo has accidently led me to comprehend. I am not the books I’ve read, but the book I’m reading.

I think our species is leaving a phase where we defined ourselves by what we own and now see ourselves by what we do.


My Weird Facebook Personality

By James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, July 8, 2015

When I browse Facebook to see what my family and friends are doing I feel that I’m the odd man out. Most people post about their social activities – going places and doing things with other people. I’m retired and seldom get out of the house. I like it that way. But I get the feeling my posts on Facebook are atypical. Instead of going somewhere physically, I pick an idea and write about it for my blog. So when I do make an entry on Facebook I just link to my essay. The ideas I explore are the interesting places I visit.

I suppose I could have checked-in when I was at the dentist’s yesterday, and uploaded a selfie with Dr. Brawner and Caroline, the lady who cleaned my teeth. Last night I went over to Janis’ house to fix her vacuum cleaner, I could have snapped pictures of her disassembled Hoover and her dogs Zoe and Jolie getting in the way. Instead I posted a link to my blog about getting a general education after we leave school. I wonder which would have been more interesting to my Facebook followers?

Facebook is a fascinating phenomenon. It seems to be the perfect tool for keeping up with relations. In the old days you’d see your relatives on Christmas and Thanksgiving. Facebook lets you see what they are doing year round. Since Susan and I have no children it lets us keep up with nephews and nieces. But I must appear to be a rather eccentric uncle.

I don’t think my blogging is very interesting to my Facebook family. I get the most likes when I do something normal, like go to a movie or a concert. Which makes me think I should do more normal things to have something to put on Facebook. Now, it’s different with my Facebook friends. Most of the people I know on Facebook that are like me, post about ideas rather than activities. Usually, it’s about inspirational sayings, politics, liberal and conservative causes, news, technology and funny videos.

This makes me think that there could be interesting psychological studies done on what people post about on Facebook. I wonder if they could classify Myers Briggs personality types by Facebook posts or likes? Would other INTJ people makes introverted posts like mine? Could an artificial intelligence program analyze Facebook and classify people in new way? If I had the patience and time I could probably study Facebook regularly and come up with some classifications on my own.

Myers-Briggs and Social Media Report” does classify M-B types by social medial usage. However, if you look at this Google search, you’ll see that lots of people are exploring this idea. “Private traits and attributes are predictable from digital records of human behavior” is one scientific paper (warning it’s hard to read).

But do I need to read scientific studies to know I’m an fringe type on Facebook? Not really. What I really think is interesting is how people reveal more about themselves on Facebook than they do at casual social events. Which makes me wonder, how many people create public faces for their social media that’s not their true selves? Remember high school and worrying about popularity? I never did. I was a dorky geek. But for those people who did worry about popularity, I’d think they’d carefully curate their Facebook personality.


Is Science Fiction Wrong About Space Travel?

By James Wallace Harris, Sunday, May 24, 2015

A good case could be made that science fiction inspired space travel. Few people contemplate space travel without exposure to science fiction. Science fiction is so embedded in our culture that it would be very rare to find a young child that doesn’t know about science fictional ideas. Traveling to other worlds is science fiction’s most successful concept, and believing humanity’s future involves exploring the final frontier is practically wired in our genes.

What if science fiction is wrong about space travel? What if manned space travel to the planets and other star systems is just impractical? What if the final frontier is just a big fantasy? After one big leap we’ve chosen not to go anywhere for over forty years. What does that say? The more we learn about how dangerous it is for humans living off Earth, and how long they’d have to travel to get anywhere, it seems more and more practical to stay home and send machines.

When I was growing up in the 1950s and 1960s science fiction was all about space travel. Kids today embrace dystopian stories set on Earth. Has there already been a psychic shift by the young? Do the kids growing up today no longer see space travel in their future? Have young people decided that space travel is only appealing to geologists and robots?

I saw Interstellar for the second time last night, and although I really loved the film, it was all too obvious that it’s a fantasy on the same order as those offered by religion and children’s stories. This made me wonder if science fiction can envision humans living millions of years on Earth without going anywhere. I think it’s possible to send people into space, even to the stars, but will we?

Humans aren’t very farsighted, otherwise we wouldn’t be destroying the Earth. We’re big on fantasies, and small on reality. Is The Game of Thrones a better oracle about future humanity than Star Trek? Is science fiction wrong about space travel?

What if we don’t go to Heaven or Alpha Centauri? What if Earth is our final destination? The faithful give meaning to their lives by believing in Heaven, and many humanists found meaning in the final frontier. If we never leave Earth, can we find meaning staying home?


Should I Buy An iMac?

By James Wallace Harris, Saturday, May 23, 2015

I regularly use the following computer applications: Chrome, Outlook, Windows Live Writer, Word, Spotify, Photoshop, Xmind and Excel – pretty much in that order. The application I spend most of my writing time in is Windows Live Writer, a tool for writing blogs. Microsoft has not updated Live Writer since 2012, and it looks like it will be abandoned when Windows 10 rolls out.

I’ve been using a personal computer since 1979. My life since then has been one long history of learning new programs, getting attached to them, and then having them ripped away from me. This pisses me off. Windows Live Writer is considered by most reviewers as the best blog editor by far. I now need to decide if I want to cling to Windows 7, or upgrade to Windows 10. Windows 10 will be a free upgrade for its first year, that’s a huge enticement to switch.


The obvious solution is to start using the web based editor built into the WordPress. I’ve spent years using Live Writer, so that’s going to be a painful. I’ve been looking at reviews of other standalone applications for blog editing, and nothing comes close to the web application WordPress offers.

Is the lesson here to give up on local applications altogether and switch to web applications? I just bought a Chromebook and that’s also forcing me to work in the cloud. But if I do switch to all web apps, then it won’t matter what computing platform I use – Windows, Mac, Linux or Chrome. Does that also tell us something about the future? These changes could portend big changes down the road.

I decided to stick with Windows because of Windows Live Writer. For years I’ve thought about buying an iMac. That urge became a craving when that beautiful 27″ 5k iMac came out. But I’d always think, “What about Windows Live Writer?” Nothing is stopping me now.

Yet, I have to wonder, “Why buy a Mac?” If I do everything inside Chrome, why care about an OS? Won’t it be overkill? Does the OS x or Windows 10 even matter? If I buy an iMac, won’t it just become a very expensive Chromebook?

Will we stop buying computer programs like we’ve stopped by music CDs? I already subscribe to Office 365. I mainly do it for Word and Outlook, both of which are free if you use the web versions. The free version also includes Excel. Google Docs has me covered too, for those programs. And I’m sure I could find web applications for the other programs I use.

The two programs I’d miss the most are Live Writer and Outlook. I’m writing this post in the WordPress web app, and it’s not bad. I could adjust to it if I had to. Is this the future of personal computing? Are computers just going to become different sized screens with the operating system becoming invisible? I understand why Microsoft is pushing so hard to get market share with its phone and tablet. Since I have an iPhone and iPad, why shouldn’t my next computer be an iMac? Microsoft really should have kept supporting Windows Live Writer.

Hold on though. If the need for Windows and OS X is disappearing, why do we need iOS and Android? Is it possible to have a future where we buy phones, tablets and desktops without reference to the operating system? When we buy a television we don’t think about how it does its magic.


The Inspiration of Pain

By James Wallace Harris – September 28, 2014

I haven’t been writing this week because I have a pinched nerve in my neck that makes my arm ache if I sit at the computer. This has been very depressing.  What’s that old saying about not knowing what you’ve got until it’s gone? Man is it true!  One reason I haven’t hated having the spinal stenosis and not being able to walk much or stand for long periods of time, is because I could sit and work at the computer to my heart’s content.  I hope some physical therapy will solve my neck and arm problem, because my dream years of retirement are planned around sitting at a computer.

Another old saying comes to mind – “Necessity is the Mother of Invention.”  It’s funny how so many of these cliched old sayings mean so much more when you’re in pain.  Since I can’t sit in a regular chair I wondered if I could type with a computer in my La-Z-Boy. Since I don’t travel I don’t keep a laptop handy, but luckily I had my wife’s old one in the closet. I spent all day yesterday and the day before trying to get a version of Linux on that old laptop. Every version I tried had trouble with the video or wi-fi card, or the system would flat out crash. I eventually discovered that an older version of Ubuntu, 12.04, would work, and I could make it work with the video and wi-fi. I also learned that even though I think Elementary OS is more beautiful than Ubuntu, Ubuntu is more suited to my needs because of the apps it runs.

I’m now writing in my La-Z-Boy with the laptop on a cutting board and me reclined. I needed the cutting board because this old HP laptop runs so hot it burns my legs. But the experiment works, my left arm doesn’t hurt nearly as much as sitting up. It’s one temporary solution inspired by pain.

This morning I watched “Building a monument to wounded warriors” on CBS Sunday Morning about a new monument on the Washington Mall devoted to permanently disabled soldiers from all wars. They interviewed a number of solders and they each explained how their disability inspired them to overcome obstacles and to become even better people. That really made me feel wimpy. I don’t want to not write, so I have to be like them and think of ways around the obstacles. Even this solution is wearing on my arm, but I can’t stop.

I’m also reminded of the book, The Mind’s Eye by Oliver Sacks, about people who suffered visual problems because of a stroke. Sack’s book is far scarier than anything Stephen King has ever written. It’s one thing to overcome pain and disability, it’s another thing altogether to overcome altered states of being. The thing is, unless your dead you have to keep moving forward, and it’s surprising how much a human can adapt.

Besides fixing up an old computer with Linux, writing this essay has forced me to learn to write with the WordPress editor under Chrome. That’s good because I’m thinking about getting a Chromebook. It would be much lighter and cooler to use when writing from my lap, but it means giving up all the Microsoft Windows tools I’m so used to using now. And that’s part of the lesson of adapting – doing things in a new way.

When I first configured this Ubuntu Linux machine I also found software to replace all my Windows applications. Then it occurred to me that Chromebooks mean doing everything in Chrome and I could try that now. This has been an excellent lesson. It’s so damn annoying not to be doing things my old way, but I’m learning that there are many ways to do something and I shouldn’t be so attached to any particular way, especially if my body is going to keep changing on me.


Read Like You’re Stranded On A Deserted Island

The Guardian ran an article that I have written several times on my blog. Multiple the average number of books you read in a year, times the number of years you think you’ve got left to live, and that gives you how many books you have left to read in your lifetime. I figure I have 500-1,000. I already own over a 1,000 unread books, and I buy new ones at the rate maybe 5 a week. So, I’m buying another 2,500-5,000 books before I die, even though I’ll only read 500-1,000 more books.


This brings up all kinds of problems, beyond the obvious stupidity of buying books that I’ll never read. The math is simple! I read one book a week, and I buy five? Could I be any more stupid?

Each week I read a book—and that week might actually be my last week on Earth. Or it might be one of a 1,000 weeks I might have left. Either way, should I ever read a so-so book? Or even a merely very good book? I’m pretty sure there are way more than 1,000 excellent books out there that I haven’t read. So, each week, should I think to myself, “Hey, let’s pick a mediocre book and read it this week!”

Everyone loves to play that game – “What one book would you take to a deserted island?”  Isn’t that how we should be think every time we pick up a book to read?  Read every book as if it was our last?

I read one book a week.  I should always think to myself that this week could be my last.  Shouldn’t the book I pick to read be one that’s at least deserted island worthy?

It’s not like we’re short on great books.

I should do two things.  First, don’t buy books until I’m ready to read them.  Second, don’t read anything less than a great book.

JWH – 6/1/14

How Many Days Can We Remember? How Man Days Should We Remember?

If we all lived to be a century old, we’d have 36,524.2 days to remember.  If you sat down with a pack of 3×5 index cards and wrote about one memorable day on each card, how many days do you think you could remember?  How many of those memories can you attached to a specific date?  Most of our life is quickly forgotten, but technology arising in the 20th and 21st century is letting us document our days.  So it might be possible to record our entire life.  What will that mean?

For the past week I’ve been scanning in old pictures Susan and I have inherited after the deaths of our parents.  Each photo documents a moment in time in our family and friends lives.  It’s a lot of work just to organize a couple thousand pictures, imagine if you had lifetimes of 24×7 video of all your ancestors to archive?  This Google Glass video will give you an idea of what that would be like

Google Glass will be more of a game changer than the smartphone, we just don’t know it yet.  I have almost a century of family photos, and each picture is just one frame, without sound, a visual instant in person’s life.  I look at my photographs and wonder about each, trying to imagine what my parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, great aunts and great uncles, and countless cousins lives were like.  For most scenes I can only fantasize what they were.  How would it be different if I had 60 frames a second, times 60 seconds, times 60 minutes, times 24 hours, times 365 days, times 100 years?  3,156,000,000 images.  And that’s with sound and words and voiced emotion to explain everything.  I’d really know all about my mysterious ancestors rather than just guessing at what their lives were like.  I actually know what they thought about how they lived.

My parents, grandparents, and great grandparents all had photography and writing, but they left me very little evidence to explain their lives.  I wished they had left more.  I doubt they spent much time thinking about what they’d say to the future and spent all their conscious moments living in the present.  But we have another choice.  We can talk to the future, in high definition video no less.  What will we say?  What should we say?

Google Glass is the ultimate selfie.  Will it make terrible narcissists out of us all?  The philosophers tell us the unexamined life is not worth living, but can we take that too far?  Or will this technology make us humble and objectively self-aware?

Even the video above is telling – will we all try to experience as many film worthy events as possible, to validate our existence?

People put photos and write about their experiences now on Facebook, but how often do we do something worth remembering?  Facebook has become a public diary and most people chronicle their days documenting the most mundane of events.  Do all my family and friends need to know I went to a movie or ate out at a popular chain restaurant?  Do I need to remember that a year from now? Will anyone after I’m dead want to know about it either?  If I went on a hot air balloon ride or sky diving, then yes.  But what normal activities should we record for ourselves, our friends, and for our descendants who wonder about the lives of their ancestors?  I’m sure we don’t want to just remember birthdays, Christmases, graduations and weddings.

What moments in your life express and define who you are more than other moments?

How often have you experienced something that you said at the time, “I want to remember this moment forever!”

What days are really are worth remembering?

What if we imposed a limit?  Let’s say good manners and practical time limits will determine how narcissistic we can be, but I also think who our intended audience will determine the amount of information we should save.  Now that I’m getting older, I wish I had vast amounts of documentation about my life simply because I can’t remember most of it.  My father died when I was 18, and my grandfathers died before I could remember them at all.  My grandmothers died when I was about 20.  So I never really knew any of them.  I wish I had a book length autobiography from each, with plenty of photos and a DVD of videos.  And even though my mother lived to be 91, and I got to hear her side of things, I would like to know what she would have chosen to say about herself in such a summary.

Facebook and Google Glass will gather a lot of raw material for own autobiographies, if we decide to write them, and we probably should.  Such a memorial would be much more informative than merely having a gravestone.  Facebook, Google Glass, and smartphones with cameras and video cameras, are letting us to collect vast amounts of data about ourselves.  What we need now is software to help us organize it all.  And we need models to emerge on how best to summarize our lives, and rules of etiquette for how narcissistic we should be.

JWH – 1/20/14