Mindfulness Inside Fiction

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Probably most people picture mindfulness as the act of sitting on a beach crosslegged meditating on existence. The word mindfulness connotates an aesthetic living alone in the desert or on a high mountain monastery in Tibet. But it also applies to you washing the dishes, taking a crap, and even being fully aware while you’re reading a book or watching television.

BE HERE NOW is an important lesson of eastern philosophy. Our minds wander all over our distractions. Mindfulness is the ability to live fully in the moment being aware of what each sense is telling us and how we process it. One of the first things you should observe is there are more than five senses. Mindfulness is the ability to keep our model of reality in sync with reality. We are not little beings peering out our heads through sensory windows at reality. Our senses recreate a model of reality inside our head which our observer assumes and acts upon as if it was the objective reality. Subjective thoughts distort the flow of data from the external reality. Mindfulness is the skill of observing all of this happen.

Many of us spend a good portion of our day inside fiction. How can we be mindful when we’re lost in reading a novel, watching a television show, or out at the movies? We substitute our cognitive model of reality with a fictional model that someone else has created. We fool ourselves into believing we are someone else, being somewhere else, doing something else. Fiction by its very nature is anti-mindfulness.

Fiction is sometimes how we communicate our models of reality. Other times, fiction is intentional replacements for our model of reality meant to entertain or provide us temporary vacations from reality. When we’re inside fiction, we’re at least two dimensions away from the external reality. The only way to be truly mindful is to constantly recall our immediate place in reality, but that spoils the magical illusion of fiction.

Is it possible to be a bookworm and be mindful at the same time? Is it possible to be mindful while inside fiction? Especially when it requires forgetting who and where we are to fully experience a work of fiction.

While I’m at the movies watching Colette, I must juggle the sensation of seeing an illusion of 19th-century Paris while sitting in a dark room in Memphis, Tennessee. I must accept Keira Knightley pretending to fool me that she is Colette, a woman who spoke another language in another time and is long dead. This is when fiction is a tool for communicating what reality might have been like for another person. Being fully mindful of the experience requires observing my memories of history and knowledge of movie making as it reacts with experiencing the film in a darkened theater.

To be mindful in such a situation requires grasping the gestalt of a complex experience. That’s why people usually pick a quiet empty room to work at mindfulness. It’s much easier to observe our mental state of the moment when not much is going on. Being mindful inside fiction requires our observer watching a symphony of mental activity and understanding how it all works together.

Generally, we consume fiction to forget our observer. When I was listening to The Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky I was imaging being thousands of years in the future and many light years away. This new model of reality was generated by whispering words into my ear. I never completely forgot the input from my senses because I listened to the audiobook while eating breakfast or walking around the neighborhood.

I believe part of being mindful while inside fiction is to observe our psychological need for that particular kind of fiction at that moment and how I’m reacting to it. I want and get something much different watching The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel than when I watch Get Shorty. What I experience while reading Friday by Robert A. Heinlein is much different from what I experience reading Swords and Deviltry by Fritz Leiber. The lack of mindfulness inside fiction lets us consume fiction in the same way we can eat a bag of potato chips without noticing that each chip was different.

If I don’t explore why my mind is entertained by stories of a 1959 housewife becoming a standup comic in New York City and a low-life thug wanting to become a movie producer in modern-day Nevada, then I’m not totally being here now.

The purpose of mindfulness is to be fully aware of who you are in the moment. So, it’s almost oxymoron to ask if we can practice mindfulness inside fiction because most people use fiction to escape who they are in the moment. But then, most people aren’t fully in the moment when they are getting dressed or even sitting in a lotus pose in front of a sunset. In the west, mindfulness is taught as a cure for the stress of living. We are told if we meditate five or ten minutes during the day it will help us handle the stress of the rest of the day. Of course, meditation is not mindfulness, but all too often they are confused as one.

One reason I’m bringing up the topic of mindfulness inside fiction is that I believe some types of fiction are polluting our minds. I have to wonder if all the violence in fiction isn’t programming our minds in subtle ways. Is there not a correlation between the mass consumption of violent fiction and the violence we’re seeing in everyday life? The other day I saw a short documentary on the history of the video game. In the 1950s video games were just blips on the screen. Today they almost look like movies. It startled me to see sequences from first-person shooters because I realized those video games were creating the same kind of scenes that mass shooters must see as they walk around blowing real people away.

I have to wonder if the rise of overblown emotional rhetoric we encounter in real life is not inspired by dramatic lines from characters in fiction. Everyday people can’t seem to express their feelings without putting them into harshest of words. Too many people can’t object to a philosophy without claiming they will kill the philosopher.

I  believe its time we extend moments of mindfulness beyond quiet empty rooms or restful respites in nature. We need to observe what fiction is doing to our minds, especially at the subconscious level. We need to be mindful why we seek fiction. We need to understand the purpose of fiction in our lives. We need to know why we turn our own lives off in favor of fictional lives. We need to know what our minds bring back from our fictional vacations.

When I first took computer courses back in 1971, I was taught an interesting acronym, GIGO. It stands for Garbage In, Garbage Out. It meant if you put lousy code and data into a computer you’d get crap for output. I believe it also applies to fiction.

JWH

What To Do When Your Favorite Writer Goes Bad?

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, December 3, 2018

This month, I’m forcing myself to read a book I hate for a book club I moderate. The book is Friday by Robert A. Heinlein. I first discovered Robert A. Heinlein in 1964 when I was still twelve and in the 8th grade. By 1966, I believe I had read all his then published novels and most of his published short stories. He was my favorite writer by far, and I was a voracious bookworm. By the end of the 1960s, I was regularly rereading his books.

Then in 1970, Heinlein came out with I Will Fear No Evil. It was the first hardback I bought as a new release. I remembered how excited I was to delve into that book and just how disappointed I was when I read it. I was surprised and disturbed that I could dislike a Heinlein book. Heinlein never wrote another book I liked. His last seven novels, published from 1970-1987 were horrible reading experiences for me. My reactions ranged from bored to being revolted. I’ve never been able to even finish Friday or The Number of the Beast, and never even tried To Sail Beyond the Sunset.

What is strange, is I often encounter Heinlein fans who prefer his later books. When I was younger I assumed the Heinlein I hated was bad Heinlein, but can that be possible when there are plenty of readers who love the works I consider bad? When I was younger I also assumed Heinlein changed. In more recent years I wondered if I had changed. I pretty much loved Heinlein in the 1960s when I was a teenager. Heinlein was a substitute father figure for me because my own father wasn’t around much. Ultimately, in the late 1960s when the generation gap was at its widest, I think I rejected both of my fathers because of political differences. Heinlein and my dad both supported the Vietnam War, and I didn’t.

In the last few years, I’ve thought about giving Heinlein a second chance. Maybe there are good qualities to his “bad” books that I missed. Maybe I am wrong in thinking books can be judged good or bad. Maybe I should also reread the “good” books to see if what I disliked about Heinlein was there all along and I just skimmed over those aspects.

I’ve also thought that Heinlein devolved as a writer as he aged. He did have medical problems that affected his thinking in later years, but supposedly surgery fixed that. Heinlein claimed until to the end of his life that Starship Troopers (1959), Stranger in a Strange Land (1961), and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (1966) were his best books, the ones that defined his personal philosophy, and the ones he wanted to be remembered and judged by. As I’ve aged, I’ve turned against all his 1960s novels. I now consider his novels published from 1952-1959 as his best, from The Rolling Stones to Starship Troopers. I tend to like many, but not all, of his shorter work published from 1939-1959.

I’m not alone. Many science fiction fans my age prefer the earlier Heinlein. Heinlein was proud of the young-adult novels he wrote in the 1950s, but I don’t think he felt they represented his insight and art. When he went to G. P. Putnam’s Sons in 1959, Heinlein felt he had been freed to write what he wanted. I think that’s when he saw himself as a mature artist and wanted to be respected as a philosophical novelist. I believe he wanted to be another Ayn Rand. I’ve only read The Fountainhead, and I’m not an admirer of Rand, so I can’t really compare them. But I know they both wanted to be influential. From Alec Nevala-Lee new book, Astounding, it seems obvious Heinlein was anxious to make an impact and disappointed that his success didn’t go beyond writing science fiction.

This month I’m making a concerted effort to understand Heinlein from one of his later works, Friday. It was first published in 1982, just six years before Heinlein died. Friday was nominated for a Hugo, Nebula, Prometheus, and Locus award, but did not win any of them. Jo Walton at Tor.com calls FridayThe Worst Book I Love.” She fell in love with the story at 17, but always knew it lacked a plot. Walton says in the end, “Even as it is, I love it for its moments of clarity and beauty. I wouldn’t be without it. I taught myself almost all I know about how to plot by lying awake trying to fix the end of Friday in my head.” That’s far more generous than I could ever be, but then she’s much younger than I am.

I can’t forgive Heinlein for creating a woman character who could rationalize being gang-raped as part of her secret agent job but wanted to slowly kill one of her rapists because he didn’t brush his teeth and use mouthwash first. The story itself is high-minded about accepting different people but spends an inordinate amount of time on when to kill folks for their bad manners. Friday Jones is an artificial person (clone) and rejected because of it, so you’d think she’d be a little more forgiving about all the capital killing snubs she feels.

The conflict in the novel is as contrived as religion. The good guys feel like bad guys to me, willing to kill people for what I think are trivial reasons, but ones they judge as highly offensive. Heinlein never defines his bad guys. They don’t have a philosophy. They don’t have an agenda. They are just a supposedly evil existential threat, ruthlessly killing and committing bad manners. But I wonder if Heinlein’s nebulous bad guys are really us, good guys from a rational world.

The “Boss” character who seems reprocessed from Heinlein’s 1949 story “Gulf” and a secret agent version of Jubal Harshaw from Stranger in a Strange Land is one self-righteous sanctimonious know-it-all. I worry that Heinlein’s great philosophical message is this character’s beliefs? If that is true, then Heinlein’s art is only the conceited gospel of his opinions.

But I have my own faults as a reader to confess. I should have set higher standards for my favorite author long ago. I can’t separate my boyish love of science fiction from any discernment of great writing. It’s taken too long to realize that great writing should be those stories that enlighten me about reality and not the fiction I most want to escape into.

The reason I loved Heinlein in adolescence is that Heinlein shared my fantasy for colonizing the solar system. That was my psychological substitute for religion when I became an atheist at age 13. Heinlein after 1959 gave up on space exploration. His fiction became all about rationalizing his personal philosophies. He gave up his ability to tell a story and create characters. Tragically, he took many of his old characters I cherished and turned them into puppet mouthpieces for this Heinlein philosophy. I never could forgive what he did with the Stone family from The Rolling Stones when turned them into sleazy swingers in The Cat Who Walk Through Walls. Even worse, they all lost their unique voice and became zombies speaking in Jubal-tongue.

But am I being too harsh on my literary hero? That’s why I’m rereading his later books. Maybe I just don’t get it. I’m giving Heinlein one last try. One of my other favorite genres is literary biographies. Most writers are tragic figures. Maybe I need to be more forgiving of Heinlein the man, and not judge him by his bad books. The literary heroes I replaced Heinlein with in the 1970s were Mark Twain, Jack Kerouac, and Philip K. Dick, none were angels, and certainly wrote their share of sinkers. Maybe I need to approach Robert A. Heinlein like I do Jack Kerouac, as a deeply flawed human who tried to justify his existence with his writing. In some ways, Heinlein is my Bronson Alcott father figure, and if Louisa May could come to terms with her crazy father, maybe I should with mine.

JWH

 

 

 

 

Bookworms Should Worship Scribd

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, November 19, 2018

Scribd is to books and audiobooks as Netflix is to movies and television shows, and Spotify is to songs and albums. For $8.99 you get all the books and audiobooks you can read or listen to in a month. The complete variety of its offerings is somewhere between Netflix and Spotify. I consider Spotify at $9.99/month the best bargain on the planet because it provides nearly every song or album I ask from it. Scribd has about 80% of the books I read for book clubs or hear about word of mouth. It has around 25-30% of the older titles I want, but that’s better than Netflix. Plus Scribd offers magazines, sheet music, and single documents. Here’s my home screen.

Scribd 800

Every month I realize the value of my $8.99 subscription more and more. Yesterday I got a sale announcement from Audible.com for about 500 books. I love these $4.95-6.95 sales, and usually, load up. I told myself I could buy ten of them. I selected 17 to whittle down, but before I did I checked Scribd. All but one was there. This left me in a quandary. Did I spend $60 and hoped I eventually get around to listening to those books or did I take a chance they’d still be at Scribd when I wanted them?

I usually end up listening to one or two books a month from Scribd, and two or three from Audible. This might change. At $8.99 versus $20-30 (I buy the annual 24-pack of credits so my Audible books are $9.56 each, but single purchased credits are $15, which would be $30-45).

I’m in two nonfiction book clubs. Saturday night my face-to-face book club picked Sharp by Michelle Dean. The ebook version was at Scribd. White Trash, Bad Blood, and Educated, the last few selections I remembered were there too. I’m also in an online nonfiction club too. I’m listening to our current selection, American Wolf as an audiobook from Scribd. Next month’s read, The Crisis of the Middle-Class Constitution is also at Scribd, as was last month’s selection, Fascism by Madeleine Allbright. We’re now nominating books for the next three months. Here are the books at Scribd that’s among the nominations:

  • The Tangled Tree by David Quammen (audio)
  • Bad Blood by John Carreyrou (audio)
  • A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived by Adam Rutherford (audio, ebook)
  • Leonardo Da Vinci by Walter Isaacson (audio, ebook)
  • The Library Book by Susan Orlean (audio)
  • My Beloved World by Sonia Sotomayor (audio)
  • Disinformation by Ronald J. Rychlak (ebook)

The nominated books that weren’t at Scribd are:

  • On Paper: The Everything of its 2000 Year History by Nicholas Basbanes
  • The Book: A Cover to Cover Exploration of the Most Powerful Object of Our Time by Keith Houston
  • Process: The Writing Lives of Great Authors by Sarah Stodola
  • Essential Essays Adrienna Rich

For months now, the books we actually select with our voting end up being on Scribd. However, this is only for nonfiction. I’m not in a general fiction book club. But for my science fiction book club, Scribd does well on new science fiction titles, but less well for older titles. The book we just picked for January, Noumenon by Marina Lostetter is available in both ebook and audiobook at Scribd.

I’ve always been a book hoarder, squirreling away books for the future. Now I need to rethink my book buying habits. I’ve practically stopped buying CDs because of Spotify. The only DVDs I buy anymore are rare titles for my western collection, everything else I stream. Is it time to rent my books too?

Every day I look at ebook sales from Amazon, BookBub, Early Bird Books, and LitFlash. At $1.99 I can’t resist a great book I think I want to read. But subscribing to Scribd is like having my own gigantic library with instant access to books and audiobooks, far more convenient that my local public library.

But owning books is so fulfilling! At $8.99 a month, even if I just used Scribd to preview the books I want to buy it’s a fantastic bargain. And if you’re a Kindle Unlimited subscriber, don’t think it compares to Scribd. Amazon doesn’t provide access to the books I want at Kindle Unlimited. Amazon seems to use up-and-coming writers and self-published books for its subscription service. And that’s a good thing for new writers, but it’s not what Scribd is doing. If you belong to a book club you really need to check out Scribd.

The reason I’m writing this essay is selfish. Scribd is just hanging on. It’s been reorganized several times. Several other book rental companies have come and gone. All are being squashed by the Amazon juggernaut. I want Scribd to survive and thrive so I will always have access to it. Give it a try if you love books.

I’m still crazy about Audible.com. I’m not going to abandon it. I’m a big fat bookworm, so I think paying for both is worth it. But for people who think Audible.com is too expensive at $15 a month, they should consider spending $8.99 a month at Scribd. It’s a much better bargain.

JWH

 

 

I Have Stage 4 Tsundoku

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, November 6, 2018

There’s a new word entering the English language from Japan, Tsundoku. I’m not even sure how to pronounce it, but I have it bad. It’s the condition of buying more books than you can ever read. I currently have 1,500 audiobooks, 1150 Kindle books, and about 700 hardback/trade paper/paperbacks. I’d say 60-70% are unread. That means my TBR pile is over 2,000 books high. My book buying is 40 years ahead of my reading if I read one book a week. And my book buying is accelerating while my reading is decreasing. I used to actually read one book a week. Now it’s 3 books a month, so I’ve got 55 years worth, and I turn 67 this month. It’s not likely I’ll finish reading what I’ve bought.

Books November 2018

Above is my reading nook. It’s deceptive though because I have more than 2,650+ books in the cloud, almost four times what you see here.

I’ve known I’ve had Tsundoku for decades, I just didn’t know it had a name. I should never buy another book. But I can’t do that. I have decided on a remedy to try to slow down my book buying. Once a  month, I need to look at the cover of every book I own. Yesterday I spent the morning and glanced at all their covers. I used Kindle and Audible libraries to look at those in the cloud. I only read the spines of all the books I have on my shelves. I plan to pull each book off the shelf and eye its cover too.

While I did this I used a Marie-Kondo-like technique and asked: Which books beg me to read them as soon as possible? The 64 below are those books. Included are a handful of books I’m halfway through or promised to read for a book club. It should take me two years just to read these books. These books show the diversity of topics I’m interested in, and my full library is even more varied in subjects. I love collecting books thinking I will read them someday.

I do know the cure to my ailment. If I would pledge to only buy books at full price I wouldn’t buy many books, and I’d actually save money. I have all these books because I love buying books are bargain prices. I love the $1.99 Kindle deal. I love Audible’s Daily Deals. And I love shopping for great deals on used books.

  • Bold is science fiction.
  • Blue is books about science fiction
  • Red is classics I’ve always wanted to read
  • The rest are a variety of nonfiction
  1. The World Beyond the Hill by Alexei and Cory Panshin (currently reading) (Kindle)
  2. Calypso by David Sedaris (current listen) (Audible)
  3. White Trash by Nancy Isenberg (book club) (Kindle, Audible)
  4. American Wolf: A True Story of Survival and Obsession in the West by Nate Blakeslee (book club) (Scribd)
  5. 21 Lessons for the 21st Century by Yuval Noah Harari (Kindle)
  6. Gather Darkness by Fritz Leiber (Kindle, Audible)
  7. I, Robot by Isaac Asimov (Kindle, Audible)
  8. The Ascent to Truth by Thomas Merton (Kindle)
  9. Generation Robot: A Century of Science Fiction, Fact, and Speculation by Terri Favro (Kindle)
  10. Sense of Wonder: A Century of Science Fiction edited by Leigh Ronald Grossman (Kindle)
  11. The Inevitable: Understanding 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future by Kevin Kelly (Kindle)
  12. The Squares of the City by John Brunner (Kindle)
  13. How to Listen to Great Music by Robert Greenberg (Kindle)
  14. Future Noir: The Making of Blade Runner by Paul M. Sammon (Kindle)
  15. Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe (Kindle)
  16. Hit Lit: Cracking the Code of The Twentieth Century’s Biggest Bestsellers by James W. Hall (Kindle)
  17. Mind Mapping: Improve Memory, Concentration, Communication, Organization, Creativity and Time Management by Kam Knight (Kindle)
  18. The White Album by Joan Didion (Kindle, Audible)
  19. iWoz by Steve Wozniak (Kindle, Audible)
  20. Foundation by Isaac Asimov (Kindle, Hardback, Audible)
  21. Blindsight by Peter Watts (Kindle)
  22. Fifth Avenue 5 A.M.: Audrey Hepburn, Breakfast at Tiffany, and the Dawn of the Modern World by Sam Wasson (Kindle)
  23. At Seventy by May Sarton (Kindle)
  24. I am Crying All Inside and Other Stories: The Complete Short Stories of Clifford Simak Volume One (Kindle)
  25. Please Please Me: Sixties British Pop, Inside Out by Gordon Thompson (Kindle)
  26. The True Believer by Eric Hoffer (Kindle)
  27. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (Kindle, Audible)
  28. How Linux Works by Brian Ward (Kindle)
  29. Justine by Lawrence Durrell (Kindle, Audible)
  30. Mind Amplifier: Can Our Digital Tools Make Us Smarter by Howard Rheingold (Kindle)
  31. Mastodonia by Clifford Simak (Kindle)
  32. The Complete Short Stories of J. G. Ballard (Audible)
  33. Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky (Audible)
  34. The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell (Audible)
  35. The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark by Carl Sagan (Audible)
  36. Twenty-Thousand Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne (Kindle, Audible)
  37. How to Create a Mind by Ray Kurzweil (Kindle, Audible)
  38. Becoming a Great Essayist by Jennifer Cognard-Black (Audible)
  39. The Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury (Audible)
  40. The Gods Themselves by Isaac Asimov (Kindle, Audible, Paperback)
  41. Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin (Audible)
  42. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith (Audible)
  43. Hackers by Steven Levy (Paperback, Audible)
  44. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (Audible)
  45. Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust (Audible, Kindle)
  46. Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler (Audible)
  47. Turing’s Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe by George Dyson (Audible)
  48. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky (Audible)
  49. A Guide for the Perplexed by E. F. Schumacher (Trade paper)
  50. The Buried Book: The Loss and Rediscovery of the Great Epic of Gilgamesh by David Damrosch (Hardback)
  51. On Rereading by Patricia Meyer Spacks (Hardback)
  52. Children of Wonder edited by William Tenn (Hardback)
  53. Children of the Atom by Wilmar Shiras (Hardback)
  54. Science Fiction by the Rivals of H. G. Wells edited by Alan K. Russell (Hardback)
  55. Brainiac: Adventures in the Curious, Competitive Compulsive World of Trivia Buffs by Ken Jennings (Hardback)
  56. Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America by Barbara Ehrenreich (Trade paper)
  57. A Requiem for Astounding by Alva Rogers (Hardback)
  58. On Writing Well by William Zinsser (Trade paper)
  59. How to Listen to Jazz by Ted Giolia (Trade paper)
  60. The Creators: A History of Heroes of the Imagination by Daniel J. Boorstin (Hardback)
  61. Crusoe: Daniel Defoe, Robert Knox, and the Creation of a Myth by Katherine Frank (Hardback)
  62. Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women by Susan Faludi (Hardback)
  63. The Five Gospels: What Did Jesus Really Say? by the Jesus Seminar (Hardback)
  64. The Fallacy of Fine-Tuning: Why the Universe is Not Designed for Us by Victor J. Stenger (Hardback)

JWH

 

 

Does Donald Trump Reveal the Percentage of Liars in America?

by James Wallace Harris, Sunday, November 4, 2018

To liberals, it’s obvious that Donald Trump is a compulsive liar. There are countless websites and newspapers that track his malarky. But what do his supporters think? Are they savvy to his fibs and accept Trump’s lies because he gets them what they want? What percentage of his followers believe he’s actually truthful? How many think his lying is only routine political shenanigans? What percentage are forgiving Trump for just being careless with facts?

I worry that there’s a significant percentage of Trump supporters who think lying is an effective way to get ahead. Does that imply that millions of Americans use lying in their own lives? Trump’s current approval rating is at 40%. Does that mean 40% of Americans approve of lying? Or even that 40% of Americans are liars?

Is Trump aware of his own false statements? Or is he psychologically blind to them? He could be a wheeling and dealing con man who says whatever is needed to get what he wants, a P. T. Barnum of politics believing we’re all suckers. I expect biographers will analyze this endlessly for centuries.

What worries me is the acceptance of Trump’s lying. Will this set a precedent? I don’t think many Americans trust politicians, but they used to expect a certain level of integrity, or at the very minimum, a certain level of an appearance of integrity. Has Trump thrown that out the window? Depends on your politics. Will any kind of integrity ever return to politics?

The Fifth Risk by Michael LewisTrump knows almost nothing about everything, but he’s got a Ph.D. in political corruption. The nightly freak show news programs that chronicle Trump’s daily antics diverts us from what’s going on all levels of government where his policies are becoming true. Just read The Fifth Risk by Michael Lewis. His appointees also use lying to get what they want too, although many of them are more skilled at lying than their master.

I’ve always hated lying and liars. I always assumed most people didn’t lie. Now I wonder. How much do people lie in their day-to-day lives? Has Donald Trump revealed that 40% of Americans are liars? Or is that 20% liars and 20% gullible believers? Donald Trump claimed he was going to drain the swamp in Washington, but has instead turned the entire nation into one massive swampland.

There’s a science fiction novel by China Miéville called The City & The City where millions of people live in one location but see two cities. Half see a city named Besźel and the other half a city named Ul Qoma. Each has their own language and culture yet occupy the same physical space. Residents of each must have a passport and go through customs to visit the opposite city. When they do they drive the same roads but hear a different language and see a different city. I’m afraid that’s how our country is becoming.

The current political climate worries me. I see the large crowds at Trump’s rallies and I wonder about those folks. They seem like the same people we see at work, play, worship, or shopping. Yet, they adore a man who tens of millions of other normal folks see as a pathological liar. I suppose it could be like climate change and his followers deny his lying. But that’s just as troubling. Do they really believe he’s not lying, or just lying that they don’t?

I worry that Trump’s supporters see a different reality than liberals. Liberals think conservatives see the false one, but conservatives are sure liberals are the deluded ones. I believe this will continue to be true if most citizens can’t tell lies from the truth. We should all work to eliminate lying, but can such a plan succeed if such a large percentage of the population find lying so rewarding?

JWH

Did the PBS Great American Read Give an Accurate Portrait of American Readers?

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, October 30, 2018

I’m a lifelong bookworm, so I loved watching the 8-part PBS special, The Great American Read. I tried to get my bookworm friends to watch the show too, but few were interested. Especially, after I told them how the voting was conducted. Fans were allowed to vote once a day for months. My friends felt the results would be skewed by ballot stuffers. And even I thought the votes would mostly be from young people who loved computers. However, the show itself interviewed a wide diversity of readers, which was inspiring. I don’t think the value of the show was about which book won the popularity poll, but showing how important reading is to so many people, young and old.

The results were announced 10/23/18. I’ve read 46 of the 100 books. It is a good list, but with several titles I thought suspicious. Are these 100 books really the favorite books Americans are reading in 2018? I wondered if there was any way I could verify their numbers against other numbers. One idea I had was to use Google’s Ngram that’s based on references in books and magazines. Unfortunately, their data only goes to 2008. Here’s the Top 5 PBS Great American Reads:

Great American Read Top 5

On the finale-night, my guess for the top five turned out to be the same order I found on Google Ngram. It turns out that To Kill a Mockingbird was always #1 in the PBS’s daily totals. It was always the clear favorite. What really surprised me was the order of the next four books. Outlander series came in as #2. Harry Potter was #3, Pride and Prejudice #4, and Lord of the Rings #5.

Was there any way I could replicate that order in other data? I then used Google Trends to track the last 90 days, roughly the time of the voting.

Google Trends PBS Great American Read

It’s hard to tell, but I think the order is Potter, Mockingbird, Rings, Prejudice, Outlander. The current search results on Google as of today is:

  1. Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling (48,300,000)
  2. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (14,400,000)
  3. Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien (10,400,000)
  4. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (5,230,000)
  5. Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon (5,000,000)

Could it be that fans voted for Mockingbird because they thought it was the best book even though they actually loved Harry Potter more? Harper Lee’s classic is one of my favorites too, and if I had to pick a “significant” book it might have been the one I voted for too. I didn’t vote because I love too many books.

Here are Google search result numbers for the next 20 books:

  • Gone with the Wind (9,280,000)
  • Charlotte’s Web (849,000)
  • Little Women (3,570,000)
  • Chronicles of Narnia (3,270,000)
  • Jane Eyre (3,410,000)
  • Anne of Green Gables (1,080,000)
  • Grapes of Wrath (1,980,000)
  • A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (3,360,000)
  • Book Thief (1,260,000)
  • Great Gatsby (10,700,000)
  • The Help (2,160,000)
  • The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (4,380,000)
  • 1984 (24,700,000)
  • And Then There Were None (2,200,000)
  • Atlas Shrugged (1,210,000)
  • Wuthering Heights (1,920,000)
  • Lonesome Dove (300,000)
  • Pillars of the Earth (701,000)
  • The Stand (114,000,000)
  • Rebecca (1,600,000)

My current favorite novel is The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert, and it has 6,620,000 Google search returns. It didn’t even make the Top 100 of the PBS list, yet if we used Google search returns, it would come in #4. The Foundation series by Isaac Asimov came in #49 and has 2,100,000 Google search returns. None of my favorite genre SF novels made the Top 100. But of course, most of my favorite SF books were popular in the 1950’s and 1960’s.

Using Google search returns relates somewhat, but also tells us that it doesn’t really correlate with the PBS poll. My assumption, popularity is hard to measure. I actually think the enthusiasm of the PBS’s Great American Read voters reflects the current tastes of America’s most passionate/fanatical readers. Even though they allowed ballot stuffing, all the voters were allowed the same chance to stuff the ballot for their favorite book. Thus the PBS poll represents the Top 100 books that fanatical readers would pick in 2018.

All eight episodes are currently available to view online. And they are still worth watching. I loved feeling the enthusiasm young people showed for reading. I loved hearing from popular writers talk about the books they loved. For example, George R. R. Martin campaigned for The Lord of the Rings. But what really choked me up and made me misty-eyed were the testimonials by readers about why they loved to read.

JWH

Analog Reading in a Digital Age

by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, September 22, 2018

I used to be able to sit with my book for hours, lost in reading. Now I’m lucky if I can make myself sit in a chair and read a book for an hour or even thirty minutes. After years of digital reading, I’m craving old fashion books again.

reading in a digital age

How and what I read has changed in these digital times. I don’t know if it’s because I’m getting older or the digital technology is changing me. Other factors come into play too, like having more content and greater variety. Or different ways to read – the printed page, the digital screen, or the audiobook.

I actually spend many hours reading every day, but it’s mostly off my PC, iPhone, iPad or Kindle. And most of those words aren’t from books. When I was younger, I was never much of a newspaper reader. I loved books and magazines. I could read for hours. I still read books, but I often don’t finish them, and I rarely read a magazine anymore. My mind has developed an impatience that leaves me too fidgety for books. Newspapers have long ago disappeared from my life, and magazines have almost faded into nonexistence. I don’t want books to go too.

Every day I spend at least an hour, maybe more reading the New York Times and Flipbook from my iPhone. Flipbook does gather content from magazines, newspapers, and websites from all over the world, so I’m actually reading articles that used to be presented in paper newspapers and magazines. But the experience is different.

In pre-digital times, my days had a smaller selection of articles to read. I would find something that interested me and generally read the entire piece. For some of my favorite magazines, I’d spend hours reading the whole issue. Now I flip past dozens of articles, maybe even a hundred, skim read ten to twenty, and hardly ever finish one. I usually add a few to Instapaper every day telling myself I’m going to go back and study them, but I seldom do.

I’ve become a vacuum cleaner of words rather than a reader. At least not in the old sense of reading. I still finish three or four books a month, but mostly via audio. I’m currently listening to Doomsday Book by Connie Willis. It’s 26 hours and 20 minutes. The action is extremely slow paced, but I’m enjoying it very much. I’m not sure if I’d have the patience to read it. I did eyeball read Men Explain Things To Me by Rebecca Solnit on my Kindle this week, but it was a mere 130 pages.

I finished Solnit’s book aching both to hear it, and to read a paper copy. Psychologically, I felt I wasn’t getting all of what Solnit had to say from the Kindle. I need to hear someone read it with the proper pacing, cadence, and inflections, plus I wanted to see the words on actual paper. I wanted to squeeze every idea out of her book, make notes, and distill all the points into one concise outline. I doubt I’ll ever take the time to do so. I did highlight passages in my Kindle and printed those out so I could discuss them with my friend Linda during our two-person book club. We discussed Men Explain Things To Me twice, but that wasn’t enough. What Solnit had to say was something I wanted to memorize, but sadly, the modern way we read means rushing on to something new.

With audio listening, I can get through very long books, including nonfiction and classic novels I never had the patience to read before. Plus I enjoy them far more. If I read Doomsday Book with my eyes I’d miss so much of its richness, especially all her work with middle English (it’s a time travel story). However, I recently discovered I was missing other aspects of novels by not reading with my eyes.

PBS is running a series now called The Great American Read. Each weekly episode has readers explain why they love their favorite books. I’ve listened to Jane Eyre, a book I would never have read with my eyes. The audiobook had a lush dramatic reading, and I admired the writing and story but didn’t really care for the characters. But when its fans were interviewed on PBS, they read a segment from the book, highlighting the words, and I realized why those fans identified and loved Jane Eyre the character.

I also saw that other readers like to savor sentences in fiction, something I don’t take the time to do. I love audiobooks because they are slow. When I was young I’d speed read through books anxious to find out what happens. I missed a lot. The slowness of audiobooks allows me to get so much more. But seeing the words of Jane Eyre on TV highlighted as a reader read them, I understood to get deeper into a book I needed to read with my eyes and go even slower.

Our technology allows us to feel we’re reading more, giving us the illusion that we’re learning more, but are we? Part of my problem is I buy far more books than I can ever read, and find far more articles each day than I can ever finish. The pressure to consume them all makes me rush by their words. Reading off the computer screen, iPhone screen, iPad screen, the Kindle screen allows me to feel like I’m mass-consuming information, but I’m not sure I’d call that reading anymore.

I love computers and technology. I have no doubts that it has enhanced my life greatly. But I’m realizing my brain can only process so much data per day. Sometimes I feel my aging brain is slowing down, but I’m not so sure. I feel much wiser at 66 than I did at 26. I know I’ve always been a skimmer over knowledge, that I’m a dilettante of learning. Digital technology gives us the illusion we’re more productive, but I don’t think it’s true.

I’m struggling with the psychology of reading. I’m discovering I need to read with both my eyes and ears and on paper, screen and headphones. That there isn’t one way to read. I’m beginning to buy my favorite books on Kindle, Audible and paper and feel the need to process the best books three times. Most books only need one “reading” but some need two or three. I’m also learning that I probably shouldn’t waste my reading hours on those one-time books anyway.

For fiction, I feel the first reading should be audio. Audio has the greatest impact if it’s read by a skilled dramatic narrator. The second reading should be on the Kindle so I can highlight passages, especially if I want to write about the book or discuss it with friends. But for longterm enjoyment, I feel I need to bond with a printed copy of the book, one that I actually admire for its cover, design, fonts, and paper.

For nonfiction, I feel it’s best to start with the Kindle edition, and then go to audio. I like a physical book to flip through randomly. I’ve always loved hardbacks, but I’m starting to think smaller trade paperbacks are nicer for flipping.

I don’t like big heavy books or books with tiny print. So any book that’s hard to hold or requires squinty-eyes to read I leave to audio or Kindle. The other day I almost bought a beautiful hardback edition of Poe’s complete works. It looked new but was only $3 used. But I realized I wouldn’t like holding it. I still regret not buying it, but it was the right decision.

For years now I’ve been buying my favorite books on audio and Kindle, but now I’m also wanting a copy to hold. The hold-in-my-hands copy must have a kind of charm, either a beautiful cover or a unique character. I’m thinking of thinning out my library so the books I keep are ones I loved to hold and read with my eyes. (Thank you Marie Kondo.)

I don’t know why this craving to read books has returned to me now. I don’t feel anti-technology. I would never give up audiobooks or Kindle reading. I guess what I’m learning is no matter how carefully I read a book, with whatever technology, I never get all it has to offer.

JWH