Tidying Up Beyond Marie Kondo

By James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, August 23, 2016

The KonMari Method of tidying up one’s life focuses on household possessions, but I’ve been thinking of ways of decluttering my mind, my routine activities, my computer, my physical and digital subscriptions, and what I own in the cloud. In the 21st century, ownership can be quite different from the 20th century, because many of the things we once physically held can be digitized. Then, there’s the whole issue of own versus rent – house v. apartment, car v. Uber, DVDs v. Netflix, magazines v. Texture, CDs v. Spotify.

I have many rooms in the cloud that need tidying up.

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For example, I have this blog at Auxiliary Memory, but I also have a traditional web site at a hosting service for The Classics of Science Fiction. That site has been static for years because I’ve forgotten how to program in PHP and MySQL. I’ve been meaning to update my data, but that would mean a tremendous amount of work. I recently moved the content from my web site to this site, and that has simplified things. I will soon be able to cancel my hosting service. One less bill, and one less room in the cloud to keep tidy.

My friend Mike and I are working to update the Classics of Science Fiction list. My first plan to simplify was to move from a hosted MySQL server to using Access on my local computer. Then Mike suggested we jettison the database and use a spreadsheet for our data. Even simpler. Then we decided to even jettison the spreadsheet, and keep the data in .csv text files that we process on the fly. Mike is writing a program that will generate HTML code for using on my blog. Once you take the tidying up process beyond mere possessions, it become obvious that clutter is everywhere.

Another way I could reduce the psychological clutter in my life is by focusing my writing. Right now I write about whatever idea grabs my fancy – often because I’m fascinated by everything. The trouble is I can put in hours of work on some ideas and get no readers, and for other topics get hundreds of hits. Auxiliary Memory could be greatly improved if I narrowed the topics I covered. This would spill over to my reading, documentary watching and thinking. I could declutter my mind by deciding which subjects I want to truly learn, and which I should ignore.

Marie Kondo has a lot to say about getting rid of books. For a bookworm, that’s very hard to do. One way I’ve cheated is to stop buying physical books when I can, and bought ebooks instead. Out-of-sight is out-of-mind. But now my Kindle library is becoming cluttered. The same thing has happened with my music. I ripped my CDs and put them in the cloud, but I mostly play music from Spotify, so I have three large libraries of music to deal with – physical, cloud and rented. If I committed completely to Spotify I could simplify things greatly. I got rid of about 600 CDs, kept 600 that were my absolute favorites, and have another 600 I’m trying to decide if I should keep or jettison. I only play CDs on rare occasions. I wonder if it’s time go completely digital?

I moved my photographs to the cloud, so I have two large collections – one physical, one in the cloud. Is it time to commit to just one?

I gave up cable TV years ago, but ended up subscribing to several digital services. I just canceled Hulu, Pandora and The Great Courses Plus. They are all great services, but ones I seldom use. I was also subscribing to several digital magazines through the Kindle. I canceled them. I’m torn about Texture. It’s $15 a month and lets me read 150 magazines, but I hardly use it. On the other hand, it lets me have access to magazines that would otherwise clutter up the house. Then again, maybe it’s time to give up magazine reading. I actually spend most of my journalistic reading via free web content on my iPhone. I subscribe to The New York Times on the web. It’s great content. But I often forget to read it.

I do worry that all this decluttering is impacting the economy. If everyone followed a Zen-like path of simplicity, the economy would go down the drain. Can we create a decluttered economy that provides jobs for all?

The biggest way I can simplify my life would be to sell the house and downsize. I’m tired of repairs and worrying about the yard. I’m tired of furnishing rooms we don’t use. I’d love to move to a retirement community where I lived in an apartment or condo without a yard, but I worry about noise pollution. I love playing my music loud, and my movies in surround sound, and I hate hearing neighbors. I’m sure they’d hate hearing me. I suppose to could live with headphones.

I’m not quite ready to pull the trigger on moving, which means I need to keep tidying up this house. After Susan and I went through one phase of Marie Kondoizing, getting rid of several hundreds pounds of junk, we felt much better. But I think we could still jettisons hundreds of pounds more.

Once you start thinking about clutter, you see it everywhere.

JWH

Who Still Reads 1950s Science Fiction?

By James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Why are people still reading science fiction from the 1950s? I’m always leery to read science books more than a few years old, but crave science fiction written before NASA was created. I’m not alone in preferring moldy, aged SF, but I have no idea how many other fans are like me. I belong to an online book club, Classic Science Fiction, and many of the members prefer 1950s-1970s science fiction. But then, most of us collect social security too, so it might be nostalgia. There are a few younger members, and I’ve wondered how they got hooked on reading SF meant for their parents and grandparents. I’ve been updating “The Defining Science Fiction of the 1950s” with links to Amazon. Most of the books listed are still in print, although many are only available for the Kindle, or from Audible.com.

Are these books bought by old folks remembering, or new folks discovering?

Defining My Task

I know this essay will interest damn few people. I’m going to put a lot of time and effort into writing it, and few will read it. My hope is it will be a honeypot that will attract those folks who also love reading 1950s science fiction, so please leave a comment. My theory is science fiction from this era has distinctive qualities and appeals. My goal is to begin to define those attributes and attractions. I say begin, but I’ve tried this before. Like psychoanalysis, you can’t discover all self-knowledge in one session. I don’t know why I can’t let this past go. And I don’t know how much debugging it will take before my brain will be free.

New is Better

Personally, I believe the best science fiction books written in the last twenty-five years are better crafted than the best science fiction written in the 1950s. Now I’m talking about writing, storytelling, characterization, plotting, and all the mechanics of creating a book. With every decade I believe the skills of writers are evolving. I also believe the imagination and science that goes into science fiction has constantly progressed over the decades. So, why bother reading old science fiction at all? Few science fiction readers read science fiction from the 1920s and 1930s. It’s just too primitive. Most have stopped reading science fiction from the 1940s and 1950s. The 1960s seems to be the oldest science fiction that many modern readers discover, with books like Slaughterhouse Five, Dune, A Wrinkle in Time, Stranger in a Strange Land, The Left Hand of Darkness and The Man in the High Castle.

Time is hard on science fiction. It doesn’t age well. Reading science fiction is the most exciting when you’re under twenty-one. And since every generation has its own hope for the future, the science fiction they embrace is what’s new and exciting. By its very nature, science fiction tends to invalidate its past. Except…

Nostalgia for the Golden Age

If you remain a science fiction fan long enough you come back around to where you began. Most readers go through a science fiction reading phase, and eventually move on to other genres. Most people just dabble with science fiction. The kind of reader I’m trying to identify is different. Science fiction was their childhood religion, born again into faith in the future, like the theological have a faith in the past. Sometimes I feel my obsession with comprehending old science fiction is a kind of exorcism. I’m trying to deprogram myself. Other times I assume it’s just a dynamic of getting older, and I’m merely seeking comfort reads.

I worry as I get older, I’m being sucked into a black hole of nostalgia. I fight this by reading as many nonfiction books and novels published in the current year as I can, but all too often I discover myself returning to books from the 1950s and 1960s. Lately, I’ve been watching old episodes of Gunsmoke and Perry Mason, preferring the ones that came out in the 1950s. I even bought the first season of Gunsmoke from 1955. And I started listening to Gunsmoke’s radio show that came out in 1950. I don’t think that’s typical for folks of my age, since all my friends love new television shows, movies and books. I wonder if I have some kind of time disease that makes me want to travel to the past.

When I was growing up, the Golden Age of Science Fiction was considered 1938-1946,  mostly due to the editorship of Astounding Science Fiction by John W. Campbell. Certainly many of the classic science fiction short stories I read in the early 1960s were reprints from that era. Then Peter Graham said, “The Golden Age of science fiction is 12.” That felt so right that no other age has ever usurped it. The science fiction that imprinted on me at age 12 is the atomic clock by which I’ve measured all science fiction since.

My favorite SF novel in 2015 was Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson. I admire it for great intellectual speculation. But, it’s no match emotionally for my favorite generation ship story, Orphans of the Sky by Robert A. Heinlein. Orphans first appeared in book form in 1963, reprinting two novellas from 1941, “Universe” and “Common Sense” that were originally published in Astounding Science Fiction.  I turned 12 in 1963. Aurora is a much more ambitious and sophisticated novel than Orphans in the Sky. Aurora had more to say about science and science fiction, but it’s the Heinlein story that resonates with my heart.

Time out of Joint by Philip K. DickAll my favorite Heinlein, Asimov and Clarke books were published in the 1950s. I came of age in the 1960s, and my favorite science fiction writers from that decade are Delany, Dick and Zelazny. All their books are dated. They weren’t always enlightened when it comes to political correctness by today’s standards. And they were all men. Two were gay, but I didn’t know that at the time.

The real question is: Are these old science fiction books still readable, still lovable, by later generations who have no nostalgic ties to the past? Who still reads 1950s science fiction?

When Old Becomes Classic

I recently wrote “The Classics of Science Fiction in 12 Lists” over at Worlds Without End. It’s fascinating to see which science fiction books from the 1950s are still being remembered. Because some of these lists were from polls, I assume many of the voters were young. Studying the lists though, show more titles from the 1960s than any other decade. Does that mean 1950s science fiction is finally fading away? Some of the 1950s SF titles are books now taught in school like The Martian Chronicles and Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. Of the thirteen lists, here are the 1950s books that were at the top of those lists. I note how many lists each were on.

Literary Recognition

Most of the 1950s science books that are available today are from a few publishers that specialize in reprinting old science fiction. Not always. I was surprised to see The Chrysalids by John Wyndham in print from New York Review Books Classics. Does that mean the literary elite are finally accepting the genre hoi polloi? They also publish Chocky, a 1968 book also by Wyndham. What really blew my mind, was NYRBC has a collection of Robert Sheckley stories, Store of the Worlds. And just when I thought I couldn’t be anymore amazed, I saw they have reprinted The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe (1973) by D. G. Compton. This is about as shocking as when Library of America began reprinting Philip K. Dick. But, we’re getting away from the 1950s. On the other hand, it suggests that some science fiction is being remembered by people other than old farts who grew up reading science fiction.

I should note that The Foundation Trilogy has been reprinted by the Everyman’s Library, which is a nice distinction too.

Remembering Old Books at the Movies

Of course, the main way modern people remember old books are when they are made into movies. Childhood’s End (1953) by Arthur C. Clarke, was recently shown as a SyFy miniseries. The Ray Bradbury books mentioned above have movie and television versions. The Day of the Triffids (1951), again by Wyndham, has had many visual interpretations. Heinlein’s Starship Troopers (1959), The Puppet Masters (1951) and “All You Zombies…” (1959) have film versions to remind young people to read his books. I, Robot (1950) by Isaac Asimov was remembered in film, but only in title. It would be great if someone would film the stories. And I Am Legend (1954) by Richard Matheson and The Body Snatcher (1954) by Jack Finney are remembered for their horror and science fiction. Most of the science fiction we remember from the 1950s actually comes from the classic SF movies of the 1950s.

Collecting Pulp Magazines

Robert A Heinlein_Have Space Suit Will Travel F-SFCollectors might be a large segment of 1950s science fiction fans. They seek out old science fiction magazines, first editions from specialty presses like Gnome and Fantasy, or first editions of what’s now consider classic science fiction of the the 1950s. Some collectors go after hardbacks with dust jackets or paperbacks with wraps by artists they love.

By the the 1950s, the magazines had switched from pulp format to digest size. So true pulp collectors mine the 1940s and earlier for their collecting habit. Some of those digest magazines are showing up on the internet. A mostly complete run of If Magazine is available at Archive.org, part of its Pulp Magazine Archive. It’s a shame that some authors felt the need to request their stories be pulled. It’s like they have erased themselves from 1950s SF history. I wish the copyright laws made an exception for magazines, so that any periodical older than 25 years could be archive online if the entire issue was scanned as one document. I doubt authors would lose sales. Evidently many people wanted to read the old If Magazines. They have over a quarter-million views. From time to time I meet pulp magazine collectors. Lately they swap digital scans, but in the old days I knew guys who owned thousands of the original magazines, but those artifacts are disintegrating. It’s great pulps and digests are being preserved online, but it’s a shame copyright laws don’t support those efforts. Many of the novels we know from the 1950s first appeared in a 1940 pulp. Another favorite title, Galaxy Magazine, is showing up at the archive. I’m waiting for F&SF and Astounding, the top venues.

What Was Unique?

The Puppet Masters by Robert A. HeinleinUltimately, any novel is about the times in which it was written. Science fiction books from the 1950s were really about the 1950s, and not the future. For those people who didn’t grow up during that decade, what does 1950s science fiction convey about those years? I was born in 1951, so the 1950s were my childhood. My memories of the 1950s were of vast suburbs filled with tiny track houses, hordes of kids playing in the streets, wearing cowboy hats, six-guns, fake coon-skin hats, or space helmets, watching Saturday morning cartoons, or Saturday afternoon Tarzan flicks, hanging around at night observing the grown-ups smoking and drinking, begging for sips, while listening to them argue about divorces and shrinks, or kooky stuff like UFOs, Bridey Murphy and Edgar Cayce, or scary stuff like atomic bombs and fall-out shelters. My 1950s wasn’t Leave It to Beaver 1950s, but we loved watching those television shows that define the 1950s today. Even back then we knew life wasn’t like television, but we wanted it to be.

My life as a kid in the 1950s was a whole lot like Peanuts. The adults lived in their world, and we kids lived in ours. By today’s standards my parents would have been jailed. I walked to school starting in the first grade. When we lived in cities I ranged for blocks on my bike, when we lived in the country, I ranged for miles hiking the woods. I discovered science fiction in the 1950s via black and white television, with tales of space patrols, alien invaders, and monsters. Even though my mother forced me to go to church, I never got Christianity. I believed in rockets and space travel. And that’s probably why I keep returning to 1950s science fiction. It was my religion.

Strangely, the book the reminds me most of my 1950s is Confessions of a Crap Artist by Philip K. Dick. It was written in 1959, but not published until 1975. Most people were Beat back then, not just the Beatniks. Life was simpler, but it had an edge that doesn’t come through in the old TV shows. Maybe that’s why I like Gunsmoke today, it showed more of the grit of my childhood. Actually, all of the PKD’s literary novels remind me of the 1950s. But so does his science fiction novels. Those were about nuclear war, paranoia, invasions, and alienation. Americans in the 1950s worried that Russia was going to bomb us out of existence, and commies had infiltrated our friends and associations. The pod people of The Invasion of the Body Snatchers were a perfect stand-in for fear of communism. Ditto for Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters. And those writers combined fear of communism with the UFO craze. Few today remember the wackiness of UFOs.The Body Snatcher by Jack Finney

1950s science fiction spent a great many words imagining the collapse of civilization. But it also imagined colonizing the solar system, and even other solar systems. 1950 began with children’s shows about space patrols, that many adults got hooked on. Long before 1966’s Star Trek we had 1956’s Forbidden Planet. 1950s science fiction often pictured a space patrol as another branch of the American military services. 1950s imagined World Governments, United Planets, and Federations of Star Systems. You have to wonder what happened to America when in 1977, the galaxy became an evil empire.

Another common theme in 1950s science fiction was psychic powers. Science fiction writers believed supermen and superwomen would evolve any day. Childhood’s End in 1953 imagined our replacements, Homo superior, doing away with Homo sapiens. Clarke recycled that theme in the psychedelic sixties with 2001: A Space Odyssey. Theodore Sturgeon and Zenna Henderson wrote about strange people that you wondered if they were mentally ill, gifted or psychic. And John W. Campbell went overboard at Astounding promoting Psi-powers. I don’t know why so many sci-fi stories in the fifties were goo-goo for the woo-woo, but maybe it was a wish for transcendence. In many ways it prefigured the New Age movement that emerged in the 1970s. But some Americans have been hung-up on psychics since 1848, and the Fox sisters.

That’s the thing about reading 1950s science fiction today, or even other novels from that decade. I came of age in the Psychedelic Sixties, and we thought we were unique. But the more I read from the 1950s, the more I realized everything that was going to happen in the 1960s began staging in the 1950s. Before Hippies there were Beats. Before Timothy Leary and LSD there was Aldous Huxley and The Doors of Perceptions (1954). Even though I didn’t discover Jack Kerouac until the late sixties, he became a substitute father-figure when my dad died in 1970. They were about the same age, and both were drunks dying months apart. I’ve been trying to grasp their 1950s ever since.

A harder thing to explain about 1950s science fiction is the humor. You’ve just got to read Robert Sheckley to understand what I mean. Or Fredric Brown. Or the satire of Vonnegut, Tenn, Pohl and Kornbluth. Or the bizarreness of Philip K. Dick. Both F&SF and Galaxy featured lots of humor and satire. I didn’t start buying these magazines until the mid-sixties, but I grew up devouring their old annual collections I found in libraries. I began unearthing the 1950s in 1962.

So many of the great science fiction stories of the 1950s were about the end of the world, or the collapse of civilization. Some of my all-time favorite novels are about the end of the world as we know it, like Earth Abides (1949) by George R. Stewart, On the Beach (1957) by Nevil Shute, or Alas, Babylon (1959) by Pat Frank.

The 1950s were strange in that people thought civilization was coming to an end and hoped to expand civilization across the galaxy. What a schizoid dichotomy.  And I grasped that as a kid. Maybe that’s the trip that got laid on me that I’m trying to understand. To me, the absolutely best inheritance I received from the 1950s were the Heinlein juveniles I first discovered in 1964, when I was still twelve (the Golden Age of Science Fiction). In fact, all my reading of science fiction feels like it’s been downhill ever since I first read Have Space Suit-Will Travel, Tunnel in the Sky, Time for the Stars, The Rolling Stones, Red Planet, Starman Jones, Farmer in the Sky, Between Planets, Space Cadet, Citizen of the Galaxy, The Star Beast and Rocketship Galileo. There were other young adult SF from the 1950s that I loved; books by Andre Norton, Isaac Asimov, Donald Wolheim, and the whole series from Winston Science Fiction. But the Heinlein twelve were always the pinnacle of SF for me.

All those kid SF books from the 1950s instilled a belief I’d grow up and live in space. That didn’t happen. Maybe its that promise of a future that never came to be that keeps me reading old science fiction. In some ways I feel like a person that’s died and learns there’s no heaven. Do those of us who read old science fiction do so because we’re trying to recapture the promises of the golden age? I’ve long known science fiction was my religion substitute growing up. Even though I became an atheist to SF long ago, it still haunts me. I just can’t deprogram myself. I will never go to Mars or Heaven. Which is funny, Ray Bradbury has a story called, “Mars is Heaven!”

This self-revelation came to me in 1967, when I read “The Star Pit” by Samuel R. Delany, in the February issue of Worlds of Tomorrow. It’s about the barriers we face in life, about understanding our limitations. Delany knew in 1966 he and I were never going into space, and his story is symbolic for all of us who dreamed those 1950s science fiction dreams, but who would never leave in our space ships.

JWH

p.s.  I know this is a bone I can’t stop gnawing. Anyone who has regularly read my blog, knows I’ve covered this territory before. I write these posts as a form of psychoanalysis. I usually come to two realizations. One, I’m disappointed that the future I imagined as a child, is not the future I found as an adult. Two, I was conditioned as a kid to love certain kinds of stories, and I can’t get away from that pleasure. I’m like an addict that says, “I can stop any time I want” but I don’t. Sometimes I rationalize reading old science fiction by telling myself that I’m studying it as an academic subject. But that’s not quite honest either. One thing I keep urging myself,  is to move forward in time. To relive the science fiction of the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, 2000s, etc.

The Impact of Marie Kondo and Ebooks on Used Book Sales

By James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, June 15, 2016

There are some books I know I want new in hardback, even when I can’t afford them. Other new books require a bit of worry before buying — reading reviews and customer comments. Then there’s a class of new books I tell myself to snag when they show up used.

“My name is Jim , and I’m a used book addict.”

I’ve had this addiction since 1965 when I discovered a dusty old bookstore in Perrine, Florida. I was in the 8th grade, and could buy old books for a dime. Many times in my life I’ve tried to overcome this compulsive behavior, but never succeeded. Now, after a half-century later of struggle, I’ve gotten my habit down to just two shopping trips a week. Although, it’s not due to self-discipline. Marie Kondo and ebooks have changed me.

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I can’t prove this assertion, but I believe fewer recent hardbacks are showing up for sale used. I think ebooks are at fault. I also assume bookworms who still buy hardbacks keep them. I do have other theories why I’m seeing fewer recent hardbacks used. Hordes of home-business entrepreneurs now scour bookshops, garage sales, Goodwills, estate sales, library sales to buy up used books to resale to Amazon. Finally, I think more people like me have become used book addicts.

Demand is up, supply is down. My gut feeling though, tells me ebooks are making the biggest impact.

Not only are people buying ebooks instead of hardbacks when books first come out, but there’s also a booming business is discount ebooks. I subscribe to five daily newsletter that keep me posted about ebook bargains. Publishers wait for when new book sales drop to a certain point, and then slash the ebook price to $1.99 or $2.99 for a day or week to spike sales and interest.

I buy used books from three sources. The library bookstore run by The Friends of the Library. Average price $3 for a hardback. My local independent bookstore has a used book section. Average price for hardbacks $7. And finally, I order used books from Amazon and ABEbooks. I generally spend $4-$15 for hardbacks. You can probably see where this is going. Why buy a used hardback when I can get the ebook for $1.99? I’ve also become very addicted to Audible.com’s $4.95 audiobook sales. I bought 15 books in the last one.

My digital library is now larger than my physical library. However, this is partly due to Marie Kondo. Currently, my impulse is to buy the first format of the book that I see, whether used hardback, ebook, or $4.95 sale at Audible.com. But Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up is transforming that impulse. I now measure the burden of my possessions by their weight. I feel the weightless purchases of ebooks and digital audiobooks exempt me from the laws of the KonMarie Method.

My Kindle and Audible libraries keep growing, but I’m thinning my physical bookshelves in an effort to tidy-up my life. I’m sure I’m not the only one. Besides seeing fewer recent books used, I’m seeing a massive influx of older books. Especially books that came out 5-25 years ago. Two of my friends even told me they gave all their books to Goodwill when they got a Kindle. So, that’s another way ebooks are influencing the used book market.

I’ve been waiting two years for a cheap copy of Capital in the Twenty-First Century by Thomas Piketty. The cheapest one I see on ABEBooks is $15.11 plus $3.99 shipping, which puts it damn close to the new price of $24.72 at Amazon. The dang Kindle price is $23.48. The same thing has happened with Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari. Luckily, Sapiens showed up as a Kindle deal for $1.99 and I snagged it. I’ve already own both of these books on audio, but I wanted a “reading” copy for study.

In the last couple of years, I find lots of books offered for 1 cent at ABEbooks and Amazon used books. (Of course they make their money charging $3.99 for shipping and handling and then spend less.) I don’t think we’d be seeing so many books for a penny if it wasn’t for the living simple movement.

Bloggers spend a lot of time reviewing and discussing books. It’s much easier to copy a quote from an ebook than to type it from a physical book. When I buy a book I know I’m going to write about, I prefer getting an ebook.

My favorite way to enjoy a book is by listening. But if I truly love an audiobook I end up wanting to “keep” a visual edition for future study. This used to mean a nice hardback, but that’s changing. Now I wait for ebook sales and buy a copy to file away. By the way, a side-effect of buying ebooks over used hardbacks is authors and publishers make money on the deal.

I still buy lots of used hardback books, but they tend to be ones that are not available in ebook, or the hardback is much cheaper than the ebook edition. But something else has changed this year. After I did my first Kondo cleanse, I’ve been hesitant to buy hardbacks. I still do, but when I do, I feel guilty seeing them sitting around if I’m not reading them. I’ve started checking out books from the library again. Returning a library book produces a tiny Kondo-high.

I have to wonder if hardback books will go the way of the typewriter or rotary phones. Dateline NBC recently gave common objects I grew up with fifty years ago but now are rare to to modern kids, and asked them what they were. How many years before they give kids a hardback book and it produces as much puzzlement?

 

If you live long enough, things change. I’m getting used to it.

JWH

A Rotten Tomatoes for Books?

By James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Every month thousands of books are published but few find readers, even on a planet of seven billion people. The sad fact is most hardbacks are 1st editions, and never get another. Millions of writers have struggled to create their masterpiece, only to have them disappear to indifference. Books go begging to be reviewed, so I find any effort to promote books a good thing.

Book Marks

Literary Hub, a site previously unknown to me, began a feature called Book Marks, which rates books by collecting book reviews and statistically processing the total. This immediately brings to mind Rotten Tomatoes for movies. Book Marks gives books a letter grade, and the few books they now list, have mostly high grades. I don’t know if this grade inflation is due to starting their business with buzz-worthy books, or if most books today actually get good reviews. Personally, I hate to review books by giving them a rating because I feel bad telling writers they have ugly babies, so I can imagine the later being the case.

I wish Book Marks followed Rotten Tomatoes and gave a percentage rating based on total positive reviews. Rotten Tomatoes claim they judge the overall slant of a review to decide. However, most of these books have very few reviews, so one with two positive and one negative would receive a 66% rating in a percentage system, and that would be deceptive. At Rotten Tomatoes they generally have over a hundred reviews for most popular movies. One way to solve this problem would be to require only books that have at least ten reviews to get listed. But that causes other problems.

Publishing tends to be a winner take all enterprise. In other words, a few books succeed while most don’t. Book Marks is starting off by promoting books that are already getting major promotion. Their system is inherently biased against those books that are getting the least attention. But I can’t criticize Book Marks for their efforts. Like I said, any book promotion is a good thing.

This however makes me wonder how to create a better system? I feel sorry for authors who can’t find readers for their books, especially after a great self-promotion effort, or even writing an unrecognized masterpiece. Let’s be honest. All us bookworms have too much to read. We have more A+ novels on our TBR piles than we can finish in a decade. So why consider an A- book, or for some insane reason, a C+? See where the school grade system breaks down?

Readers don’t have a problem finding great books – our problem is finding more time to read. The problem at hand is writers finding readers. One solution: create more bookworms! But with PlayStations and VR that’s not likely. Efforts like Book Marks will actually further promote winners over losers. Statistical efforts to improve book reviewing will help the limited pool of readers find the most popular books, causing a larger percentage of books to be ostracized. Book Marks is only making the process more efficient. That sounds harsh, even cruel, but then does every book written deserve to be read?

I assume there’s a large percentage of books published that are well worth reading if only they could find the right reader. And since falling in love with a book is so subjective, I’m not sure any rating system is valid. What we need are systems where readers can fill out a profile, like a dating service, of what they are in the mood to read, and that system locate all the books that fit that mood. That could alleviate the problem of everyone wanting to read the most popular books, and spread readers out, giving more books a chance to succeed.

Such a system would have a side-effect that some authors might not want. More books would become moderately successful at the cost of other books being huge bestsellers. For example, a million readers who would have all bought a blockbuster would instead buy one hundred different books selling ten thousand copies each.

Currently, bloggers spend huge amounts of time reviewing, listing and writing about books. This is the new digital word-of-mouth. Many of us consciously choose to write about books that haven’t gotten attention, and that helps more books get noticed. But we also end up writing about the same popular books. It’s just natural to want to read and discuss books that everyone is reading. One way to promote books that aren’t getting attention is to mention them when reviewing bestsellers. Let the unknown titles draft on the success of hits.

And I think that’s what Book Marks needs to do to improve their service. Mix in more books and find ways to group them into themes. Personally, I don’t like the grading system, but I bet their readers do. I would recommend not grading a book until it’s gotten ten reviews to be statistically valid. Since Book Marks are copying Rotten Tomatoes they should work quickly to up the number of sites they monitor for reviews, and aim to get close to twenty reviews. Books will never be reviewed like movies and get hundreds of reviews, but if Book Marks wants to use such a comparison system, the more reviews the better. Plus, if they used more review sites, it will promote those sites, and thus promote book reviewing in general.

7 Uses for Goodreads Other than Reviews and Ratings

By James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, June 1, 2016

I struggle to manage my always growing, ever changing, collection of books, and my constant craving to read more. And I don’t have a vast library, like some of my bookworm friends. Counting physical books, ebooks and audio books, I have around two thousand titles. Enough to be unsure of what I own. Enough to make them a problem to find. And I own more unread books than I have time to read during the rest of my life. That should condition me to stop buying books, but it won’t.

I’ve been testing various book databases for years, but never committing to any. I tried Goodreads’ book database system a couple of times, but always disliked it. However, I’ve now decided it’s the best compromise for my needs.

goodreads 

Most people zip over to Goodreads to read reviews and ratings. Do they know it’s a free database for managing book collections? Goodreads represents the wisdom of crowds, with some books actually having millions of ratings. Because of this group knowledge, Goodreads is essential to bookworms. The fact that it’s own by Amazon, where I buy most of my books, including paper, ebook and audio, makes it’s hard to ignore.

I’m going to skip reviewing all those social aspects of Goodreads, and focus on tools for organizing books into useful collections. This can range from cataloging your personal library, keeping track of books you want to buy, or even tracking all the books on your favorite subject. Goodreads is a general purpose tool that has to be customized for specific uses, yet it’s not always obvious how. My recommendation is to just stick with Goodreads until it starts working for you. Everyone customizes it differently. Take each task you normally do on paper or program, and do it on Goodreads. Eventually, you’ll see the magic in its madness.

By thinking about all the ways I make lists of books, I’ve been able to adapt Goodreads for my needs. It’s not always a perfect fit, but I assume Amazon will keep refining Goodreads, and the bumps I stumble over will be fixed, and the features I desire will show up. I have to trust Amazon because it houses my digital library. This means hoping it will stay in business until I die.

Lifetime Reading Lists

I wish I had kept a list of every book I’ve ever read since I read Up Periscope during the summer before 4th grade. Beginning in 1983 I did start logging everything I’ve read, and it’s been great – well worth the effort. Goodreads is a good tool for this. However, if you reread books, and like to track each reading by date, Goodreads won’t do that smoothly. The clunky solution is to add a different edition of a book for each reading, but that messes with your total read numbers. I currently list books I read in both Google Sheets and Goodreads, to get all the functionality I want. It would be more efficient if Goodreads was my only tool, but I can’t replicate all the functions I now get from the spreadsheet.

The core functionality of Goodreads database is to track books you’ve read, are reading, or want to read. Goodreads even offers a nice stats feature to track your reading productivity. If you don’t want to use Goodreads to track the books you own, its basic features are very nice and straight forward. If you do use it as a personal card catalog, you have to understand it also tracks books you don’t own (unless you’ve keep every book you’ve ever read and bought every book you plan to read).

This can be confusing. Think of Goodreads as a system for tracking books you want to remember, whether that’s to remember what you’ve read, what you own, what you hope to own, what you’ve studied, and so on. You enter in all the titles you want, and then tag them accordingly. One tag is ownership. Another tag is read. You can make up your own tags – such as beautiful-covers.

You never want to delete a book you’ve read, even if you’ve given it away. You need the entry to remember you’ve read the book. And you’ve got to add a book if you plan to read it, even if you don’t own a copy.

Books Database

Over the decades I’ve tried many programs for listing the books I’ve own, but none of them worked the way I wanted. I’ve even tried writing my own program. Because of smartphones, it’s obvious that on-the-go viewing is a must feature, and that’s beyond my programming skills. Goodreads practically invalidates all other efforts because of this. It’s possible to keep my books in Excel, Access or commercial book database programs, and then export listings to Dropbox, to check on my phone while book shopping, but the Goodreads app is always up-to-date. That feature alone makes it a winner.

That’s not to say Goodreads is the perfect books database. How it looks, how it’s organized and how it creates reports is not how I would have designed them. But it does most things I want, and getting the job done without dedicating my life to Python programming sealed the deal. Plus, I can export .csv files to programs that can create fancy reports if I want.

Goodreads has two kinds of “bookshelves” – their term for categorizing your books. The first is exclusive, which means all books have to be tagged in one, and only one, of those shelves. Goodreads start you off with read, currently-reading, to-read. I added discard (so I can track books I once owned but didn’t read) and reference (for books I don’t plan to ever read). Any book I add to the system has to be read, currently-reading, to-read, reference or discard. Then Goodreads allows as many non-exclusive shelves readers want to create. Books can be shelved in multiple non-exclusive shelves. For example you could create shelves called fiction, science-fiction, anthologies – and put The Science Fiction Hall of Fame on all three.

The best thing about Goodreads is the barcode scanner built into its iOS/Android apps. It’s an extremely fast way to enter books, as long as the books have a visible bar code. For some damn reason, used book dealers have an annoying habit of pasting their tracking label over the ISBN barcode. You can also enter books manually with the ISBN number, or by title. Those are quick too, but nowhere near as fast as the barcode reader. I can do 40 books in two minutes – that’s their batch limit. You hit upload, clear the batch, and do 40 more.

Most books are already in the system, so you’re actually just linking to existing records. You only have to create a new record for rare out-of-print titles not in the Goodreads system. That’s more work, especially if you want to upload a scan of the cover. Which I do. I’m fanatical about cover images. One of the annoying restrictions of Goodreads is I can’t upload better images for books added to the system by other members.

Goodreads has a feature to let you tag books you’ve purchased from Amazon. I wish they also offer that feature for books I bought at Audible and ABEBooks, companies Amazon also owns. I’ve been hoping Amazon would mass add records for Audible editions, because now I link to CD editions of the same book. Who owns CDs anymore? I dread linking over 800 titles by title searches.

Collector’s Database

Book collectors want to track exact editions, and Goodreads does this. This is both good and bad. Probably most bookworms don’t care about such exacting details. They just want to know they have a copy of Pride and Prejudice, and whether or not they’ve read it. I wish Goodreads allowed for a generic title entry. I’d probably use one for most books. I don’t usually care if I “own” a 1st edition hardback or the 7th paperback edition, but I am picky about what cover I see. I want the cover I remember, or the cover I love best, and that means picking the edition with the right cover. What’s annoying, is the right edition will have no cover, a bad scan, or the wrong cover. Even when I own the right cover, I’m not allowed to alter other people’s cataloging. And Goodreads fights you if you try to create another edition with similar publishing details.

The cataloging features for Goodreads is probably good enough for most book collectors, but not good enough for serious book collectors. That should improve over time as more exacting users join the system. I wish Goodreads could tie into the Internet Science Fiction Database, which has great edition information. I also wished Goodreads would link to Wikipedia, because as I study my collection, or catalog books, I often want to know more about the book. Such synergy of two great tools would be fantastic.

Want Lists

Most bookworms make lists of books they want to read, and have various methods of keeping track of those books. Because Goodreads doesn’t assume the books you add are ones you own, it’s perfectly adaptable as a Books Wanted list manager. Because it’s tied to the social and database features at Goodreads, it’s the most elaborate Want List ever. You can add library books, or even books you see at bookstores, with the scanner feature. Although my local independent bookstore will chase patrons out if they think they’re checking Amazon for prices.

It’s quite easy to fill up your Goodreads database with books you want to read because one of the exclusive fields is “to read.” If you want to use Goodreads to track the books you own, you have to check the “owned books” check-box.

Card Catalog

Some bookworms own enough books that they wish they had a Dewey Decimal system to help them find books. You can create non-exclusive shelves to track book location, even if they are stored in boxes. Just label each of the shelves on your real-world bookshelf, say shelf-01 through shelf-24, and then create a virtual shelf for each in Goodreads. Then tag each book by the shelf they are on. Or shelve books by subject on your actual bookcases, and then create subject shelves in Goodreads. You can also create box-001, box-002, …, if you have zillions of books in the attic.

This takes work and discipline. The more you use Goodreads, the more anal attentiveness becomes part of your personality. And you can use Goodreads as little, or as much as you want. At first Goodreads seems like a very disorganized mess, but eventually you realize it’s looseness offers great flexibility.

Scholarship

Because Goodreads is not just a database for books you own, it’s very useful for organizing books in a variety of ways. Let’s say you’re getting your master’s degree, you can use Goodreads to organize all the books you need to know to pass your comps. It doesn’t matter if you if you don’t own them, or even borrowed them from a library. You can create an exclusive shelf called “research” and tag all the books there. You can even use non-exclusive shelves to organize them into categories, like 19th-century-America, 20th-century-America, 18th-century-Britain, 19th-century-France.

Reading Challenge

I want to read all the books on the Modern Library Association 100 Best Novel list. I created a non-exclusive shelf and added all one-hundred books. Then I marked those books read, to-read, currently-reading. By using the “select multiple” button,  clicking on the plus next to “read” and “modern-library-100” – I can see how many of the 100 I’ve read – 39.

This last trick reveals a flaw in Goodreads. Often I want to reread books. If I mark a book “to-read” it’s removed from the “read” shelf. But that ruins things for tracking books read. And I can tag a book “currently-reading” that I’ve read many times before. I wish Goodreads had a tracking system for remembering each time I’ve read a book, when, and what format. In my spreadsheet I track author, title, date published, date finished, format. Format includes hardback, paperback, ebook, library hardback, audio book, etc.

I don’t know of any alternative to Goodreads that does as much, so I’m going to stick with it for now. I assume the momentum behind it will make it even more useful in the future. It’s a shame that Amazon monopolizes my book world, but the practicality of why is too overwhelming.

JWH

The Psychology of 1, 10, 100 and 1,000

By James Wallace Harris, Sunday, May 15, 2016

1 is a special number. We can only be in love with 1 person at a time, like ducklings imprinting on their mother. This week 2 of my friends told me The Game of Thrones was their all-time favorite TV show. We can only have 1 favorite of anything—books, friends, movies, beverages, television shows, foods, songs, photos. There must be a psychology that’s special to that number. 1 is never enough, is it? How many people can we love, how many good friends can we have? I believe there’s a practical limit to that too. It might be 10 at any one time, and maybe 100 in a lifetime. Some people claim 1,000s of friends. Really?

1 10 100 1000

Psychological researchers used to say 7 of anything is the most images people can retain in their mind at once. Newer studies claim fewer. Multitasking is a myth. We’re like old Macs, good at quick task-switching. I can picture 6 marbles in a triangle pattern of 3, 2, 1. When I add number 7 next to the group of 6, the group of six disappears. Back to 1.

This is why we make lists. You might remember to bring home 4 items from the grocery store, but probably not 10. And certainly not 100. On Spotify I’ve been building TOP 1000 playlist of my favorite songs. When the list approached 500 songs, I realized there were songs I loved way more than others. So I created a TOP 100 list. It quickly filled to 123. As I listened to that list, I realize that some of those songs didn’t belong. The list is shrinking towards 100.

If asked, what my TOP 100 favorite songs were, could I recite that playlist from memory? No, that’s doubtful. That’s why we have TOP 10 lists. Few people think in lists like I do. But if they did, there’s a psychological dynamic that works with the number 10. Maybe because we have 10 fingers, or we use a base-10 numbering. 10 is memorable, but we want more than 10. That’s why we see people listing their 12, 15 and 25 favorites. I’m guessing we have the capability to love 100, or even 1,000 things. Yet, I think 10 is the around the limit we can recall quickly. A TOP 10 list can be recited to a friend, but a TOP 100 requires writing down.

I can love a 1,000 songs, but not a 1,000 movies or books—definitely not 1,000 people. A 1,000 song playlist is manageable, but not memorable. The songs are unforgettable, but I could never recite 1,000 song titles. If I had more bookshelves, I could fit 1,000 books in this room where I write. I had over 800 before the last culling, but I’ve since pared them down to less than 400. Even that many is too many for me to handle at age 64. I’m forgetting what I own.

Sometimes 1,000 is practical. Other times 100 or 10 is workable.

When Olivia and Annie told me their all-time favorite TV show was The Game of Thrones, they asked me about mine. My immediate answer was Breaking Bad. I think it hurt their feelings I didn’t agree with them. I assured them The Game of Thrones was in my TOP 10. But I was mentally rattling off many shows I liked more. In no order, Downton Abbey, Humans, Mr. Robot, Big Love, The Man in the High Castle, Battlestar Galactica, The Sopranos, Fargo, Deadwood, came quickly to mind. Ooops, did that make The Game of Thrones number 11? Were there older shows I love more, but I just couldn’t remember them at the moment? In 1961, my list would have included The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, The Twilight Zone and Have Gun-Will Travel. Would any old favorite make it to my current TOP 10?

Time constrains the numbers we can embrace, the magnitudes we can grok. On my TOP 100 playlist is “East St. Louis Toodle-Oo” by Duke Ellington from 1926. A TOP 10 list tends to focus on the current, but a TOP 100 can span time. My TOP 100 songs span 106 years. The oldest song I love is a 1910 orchestral arrangement of “Pavane pour une infante défunte” (Pavane for a Dead Princess) by Ravel. My TOP 1000 contain choral, classical and operatic works created 100s of years ago.

My guess is TOP 10 lists focus on recent experiences, whereas TOP 100 lists will span decades, and TOP 1000 can cover centuries. The beauty of subscribing to Spotify is I have a fantastic library for building my playlists. Back in the 1970s, when I haunted record superstores, I used to wish that I owned all the albums in the store. Spotify grants that wish times 100. For the past couple years I’ve been searching out my favorite songs from a lifetime of listening. That list is at 444. I’m guessing it will get close to 1,000 by the time I finish. I know collectors can own 1,000s and even 10,000s of LPs, but physically ownership is not the same psychological awareness.

I wonder, and this is just from personal experience, if 1,000 is the upper limit of our comprehension? I used to own 1,001 Books To Read Before You Die. I never read it all the way through. I eventually gave it away because it overwhelmed me to think I still had another 800 books I had to read. I figure I’ve read at least 2,500 books in my life, and probably seen more than 5,000 films, but I doubt I could ever remember more than 1,000 of each, even if I starting writing titles down with the aid of Wikipedia and IMDB. I can handle a playlist of 1,000 songs, but not a bookshelf 1,000 books, or a rack of 1,000 DVDs. When I was younger, I did, but getting old is shrinking my universe.

For a while, maybe into my 70s, I’ll search out the TOP 100 books and movies I want to cherish. I expect, as the years go by, that number will dwindle. Eventually, I’ll be down to remembering my TOP 10 of everything, and finally, if I have the right kind of death, my TOP 1 of favorite people and things will pass through my thoughts as I fade away. If I can distill that number down before I die, I’ll tell my last friend to mention them at my funeral.

JWH

Cleaning Up My Kindle Library

By James Wallace Harris, Saturday, April 23, 2016

I had 501 ebooks in my Kindle library when I started this essay. I have 401 now. After reading an article that said 40-45% of all ebooks bought are never opened, I loaded up Kindle for PC, put it in cover view, and scanned my books. Damn, they were right. I’ve been acquiring Kindle books since 2007, and many of those books I had gotten for free in promotions, downloaded for free because they were in the public domain, or ones I bought on the cheap because their authors were anxious for me to try their work. Most I had never opened. Psychologically I assume, I’m buying books for a future, for when I have 72 hours in a day for reading.

This made me contemplate my Kindle library. I love shopping for used books every week and I also love snapping up ebook bargains. But scrolling through the cover images I saw several books I thought I wanted to buy that I already own. Damn! My Kindle library has gotten completely out of hand. I’m constantly buying $1.99 specials because of BookBub, Kindle Daily Deal, Book Riot Deals, or Early Bird Books.

SF Books On Kindle

I spent a couple of hours this afternoon and permanently deleted 100 books I knew I’d never read. This has proven to me that free ebooks aren’t something I actually want. From studying the dates purchased, I had already stopped adding free books years ago. However, I switched to compulsive buying. I bought 146 Kindle ebooks in 2015, probably three-fourths of them for $1.99. Since I average reading one book a week, I’m buying three years worth of reading every year. That’s illogical! You’ll think I’m even more insane when I tell you two-thirds of the books I “read” each year are with my ears, so I’m actually buying about seven years worth of ebooks each year. (I’m not sure if that fractional math works out—haha, a word problem for you.)

It would be a huge help if Amazon created some way to mark books read or unread. I need some method of reminding myself of how many books are waiting patiently for me to spend a week with them. I’m guessing I have a decade’s worth of unread Kindle books in my library. (I need to stop buying those sale ebook!!! It’s an addiction.)

When I scroll through the Kindle library now, I see only books I want to read, or have read and want to keep. But it’s in one big jumble, ordered by title, author or recent (date last accessed). I wish Amazon would let us permanently classify books in their “Manage Your Content and Devices” web application. I can create subject collections, but only for a device, like for Kindle for PC, and sometimes it seems, when the software gets updated, I lose those collections. The photo above is part of my “SF Novels” collection.

In recent years I’ve been buying classic science fiction book when they go on sale for $1.99, and have 70 novels, and 48 short story collections and anthologies. Today, I realized that I need to browse my collection at least weekly, to remember what I own, and inspire me to read rather than shop. Between hundreds of printed books, a thousand audio books, and these 401 Kindle ebooks, I have 30-40 years worth of reading queued up. Since I’m 64, I’m covered for the rest of my life. I should stop buying books. I won’t, but I should. At least, I should browse the covers as often as possible, to remind myself of all those books waiting to be consumed, and at least stop me from buying duplicates. That might slow me down some.

Spending the afternoon working with my Kindle for PC app has shown me the value of looking through my collection. Especially in cover view mode. I wish I had similar software for viewing my Audible books, or even wish the Kindle for PC could manage my Audible collection too. Amazon does own Audible. It would also be nice if I could enter my physical books into the same system, so I’d only need one program to browse my entire collection. I like seeing the covers. There’s software for the PC, Mac, Linux, Android and iOS that allows this, but it would mean maintaining two databases, and that would be a pain-in-the-ass.

Since I buy most of my books from Amazon, it would seem they should be responsible for helping me manage my library.

JWH