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.

used-books

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

The Fiction at the Bottom of Our Souls

By James Wallace Harris, Thursday, March 17, 2016

  • Can we trust who we think we are?
  • Can we assume our convictions are correct?
  • Why are we so passionately convinced our version of reality is the right one?
  • Is fiction truer than memory?
  • How does fiction consumed in childhood affect the way we perceive reality?

Of your earliest memories, which do you favor: remembered events or stories? I can dredge up some exceeding vague memories from when I was three, but lately I’ve been reading about scientists studying memory that makes me doubt what I recall. I know what I think of as actual events might not be recordings of reality, but memories of memories of memories. Every time we replay an old memory, science now thinks, we record over the original memory with the impressions of remembering that memory. (Watch “Memory Hackers” on PBS NOVA or The Brain with David Eagleman.)

Treasure Island

There is nothing in my memory bank as vivid as the photo above.

Mixed in with all my memories of reality are memories of fiction. I was born in 1951, but my earliest memories of television come from 1954-55. A few years later, are memories of seeing my first movie on TV, High Barbaree. I’m sure I saw others, but its the one I remember. My late 1950s memories are filled with black-and-white science fiction films and Johnny Weissmuller’s Tarzan flicks.  Around 1959 I encountered Treasury Island, the first book I remember reading.

I have many memories of external reality growing up in the 1950s, but I also have more memories from television. Because I’ve seen those TV shows & old movies repeatedly over the years and decades, and often reread my favorite books, those fictional memories have gain vividness, while my real life memories fade. Is it any wonder that Turner Classic Movies has become so meaningful to the social security set?

I once returned to the house I lived in when I was four. I think of age four as the beginning of my personality.  When I stood on that sidewalk in front of that house, I felt like I was at the Big Bang beginning of my existence. From 1955 till today, I have two kinds of memory. What happened in my life and what happened in stories. In terms of deciding which programmed my soul more, I’m undecided.

Robert Silverberg has a wonderful essay, “Writing Under the Influence” in the March 2016 Asimov’s Science Fiction about how a favorite fantasy story he discovered in childhood influenced two novels he wrote as an adult (Son of Man, Lord of Darkness). The story, The Three Mulla-Mulgars, by Walter de la Mare, from 1919, is one I’ve never heard of before. Folks at GoodReads gush about how delightful this forgotten fairytale is to read. I snagged a free Kindle edition from Amazon and hope to read it soon.

I highly recommend reading Silverberg’s essay. I love people’s reading histories. Unfortunately the link to read the essay online will quit working when the next issue comes out. You can get Asimov’s at your newsstand, or from Amazon as a Kindle ebook.

dorothy-lathrop-three-royal-monkeys

Here’s one of the original Dorothy P. Lathrop illustrations from The Three Mulla-Mulgars, from a collection of them at 50 Watts.

Partly why Silverberg’s essay resonates so deeply with me is because he describes how an earlier true-life African explorer narrative, The Strange Adventures of Andrew Battell of Leigh, in Angola and the Adjoining Regions figured in The Three Mulla-Mulgars. I’m fascinated by how stories inspire stories. Or how writers are inspired by authors from earlier generations. The memories of authors are encapsulated into their stories, and we share their memories by reading, and their memories as passed on through us. And if we write stories, using older memories from those we’ve read, those memories are rerecorded for another generation, much like brain memories, and just as distorted.

High BarbareeHigh Barbaree Movie

I’ve often fantasized about writing a story based on my memory of my first encounter with fiction. My earliest memory of seeing a movie is waking up in the middle of the night, and watching the all-night movies with my dad. This was before I went to school, and I didn’t comprehend movies, acting or fiction. All I can remember is a scene of two kids who were friends being separated, when the girl and her family moved away. Even at that young age, that had already happened to me more than once, because my father was in the Air Force. It was a strong fictional emotion bonding with my own remembered emotions.

This was when I was too young to remember the title of movies. Years later I saw the movie again, and that’s when I memorized its name, High Barbaree, with Van Johnson and June Allyson. I was in the sixth grade. I used to trust my memories from that age, but I don’t anymore. I caught High Barbaree again in my twenties, after I got married. This time it occurred to me that it might be based on a book. I wasn’t able to find the book until the internet age, and AbeBooks.com. It was then I discovered the book was written the same guys who wrote Mutiny on the Bounty, Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall, and they also have a fascinating history. I was also able to track down a biography of those two writers at that time too, In Search of Paradise by Paul L. Briand, Jr.

Between the original novel, and the biography, I learned High Barbaree was about memory, and a fictionalized autobiography of sorts for James Norman Hall. Hall was writing about how our souls are formed by early memory and fiction. He was remembering the writers who influenced him. His memories became my memories, and if I could ever write a novel, their memories would get passed down, along with some of mine. I guess I am a believer in the collective unconscious.

It’s now possible to buy High Barbaree on DVD, but I’m not sure I can recommend it. It’s slight, sometimes silly, and very sentimental. The book is more serious, and fits the memories I have of seeing the story as a child. Or at least, that’s how I remember it now. I know my original impressions, however vaguely they were recorded by my brain, have been lost to rewriting by all the times I’ve recalled that memory. Each time I’ve watched that film again, dwelled on those memories, reread the book, or written about all of this, I’ve recolored those deep original memories with newer philosophical musings.

I used to believe we could discover the truth of history. I used to think memories were real and trustworthy. Now I doubt the reliability of neural recordings, and any collective knowledge we have about actual history. We constantly rewrite our own memories, and we constantly rewrite history. For example, the new book by Bart Ehrman, Jesus Before the Gospels, has more than convinced me that it’s absolutely impossible to know anything about Jesus as a real person in history. Ehrman’s analysis of history and memory applies to recent historical figures as well, where we have solid documentation, like for Abraham Lincoln or Albert Einstein. All these revisiting and new recordings have written over any real history that happened.

rashomon

The best nonfiction is still fiction. I’ve taken classes and workshops in creative nonfiction, and I know from experience I can’t write the absolute truth.  Memories are just stories we tell ourselves about fleeting impressions of the past poorly etched in our brains. Our minds are not DVRs. And even if they were, how often have you seen a video in the news where people argue over what actually happened? Realty was never our version of events—it’s always the Rashomon effect.  Even if we average out all the eyewitnesses, we can never definitively say what happened.

All during 2016, we hear folks wanting to be president tell stories they swear are true. And we’ll vote for the candidate whose stories match our own stories the best. All of those stories were shaped by the fiction everyone encountered growing up. Remember how Ronald Reagan used to blend movie scenes into his recollections? I used to think he was a doddering old man, but now I wonder if he wasn’t wiser than he appeared. We’re all going to look like silly old fools someday, dwelling on fleeting memories of our past, poorly remembered. But that doesn’t mean the stories we tell ourselves and others don’t have a kind of elegant logic. It won’t be the truth, but if we could only get our stories to work together, it might be true enough.

My reality is colored by stories I encountered in my early years, like High Barbaree. Just like Robert Silverberg’s reality was colored by The Three Mulla-Mulgars, which he discovered when he was young. We might think the fiction at the bottom of our souls are merely stories, but I’m not so sure anymore. Those early tales had a butterfly effect on shaping who we became. We can’t understand reality in black and white certainty. But we do make sense of our external existence by storytelling, and so we need to understand the truth of that.

JWH

How Popular is Reading Science Fiction?

By James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, January 19, 2016

What I’d really like to know is how popular is reading science fiction? It’s almost impossible to separate books, movies and television shows when discussing science fiction. Science fiction movies are certainly less popular than sex or sports, but they might give apple pie a run for its money. Trying to figure out the popular appeal of SF books is a complete riddle.

I have a life-long interest in science fiction, both as a consumer, and as a topic of philosophical study. Why did fascination with science fiction blossom in the mid-20th century, and spread like kudzu in popular culture ever since? I’ve been thinking about writing a book about science fiction literature, but I’m not sure how many people read about the history and nature of the genre. One of the best books I’ve read on this subject is The World Beyond The Hill: Science Fiction and the Quest for Transcendence by Alexei and Cory Panshin. Have you even heard of it? Probably not. It won the Hugo in 1990, for Best Non-Fiction Book.

The World Beyond The Hill - Panshin

Over the decades I’ve read a number of books about science fiction, but other than the people who write about science fiction, I don’t know anyone personally who buys such books. My guess is hundreds of millions of people love to watch science fiction at the theater or on television, and several hundred thousand love to read science fiction, but I’d guess only few thousand humans in this whole world like to read about science fiction.

To get some idea of science fiction’s popularity I used the Alexa site, an Amazon company that tracks web stats. If you study the numbers and sites, you’ll probably notice that interest in media SF drives most of the higher rankings. It’s very hard to gauge interest in just printed science fiction. I do know that decades ago some SF digest magazines had over 100,000 subscribers, and now they are all around the 10,000 mark. But far fewer people read science fiction short stories compared to novels. Science fiction novels don’t dominate the best seller lists like Sci-Fi does at the box office. Most fans prefer to see SF than read it.

Site U.S. Rank Global Rank
io9.com 36,961 1,675
starwars.com 1,343 3,928
tor.com 6,459 21,874
startrek.com 9,893 28,465
sciencefiction.com 36,977 105,387
scifinow.co.uk 113,513 122,368
sfsignal.com 49,097 210,023
locusmag.com 73,260 263,078
strangehorizons.com 72,413 278,212
sffworld.com 137,467 309,193
bestsciencefictionbooks.com 89,148 312,016
dailysciencefiction.com 99,167 383,305
lightspeedmagazine.com 130,384 417,852
sf-encyclopedia.com 170,106 454,412
clarkesworldmagazine.com 126,308 485,754
worldswithoutend.com 145,960 540,963
asimovs.com 256,251 856,963
escapepod.org 265,635 1,048,438
analogsf.com 643,265 1,147,547

You can look at Alexa’s Top 500 sites to get an idea of how well-known web sites rank. All the SF sites with short stories rank 99,000 and below in the U.S. So reading science fiction short stories is not very popular at all. In comparison, The New Yorker comes in at 491 for the U.S., and 1,582 for the world. The Atlantic rank 324/866. The super-intellectual New York Review of Books comes in at 8,100/20,016. For a more common read, People Magazine is ranked 151/549.

I guess I’m fascinated by a topic that has little interest to most people.

Essay #999 – Table of Contents