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

Adding Literary Realism to Science Fiction

By James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, August 25, 2015

My favorite reading genre is science fiction, but my favorite books are usually literary novels. I often think about what makes a literary novel great and wonder why those elements aren’t usually found in science fiction.

A Town Like Alice, a 1950 novel by Nevil Shute, has been made into a movie (1956), television mini-series (1981) and radio drama (1997). Shute’s story obviously has lasting appeal, perfect for would-be writers to study. I’m 65 years late discovering this novel, yet it was gripping as any current bestseller. Why? To answer that is a writing lesson and not a review. If you haven’t read this novel go away and come back when you’re done, because to dissect this book will give away spoilers. There’s a $2.99 Kindle version at Amazon. Make sure you get the full version, not one of the shorter editions. The audio edition narrated by Robin Bailey is wonderful.

a town like alice

A Town Without Alice is a love story related through a lawyer. Jean Paget, an Englishwoman, gets caught up in World War II while living in British Malaya, becoming a prisoner of war. She has a brief encounter with Joe Harman, an Australian, also a prisoner. Years after the war she inherits money that allows her to return to Malaya to track down Joe. The narrator of the story is Noel Strachen, a widowed lawyer in his seventies, in charge of Jean’s trust fund in England.

Noel can’t know everything that goes on in this story, but Nevil Shute has him tell the tale. Jean either relates her adventures in person, or via letters, but it’s still not enough for Noel to know everything. So why does Shute have this old solicitor be the storyteller? I think it’s key to why the novel succeeds.

We generally read novels that are in the first or third person. First person novels are very intimate, but have limitations. Third person POV allows writers the most latitude for giving reader information, but it adds an impersonal distance from the character. That’s why many modern writers often use a very close third person. It lets the author convey details the main character won’t know, yet stay close enough to let readers feel intimate with their protagonists.

Nevil Shute knew Jean and Joe could not be writers, and he wants the reader to think this is a true story. By having Jean’s solicitor tell the story in first person, it makes the story feel very true. An “as told by” kind of narrative. A Town Like Alice is based on two real events, but greatly changed for the novel. But it’s also part speculation, about how to revitalize a dying town in the Australian outback. Shute had immigrated to Australia after the war and he obviously loved the frontier life and people. Some of this story feels journalistic with vivid details that Shute must have experienced first hand. Science fiction writers must invent all their details, which puts a burden on realism.

Yet, it’s the accumulation of significant details that make great prose.

My reading experience has taught me stories that feel real often become classics, even if they are entirely made up. One reason why Jodi Picoult novels are so popular is because she starts with headline news and then creates a fictional tale that riffs on reality. Her stories feel real. Genre readers gorge on mysteries, fantasies, science fiction and romances, but genre fiction seldom feels like true stories. Most literary novels seem like thinly disguised real events, or excellent forgeries of reality. A Town Like Alice grips us like a memoir or travelogue rather than a novel.

Downward_to_the_Earth

I recently read Downward to the Earth by Robert Silverberg, a 1970 science fiction novel that was obviously inspired by The Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. The reason why I felt Silverberg’s novel is better than the average science fiction novel is because he created that sense of literary realism, even in a fantastic setting. I wonder why more science fiction writers don’t use this technique? Too often I feel genre writers imitate movies and television shows which seldom seem lifelike. We’re given thrills to replace believability.

I’ve written several drafts of science fiction novels over the years and have never liked what I’ve written. I think my failure is because I’ve modeled my stories on science fiction novels. The lesson I learned from reading A Town Like Alice and Downward to the Earth is I should model my science fiction on literary novels. I’m surprised more science fiction writers haven’t created stories inspired by literary classics like Silverberg did with Downward to the Earth.

Look how successful Andy Weir did with The Martian, which descends from Robinson Crusoe. And isn’t it particularly strange that we never see epic love stories in science fiction? I can’t think of any SF story that comes close to Anna Karenina or Pride and Prejudice. I believe the huge success of The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi was due to it feeling like Graham Greene wrote a science fiction novel, and the reason why I like The Water Knife less is because it feels like a movie thriller.

Can science fiction writers set a story on the Moon, Mars or some distant planet in another star system and make readers feel like they’re reading a true life story? When Robinson Crusoe came out in 1719 readers thought it was a memoir from a real castaway. I’m tempted to write a science fiction novel inspired by Dickens’ Great Expectation, and model the characters on people I know. I lived many Pip like experiences I could use.

JWH

A Reading Plan For An Aging Brain

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, August 24, 2015

I no longer read to kill time because I’m running out of time to kill.

This essay is for bookworms who are getting older. I’m not sure younger readers will appreciate what I’m going to write about unless they are trying to anticipate getting older like I am now. I’m discovering in my sixties that things are changing once again, adding to that illusion that every decade of life is different.

Getting old is fascinating. You expect your attitude towards life in your autumn years to feel the same as it did in your middle years when you planned your retirement. It hasn’t worked that way for me. Even my relationship with books has changed. I assumed I’d get to read more books when I retired, but I’ve discovered I should intentionally read less. I want to read more, the hunger is there, but the urge to read parallels my sex drive; my mind is still horny but my body has lost it’s enthusiasm. My motto for aging is, “Do more with less.”

The-Signature-of-All-Things

I wish I could read a book a day like super-bookworms Liberty Hardy and Eva at A Striped Armchair, but I can’t. Those women are in their twenties. There were a couple phases in my life when I read a book a day, but reading was about all I did. Now, that I’m 63 and retired, I have plenty of time to read, yet I find I can only read so much before my brain gets mushy. Don’t get me wrong, I can still read all day long and finish a book in a day, but I must tune into a reading mode where words flash by mind like a ticker tape—I’m entertained but I remember little. Imagine a diet of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream for every meal and snack. Such fare will keep you filled up but will it give you any lasting nutritional value?

I’ve read 49 books so far this year. I was on a two books a week pace until July. If I hustled, I could speed back up and finish 102 books in 2015 if I wanted. I still have the vitality to do that, but something has changed. Knocking back book after book just doesn’t feel right. I can’t imagine reading 300-400 books a year like Liberty Hardy. Here’s the rub, now that I’m starting to age, what I want from books is changing. The thrill of quantity is flagging. When you’re young, you want to do it all, and you’re sure you can. Now I’m starting to understand bucket lists. I don’t think I’ll be kicking a bucket anytime soon, but who knows? Youth is full of infinities, I’m learning getting old is all about finite mathematics.

When I go to bookstores, or the library, or read book reviews and book blogs, I encounter hundreds of books I want to read. I ache to be immortal and read them all. I’m giving up my New Year’s goal to read 100 books this year. Just reading a book is no longer enough. It’s like watching television, seeing one show after another in the evening, and realizing the next morning you’ve already forgotten what they were. Realizing that I’m forgetting more and more inspires me to hang on harder and harder. Learning what’s important involves the mathematics of limitations.

Don’t think I’m depressed, or let these thoughts depress you. It’s just a new game, with new rules to make life interesting. Limits have their own pleasures.

Instead of rushing to page one of the next book after reading “The End” of the last book, I want time to think about what I’ve read, to put my impressions into writing, and chat up the book with my bookworm friends. Slowing down my reading pace helps remember. I’m tired of reading only to forget. If reading slower with fewer books means I can retain more, then that’s my new reading plan.

Remember the ending to Fahrenheit 451? Where all the book people are living in the forest. Each person has chosen a book to memorize. I don’t picture myself doing that, but I can picture myself learning to know a finite number of books very well. I expect my sixties to be a decade where I define a set of my favorite books I want to study. Sure, I’ll keep reading new ones, but because of my memory problems I feel compelled to gather books I want to remember. I’m sure as my memories fade, this list will dwindle. It will become a tontine, and one book will be the last to leave my thoughts.

I’ve been a bookworm all my life, and proud of the vast number of books I’ve read, but I now question that sense of pride. It’s probably great to be a voracious reader in the first half of life, but in my waning years becoming a selective reader is becoming necessary. I won’t stop reading new books, because discovering a great new book is one of the better thrills of life. However, my willingness to give them the hook is going to seem downright cruel.

Back in 2002 I had a reading renaissance when I discovered audio books. Reading books with my ears was much slower than reading with my eyes, and I learned to appreciate savoring words rather than speeding past them. It’s time for another reading revolution. I need to change things up again. Here’s the thing, my mind is still pretty sharp, but I can tell it’s in decline. My short term memory is beginning to flake out, and my long term memory feels overstuffed—like I have to erase memories to make room for a new ones.

Reading just to be reading means most of what I take in leaks out of my short term memory before I can use it. And I worry reading new books might be erasing memories of old books. It’s time I defrag my brain and run a disk cleanup. One way I’ve found to preserve old memories is to reread books. Another way is by making lists, writing blogs, talking to friends.

The first stage of my reading plan is to review my books read log and create a list of books I want to get to know intimately. I want stay with these books so they stay in my memory. I’m still anxious to read new books, especially nonfiction, but I’m going to be more selective. It distresses me that I spend so much time taking in new information only to forget it.

Where learning to read slower was the key to my first reading renaissance, learning to take notes will be essential to my second. If a book isn’t worth studying like one in a college course then it isn’t worth my reading time. If the book isn’t a 9 or 10 on a ten point scale, it won’t be reading worthy. Now this might sound too monkish, but there’s a method in my madness. I’m a book junky, an old and jaded one, and if my fix doesn’t have the purity of Walter White’s blue meth, then the high I get won’t feel worthy of the brain cells I sacrifice. After a lifetime of reading, I crave intensity.

I want to read books where the names of the characters stick with me like the names of old friends. I want to read books where writers explore themes with the insight of great philosophers. I want to read books where the prose inspires me to write. I want to read books where the settings feels as vivid as my memories of all the places I lived. I want to read books where the characters struggle to map uncharted reality so well I could follow their trail. I want to read books that show me how other people think and feel that’s both different from the way I feel and think. I want to read books that make me feel I’m seeing more of the world than even the most hardened world travelers. I want to read books that take me up and down the centuries just like I had a time machine. I want to read books that make me feel overwhelming emotions like my favorite music. I want to read books that let me know what it’s like to be people not like me.

And I want to remember those books…

Fifty Novels To Remember

I’ve probably read more than two thousand books, but this short list are the ones that haunt me. I’ve read hundreds more that wowed me at the time, but I’m not sure how well they will linger in my memories. This is my tentative list to work with at the moment. If I reread one book a month, I could reread a list of sixty books every five years. I will need to rethink this list because I only have six women writers—but I have ten slots to fill if I stretch it to sixty books. And I cheated with the Robert J. Sawyer books, which were published as a trilogy, but I consider them one story.

I think these books have stuck with me for philosophical reasons. For some reason they resonate with my unconscious mind.

  1. 1719 – Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe
  2. 1813 – Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
  3. 1861 – Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
  4. 1868 – Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
  5. 1871 – Middlemarch by George Elliot
  6. 1875 – The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope
  7. 1877 – Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
  8. 1883 – Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson
  9. 1895 – The Time Machine by H. G. Wells
  10. 1900 – Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser
  11. 1902 – The Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
  12. 1905 – The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton
  13. 1912 – Riders of the Purple Sage by Zane Grey
  14. 1913 – The Patchwork Girl of Oz by L. Frank Baum
  15. 1920 – The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
  16. 1926 – The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
  17. 1928 – Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D. H. Lawrence
  18. 1936 – Keep the Aspidistra Flying by George Orwell
  19. 1945 – High Barbaree by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall
  20. 1949 – Earth Abides by George R. Stewart
  21. 1949 – Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell
  22. 1949 – The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles
  23. 1951 – The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger
  24. 1952 – Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
  25. 1953 – Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
  26. 1955 – Tunnel in the Sky by Robert A. Heinlein
  27. 1956 – Time for the Stars by Robert A. Heinlein
  28. 1957 – On the Road by Jack Kerouac
  29. 1958 – Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote
  30. 1958 – Have Space Suit-Will Travel by Robert A. Heinlein
  31. 1959 – Confessions of a Crap Artist by Philip K. Dick
  32. 1960 – To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  33. 1961 – Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
  34. 1962 – Hothouse by Brian Aldiss
  35. 1962 – The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick
  36. 1966 – Empire Star by Samuel R. Delany
  37. 1968 – Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick
  38. 1969 – Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
  39. 1972 – When HARLIE Was One by David Gerrold
  40. 1974 – Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig
  41. 1980 – Timescape by Gregory Benford
  42. 1986 – Replay by Ken Grimwood
  43. 1989 – Hyperion by Dan Simmons
  44. 1996 – The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell
  45. 2001 – The Life of Pi by Yann Martel
  46. 2009 – Wake/Watch/Wonder by Robert J. Sawyer
  47. 2009 – The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi
  48. 2011 – The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore by Benjamin Hale
  49. 2012 – The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
  50. 2013 – The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert

By the way, I cheated with Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which is a memoir, but it feels like a novel to me.

JWH

The Creation of Atticus Finch

By James Wallace Harris, Monday, July 20, 2015

Readers who love To Kill A Mockingbird with the passion of a true believer should not read Go Set A Watchman. However, if you want to know more about Nelle Harper Lee, how books used to be edited, and how a decent literary novel evolved into one of the greatest novels of all time, then you’ll probably need to read Go Set A Watchman.

Atticus Finch, the father in To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee is one of the most beloved, admired and respected character in all of literature. How was such a character created? Before this year most readers assumed Harper Lee based Atticus Finch on her father, Amasa Coleman Lee, a real-life lawyer, using her mother, Frances Finch, family’s name. Superficially, it appears we have many clues to suggest the story was autobiographical. This month, Go Set A Watchman was published, an earlier draft of what would become To Kill A Mockingbird. Atticus Finch in Watchman is a much different man than the literary saint he became in the final version?

Atticus Finch

I am troubled by the implication of many reviewers of the Go Set A Watchman that the 1930s Atticus Finch of To Kill A Mockingbird has matured into the 1950s Atticus Finch of Go Set A Watchman. 1950s Atticus was created first even though his story appears second in print and second in time. 1930s Atticus evolved from 1950s Atticus.

The Invisible Hand Behind Harper’s Lee ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’” by Jonathan Mahler at the New York Times gives us some clues. Harper Lee was lucky to find Tay Hohoff at J. B. Lippincott for her editor. Hohoff was the old fashioned kind of editor that worked extensively with a writer to shape their novels. Hohoff convinced Lee not to go with the novel she submitted.  I assume that submission is close to what we’re reading now as Go Set A Watchman. Lee and Hohoff worked two years editing the book that became To Kill A Mockingbird in 1960. Mahler also brings up one other valuable clue—Hohoff wrote A Ministry to Man, a biography of John Lovejoy Elliott during this time that was published in 1959. There might be a good bit of Lovejoy in Atticus since the two woman worked so closely together, and the editor may have convinced Lee to create a more humanistic hero for her story.

My guess is Atticus Finch in Go Set A Watchman was probably closer to Amasa Coleman Lee, and the Atticus in Mockingbird is closer to John Lovejoy Elliott. But I also assume that Atticus is mostly the creation of Nelle Harper Lee. We can never know the actual scientific details of the evolution of Atticus Finch. It’s not too wild of a speculation that Hohoff convinced Lee that she needed a likable hero which Atticus Watchman was not. How much Hohoff actually contributed to the creation of Atticus is unknown.

We love Jean Louise ‘Scout’ Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird, but her story would not have made the novel one of the perfect novels of all time. The success of Mockingbird tells me a great novel needs a great character that will be widely loved. How did Harper Lee learn this? From Hohoff? What about from her real father? We don’t know what Amasa Lee was like, but if he was closer to the Atticus Finch in Watchman, he could have taught Nelle Lee she needed a saint and not a real person like himself to create an immortal character. This is just speculation, but the ending of Go Set A Watchman makes me wonder if Nelle was inspired by her father to become a prophet for her cause. (By the way, a prophet is not one who predicts the future, but one who shapes the future. Harper Lee is a true prophet.)

Readers want Atticus Finch of To Kill A Mockingbird to be real. Like all great people in history, their legend overshadows their reality. Atticus Finch stands with Jesus, Gandhi and Martin Luther King as being saintly inspirations to the masses, but they all were probably less than perfect to their friends and family. Harper Lee’s writing shows she was an incredibly sharp observer of people, culture and history. I can easily imagine Lee and Hohoff sitting around speculating on possibilities and throwing out, “What if Atticus Finch became a saint to his readers?” It was at that point that the Atticus of Watchman evolves into the Atticus of Mockingbird. It took Lee a couple of years to transform her protagonist. Whereas the early fathers of Christianity spent two hundred years transforming their god. If Lee had spent any more time on Atticus I’m afraid Lee would have given Atticus psychic powers and let him walk on water.

scout jem dill cropped

It’s fascinating that Harper Lee rewrote the novel and set it twenty years earlier. This was a savvy move because it let her create Scout, Jem and Dill as immortal characters rather than anecdotes of memory. But it also positioned Atticus back into time letting him stand out as a guiding light amongst his peers. It’s actually very hard to imagine 1930s Atticus dealing with the 1950s issues. Reducing everything to one court case simplified the major plot and left room for the second plot of Boo Radley. The trial doesn’t begin until the middle of the novel, but everything that comes before sets up the second half of the story. Somehow Hohoff convinced Lee to take sketches of her past and put them into a holistic unity. That also helped shape the character Atticus.

If you’ve read Go Set A Watchman you know it’s filled with long verbose passages dealing with intellectual arguments over race, often about desegregation, a concept 1930s people couldn’t imagine. This makes the 1950s Atticus a mouthpiece for racist rationalization. Throwing the story back twenty years, and letting Atticus speak far less, gives him wisdom and compassion, allowing him to be ahead of his times with modern humanistic insight. 1930s Atticus anticipating the 1950s makes for a much better Atticus. Writing a contemporary novel with a character who thinks with future insight is probably impossible. No wonder most great novels are about events that have gestated in a writer’s mind for decades. It’s also why successful prophets of history were discovered long after the fact.

The Atticus of Go Set A Watchman is made a hero for Jean Louise in a roundabout way. I’m extremely glad to have read Go Set A Watchman, but that’s because it gives me a lot of evidence about how Harper Lee became a great writer. Comparing the two makes it all too obvious why Lee never published anything more. It would have seem silly to create another best-selling saint, and foolish to compete with her own success. Lee could have done something like J. K. Rowling and explored another genre. I assume she didn’t stop writing, but probably kept it to herself like J. D. Salinger did all those years. Wouldn’t it be weird to see an early draft of Catcher in the Rye?

If Harper Lee had only written about Scout, Jem and Dill, she could have continued to crank out novels her whole life like Louisa May Alcott did after Little Women. Or if Lippincott had published Go Set A Watchman, which would have had modest success, she could have shown improvement. But to create something so perfect as To Kill A Mockingbird and Atticus Finch, I can understand why Harper Lee withdrew from the world of fame.

JWH 

The Future of Books

By James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Here’s my conundrum, do I keep The Byrds: Timeless Flight Revisited The Sequel by Johnny Rogan, or give it away. This 1988 book revised in 2008 has 735 pages about the The Byrds, my favorite music group from the 1960s. Rogan has since updated this book in 2011 to a 1216 page monster, that’s just the first volume of a trilogy. I read the 2008 edition with much delight, spending several evenings in an orgy of nostalgia, playing my old Byrds albums as I read about how each was created. I kept the book thinking I’d reread it. Was that a mistake? Is the knowledge in books changing so fast that there’s little reason to save them?

The-Byrds---Johnny-Rogan

The edition I have is quite exhaustive in its scope. But if I wanted to read about The Byrds again, shouldn’t I read the latest definitive work? Why have I saved this book for seven years? It’s still a great read, and maybe it’s all I need to know about The Byrds.

Books have become a physical burden. I had a friend who claimed to own every book he ever read. Can you imagine the Sisyphean task of dragging a library behind you everywhere you went? That would be a snap if they were ebooks. Or if I lived in one house my whole life. Or if knowledge wasn’t changing so fast.

This book represents another kind of burden, a psychological burden. We experience life one moment at a time, yet most of us cling to all those past moments. Not only do I want to save my memories of The Bryds, but retain a book that collects all the group member memories. That’s kind of weird when you think about it.

We exist in a transitional time. We’re very close to having all our external memories online. What if The Byrds: Timeless Flight Revisited The Sequel  was a website that grew as Rogan wrote and researched? The multimedia aspects of the web could greatly expand its potential. Personal and public libraries wouldn’t be burdened with lending and storing the book. And it would be available to all instantly.

I can also see the content this book incorporated into Wikipedia. What if all knowledge was hyperlinked into one book? What if the history of The Byrds was written by anyone who cared about their history? What if all memoirs, interviews, photos, bootlegs, videos, etc. were at one location, and hyperlinked by a carefully crafted narrative of dedicated editors?

We now serialize history with the latest definitive book. What if history lived on the web as an ongoing collective project? Is moving towards such a hive mind existence scary? How much time do you spend reading the web versus reading books? How often do we get facts from iPhones?

Can you imagine books in the future? Are they changing so fast that it’s not worth collecting them?

I’ve always been a lover of books. I hoard and collect them. But I’m starting to wonder if I only need to own one book, the one I’m reading.

JWH