What Books Do You Speak?

by James Wallace Harris, 8/8/22

Most of our ideas are borrowed since few people have original thoughts. The other day I was wondering why conservatives and liberals think so differently. I decided one reason is that they read different books. Of course, not everyone reads books. Ideas are also passed around from person to person, or by newspapers, magazines, journals, advertisements, political rallies, television shows, the internet, etc. We dwell in a sea of ideas.

Ideas do originate with original thinkers, and often they are first published in books. Journalism and other forms of mass media then propagate those ideas, which in turn are spread by word of mouth. So, for now, let’s think of the basic unit for storing and spreading ideas are books.

My theory is conservatives and liberals think differently because the foundation of their beliefs comes from different books. I’m not suggesting that all conservatives and liberals read the same set of books, but the ideas for their thoughts and speech originated in a subset of books.

I was thinking along these lines because I wondered if conservatives and liberals each had a core set of twenty books, what would happen if the conservatives read the liberal’s books, and the liberals read the conservative’s books? Would our polarized political opinions begin to homogenize?

Then I wondered about fundamentalist religious people who put their faith in one book. What would happen if all the fundamentalists around the world all read each other’s holy book?

Thinking about that brought up an obvious stumbling block. Most people’s beliefs are based on what they first learned as children. If you are raised Christian and conservative you’re most likely to stay Christian and conservative. That suggests ideas acquired in youth are stickier than ideas acquired later in life. For my test, we’d have to raise children with The Bible, The Quran, The Tanakh, The Talmud, The Vedas, The Upanishads, The Tipitaka, The Tao Te Ching, The Yasna, etc.

We know minds are open and plastic at birth. If you took a child from a Christian family and gave it to a Muslim family to raise, it will grow up Muslim. But for some reason, after a certain age, minds close and lose their plasticity.

On the other hand, fads arise and spread ideas/memes all the time. Adults will embrace new ideas. Fox News, the Internet, to Tik-Tok can spread new ideas like a California forest fire. This suggests that people can acquire new ideas that they put on top of the foundational ideas that were programmed in their youth.

And ideas don’t have to come from nonfiction books. If all you read are romance novels and watch romance TV shows and movies, your ideas about relationships will be different than if you only consumed mysteries.

I’m in a book club that was reading Developmental Politics by Steve McIntosh, a book about our polarized politics. McIntosh hoped his insights would help solve that problem but most of the readers in the book club doubted it. One of our members did believe in McIntosh’s ideas and thought they could work. I felt McIntosh’s ideas were insightful but figured for them to be persuasive, would require everyone to read many other books first. McIntosh’s book was complex enough to require reading dozens of other books to fully understand it.

That’s when I realized we speak in books. When we express ourselves, we pass on fragments of books, but we don’t pass on enough information to let other people fully understand the foundation of the original ideas. Generally, we pass on tiny fragments of the original idea that are barely impressions. And we seldom communicate ideas but express ourselves emotionally.

If you want to understand a person, you have to consume the same books they did, or at least the same secondary sources. If a friend is passionate about a belief you’ll never understand your friend until you understand the foundations of their beliefs.

Few people understand the sources of their beliefs. Few people can point to a set of books and say here’s where my ideas originated. The origin of a classical education came from the study of foundational books, but that idea broke down in modern times when we were overwhelmed with significant books.

Yet, even when there was only one book for most people, The Bible, Christianity spent centuries arguing over its meaning. If you study all the people who claim to be Christian today you’d find very little commonality. The Bible is too big and too diverse. If we took The U. S. Constitution instead, which is tiny in comparison, we still get endless disagreement.

Ideas are slippery and inexact. Even if we read the same books and speak about the same ideas we don’t interpret them in the same way. Humans aren’t computers. We filter ideas through our emotions. Books might sow ideas but they don’t plant them evenly, and they grow inconsistently.

It appears that humans latch onto vague concepts and use them for ammunition to get what they emotionally want. Even if we read the same books we’ll still be a long way from finding agreements.

What we have here is a failure to communicate. What we need is a better approach to understanding each other’s wants. It might start with reading the same books, but it would only be a start. We’d also need to start studying each other’s emotions, and emotions are even harder to communicate than ideas. That’s what McIntosh was getting into with Developmental Politics, building on developmental psychology.

JWH

Analog Reading in a Digital Age

by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, September 22, 2018

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

reading in a digital age

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JWH

 

 

Finding A Neighborly Middle Ground in Unbiased News

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, May 16, 2018

A couple who lives next door told me they watched OAN (One America News Network) because it was not biased. They knew I disliked Fox News because I’m a liberal. I took their recommendation of OAN as a gesture of compromise. Our country is crippled by political polarization so I’m willing to try to meet people half-way in some kind of political middle ground. The idea of a news service that promotes a unified America is a good idea. But sadly, One America News is definitely not it.

What is bias? One dictionary definition defines bias as, “prejudice in favor of or against one thing, person, or group compared with another, usually in a way considered to be unfair.” That would mean any news service that favors a liberal or conservative view, but it could also mean any news service that favors Christian over Muslim, or Hindu over Buddhism, or Atheist over Theist. Or it could mean a news service that favors capital over labor, or environmentalism over capitalism, pseudoscience over science, etc.

How can the news not be biased if it doesn’t give equal time to all issues? How can bias be measured? There are agencies that work to measure bias. Media Bias/Fact Check rates One America News Network as highly biased to the right. AllSides also rates it leaning to the right. RationalWiki describes OAN as far-right, ultra-conservative, and Pro-Trump.

And there are opinions from other news sources. Adweek says OAN is the ultimate pro-Trump network. The Washington Post says OAN takes pro-Trump to new heights. Salon even suggests that OAN is an alternative for those who think Fox News is too liberal.

I like the idea of finding a middle ground news source with my neighbor, but I’m afraid OAN is not it. I doubt they will support The New York Times, the only news I pay to read. I don’t subscribe to cable, and I’m watching less and less broadcast news. My main news sources are from Flipboard, which pulls stories from hundreds of different sites, including Fox News. I believe Flipboard provides a method for balancing bias, but it’s easily side-stepped if you are biased in the stories you select to read.

I disagree with my conservative friends who say that The New York Times is extremely biased to the left. Media Bias/Fact Check claims it’s left-center. They rate CNN and MSNBC as left. Their scale looks like this for CNN:

Media Bias Fact Check scales

Here is their list of least biased news sources. It’s an extremely long list, with mostly smaller sources, local papers, foreign news, but includes a few notable titles like The Christian Science Monitor and USA Today. I have to admit that most of my favorite news sources come from the Left-Center list. Although there are a few sources from Right-Center that I like, like Forbes Magazine. Fox News and One American News Network are in the Right-biased list. And I have to admit I do read several sources from the Left-biased list.

Media Bias/Fact Check is a great site to read to contemplate news bias. It also tracks Pro-Science and Pseudoscience lists.

I wonder if we can become less politically polarized and more neighborly if we change where we get our news? I doubt if all Americans will choose to read only from the Least Biased list, but maybe we could aim to stay within the Left-Center through Right-Center range.

JWH

 

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.

minimal1

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

Reading a Newspaper–Old Style

By James Wallace Harris, Friday, February 27, 2015

This past weekend, I decided to buy a physical copy of The New York Times Sunday edition because they were advertising the revamped magazine section in my digital edition. I figured it might be fun to read a newspaper again, by holding it. Sort of a little nostalgia trip. Sad to say, it was a sad trip, I got very little wistful fun going back this time.

One of the very first things I noticed about the physical paper was the low-resolution of the print. It was a smudgy, dull gray. Many pages looked blurry. The screenshot I took below from the NYT’s web site of it’s .pdf of the front page is many times sharper and easier to read. Just click on the image to enlarge it. I wish my digital subscription included a full .pdf version of the paper. It would solve many of the criticisms I have for reading newspapers old style.

NYT-Feb22

There are many pluses to reading a newspaper the old fashioned way. First and foremost, I’m not at the computer. I spend a lot of time at the computer, on my tablet, or using my smartphone. So, returning to the tactile physical world is a real plus. The next advantage I noticed to reading the newspaper like I once read it, is the random nature of the content. Even though I subscribe to the digital edition of The New York Times, I read it very selectively, mainly by cherry picking the most interesting articles from the most emailed page. That means I don’t see a vast majority of the paper. Flipping through the entire paper shows me stories I would never read online because I would never search them out. The print layout is random, but holistic too. I looked at all the book reviews, rather than selective one as I do when online reading.

Strangely enough, the print ads are more appealing than online ads, even though most of them are a low-rez gray mush. In fact, the ads are so interesting, I would probably enjoy looking at the full paper each day on screen with a .pdf version. I have a 27” monitor which is great for reading online.

The magazine section, printed in color on slick paper, does beat the web visually. The new magazine section is like a real magazine. It’s easier to hold and read than the newspaper itself, which makes me wonder if print newspapers shouldn’t use that format?

Lastly, I get more of a feel of what’s going on around New York City from reading the print edition, than I do reading the digital edition.

The digital edition can easily feel like a world news paper. If I worked at it, I could dig through the entire paper by lots of online clicking, but I doubt I could see everything I saw by just laying the paper on the table and flipping page after page. But this brings me to the negative aspects of reading the pulped tree edition.

The font is tiny on the paper edition. Too small to enjoy reading. Generally, for any article that caught my eye, I’d just read the first few paragraphs, and then I told myself, if the article was appealing, to look it up later for online reading. I only pay for the web page edition, so I have no idea what the paper looks like on a table or smartphone. However, reading it online is much easier than reading in print. My Chrome browser sizes everything for my poor old eyes.

The physical paper is hard to hold and read. I had to sit at a table and lay it flat. But when I found something I wanted to read, I had to hold the paper up, and even fold it to get a comfortable reading distance and handhold. And I was very disappointed with the photos, both the news pictures, and the ads. There was an ad for model ships that really caught my eye, but the printing looked like 3D print without the glasses. And strangely enough, I missed the interactive slideshows and videos from the online edition.

Reading the newspaper again reminded me of one of the very annoying things I always hated about newspaper but had forgotten. Turn to page xx really bugs me. Do you turn now and read, and then jump back, or do you keep flipping pages and try to remember to spot the article you had started reading awhile back?

It’s sad to say, I just didn’t like reading the physical newspaper. It had a momentary cool factor of reminding me of the old days, but that wore off pretty quick. And when I was through, I felt guilty because I had a pile of paper that needed recycling. Some tree gave it’s life so I could read the paper, and now I was just going to throw it away. In a couple years I’ll probably buy a paper again, hoping to find that old pleasure of newspaper reading I had growing up, and probably once again I’ll realize why we move on with new technologies.

JWH

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