I Wish I Had a Time Machine to Rescue My Dad

by James Wallace Harris

One of my favorite idle fantasies is to imagine how I would relive my life if my current mind could reincarnate into my younger self. Variations of this fantasy have included using a time machine to jump back in time to warn my younger self about the future, although I doubt young Jimmy would have taken older Jim’s advice. This week I’ve been struggling to remember everything I could from 50 years ago, and a new fantasy has occurred to me.

What if I had a time machine so I could go back and rescue my dad instead of me?

I know such fantasies are impossible, so why waste my time on them? But the science fiction reader in me loves the idea of creating my own alternate histories by playing “What if?” The challenge to these fantasies is to find the right point in time to divert the time stream. It occurred to me this morning that the moment to rescue my father was in the summer of 1967, but first I guess I should explain why my father needed help.

My father died in 1970 at age 49 when I was 18. My mother and father were alcoholics. My father was a steady drinker, but my mother would only hit the bottle in times of stress from her bipolar swings. My father loved being in the Air Force but was forced to retire after 22 years when he had a heart attack in 1964. Sitting at home without work made him drink more. Dad recovered, went back to work and had another heart attack. Dad recovered again, went back to work, and had a stroke. He even recovered from the stroke before he died of his final heart attack.

My father also had emphysema in his last years, requiring oxygen. But he continued to chain smoke Camels, eat meat and potatoes, and drink Seagram 7 all day long. His death certificate reported that his liver, lungs, appendix, and stomach were shot to hell. I’ve always figured his heart was very strong to survive all that. It made me wonder if he had ever tried to get healthy if he could have survived into old age. Or at least long enough for the two of us to get to know each other.

But my dad was not a happy man. When I was a kid I used to ask myself, “Was my father a drunk because my mother bitched all the time, or did my mother bitch all the time because my father was a drunk?” I’ve never blamed my parents about my upbringing. I survived by being totally selfish, and I figured it was every family member for themselves. Now that I’m older I feel guilty for being so selfish. I know as a kid I didn’t know enough to help them, or even how to be a better person myself. I just survived the best I could. I really don’t blame my parents, but I don’t think they were suited to have children.

Over the last few decades, I’ve come to believe that I and my sister were the main sources of my parents’ unhappiness. We just weren’t what they expected, and any effort to shape us into what they wanted only caused them endless suffering. Of course, it wasn’t easy on me and Becky either, but our youth gave us a vitality to survive. My father just couldn’t handle the emotional conflicts. My mom got better after my father died, especially with 1970s anti-depressants, but she suffered endless unhappiness for the rest of her life, mostly from trying to make Becky and I do what she wanted.

The photo above is my only proof that my parents were ever happy. It was taken in 1949 before they had me and Becky.

Over the decades I’ve tried to reconstruct who my dad was from memories of the people who knew him, but I’ve had little luck. I’m not sure I’ve ever gotten to talk with anyone who really knew him, and that includes my mother, who died in 2007. My father wasn’t much of a talker. He might have been before I knew him, but I now believe my mother, sister, and I drowned him out.

I have just 23 photographs of my father. All but three were taken before I was born, and two of those were with me as a toddler. I have no photographs of my father with my sister.

1936---George-Harris-photoshoppedMy father was born in Nebraska, in 1920, but moved when he was a little kid to Miami by 1923. He attended Miami Edison High School, but I’m not sure if he graduated there. I have a photo of him dressed for graduation that was taken in Homestead, Florida. Dad graduated in 1938 and I have his class photo, but I’m not sure if he graduated from Edison. I know he attended Edison for a while because I have a newspaper clipping about his class project. I know he worked as a Western Union delivery boy in high school because I have a photo of him in uniform from 1936. I have photos of my father in the service in 1942, but I’m not sure what he did between graduating in 1938 and joining the Army Air Corp in 1942. My father stayed in the Air Force after the war and married my mother in 1945.

My parents were first stationed in Washington, DC, and then Puerto Rico. I have several photographs of my mother and father living on the island and looking very happy. And when I was young they often talked fondly of life in Puerto Rico. I was born on the 6th wedding anniversary on November 25, 1951. There are two photographs of me with my father when I was a toddler, probably in 1952. The next and last photograph I have of my father was from Thanksgiving 1969. It’s blurry and everyone is almost unrecognizable. He died six months later.

I remembered something this morning that made me think the perfect time to rescue my dad would have been in the summer of 1967. 1964-1966 were bad years for my parents, and they separated from September 1966 to March 1967. My mother took me and my sister to live in Charleston, Mississippi to be near her family. We returned to Miami in March 1967 to live on West Trade Avenue, in Coconut Grove, Florida. I guess my father was trying to get his act together. He also started computer classes. I remember him coming home from class and telling me about how punch card codes worked. However, it wasn’t long before my mother and father were fighting again. And my mother and father were both on my sister case, and she was having none of it. I remember a lot of family fights. I tried to stay as far away from my family as possible. I slept on the screened-in back porch with the clothes washer. I had my radio, record player and science fiction books.

This would have been a perfect time to have tried to get to know my father. I don’t know if I could have convinced him to eat right, give up smoking and drinking, and maybe even exercise, but maybe he would have considered it on his own if someone had shown any interest in his life. I think he drank because he was lonely.

Taking computer classes in 1967 was a great time to break into the field. I started computer classes in 1971. If I had studied with him I would have had a great headstart too. We could have gotten to know each other. Maybe he would have tried harder.

Generally, when I have my time travel fantasies I’m thinking of time periods to change my life. Over the years I’ve decided the best time for me was the fall of 1963. If I could have talked my parents into letting me live with my grandmother instead of moving with them to South Carolina I believe my life would have been significantly different. In the fall of 1963, I went to three different 7th grade schools. I’ve always wondered what my life would have been like if I had lived in one place from 7th grade through the 12th. But now I see the pivotal moment in time for my dad was the summer of 1967.

I know we only get one life to live. There are no do-overs. I’m not religious, and I don’t believe in heaven. But I’ve long thought the idea of reincarnation was a wonderful concept, but not how the Hindus imagine it. I’ve always thought we should reincarnate in our own lives and have another chance of getting it right.

My father always worked two and three jobs. I hope he had great friends in the service. I know he loved bartending at NCO clubs and VFW clubs. He loved running bars, and I got to visit in some in those bars. I hope he had friends. I often wonder if he and his buddies consoled each other about wives and kids that didn’t understand them. But I’m not sure. Sometimes I imagine my father always being tight-lipped. Just holding it in.

I can only remember a handful of conversations I had with my dad. One time we were watching The Today Show before he took me to school and he went to work. This was also in that summer of 1967. They mentioned The Hobbit and my father said he knew about Bilbo Baggins. I didn’t know who Bilbo was at that time but remembered my dad saying that name, Bilbo Baggins, later when I finally read The Hobbit. It made me wonder what books my father read, what dreams he had about the future. He grew up in the heyday of the pulp magazines and old time radio. I wonder what stories and heroes he loved.

My father loved the military, and in 1967 I was very anti-war. I remember once my dad calling me a commie-pinko-faggot in anger. His dream for me was to join the ROTC and become an officer. I was having none of that. I ruined his fantasy for me. I later thought he should have been mature enough to understand me because I was too immature to understand him. But that was all part of the great generation gap. If my dad had lived he would have been a Fox News kind of guy. I don’t think we would have ever bridged the generation gap.

However, if I ever get hold of a time machine, I would try.

1969---Last-photo-of-Dad

JWH

 

Do Bookworms Read Too Many Books?

by James Wallace Harris, Sunday, January 27, 2019

Yesterday I reread “Vintage Season” by C. L. Moore and Henry Kuttner for the third time. I’ve read the story twice in the last ten months. This time I read “Vintage Season” by listening to an audio edition on headphones while simultaneously reading the words on my iPad. Consuming fiction via two senses is the penultimate way to get into a story. I believe the ultimate way to fully experience a work of fiction is to read it several times.

The trouble with rereading is our TBR piles are always growing. We’re driven to brain-cram as many new stories into one lifetime as possible. Reading a story once is like driving through a city and claiming you’ve been there. Rereading a story the first time is like a two-day stay. Reading a story many times is like visiting a town for weeks. Literary scholars are those folks who move into a story as a permanent residence.

There’s value to being widely traveled in books, but at some point, all the places start looking the same. It’s a shame we can’t read everything. Even if I read just the great books, this lifetime won’t be enough.

Fiction is like finding old dinosaur bones. The first reading is an amateur fossil hunter digging up the bones and getting a rough idea what the creature looked like. Rereading is a professional paleontologist carefully reconstructing every aspect of that dinosaur.

The first time I read “Vintage Season” decades ago it was just another mind-blowing science fiction story. However, it stayed with me. I don’t actually remember the title of very many short stories, but I remembered this one. When I reread the story the second time last March when The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume 2A came out on audio, it was like watching an old favorite movie I had first seen as a kid on a black and white TV and seeing it again on a new high definition TV and then realizing it wasn’t a black and white movie, but a Technicolor masterpiece. Reading “Vintage Season” again yesterday while listening to the audio version, felt like I was walking around inside a 3D movie.

This intense immersion with a story will not work with all stories. Every work of fiction is a creative vision by a writer encrypted and compressed into words. Fantastically rich visions can’t be decrypted and decompressed in one reading.

If our reading lives are racing through one new book after another we’re barely getting the Reader’s Digest condensed version of the story, and if we’re speed reading, it’s just an introductory abstraction.

I am now torn between chasing after all those novels and short stories I want to read before I die and rereading old favorites knowing I might reach a higher plane of bookworm existence.

JWH

 

 

As a Kid, Where Did Science Fiction Make You Want to Go?

by James Wallace Harris, Sunday, January 20, 2019

Growing up, I wanted to go to Mars. I assume the original seed of that desire came from watching science fiction movies as a little kid in the 1950s before I learned to read. When I could read, I loved reading about humans colonizing Mars. Red Planet by Robert A. Heinlein was the first SF novel I can remember reading about humans living on Mars. After that, I discovered Ray Bradbury and Edgar Rice Burroughs. But the allure of Mars came way before reading science fiction. I believe I saw a copy of The Exploration of Mars by Willy Ley, Wernher von Braun, and illustrated by Chesley Bonestell before I started reading science fiction. I began searching nonfiction books about space travel when I was in the fourth grade, right after Alan Shepard’s first ride into space.

Knowing what Mars is like now, I don’t want to travel there anymore. I’m old and hate the cold, and Mars is a very frigid place. Although my agoraphobic ways would make me perfectly suitable for living in a tiny Martian habitat, and its low gravity would probably ease the pains in my back. And I love the idea of being stranded alone on Mars like the old film Robinson Crusoe on Mars or the book and film The Martian by Andy Weir.

robinson-crusoe-on-mars

The unfortunate reality is there’s not much on Mars beside radiation, rocks, and robots. I suppose visiting the landing site of Viking 1 might make a great tourist destination, but there’s not a whole lot on Mars to see unless you’re a geologist.  Of course, sometimes the appeal of getting away from this planet makes the utopian nowhere of Ares seem very attractive.

Why does science fiction make us want to leave Earth? Where did it make you want to go as a kid? Were they real places like Ganymede or Mars, or imaginary ones like Tatooine or Arrakis? Did you want to travel on interplanetary rockets or interstellar spaceships? Or maybe the past or future was your destination and you needed a time machine? Or was science fiction always just a cheap alternative to opium?

The book that describes my childhood mindset best is the 1958 Have Space Suit–Will Travel by Robert A. Heinlein. As a kid, I read it straight, but I’m sure it was a pastiche on science fiction. The story is about Clifford “Kip” Russell who is dying to go to the Moon. He hates that other people can, either because they are in the military, are top scientists, or just filthy rich. As a senior in high school, Kip determines that’s he’s going to get to the Moon one way or another. He hopes to win an all-expenses-paid trip but instead gets kidnapped by a flying saucer. Not only does Kip get to the Moon, but Pluto, a planet orbiting Vega and another planet somewhere in the lesser Magellanic cloud.

f&sf-sept-1958

I believe Heinlein wrote this book because he knew kids dreamed of leaving Earth. At the time, only a very small number of Baby Boomer had this psychological weirdo affliction. Decades later, millions do. What does that say about us? Is the desire to go into space really that different of hoping to get to heaven?

I look back over my life and see I wasted a lot of time on these fantasies. Some people really do go into space, but there’s a reality to how they live that allows that. I was never realistic enough to become an astronaut. As I got older I transferred my personal hopes to humanity in general. I thought it would be great if anybody went to Mars.

The other day I reread “The Million-Year Picnic” by Ray Bradbury. It’s the final story in The Martian Chronicles. In this lovely tale, a man and his wife, with their three sons escape to Mars as civilization collapses on Earth. They hope another family with four daughters will also make it in their rocket. The dad keeps telling his boys he will show them Martians, and in the end, he shows the kids their reflection in a Martian canal. I love this story. It was nostalgic when it was first published in Planet Stories in 1946, and it now encapsulates all my nostalgia for the science fiction I read as a kid. However, the reality is something quite different. If travelers from Earth could look into a Martian canal they would see the real Martians.

mars rover

I’m not even sure we need to send people to Mars anymore. Aren’t robots our true descendants who will colonize space?

Or do you still want to go?

JWH

2018 Year in Reading

by James Wallace Harris, Sunday, December 30, 2018

I read 44 books this year. More than the 36 I read in 2017, but less than the 55 I read in 2016. I aim for a book a week average, so I’m off my pace. See “Year in Reading” for links to my past summaries.

My reading goal for this year was to read less science fiction and more classic literary novels and nonfiction. I wanted to keep science fiction to just one book a month but failed. I ended up reading 29 science fiction books, including 12 anthologies. This was my year of reading science fiction short stories.  I need to give up making reading goals.

Book of the Year

west_9780399590504_jkt_all_r2.indd

Educated is so dazzling that I still wonder if it’s true. Tara Westover has written a stunning memoir of growing up without any K-12 schooling, almost no homeschooling, and yet ends up getting a Ph.D. at Cambridge. Along the way she also goes to Harvard.

Runner-up is The Fifth Risk by Michael Lewis who reports on Donald Trump’s impact on the Department of Energy, the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Commerce. His book provides abundant evidence why conservative philosophy against big government is simple-minded insanity.

Favorite Novel I Read This Year

Doomsday Book by Connie Willis 500

For years I’ve avoided reading Connie Willis’ 1992 Hugo Award-winning novel Doomsday Book because of its size. It’s about a young woman time traveler, Kivrin, who is sent back to research life in the Middle Ages, at a small hamlet near Oxford. The book is riveting, and I highly recommend the audiobook edition because the writing is beautiful to hear. This tale is slow, very slow, but I couldn’t stop listening. The story is not meant to be action-pack exciting. Time travel in science fiction usually involves big loud plots, but Connie Willis makes her story very quiet and personal with an abundance of significant tiny details.

Favorite 2018 Novel I Read This Year

The Feed by Nick Clark Windo

I only read two 2018 novels this year, and the other Semiosis by Sue Burke was excellent too. The Feed is hard to describe without giving away too many plot points. It’s a literary post-apocalyptic SF novel like Station Eleven or The Road. And it’s somewhat deceptive. It starts out as a fantastic story about a future technology called the feed, which builds internet access right into everyone’s head. Our world becomes a very different place, and I would have loved to read a whole novel about the possibilities. However, Windo is only setting us up for another story, because the narrative quickly jumps six years in the future where civilization has collapsed because of the feed technology.

There were times in this novel I wanted to stop listening because the story got too slow and even weird. But I’m thankful now that I stuck with it. Before we get to the end of this book, Windo uses many science fictional themes in wonderful ways to tell a complex but very human story.

Again, I highly recommend the audiobook version. Nick Clark Windo is an actor, and the story is told in a dramatic fashion. The dialog is movie-like rather than book-like as if Windo pictured performing this story rather than writing it. Windo and Clare Corbett are the narrators, who switch between the male and female point of view characters. Both are perfect for this story.

Books Read 2018

Robert Silverberg editor The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume One Audible 1970
Jules Verne Journey to the Center of the Earth Audible 1864
Mari/Brown Ocean of Storms Audible 2016
Asimov/Greenberg editors The Great SF Stories #1 (1939) Hardback 1979
Alfred Bester The Demolished Man Audible 1952
Asimov/Greenberg editors The Great SF Stories #2 (1940) PDF 1979
Ben Bova editor The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume Two A Audible 1973
Bart D. Ehrman The Triumph of Christianity Audible 2018
David Grann Killers of the Flower Moon Scribd Audiobook 2017
Jessica Bruder Nomadland Scribd Audiobook 2017
Asimov/Greenberg editors The Great SF Stories #3 (1941) PDF 1980
Elizabeth Stroud Anything is Possible Scribd Audiobook 2017
Jack McDevitt The Long Sunset Kindle ebook 2018
Ben Bova editor The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume Two B Audible 1970
Scott Kelly Endurance Scribd Audiobook 2017
Jonathan Strahan The Best Science Fiction & Fantasy of the Year Volume Eleven Audible 2017
Douglas Adams The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Scribd Audiobook 1979
Nnedi Okorafor Binti Scribd Audiobook 2015
Robert L. Forward Dragon’s Egg Scribd Audiobook 1980
Robert Silverberg Sailing to Byzantium YouTube Audio 1985
Gene Wolfe The Fifth Head of Cerberus YouTube Audio 1972
Samantha Silva Mr. Dickens and His Carol Scribd Audiobook 2017
Asimov/Greenberg editors The Great SF Stories #4 (1942) PDF 1980
Asimov/Greenberg editors The Great SF Stories #5 (1943) PDF 1981
Nancy Kress Beggars in Spain Audible 1993
George Saunders Lincoln in the Bardo Audible 2017
Jonathan Strahan The Best Science Fiction & Fantasy of the Year Volume Twelve Audible 2018
Asimov/Greenberg editors The Great SF Stories #6 (1944) PDF 1981
Edgar Pangborn A Mirror for Observers Trade paper 1954
Elizabeth Moon The Speed of Dark Audible 2002
Rebecca Solnit Men Explain Things To Me Kindle ebook 2014
Connie Willis Doomsday Book Audible 1992
Zora Neale Hurston Their Eyes Were Watching God Audible 1937
Tara Westover Educated Scribd 2018
Murray Leinster The Forgotten Planet Audible 1954
Alec Nevala-Lee Astounding Audible 2018
Sue Burke Semiosis Scribd 2018
Nate Blakeslee American Wolf Scribd 2017
Adrian Tchaikovsky Children of Time Audible 2015
Robert A. Heinlein Friday Audible 1982
Michael Lewis The Fifth Risk Kindle ebook 2018
Asimov/Greenberg editors The Great SF Stories #7 (1945) Paperback 1982
Nick Clark Windo The Feed Scribd Audiobook 2018
David Sedaris Calypso Audible 2018
Jeff Flake Conscience of a Conservative Scribd Audiobook 2017

I assume I’ll continue reading science fiction anthologies next year. There are annual best-of-the-year anthologies for science fiction short stories starting with 1939. I began this year with reading 1939 stories and have read my way forward in time. I’m currently reading 1946 stories. I’d like to get to 1960 by the end of next year. However, starting with 1949 there are two anthologies for each year, and for a few years in the 1950s, three each year. I might only make it to the mid-1950s.

Other than gorging on short science fiction, I’ll make no promises for 2018.

JWH

Mindfulness Inside Fiction

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, December 11, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JWH

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

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, October 30, 2018

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

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

Great American Read Top 5

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

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

Google Trends PBS Great American Read

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JWH

Analog Reading in a Digital Age

by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, September 22, 2018

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

reading in a digital age

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JWH