Other Recent Essays

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, March 24, 2017


I thought I’d link to recent essays I’ve been writing for Book Riot and Worlds Without End – two sites I like to plug.

Book Riot:

Worlds Without End:

I guess I’m neglecting my duties at WWEnd. I’ve started several essays for them that I haven’t finished. In recent months I’m starting a lot more essays for all my writing outlets than I finish. I worry that it might be age related. That I’m not focusing on work as well as before.

I worry that unfinished essays are a sign I’m getting older because I’m not focusing as well as before. But I’m also pursuing more hobbies and I’m enjoying more social activities so it might be I’m just having too much fun. Then again, isn’t focusing on creative pursuits all about ignoring time-wasting fun?

I usually get at least one idea every morning in the shower, and often I get two or three. Completing them is a matter of making myself stick to the task. That means sitting at the computer, writing and rewriting, until the essay is finished. I’m afraid I’ve been more indulgent at playing lately. I am retired. I tell myself it’s okay to do anything I want. Yet, I have a sense of guilt about doing things that don’t produce results. If I go a day without writing it feels like I wasted that day. On the other hand, I might have filled that day with many other wonderful pursuits that are rewarding in other ways.

Just before midnight, I go to sleep wishing I had more time in that day. I can’t comprehend how I ever scheduled a full-time at a job into my life.




Technology & Education

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Does technology improve education? Are people in the 21st century better educated than those from the 19th century? If we use current politics as a metric I’d have to say no. We have a president who constantly makes absurd claims and is backed by a majority in congress. Those wealthy, “well-educated” leaders are currently claiming that the loss of healthcare is a gain in freedom. Evidently, they’re depending on Americans being poorly educated to get their treasured tax breaks. The Republicans have made a political movement out of anti-education in era when technology brings us tremendous amounts of information. Obviously, all that availability of knowledge hasn’t helped the average citizen see the con.

Technology has apparently improved all walks of life except education. If schools reflected the productivity we see in agriculture, medicine, manufacturing, and communication, we’d all be Einsteins. Why hasn’t that happened? When I sat down to write this piece I assumed technology was an overwhelmingly obvious benefit to education – but the little devil on my left shoulder started muttering snarky observations. She might be right.


The world wide web has made living on Earth feel much smaller. We can Skype folks from any country in the world, so why aren’t foreign languages skills booming? Anyone can study free lectures from ivy league universities on science and mathematics, yet STEM scores aren’t improving.

We have access to more news, information, knowledge, data, experiments, statistics, scientific studies than ever before in history, yet America elected a human whose grasp of reality is so slight that his observations are the daily butt of comedians. We have more data but not more wisdom. We’re unable process the daily tsunami of information that our tech tools gives us.

This leads me to theorize that being well educated comes from inner motivation and not external tools.


Are We Being Cheated Out of Ebook Cover Art?

By James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, September 27, 2016

I’ve always loved dust jacket art on science fiction hardbacks. I also love cover art on science fiction paperbacks, and cover art on science fiction magazines. But what the hell is happening with covers for ebooks? I can understand when self-published authors create their own covers and they look awful. But why are we seeing covers like this:


These new ebook editions have no copyright page or publisher listed inside. At Amazon, under publisher, they give: Robert A. Heinlein. As cheapo ebook covers these aren’t terrible – but they aren’t appealing either. I guess they decided that no art is better than bad art, and I’m thankful for that.

I assume publishers spent money on cover art when the covers often sold books. And I guess, since ebooks aren’t displayed in bookstores, publishers feel little need to sell books by their covers anymore.

If you look at the cover art from 2016 – here’s a selection at the old SF Signal site, and look at a selection of cover art from the 1960s and 1970s at Science Fiction and Other Suspect Ruminations, you’ll notice, at least in my mind, that cover art is less creative.

For fun, I thought I’d give a brief history of these two covers. Tunnel in the Sky has never had any great covers, but some of them were not bad. The Door into Summer has one great SF cover, and a couple interesting ones. Clicking on the covers should bring up larger images.

First off, their original hardback covers from the 1950s:


Now their early paperback covers:


A couple foreign editions:


Later 20th century paperback editions:


Some 21st century versions:


And for some extra fun, here’s what The Door Into Summer looked like when it appeared  in F&SF.


These aren’t masterpieces of cover art, but they are a lot more appealing than the current covers. Can you understand why I feel cheated?

I still miss the cover art from 12” LP covers. The art on CD cases were never the same. Is migrating to digital media destroying the wonderful world of cover illustrations?


2015 Year in Reading

By James Wallace Harris, December 31, 2015

Novel of the Year

The Signature of All Things - Elizabeth Gilbert

For most of my life, my all-time favorite novel has been Have Space Suit-Will Travel by Robert A. Heinlein. It’s now The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert. I guess I’m finally moving past my childhood. The Heinlein novel, which I first read in 1964, gave me a future to think about, but for the past several years, I’ve been looking backwards, especially into the 19th century, and The Signature of All Things captures, at least for the moment, where I’m at philosophically.

Runners Up (no order):

  • Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
  • The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore by Benjamin Hale
  • To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  • Go Set A Watchman by Harper Lee
  • Bleak House by Charles Dickens
  • The Broken Bubble by Philip K. Dick
  • The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick

This was a very good year for fiction. I read many more great novels, but these are the ones that shook me up. If you look at the full list of books below that I read in 2015, you’ll see some astounding novels I’m leaving off. This was an excellent year for new science fiction (Aurora, Seveneves, The Water Knife), but I can’t bring myself to consider them in the runner up category.

Nonfiction Book of the Year

This Changes Everything - Naomi Klein

This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein is powerful statement about our future. Klein makes a great case that capitalism is at fault for our environmental problems. This is one of those books that everyone should read but won’t.

Runners Up (no order):

  • The Meaning of Human Existence by Edward O. Wilson
  • The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert
  • Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari
  • Being Mortal by Atul Gawande
  • Spinster by Kate Bolick

It was also a great year for nonfiction. One of my reading goals last year was to read more nonfiction. I didn’t work as planned, but I do think I’m reading a bit more nonfiction.

Reading Log for 2015

Author Title Finished Format Year
Timothy A. Pychyl Solving the Procrastination Puzzle 2015-01-03 Audio 2013
Roger Zelazny This Immortal 2015-01-06 Hardback 1966
Albert Camus The Stranger 2015-01-06 Audio 1942
Ray Bradbury The Martian Chronicles 2015-01-09 Audio 1950
Kevin Birmingham The Most Dangerous Book 2015-01-17 Audio 2014
Edmond Hamilton City at World’s End 2015-01-19 Audio – Yahoo 1951
Edward O. Wilson The Meaning of Human Existence 2015-01-23 Library hardback 2014
Robert A. Heinlein The Man Who Sold The Moon 2015-01-26 Audio 1951
Elizabeth Gilbert The Signature of All Things 2015-02-03 Audio 2013
Evan Osnos The Age of Ambition 2015-02-10 Audio 2014
Hector Tobar Deep Down Dark 2015-02-13 Audio 2014
Elizabeth Kolbert The Sixth Extinction 2015-02-18 Audio 2014
Brian Aldiss Non-Stop 2015-02-21 Hardback 1958
Nick Bostrom Superintelligence 2015-02-28 Audio 2014
Naomi Klein This Changes Everything 2015-02-28 Kindle ebook 2014
Yuval Noah Harari Sapiens 2015-03-12 Audio 2015
Jack McDevitt Moonfall 2015-03-13 Library hardback 1998
Roxane Gay Bad Feminist 2015-03-15 Audio 2014
Olaf Stapledon Last and First Men 2015-03-22 Audio 1930

Lynn Kear and John Rossman Kay Francis: A Passionate Life and Career 2015-03-26 Kindle ebook 2006
Mary Doria Russell Epitaph 2015-03-29 Audio 2015
Nancy Kress Yesterday’s Kin 2015-03-30 Kindle ebook 2014
Eric H. Cline 1177 BC: The Year Civilization Collapsed 2015-04-04 Audio 2014
Emily St. John Mandel Station Eleven 2015-04-05 Kindle ebook 2014
Atul Gawande Being Mortal 2015-04-09 Audio 2014
Paula McLain The Paris Wife 2015-04-14 Hardback 2011
Benjamin Hale The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore 2015-04-18 Audio 2011
Liu Cixin The Three-Body Problem 2015-04-27 Audio 2014
Walter Tevis The Queen’s Gambit 2015-04-28 Kindle ebook 1983
Alan Paul One Way Out 2015-05-02 Audio 2014
Mary Shelley The Last Man 2015-05-18 Audio 1826
Madeline Ashby vN 2015-05-22 Audio 2012
Ross MacDonald The Moving Target 2015-06-01 Library hardback 1949
Paolo Bacigalupi The Water Knife 2015-06-06 Audio 2015
Frank Herbert Hellstrom’s Hive 2015-06-12 Library hardback 1972
Pat Barker Toby’s Room 2015-06-17 Library ebook 2012
Jules Verne The Mysterious Island 2015-06-21 Audio 1874
Daniel DeFoe Robinson Crusoe 2015-07-04 Audio 1719
Marie Kondo The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up 2015-07-10 Kindle ebook 2014
Robert M. Edsel The Monuments Men 2015-07-15 Library hardback 2009
Jack Williamson The Humanoids 2015-07-15 Audio 1947
Harper Lee Go Set A Watchman 2015-07-19 Audio 2015
Harper Lee To Kill A Mockingbird 2015-07-21 Audio 1960
Kate Bolick Spinster: Making A Life of One’s Own 2015-07-30 Library hardback 2015
Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle Lucifer’s Hammer 2015-08-10 Audio 1977
J. A. Johnstone Phoenix Rising 2015-08-11 Scribd ebook 2011
Kate Bolick Spinster: Making A Life of One’s Own 2015-08-12 Scribd audiobook 2015
Robert Silverberg Downward to the Earth 2015-08-15 Scribd audiobook 1970
Andy Miller My Year of Reading Dangerously 2015-08-19 Audible 2012
Nevil Shute A Town Like Alice 2015-08-23 Audible 1950
Aziz Ansari Modern Romance 2015-08-27 Audible 2015
Kim Stanley Robinson Aurora 2015-09-02 Audible 2015
Daniel Coyle The Little Book of Talent 2015-09-04 Audible 2012
Barbara Oakley A Mind For Numbers 2015-09-04 Audible 2014
M. R. Carey The Girl With All the Gifts 2015-09-16 Audible 2014
Neal Stephenson The Seveneves 2015-10-13 Audible 2015
Isaac Asimov Foundation 2015-10-23 Scribd audiobook 1951
Kate Wilhelm Where Late The Sweet Birds Sang 2015-10-27 Scribd audiobook 1976
Dan Harris 10% Happier 2015-10-28 Kindle ebook 2014
Robert Silverberg Thorns 2015-11-04 Scribd audiobook 1967
Samuel R. Delany Babel-17 2015-11-10 Audible 1966
Charles Dickens Bleak House 2015-11-21 Audible 1853
Clifford Simak The Heritage of Stars 2015-12-01 Audible 1977
Alan Weisman Countdown 2015-12-08 Audible 2013
Martin Ford The Rise of the Robots 2015-12-16 Audible 2015
Philip K. Dick The Broken Bubble 2015-12-20 Audible 1956
Hal Clement Mission of Gravity 2015-12-24 Kindle ebook 1953
Philip K. Dick The Man In The High Castle 2015-12-27 Audible 1962

I read 68 books this year, the most since I’ve been doing these yearly reviews.

Reading Goals for 2016

Every year I make big plans for what I want to read in the coming year, and every year I fail to follow through. So this year I’m not going to make any promises. I want to read more nonfiction, but there seems to be some kind of psychological barrier to how much information about reality I can take in on any given week. I sometimes think I need to read fiction to balance the psychic load.

Past Year Reports

Essay #992 – Table of Contents

The Most Addictive TV Shows of 2015

By James Wallace Harris, Monday, December 28, 2015

How is it possible that we’ll watch four one-hour episodes of the same TV show in one evening? Has streaming technology changed us? Has television become insidiously addictive? Or, do we just feel a deep desire to escape ordinary life? If we’d had Netflix back in the 1950s, would we have binge-watched Gunsmoke? I actually feel that television is constantly getting better, that the art of telling a story on the small screen is evolving. One reason shows are binge-watched is because they tell one story, like a novel, over a season. So I wouldn’t have binge-watched TV in the past, because those shows were complete in one episode. When the stories are compelling and extended, we want to keep watching, even well past our bedtime.

The Boob Tube has always been addictive, but it used to be just habit forming like marijuana, but now it’s painful-withdrawal addictive like heroin. In 2015 there were 409 scripted television shows. The competition to create binge-worthy shows is fierce. A study could be made as to what story elements are required to make a compelling fiction. I just finished season 2 of Fargo, where I completed it’s ten episodes in four days by watching 2-3 episodes an evening. It’s gruesome body count seemed inappropriate compared to the wholesome Christmas movies my wife wanted to watch. But, Susan is much more of a TV binge watcher than I am. She can watch 10-12 episodes of a favorite show in a weekend. Of course, people binge-read too, like my brother-in-law Cayce who is reading the 14-volume Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan, where each book is a giant volume by itself. Why have we gotten so addicted to make-believe?


I prefer to watch television with friends, which often means watching two episodes a week on a Friday night. Janis, Mike, Betsy and I just finished The Man in the High Castle. It was so great we had to finish up the last two episodes early, on a Sunday night. There are downsides to watching binge-worth TV with friends: the urge is to cheat. Watching on our own is convenient, but ruins the social fun. But when this happens, and I do it, I end up watching some episodes twice. Or I’ll watch shows twice because I want to see them with different people. I watched Humans and Mr. Robot with two sets of friends, and I enjoyed those shows so much that seeing each episode twice was not boring in the least. Television shows have evolved so much that they are complex enough to rewatch and still discover new insights.

Mr Robot

I now worry about being too addicted to binge-worthy TV. Broadcast TV is still catching up to premium TV. I often have to buy my shows because I don’t have cable. The best of the best TV is so good, that I’m becoming a junky craving ever more powerful TV highs. I can’t imagine how good television can get, but shows in the 2020s might become paralyzing. My TV buddy Janis and I are always edgy when we don’t have a binge-worth TV show to watch. Last night we tried several shows hoping to find one that would hook us. I watched Fargo without her, and she’s a little miffed. But she does the same thing to me—finding shows to view alone without me. It takes discipline to wait and watch shows with friends because it’s always problematic to schedule TV viewing with a friend, and especially difficult coordinating three or more people.

For me, the best experience is to share a great TV show. If you have no one to get excited over a show, somehow the show doesn’t seem as great. And discovering what kinds of shows your friends love is so revealing. It’s bonding. It’s resonating. All my friends binge-watch now. My main bond with some people are through discussing TV.

Here are the shows that came out during the year that I loved the most in 2015.

I watched many more shows during the year that came out before 2015, like Mozart in the Jungle season 1, The Knick season 1, The 100 season 2 and Fargo season 1. There were other shows I loved the first or second season, but they petered out this year like Orange is the New Black, Vikings and House of Cards. Novelty is everything with binge-watching.

the man in  the high castle

Since I could never watch everything that came out in 2015, you should read these lists below. You’ll notice that several shows, many of of which I watched, were listed over and over again.

Essay #991 – Table of Contents

Postscript – written later that night:

This essay really didn’t do what I wanted. There is a certain quality to fiction that I crave, that I find in books, movies and television shows. I was just washing some dishes and for a fleeting moment I wondered if fiction isn’t the way we seek to live differently. But it’s more than just wanting to exchange our boring lives for exciting ones. Fiction has a pacing and logic that improves on normal life.

When I was watching the new Star Wars film today I felt its creators were trying to find their way home, which in this case was the first Star Wars movie. Could it be that Star Wars creates a high that its fans seek to live? I wish life felt like my favorite songs, which explains soundtracks, because most people would feel life is better with a backing score. When I was a kid, one reason I liked smoking grass was it gave life a tinge of drama. Fiction vibes are much different from real life vibes.

After watching The Man in the High Castle miniseries I reread the book for the third time by listening to it. The ending of the book is much different from the movie. Juliana Crane has an insight to the book within the book, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy. She feels its fictional revelations, inspired by the mystical ancient text, I Ching, understands life. Philip K. Dick, a notorious paranoid, playing around with alternate history and the many world hypothesis, suggests that life is like a book. Poor PKD so desperately wanted “The Answer.” As the omniscient narrator he could give his creations the logic we seek.

I’m thinking different kinds of books give different kinds of highs, and what we crave from fiction is life with the kind of high we get from our favorite books.

Of course that opens up a whole can of Freudian worms when I wonder about me loving shows like Fargo and Breaking Bad. I imagine the high folks get from Star Wars is like those they get from comic books and video games, which is very youthful. The highs I like from fiction come from getting old.


Rethinking Book Buying and Collecting

By James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Marie Kondo in her book the life-changing magic of tidying up: the Japanese art of decluttering and organizing has me rethinking my feelings about buying and collecting books. Her chapter on tidying up bookshelves is more than just about culling books, but how we think about them. Most bookworms love owning thousands of books. I’ve own as many as ten thousand in my lifetime—although I never read that many.

Kondo challenges us to think about why we keep books. Which leads me to wonder why I buy books. I was just at the bookstore with a gift card in hand. With each book I picked up I asked myself, “Will I read this book right away? If read it right away will I keep it? If I don’t read it right away how long will I wait to read it? And if I never read it, how long before I  give it away?”

A year ago I wouldn’t have left the bookstore empty handed, but today I did. There are a number of ways I’ve changed. First, in tidying up my books I’ve given away hundreds of them. Many of those were not read, but had been sitting on my shelves for years or decades. Tidying up has made me aware of the hundreds of books I still own waiting to be read. I’ve been keeping a books read log since 1983, and in recent times I’ve also noted in what format I read the book. Most were digital audiobooks, but of the ones I read with my eyes, ebooks are starting to overtake print books. Finally, I’ve also subscribed to Scribd.com which is a rental library for ebooks, audiobooks and digital graphic novels. For $8.99 a month I have access to thousands of books and audiobooks. Scribd tends to have older titles, exactly the kind I find when shopping for used book bargains.

I was spending $50-100 a month on used books and Kindle/Bookbub ebook specials. That $8.99 deal gets me more books by renting than I was by buying. So why should I buy? I’ve mostly stopped buying movies since I became a Netflix subscriber, so I think the same thing will happen with books now that I’ve become a Scribd member. Marie Kondo would be so happy.

Yet there’s more to owning books than the urge to collect. We keep books for sentimental reasons, because we feel we might reread them, or they will be reference books. I’ve always kept books because I have a crappy memory and feel I need the book as external memory. In contemplating my feelings for tidying up my bookshelves I realized its very rare for me to go back to a book. I cling to my favorite books because its an emotional way of believing those books are a part of me. One revelation is my favorite stories will always be a part of me as long as I remember those stories, and it doesn’t matter if I own the delivery mechanism in which I read their words.

I also realized that any book I want to read again is a week away via ABE Books for a few dollars, or instantly available by ebook. And it gives me a good feeling to think other people could be reading my favorite books if I let them go. So I did.

What scares me now is I might let all my books go. I’ve always loved to have people see my library. It’s my only impressive visual quality. Can I imagine being the bookworm I am without a wall of books to prove it? There is another revelation that Marie Kondo has accidently led me to comprehend. I am not the books I’ve read, but the book I’m reading.

I think our species is leaving a phase where we defined ourselves by what we own and now see ourselves by what we do.