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Two Minute Tuesdays

Two Minute Tuesdays are short snippets to help readers and writers, consider how to improve the quality of our reading and writing. Short, to the point, and hopefully, useful or inspirational. Usually we will focus on reading on Tuesday's releases. 

 

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To Reread, or Not to Reread: Dune

I read Dune many years ago, when I was in my teens, and I didn’t care for the book. I never moved on to other books in the series. As a rule, I find that books are better than movies in almost every case, so when I finally got around to watching Dune just a few weeks ago, as it was making its round of newfound popularity the question came up, to my mind: Should I just enjoy the movie and accept I didn’t like the book, or should I return to the book?

The Sandworms of Dune

Liking and disliking something can be separated form the quality of the writing. I don’t like all 1001 Arabian nights, but I am very glad I have read them. Some things are just too culturally influential to not read.

Dune might be among them. Dune is often credited with expanding the scope and ambition of science fiction. We forget that genres evolve and Dune is getting to be late middle age by science fiction standard. (1965) Its detailed world-building, complex political and religious themes, and deep ecological insights set a new standard for the genre. The novel's intricate plot and rich backstory influenced countless other works in science fiction literature and beyond.

Herbert created an incredibly detailed and immersive universe. The planet Arrakis, with its harsh desert environment, complex ecosystems, and unique cultural practices, serves as a vivid and intricate backdrop. This level of world-building set a new standard in science fiction, inspiring authors to develop richly detailed settings and complex societies.

Dune delved into intricate political and social themes, exploring power dynamics, feudalism, and the intersection of politics, religion, and economy. The novel’s portrayal of the power struggles between noble houses, the manipulative Bene Gesserit sisterhood, and the imperial ambitions provides a deep and nuanced narrative that goes beyond the typical good-versus-evil trope.

One of the novel’s most innovative aspects is its focus on ecology and the environment. A very modern idea relative to when the book was written. Herbert's depiction of Arrakis’ delicate desert ecosystem and the importance of the spice Melange not only drives the plot but also introduces readers to ecological concepts and the idea of planetary ecology. This emphasis on environmental stewardship was ahead of its time.

Dune also incorporates rich cultural and religious elements, borrowing from various traditions and mythologies to create a believable and engaging universe. The Fremen's way of life, their beliefs, and their messianic expectations are integral to the story, offering insights into how culture and religion can shape societies and influence historical events.

The impact of Dune extends beyond literature into film, television, and other media. Its themes and concepts have influenced numerous works, including Star Wars.

So, is it time?

(Spoiler warning.)  I do love good guys who don’t turn out to be so good in the end. I think Dune will be hitting my reading shelf again.

As a broader question do books deserve a second chance? I say yes. We change through life, and while the book may be the same, what we take way from it can change. Don’t discount good writing, just because you didn’t like it once.

Read to Your Health

Let’s talk briefly about mental health. According to the CDC “In 2020, 20.3% of adults had received any mental health treatment in the past 12 months, including 16.5% who had taken prescription medication for their mental health and 10.1% who received counseling or therapy from a mental health professional.”

Now let’s talk a little about the treatments.

In the realm of mental health and personal development, traditional therapy methods often include talking to a therapist, practicing mindfulness, or engaging in various forms of self-care. However, there's a lesser-known yet powerful therapeutic approach that involves the simple act of reading: bibliotherapy.

Bibliotherapy, derived from the Greek words "biblio" (book) and "therapeia" (healing), is a practice that utilizes literature as a tool for promoting mental health and well-being. Rather than relying solely on verbal communication, bibliotherapy integrates the transformative potential of reading to facilitate emotional growth, self-reflection, and insight.

At its core, bibliotherapy operates on the belief that literature has the power to resonate with individuals on a deeply personal level, offering solace, guidance, and perspective. Whether through fiction, poetry, memoirs, or self-help books, the stories and insights found within the pages of a book can provide comfort, validation, and understanding in times of struggle.

There are different approaches to bibliotherapy, depending on the needs and preferences of the individual. Some therapists may prescribe specific books tailored to address particular issues or challenges, while others may recommend a more exploratory approach, encouraging clients to choose reading material that resonates with them personally.

In a bibliotherapeutic context, reading becomes more than just a leisure activity; it becomes a deliberate and intentional practice for self-discovery and growth. By immersing oneself in the narratives and characters of books, individuals can gain new perspectives, develop empathy, and cultivate resilience in the face of adversity.

Beyond its historical roots, bibliotherapy has garnered renewed interest and recognition in contemporary psychology and mental health care. Research studies have demonstrated the tangible benefits of reading on various aspects of well-being, paving the way for bibliotherapy to be integrated into therapeutic interventions and self-help strategies.

https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/therapy-types/bibliotherapy

https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-bibliotherapy-4687157

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8007779/

From the literature and some examples above we can see there is a transformative power of bibliotherapy, some of which we have talked abut before.

Stress Reduction: In today's fast-paced world, stress has become a ubiquitous presence in many people's lives. Bibliotherapy offers a reprieve from the pressures of daily life by providing an opportunity to escape into the world of literature. Engaging in reading can activate the relaxation response, reducing stress levels and promoting a sense of calm and tranquility.

Enhanced Empathy: One of the remarkable aspects of bibliotherapy is its ability to foster empathy and understanding. As readers immerse themselves in diverse narratives and perspectives, we develop a greater capacity to empathize with others' experiences and emotions. This enhanced empathy can improve interpersonal relationships, communication skills, and overall social connectedness.

Cognitive Stimulation: Reading is a mentally stimulating activity that exercises the brain and promotes cognitive function. Whether it's deciphering complex narratives, analyzing characters' motivations, or exploring unfamiliar worlds, reading challenges the mind and encourages critical thinking skills. Over time, regular reading can help maintain cognitive sharpness and prevent cognitive decline associated with aging.

Emotional Resilience: Life is full of ups and downs, and building emotional resilience is essential for navigating its challenges. Bibliotherapy provides a safe space for individuals to explore and process their emotions through the lens of literature. By identifying with characters who overcome adversity or confront their inner demons, readers can draw inspiration and strength to face their own struggles with courage and resilience.

Self-Reflection and Insight: One of the central aims of bibliotherapy is to promote self-reflection and insight. Through reading, individuals can gain new perspectives on their own lives, values, and aspirations. Characters' journeys of self-discovery and personal growth can serve as mirrors for readers' own experiences, prompting them to question, explore, and evolve their sense of self.

Alleviation of Depression and Anxiety: While bibliotherapy is not a substitute for professional mental health treatment, it can complement therapeutic interventions for depression and anxiety. Reading uplifting and inspirational stories can provide hope and encouragement to those struggling with mental health challenges. Additionally, the act of reading can distract from negative thoughts and promote relaxation, helping to alleviate symptoms of depression and anxiety.

In conclusion, bibliotherapy offers a unique and powerful approach to promoting mental health and well-being through the transformative power of reading. By harnessing the insights, empathy, and inspiration found within the pages of books, individuals can embark on a journey of self-discovery, resilience, and personal growth. Whether seeking stress relief, emotional support, or cognitive stimulation, bibliotherapy invites readers to explore the vast landscape of literature as a pathway to healing and self-transformation.

If you have never talked to your therapist about it, give it a try. Or, reading on your own is truly a drug you can self-prescribe.

Let’s Talk About Money

In the United States, movie tickets typically range in price from about $9 to $20 per person. If you get some popcorn, two people, lets call it 50 dollars for two people for about 2.5 hours if you include previews.

That’s a dollar per unit time of $10 per person per hour. People still go to the movies, though not as much as they once did. But let’s call that number acceptable.

Bowling, a far less popular pastime that it once was is priced all over the map from $4.50 a game and shoe rentals at $2.00 a pair, or hourly rates I’ve seen are $23.00 - 27.00 and hour.

Axe throwing seems to average $30 an hour. I assume it’s the lumber cost, I can’t picture why else…

Trampoline parks seem to have a range from $14 to $30 an hour per person.

The list keeps going.

 

People in America seem willing to pay something in the 10–30-dollar range for entertainment. I am here to postulate that even if you had a crippling reading habit, you would be hard pressed to find a cheaper hobby. Even if you are buying all hardcovers all the time at $30 each, the average book is 80,000 words. At the higher end of reading speed of 300 words per minute, that’s 266 minutes or about 4.5 hours. That’s a cost point of about $6 an hour. Half that if you buy paperbacks.

Reading, even if you do it a lot, and buy all your books is a very cheap hobby to maintain.

Used book stores libraries and electronic books drive that number down even lower.

In a world where a nickel seems to cost a dime these days, books are a wonderful option.

Get reading.

Reading Foreign

I would like to talk a little today about The Witcher. It is a series of six fantasy novels and short stories by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski. In the odd event you do not know who this character is, the books, and now TV shows and video games, revolve around the eponymous witcher, Geralt of Rivia. Witchers are hunters of magical beasts or mutated natural creatures given superhuman abilities through a dangerous process that few survive.

I don’t specifically want to talk about this book today as a book review, or even the series directly.  

The series is iconic, and successful, having been translated into 37 languages and sold over 15 million copies worldwide. The point I want to make here is that the author is not from America. I am.

In the authors own words “He is a professional, carrying out his duties and unwilling to become involved in the "petty quarrels" of contemporary politics.” Sapkowski has stated that he personally abhors politics and considers his books to be politically neutral.

But despite this, he can never escape the water in which he swims. His books are influenced by the culture in which he grew. His mythology is not Saxon, his magic is not Tolkien influences, his pints and tones and nuance are fundamentally from Poland. It is a book that is different because it is from a place that is different.

Sometimes it is good to read something that is different. Translated books allows readers to explore a diverse array of global literature without necessarily having to learn multiple languages. From classic works of world literature to contemporary bestsellers, translated books offer a window into the literary landscapes of different countries and regions.

Not every one of them will land. Translating a book involves much more than simply converting words from one language to another. Skilled translators must capture the author's tone, style, and intentions while also navigating linguistic differences and cultural nuances. Translators often face the challenge of adapting cultural references, idiomatic expressions, and wordplay from one language to another. While some cultural elements may be easily translatable, others may require creative solutions or explanations to convey their significance to readers from different cultural backgrounds.

If you have never tried these kinds of books before, start with either The Witcher or perhaps The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin, and see what new worlds other cultures have in store for you.

Geralt of Rivia

Alternative History

A fun way to explore your understanding of current history is to read about “what if,” alternate histories. Alternate history novels are a fascinating genre that explores "what if" scenarios by imagining how the course of history might have been different if certain key events had unfolded differently. Sometimes the change is big, sometimes small. I would argue it is general science fiction as a genre though I suppose it doesn’t have to be hard science fiction, and could fall into a cozier fantasy story as well.

Harry Turtledove is often dubbed the "Master of Alternate History," Turtledove has written numerous novels exploring various alternate timelines. His works include the Southern Victory series, which imagines a world where the South won the American Civil War, and The Worldwar series, where aliens invade Earth during World War II. (My personal favorite alternate history series ever.)

Philip K. Dick is primarily known for his science fiction works, but he also wrote some notable alternate history stories. One of his most famous works in this genre is The Man in the High Castle, which depicts a world where the Axis Powers won World War II and divided the United States into Nazi and Japanese-controlled territories.

Kim Stanley Robinson is better known for his science fiction and speculative fiction, Robinson has also dabbled in alternate history. His novel The Years of Rice and Salt explores a world where the Black Death decimated Europe, leading to a vastly different global landscape dominated by Islamic and Chinese civilizations. (This is my favorite single alternate history book ever.)

The Years of Rice and Salt

That is to say, while this is not a huge genre, it has certainly got some big players.

Alternate history novels excel at exploring intriguing hypotheticals by asking questions like "What if a major historical event had unfolded differently?" This aspect allows readers to delve into thought-provoking scenarios and contemplate the potential consequences of alternate paths in history.

There are so many books in the world that could be written, and should be read.

 

What if Heron of Alexandria, an ancient Greek inventor, had successfully developed and harnessed steam power for practical applications in the 1st century AD, accelerating technological progress and reshaping the ancient world?

What if the British had failed to intercept the Zimmermann Telegram during World War I, preventing the revelation of Germany's proposed alliance with Mexico and potentially keeping the United States out of the war?

What if the Battle of Waterloo, fought between Napoleon Bonaparte and the Duke of Wellington, had taken place on a day with torrential rain, rendering cavalry charges ineffective and altering the outcome of the battle?

Go find a what if of your own today to read, and if the one you want doesn’t exist, maybe you should go write it. 😊

Let’s talk about pacing

I want to talk about pacing in books, movies, comics, and just stories in general. I want to explain why books are a much-needed source of storytelling, and I am going to do it by talking about video games.

I don’t play video games anymore, not in many years. I simply don’t have the time. I don’t judge it as a means of storytelling though and in fact think there have been some really amazing science fiction tales told through the medium. But like all things, if done the wrong way it will rot your imagination, steal your time, and next thing you know your life is gone. I want to talk about a story that I think might have started the right way, and gone wrong, and what every writer can learn from it.

Halo.

Spartan 117

Way back in 2001, a first-person shooter came out with a relatively silent protagonist called Master Chief. A rank. We didn’t even know his name. By the standard methods of a silent protagonist, you are the player saving the universe. Standard fare really, but with a slight difference. The writers of the game gave just enough hinted backstory and just enough hinted world-building that people wanted to know more about our heroic figure. They gave Master Chief just enough personality and his military group just enough legend that he came to embody a certain kind of perfection in military stamina and well… Spartan mentality. (Pun for those who played.)

There were two other games which followed. Halo 2 and Halo 3 in 2004 and 2007 respectively. All told, if you are playing for the story you will see about 30-35 hours of playtime between the three of them, and you will see closer to 50 hours if you want to poke into every nook and cranny.

It is a lesson in patience and restraint that I have seen generally only in books. We don’t learn the name of the main character until the penultimate scene of the last game.

This kind of restraint is greatly lacking in most of the stories we see today. Ironheart. Pops onto the scene a fully formed amazing combat machine. We didn’t get to see evolution through multiple movies like we did for Iron Man. As such, the story falls flat.

There could easily be more lists here but the idea is straightforward. As writers, we should use restraint. Pace the information you dole out, and avoid the risk of one-upmanship and escalation for as long as you can because once you head up that exponential curve there is no way back.

The long-form structure of the novel lends itself to this better than any other format in my opinion.

So go support the content that gives us the stories most worth reading. Grab a book, even a Halo adaptation novel.

Watchers Need Readers, Who Need Authors.

In the realm of creativity, writers and readers are integral players, each contributing to the tapestry of storytelling that shapes our cultural landscape. Their collaboration not only fuels the literary world but also serves as the foundation for many forms of entertainment, including television shows. It's crucial to recognize the importance of supporting authors as readers because without their contributions, we wouldn't have the TV shows we love.

Writers are the architects of imagination, crafting worlds and characters that capture our imagination. Think about George R.R. Martin's "A Song of Ice and Fire" or Andrzej Sapkowski's "The Witcher" series – without these authors, we wouldn't have the narratives that inspire TV adaptations. Their work lays the groundwork for the stories that captivate us on screen.

The Witcher

Readers, on the other hand, are active participants in the creative process. They bring stories to life through their engagement and interpretation as directors, producers, actors. But also because they create the landscape for authors to exist in the first place. The success of TV adaptations like "Game of Thrones" or "The Witcher" is thanks in part to the readers who embraced the source material, laying the groundwork for their adaptation into popular TV shows.

Game of Thrones

It's important for readers to understand their role in shaping the entertainment landscape. By supporting authors and engaging with their work, readers contribute to the continuation of this creative cycle. Whether it's through buying books or spreading the word about their favorite stories, every act of support helps sustain the flow of creativity.

Starting our reading journey with the books that inspired our favorite TV shows not only pays tribute to the original authors but also deepens our appreciation for the source material. Exploring the pages of "Outlander" or "Sherlock Holmes" allows us to uncover new layers of depth and nuance that enrich our understanding of the stories we already enjoyed.

Sherlock Holmes

In essence, writers and readers are essential partners in the storytelling process. Their collaboration drives innovation and ensures the continued success of the entertainment industry. By recognizing the importance of their contributions and actively supporting their work, we help ensure that captivating stories continue to enrich our lives for years to come.

If you loved a show, go try the book, you are probably doing yourself a favor. And, If we don't, we risk losing the array of authors who keep us entertained in one medium or another. 

Is It Me? 

I was reading last night, and I noticed as I approached the 50-page mark or about 1/8 mark that I give to most books that I was not impressed by the piece. It wasn’t bad, it wasn’t good, it just was.

The plot beats were recognizable. The characters were not bad, but they had a kind of “Decent vanilla ice cream,” feel to them. You might not go out of your way to find more of it but it wasn’t by any means offensive. I have a ninety percent certainty of the end of the story already, though I could be wrong.

I stopped reading for a moment, looked at my “recently read shelf.” AKA “find the right place to put these away but haven’t done so yet,” shelf. Then I looked at my, “to read shelf,” and almost put the book in hand on the “finished,” shelf. Then I read the titles and realized I had put down 6out of 8 of the last fiction books I have started. Same reasons. “Meh,” or in one case a travesty of terrible.

When the ratio gets that high, I am forced to ask myself, is it me?

Has something fundamentally changed about how stories are being written? I checked them all. These are not indie published, they made it through agents, and major publishing houses. That excuse many people pitch is out. These are considered the best stuff available then, right? So, what is happening?

I don’t have any good answer here. I am going to double down on more fiction for a while, as I have bene focused on non-fiction almost exclusively for the last 4-6 months. If the trend keeps up, maybe I will read some of my old favorites to make sure my calibration is on point, then I might foist the same books on other people to see what they think!

It is a strange feeling to know that it is possible a genre can leave you behind. What worked in science fiction 30 years ago when I became a fan is not the same as what works in science fiction today. The same is true of fantasy, or even many mainstream books. I will finish this book that made me question my own taste, but I know I may just be getting out of touch.

I guess even in reading, it can happen that old dogs can’t learn new tricks. 

When to Stop Reading a Series?

Dragonlance Legends

It is a question I have had to ask for two series of books specifically that I have read since I was a child.

Margaret Wies and Tracy Hickman’s Dragonlance series beginning with Dragons of Autumn Twilight, followed by the Dragonlance Legends, in many ways a perfect combination of storytelling and nostalgia for me, are the first up for consideration.

The next up are the many books of R.A. Salvatore, specifically starting with The Crystal Shard, marching through some 39 books and counting about the well-known character Drizzt Do'Urden now.

I have recently reread the Dragonlance Legends, a story at its core about the relationship between two brothers who love and hate one another, and their literal adventure through time. I read them because new books have been released in the world, by the same authors, and I have asked myself “Should I read them?”

I am struggling to find myself saying, “yes.” I have nothing but love for these books I listed above. They are books which helped create the person I am, focus my love of fantasy novels, and in my opinion predominantly hold up to the test of time. How much of that is nostalgia I don’t know but that is perhaps part of the point. We have to be careful before we drag nostalgia forward and update it. It wont be the thing you recognize form your past, and sometimes that is okay.

If Weis and Hickman have elected to write another series to get a new generation of readers on board with fantasy novels, I am okay with that. I want there to be more people who love the genres I love. But I think we also have to know when to jump ship. We need to know when at least for us, the story is done. I realized this about six books ago for the Drizzt series as well. The character had reached a satisfying place for me. I have no doubt that the author is sufficiently creative to find new stories to tell, but I realized I had come with the character to a place that I didn’t want to go any further. His story was complete and could stay there in my mind forever as resolved.

I double I will ever sit down to reread all 30 something books I have on my shelf, but I pass them by and sometimes stop to look at them and think about each book, its story, and my memory of it. They are happy memories, but I think that is where they will remain.

It is possible to outgrow our favorite things, just as it is possible for them to outgrow us, become something new for someone new who will enjoy the stories into the future.

Historiography

Oxford definition: (noun) the study of historical writing.

In other words, historiography is the study of the history and methodology of history as a discipline. Briefly, it is the history of history. One of my favorite ways to study the history of history is to read cultural books and history books from different periods in history.

I have recently been working through The Run of the Mill by DunWell. Not a particularly old book, (1970s) it outlines the history of the New England Textile mills. But that is not what it is really about for me. What it is really about is the history of how electricity changed our lives. How did transportation change our lives? How did the world wars and the demand side of a single industry reflect the changes in our lives? To understand one small aspect of history well, is to understand something of all the facets of history, and it is fascinating.

In the same bent I recently reread Hidden History of Maynard by David Mark. I happen to live a few towns over and I visit Maynard frequently, so for me the book has some extra enjoyment, but it is another example of studying history through literature. History within the telling of history. By understanding how a single town thrived, flourished changed and shaped itself you can see the way it touched the world and how the world touched it though centuries.

Babe Ruth visited the town. It was built up by one of the richest and most powerful families in the state. It was a lost cause for a decade when the textile and shoe industries walked away before the town found its footing again.

Every inch of those changes can still be seen today in the town as you walk through.

If you have never tried reading books for the history of a place, consider it. Consider finding a book or magazine on the history of your own town, or a neighboring one. The local libraries and historical societies will be happy to help you find the information. You never know how much more real your local environment can become.

Read on.

Find Time Where You Can

My wife and I are not at home right now. We are staying a few hundred miles away to help take care of family. Our habits are uprooted, our domestic living arrangement has been shrunk by a factor of ten. We are being forced to keep company with some family members we would rather not interact with while caring for others. We are still working because the nature of our job is such that we are able to work remotely to some degree.

Our time is not our own.

In this current situation, the idea that “we read from 9:30-10:00 is not something we can simply rely on. Read when you can.

Many people are not so lucky as my wife and I that we have a normally patterned lifestyle. The idea that we have  time to read is not the national average and we are thankful for our opportunity. But we have found we are still reading and writing, because we decided as people it is our priority.

Keep a book at hand, digital, or otherwise. She threw three books into the backpack when we walked out the door as part of our packing without even thinking about it.

 

Don’t surrender a better you tomorrow because life got busy, or got hard. Make future you proud. Read today.

Reading Junk Food?

My next reading queue...

When are you reading too much junk food?  I’m not sure. I thought about it when I was looking at the stack of books I have up in queue next.

I guess some people would say everything I am reading in this stack is junk food. More or less. Only three pieces are non-fiction, the rest are fantasy and science fiction. If I am not reading classics of modern literature from around the world, is it junk food? You would have a hard time convincing me it is.

The stack also has some graphic novels, and two small comic books. Junk food? Eh… probably?

We all know there are levels of writing, and not all levels are made equal. Patrick Rothfuss writes at a level I am not capable of. It is more elevated, more complex and more interesting than my writing. It is less junk food than say the comic books at the bottom of the stack.

When have we reached too much junk food relative to the rest?

I am close to saying … never.
Blasphemy?!?

Maybe. I love classic literature too, and I certainly read it. The most important thing to me though, is reading. Every person who reads is a good thing. Rising tides lift all ships, is true. If there is a massive demand in the book industry for graphic novels, I will take that over there being no demand for any books, because I insisted that people should read only 100 + year old classics.

I know I don’t always challenge myself in my books, and reading SHOULD challenge us from time to time. Is my ratio, right? For now, I’ll say yes. But you should judge your own. If nothing has seriously challenged you in a while find a book that does. If everything challenges you maybe take a break and read something light just for the fun of it.

Reading can have so many purposes, and we shouldn’t lose sight of any of them. We shouldn’t judge people who only read one thing any more than we should judge ourselves too harshly for the same thing.

Return to The Doom Loop

A little while back we reviewed the reading algorithms doom loop. If you haven’t seen it take a look here or some context. I wanted to add to it based on recent articles which are coming out about the elephant in every room. Artificial intelligence. AI.

LLms.png

A new kind of doom loop is forming, and nobody will have any say in the end result of it but you. And me. And your friends. All of us. But it is starting to look unlikely that the decision will be made by government agencies or the law in the near future. The doom loop I am referencing is the doom loop for AI.

There have been many, MANY articles in the news recently about ChatGPT, and other large language models and their use of data to construct those models without reasonable payment to the source material. Here is just a small sampling of relevant articles:

 

It is starting to seem like nobody wants large language models in use. Similar lists of lawsuits can be found by artists and the loss of revenue for the alleged theft of art work for items like Midgard, Dalli, and other digital art generators. They have even won competitions in some cases, driving the ability of artists to make a living down hill.

I have read articles which say between 45 % and 67 % of people think that large language model companies should have to pay for the data on which they are trained. Europe even released reports on the possible detriments of LLMs. If so many of us don’t seem to want this, why is it happening anyway and what can we do about it?

First for transparency: I have dabbled with both art generators and writing generators. None of the pieces on this website have ever been AI generated, though part of the problem is you can’t prove that. Contrary to the hope that AI can spot AI, for now, it can’t. I have, on the whole, been grossly disappointed with the output of both the art and the chat conversational skills. I have caught it in lies, and I have caught writing just poorly regurgitated information. It is a skimming of surface information without any depth, because for now, it doesn’t understand anything. Not really. It isn’t general AI, and it isn’t sentient or even close to taking over the world, so worries about Skynet coming can relax. And. Well. It’s boring. It’s not me making those statements even if it could make good content.

What I am going to say for the concern is something entirely different. AI in this format is theft. If tomorrow I would write a story taking place in Westeros I would need to give credit to the creator, and give royalties if I make any money on the use of that intellectual property. LLMs and the people who use them do not. There is a fine line between reading something and taking steps forward with the information provided, synthesizing the data and coming up with your own understanding, but that is not what LLMs do. They regurgitate wholesale items which were scraped up to train on. The NY Times claimed they were able to find the content buried wholesale in a LLM of their websites content on the other side of paywall content that was not paid for.

We have a choice as a group.

It will be a tangled mess for years in courts to decide what happens to AI and its right to use your material. But we can decide today what we want to do about it. Just as what you read determines what happens in the world, what software you use does to. In defense of writers, artists and creatives I will not knowingly use AI generated art, I will not use AI generated text, and I will no longer “play,” with these software online, because to do so is to patronize something I do not agree with.

You have a choice too. AI has its place in many other contexts, and AI is not coming to conquer our world, but it is starting to conquer our artists. If you wrote a book tomorrow, would you want someone else to write the second novel in a day with an LLM? If you made a work of art and Midgard stole it, then made ten versions for ten customers, and you never see a dime, wouldn’t you want credit and cash? If you entered a contest with all your artistic skill, and a hack entered the contest with some basic AI prompts, and got an AI to create a masterpiece, would you be willing to lose the competition to the AI? Would you want your writing entry skipped because the magazine needed to make room for ten regurgitated AI written pieces?

We as a group get to decide what to do about it. I’ve made up my mind. How about you?

Reading for Writing

Today is a reminder to the writers among us, why you should read. This is not really a question. I know every writer knows they should read. This is a reminder to hopefully increase the quantity of your reading. I struggle with this constantly. If I am given a fixed amount of free time, which really is true of everyone, as we have a life outside our writing, I am constantly choosing to work on the act of writing over the act of reading. Sometimes, I admit, it is even to the detriment of my own writing in the long term.

If writing is breathing out, reading is breathing in. You have to take stock of where you are in the landscape, what is working, and remind yourself of why you want to write in the first place. Here are ten very good reasons every writer needs to remember to read.

  1. Enhanced Vocabulary: Reading exposes writers to a wide range of words and phrases, helping to expand their vocabulary. A rich vocabulary enables writers to express ideas more precisely and creatively. Additionally, it reminds you when not to. Sometimes vocabulary needs to be varied not higher.

  2. Understanding Style and Structure: By reading various genres and styles, a writer can gain insights into different narrative structures, writing techniques, and storytelling methods. This exposure contributes to the development of their own unique voice. Remember we have talked many times about reading broadly to increase your skill set.

  3. Inspiration: Reading can spark inspiration for new ideas, characters, and storylines. Experiencing the creativity of other writers can ignite the imagination and motivate writers to explore new concepts. It lets us remember the feeling of what we loved about reading in the first place to keep reading. It will make us want to emulate the best we see out there.

  4. Improved Writing Skills: Exposure to well-crafted prose and effective storytelling can positively impact a writer's own writing skills. Observing how successful authors handle pacing, dialogue, and character development can serve as a valuable learning experience. It is too easy to think that we are special, and we have discovered some magical new way to write and any correction is stifling us. That could not be further from the truth. Untrained prose is hard to read, and we need to sit at the feet of those who have gone before and done it well.

  5. Understanding Genre Conventions: Different genres have distinct conventions and expectations. Reading extensively within a chosen genre helps writers understand these conventions and enables them to meet or subvert reader expectations effectively. We can only learn those with time and experience. Because they are both complex and broad we often do not even know them at a conscious level.

  6. Cultural Awareness: Reading exposes writers to diverse perspectives and cultures. This cultural awareness enriches their writing by providing a broader understanding of the world and its various nuances. It also lets you absorb cultures you do NOT want to emulate. Not every person needs to agree with every perspective. But we can’t disagree with the things we do not understand. Reading lets us gain that perspective on why we don't agree with a thing. 

  7. Refinement of Critical Thinking: Analyzing and critiquing the works of others cultivates critical thinking skills. Writers who engage with literature critically are better equipped to assess their own work objectively and make constructive improvements. In other words, you are absolutely allowed to read a book and dislike it, what it has to say, and still acknowledge it is well written. Don’t just bail out when you read something you don’t like. Try to keep going and understand why, so you know how to avoid it yourself in your writing.

  8. Exploration of Themes and Ideas: Literature often explores complex themes and ideas. By reading widely, writers can delve into different philosophical concepts, societal issues, and human experiences, offering a deeper well of material for their own writing.

  9. Connection with Readers: Understanding the preferences and expectations of readers is crucial for effective communication. Reading helps writers connect with their audience by familiarizing them with the tastes and interests of their target readership. You can see what is selling in the market by reading and therefore know perhaps why your own work is or is not resonating with others.

  10. Continuous Learning: Writing is an evolving craft, and reading is a lifelong source of learning. Writers who continue to read remain open to new techniques, trends, and ideas, fostering continuous growth in their writing skills.

 

I have said before that when I do book reviews, I will never give a bad review. That doesn’t mean I don’t read bad books. I do. But it means I respect how hard it is to write a book at all. By reading we support the ecosystem of books that we want to foster. Just like the algorithm feeds the internet, the books you buy feed the world and yourself too.

So read well, and read often.

Money Where Your Mouth Is.

This is about books, but the idea behind it is broader than that. The message is simple, and it is in the title but how it plays out can have more than a little nuance. Put your money (or your time) where your mouth is.

Let’s start with examples, THEN we will get to the caveats.

“I hate Jeff Bezos. Nobody should be that rich.”

  • Then stop buying things on Amazon. Shop locally when you can and search online ELSEWHERE when you must.

“I believe in libraries. They are good for the community, and we should have more of them.”

  • Then go to one occasionally. Even if just for their events.

“I wish there were more authors in the world.”

  • Then buy their books. Buy any books. Digital, paperback, anything. Drive the market.

“I wish the quality of TV shows on XYZ was better.”

  • Then stop watching the entire series and complaining about it. Do something else with your time more worthwhile. Stop after 2 episodes of dreck.

“I wish there were more bookstores.”

  • Patronize the ones that exist and never buy a book online, unless they also have a local facade. Every bookstore on earth can buy you any book straight from the publisher.

“I wish AI wouldn’t replace writers and artists.”

  • Then don’t use it.

“I wish ….”

  • Then take action.

We have already talked about how what you read online can greatly change the fate of the world, and steer it. The same is true of how you spend your money and your time outside of the digital world. Authors are struggling to survive. Artists in general are in that boat. They have always been forced to a margin, dependent on patrons, but now they also have to compete with AI, and dropping pay and at least in America, inflation. But we can save artists if we collectively decide to.

Put your money where your mouth is, is simply a call for people to behave in the manner that they wish the world worked.

My wife and I gave up almost all TV / Netflix / Hulu / (fill in your option here), more than 15 years ago. We watch a minimum required to be conversant with current society and no more. Why? Because we had a wish. We wished that the writing was better or the quality higher and the content less political across both sides. When we couldn’t find it, we simply stopped.

My wife and I gave up on Amazon. Almost completely. We once received more than 60 % of things we bought from Amazon, now it is less than 5 % and then only after we spend time looking everywhere else for what we wanted. Why? Because we, like many, thought perhaps Amazon was in fact a monopoly and had too much hold on the market. They do drive small people out of business. We took action and put our money where our mouth was.

My wife and I started to click on the information bar in the top of a google search. Ever notice how Google tells you the answer without you having to go to the site? Yeah, that site gets no credit for the information you were just shown. Only Google does. They don’t get the advertisement space for traffic. Google, by this and other mechanics, drives control of what is seen and how the internet works. We decided we will always visit the site, because it helps the site’s authors. It takes less than 30 seconds of my time.

There are other examples, but in short it goes to the message I have said many other times. You are more powerful than you think, and people in groups are the most powerful economic force, not governments or laws. Put your money where your mouth is means to behave in accordance with the world you want to see.

Now for the caveats. “I can’t afford to buy books; I have to pirate them.” No, that is what libraries are for. Libraries will buy them for you and libraries are free. You can have your books and you can have the existence of authors.

“I can’t not use AI; the world is turning to AI and I need to understand it for my job.” Fair, to a degree, but you can seek out and support companies which are not using AI to thwart the destruction of artists. They exist now. You can try to use AI in a manner which you believe to be ethical for the creatives which already exist.

“I can’t afford to buy from anywhere but Amazon, they are cheaper.” Yes, they are. But really? If you have 10 things to buy, Amazon will be cheaper by pennies and fractions of dollars here and there, but can you get those things elsewhere to keep the world you want afloat and have 9 things instead for the same price? Sometimes the answer might be no, you need all 10, that’s fine. I am asking those who espouse to dislike institutions like Amazon or Walmart who can afford to make the change to make the change.

I want books to exist. I want reading to remain a staple of the world. I try to behave in a manner commensurate with that. What have you done recently to make sure the world you live in looks like the world you want? It might take work. In fact, it almost certainly will take some small effort. But trust me, that effort is worth it.

Buy a book with that gift certificate you might have gotten. Read. Find the author’s webpage and tell them you liked their book. Small things matter.

"One whisper, added to a thousand others, becomes a roar of discontent."

Your Brain of Tomorrow

Neuroplasticity. Emotional Intelligence. Creativity. Empathy.

These are all considered good things to have. I can’t think of the last time I met someone who said “I wish I was more closed-minded, didn’t understand anyone, and had a more typical plodding view of life.”

What does this have to do with reading? Specifically reading fiction? The answer is everything.

When you remember your life, when you talk about your day, when you perceive the world, you do so by means of stories. I mean this at a neurological level. We are story tellers at heart, and we understand the world through narratives. Normally the closest narrative is our own narrative. We perceive the world through the story of our life, where we are the lead actor and the rest of the world supporting players. It is surprisingly hard to enter into the mindset and the world of someone else, even people close to us, because we are not in their head, and we do not walk the world in their shoes.

Enter literature.

One of the remarkable features of literature is its ability to transport readers into worlds vastly different from their own. Whether it's a historical drama, a futuristic dystopia, or a narrative from a cultural standpoint unfamiliar to the reader, literature provides a window into diverse perspectives and lived experiences. This exposure to a range of emotions and viewpoints cultivates empathy, a cornerstone of emotional intelligence.

Research indicates that individuals who read fiction regularly exhibit higher levels of empathy compared to those who engage less with literary works. As readers connect with characters facing various challenges, they are prompted to understand and resonate with emotions outside their immediate sphere of experience. This empathetic development not only enhances interpersonal relationships but also fosters more compassion and understanding.

In practice, reading serves as an emotional gymnasium, exercising the muscles of empathy and emotional understanding. The narratives in which we immerse ourselves become playgrounds for the exploration of diverse emotions, contributing to the nuanced development of our emotional intelligence. As we navigate feelings on the pages of literature, we simultaneously enhance our capacity for empathy and emotional resonance in the real world.

The greater value of daily reading lies not only in individual moments, but in the cumulative effects over time. The more consistently you engage with reading, the more pronounced and lasting the benefits become. From improved cognitive function to heightened emotional intelligence, these advantages accrue, contributing to your overall wellbeing and personal growth.

I have talked several times on this blog about the positive benefits of reading, but just as our writing section is going to enter into a sort of how-to guide, this section in reading will talk for a time about practical guides to finding time to read even in a busy life, which we all have.

Stay tuned, and until then, pick up a book, and read.

Dribs and Drabs

Technically, Dribbles and Drabbles.

The history of short, short supper short literature is not new. The legendary story popularly attributed to Ernest Hemingway, though not likely his, “For sale, baby shoes, never worn,” is an example of ultra short fiction. Sometimes called flash fiction. It’s something you can read practically at a glance.

It has a hook, and a story, all of it filled in by the human imagination.

Todays reading section is about two kinds of short tales, called dribbles and drabbles. I have seen a few different definitions floating around the web, but they seem to be pretty consistent at:

Dribble: A story shorter than 50 words. (Sometimes exactly 50 not shorter or longer)

Drabble: A story shorter than 100 words (Sometimes exactly 100 not shorter or longer.)

I have never had much interest in these kinds of stories until recently. I have discovered a few locations that even specialize in this kind of fiction. I don’t know yet if I would say I recommend them, but I am leaning that way as an inclusion to my reading diet, not a substitution. Here is my take.

I generally don’t love more than half the poetry I read. I have often felt it struggles to be more than it is. I WANT to like poetry though. Dribs and Drabs feel like poetry to me, but poetry I almost always understand. Maybe I am just dense, but they feel like tight, compact dense ideas which makes my imagination work with the author's words to create an image, and scene, and then fill in the prolific gaps, because they ONLY have 50 or 100 words. Not a lot.

Some of them are settings. A snap shot in time, and we fill in around them. Some are expressions of a single moment's emotion, and we have to understand how the author, character or we would arrive there. But they are always emotionally and conceptually dense. They read like poetry in prose format. I like them. They fill the space between reading larger pieces with something that feels more worthwhile than another article about XYZ… which I have read about before (Fill in your own silly obsessions. 😊)

Take a look at the sites below.

https://fiftywordstories.com/

https://www.thedribbledrabblereview.com/

These two seem to be the largest of their kind on the internet and deserve more traffic for what they are doing.

https://www.vineleavespress.com/

If you don’t feel like remembering to visit a site, subscribe to Vine Leaves and they will send you a 50-word story to your inbox every day. I won't lie; a solid 60-70 percent are good or thought provoking to me at least. They’re well selected.

Go read some for yourself. If you are going to read super short things, like articles here or elsewhere, at least improve the quality of your content. Avoid feeding the algorithm nonsense, and let it know we want literature, however short it might be.

Read Out Loud

I do not know if you have ever read out loud to yourself. If you haven’t you should. Even the articles you read on your phone, though perhaps save that for when you are home alone.  

When we read aloud, we hear the words we are saying to ourselves, and hearing things can give us very different insights.

Have you ever heard something and it completely distracts everything about your cognitive function? It shuts down all other thoughts and all you can do is focus on it? Reading out loud can do that for you. How many times have you read an article, or read a page or two in a book and thought to yourself, “What did I just read?”

Reading out loud draws your attention to the words and it becomes much more difficult to be distracted. It will slow down your reading pace and force focus as now multiple senses are performing the same task. Reading.

When we read out loud, we also begin to notice when things don’t sound right to us. It is possible to read something in our head, and not give much thought to the argument presented and just accept it. However, when we hear things, we sometimes register disagreement differently, and that is a good thing. We SHOULD read things we do not agree with from time to time.

If you are never reading anything out loud go give it a try. Engage all of your senses that you can in the experience of learning and consuming information. From books to snippets like this one.

Whatever you do, always read. We should be thankful we can. 780 million adults in the world are illiterate and can’t read this or anything else. Think of all the world they are blocked off from, limited only to what they are told. Read out loud, and focus on your amazing skill.

What is a library?

I started to think about this question today when it was pointed out that my wife and I own more books than we can read in the remainder of our lifetimes yet still we will buy more books. We have read thousands, some repeatedly, but yet this very weekend we bought three more. Why?

I think for me the answer lies in the statement, “A library is a place of the possible.”

This began by considering my own personal library in my house, but even the smallest public library will have more books than you can read in a lifetime. In the modern era, libraries borrow books from one another as library systems, in case there are specific titles you want in a different location, and often order books that you request if they don’t have them in that system.

They are a repository of knowledge. They carry data that can enable you to do anything. Every non fiction topic you can think of is available, and every fictional story you can imagine will be accessible. They are the realm of possibility for the great outsourcing of data that is writing. While a public library can be much more than that, it is at least that.

“The internet does that,” some might argue. Does it though?

If you want to know about how to build a terrace in your yard, you will absolutely find websites dedicated to the topic. Some good, many not. You will find YouTube videos on the topic, some good, many not. I have defended on this website before that these are valid mechanisms of learning and their own story telling tools. For now, there does remain a sector for in depth books however, which are more vetted than websites, to teach and carry us away to other worlds of imagination.

More, libraries serve as locations for learning face to face. Most give talks, host clubs, have knowledgeable librarians. If you haven’t been to a library recently, I can’t recommend it highly enough.

My personal library serves some of the same purposes. Though its only staffed by my wife and me. I don’t need to read every book I own. I need to want to. It is my repository of the things most precious to me, that I don’t run to the public library for. It comprises the data close at hand. So, if you are tempted to buy a book, and think to yourself, “But I may not read it anytime soon,” buy it anyway. You are helping an author, keeping knowledge alive, and building your library of possibilities.

Biographies… Reading for Character

I do not read very many biographies. I read none in my youth, and only began to entertain reading them when I was about 30. Now, though I do not elect to sample many, they are one of my favorite genres when the person in question is the right person. I have two good reasons today why you should consider them too. Both reasons have to do with reading for character.

Character

1)      Noun. The mental and moral qualities distinctive to an individual.

2)      Noun. A person in a novel, play, or movie.

Who do you want to be? Who do you want a character you are creating to be? How interestingly similar are these two questions?

Biographies have a special way of showing us, with a blend of storytelling and reality, about who the people we look up to are. Some books are flattering, some are not, but they all should give us insights into the trials they faced, what actions they took, perhaps insights into why they took those actions, and the outcomes.

I don’t personally like autobiographies. We all want too badly to paint ourselves in certain lights, and the world we inhabit is filled with enough daily autobiographical information from the internet and blogs and influencers. I prefer the considered external opinion of people by strangers.

Einstein is a classic example of a person we might read about. He was a genius yes, but not so stand out as to be incomprehensible. There were many peers that existed around him, all of them as special. He was not even quite as unique in physics as some might consider. It’s called the Lorentz contraction after all, not the Einstein contraction. He needed vast help from Murry Gellman to work out the mathematics of general relativity. I’ve read extensively on Einstein, and I am a physicist by training, so I have some opinions here.

But what do we take away from this?

Do you want to learn what it takes to be a great scientist? Do you want to craft yourself, build your own world into something that will help bring you from where you are to being a great scientist? The knowledge of a life lived in such a pursuit might help you get there. Do you want to create a scientific character replete with complexities, flaws, hobbies and depth? Reading about a real person will do that for you too.

Biographies free us to see people for who they were, including their problems. It lets us look past the assumptions and simple statements about who they are to the complexity that lies beneath. Einstein for example loved women, enjoyed late nights, long walks, (for real,) and got things wrong in physics too. He was in fact excellent at school, contrary to popular memes, though he struggled with his PH.D advisor. We can learn about his stances on religion, science, people and we can see that our heroes and heroines are mortal, with foibles.

When we write characters, we tend to forget the complexities. That can include the character we write for ourselves as we go through life. We want to be… a writer, scientist, artist, parent, gardener, farmer, run a business… whatever it might be. We draft that character with our actions. We can and should be willing to sacrifice a great deal to the goals we have, but we are still human. So were the greatest who ever lived in their fields. The people we read biographies about.

Go read a biography. Embrace their humanity. Embrace yours. Then strive for greatness anyway.

What Genre Is It?

We are all alike. I’ve noted before the similarities between fantasy and science fiction, but I have started to read more broadly of late, trying other genres and finding… it doesn’t matter as much as we think. It's fine to have preferences. By all means, pick a favorite and support that genre, but perhaps we have more in common than you think.

Periodic Table of Genres

Example:

A witch is a haunting a local river. She grants wishes but supplicants won't like the deal. She only makes the deal with people who are desperate and have little choice but to pay what she asks or die.

If we play up the haunting aspect, the drama and effect it is very possible this is going to be considered horror or dark fantasy. If the focus is given to the fantasy and magical element of how she goes about it, or she is thwarted by a local protagonist who uses sword and sorcery we have fantasy. Shift the setting to modern day, and you have urban fantasy. Add a dash of a romantic element and you have paranormal romance brewing. Call the witch a gangster or a pawn broker and you have pulp. Make the witch a magical medicine vending machine and it is sci-fi.

The core idea, which is literally a throw away notion, is the same in all of them. The implementation, and trappings of the tale are the genre.

I recently read a few horror stories, and it was my real introduction to the genre by anyone other than Steven King. The pacing was new, the methods of building suspense were new, but the story beats underneath… Those were all the same and that wasn’t a bad thing.

Maybe as I get older, I am just seeing what every author and reader in history has seen. There are finite numbers of stories. Person out of place, person out of time, person trying to find their way in the world, person trying to save XYZ, person trying to stop ABC, corrupted government, local bully… settings shift, methods of implementation shift, but the joy of experiencing a story type that you like can be found in multiple genres.

Do you like the underdog tale but you can’t seem to find more of the right story in your genre? Try finding it in an adjacent one. You might just find what you are looking for. Want a romantic read but can’t find the tone of the right romance author, try a romantic subgenre, and it just might match your interests. The different tales have far more in common than they have differences. Just like people.

Seminal Works

I have talked before about reading books you loved as a child; the books that made us. I have talked about rereading books which I have loved in the past to see if they still hold up. Today I want to briefly touch on the idea of reading the seminal works in the genres you love.

If we have the books that made us, each genre has the works that made it.

Science fiction for example is an older field of literature than most of us expect. Genres certainly bleed one into the other, but in many ways Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein is certainly science fiction. Published in 1818, people may think of it as old but the influence it holds is vast.

Journey To the Center of the Earth

Journey to The Center of The Earth, and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, are downright modern in comparison, clocking in at 1864 and 1870 respectively. Every one of these could be considered seminal.

What makes an author or a work important enough to read today when they are 100 or 200 years old? Especially in science fiction where what is fiction and fact change with the date, we can readily ask why care what a previous generation thought was fanciful? In this case, I am going to draw on an idea I have used once before. In scientific literature an article is judged by its importance on how many citations it receives. How much has it directly influenced other papers? Similarly, we should in many ways try to judge a book by the same metric. A book is more important the more it has influenced other books and writers as well as popular culture at large.

It would be a monumental undertaking to determine in a strict empirical manner how each book measures up. How would you weigh the work of an author who has influenced other authors who then had a movie made about their own piece for example? The ability to turn modern culture on a single blockbuster movie is surprisingly high and can easily add up to the influence of a lifetime of writing from previous generations.

That said, I want to put forth what I think are the top ten most influential authors of the science fiction genre. I won’t say they are the best. That is a very different question though there is some overlap.

Halo Ring / Ring World
  • Frederik Pohl 

  • Larry Niven (If you haven’t read Ringworld, you are missing out. It is the popularization of a Halo Ring, like from the games.)

  • Ray Bradbury (You can’t get much more influential than Fahrenheit 451. Ironically a dystopian science-fiction novel in which television rules and literature is on the brink of extinction.)

  • H.G. Wells (War of the Worlds anyone? The Time Machine?)

  • Frank Herbert (I am not a fan of the Dune series, but I can’t deny their influence.)

  • Philip K. Dick (Multiple movies, a missing android’s head, and a ton of modern takes well ahead of his time.)

  • Arthur C. Clarke (I can’t let you not read this … get it? 2001.... anyway...)

  • Robert Heinlein (My personal favorite and a bizarre one, Time Enough for Love)

  • Orson Scott Card (Ender’s Game and the books which follow were among the books that made me…)

  • Isaac Asimov (Topping many people’s lists, I wouldn’t dare to leave him out! I, Robot and Bicentennial Man being my favorites.)

Bicentennial Man

If you haven’t read any of them, or even one piece from all of them I will recommend you do so. And recommend it highly. We cannot truly understand where the modern tropes come from, why we read what we read, or why something is fresh if we don’t fully understand what used to be cutting edge, and maybe one day, will be again.

Get reading.  

Leave Your Genre Behind

I was struck recently by an interaction with someone who was so unaccustomed to reading outside of their own genre, when they read a short story which involved “AI,” short for artificial intelligence, they ask “Who is AI, and how did they get in the room?”

I was so dumbstruck by this question I didn’t even know how to address it, until I realized they simply don’t read the genre. There must be shorthand to other genres I don’t often read which would seem just as foreign to me.

Bad Parts

I picked up Bad Parts, and started reading. The horror genre and the subgenre of small-town horror, where the fate of the world isn’t at stake and everything felt like it was out of a rural Steven King novel’s setting was very different to me. I will admit it was the first time I had read horror in almost twenty years. I enjoyed it immensely and did find there were certain assumptions about cadence and style I found jarring.

Steampunk

Next, I picked up a book of short stories The Immersion Book of Steampunk, and felt completely lost for probably the first three tales. Jargon, and assumptions were very foreign to me. Thank goodness Google was handy to look up several genre specific words that I didn’t get from context.

Prince of Thorns

Last I grabbed a grimdark fantasy Prince of Thorns. It was familiar but with notes and tones that were just different enough to clearly be its own thing. I will say it was refreshing in a way to be in a world where I was truly not guaranteed the good would prevail.

Why do I say all this? Exploration of new genre horizons can lead to a wealth of knowledge, words, and new ways of thinking. Explore your reading horizons. I challenge everyone to go out and get three books from a genre you haven’t read recently or haven’t ever read before. Or perhaps one from three genres each. You never know, you may find a new love. At the very least, you will feel the diversity. 

It's good for you

Reading is good for you.

Reading is good for you

Have you ever heard of the Mathew effect?

The Matthew effect,” is a term that refers to biblical verse Matthew 13:12: “Whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them.”

Researchers have found that students who read books regularly, especially beginning at a young age, gradually develop large vocabularies. And vocabulary size can influence many areas of your life, from scores on standardized tests to college admissions and job opportunities. But more importantly the larger your vocabulary the more rapidly you can expand your vocabulary. The more you exercise this soft, skill the better you can exercise this soft skill.

It is an intellectual Pareto effect. The more you know the more you can know.

A 2019 poll conducted by Cengage showed that 69 percent of employers want to hire people with “soft” skills, such as the ability to communicate effectively. Reading books is one of the best ways to increase your exposure to new words, learned in context, communicate them and learn how they are communicated.

In 2009, a group of researchers measured the effects of yoga, humor, and reading on the stress levels of students in demanding health science programs in the United States. They found that 30 minutes of reading lowered blood pressure, heart rate, and feelings of psychological distress just as effectively as yoga. For everyone who hates to exercise… this is good news for you.

A long-term health and retirement study followed a group of 3,635 adult participants for 12 years, finding that those who read books survived around 2 years longer than those who either didn’t read or consumed other forms of media. Even more profound, the study identified that people who read more than 3 1/2 hours every week were 23 percent likely to live longer than those who didn’t read at all.

All this to say… reading is good for you.

So, why aren’t you reading?

“I don’t have time…”

Okay… I remain a firm believer that everyone can find 30 minutes. Here’s why you should. If you are an average age person. (The average age of all people alive today is about 30.) If you are thirty and spend 30 minutes five out of seven days a week reading you will read for 30 minutes * 5 days / week * 52 weeks a year * 45 years (life expectancy 75) = 351,000 minutes. Seems like a lot right? But that’s not a lot.


351,000 minutes / (60 minutes / hour) / (24 hours / day) / (365 days a year) = 243 days or about 0.66 years.

Would you give up 0.6 years to gain back 2 years? That’s a net gain. And, while living longer you will know more, have an easier time getting a job, be less stressed, … there is only positive here.

What are you waiting for? Get reading!

Science Fiction vs. Fantasy vs. MacGuffin

By the title, I don’t I mean to say that all science fiction has bad science. It doesn’t. But a lot of science fiction books do. By no means do I say that all fantasy magic systems break if you hammer on them even moderately hard. They don’t but many of them do. The reason why is because both of them represent a non-reality. We as readers step into these words to suspend our belief in how reality works and be taken somewhere else for a time.

This short piece is not about how to maintain veracity in the book, and how different changes to reality might impact the fictional world in believable vs. not believable way. This is more about an idle though I have had of late that fantasy and science fiction are not so different. Perhaps that is why there is the emerging genre of science fantasy.

I guess I am saying whether it is altered science or magical mystery, it is all just MacGuffin in the end. What is the difference between a golem of fantasy, an android of science fiction, or an automata of something like steampunk? Ignoring the physical differences, they are all semi sentient or sentient artificial creations in a world of humans.

They are all Frankenstein’s monster. (A golem by the way 😊) They change their physical form because they don’t play well thematically in one another’s genres but the purpose they serve in literature and storytelling are the same.

Magic power or new technological thingy that does thing XYZ? MacGuffin.

Tolkien’s ring of invisibility or a bracelet light bending for cloaking. Same end effect, same literary function, different mechanical properties, nothing more.

Friendly alien race from the stars or new friendly non-human race from across the sea? Same function, different literal skins to deliver the idea of foreign benevolent peoples.

If they are so similar, why are they so different and why do so many people swear by one and not the other. Perhaps the surface matters? I think it is more than that. Science fiction stories tend to be recognizable as our world. They look and feel and smell like reality with small differences. Fantasy has a tendency to deal with the same mythological hardships we all think about, but it does so in settings which feel foreign and remote, or at the very least historical.

I think they share more than they differ. If you are a fan of one and you have never tried the other, give them a shot. If you have never tried fantasy, give the Kingkiller Chronicles a try. If you have never read science fiction, try really anything by the last 10 years of A.C. Clarke or the very modern Robert Sawyer. Don’t hold one genre down, or another up. You might find you enjoy them both.

Either way, love an author, and keep on reading.

The Books That Made Us.

I have been considering returning to several books I enjoyed when I was very young. Not a child but not even a teenager. I am almost embarrassed as an adult to admit to the books themselves when we hold them in comparison to literature, though that is silly. They sold millions and millions of copies by some of the most famous fantasy authors of the era.

Dragonlance, Legends trilogy.

Icewind Dale.

There are others a little more recent, like Winds of the Forelands.

Why would I be even a little reluctant to revisit these books?

Because I am not just revisiting the books, I am revisiting myself. A younger version of me, and what made me happy. I am walking through my own past and asking myself even if indirectly, do these hold up. I am challenging my own nostalgia.

There were times when I would have counted Drizzt and Caramon Majere, his brother Raistlin, and Tavis as influential to my way of thinking and being in my youth as any real person. What will it tell me about who I was? Who I became? Will I see notes echoing even into my forties from who I read about in my teens?  Will I be ok with it if I do?

I don’t know. Maybe I am just afraid to destroy a memory.

Sometimes it is better to leave the past where it is. Nostalgia is rose-colored goggles on a life we once lived. It rarely represents the truth. But what if? What if old books are every bit as good as we remember, or the adult in us can find something new and take it forward or even correct something our younger self thought? I have so many books to read already, is the trip down my own memory lane worth the effort?

Tugging on nostalgia's threads

I’ll probably find out. How about you? Do you have any books you are embarrassed you still love?

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What do You Know? 

I have heard it said and generally agree, we cannot write what we do not know. Sometimes when we read novels the errors stand out to experts among the general population. Maybe you know a lot about horses, and the author makes a mistake about how horse care is carried out. Maybe you know a lot about knitting, and the author clearly doesn’t. Whatever the topic may be, authors are expected to do a reasonable amount of research and endeavor to make an accurate scene. Most of the time, most of us won’t notice most of the errors.

But, what happens when the entire premise of a book however is outside of the individual author’s sphere of existence?

This came up in my writing group yesterday and I felt a need to weigh in more broadly, if only to organize my thoughts.

Can a female author write about what it is like to be a male? Specifically, can a female author have male protagonists? Can a male author have female protagonists? Before you answer, let me challenge the assumptions here.

Why are we talking only about the protagonist? What about the antagonist? What about support characters? What about tertiary characters? If we judge so harshly to say one gender cannot understand the other sufficiently to write about them, would they be forced to have an all-male or all female cast?

What about ghost writers? Do you know for certain that the author is male or female? What about psychologists in real life? Can a female psychologist help a male patient? Vice versa? Wouldn’t this require a deep understanding of how the opposite gender’s mind works?

What about OCEAN scores for a male which are more aligned with gender typical female scores? What about women who have OCEAN traits more aligned with male typical scores? Which gender do they understand better?

I will say that blanket statements such as “Men can only write about men, and women can only write about women,” is a gross oversimplification of an incredibly complex field which is, at its core, understanding our fellow humans.

Every time we sit down to read, we hope to gain insight into other people and other topics. To say we are incapable of this learning is not only short sighted, but also foolish, cuts us off from possible valuable interactions and storytelling, and limits the experience of humanity.

Have young authors never successfully observed and written about old characters? Have old people not successfully written about the young, though having long since forgotten and misremembered their own childhood details? Of course, they have!

While it may be difficult to understand a thing we have never lived, we certainly are able to do so. Hold the authors feet to the fire for verisimilitude, but never discount them as capable.

In Defense of Purple

Purple prose: “Overly ornate prose text that may disrupt a narrative flow by drawing undesirable attention to its own extravagant style of writing, thereby diminishing the appreciation of the prose overall.”

Mm. Maybe. Aren’t we supposed to want to read something beautiful for beauty’s sake? By the definition it becomes purple when something is disruptive in its ornate nature, but where is that line? Is there a definable line? I say there is not. Here is why in a single comparison.

Example 1: Money, fame and power do not buy happiness. They just attract attention to the failures it creates.

Dull. Cliché. To the point, not interrupting anything. Yawn…bored.

Example 2: It has been observed in all ages the advantages to nature or of fortune have contributed very little to the promotion of happiness; and that those of whom the splendor of their rank, or the extent of their capacity, have placed upon the summits of human life, have not often given any just occasion to envy in those who look up to them from a lower station; whether it be that apparent superiority incites great designs, and great designs are naturally liable to fatal miscarriages; or that the general lot of mankind is misery, and the misfortunes of those whose eminence drew them an universal attention , have been more carefully recorded, because they were more generally observed, and have in reality only been more conspicuous than others, not more frequent, or more severe.

I will take option 2 every time.

That is the opening line of The Life of Savage, by Samuel Johnson.

It is purple. It is deep, it is beautiful and it is deeper than the unobtrusive TLDR version above. It DOES draw attention to itself, but not to any detriment.  

When someone says a piece is too purple, they may be right. Or, they may be in a rush. Sometimes beautiful things are meant to be consumed slowly, and observed for their beauty, not their utility of words.

Purple has its place.

First or Third? (Perspective)

Why do we read? I have said here that we read to learn, to experience new places, to explore new worlds and meet extraordinary people we can never really meet because they are imaginary. Fiction can contain more truth than a book of facts and much of that truth comes from characters.

 

But how do we learn about a character? Of course, we learn though their actions, thoughts and dialogue. I am going to summarize and call this how near we are to a character. For main characters and secondary character we see more of their actions, thoughts motivations and goals. They feel closer. We don’t feel as close to tertiary characters because they don’t get screen time, and don’t tell us much of what they think. While they may be memorable, we rarely get the nearness that is akin to friendship with them possible in writing. (I knew of at least two characters growing up I would have called "friends," after a silly fashion. They had that much influence over me.)

This brings me to the title of the short piece today. First person reading, or third person? I have not spent much time in my reading life with first person perspective books. In first person the narrative is locked to the mind of one person, told from the “I,” viewpoint. While books can shift perspective throughout, when we spend time in first person, we should feel closer than other views. Right? Maybe if we had been watching star wars from the internal thoughts of Darth Vader we would have found he was right, from a certain point of view?

We can hear every pertinent thought. So why is it that I still prefer third person?

From a certain point of view

Baring tricks by the author where they don’t have the character think about certain things, or write them as deliberately mechanical and aloof, I should feel like first person should better fill the need for closeness. However, I have the experience that first person stories get away with more weakness in writing than third person books do. They tell over show because we are in fact being told a story. The proximity to the character makes them feel real, and in turn the quality of the writing may slip due to the familiarity imposed by being in the character's head.

This may not be everyone’s experience with first person books, and I enjoy writing in first person, so I will be exploring more first-person authors in the near future.

 

In the meantime, I will continue to enjoy the quality feel of my favorite third person authors while I seek out new reads.

How about you? Are you a first- or third-person perspective fan? Which do you read most? Do you find that your favorite genre’s lead to more of one over the other? 

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You Are What You Eat

It has been said you are what you eat. People take this to mean it has to do with food. Perhaps they should. The origin is summarized brilliantly here:

https://www.cell.com/trends/endocrinology-metabolism/pdf/S1043-2760(12)00220-2.pdf

“The phrase ’You are what you eat’ refers to the notion that to be healthy you need to eat nutritional food. It originally appeared in 1826 when Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, a French lawyer, politician, and famous gastronome, wrote ’Dis-moi ce que tu manges, je te dirai ce que tu es,’ which translates to ‘Tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are’ [1,2]. The phrase resurfaced in the 1920s when nutritionist Victor Lindlahr used it in association with ‘bad’ food by saying that ’Ninety per cent of the diseases known to man are caused by cheap food stuffs. You are what you eat.’”

The comedian Jim Gaffigan stretches this to include in this “That’s McDonald’s” set. He says “I’m tired of people acting like they are better than McDonald’s.  It’s like you may have never set foot in McDonald’s, but you have your own McDonald’s. You know, maybe instead of buying a Big Mac, you read US Weekly. Hey, that’s still McDonald’s. It’s just served up a little different…”

I concur with his opinion.

You brain eats content too. If you are what you eat, your brain is what it reads and takes in through other sources. So, what are you?

My sister had a refrigerator magnet for years.  “If I am what I eat, then I’m fast, easy and cheap.”

It’s hard not to be. The internet provides a functionally infinite amount of information for free. At the same time higher quality writing from newspapers and reputable journalists move behind paywalls. Attention spans are harder to hold, and books and long form writing becomes more difficult to sell. We want the answer to complex questions in snippets we can consume in less than five minutes. “Can you get that content to me in a tweet? TLDR.”

How do we get around it?

In scientific circles there is a concept that a paper which has been cited 1000 times is more important than a paper cited 2 times. A paper still actively cited and used by new research 50 years after its first publication is more important, more central to science, than a paper cited for a year before falling to irrelevance. Books can be thought of the same way.

There is nothing wrong with the occasional junk food, but we can’t forget the center dishes. Eat your mental vegetables. Find pieces that are older, more seminal, more central to the corpus of literature, and read them. Read them slowly. Find beautiful words. Learn new words. Ponder beautiful sentences, discover why they are beautiful. Discover why they resonate with you.

Not every food, even great food, appeals to every palette. Similarly, not every great writer appeals to every reader. But I guarantee there are ones out there for everyone that will. We just need to seek them out. When you find them, read them to expand who you are. Read them for growth. Feed your brain. It is what you read.

Be thoughtful, complex and compelling.

Trust

Do you trust what you read? Should you?

 

There are many good and bad sides to many coins in the publishing industry becoming as some people call it democratized. Anyone can self-publish today on Amazon, and anyone can say anything they want on the internet.

 

When we used to see a book on a bookstore shelf, there was an assumption of authority. The content between the covers of that book had been reviewed by experts in the field, by editors, and by … someone, and was factual so far as the topic matter could be factual. We trusted the content and we trusted the source. To some extent we even trusted the bookstore that curated the content. We still think that.

Research scientists and many people in related fields as well as journalism, social sciences, etc. find a great deal of success and notoriety by means of publication. They have an increase in clout. But is it true that they should do so?

 

Nothing at all prevents me from publishing a book tomorrow espousing that the Earth is flat. As a physicist I can demonstrate in my own backyard with a yardstick that it is not. The Greeks knew it as not, and even estimated the length of the equator remarkably closely. But nonetheless I could say otherwise, and give false data enough to fill a book. The book could be read and it might be believed by some.

 

So who do we trust? When you pick up a nonfiction piece do you know that it is right?

 

First let me say, avoid echo chambers. That is harder and harder to do today, but it is more important than ever we do it. Books are a great method to do this because books take more effort than blog posts. They are less likely to be wholesale fabricated. I am not by any means saying to give equal credence to every side in an argument. That is wrong too. Not every side has equal data or is equally correct, but I am saying you can and should read judiciously on both sides of a question. If you don’t know what is right or have reason to believe humanity as a whole doesn’t know, read broadly. This will give you data from both sides of any given argument.

 

Another method to know if what you are reading is to check the authors’ references. If tomorrow I wrote a book on how to sew, everyone should be skeptical. I have never thrown a single stitch in my life. If I write a book on physics, we might be on better ground. Look up the education experience, and publicly available accolades of the individual who is saying they know something. By no means will this guarantee factual data, but it might help.

 

Finally understand that perfectly factual data is at times hard to come by and a person without an agenda and no bias is impossible to come by. Everyone has biases, including whoever you learned the most from in your life. They will hold beliefs which are wrong, just as I do, just as you do. The key to reading correctly, is to read enough, that you can have reasonable confidence in what you say, and reasonable self-doubt, to learn more.

 

Whatever you do, do not trust blinding to any source. (Medicine, child care, money matters, self help, etc.) 

Learn, and do so broadly.

Of Endings

I was considering today the endings of things. I was considering it for a five-book series I just completed, but I was not considering it about the books themselves. Let me explain.

When I was much younger than I am now, a family member asked me why I never wanted to die. My answer was then, and is to some degree now, “Because I want to know how it all ends.” There is a story, unfolding all around us, and I want to see it to its end. Every time I pick up a series of books, I feel the same way. I check the status of the series and the age of the authors. We wouldn’t want to find ourselves in a place like The Wheel of Time, where we need to find a new author to finish, would we? What if another Sanderson couldn’t be found?

I lived in a kind of fear when I was younger of picking up a series of books that I would never get to finish because the author passed on before they were complete.

Today I was contemplating something different. It has been said "There is nothing new under the sun," and even said on this blog. But there is an indelible stamp to how we sing the same song and dance the same jig. Authors have it. It doesn’t matter if they are rehashing the same tale for the thousandth time, they have something about them that makes us choose one over another. Terry Pratchett had it in spades.

Terry Pratchett

I have been reading The Long Earth series, by Baxter and Pratchett. Two authors who have no need of introductions. They are giants in the world of science fiction and fantasy. I thought I had read near to everything that Pratchett had written, but I had never seen this series. I was thrilled. It was like he had come back to us, to speak one more time from the beyond.

It was near to the last thing that he penned other than unfinished works and snippets, which were literally crushed in his hard drive under a steamroller at the Great Dorset Steam Fair in 2017. After all there can never be another Terry Pratchett. And that is what made me think of endings.

I don’t reread much. There are so many books and already so little time. But when an artist will never make something new again, should we consider moving rereading up our to do list? My memory, like everyone’s memory, is imperfect. Perhaps I will find something I missed the first time, or perhaps I do not recall it as well as I think I do. Also, I miss the idea that he will never create more of the Discworld. Perhaps rediscovery is warranted?

I had the same thought recently about a favorite musical artist, Warren Zevon. Perhaps it is a byproduct of getting older that we long for that which has gone on before us. We wish the endings were not yet here and there was more tale to come. But it isn’t coming. The best we can hope for is rediscovery of what has already happened.

I don’t have any conclusion if rereading is the right answer. Will I find something new? Will I ruin a memory with something less perfect than I remember? Will I find that I am just wanting at the end with a gap that by definition can’t be filled?

To reread, or not to reread, that is the question.

Why Don’t You Read?

              If you are a reader, sometimes it might feel like you are the only one. This question might come to mind when you talk to family, friends or acquaintances. It may feel like fewer people read all the time. I don’t mean “Stare at short content free articles on the phone.” That is passing time. I mean really read.

This blog has spoken many times about the utility of reading, and I am not going to try to defend it again today. Instead, I want to talk about what we can all do to help reading stay alive, because the benefits reading conveys are more necessary than ever.

Why are people reading less?

1)     People are busy. The fast pace of the modern world throws the demands of work, family, and social obligations at us in more ways than ever and many people feel they simply don’t have time to read.

2)     Reading has competition unlike ever before in history. Specifically, it must contend with the rise of digital media. In our constantly connected world, it’s easy to get your knowledge, news and entertainment from sources other than books.

3)      Free content makes books look like a losing proposition. Books can be expensive, especially if you’re buying them new. Used books are often cheaper but many people simply don’t have the time to hunt for them, don’t go to used book stores at all or don't like the risks of buying them online.

4)      It’s just not popular to read. As fewer people read, it becomes less socially acceptable to do so. This can create a cycle that leads to even fewer people reading, reinforcing the stereotypes.

I don’t know which of these is the leading factor, or if all of them work together to create the problem. But how big of a problem is it?

In 2023 according to the Pew Research Center, about 64% of American adults say they have read a book in the past 12 months. (This is not related to finishing the book only at least starting one, and it did not need to be a new book.) This is a similar to 2022 data, and is consistent with the findings from 2020. Not bad. It’s a majority, and not slipping terribly.

But this can be countered with the National Endowment for the Arts, which released a report in 2015 that showed literary reading among Americans had declined significantly over the previous 20 years. In 1992, 56% of Americans had read at least one work of literature in the previous year. By 2014, that number had fallen to 46%. The data sets do not define what a work of literature means, or how it related to books in general. Maybe people are just losing interest in Shakespeare? (Unimaginable!)

What other data do we have. The NEA report found that literary reading was more common among the elderly. In 2014, 53% of adults age 65 and older reported reading compared with just 36% of adults ages 18-24. Perhaps this is not too surprising as this age group may be more reticent to adopt alternate forms of entertainment.

The American Time Use Survey from the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that, on average, Americans age 15 and older spent about 7 minutes per day reading in 2017. This was down from 9 minutes in 2014. What they are reading was not made clear.

There is more good news though. According to Gallop, the decline in book reading is mostly a function of how many books readers are reading, as opposed to fewer Americans reading any books. The 17% of U.S. adults who say they did not read any books in the past year is similar to the 16% to 18% measured in 2002 to 2016 surveys, though it is higher than in the 1999 to 2001 polls. This lends some credence to the statement that the reason people are not reading is due to imitations in time, perhaps not a decline in desire.

Where does this leave us? We have established broadly that there is a problem: A decrease in reading. We all agree here it is a problem because depriving ourselves of reading leads to loss of the benefits of reading and comes with the detriments of decreased capacity for rationale argument, among others. What do we do about it?

I have wondered if perhaps the reason for reduced reading is a reduction in face time with other people. Introverts among us will shrug their shoulders heartily and say, “Who cares?” In many ways I am among you. But much of the world wants to do a thing with friends and/or be seen doing that thing. Reading is by its nature a fairly solitary act.

Enter options:

- Join or start a reading / book club. This doesn’t need to be a massive undertaking. This can be 3-5 people who select a book with common interest, that is not a bestseller or recently released thus ensuring it is cheaper to buy and reading it together at an agreed on an agreed cadence. You don’t need to be aggressive with the speed. Read a book over a few months. Talk about it. Blog about it. I am willing to bet if a group contacted the author, they would be willing to talk to you about it too! How much fun would that be? Authors are not generally as famous or well off as people might think. The desire to talk about their books will be high.

- Do the same on BookTube. There are streams of people who read and discuss books online as well. Start a channel of your own. Invite people there to form groups and read. Invite friends and family to join you as you listen to a particular channel or an author. Bring the experience outside of the channel to engage others in reading.

- Talk to your friends about the book you just read. Things are cool when we say they are. If you are excited about a book, admit you are. Ask them to take a look at it. A book club of two people is still fun and a person to talk to about the chapters as they unfold.

- Pick a new skill to learn with your partner. Decide on a nonfiction piece you will work through together and talk about the ramifications of the book. How will you integrate the new knowledge into your life?

- Next time a person comments on something you are better at, mention books or reading you might have undertaken to get better at it. Give credit to the authors.

All of these are ways in which to take your reading external to yourself and show others how much benefit can be derived from reading.

If all of these options sound terrible then at the least, continue to go read. Check books out from your library, download them from your selected app, or buy them from your local bookstore.

The future of books is in your hands.

Skip the Cliffs Notes

If we wanted to get better at throwing a ball through a hoop from fifty feet away, how would we do it? Think about the question. We might ask someone who has thrown a lot of balls around. Maybe a sibling or a parent. We might read a book on how to have better accuracy and how to throw. We would watch a video. But we would almost certainly at some point throw the ball. Many, many times.

Because to be good at anything we have to stand on top of a pile of failures.

Let me repeat that because it warrants repeating. To succeed at anything requires a large number of failures.

Reading is a skill like any other skill. It gives us access to the greatest minds of human history, books which represent the collection of a life’s work, and experiences we may never have directly ourselves. We can’t experience these things if we don’t practice reading.

 

It is more important to read well than to get good grades. The longer you are alive the truer this becomes. If you must pick between doing well on an exam today, or doing well at life, chose the second one. That is why I say skip the cliffs notes. 99.9 % of the time, skip them.

What are Cliffs notes? They were old yellow and black books that gave summary versions of things back when I was in school. While the company may not have the sway that it once did the idea is stronger than ever. Do you want to understand Hamlet? Wikipedia. Do you want to understand physics 101? Google the homework question. Do you want to understand human phycology, watch a 20-minute video on it.

What do you want to know about? There is a shortcut to all of it. The problem is none of those things make you an expert and none of those things impart two very important things. The first is the amount of effort it took the creator to know enough to generate the content. They are often speaking or lecturing or teaching from a position of decades we never see. The second is that you are shortchanging yourself. If you ever want to know something deeply, in a way that inspires other to watch your twenty-minute videos, or read your book, you are going to need much more than those excerpts and blurbs. You need to wrestle hard with big ideas and you need to fail. You need to read a thing and say “huh?” and then read it again, and read it again until in combination with other texts you say “I get it!”

Because anyone who has ever succeeded at anything had the ability to communicate and the ability to communicate comes foremost from reading.

Skip the cliffs notes.

Skip the summary.

Get to the meat of the matter. Go read.

Memory Training Through Reading

We have talked before about the outsourcing of our database to the world around us, the negative repercussions of this to the creative mind, and to the ability to create new work in a reasonable time frame.

Imagine for a moment, (Or perhaps remember back!) we were first learning to read or write. Words come slowly to us. Perhaps we want to express the sentence, “An apprentice blacksmith is one whose hands have not yet grown the permanent callouses of the trade. How many of us still have that first hammer shaft, stained red with blood of the hours pounding rhythmically against the anvil like a trophy?’

A simple enough sentence, right? What if you didn’t know the word apprentice, blacksmith, callouses or rhythmically? Each of those words would need to be looked up, and found form general descriptions.

What is a word for a person who manipulates or works metal to turn it into tools? Blacksmith.

What is a word for a person who is new to a trade and has very little skill yet? Apprentice.

So on and so on.

We outsourced definitions, so construction of a sentence is slow, and external to our own mind.

That is what reading and writing is for everyone at first.

Thankfully, reading can serve as memory training if you let it. Good readers monitor their understanding and store data from time to time as they read. Perhaps you are reading a fiction or nonfiction about a tradesperson, learning their craft. You have general impressions of their struggles and path of learning they need to undertake in the timeframe and year of the piece. This is data. You put away a sentence long tidbit that says perhaps “Glassblowers in Venice in 1655 had to XYZ, before they could graduate from apprentice.” Etc.

But reading can only do this for us if we read consciously and train ourselves to perform the task. It is hard at first because perhaps we are all accustomed to just reading. But in college or in life, we must learn to read intentionally. Start with each reading session. It doesn’t matter how long the session is. One paragraph one page, one chapter or a two-hour binge all get treated the same way. At the end of that session summarize what you read in no less than a long sentence. Do this a handful of times if you read often, and doing it will start to become second nature.

Second, begin to move on to smaller chunks. Stop every chapter if you read for a long session and directly ask yourself what did I learn? Different than what happened, ask what is new to you as a reader? Methods, characters, settings … something. Keep on in this mode and break it down smaller. Every scene? Perhaps down to every few pages.

I personally find smaller than this to be where the balance of interrupting myself and learning sets in. If you did this long enough you begin to train yourself to unconsciously store information as a reader. You slowly increase your memory. The more often you do this you will begin to find as you are reading book ABC that you had a similar experience or similar reading over in book XYZ. You start making connections, and building a web of ideas that are in your head, immediately accessible and able to be used for your own creative endeavors. You have trained your memory, and by doing so you have trained your creativity.

Go work your memory. Go work your reading.

Did you Understand?

Have you ever bene reading, and while your eyes are absolutely scanning over the page and your mind is hearing the words you haven’t really been paying attention? Maybe you started thinking about what you have to do later today. Maybe you have to make dinner, do laundry, pick up the kids, put the kids to bed, walk the dog, take out the trash, whatever it may be. The mundane intrudes on your reading.

It happens to everyone.

My recommendations.

Of course, the first is to find a space for reading. It can be a chair facing a wall in the corner of an otherwise already used room. We are not recommending building a personal library here, though if you do, please send pictures!

The chair doesn’t even need to always be there. Anywhere that you and everyone around you knows, this is my place to read.

Tell people that you have set aside the time to read. It doesn’t need to be long. Fifteen or twenty minutes can be enough to jump into a story and really get going. I recommend doing so right before bed. Well published literature has shown reduction in exposure to artificial lighting from phones and TVs before bed improves sleep. How better than to read?

Lastly, and the origin of this piece is to tell someone about what you read. Even if the someone is yourself. Every two pages, stop, slow down, and tell yourself what just happened. A one paragraph summary of the ten paragraphs you reviewed. By slowing down like this you will remember more of what you read, and perhaps appreciate, assimilate and retain more of the information that you read.

Happy reading!

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Binge Reading

The idea of a binge read or a binge watch or a rapid consumption of everything about a creator is very popular these days. I am guilty of it. I have discovered an author, read perhaps two books, like both, and decided I must read everything they have ever written. Some authors that is simple enough maybe they have a library of ten or twelve books. Some authors that would be an epic undertaking as some of the great names of fantasy and science fiction have dozens or even nearly a hundred books to their name.

Should we do it though? Should we binge read? (Let’s separate it from should anyone binge watch.)

Authors would certainly appreciate the idea. It’s a dedicated reader, who will seek out everything they ever write and then follows them being sure to scoop up every morsel that falls as they go. That’s a vote in favor of it I suppose.


Can we burn out on an author? Can we read so much of one author in a row we start to see how they craft stories, predict something of what comes next and possibly even grow bored of their formula? It has happened to me before. I won’t name the author, but I read about ten of their books in a row and began to realize I could see the forest through the trees. I understood why they did what they did, and something about the books were lost. The wonder, or the ability to have the wool pulled over my eyes faded a little. Let’s call it a point against binge reading.

On the other hand, I have had the experience of discovering an author from a book written in the middle of their career. I then decided to binge read their books, and discovered their initial books were not as good! That shouldn’t be surprising really. Like all skills the more we do a thing the better we get at it. Still, it was so strange to see one of my favorite living science fiction authors write something so… bland? Not bad, certainly worthy of publication but not the standard my previous three reads had warranted. But then I kept reading their work up to the present day in order and found that within a handful of books the polish was there and then their newest pieces far exceeded my expectation. Maybe a point for binge reading?

Last if you read at a normal pace, even fast, and call it a book a week, binge reading an author might take up your entire reading profile for a year for some prolific writers. Are we leaving something behind by reading the one source so exclusively? Are we failing to identify other books we night have wanted to read by other people? Perhaps this is a point against such voracious single point consumption.

For now, I’ll admit I'll continue to binge read. I have a completionist streak in me. I like to know I’ve read everything from an author I like, but I wonder if perhaps I might be wrong.

Life, Condensed (May 31, 2023) 

We have talked before about different reasons why people read. I have jokingly said it is to be the most interesting person in the room. I have talked about leisure, I have talked about education and even to boost your ability to write. I want to come at the question differently today.

Read to answer a simple question. What do you want to know about?

Recently (a few years back) I was watching a bird hop around in the snow. It huddled there in a locally barren landscape, crusted over with sun melt and wind freeze, and puffed itself up like a Michelin bird. But its naked featherless feet were just there for the winter to assault. I decided I didn’t know enough about birds.

 

I want to paint two different pictures at this point. First, a world where I didn’t have the opportunity to go read about my answer. I would have to hypothesize about how bird could possibly not freeze its little feet off. I would undoubtedly need to collect specimens. This is something I am constitutionally incapable of, so I would need postmortem birds. Time consuming. I would need to study for years on the subject to get to a decent working hypothesis.

 

In the second world I look up the question. I find a brief answer online, and think, I would like to know more than what fits on the back of a cocktail napkin here. Let’s check their references and read a book. So, I did.

 

Before I was alive, people wondered the same question, and they spent their entire lives answering it, and billions of other questions. That is the power of a book. A book is a condensation or distillation of a life. We live sixty or seventy years as an adult, accumulate knowledge and then we can pass it to infinite generations beyond us, so that they do not need to go where we have already gone. They can go further. I mean this in all writing though my focus here is in nonfiction. Writing enables us to argue with ourselves, with the great minds of the past, and to pit them against one another.

What do you want to know about?

 

How do birds navigate through trees at speed? How many emotions do dogs have? Does your cat like you? When do your children’s memories first start to form? What is the best way to convince a person that your opinion is not crazy, or maybe even right? How do I knit? How can I maintain a bike? What kind of plants can be grown in acidic full shade?

 

These are fun questions and I guarantee whole books exist on all of them.

What do you want to know about and learn? What have you always wondered? What’s stopping you from grabbing a book, and figuring it out?

 

Go read the condensation of another person’s life.

Outsourcing Your Data Sets

“There is nothing new under the sun.” “There is nothing new except what has been forgotten.” “Nature is a tenacious recycler, every dung heap and fallen redwood tree a bustling community of saprophytes wresting life from the dead and discarded, as though intuitively aware that there is nothing new under the sun. Throughout the physical world, from the cosmic to the subatomic, the same refrain resounds. Conservation: it's not just a good idea, it's the law.”

However, you want to have it said the sentiment is common, and has been uttered for as long as humankind has put pen to paper. Being original seems close to impossible. There is nothing new. Or is there?

I would like you to contemplate for a moment where new ideas come from. How do you come up with them? Where does inspiration strike from?

Without getting into the neurobiology of new ideas too deeply, they come when you make a connection between two or more previously disparate ideas in your brain. You see a thing in a new light, and you understand something you didn’t before. A is like B. C can influence D. E is less like than F than previously thought. Is it new? It might be new to you. Is it new to humanity? Perhaps not, but perhaps few know about it.

Life certainly has its uniqueness. Nobody has ever lived right now, as you, in your world and life as you have lived with your exact experiences. Not even if you have an identical twin raised by the same parents. They are your twin and you are theirs. Very similar, but still different.

Why am I talking about any of this in a reading post? Because being unique, being original, making connections, is very hard. It happens in your brain. You can’t outsource it.

In the modern world we have outsourced a remarkable amount of our knowledge to search engines, and websites. We think we know things that we don’t know, because the data exists rapidly at our fingertips. This is not intended to be a question of the validity of the available data, which is a different problem. This is not a question of should we outsource less. This is a writer pointing out, that it is biologically impossible to make connections, and intuitive leaps, if you don’t already have the data in your mind. You can not outsource inventiveness, and new ideas.

Be careful how much of your data you decide to outsource to the internet. Remember, the more you read, the more you consume, and the more you place into your own brain, the more likely you are to understand things and see the forest through the trees. Re-shore your knowledge base.

We Are All Readers... Right?

                People say the words “I’m just not a reader.” If you are reading this, I am going to challenge you on that sentence. Everyone is a reader if you are literate.

                What do people mean when they say “I’m not a reader?” I think the context I have always seen this come up was in the discussion of reading books. They don’t read books. The same person will read a website, new articles galore, and the comments section of the internet for hours. Reading is not the question, what is being read is up for grabs.

                Not everyone wants to read novels. I am not going to disagree with that. I will say I think people are a little fast to assume they can’t, won’t like it, don’t need to bother with it, or whatever their specific rationale is. But for some people, shorter is where it is at. In years past if you didn’t get a newspaper delivered to your door, you were out of luck for quick easy content in your own home. The library carries magazines, but you would have to leave your house for that… Insane.

                Today the world is at your cell phone fingertips. Everyone can read about anything they want to know about. “How to cook XYZ?” “What plant goes with this other plant?” “How do I do ABC?” non fiction is covered in spades. Short stories you can pay for from edited, reputable sources are numerous, and recommended. But if you want the quick easy read that doesn’t cost you a penny, people publish short stories and fan fiction everywhere in volume too.

                Reading them, makes you a reader. You may not be consuming the literary classics, but don’t diminish the fact that you are literate, and using it for entertainment. We are all readers.

To Reread or Not to Reread... May 9, 2023

I have a vague memory when I was younger of watching a movie. Specifically, the Never-Ending Story 2. (Perhaps 3?) There is a scene in which a child steals a book from a bookstore, for a second time, after a lecture by the bookstore owner about which books are safe.

 “But I’ve read this one before.”

 “Have you?”

“Yes.”

 “But are you the same? Is the book the same? Books change.”

 Or something like this. (I can’t find the clip on YouTube… crazy right?)  

The protagonist steals the book, and everything works out, because “Hollywood,” but it does beg a very natural question. What is it like to reread a book?

People have poor memories. While the book in any direct sense cannot have changed, the book will not be the same as what we remember it to be. Characters might feel different, we might even side with a different perspective in arguments than we remember siding with the first time, wondering why we missed a sentence here or there. Or… Maybe everything is exactly the same as you remember it. The options are surprisingly wide.

Maybe we changed. Surprising I know, but people change as we go through life, rather a lot. What we want, what we expect, and what we believe all shift through time. What if nothing changed about the book at all but we are not even close to the same person?

When we are asking if we should reread a book, we are pressed with the question of why? As noted in other posts we only get to read a few thousand books in our lifetimes if we are average readers. Maybe twice that for fast readers or people with a lot of extra time. Should we reread a book we haven’t picked up in two decades? One decade? A few years ago?

I have been tempted to reread some books that made me start reading fantasy novels when I was a child. The Crystal Shard, By R.A. Salvatore. I remember getting the book at Christmas, I remember reading it, I remember loving it and thinking, this is the best thing I have ever read.

I reread that book perhaps three times in my youth and then read dozens of other books by the same author. I stopped reading them some time ago, for no particular reason but life and time, but every time I have an inkling to revisit then, I stop myself. What if they are not as good as I remember? What if they are bad? Would I want to risk ruining a memory? For now, the answer is a definitive “No,” I do not want to possibly ruin a memory, so I have not reread them. Am I wrong? I don’t know. For now, I still have a long “To read list,” and I don’t want for pages to flip through so I will stay in the quantum uncertainty of good book vs bad book.

Do you reread books? Why? Have you recaptured what you were looking for?

Whether new, or old, remember how good it is for you to read. Go grab some pages.

Read to Someone

Read to your children, read to your loved ones, read to your friends.

Reading to your children is a time-honored tradition, and will get its own section later on, regarding books in the home. Briefly, children who are read to learn to read earlier than their peers, have a broader vocabulary and greater interest in learning, and they additionally have an opportunity given to them: Time with their parents.

One of my earliest memories in life is sitting with my mother and my father reading. I was small enough to still be on their laps, and hey would read a page an di would read a page. I don’t remember “learning,” though I am sure I did. I don’t remember it being a chore, I remember it being fun. I consider myself very close to my parents, and I value those memories. I am inviting you to help your children form the same memories of their own, learning how to read along with you, seeing you value books and information on the page.

More than children there is value in reading to a loved one. My wife an di share both audiobooks, win which we will do an activity together while listening, or we will read to one another. Reading to one another is in a more engaging way to read the material. While it is not always the right way to read for me, sometimes I want to move along at a faster clip than I can speak, the act of practicing intonation, inflection, and just conversing about the material as we read it, can be its own fun and rewarding experience.

We stop, we discuss and digest the piece, we will pull up other pieces we have read for comparison or debate. We will declare what we like and what we don’t like about the story as we go. Sometimes, no doubt we head down crazy paths the authors didn’t intended us to, but the experience is very distinct from reading alone, reading out loud even to myself, and I can highly recommend it to everyone.

Read to your significant other. Read to a stranger if you must but go read to someone.

Be The Most Interesting Person In the Room

Have you ever been at a party, dinner, group conversation and either you felt you had nothing to contribute, or you were interacting with a person and felt they had nothing to contribute? I'm talking about that moment when small talk has faded to the beyond and you have said everything there is to say about the weather, the next upcoming sporting event, or work. They have given you the vibe they don’t want to talk to you about their kids or don’t want to hear about yours.

You stand there awkwardly with a glass in your hand smiling, or they do, and … now what?

RUN!

I kid. No running.

Instead become the most interesting person in the room. Read.

 

This is not a specific defense of reading nonfiction, though it is perhaps more focused on it. Imagine every few sentences a person said, you had read a book that touched on the topic. Imagine you had an insightful question to give back with every utterance or you had a factoid to throw into the room and see what people thought to spark new conversation. "I've heard about XYZ, what do you think of ABC?" People will want to talk to you more. That is the power reading gives us. Not only will it help us articulate those thoughts, as we have talked about before, it gives the raw material to start and maintain the conversations.

We are finite creatures who have lived a finite lifetime and have had personal experiences that are likewise limited. But, in any meaningful sense there is an infinite variety of things we can learn about from books. Recently in a bookstore I picked up a book on loom function from 1900. Why? I have no idea. I knew nothing about the topic but maybe it would have touch points to electricity, and modernization at the turn of the last century. It did all of those things.

The point is that reading can be a way to expand ourselves to learn things we never knew we needed to know. Non-fiction can serve the same purpose. We may not be good at talking to other people, but the characters we read about might be. One of the hallmarks of a good fiction is good dialogue, believable dialogue that can teach us how to speak to others, if we practice. Read it out loud, feel how the words sound coming out of your mouth.

 

When I say read, I am talking about reading deeply on a topic. Avoid being the person who can drop one tidbit but then has to retreat if the conversational sparing partner asks you for more. Go beyond the brief hundred-word article and headline, go past the YouTube shorts, and actually get to know some topic by reading substantially. For every few minutes a person talks about a topic they know, a mountain of hours lies beneath the surface for things they did not say. Conversation is very often an iceberg of data.

Reading can enable us to be the most interesting person in the room, and make other people feel just as interesting for wanting to be part of the conversation. We can learn how to lead them to say more. Learn how topics and people relate. Go read and read deeply. You can’t pick the wrong book.

What is Reading? (April 18, 2023)

That seems like a very silly question. But the meaning when we say that casual sentence has changed vastly over the span of human history. Reading, not very long ago was a rare skill. Today, we assume that people are literate, and when we ask someone to read, that they can. This was not the case five hundred years ago. Stained glass told the story of the various parables for a reason. People could not read, nor did they have uniform access to books.

As time went on books became available after the advent of printing presses but books were not yet common, and most of the items available to read were the Christian Bible and related texts in the western world.

Time continued to tick on and reading became more common, and eventually school became compulsory, leading to a more uniform reading level.

Even then, what we read was very different than what we think of today when we say “Read.” Newspapers were dominant reading content, delivered daily to streetcorners where people walked and got one or had one delivered to their door. It also ensured we were all reading approximately the same story of the world. Books were printed.

All of these things had something in common though. When you read, you were seated, or at least moving slowly, with your eyes predominantly fixed on the page, looking over words in print.

Continue toward modern times. Content continued to expand, but so did the medium. Reading moved digital, though it did not leave behind paper. My wife reads 99 percent of her books on her phone, in the kindle app. People read articles in their phone’s tablets and computers. People read fewer physical books than they have in recent history. But this still has something in common with times gone by.

We are still generally seated or moving slowly and dedicated to the task of reading.

While I believe that reading is a very important part of anyone’s intellectual diet, the reality is that sometimes we are all busy, and sometimes we do not have time to read the way we want to. Does that mean the busy, the distracted or distractable should be entirely cut off from the hobby of reading?

I say no.

Enter, audiobooks.

Technically, I suppose an audio book is not reading. Your eyes do not scan a page, and you are not in fact reading. Theoretically an illiterate person could enjoy a book by this means. Instead of reading, it is a kind of book consumption. Isn’t that the true goal? I want to say that audiobooks are still books and have their valuable place in a reader’s repertoire. I would never surrender reading, because it allows me to chose voices, intonation and other details all myself, but audio books slot into our lives when we are busy.

We can listen in the car on the way to work. We can listen while we do chores or housework. We can listen while we work out. They are portable and free the hands in a way even phone-based reading can not do.

Don’t be shy about audio books. It doesn't make you a lesser reader. If you have a book you want to read, but can’t find the time, find the audiobook. Explore the consumption of stories through any means you can, because even the busy, and the distracted, have the right to enjoy a good tale.

Good or Bad... Thinking makes it so... (April 11, 2023)

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Have you ever finished a book and tried to decide if it was good or bad, and you cannot decide which or why? I had the experience recently, and after some thoughts I found that as many as a tenth of the books I read I would struggle to describe to my wife “I liked it because…XYZ.”

I have found it a fun exercise to start telling her or my friends who will let me regale them with it, the reasons I like individual chapters as I go, or why I didn’t. When nobody else is around, they just don’t want to hear it, or don’t want spoilers, I have taken to telling myself about it. I am going to make the recommendation to you to do it too. Two really good reasons come to mind.

If we find an author we LOVE, and we want to recommend them to other people we need to be able to say “I like this because…, and you will like it because….” Do it for the author you want to plug. But also, and perhaps more importantly, do it for you. If you can be specific about what you like in a story you and not only enjoy the book as you read it more, like rewinding your favorite scene, you can also start to see connections in the piece you didn’t see before. This is a modification of my advice to “Slow down,” the reading, but in this case, it is more a “Slow down enough to know why you liked it.”

If you are also a writer you can use it to find what attracts you to reading for what you can emulate, expand on, and bring your own spin to. If you can’t verbalize it, you can’t emulate it.

You can also lastly use it to try and understand what other authors you might like and which ones you don’t. It is better to say “I don’t like books where XYZ happens. Or “I don’t like when the main characters are like ABC.”

Give voice to your likes and dislikes, you will be happy that you did.

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To speak, Read April 4, 2023

What does it mean to be articulate and well spoken?

The definition is straight forward. “Expressing oneself readily, clearly, and effectively.” “To give clear and effective utterance to: to put into words.” https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/articulate

This is not enough to encompass what it means to be articulate. In books we have read in movies we have watched in TV shows we are comfortable with, and in interpersonal real-life relationships the ability to transmit the ideas in one person head to another person head is far from straight forward and people have a vast range of kills when it comes to this skill set.

Let me say straight forwardly, to be articulate, a person must read. Many other things must follow, including practice of the art of speaking, deep consideration of the task being spoken about, and the material presented, possibly even a combination of these items. We have all heard the college professor who is first year in their position, teaching a class for the first time, who is less well spoken, less quick to open the floor to questions and less skilled at carrying on discourse. They lecture at us, not converse with us.

We all know politicians who cannot hold a two sided conversasion.

We all know family and friends who cannot express what they believe.

The first step in being able to articulate is to read. We cannot speak to a thing we do not understand. Understanding can come from personal experience but even experience is a data set of one person, and one lifetime. Books allow generations past and present to communicate their lifetime of experience to us in a format we can consume. Diction and choice of words are not different. Reading fiction and nonfiction alike enable us to sample not only data ways of speaking, types of conversations, it allows us to do so at our own pace. It allows us to think and digest the way things are said. It allows us to consume more perfect expression.

Listen to people speak. They pause with verbal ticks. They will chuckle, be confused, and have odd moments of not knowing what to say. They may tumble over their words trying to figure out cadence and order. When we read we experience writing without the “um, well, so, uh, like, and many other technically incorrect modes of speech if we wish to speak publicly, and in a manner which enables other to listen to us more clearly.

Watch the best youtuber and watch average ones. Watch the best public performances and watch average ones, and the pattern shows up time and again. To speak well requires a plethora of skills, but not the least of which, is to read.

If you want to speak well, carry yourself with confidence, be understood, and be calm under pressure when people question your public stances, then go hit the books.

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Read Classics (March 28, 2023) 

Classics are not everyone cup of tea. Not everyone wants to learn a new language, and make no mistake that if you go back in time one hundred years, even in your native tongue you are going back in time to a new language. Idioms are different, words are different, culture in which the book is steeped is different, and the goals of the author are sometimes as foreign as you can imagine.

Why do it?

First, what is a classic? I come from a scientific background, so I am going to take a semi-scientific stance on this. It is more exacting than “The books people say are classics.” I will say it is something more akin to classic books are the books other books are based on, and which influence the world of their era as evidences by citation, and reuse.

For example, in modern consideration, a movie which comes out, and is seen by some few thousand people, and is forgotten is considered less classical than for example the Marvel Cinematic Universe. This seems backward, because people will say the small arthouse films are more classic style than the blockbuster hits. But in this definition, citation is king, queen and ruler of all. This is not intended to be a value judgement; this is a popularity contest.

Let’s take Shakespeare. Sure, not everyone loves him, but he coined hundreds of words still used today, and the plays are referenced by movies and hundreds of other books. To understand English literature then, and even now, is not fully possible without understanding him as a source material. Similarly, the corpus of literature from each culture enables us to understand what is important to that culture at that time.

Classic works are touched by and touch others. Would we have vampires in our world if not for the writing of Bram Stoker? You don’t have to like the book to understand its impact. Though if you are going to read classics this is a highly recommend one. Did you know for example Dracula didn’t die in sunlight? That he needed to sleep in consecrated ground? That he was old, and rather grotesque in most of his portrayal? Why did we change these through time?  What changed from that culture to our own more than a hundred years later? What can we learn?

Think of reading though classics as a lesson in historiography. Try not to judge the past. Try to understand what it had to teach us, because even things we disagree with vehemently can hone our own ability to discuss them.

Micro Reads (March 21, 2023) Happy Spring!

I am an old man apparently. I’m not sure exactly when it happened but several friends have informed me it is so, because I predominantly read on paper. I get national geographic, from my parents when they are done, one month late, but still in paper format. Scientific American: Paper. Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine? You guessed it. Paperback. My novels? 99.0 percent paperback. (I do audiobooks with my wife sometimes.)I am here to convince you otherwise, because of some recent discoveries of mine. Every one of those discoveries were digital.It started with a work associate pointing out to me an online magazine https://www.metastellar.com/. Now to be clear, I only liked about half the tales, but I did like them. They were short, but they introduced me to a new group of writers. Of course I knew already about major pieces like https://clarkesworldmagazine.com/ and https://www.asimovs.com/  but I had forgotten about them at the same time. They were an afterthought a thing I didn’t head to because I wanted to go read a novel. But novels are not the only medium by which we tell stories.Don’t have a lot of time for a full novel? Don’t want to dedicate the attention span, but don’t know where to go for a short story collection? Try one of your favorite’s genre short story online magazine sites. Do you want to find new authors and don’t feel like trying an entire book, bounce into one of these sites and grab a few stories to go. They are short, sometimes flash fiction, 1,000 words or less. Sometimes they are just enough meat to satisfy at 5,000 words and sometimes they are even longer.Sometimes the best way to leave behind the world you know, and find new worlds, is to leave behind the medium you know, and try new ones as well.Read on! Line… (… online… get it?)

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The Stack (March 14, 2023) 

“I have to get through the stack.”

Whatever you might name your list, physically real, and sitting beside you, or a written list of books to read next, beware the impending doom of the stack. This is related to the previous reading piece Read your own way, but with a different slant.

I have a physical stack. Somewhere around Christmas my wife and I get a series of books from friends and families, for each other, and we pile up most of the reading we are going to do for the year. We didn’t mean for this to happen, it just happens. I’m old fashioned, my books are still physical books, my wife reads probably ninety percent of her books digitally. But we both had a stack, and recently I found myself rushing through a book, because I had to get to the stack.

I was completely wrong. Not for having the stack, that’s my way of planning my reading. I was wrong for the rush. I was shortchanging an author, a series of authors really as it was a short story collection, to get to the next thing. The next thing was not my favorite author, was not a book I was particularly looking forward to, it was just next.

I had to remind myself, if I read a book, and didn’t remember it, didn’t know if I liked it or not, and just got through it, did I really read it. As we said before, some people enjoy skimming books for basic ideas, and don’t mind speed reading. I’m not in that ilk. I tend to read more deliberately and want to remember my books fairly toughly. If an author took time to create a particularly beautiful sentence I want to give the time to my read of the book to notice it.

There is no new wisdom here, and no new idea. Don’t rush today for tomorrow’s sake. The future (book) will be here before you know it. Etcetera, etcetera. But I needed to remind myself, slow down. The stack will be there. There will always be more books than I can ever possibly read.

Umberto Eco reminded me of this recently. He had a thirty thousand book library, and many people assumed he had read many of them, or even most. He admitted to having read a small percentage. He reminded us books can be something more, so can the stack. Books are a promise of the infinite, a library, yours or someone else’s a collection of the possible. You will never get to all of it. So why rush?

If you are anxious to get to a favorite piece, or a book by your favorite author, or just can’t wait to get through all of the books out there, all the power to you, but I am talking about guilt, or the feeling of rushing because you have to. Enjoy the book you are reading now, now. The next book will be here soon enough.

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Your Way (March 07, 2023)

Read your own way.Two thousand eight hundred and eighty. That is about how many books an avid reader will get to consume in their lifetime, if they don’t reread anything. That’s four books a month for sixty years of an adult reading level. Some people read much faster; some people read much slower.I read a book every few days when they are short, simple pieces, but sometimes a book as we have said before, deserves to be chewed on. I am guilty of having read a book, stopped backed up several pages and reread a section I love. Something that worked so well I needed to understand how the author did it.I’ve also read books, where they are ok, fluff pieces, without anythign new to say, an di am just trying to get through them. Sometimes, I read because I want be challenged. Sometimes I read because I want to be entertained. That entertainment might take the form of a pulpy fiction piece I’ve read before and I want to wallow in nostalgia. Sometimes I want to be entertained in just the way I expect, with simple easy to predict characters and well-trodden genre ground. Still other times, entertainment needs to change things up for me.These are all different ways to read. None of them are right. None of them are wrong. They can be about our mood, or our personality. Some people may always want to have reading as escapism. Why should we judge that? Is TV or movies not another kind of escapism? Board games, video games, these are kind of escapes that have different level of engagement possible. Not everything must be an epic masterpiece. At the same time a person who prefers to always be challenged, constantly learn a new word or two in each piece, a new turn of phrase, is not reading above the rest of us either.Reading, is a wonderful hobby that can meet everyone where they are. If you have a busy life, with family, children, a stressful job, etc. there is nothing wrong with slowly reading your way through a light piece or blitzing through a speed read of light fluff every few days. There is also nothing wrong with choosing to spend your weekends delving into deep landscapes of the imagination, or seriously consuming a difficult read every few months.If you are a literary professor, who reads for a living, there is nothing wrong with always seeking to press the boundaries of understanding or challenge writers to elevate their consideration for what is possible.Every one of those options make you a reader. A partaker in the greatest passing of information in human history. A book is the summation of another person’s life, their work, their imagination placed on the page for us to consume. Every time you consume one, large, small, fast or slow, you are taking part in stories passing from past to future, and every way, is the right way. So read your way, and never be bothered by it.

Read Outside The Box (Feb 28, 2023)

I like to read science fiction, fantasy, urban fantasy, steam punk and grimdark. These genres comprise the bulk of my reading. They account for probably fifty to sixty percent of the content I consume, and when I read in this genre, I feel comfortable there. I know the tropes, when they are broken, when they are not, when they are done well, and when they challenge the paradigm.

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Reading in these genres are like coming home for me, and ache of nostalgia, from the first time my brother pressed Dragons of Autumn Twilight into my hand when I was a boy, setting me off on this road. These stories ring true to me, and smack of something archaic and primal in the mythologies of humankind.

But, like any healthy plate of dinner, if it’s all one thing, odds are good, you aren’t getting enough variety in your diet, and even the same perfect ice cream may get boring without a new flavor.

I would like to challenge readers and writers alike, to read outside your comfort zone. You may not like the book you chose. You may not even like the genre, or… you might! The remaining forty percent of what I read, is not my comfort zone. I read authors I know I will disagree with. I sprinkle nonfiction in equal parts into the pieces, because unfortunately we can’t experience everything in life and nonfiction can teach us new skills, and find us hobbies we didn’t know we were missing.

Dabbling in horror and suspense gave me an appreciation for what makes a story tense. Explorations into well written romance helped me to better understand how characters can develop interpersonal relationships. Reviews of folklore and taught me how wild the imagination can be, and that we should sometimes look to leave standard tropes behind.

Ask friends, check top ten reading lists for each genre, or best, go to a local bookstore. I use Amazon too, but the beauty of a local bookstore, is that you are experiencing a filtered view by the owners and operators of the store of what books are worth reading. They can take you in new direction you may not have thought of on your own. Find online literary magazines in a genre you like, to discover new authors, or find an entirely new genre in bite sized pieces! But, no matter what you do, leave your comfort zone. You will be glad you did, and coming home will be all the more rewarding for having done so.  

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Reading Lists (Feb 19, 2023)

Do you read to get through a reading list? Do you read because you should? Do you read because you love to? Do you read because you have to?

We all read for different reasons. I have a reading list which as of today stands about four feet wide, and I have a desperate desire to read every one of them. The books are filled with rereads, like The Wise Man’s Fear by Patrick Rothfuss. Books that get to make a rare claim of being unlike anything you have ever read before, like The Spear Cuts Through Water, by Simon Jimenez, and new authors I have not yet tried like A Demon in Silver by R.S. Ford.

You might notice in this reading list history books, a few sociology and finance books, some classics like Edgar Allan Poe, and mythology. A reading list should set fire to the imagination, and raise the possibilities of what if? What can we discover around the next bend of the page? Sometimes, I find myself looking at the list, and I want to add to it, but I can’t add unless I clear it down. This means sometimes I read with intent to get through a book.

I’m here to argue against that mentality. There are more books than most people can read in a lifetime, published every single day, about one thousand three hundred a day in English alone. We should cherish and relish every one that we get to read, whether we are reading it for fun, for school, for work, for clearing a list, or because a friend asked us to check their manuscript. A book, fiction or nonfiction, is the collective effort of the most complex thing in the known universe, a human brain, to put proverbial pen to paper, and transmit from one mind to another mind, an idea. It is a gift, from one person to all people.

Slow down. Read your book with intent. What can I learn? What did the author want to say? How did they say it? Do you agree? Do you disagree? Either way how did it make me think about the subject matter? Did it change who I am?

Build your reading list, and chew on every page.

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