Books to Read

The Atlantic published A Reading Guide for Those in Despair About American Politics. It’s a list worth looking through, and of course, reading…

  1. Americanah By Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  2. The New Jim Crow By Michelle Alexander
  3. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian By Sherman Alexie
  4. Truth Overruled: The Future of Marriage and Religious Freedom By Ryan T. Anderson
  5. The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism By Edward Baptist
  6. Taking Rites Seriously: Law, Politics, and the Reasonableness of Faith By Francis Beckwith
  7. The Coming By Daniel Black
  8. The Tyranny of Guilt: An Essay on Western Masochism By Pascal Bruckner
  9. Between the World and Me By Ta-Nehisi Coates
  10. Democracy Remixed: Black Youth and the Future of American Politics By Cathy Cohen
  11. Evicted By Matthew Desmond
  12. Roads to Dominion: Right Wing Movements and Political Power in the United States By Sara Diamond
  13. Sleeping Giant: How the New Working Class Will Transform America By Tamara Draut
  14. Affluence and Influence: Economic Inequality and Political Power in America By Martin Gilens
  15. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion By Jonathan Haidt
  16. The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements By Eric Hoffer
  17. Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right By Arlie Russell Hochschild
  18. Book of Judges
  19. In Pursuit of Equity: Women, Men, and the Quest for Economic Citizenship in the 20th Century By Alice Kessler-Harris
  20. The Fractured Republic: Renewing America’s Social Contract in the Age of Individualism By Yuval Levin 
  21. The Possessive Investment in Whiteness By George Lipsitz
  22. Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class By Ian Haney López
  23. A Canticle for Leibowitz By Walter Miller
  24. Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 By Charles Murray
  25. Dreams From My Father By Barack Obama
  26. The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America By George Packer
  27. Citizen: An American Lyric By Claudia Rankine
  28. Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty By Dorothy Roberts
  29. The Next America: Boomers, Millennials, and the Looming Generational Showdown By Paul Taylor
  30. Because of Sex: One Law, 10 Cases and 50 Years That Changed American Women’s Lives at Work By Gillian Thomas
  31. Habibi By Craig Thompson
  32. Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! By Mo Willems
  33. American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America By Colin Woodard

The Unmanly Reader

There is something compelling about lists. That’s why they are often used as clickbait and some of them are amusing. But there is something about book lists. The 10, 50, 100 books you should read always makes me wonder why the list is there. Is it to make those who have read them feel better? Or is it designed to make those who haven’t read feel inferior? Or maybe they are designed to rank our cultural capital? If you read 80 out of 100 on the list you have a solid B. Its good but you must try harder. Oh, dear only a C- well then…

This usually doesn’t bother me but then I came across the list of 80 Books Every Man Should Read with the tag line: ” An unranked, incomplete, utterly biased list of the greatest works of literature ever published. How many have you read?”

What does it mean? How many must I have read to be considered a man?

Efficiency is for washing, not for literature

In the last weeks there has been a new buzz about a speed reading software called Spritz. The idea is that too much time is spent scanning sentences while reading. So if the reader can keep her eyes steady and the words can fly past then reading speeds can increase. HuffPost reports that with Spritz a reader should be able to clear 1000 words per minute, which would mean that you could read a Harry Potter book in under 90 minutes.

Naturally this is not really a new thing. There is other software aimed at increasing reading speeds (Spreeder, Quickreader, Read Quick, and add ons for Firefox).

Viewed in this way applications like these are great for efficiency. But isn’t that the problem? Do we really read Harry Potter for efficiency? If we take software like this and add it to the numerous lists-of-books-to-read-before-you-die (Goodreads, 1001 books to read before you die, Amazon’s 100 books, 50 books before you die) you get a very odd relationship to literature and reading.

Efficiency is for washing, not for literature. Yes, there are too many books. No, you will never read them all. Even Erasmus complained of there being too many books in the 15th century.

Is there anywhere on earth exempt from these swarms of new books?

But the problem with an (almost) infinite number of books is not resolved by increasing our stress in reading so as to grab a larger part of the pie.

E-reading, memory and design

There is an interesting connection between ebooks and memory. There are comments on this in many places (Scholarly Kitchen, Time, Scientific American) but Verlyn Klinkenborg sums it up nicely:

I finish reading a book on my iPad — one by Ed McBain, for instance — and I shelve it in the cloud. It vanishes from my “device” and from my consciousness too. It’s very odd.

This is familiar to those who read ebooks but it is really not that strange. Despite being different contents the ebook text lacks dimensions and differences that help our memories. Books have different covers, fonts, layouts, graphical elements, paper quality and more. They are marked by use: Old books are creased and sometimes stained. There may be a coffee stain on a page in your favorite book that will evoke a memory of the reader spilling coffee while reading. While attempting to find a passage in a paper book we can remember how far in the book the text appeared, that it was on the left or right and whether it was at the top of the page or not.

These dimensions are not available in ebooks. Most readers have only one font. Layouts barely vary, and if you have a stain on the screen, it appear on every page. All the ebooks weigh the same, look the same and smell the same. Only the text (not the font) varies. Because of this we struggle to remember texts we read in ebooks and this also effects our ability to understand new texts.

While I recognize the issue when it comes to ebooks. Does it really have the same effect with other e-reading? Many of us spend most of our days reading of screens. Blogs, emails and Wikipedia. Not to mention all the time we spend on online news and reading/re-reading our own writing. Are these more or less forgetful, compared with their physical counterparts? Or does the geography and variation of the web enable us to remember these more.

Is it not e-reading in general that makes us forget, but rather the poor design & format of the medium that hinders our memory? It could be that the screen based format is not the optimal for longer continuous texts.

Do gamers even read?

I came across the “world culture score index” of “readers around the world”. It was part of an infographic showing the results of a survey asking 1600 Russians what they read. While knowing what Russians read may be interesting I was far more intrigued by the World Culture Score Index and the amount of time people spend reading.

Hours reading per week per person

1. India — 10 hours, 42 minutes
2. Thailand — 9:24
3. China — 8:00
4. Philippines — 7:36
5. Egypt — 7:30
6. Czech Republic — 7:24
7. Russia — 7:06
8. Sweden — 6:54
8. France — 6:54
10. Hungary — 6:48
10. Saudi Arabia — 6:48
12. Hong Kong — 6:42
13. Poland — 6:30
14. Venezuela — 6:24
15. South Africa — 6:18
15. Australia — 6:18
17. Indonesia — 6:00
18. Argentina — 5:54
18. Turkey — 5:54
20. Spain — 5:48
20. Canada — 5:48
22. Germany — 5:42
22. USA — 5:42
24. Italy — 5:36
25. Mexico — 5:30
26. U.K. — 5:18
27. Brazil — 5:12
28. Taiwan — 5:00
29. Japan — 4:06
30. Korea — 3:06

The source of the data was a bit tricky but I found this, which included a note on methodology:

Eventually I found this:

About NOP World Culture Score(TM) …
The Culture Score Index Series is based on further analysis of the NOP World Roper Reports Worldwide(TM) survey, which includes in-depth personal interviews with more than 30,000 people age 13 and older in 30 countries between December 2004 and February 2005. The data are weighted to the sampled population in each country. For more information about the Culture Score Index series.

Wait! What? “in-depth personal interviews with more than 30,000 people”. Really? A short in-depth interview would be 20 minutes. That would mean it took 10 000 hours to interview 30 000 people. A whole year only has 8760 hours!

Then there is the problem of reading. What is reading? Are you reading now? When you glance at Facebook are you reading? Does this fit in to your number of hours reading? Ok, ok so I have many questions about the survey. It’s still a cute list. The problem is that all attempts to define reading are about excluding some form of reading. This exclusion is all about making a value judgement as to what should be – and shouldn’t be – read.

Are we to assume that the Indians in this list are spending over 10 hours on the classics? While the Koreans are so technologically oriented that all they do is dumbly stare at screens?

Inconvenience is not all bad

The cost of data storage and retrieval is hardly anything that an individual thinks about today. Some of us may need to delete things from our devices but actual storage of data is not an issue. A tweet from SciencePorn last year demonstrated the cost of 1gb of storage over time:

  • 1981 $300000
  • 1987 $50000
  • 1990 $10000
  • 1994 $1000
  • 1997 $100
  • 2000 $10
  • 2004 $1
  • 2012 $0.10

I would love to have a better source than a tweet but it serves its purpose in this post.

The data question today is one of where and how we keep our physical storage devices. And yes, this could be about hard drives that hum with lights that shine but my idea today is more about the way in which we store our physical books. When it comes to music and movies I have moved completely digital – the thought of buying, carrying and storing plastic in order to enjoy those medium is foreign to me.

But books are a problem. I have an e-reader and a tablet both of which have a seemingly endless array of books on them. Reading from these devices is not a problem. I do have issues with commenting texts, on remembering where in the text I read something and finding a book that I have digitally.

All the devices have the ability to make notes but none are better than a pencil. My books contain small texts and question marks. Exclamation marks can sometimes mean I agree, disagree or even just approve of the order in which the words came. Typing will not really do it for me. The way’s in which the marks where scratched also make a difference – when I really disagree I will underscore heavily or circle words. It’s so annoying trying to do that digitally. Also I noticed something even more important: I never looked at my digital notes. They were ephemeral: I wrote them; I felt pleased; and then I forgot them completely. Finding them and recreating the context in which they were written isn’t working for me.

Another problem, for me, is the loss of geography in the book. I first noticed that it didn’t matter how engrossed I was in a text, I would often forget what the book was called or who the author was – While I was reading! But more importantly I could almost never find the passages that I remembered reading. In a physical book I would know approximately where on the page and in the book the passage was. There is a loss of context in the digital version.

But most importantly was the loss of books. I would collect books to be read but they would all disappear in the neutral packaging of the device. Nothing happened to remind me of their existence, no guilty pangs to goad me into reading. My collection of books was increasing while my reading time was shrinking.

Dreams of devices and systems to collect the worlds knowledge are old. But we now have overcome most of the barriers to such systems and by solving the problem have lost the books. Ok, maybe its just me. But I cannot help but think of the wonderful device dreamed of by Captain Agostino Ramelli:

This is a beautiful and ingenious machine, very useful and convenient for anyone who takes pleasure in study, especially those who are indisposed and tormented by gout. For with this machine a man can see and turn through a large number of books without moving from one spot. Moreover, it has another fine convenience in that it occupies very little space in the place where it is set, as anyone of intelligence can clearly see from the drawing.

Captain Agostino Ramelli

The advantage of his device is that it does not hide the books needed to be read. You could naturally just scroll passed the book but it was still there demanding attention. The digital world gives us convenience, but too much convenience is not a good thing.

The Extroverted Reader: Notes from a lecture

Actually the lecture was called “The Extroverted Reader” and looked at the ways in which ebook readers are changing the ways in which we consume culture.

Beginning with a bit of history: The technology of writing began about 5000 years ago (Unfortunately in my slides I’m off by a millennium) by the Sumerians. By 2000 BC the Phoenicians had a form of writing – but it did not contain many of the elements we rely upon today:


For example, 1000 years late the Greeks had added vowels


and the plays of Aristophanes (446 BC – ca. 386 BC) had punctuation


Mixing lower and upper case appeared 700 AD


and the humble spaces between words seems to have been developed in Ireland in 900 AD

I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book.

But since then not much has happened. Sure we have changes in materials, production and business models. But the printing press was not an innovation in text – it was an amazing innovation in lowering production costs. So basically for the next millennium not much happened.

It was not until we began to go digital that we realized that we had the potential to fundamentally change the way in which we read. But things did not come overnight and it was not until the 1970s that we cracked electronic paper. This development was fundamental to the development of the ebook reader. The next challenge is to find a point at which to start looking at the developments in the field. Here is my timeline: 1993 Apple Newton, 1999 Franklin EB-500 Rocket eBook, 2002 TabletPC, 2004 Sony Libré, 2006 eReader PRS-500, 2007 iPhone, 2007 Kindle, 2009 Nook, 2010 iPad, 2011 Kindle fire.

This was followed by a brief section on the control of media – the ways in which books could be controlled in the past in relation to how they can be controlled in the present. What you can and cannot read depends on those who control the technology of reading. Prior to ebooks this control was a question of distribution. Here we can see examples of the requirement of censors to permit the printing of books through the system of imprimatur or the attempts to create lists of forbidden books such as the Index Librorum Prohibitorum of the Catholic Church. These analogue controls have their strengths and weaknesses but they are naturally imperfect controls.

No matter how effective the controls were, they were no match to the control demonstrated by Amazon when it remotely deleted some digital editions of the George Orwell’s 1984 from the Kindle devices of readers who had bought them (NYT, June 2009). This act shined a clear light on one of the fundamental questions of ebooks – what is it we have actually bought when we buy an ebook? What do we own or have a right to use? Is the content of our reader ours?

This area is fascinating but what my talk was going to focus on was the issue of connectivity in relation to the reader so I moved along to the growth of connectivity in reading. Reading is always a social activity, in its most basic form the reader is connecting with the writer. We are also connected, in some form, to others who have read the same material as us. By reading similar works we create a common culture and understanding. Our common experiences enable us to have a common starting point in many discussions. This is true of all cultural expressions. Today saying things like double-dip or tie-fighter evoke common ideas and shared experiences but what would these words have meant to someone in 1970?

Today sharing is all the vogue and the technology of choice is social media. There are naturally critics to our new behaviors. Some critics see the end of human culture (Keen 2007) to the rewiring of the physical brain. For the latter I like to use Professor Greenfield who has been quoted as saying:

“My fear is that these technologies are infantilising the brain into the state of small children who are attracted by buzzing noises and bright lights, who have a small attention span and who live for the moment.”

There is a general criticism that we are using our devices to ensure that we have a constant stream stimuli and the fear is that this will prevent us from having “real” experiences. My take on this is that we are losing certain aspects and gaining others… for example I have written about the negative side of the loss of real boredom in our lives.

By connecting social media and reading we are attempting to ensure that the reader is not unconnected from the rest of the world. One part of this is the highlighting function in readers. First the highlighter is a mimic of analogue technology. We need to be able to highlight sections of text in order to find them again. But this is quickly used in new and exciting ways. First we can share our markings so that while reading you can be informed that 3 readers have highlighted this section. This effects our reading, we want to be accepted by others and not to stand out – so we look more carefully at these sections. Secondly, if we highlight a section this information is passed along but it may not be enough- we are asked whether we would like to share what we are reading. Why? Its all part of the development of performance lifestyle. Of course we want to share our deepest browsing, we need to show that we are extraordinary in some fashion.

All this data is gathered and analyzed. As is the data of which books you buy, when you buy them, when you start reading them, when you stop reading them, where in the book you pause or start and if you actually finish the book. Sure, you may actually have thick books in your bookshelf but in the future your bookseller will know how long it took you to read them – if you ever did!

This is the interesting thing. While we are buying our books we are also taking part in a much larger process where we are providing information about our deepest and most solitary habits. Someone is really reading over your shoulder but they don’t want you content – they want your habits.

The next section looked at changes in the marketplace as the ways in which we read will naturally change the ways in which we create and sell books. Amazon already knows what you browse and what you do, or do not buy, they allow us to write reviews and to use functions such as Facebook’s Like button. Not to mention the ways in which they are using interesting varying pricing strategies to get use to impulse buy. Buying is easier and does not require physical activity or waiting for delivery. This increases the content we have available to us.

Our content is swelled even further buy alternative book markets such as self publishing projects or Project Gutenberg which has 36 000 books available to us. Stop and think about that number! That’s a huge amount of books. Add to this the pirated books which can be downloaded illegally. These alternatives provide any reader with an endless supply of books. Endless if they are intended to be read as well as downloaded.

So in closing I wanted to address the point of the lecture: What will the endless library do to our individual reading patterns, to our collective cultures, to our language, to our libraries?

– Access to endless amounts of books will change the ways in which we read. We will demand more for less from our authors. Readers will generally have less tolerance for the slow read and will want more bangs for their bucks. Writers wanting to achieve large scale fame will have to adapt to this. Publishers will demand they do. Publishers will also know (based from reader data) where and when readers stopped reading and will attempt to “fix” this.

– Our culture will no longer be defined by a common canon of literature but we will become more splintered into interests. Naturally we will still be dominated by the bestsellers but below that we will all read our own interests in a way that we have not seen in books (but we have seen this in magazines and music).

– Many non-English publishers have been attempting to retain control over their markets by excluding or limiting the ebook from their languages. But this is not a long-term solution as self-publishing will force them to change. If not there is the possibility that the smaller languages will suffer (maybe disappear?), especially in the countries where English skills are good.

– Our libraries are often seen by outsiders as bastions of conservatism. This is very much the outsiders view. Librarians are the first to adopt and change. They do not see themselves as repositories for physical books but as place of information exchange. This will continue to develop but it is important that the image of the library as the silent, dusty pile of books and the librarian as the old spinster must change in order for librarians to succeeded in their metamorphosis.

One thing is certain. Culture is inevitable even if copyright is not. Technology will not kill our culture even if the business models which we are used to seeing today may not be around tomorrow. The reader will remain even if trees are no longer killed to feed her habits.

The slides for my presentation are online here.

The end of Swedish?

Today I did something unusual… I bought a book! Well the book in itself is not unusual but what was different today was the fact that the book was old fashioned analogue – you know… re-used, old dead trees.

When it was launched I was anti-Kindle, in November 2007 I even wrote:

For me it doesn’t matter how fancy schmancy the details are – and Kindle has some impressive details. The dead tree with ink stains still remains my clear favorite.

But eventually I succumbed and bought one by the end of 2010. Almost immediately my reading and purchasing patterns changed drastically – this became very obvious when the book Själens medium: Skrift och subjekt i Nordeuropa omkring 1500 by Götselius was not available in digital format… and did not buy it!

Most of the time this is not a problem as most of my reading is in English. But this has an interesting side-effect: publishers in small language groups seem to think that staying out of the Kindle market is a smart way of maintaining control over their market. But the problem is that this market is diminishing. Given a choice – the Kindle user is almost forced into the a larger language group.

Sure, I was forced to buy a book today but that’s still 15 less than I would have during the same period.

Nothing wrong with Shallows

Right now I have arrived almost to the middle of Nicholas Carr’s book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. His book is a techno-criticism focusing on the ways in which our technology is changing the way in which we behave. His basic argument is that our attention spans are going the way of the Dodo and that we will no longer be able to read, write or think in the way we used to.
Implicitly in this criticism is that we are much worse off as a species for these developments.
Carr is an interesting writer and his book is filled with all the rights stories about how advances in technology have changed the way in which we think. He brings up Plato’s criticism of writing in Phaedrus where writing is the appearance of knowledge and spends time with Gutenburg, the invention of spaces between words and silent reading. He uses McLuhan and Winner to show both the role of technology and determinism. It is a very good read.

But the problem is that Carr does not really attempt to analyze the effects of changes. Through his arguments we get the impression that hypertext changes everything, Wikipedia can be dangerous and Twitter must be downright evil. And he may be right.

My problem is that he generalizes his lack of ability to read into a full-blown criticism of technology. Sure he finds arguments that support his claim but it is still a massive generalization. It may be that technology has re-wired his brain. Or it may be that he lacks the skill sets to cope with the technology or it may be that he is no longer interested in reading the same way he used to be.

The interesting thing in his arguments is that he presents them in a book, albeit a light popular science book but still a book. If we are no longer capable of reading then he shouldn’t waste his time on this medium of the past. Or maybe he is just catering to the group of technophobes who want to say things were better before…

In his critique of technology he reserves a special place for the ebook reader – which I find even more interesting as I am reading his book on a kindle. He means that writing and books will be more and more catered to the lowest common denominator, which is probably true. But what’s new about this? Books have not always been weighty works of philosophy. Pulp fiction, cowboy literature and simple romances are surely a huge market. There has always been a huge market for the lighter works or trash literature as my father would have called them. Trash literature, comics and television naturally formed the way I am and I still happily read many of these genres – but this does not mean I am incapable of reading more difficult works.

At times I suspect that he is not as critical as he claims but he is trolling for an argument, provoking and posturing for a fight.  But Carr is well worth reading – even when he is wrong.

Please don't update my stuff

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it are words everyone should live by. But I would also like to add the condition if it works then don’t update it! There are many obvious reasons for updating technology and unfortunately many of them have absolutely nothing to do with the introduction of a better technology.

Over 40 years ago my father surprised my mother with a new sowing machine. My mother still uses the machine regularly. Naturally as a sowing machine manufacturer this is probably not a good deal. It would have been much better if my family had been forced to purchase a replacement twenty or thirty years ago. The Swedish consumer board stated ten years ago that the natural life expectancy of a mobile phone is two years. But phone manufacturers need to create desire for new versions to make sure that we are constantly giving them more money.

But what really bugs me is when manufacturers add technology to stuff that doesn’t need it. Touch screens on cookers and sensors in public bathrooms are among my main annoyances here.

Right now one of my most successful gadgets is my kindle. Now I would like them to update the ability to share books even beyond what Amazon has started to do. But my greatest fear is that some tecchie will feel the need to improve on the device to reach a greater market. The kindle is perfect because it mimics the book:

Why the paper book is a great technology:It doesn’t come with its own method of distracting you from itself via Benteka

Adding color screens, better keyboards and most dangerously touchscreens is going to happen – for all the wrong reasons. For a reader the lack of connectivity, the sucky keyboard & the fact that the reader is basically good at only one thing are all major strengths with the device.