Curious Bibliophiles

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Karel Rélink [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Bibliophiles are curious people. That may be taken in two ways and both are true. They are “curious” in the sense of being kind of odd or unusual. Books are part of their home decorating scheme. When packing for a trip, the question of “what books will I take?” may be more important than what clothes will I need. A great day is when I discover a new bookstore, or find a book I’ve always wanted to read. We are “curious” people, to be sure.

We are also curious people in that we read to understand our world. At least one of the reasons for at least some of our book choices begins with, “I always wanted to learn about…” or “I came across a book about…and I decided that might be fascinating to read.” Sometimes our curiosity is driven by real life concerns, such as when I read an in depth account of the battle of Gettysburg before visiting the battlefield. And sometimes, our curiosity seems just sparked by a whim.

Curiosity has taken me all kinds of places, from exploring the doctrine of the Trinity to the everyday phenomenon of rain. It has led me into the delightful world of Wendell Berry’s Port William Society, and through a friend’s suggestion, into the fantasy world of Middle Earth, a place I’ve visited again and again in every decade of my life. It’s taken me into darker places as well–the specter of eviction, the “problem from hell” of genocide and the evil of human trafficking.

This brings me to a question I’ve been thinking about lately. Ought we have any boundaries on our curiosity? I’m not talking about boundaries others set, which I would consider an improper, and in the American system, unconstitutional intrusion upon our liberties. The question was provoked for me when I read Bookstore, and particularly passages in which the store owner spoke of her fascination with reading about inter-species sex and about cannibalism. I think my first response was “yuck” and my second to wonder “why ever would you be interest in that?” Then it occurred to me that, much as I find these things repugnant, the truth is that they are part of the human experience, and it might not be utterly bonkers that someone would research these things and others understand them. As far as I know, this person never participated in such things and curiosity to understand phenomena like these no more necessarily leads to doing them than reading about human trafficking inclines me to traffic human beings.

I do wonder if there might be two situations in which curiosity might exceed the bounds of health. One is where that about which we are curious leads to an insatiable quest to know more and more, to the neglect of duties in real life. Do you know those who have developed an unhealthy absorption with conspiracy theories, who are constantly reading about them, talking about them, worrying about them, and in the process, alienating their friends?

The other is when curiosity leads to our minds and emotions going to places we know that for us are not healthy or even tempt us to act out in ways that are morally wrong. And here, two people may be very different. Descriptions of violence, even when not gratuitous, or erotic scenes may affect two people very differently. I had to set down the work of one science fiction writer, fascinating as I found his writing, because there was something in his recurring portrayals of violence that was not good for me. Nor do I think exploring the world of the occult, with the view of searching out the things God has hidden to be a healthy exercise of curiosity.

That said, for the most part, I think curiosity a good thing–that we were given minds of such capacity to explore every nook and cranny of God’s good world. Books are a wonderfully convenient way to do that. I don’t just read pages, but embark on a journey of discovery, whether it is of astrophysics or the composition of a Mozart. I think curiosity is one of the reasons for why we read. Curious bibliophiles, indeed!

What do you think?

Arts & Letters Daily

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Screen capture of part of Arts & Letters Daily main page, as accessed on September 21, 2017

One of the things I love doing is helping connect people with books that will inform, entertain, and perhaps transform them. One of the ways I do that is through various newsletters and websites that alert me to new books as well as information about the literary world, authors, book selling, and all things related to books. At the same time, I realize that this blog can’t be a “one stop shop,” and so I also like to pass along the resources I’ve found useful in discovering news about books and all things literary.

One of my readers recently commented with regard to a post about one such site, “One more alternative to actually reading books??” His question raises a fair point. I really could spend all my time reading what is on these sites rather than reading books. But I think most of us have figured out how to skim them to discover what catches our attention. Sometimes, they inform me about books I decide I don’t need to read. Sometimes they pique my interest in something I want to read and review. And I think you will admit that I read and review a few books (over 100 so far this year).

That’s a long introduction to a site I discovered recently, Arts & Letters Daily, published by the folks who put out The Chronicle of Higher Education, which is the Wall Street Journal of the academic world. That should tip you off that you will find a high standard of writing in the articles aggregated on this website. Unlike The Chronicle, all content is available without subscribing, although there is a link in several places to “Support Arts & Letters Daily”

Like Literary Hubthis site curates articles on books and the literary and publishing world from all over the internet. It does so under three categories:

  • Articles of Note: Currently (September 21, 2017), the top articles on the page are on Hemingway in LA (from the LA Times), hallucinogenic fungi (from hyperallergic.com), and Kingsley Amis at 70 (from The Guardian).
  • New Books: The first three articles in this column currently are a review of a book on what writers wear from The Times Literary Supplement, a review of Why Poetry? from the Washington Post, and a  book on the evolution of beauty reviewed in The New York Times.
  • Essays & Opinions: Currently the first three are an article on Evelyn Waugh’s Catholicism from First Things, an article in The Jacobin on James Burnham’s journey from Trotskyite to conservative editor, and a London Review of Books review article by Pankraj Mishra on a collection of books exploring the future of liberalism in the age of Trump and Brexit.

The site is much less flashy than Literary Hub, being organized around three columns of articles under the three categories listed above. It adds no images to the article summaries and so allows for a great deal of content in a small online space.

The other feature of the site is the column of links on the left hand side of the page. From top to bottom following a box allowing you to subscribe to a weekly email newsletter, these are grouped under “Nota Bene” (a collection of miscellaneous articles), “The ALD Archives,” “Newspapers” (26 newspapers from around the world), “Breaking” (links to breaking news on various media outlets), “Magazines” (a long list), and “Book Reviews” (another long list of links). One fun feature under “Archives” is a “Random” link which randomly selects an article in the archives to show you.

Essentially, this is a portal into the literary world. I like the simple organization without the distraction of visual images that links you to content that appears of interest. The alphabetical lists of links to magazines and literary reviews is handy to have in one place.

As noted above, Arts & Letters Daily also sends a weekly email of its “Top Reads” each Friday. Here is a screen capture of the web-version of the September 15, 2017 newsletter:

Top Reads From Arts Letters Daily

The motto of Arts & Letters Daily is “Veritas odit moras,” a quote from Seneca that translates “truth hates delay.” I don’t know if this is what the editors were thinking, but the format and content of Arts & Letters Daily seems designed to get the truth out without delay, a mission ever more crucial in our day.

Flash Fiction

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Photo by J.D. Hancock [CC BY 2.0] via Flickr

“For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”

This is perhaps the classic example of something I just learned about today — flash fiction. This six word story has a beginning, middle, and end and leaves us wondering about the rest of the story. It was attributed to Ernest Hemingway, crafted to win a bet. This Quote Investigator article suggests the actual origins of this quote. The attribution to Hemingway makes good sense. Hemingway was a master of economical use of language, and in 1931 published a collection of 18 stories taking up a total of 31 pages titled In Our Time.

“Flash fiction” is a catch-all term for very short fiction works. A maximum might be 2,000 words, but can also include “Six word stories,” “Twitterature” (stories in 140 characters or less), and stories within various length limits: 50 words (the “dribble”), 100 words (the “drabble”), 150, 300, or 1,000 words (source: Wikipedia). Other terms include short short stories, micro fiction, sudden fiction, or quick fiction.

David Gaffney, one of the better known authors of flash fiction gives these tips for writing flash fiction:

  1. Start in the middle. You don’t have time in this very short form to set scenes and build character.
  2. Don’t use too many characters. …
  3. Make sure the ending isn’t at the end. …
  4. Sweat your title. …
  5. Make your last line ring like a bell. …
  6. Write long, then go short.

Writer’s Digest describes the appeal of writing flash fiction in this way:

Why would I want to write flash fiction? Flash fiction slush piles tower as high as those for longer forms, but the rewards are similar—and with a flash story, you’ve likely spent less time writing and revising. Opportunities run the whole gamut of publishers, and flash publishing credits can count toward those you need to qualify for membership in professional writing organizations such as the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America and the Horror Writers Association. And no matter what you write, stringent word limits can challenge and sharpen your skills in ways that can improve even your long-form work.

So you might be wondering where you can go to read examples of flash fiction. Here are some websites I found that were a good starting place for me:

100 Word Story. It’s just what it says, an edited collection of 100 word stories.

Vestal Review. Claims to be the oldest flash fiction literary magazine, beginning publishing in 2000.

The Drum is an audio flash fiction magazine, for those who would rather listen than read.

Flash Fiction Online includes a graphic image and quote for each story.

Flash Fiction Magazine publishes a daily story and also offers a free e-book of stories.

Well, I’m approaching 500 words, positively wordy in the flash fiction world. I would be interested in hearing if others follow this genre, your favorite authors, sites, etc.

Shelf Awareness

 

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Screenshot of top portion of Shelf Awareness home page, accessed September 19, 2017.

“If you cannot read all your books…fondle them—peer into them, let them fall open where they will, read from the first sentence that arrests the eye, set them back on the shelves with your own hands, arrange them on your own plan so that you at least know where they are. Let them be your friends; let them, at any rate, be your acquaintances.”  –Winston Churchill

I do think it is valuable to be aware of the books on our shelves and I love this Churchill quote. But that is not the focus of this post (although I thought you would enjoy the quote).

I subscribe to various newsletters and online publications to keep up with the publishing world, and the related worlds of literary figures, bookselling, libraries, and of course, new books. I’ve recently come across a new source of book news, Shelf AwarenessI’ve included a screenshot of the home page, as it appeared on Tuesday September 19.

Shelf Awareness is designed for two groups. One group is readerswhich probably includes anyone who follows this blog. Each week they identify 25 of the best books coming out during the current week and provide reviews of those books. These include categories of fiction, mystery and thriller, science fiction and fantasy, food and wine, biography and memoir, history, business and economics, body, mind and spirit, social science, nature and environment, children and young adult, and poetry. Not all categories are included in every issue. There is also a “book candy” section with newsy tidbits, and an author interview. In the current children and young adult section, for example, you will find a review of a children’s version of It Takes a Village by Hillary Rodham Clinton.

The other group is people in the book tradeShelf Awareness describes its effort for this group as follows:

“Shelf Awareness was born out of a need to provide a range of people in the industry–booksellers, librarians, book buyers at nontraditional stores, members of the media, marketers, salespeople, publishers and others–with essential information for their businesses, including news about titles coming out now, titles getting buzz in the media, authors on major shows, movie tie-ins, sleepers, news about the business, tips on how to sell, etc. We publish daily–first thing in the morning.”

In today’s issue, I learned that Amazon is opening two new warehouses to join two others in Ohio, one near Cincinnati, and one near Cleveland in North Randall (the other warehouses are near Columbus). There is also news of a bookstore closing (openings and closings are announced on many days), the theme for University Press Week (“Knowledge Matters”), an image of the day, Top Library Recommended Titles for October, a book trailer (a pretty common site on publisher websites these days), and more.

All this may be accessed on the Shelf Awareness website, but may also come to your email inbox. The readers version is called “Shelf Awareness for Readers” and is sent out twice a week on Tuesdays and Fridays. The booktrade newsletter is called “Shelf Awareness Pro” and is sent out daily. There is a checkbox that allows you to subscribe to both. The subscription is free. Of course, a service like this includes advertising and “advertorials” including links to buy books (not in the reviews however).

One of the leading alternatives in this field is Publishers Weekly, which also puts out a variety of daily newsletters. While the two overlap around reviews of books and news about the publishing industry, Shelf Awareness, at this point at least, seems much more streamlined, offering a much more reader-focused newsletter, and what seems to me a wider spectrum but more concise daily news summary of the book world.

If you are interested not only in what is on your personal shelves, but what will be appearing on the shelves of your favorite bookseller, Shelf Awareness is a great new resource. Give them a visit!

What to Read

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Long Room, Trinity College, Dublin. Photo by DAVID ILIFF. License: CC-BY-SA 4.0, via Wikipedia

In one sense, answering the question of what to read is truly daunting. In 2010, Google ran an algorithm to estimate the number of books ever published in its efforts to develop the capacity to catalog all these books. They came up with the number 129,864,880. That brings new meaning to one of my favorite laments, “so many books, so little time.”

That does make the choice of what we read worthy of some thought. This is also part of the “battle” we readers face. Consider, if we read 50 books a year for 40 years, that is 2,000 books out of all those ever published. This is one of those FOMO (fear of missing out) moments all of us encounter. We will inevitably miss out on many books. For me, the question comes down to what book, or at least what types of books, do I not want to miss out on. Here are some considerations I bring to this question:

  • I want to read books that have stood the test of time–decades and even centuries have passed and they are still influential. I don’t just want to read about them, but want to follow advice Marilynne Robinson gave in a lecture: “Read the primary sources!” I’d class The Bible, works of Shakespeare, Plato, Homer, Augustine, Calvin, Doestoevsky, among others in this category. C. S. Lewis recommended we read one “old” book for every recent book we read in an essay introducing a very good old book, On the Incarnation by Athanasius
  • I want to read the best books I can in genres I’ve found life-giving, which for me ranges from mysteries to presidential and other leadership biographies, American history, and science writing.
  • Finally, I read books related to my own work and calling. In my case, I work in a Christian ministry among graduate students and faculty and hold a Masters degree in biblical studies. So I try to keep up on current literature in biblical studies, theology, and other ministry-related fields, as well as reading books on current developments in the world of higher education.

Your answers to these criteria will be different from mine, but they will help you think with greater discrimination about the books you choose to read, and be able to give better criteria to booksellers and librarians who may help you connect to these books.

There are a variety of reading lists one may find online that may help with the first and, to some degree, the second of my three criteria. For the third, so much of this comes from reading reviews of books in journals related to your field of work, or just going to those sections at a good university library. Here are a few sources of  book lists that I’ve found helpful:

  1. For books that have stood the test of time, the Great Books lists can be helpful, although they may be criticized as Western-centric. Other lists may compensate for that. Wikipedia provides the list of books that comprised the Great Books series as well as a list of universities that still have “Great Books” programs. One of these is St. John’s, which provides PDFs of the reading list by semester through the four years of their program.
  2. There are numerous lists of “100 greatest books,” some which may overlap with the Great Books. Wikipedia has gathered the most prominent of these lists in an article with links, including lists for genres like crime fiction, fantasy, and science fiction as well as more general lists.
  3. For the thoughtful Christian reader, James Emory White at his Church and Culture website, has a wonderful collection of lists including “Ten to Begin With,” “Twenty Five Toward a Christian Worldview,” and a “One Year Reading Program” of 26 books and twelve other topical lists. A personal favorite for discovering thoughtful Christian writing is Byron Borger’s “Booknotes” blog which connects you with his store, where you can order the books you read about, usually at a discount. Byron is one who can listen to you, and on the basis of what you tell him about yourself and your interests can suggest ten books to you–and they will be good suggestions. He typifies what is best about brick and mortar booksellers.

Of course, I hope you will follow Bob on Books if you do not already. Over the course of a year, I will review about 140 books along the lines of the books I like to read and think important, and I hope some of these will find their way into your hands as well. Equally, I hope some of my reviews may help you choose not to read certain books in favor of others more congruent to your answers to the question of “what to read.” That, also, is a good thing.

 

Readers’ Bootcamp

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“Bootcamp” WorldArtsMe

Perhaps the title involves a bit of hyperbole. But if we are indeed in a battle to find space in our lives for attentive reading amid the distractions of modern technological life, it might involve something akin to bootcamp, where in a short space of weeks, civilians are turned into soldiers, and where civilian habits that might get you killed in short order are exchanged for habits that enable you to live life under fire.

Perhaps the drastic metaphor of bootcamp has a place. At one time, our shopkeepers and farmers read Shakespeare, The Bible, Plato, Aristotle, John Locke and others. John Adams traveled from town to town with a “poet in his pocket.” The great ideas that shaped our republic came from people who weren’t academics, but who kept company in the books they read with great ideas. At one time in this country, workers’ Athenaeums  were popular for people who wanted to improve themselves and their understanding of the world. Apart from some things like TED talks, much of the content we have online that occupy much of our time are tweets that amuse or arouse us, memes, pictures and news of often-dubious and editorially biased origin. To break our addiction to these distractions to recover the experience of deep, extended and attentive reading might require something of a “bootcamp” experience in our lives.

Here are some starters I might suggest:

  • Figure out a time when you are mentally sharpest and carve out a space of that time to read. Maybe to start, decide on the 15-20 minutes you will dedicate to reading, or a goal to read 10 pages during this sharpest time.
  • Now, the hard part. Put yourself as far away from any screens including your smartphone as possible. You will find your ability to focus immeasurably enhanced by doing this.
  • At this point, I would strongly discourage reading on any tablet that is not a dedicated e-reader, and would favor using a physical book. Any piece of technology with other apps will provide distractions that will undermine the goal of attentive, undistracted reading.
  • Don’t start with a dense philosophical tome by Kant or Heidegger. Pick a genre and writer you like and start reading.
  • If you already have the book at hand, so much the better provided it doesn’t violate the previous suggestion!
  • If you don’t have something to read, I would suggest going either to your local library or a brick and mortar bookstore. If you want to cultivate a reading habit, you want to make friends with the people in these places who are highly motivated to help you find good books, because you will keep coming to them for recommendations! Besides, would you rather get a book recommendation from an algorithm than a friend?
  • Speaking of friends, find a book buddy, maybe someone else is on the same journey to recovering literacy that you are, that you can meet up with to talk about the books in your lives. This can also help as you graduate to books that require more mental effort to understand. I’ve often found that great books demand multiple minds to really grasp their full meaning and I see so much more when I read with friends.
  • Keep a book journal where you record the books you have read, and key thoughts you want to remember from those books, and how, if at all, the book has changed your thinking. Online tools like Goodreads make this convenient as long as you don’t get distracted from actually reading. (That’s really how this blog was born–as a way to remember what I read as well as to talk about books with others).

I’ll stop there other than suggesting that you might try working up to the goal of an hour of focused reading a day. Actually, I think if you follow some of these ideas, you will find yourself wanting to read more and stopping will be the problem.

Tomorrow, I will talk a bit more about what to read.

The Battle to Read?

Reading-books

By Omarfaruquepro (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0] via Wikimedia Commons

This week, Philip Yancey posted a blog “Reading Wars” that was picked up in the Washington Post under the title “The Death of Reading is Threatening the Soul.” Yancey begins the post noting the change in his own reading practices, from about three books a week (about what I typically read) to much less, and that he is reading far fewer works that require hard work.

He attributes this to the internet, and the tendency to read a paragraph or two and move along to something else, and to skip around from one thing to the next, and be easily distracted. He also notes the constant interruptions of emails and other messaging that wants a reply now.

He quotes a Charles Chu who estimates that it would take approximately 417 hours over a year to read 200 average sized books. Chu is walking proof that it’s possible, having read 400 books in the past two years. He notes that the average American spends 608 hours on social media and 1642 hours watching television. It is not a question of time.

Rather it is a question of seduction. And this is where the battle to read comes in. Between distracting notifications on smartphones, and the temptation to go from there to different social media can consume a lot of time. It’s mind candy, kind of fun really. There’s a video–was that really ten minutes? It lures us away from our books, and makes it harder to concentrate when we sit down to read them.

Yancey joins a chorus of people from Senator Ben Sasse who is trying to cultivate practices of reading in his family to Rod Dreher in his Benedict Option who are urging us to lay aside, or even fast from our technology to make time for deep reading of the printed page. Many business are arguing for setting aside at least an hour a day for reading.

Why does it matter? Isn’t this time one could more productively employ elsewhere? Personally, I reached a decision in my forties, that having passed the peak of my physical powers, I needed to take more time to read, and think, and pray if I was going to be spiritually and intellectually vital and fresh in my work. I could not just keep recycling what I learned in college and the first years out in the work force. I was changing, the world was changing, and the advance of years brought new questions, and questioned previous assumptions.

More than that, I came to realize that there really is something grand about this collective project called humanity–noble and sometimes hubristic dreams, great ideas like the freedom of conscience, and not so great ones like race theory, and great works of art and literature, that capture in a particular piece aspects of the universal human experience. I came to discover in the Christian faith not only the two to three millenia-old sacred scriptures that are our rule of faith and practice, but that conversation of great minds from Augustine and Athanasius to Barth and Niebuhr and Kuyper that sought to understand and apply these truths to their times. Many contemporary writers and speakers, as compelling as they seemed, were pretty thin fare by comparison.

Most of all, what I think I am trying to do as I read is to live an attentive life. I want to listen for God’s voice in the things that I read, and to be open to the possibility that a word of scripture, or an idea on a page might transform my perspective, question my ways of doing things, or lead to insights into how to live or work more in sync with God’s workings in the world. More than that, if God is the real hero of this story and mine but a small supporting role (and even that is something), so much of reading is a walk in the wonder of understanding the works and ways and majesty of God, whether in a book on the latest discoveries in physics, a history of a people, or a biography of a leader of the past.

There is so much more to life than what can be expressed in 140 characters or displayed on my smartphone screen. If we are dissatisfied with the banality of our public discourse, then perhaps a good beginning is to attack our own lack of attention to deep reading of ideas that matter. We might even discover that there is great joy to be found in a rich interior life. We might want such people to be leaders in our communities, and maybe our nation. We might even become them.

In the next days, I want to discuss more of what we can do to give substantive reading a greater place in our lives, and some practices and sources that can get us started.

 

Christian Scholars Review

CSR

Cover of the current issue of Christian Scholars Review

The most recent issue of the Christian Scholars Review (CSR) arrived in my mail the other day and it occurred to me that this might be a resource at least some who follow this blog might like to know of. For one thing, it may give you a clue as to where I hear about some of the books I review! The website for CSR describes its objective as follows:

“Established in 1970, Christian Scholar’s Review is a medium for communication among Christians who have been called to an academic vocation. Its primary objective is the publication of peer-reviewed scholarship and research, within and across the disciplines, that advances the integration of faith and learning and contributes to a broader and more unified understanding of the nature of creation, culture, and vocation and the responsibilities of those whom God has created. It also provides a forum for discussion of pedagogical and theoretical issues related to Christian higher education. It invites contributions from Christian scholars of all historic traditions, and from others sympathetic to the task of religiously-informed scholarship, that advance the work of Christian academic communities and enhance mutual understanding with other religious and academic communities. “

The Review does not focus on a particular academic discipline but publishes peer reviewed articles exploring how thoughtful Christian academics connect their faith to whatever it is they are studying. Some issues center around a theme, like the environment or nuclear weapons. Others have several articles on drawn on divergent themes. The current issue includes the following articles:

  • Stephen V. Monsma – What is an Evangelical? And Does It Matter? [Abstract]
  • Judith Anderson – Doers of the Word: Shakespeare, Macbeth, and the Epistle of James [Abstract]
  • Michael Kugler – The Faun Beneath the Lamppost: When Christian Scholars Talk About the Enlightenment [Abstract]

There are a steady stream of articles on Christian higher education because the editorial team and many of the contributors work in this context. In addition, you will find responses to articles in previous issues, kind of an ongoing scholarly conversation similar to many academic journals.

One of my favorite parts of the Review are the reviews! Each issue includes an extended review or two. I write very concise reviews for the blog context. It is always interesting to see reviewers do a more extended review of something I’ve covered more briefly. In the current issue (XLVI:4, Summer 2017), there is a review of Modern Art and the Life of a Culture (which I reviewed here on May 24, 2016). Like most people, I read reviews for one of two reasons, either to find books I would like to read, or to learn about books that I won’t have the time or interest to read. This is a good place to find reviews of longer works connecting faith and academic life.

Why do I subscribe to Christian Scholars Review? I work with academics and grad students in a variety of disciplines, and while I can never hope to understand any of those disciplines as well as they can, over the years I’ve come across a number of articles that helped me see how Christian faith might address important questions in their disciplines and pointed me to resources they might explore around those questions.

Who else might find this helpful? First and most obvious would be any faculty or grad student who cares about the connection of faith and their academic work. I would suggest that even the articles concerning disciplines other than their own may well suggest resources for questions they face. Also, the interdisciplinary character of this journal helps in the recovery of a sense of the unity of knowledge in the fragmented multiversity.

I don’t think academics are the only ones who will find value in this journal. Pastors, particularly those in university towns, may benefit in seeing how others connect theological principles and convictions to subjects ranging from history to engineering, from literature to education. Any thoughtful Christian who wants to think both broadly and deeply about the world might find these article length treatments more accessible than lengthy books.

You may find information about subscribing to the Review at the Subscribe/Back Issues page on their website. Students providing an ID can subscribe for $15 a year, others for $24 (four issues). You can also order back issues and the website includes an index with links to a table of contents going back to 1995.

 

LibraryThing’s New Android App

LibraryThing Android App home screenAs an Android phone user and a member of Library Thing for the last year and a half, I’ve lamented the lack of an Android app. Why should the iPhone users have all the fun. Well, I no longer need to lament. The middle of last month, LibraryThing announced that its Android app was finally available. They even accompanied it with a fun video, showing how easy it is to catalog your whole library using the bar code scanner on the app.

Let’s begin with that function, since it is probably one of the most useful aspects of the app. From the Home screen, you hit the button labeled “Add to catalog.” That will take you to a screen that allows you either key in a title or ISBN number, or much more easily scan the bar code for the book. To do this, tap the bar code symbol with a red horizontal line through it. You will see a frame appear using your phone’s camera. Hold it over the bar code on your book, wait for the beep (a bit startling the first time you hear it), and then it will pull up a small image, title, and author of the book you are scanning. It’s worked accurately every time I’ve used it, has always retrieved the correct title, and in my experience, does so more quickly than the scanner on the GoodReads app. One complaint I’ve heard is that you cannot use the bar code scanner to search for books already in your library.

Probably the other most significant button on your app is the “Your Catalog” button. Tapping it will display all your books either in a list or tiled covers. Tapping on the book will take you to a page on that book, allow you to edit what “collections” it appears in, see publication information, member tags and go to links on LibraryThing or Amazon for the book. At the bottom, you are able to delete the entry from your library, or edit your own information, including your tags, ratings, review, and other comments on the book. I would say this is much easier to do on a computer (and often I cut and paste reviews from a blog, which is easier to do on a computer).

You can also search your collections by title, author, ISBN, or even tags. This is quite convenient if you want to see how many books you’ve read, or own, of a particular author, or find books on a particular topic. This comes up often when I’m asked for a book recommendation and the ability to do a quick search comes in handy.

The “Cover Explorer” button is one I’m not quite sure of why it is included. It’s basic function is to tell you the source of the cover image–Amazon (ISBN or ASIN), and low or high member-uploaded cover images. The only reason I can see for this is that the book data from Amazon including ISBN is probably more certain to match their image.

The “Account” button allows you to sign in or out and an “add to catalog resources” section (where LibraryThing looks to find a book you are adding to your library). The defaults are Amazon and the libraries connected to LibraryThing’s database. This accounts for the amazing ability LibraryThing seems to have to find books (and other media).

Finally, the “News” button takes you to the news articles that appear in the right column on the internet version of LibraryThing–including Early Reviewer posts, and information about other changes on LibraryThing.

As an app, it is simple and uncomplicated and accomplishes speedily one of the basic things many people turn to LibraryThing for–cataloging books. It doesn’t have the newsfeed showing you what friends are reading. It’s not especially “pretty.” It shows you your catalog and helps you organize and add to it. It is fast and accurate.

If you are already on LibraryThing or have considered getting on, another bonus of using the app is that it automatically qualifies you for a lifetime free membership on LibraryThing. It has been the case that membership was free for those with under 200 books cataloged and $10 a year or $25 lifetime otherwise.

The app is available at the Google Play Store, and is free as well. What a great way to use smartphone technology if you have a library you want to catalog, or just want to start a list of the books you’ve read!

 

The Dangerous Practice of Reading in Bed

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“The Bed-Time Book, written by Helen Hay and illustrated by Jessie Willcox Smith. Photo by Plum Leaves, CC BY 2.0 via Flickr (unedited)

Do you like to read in bed? I do. Most of the time, I only read a few pages before nodding off. Usually my wife comes to bed after I do and turns out the light, and I usually wake up just enough to mark my place and put the book aside. Pretty harmless, huh? It wouldn’t have been thought so at one time.

I recently came across a blog on the evils of reading in bed, by Kristen Wardowski, who posts some great stuff about books, reading and writing. She, in turn points to an article in The Atlantic by Nika Mavrody. The gist of both posts is that there were two dangers, one very real and one feared.

The very real danger had to do with how people were able to read in bed. They did so by candlelight. Readers falling asleep could be the cause of fires as candles burned down, or set fire to flammables like curtains in the vicinity. This was the equivalent of smoking in bed, and was considered a form of negligence.

The other danger reflects a shift in the nature of reading from communal to solitary. Sleeping arrangements also shifted in the same way from a time when a family shared a bed or slept in a common room to greater privacy in sleeping arrangements. Reading at one time was something done aloud, in the family circle, and of course needed to be suitable for the various members of the family. Often, it was the Bible that was read (although sex and violence are hardly absent from its pages).

Private, silent reading was feared to lead to private fantasies that distracted one from household duties, particularly those of women. It sounds obsessive that there was societal concern over what someone thought about in solitude. Yet is this so far from concern over what can be viewed on screens which may be obliterated with a swipe or a mouse click, but not erased from our minds?

These days we don’t condemn reading in bed with a broad brush, and that’s an advance. But does what we read in our last waking moments matter? I think of a somewhat humorous incident from early in our married life. I was reading Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee and had dozed off and my wife came in, and I turned to her with a scowl and not fully awake and asked her, “why did you kill all those Indians?” She was not sure she wanted to join me that night.

What we read in bed can entertain us and relax us. But it can also anger us, disturb us, arouse us, or keep us awake far after we should be sleeping. A while back I was reading Kirsten Hannah’s The Nightingale, one of the best books I read last year. But the horrors of the Nazi occupation of France were profoundly disturbing, and not the best things to consider right before I wanted to sleep. This was good reading–for another time of day–at least for me. I would not dictate for anyone else, but I’m coming to realize that some types of reading in bed aren’t helpful.

One type of reading that has been helpful are to read some of the prayers that have been prayed by many others as they close their days. I love these words from the Wednesday compline of the Northumbria Community:

Calm me, O Lord, as You stilled the storm.
Still me, O Lord, keep me from harm.
Let all the tumult within me cease.
Enfold me, Lord, in Your peace.

The prayer concludes with these words:

 The peace of God
be over me to shelter me,

under me to uphold me,

 about me to protect me,

 behind me to direct me,

 ever with me to save me.

I love to think of being enfolded in the peace of God before slipping into the oblivion and helplessness of sleep. To read, and pray, and turn these words over in my mind is good reading. Sometimes it is all the reading I have energy left to do. If that is dangerous, then bring it on. That’s reading I can live with…and sleep with.