Project Gutenberg: Where the Original Internet Still Lives

Screen capture of Project Gutenberg homepage 3/15/2023

Do you remember when you first discovered the internet? For me, it wasn’t until around 1995, the first time I bought a computer with a modem. At that time, we had Freenet, which was text based. Green text on a black screen. Yet it was amazing. Libraries of information, and all of it for free. There was a primitive search engine called Yahoo. And there was Project Gutenberg. One could access thousands of books online–for free!

At that time, Project Gutenberg was about twenty-five years old. It was the brainchild of a University of Illinois student, Michael Hart, who in 1971 uploaded a transcribed copy of the Declaration of Independence onto what was then the ARPANET in its infancy, making it freely available to anyone who had access to that network. It was his way of saying “thank you” for the free computer access he enjoyed at a time when this was a precious commodity. In so doing, Hart became inventor of the e-book.

Other freely available texts followed in what he named “Project Gutenberg” for Johannes Gutenberg, the printer who invented movable type, making the printing revolution possible. Hart believed one day the public would have wide access to computer networks, and he envisioned making books and other texts in the public domain available at no cost to anyone. His goal was to make 10,000 e-books available by the year 2000.

By 1995, Project Gutenberg had moved to Illinois Benedictine College. Hart had a number of volunteers working with him. Until 1989, text was manually digitized. Optical scanners sped up the process, with volunteers enlisted to proofread scanned text for accuracy against the original. In 1994, Pietro Di Miceli took on developing the Project Gutenberg website, which won many awards for design in its early years. This was at the time when Mosaic became a widely available internet browser and we moved from text to graphical user interfaces.

By 2003, a DVD was released with 10,000 items from Project Gutenberg, most of the collection at that time, realizing Hart’s goal within three years of his original target. Today, Project Gutenberg is hosted at the University of North Carolina and offers more than 60,000 items in its collection. It continues to be a volunteer driven project, with volunteers selecting books to digitize. Distributed Proofreaders allows volunteers to collaborate on digitizing books, both lightening the load and speeding the process.

If you have not used Project Gutenberg, the homepage serves to help one navigate the site. You can search and browse by author, title, subject, language, type, popularity, and more. There are Bookshelves of related e-books by topic. You can look up the most downloaded titles (tops is Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet). You can look up the recently added works. There is a section on Tablets, Phones and eReader How-tos. There are options to download books as e-pubs, in Kindle formats, and in other formats.

And all of this is still free. While much enhanced since my first visits in 1995, it still reflects the values and vision of the early internet, which so many thought a wondrous place. At the page, 50 years of e-Books: 1971-2021, there is this statement:

Everyone should have free, unlimited access to the world’s literature. Whenever they want, with a variety of formatting and delivery choices. “Literature,” said Hart, “should be as free as the air we breathe.”

At a time when some state and individual actors are trying to limit access to particular texts, it seems this work is more important than ever, even if it is focused on books in the public domain. These books also have “dangerous ideas” — ones that speak to our basic human rights and the liberties that we can never take for granted. Hart’s first upload, The Declaration of Independence, was one of those.

Remembering What We Read

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Memory is the treasure house of our lives, unless it is a gallery of our nightmares. And sometimes it is both. The memories we carry of our lives are a substantial part of our sense of self. A visit after many years to a conference center where we worked for over twenty years for parts of every summer evoked a raft of memories as we thought about conversations in a particular cabin, speakers in the meeting house, and so many special moments with our son. Perhaps one of the best part of the week was recalling these parts of our lives, of re-membering them in the sense of infusing them with life once more. What is so difficult about memory loss is our loss of parts of our lives, whether the immediate past, or more distant parts.

For those of us who are readers, we while away hours in our books. Yet it is funny how often it is hard to remember what we have read last week or month. The Atlantic re-ran an article titled “Why We Forget Most of the Books We Read,” that captured the oddities of our forgetfulness and our memories when it comes to reading. Sometimes we remember where we bought the book or where we were when we read it or the book group we discussed it with, but precious little of what is in it.

Some of it is the reality of our lives. The article noted that we may “read” 100,000 words a day, although how much attention we give them all is a question. Much never makes it out of our short term memories. Perhaps we read too much. There are times when I’d love to set aside reading multiple books for reviews, and so much else on my news feeds, and just savor a good book, perhaps a significant book, perhaps an old friend I read many years ago, the memory of which I’d like to renew. And perhaps, the time will come when I shall.

Some of us use writing to crystallize our thoughts about our reading. This is how this blog began–originally as Goodreads posts whose main purpose was just to remember what I’d read. Others keep notebooks, jotting down significant ideas, or just keeping a list of what they’ve read. And some will debate you about whether writing undermines memory. At least for me, it allows me to capture what I want to take away from a book.

Still, this has its limits. The other day, someone commented on a review of Under Western Eyes from 2014. I barely remembered reading the book in this case and did not remember enough to reply to what was an interesting comment. It makes me wonder why I remember some books and not others. I think it has to do with the fact that there are some, that because they engaged or provoked me, I keep revisiting and sometimes re-reading. For some it is the emotional context, such as The Long Winter by Elizabeth Ingalls Wilder that we read aloud as a family during a particularly cold winter in the 1990’s.

I think it makes a difference of whether the book is in sight. Often seeing the book, even the title on the spine, reminds me of what I read. My treadmill is in front of one of my shelves, and I often recall the content of books as I wrack up the steps. I squirrelled Under Western Eyes away somewhere and probably haven’t seen the book since I read it.

Some reader friends don’t think it matters so much. It is the enjoyment of the moment. And with some books, more may not be worth it. They were just a pleasant diversion. Yet even the best of these sort are memorable. I think of Thurber’s “The Night the Bed Fell.” His stories were both a delight and memorable.

Sometimes, it is the sheer intensity of the book that makes it memorable. Every one of Kristen Hannah’s books have been like that, and more than one has had me lying awake at night, none more than The Nightingale. While not as intense, Anthony Doerr’s All The Light We Cannot See stayed with me when I closed the covers.

Still, I wish I were C.S. Lewis when it came to memory. It seems that he remembered just about everything he read, down to being able to tell you on what page you might find a particular quote or statement. But that is not my gift and won’t be.

What can I say about remembering more of what we read? At this juncture in life, the question for me seems to be as I read a book, what is worth remembering? I find myself praying that I might be attentive to what matters out of all the information, all the words, that I will inevitably forget. What is worth pondering, considering, even taking to heart? It might be a single sentence out of a book. Is it worth it? If it is a nugget of intellectual gold, absolutely! I will ponder it until it is added to my treasure house of memory.

Bob on Books 2023 Reading Challenge

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Often, reading challenges seemed to be framed by how many books one reads. Now I have nothing against reading many books. But I read what I want to read. One of the things I want is to broaden my horizons when I read. I know I can’t read or know everything but that still doesn’t keep me from trying! So that’s my philosophy when it comes to reading challenges. It’s not about how many books we read but to delight in and have our lives enriched by the books we read. If it’s just amusement I want, I can turn to a screen. I read books to engage my imagination and open my eyes to the world around me. There are twelve challenges here. One for each month. They are my challenges but you are welcome to join me in one, some, or all. Maybe you will use this as a model to write your own challenge, I’d love to hear about it!

Author You Like. Have you ever read something that you really liked and found yourself hunting down everything the author wrote? This past year I caught up with all of Louise Penny’s books in the Gamache series and discovered and loved the works of Willa Cather. The author I read: _______________

Books You’ve Been Given. I know as readers, we don’t always like others to give us books, because they may not be ones we’d choose. That’s true of the books my son buys me. But I often find myself surprised and glad I read his gifts. If nothing else, at least try. Don’t feel obliged to finish. It’s just a nice way to acknowledge the gift, and you might be surprised as I have been. The gift books I read are: ________________

A Regional and/or New Author. It’s not always easy for new or local authors to break onto the national literary seen. I discovered that is how Colleen Hoover became such a phenomenon. Her readers spread the word. Your local bookstore, especially if it is an indie bookstore, is a good place to start. You might even have a chance to hear the author do a book presentation. The regional or new author I read is: _______________

A Bookstore or Librarian Recommendation. This can be either in-person, in a newsletter, or even the cool, hand-written recommendations you will find in some bookstores. A bookstore owner turned me on to James Lee Burke, for example. Don’t feel obliged to read something you don’t think you’d find interesting. Read something that piques your interest! The recommended book I read is: __________________

A Book You Disagree With. Most of us like to be agreed with. But I find books I disagree with stretch me the most. They help me understand how others can think differently. They force me to think about their arguments against what I think and examine my own understanding and reasoning. Rarely at this juncture of life will such a book make me change my mind in a wholesale way. But I may consider if there is a better way to think that incorporates the strength of what the author proposes. The book I disagreed with that I read is: _______________

A “Just For Fun” Book. After reading a book you disagree with, read a book that is just good fun to read. This can be a page-turning thriller, a mystery, a romance novel, a children’s story, or even a “how to” book–as long as it’s fun. This may be the book you take to the beach or the summer cottage or that “airport read.” My “just for fun” book is: ________________

A Biography of Someone You Admire. Is there someone currently living or who has lived in the past that you admire? Reading their biography, especially if well-researched, often sheds light on the sources of the traits we admire–how they were formed and used. We also usually learn of their flaws but even this can encourage us. There is hope for us as well as we try to emulate the qualities we admire. The biography I read: _______________

A Book Written Before 1000 CE. There is a lot of great literature that was written before 1000 CE. Here is a list from Goodreads that is only a small sampling. Allusions from these works fill much of our more recent literature. And the great thing is that there are free or inexpensive versions of many of these works, including many from online sources. The pre-1000 CE book I read is: _______________

A Book Award Winner. Usually in the fall, a number of book award winners are announced. I’m always surprised by how many I’ve never heard of. While I happen to like the books I’ve chosen to read, a number of people thought those award winners worth reading. Some awards include winners in multiple genres and some focus on specific genres. Here’s a list of some of the major awards. My suggestion and personal goal is to pick one, but you are welcome to be more ambitious! My Book Award Winner is: ________________

A Book of Poetry. I came across this quote from poet Thomas Gray today: “Poetry is thoughts that breathe, and words that burn.” In reviewing my 2022 reading, I discovered I’d only read one work of poetry out of over 200 books. Poetry awakens me to the power and skillful use of words. The book of poetry I read is: ________________

A Book in the Arts. I have often spoke of my love of books being about a love of the good, the true, and the beautiful. Without attention to the arts, we end up with a dreary, uninspired, banal society. Choose a book on music, dance, visual art, spoken word, drama, landscape architecture–you name it. It could be a book on technique, on the work of a particular artist, or a biography of an artist. The book in the arts I read is: _______________

A Book on Ultimate Questions. The pandemic has faced us with profound questions, questions that are perennial questions of human life: why are we here? is there a God? what happens when we die? There are many more. They are questions that disturb us because they make us examine how we live our lives. Books can help us explore how others have wrestled with these questions, whether they are sacred texts like thBible or the Qur’an, or works of philosophy, or the wealth of religious (including atheist) literature through history. Since “the unexamined life is not worth living” the book I read on ultimate questions is: _______________

Most of these lend themselves to doing one a month. Reading a number of works by an author you love might be a year long project. You will note that I’ve not recommended any particular authors or books. That’s where you get to make this your own. And if you take up one or some or all of the challenges here, I’d love to have you stop by and leave a comment of what you read and how that went for you. And sometime in 2023, I’ll give you an update on how it is going for me!

Books I’m Looking Forward to Reading This Winter

I’m between reviews right now and so I thought it might be fun to share a few of the books on my TBR (To Be Read) pile that I’m really looking forward to reading on those cold winter mornings or evenings. I have others, but these have especially caught my eye.

James Patterson by James Patterson. Do you know that I have never read a James Patterson book? But I like autobiographies, and I’d love to know how he cranks out so many books and why he thinks he’s been so successful. And I love that he has done so much to support bookstores.

One of Ours by Willa Cather. A friend suggested one of her books and she’s been my “author find” of the year. How did I go so long without discovering the fine writing of this American writer?

Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami. OK, I saw this on the buy one, get one 50% off at Barnes & Noble. I keep seeing Murakami turn up and thought I’d take a chance on this one. Maybe he will be my “author find” for 2023.

The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. This was the partner to Murakami on the buy one, get one 50% off table. Zafon is another of those authors I keep hearing about and a plot that occurs in the Cemetery of Forgotten Books has to be interesting. Right?

The Song of the Cell by Siddhartha Mukherjee. Cells are one of the basic constituents of all living organism other than viruses. There is so much that have been discovered about them since my high school biology courses. Time for a refresher and this book keeps turning up on Best Science Book lists. I love good science writing!

Untrustworthy by Bonnie Kristian. Amid the conflicting claims and the climate of distrust, how do we know what is true. I think we really are in the midst of an epistemic crisis and I’m concerned that at some point charisma will win out over truth. I’m intrigued to see how the author will address this…and will I trust her recommendations?

Cultivating Mentors edited by Todd C. Ream, Jerry Pattengale, and Christopher J. Devers. There is a lot of talk about mentoring in the higher ed circles in which I work but many people struggle to find good mentors. I hope this book sheds some light on the gap between ideals and reality.

Hardness of Heart in Biblical Literature by Charles B. Puskas. The topic intrigues me. The image has always been a chilling one–a hard heart does not seem much different than a dead heart. How does one become hard and is there hope for such a person? The book holds special interest because it is written by a scholar who was something of a mentor to me back in the Jesus movement days before going on to a career in biblical scholarship, teaching, publishing, and pastoring.

The World Beyond Your Head by Matthew B. Crawford. I liked his Shop Class as Soul Craft, which I read this year. This appears to be a book on attention, something I am convinced is important to everything from repairing a car to singing in a choral group to effective research to encountering God. I want to see what he will say about all this.

The Revolutionary: Samuel Adams by Stacy Schiff. I think we hear more about John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and Alexander Hamilton, but it can be argued that it was Samuel Adams who lit the match that started the whole conflagration of the American Revolution. I know little about him other than he is related to John.

These won’t be the only books you see on this blog in the months ahead. I suspect there are some other “sleepers” that I’ll really like. But these are some that I’m looking forward to curling up with when the winds of winter are blowing outside my door–at least until I have to get out and clear the snow!

Let me know what you are looking forward to reading. Some of these ended up on the pile because of the recommendations of friends.

Bob on Books Gives Thanks

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I am blessed that I will be at a table like this today. Not everyone has that opportunity and I so appreciate those who extend food and hospitality to those otherwise not able to celebrate.

I also consider myself deeply blessed to be able to read, review, and write about books. I don’t make money from that other than the exchange of getting books for free in exchange for writing reviews. I’ve always loved reading and sharing what I’ve learned, from the time I was a kid, and to do this is a gift for which I’m thankful.

I’m thankful to you, the reader. It is wonderful not to talk to oneself, to know others are reading, and interested, like me in finding that next great book to read. Reading is social and not just solitary–when you discover a good book, you can’t help but talk about it. I’ve been blogging over nine years now, and our interactions, even when you correct my grammar or infelicities, has made it so rewarding.

I’m always so thankful for the writers who pour their energy into getting words on the page. When I read about the writing life, I find most writers only write a few hours a day. It’s not because it is an easy life, but rather it is some of the most demanding work to put a story or a narrative into words. Thank you Celeste Ng, James Baldwin, John Steinbeck, Ngaio Marsh, Louise Penny, and so many others who have enriched my life through your hard work.

Speaking of Louise Penny, her latest book drops in the next week. That’s cause for Thanksgiving!

I’m thankful for publishing houses–for the work of acquiring manuscripts, negotiating contracts, editing draft after draft, and going from draft to publication. I’m especially grateful for some of the small publishers and university presses who provide a platform for great writing and scholarship outside the mainstream.

I’m grateful for the people who have embraced the calling of bookseller. The indie booksellers have my admiration, and whenever I can do it, my trade. As that big online bookseller scales back their book buying, indie booksellers have been filling the gap. The whole bookselling ecosystem gets my thanks though–from my local Barnes and Noble to the second hand sellers from Half Price Books to indie booksellers selling everything from recent backlist books to antiquarian books–in some cases, those treasures one finds when cleaning out grandma’s house.

I’m grateful for librarians who serve the public and, in educational settings, students and researchers. They do so much more than curate and check in books, sometimes even saving people from drug overdoses.

I’m grateful for teachers who cultivated my love of reading. I have several friends teaching young readers. I’m so grateful for you!

I’m always grateful for those book publicists who handle my review requests along with so many others, and often are key promoters of books. I’ve had the privilege of working with several who do this work with excellence, making my life as a reviewer so much easier.

I’m grateful for all the people who deliver books to my mailbox or doorstep. We like to complain about these people, but I’m grateful for all they do and can think of only rare instances when I’ve had delivery issues.

I’m grateful for the First Amendment that protects authors, publishers, and even reviewers like me. Our speech, press, and religious freedoms are remarkable when you consider global history. It is also something I don’t take for granted. It is always tempting to shut down ideas we don’t like. It can happen here.

Finally, I’m so grateful for books, this wonderful cultural invention. And I am profoundly grateful for the “village” that makes possible that stack by my bedside. Aren’t we all?

Happy Thanksgiving, my bookish friends!

Hibernating With Books

This gentleman is not exactly hibernating. Perhaps he is waiting for a ride. For most of us the coming of winter means moving our reading indoors. In many ways it is welcome to me. It means a break from yard and garden chores for a few months and longer evenings to read.

So, how might one think of hibernating with books?

I’m a bit like the squirrels I watch in my yard, gathering acorns from my oak. The last weeks have been a time of “squirreling away” my reads. As a reviewer, that’s meant perusing various publishers for new and upcoming releases to review and requesting them.

I also keep an eye out for current books I’m interested in. I have Celeste Ng’s (an Ohio-born author) new book on my TBR pile and am looking forward to the release of Louise Penny’s newest Gamache later this month.

Long evenings, particularly in our dead of winter in January, are always a good time to lose oneself in a long book. I have a new novel, The Deluge, (actually coming out in early 2023) by Stephen Markley, another Ohio author. I also have a biography of Jonathan Edwards, a theological hero, by George Marsden, that I can’t wait to sink my teeth into.

Of course, libraries are a great source of winter reads. It’s a good place to learn about newly published books and get recommendations. If hauling home a stack of books isn’t your thing, e-book borrowing is simple and free. Find out what app, like Overdrive, they use and load up your e-reader.

Used book sales are another way to squirrel away books. Many libraries do this as a fundraiser. I have friends who make great finds at Goodwill.

Have you run out of shelf space? Winter can be a good time to cull out the books you won’t read again, or even for the first time. You can donate or sell them. I half joke that my local Half Price store is my ATM. Truth is, I haven’t been to an ATM since before the pandemic.

Maybe it’s time for more shelves. Winter’s good for that, whether you buy or build them yourself. Then there is the fun of arranging them. And even if you don’t add shelves, if you are like me you could stand to tidy them. You might even try to catalog your books. Apps like LibraryThing make it easy and even have barcode scanners.

“Hibernating” doesn’t mean being antisocial. Bundle up and go to a reading, join a book group, or even just invite a group over to talk about favorite books. A grad group I was connected with did a books and brownies night. I always came away with one or two reading ideas.

But there is also that simple delight of a comfortable chair, a good light, a warm beverage, and that book you’ve been waiting to read, with a few others nearby. Sometimes simple pleasures are the best. Happy hibernating with books!

Explaining Colleen Hoover and What It All Means

“Colleen Hoover” by Chad Griffith licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

My wife and I were talking at dinner and she mentioned this writer who grew up in a small Texas town, working as a social worker at $9 an hour who is setting the publishing world on fire. I guessed that it might be Colleen Hoover and looked up the article on NPR and discovered I was right. The numbers are astonishing. Her latest, It Starts With Us, sold over 800,000 copies on the day it was released. She has sold more copies of her books this year than the Bible. Six out of ten paperback bestsellers are hers. She’s sold more books than blockbuster authors James Patterson and John Grisham combined.

While pegged as a romance author, she has written psychological thrillers, a ghost story, and books centered on domestic violence, drug abuse, and poverty. Part of her appeal seems to be the ability to evoke strong emotions in her readers, most of whom are younger, ethnically diverse women from 15 to 24. Readers attest to finding her works both riveting and fun, the kind you read in a day or two. What is clear is that Hoover seems to have figured out what this demographic wants. It may not be great literature but Hoover seems to have the capability to write what her audience wants to read.

Perhaps the most interesting part of her success is the role her fans on BookTok have played in talking about their reaction to her work and promoting her books. Her fandom (#CoHo) exploded on social media during the pandemic. A New York Times article compared what is happening to Oprah’s Book Club, where one woman’s choice sold a couple million books. Now, a hundred #CoHo BookTok’ers sell four million of Colleen Hoover’s books.

I’m about as far from the demographic who would read a Hoover book as could be. So I have no clue about the appeal of her books beyond the fact that she is an easy and fun read. My hunch is that what makes it work is the gap between the romantic longings of her audience and the much grittier reality of romance for many, where the sex may (or may not) be hot but the people it comes with may be less than desirable and even at times dangerous. It gives voice to what many women have thought and felt and experienced, which accounts for such heartfelt reactions. At least that is what the plot synopses I’ve read would suggest–that and the longing for something more.

Except one wonders if you can never go too far into that “something more” without losing sales–there is just not the same gripping drama in the deeper growth of love through enduring hardship and learning to die to one’s cussed selfishness over a forty year marriage. I suspect we both want and don’t want that.

Beyond what these books may mean for her considerable audience, one must consider Hoover’s impact on the publishing industry in the last few years. This woman who has helped sustain the book trade during the pandemic has broken the mold by writing in different genres rather than following publisher formulas. She has created models for using social media to sell not only her books but a variety of “swag” to her fans. And she has created The Bookworm Box, which is both a book subscription service and a bookstore, proceeds from both of which are given to those in need. Part of this woman’s success is that she seems to have an incredible work ethic.

I suppose one could find much to criticize in Hoover’s writing. I won’t go there since I’ve not read her. What is evident is she is reaching a diverse group of young women and turning them into readers. One hopes that in reading as in relationships, Hoover’s readers will long for “something more” and branch out to other books, and perhaps richer fare that goes beyond the fun and the evocative. Perhaps Hoover will lead the way with her Bookworm Boxes. Perhaps.

I find myself wondering if someone could ever do something like this with male readers. Lee Child and James Patterson have done pretty well but I can’t see the viral BookTok fan club dynamic happening. It would be wonderful to see more men reading, and more men encouraging men to read. But I suspect the audience will always be smaller.

But back to Colleen Hoover. Her success and what she has done with it is impressive. My interest in different books than the ones she writes will not be a cause for me to criticize her. In fact, she does something I wish would catch on–writing for readers rather than other writers, literary critics, or scholars. Sadly, I believe many good stories and ideas have been lost to a wider audience for just this reason.

Good Riddance to Long Books?

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Good Riddance to Long Books” is the title of a recent Spectator article by news journalist John Sturgis. He celebrated the current shortlist for the Booker Prize for being short books, one coming in at just 116 pages. He observed how much delight he took in Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery, a short story of twelve pages and Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair, just 48,000 words.

I love Graham Greene’s work as well. There is an economy of writing within the richness of the plots and the themes he explores. I’ve been reading the works of Willa Cather, and I’m struck with the beauty of the writing, painting with words, the finely drawn characters, and that they are not one page longer than needed.

But I cannot say I choose works because they are short or long. Nor do most of those on my Bob on Books Facebook page in answer to the question, “To what extent is the length of a book a factor in your decision to read it?” While there was not a unanimous opinion on this, the general sense is that it wasn’t a factor, and many love losing themselves in a long book.

The general consensus was that it was all in the quality of the writing. It began with the first sentence, the first page. Did it catch your attention and draw you in? Beyond that, it seems to come down to an author’s ability to spin a story that the reader doesn’t want to end. So much of this has to do with writerly skill. There are long books that really needed to be shortened (one thinks of the “Wheel of Time” books) and ones that justify the scale on which they are written by the world created within them, the complexity of the characters, and the winding but not dragging course of the plot.

I also read a number of long books of history and biography. I am in the middle of Andrew Meier’s Morgenthau, which will probably be my longest book of the year at 1072 pages. What Meier gives us is really four interleaved biographies, four generations of Morgenthaus, the last three advisors to presidents Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, and John F. Kennedy (Robert Morgenthau also distinguished himself as a U.S. Attorney). It’s the story of a family over those four generations and how both dynasty and character shape their lives. I find it fascinating to see how Meier spins it all out, and how this family left its mark in our national story.

Barbara Tuchman, David Halberstam, David McCullough, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Robert Caro, and Ron Chernow have all written massive histories and biographies. David Halberstam even wrote massively about baseball, and I loved it! To read each is not to get lost in a mass of detail but to get caught up in life stories and historical events that cannot be fully explored in just a couple hundred pages. The recently deceased Hilary Mantel did the same thing with her historical fiction trilogy on the life of Thomas Cromwell.

There are factors that have nothing to do with the writing that influence some people. If one still loves physical books, long books weigh a lot, especially those that are hardbound. Older readers find them hard to hold. For some of us, the question is when will we read them. A busy season of life draws out the process so much. You do want to savor a long book, but like a good steak, you don’t want to let it get cold. So it only makes sense to read when you can read consistently (or if you are like some, binge read, kind of like binge watching a whole season of a video series over a weekend).

I think it comes down to the writing. That’s what makes books long or short worth the read. It’s a magical something in the words that you know when your read them. A quote attributed to Jane Austen states, “If a book is well written, I always find it too short.” If we don’t want it to end, if we finish the book and savor it determining we will buy the next thing the writer publishes, that’s a good book, long or short. If we find ourselves peaking ahead wondering when you will reach the end, its not only too long but may not have been written well. Shortening it may not have helped, other than ending the pain sooner.

So, at least for me, it is not about short books versus long. A well-written book is always just long enough to accomplish its purpose while it leaves us longing for more, whether it is 200 or 1000 pages in length. It seems a bit like art, where painters execute masterpieces on postcards, and also on the ceilings of cathedrals.

There may be a difference in the reading experience and what different kinds of books ask of their readers. Short books remind me of a tasty salad on a summer day, when a taste of something may be all we need. Long books are more like a leisurely, multi-course banquet, enjoyed over many hours with good friends. The delight of reading is that we needn’t have a monotonous diet, that there are books for every occasion. Let’s hope book critics, writers, and publishers remember that!

Bob’s Reading Hacks

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I read approximately 180 books a year and so I get asked regularly, “how do you read so much?” Here are some of the “hacks” that help me read. I don’t necessarily think it is a virtue to read a lot of books. I do it in part because I just love reading and in part because I get the opportunity to review a number of new books. Sometimes, I defend myself by pointing out that President Theodore Roosevelt read a book a day. I only read one every two days! But the things I suggest here will help you no matter how few or many books you read.

Hack #1. Unless you “read” via audiobooks, pay attention to your eyes! One of the gifts my eye doc gave me because I read a lot is reading glasses. I wear glasses all the time, with progressive lenses. The reading part is small and at the bottom. How nice it is to use the whole lens to read! Our eyes change over time and if you struggle to focus on the text, a trip to the eye doctor is well worth it!

Hack #2. Stow the phone when you really want to read. It’s just too much of a temptation and a quick check of the phone often means 15 minutes of reading time lost to scrolling. Put it in another room where you can’t hear it.

Hack #3. Read demanding material when you are most alert. For me, that’s early morning after I dress and exercise. At the end of the day, I’m just not able to absorb it.

Hack #4. If you are falling asleep when you try to read, go with it. Set an alarm, take a 20 minute power nap, and you’ll come back fresh. I find I read more in 40 minutes than during an hour when I’m struggling to stay awake.

Hack #5. Create a comfortable reading spot (or several). A comfortable, supportive chair, perhaps a side table for a beverage, and good light are essentials. Optional extras: a pet, as long as he/she doesn’t constantly vie for your attention, a comforter in cold weather.

Hack #6. Suit the book to the setting, time of day. I read fiction or lighter material later in the day. Memoirs or short essays make good bathroom reads–anything where the chapters are just a few pages so you are not tempted to take up residency. [There are two kinds of readers in the world–those who read in the bathroom and those grossed out by it and neither understand the other.]

Hack #7. If you read more than one book at a time, only take on one long book at a time. If you are in the middle of several long books at the same time, you can get to feeling bogged down.

Hack #8. Don’t try to multi-task. Don’t read and have the TV on. I do listen to music with lighter reading, but not music with vocals. Actually good books and good music each deserve our full attention.

Hack #9. Step back from time to time. I learned this when painting. Sometimes you get too close to the canvas. Likewise with books. Step back to review the plot or the arguments so you don’t miss the forest for the trees.

Hack #10. Whatever you do, read as you can and not as you can’t. Don’t worry about what others say you should read. Read what interests you and read when you can. It is said that if you can find 15 minutes a day to read, you can read 15 average size books.

Famous reader, Mortimer Adler, commented, “It’s not how many books you get through, it’s how many books get through you.” No matter how few or many books we read, the object is to read well, not fast. Hopefully, these hacks will help.

On Reading: Shoes On or Shoes Off?

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It’s not one of those things that will shape the future of reading, the next best seller, or decide the question of e-books versus paper books (a silly argument, I think). But I discovered recently that most people have a decided preference for whether they read with their shoes on or off. And for the vast majority, if the readers at the Bob on Books Facebook page are any indicator, we like to read with our shoes off, if at all possible (and some of us would live that way if we could!).

I suppose that it just makes sense. We all came without shoes in the beginning. Remember one of the favorite game of little ones? Taking off shoes. I never knew a little one whose favorite game was putting on shoes. As long as it is comfortable, we like the feeling of our feet being free! Shoes basically came into existence for protection, from both sharp objects and the cold, and in battle, enemy weaponry. Leather shoes have been found dating back to 3500 BC–most moccasin-like affairs. Then someone got the sense of shoes as not merely functional but decorative, and likely less comfortable. We wanted to get those things off as soon as we could.

So what does all this have to do with shoes and reading? And why are we even talking about it. It all came of seeing an art image of a young woman reading on a veranda, barefoot. It looked so comfortable, particularly coming, as I do, from “shoes on” people. So I asked about it, and found that I’m in the minority. For some, it is just part of a household, “shoes off” etiquette. Most of my reading friends, unless they are in a public indoor place where footwear is required, prefer reading barefoot (and I suspect even in some places, like coffee shops, they surreptitiously slip those shoes off under the table.

I suspect that this connects to the fact that reading, even for understanding, is most often a leisure activity. We try to find a comfortable chair, or even a soft patch of ground under a tree on a summer day, with a drink nearby, and perhaps a beloved pet. Many of us like to put our feet up, on a hassock or footrest, or even stretched out on a sofa. Somehow, when our feet can breathe, the rest of us follows.

The ultimate, though, is reading in bed, a favorite reading spot for many readers. One doesn’t even think of wearing shoes there. And perhaps that logic works backward to other reading locations.

Some are hybrid readers when it come to the shoes on/shoes off choice. I’m like that. Early in the morning and after the day’s work is done, I’m shoes off. At other times, I’m usually reading with shoes on. For some, it is seasonal–summer is shoes off, cooler weather is socks, and maybe lined slippers in the winter. Some people just have cold feet, usually someone to whom you are married, and they usually don socks or slippers.

What this all reminds me of is that reading is an immersive embodied experience. It isn’t simply eyes reading words off a page and trying to make sense of them in our brains. It is lighting, and comfortable seating, perhaps a chair side table for beverages, reading glasses, and maybe a dictionary or commonplace book. It has to do with the comforts of body which often convey ease to the soul as we become absorbed in a good story. It stands to reason that these comforts extend to our clothes and even the shedding of shoes. And that’s OK–take off your shoes and set a spell,” as they say.