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.

Reflections on the Reading Life

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No, I don’t read for a living. But I can’t think of a time when reading hasn’t been an integral part of my life. That idea, how reading weaves into one’s life and makes everything else richer, is something I want to reflect on for the next few minutes.

Learning to read. It began with the wonder of being able to decode words and sentences that made up stories. I ploughed through the Dick and Jane readers at school, because as my vocabulary and reading skill improved, so did the length and complexity of the stories. No longer did I need to plead, “tell me a story” (though I’ve never stopped loving good storytelling). Now I could get books from the library and read both the classic fairy tales and the ones I’d not read before.

Libraries. Book temples, really. That’s what I thought when my dad took me to the Reuben McMillan Library in Youngstown the first time. Even the children’s area had miles of shelves, and the stacks upstairs beckoned, saying, “there is plenty more where these came from–enough to last your life.” Later, as a college student, it was both a place of discovery as I did research for a class and my favorite place to study. Again, the stacks seemed to say, “when you master what is in the textbook, we have more for you.” In later years, I would stand in wonder in the atrium of Thompson Library at Ohio State where you can see floors and floors of stacks. I found amazing the vast accumulation of human knowledge as well as the awareness of how much yet we do not, and the tiny fraction that I would ever grasp. It is profoundly humbling.

Talking about books. My earliest memories was reading over lunch with my mom, and pausing at points to talk about what we were reading. Later, it was so fun to find fellow LOTR fans and lose ourselves in discussing the finer points of Middle Earth. We might read in solitude, but talking books with others is a great way to while away a few hours. I remember meeting a group of friends to try and figure out Till We Have Faces by C. S. Lewis. We saw far more together than I ever did in my own reading.

The joys of bookstores. I still remember a wonderful old bookstore outside of Toledo in a storage building with shelves and stacks of books throughout. Or the wondrous delight of discovering the Harvard Co-op and the used bookstores around Cambridge Square next to Harvard. Then there was a used bookstore between Ashland and Wooster operated by a former faculty member at Wooster. I can look over my right shoulder at the church history I picked up there for a song. He also sent the most marvelous newsletters! This brings to mind the delight of stumbling across a bookstore on a driving trip. Bookstores are one of the places where we encounter serendipity. We never know when we will find a treasure we’ve been looking for or find a new author we come to love. And when they started selling good coffee…

Family outings. We used to visit Twice Loved Books, a delightful used bookstore in a house on visits back to our hometown in Youngstown to give a break from visits to family. Or Saturday trips to our local Half Price Books, sharing our finds in the car on the way home.

The leisure of reading. There are moments when our setting, our seat, our beverage and the book at hand combine together in quiet pleasure. Sometimes it even includes dozing off on a porch by a lake, listening to the lapping of water on the shore. That’s quite OK! Sometimes it is the quiet morning in the house before anyone else is stirring, where I can almost hear the voice of the writer as I read.

Reading and faith. Every faith, even atheism, has sacred texts or foundational readings. For me as a Christianity, literacy and faith walk hand in hand. John 1:1 says, “In the beginning was the Word.” Over 40 writers under God’s inspiration wrote 66 books over a thousand year period, compiling a veritable library that I try to visit every day of my life. The reviews on this blog got started as my attempt to reflect on the books I am reading, to remember what I’ve read. I’m glad when someone else finds them helpful. Yesterday, in an interview with a church historian, he made the suggestion of reading the early church fathers and shared his own practice of reading the Philokalia. He thought their situation most like our own at the present time. Reading allows me the chance to learn from great saints and thinkers across 1500 plus years. They might help me see my time more clearly than some contemporary writers immersed in that time.

Reading as sense making. Reading helps me make sense of the world. Sometimes it does so by inviting me to look at what I thought I knew and see it from a different perspective. Reading Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass made me look at the world around me differently and recognize the wisdom of indigenous peoples. Somehow, reading offers the critical distance that our visual media does not, to calmly assess the arguments and ideas someone is advancing, which come off differently in print that on screens, big or small.

I suspect every reader is nodding their heads as they read this. Reading carries this kind of lived experience for you as well. I’m not sure how many non-readers are reading, let alone have made it to this point. If you have, I hope it gives you some sense of what it is like to walk around in the skin of a reader. All in all, it’s not a bad life!

What Do My Favorite Books Say About Me?

Some of my books…

Bookriot asked an intriguing question in one of its articles today: “What Do Your Favorite Books Say About You?” To make it more interesting, the author suggests that we look for the “threads” that run through our books and not simply individual books. Originally, I thought I might comment on the individual books but the author suggests making the list as quickly as possible and then looking for the threads. So here’s the list:

John Calvin, The Institutes

Alan Paton, Cry the Beloved Country

Louise Penny, Armand Gamache Novels

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together

Wendell Berry, Hannah Coulter

John Steinbeck, East of Eden

George Knepper, Ohio and Its People

James Michener, Kent State

Anthony Doerr, All the Light We Cannot See

J. R. R. Tolkien, The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion

A few things right off. I am drawn to place, beginning with my own. If you follow this blog, you know that I write weekly about my home town of Youngstown. I believe places shape us and growing up in Youngstown and living my life in Ohio has shaped who I am. Both can be alternately fascinating and infuriating, and I think I’ve spent my life trying to understand that. Knepper’s book is the best overall history of Ohio for me.

Wednesday was the 52nd anniversary of the Kent State shootings. It was a shattering event for me as a high school sophomore. A government killing its own citizens shattered my illusions for good. Years later, I read Michener’s book while working as a campus minister at Kent. I walked the place where the shootings occurred and was stunned at how far away the students who died were from the National Guard troops–more than a football field distant–hardly a threat. I saw places where bullets had left their mark. The only other time I felt anything like it was walking the battlefields of Gettysburg, and particularly Cemetery Ridge.

Place. Alan Paton, John Steinbeck, Anthony Doerr, Louise Penny, and even Tolkien evoke a sense of place. They also tell good stories, grand stories with large themes–the love of the land, membership in communities, the alienation of two brothers, friendship and betrayal, a lovely mythical village in eastern Canada that is the stage for mayhem both local and international, and a wonderful place, Middle earth with a fellowship of nine on an earnest quest.

I’ve increasingly come to the place of understanding that life is made sense of by understanding the story we inhabit, the adventure we are a part of. Maybe even John Calvin comes in here. I bought the Institutes when I won a small academic prize upon my seminary graduation. I’d never read more than excerpts but I spent that summer reading through the whole. I’ve never thought of my Christian faith as just an experience. Again, I wanted to understand the story of God’s ways with human beings. No one, with the exception perhaps of Karl Barth and maybe Thomas Aquinas, has thought so deeply about these things.

Then there is Life Together. I grew up, and still am, something of a loner. There is part of me that thinks I have always been longing for Rivendell–a place of feasting and conversation, story and song, quiet conversation and great councils. Certainly, I long for something of the life together Bonhoeffer describes and that I have experienced at various seasons of life, rich moments that lasted only for a time. I long for the time when there are no more good byes, no more partings, or moving ons. The feeling of a loner and the love of community is an unresolved tension I wonder if I will always live with this side of the grave.

I think Wendell Berry captures something of what we have lost in his “Port William membership.” It grieves me to see the ways people are alienated from each other. I long to see reconciliations like that in Cry the Beloved Country. It’s probably the middle child in me. Ultimately, I long as well to see people reconciled to God, to know that peace with God I found in my last years of high school and that has never parted from me.

I think I’ll stop writing for now–it really was an interesting question and one you might think about. It may just confirm what you know or may surprise you. There was a bit of both for me. When I have the chance, I love scanning the shelves of others, not only for interesting books but for what they reveal of my host. It is perhaps a good thing to turn that scan on oneself. You just might find someone very interesting on that shelf of your favorite books!

Gift Articles

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I’d like to give you a gift. It is an article I just read that I liked and think you will like. About the only way I can do that these days is to cut out the article and send it to you. But I can only do that with one person.

Why? Paywalls on digital content. These often prevent non-subscribers from reading content, or only a very small number in a month. Often, you have to register at the website, subjecting you to emails from that site. For many, it is not worth it, and that article I want to share with you may end up unread.

I was so happy when the New York Times instituted a policy for its digital subscribers of permitting them to “gift” ten articles each month. I often find good things to share that I like to post on one of the social media pages I curate. Being able to do this is and not hear back, I couldn’t open it because of the paywall makes me feel better about my subscription to the NY Times.

I curate social media accounts related to books and to higher education. For each, I tend to post 3-5 articles a day selected from different media. Sometimes I can’t access a good article because of a paywall and other times, I can access an article because I subscribe to the publication but if I share it with non-subscribers, they are subject to the paywall. Result: I limit the number of paywalled articles I share.

But I don’t like it as a subscriber and I’d like (and have written) publications to which I subscribe to adopt a policy like that of the NY Times. Here’s what I think they ought to consider:

  • It is an extra subscriber benefit that gives me one more reason to keep subscribing.
  • Subscription prices are rising rapidly. If I have to cut my subscriptions, I will retain the ones that offer me the most perceived benefit.
  • The fear, I realize, is that “gift” content will discourage subscriptions. What is not considered is that gift content will help retain subscribers. From the development world, it is far easier to retain a subscriber than to get a new one.
  • Shared content that people can actually read demonstrates the worth of the publication. For example, I subscribed to The Atlantic because of online articles I read before they instituted their paywall policy.
  • Allowing “gift” articles also expands traffic to a publication’s website–as important a metric as subscribers for advertisers. When I share an article on my Facebook page, I potentially share that article with nearly 59,000 followers, a significant “reach.” In turn, they appreciate the gift and increase their engagement–and some may subscribe.
  • Magazines often allow you to give a year “gift subscription” to expand their subscriber base. Why not use gift articles to expand subscriber base?

I suspect at worst, this idea wouldn’t cost publications anything, and may have the upsides I’ve proposed. But I suspect, this may be a quixotic quest unless there was a mass subscriber movement. The publications I’ve written just tell me what I already know, which feels condescending. None made me feel they actually valued me as a subscriber and were interested in building the relationship between us. The only time most really seem to care is when I drop a subscription. Then they’ll often offer a new one for less than half what I was paying, usually via a computer generated mailing. Maybe some day they will recognize the power of a gift and the multiplier effect it can have with subscribers.

Bob on Books 2022 Reading Challenge

Photo by Tima Miroshnichenko on

This is the time of the year when reading challenges come from Goodreads and other bookish sources–libraries, bookstores, and a variety of articles. There seem to be a lot of these focused around reading harder, faster, smarter, and setting numerical goals and tracking them. I do a Goodreads challenge, but deliberately set it below what I likely will read. Interesting, even that low number is higher than what I once read.

I like goals that focus on both growth and enjoyment. I’m interested in deepening my appreciation of good books and learning more about my world and my place within it. Challenges can be good when they lead to the ends of our growth and enjoyment. Here are some ways I want to challenge myself that may be helpful as you think of your reading in 2022.

Good Writing. I not only read a good deal, but I write, and edit the good writing of others. Most of this is instinctive for me, or reflective of whatever ingrained grammar and writing instruction I received. I want to read a book on good writing, to not only better appreciate it when I see it but to do it better myself. My book____________________.

Deep Dive. It is interesting to dig deeper on a subject that is of personal interest, and perhaps read several books on different aspects or perspectives on a topic. Just don’t become “that” person who “did their own research.” To give you perspective (and ideas for further reading), read the notes or bibliographies of the books you read to grasp how much research those who write the books do! My deep dive topic______________________.

Different genre. I will probably suggest this every year to get out of my ruts. My book of a different genre_____________________.

A Work in Translation. It could be one of those great Russian novels, or a contemporary novel written by someone whose first language is other than yours. Look for reviews of works in translation. My book_____________________.

A Children’s Book. I miss read-aloud times with my son, not only as a time of closeness, but also because I loved the stories and the writing. The best children’s books are also great reading for adults. I reviewed a couple recently that whet my appetite for more. My book_____________________.

An Old Friend. Some of the best books I’ve read become richer each time I read them. Just like our best friendships go deeper with time, so can our relationships with books. My renewal of an old book friendship will be______________________.

Food. The necessity of nourishing ourselves is pretty basic. I have to admit to being fairly clueless about the elements of good nutrition. I’ve enjoyed the artistry of others who care about good food and gathering friends to eat it. I’d like to learn more about how to do that. My food book is_____________________

Finish a series. True confessions! I’ve started a number of series that I’ve enjoyed but haven’t finished any of them! This year I want to finish at least one! The series I will finish is____________________.

An Inherited or Gifted Book. I have books that have been passed down in the family. Maybe you have friends who have given you a book. I want to read one of those this year. My book is______________________.

A Long Book. Because I review books, I tend to choose books of 200-300 pages to read, to have books I’ve finished 3-4 times a week. That’s hard to do with those long 700-1000 page or more books that may take a month or longer to finish. But some of the best books are long. I want to read one. My long book is_______________________.

A Play. From the ancient Greeks to Shakespeare to contemporary Broadway, plays have been part of our cultural life. They are not a part of my reading. This year, I want to read a play, perhaps one I will see (hopefully) performed live. The play I will read________________________.

A book I will discuss with others. One of the things that has gotten me through the pandemic is talking with some friends about a book we are reading together. It’s pretty easy if you are in a book club, but you can do this with just one other person. I always see more in a book when I discuss it with others, especially if it is a challenging book to read. The book I will discuss with others is_____________________.

There are twelve challenges here. You could do one a month, or just pick a few that really fit you. This is my reading challenge after all. But if it suggests some reading challenges that you will enjoy, go for it. I’d love to hear how it goes.