Literary Allusions

20180712_160844791242616554040353.jpgI came across this quote while reading Bryan D. Estelle’s Echoes of Exodus, and I thought it, and some thoughts of my own, worth a post:

It is a difficult art, the art of the evocative quotation. The theory held by the romantics that all good writing was entirely “original” threw it into disrepute. It has been further discredited by the misapplication of scholarship and the decline in classical knowledge…for readers do not like to think that, in order to appreciate poetry, they themselves ought to have read as much as the poet himself. Also, they feel, with justice, that hunting down “allusions” and “imitations” destroys the life of the poetry, changing it from a living thing into an artificial tissue of copied colours and stolen patches. Still, it remains true that the reader who knows and can recognize these evocations without trouble gains a richer pleasure and a fuller understanding of the subject than the reader who cannot. (Gilbert Highet, The Classical Tradition: Greek and Roman Influences on Western Literature. New York:Oxford University Press, 1957, pp. 157-158).

Highet’s quote reminds us that writers are also readers. Consciously or not and in spite of efforts to be original, writers draw upon those who have written before them. Sometimes they directly quote, sometimes they imitate in content and/or form, sometime the consciously allude to something, and sometimes, there are echoes of what others have thought and written of which even they may not be conscious.

Mortimer Adler, of “Great Books” fame contended that these books are in a conversation with each other through the ages and we ought read them to overhear, and join that conversation. Today, literary theorists and biblical scholars alike speak of “intertextuality,” how various texts allude or draw upon others.

Highet’s other point here has to do with the reading experience.  While anyone may profit from and enjoy reading a text, say The Chronicles of Narnia, the experience is far richer for the reader who is aware of the biblical overtones and can delight in how Lewis draws this material. Our reading is richer, Highet contends, when we recognize the allusions a writer is making, what they meant in their original context as well as how the writer appropriate (or occasionally misappropriates) the material.

Allusions in various form are certainly important in reading the Bible. Prophets allude to the Pentateuch and historical books. New Testament writers allude, even quote from throughout the Old Testament as well as extra-biblical material. Forty some years ago, when I began reading the Bible, there were passages that spoke deeply to me. Today, understanding more of the allusions to earlier material, my understanding is even richer.

Highet does raise an issue that may be daunting to the budding reader. We often find that we haven’t read as much as the writer. Here are some things that have worked for me:

  1. Read as you can, not as you can’t. Enjoy what you can–the use of language, the thoughts and feelings they evoke, the characters, the ideas, the basic plot.
  2. Annotated editions and commentaries can draw your attention to allusions you’ve missed. I suggest reading first on your own, then with the notes.
  3. Read great and challenging works with others. I never really got C. S. Lewis Till We Have Faces until I read it with a group with some who explained the Greek mythology and how Lewis reinterpreted it,
  4. Identify and read “foundational” works often referred to by others–Greek mythology and philosophy, the Bible, Augustine, Shakespeare, and others. Every field has these from philosophy to science fiction.
  5. Come back to important books that often allude to others. Each time, your reading experience will be richer.

All of us are beginners at some point. We have a lifetime to grow in making these literary connections. Some of us got a head start with our education. Many of us didn’t, or weren’t paying attention. Truthfully, some things just don’t register until we have a little life under our belts. It also reminds us to mix old works in with new throughout our reading lives, so we can overhear that conversation across the generations, and begin to get a clue as to what they are talking about.

Books For Independence Day

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Benjamin Franklin from a painting by David Martin (1835)

“A nation of well informed men who have been taught to know and prize the rights which God has given them cannot be enslaved. It is in the region of ignorance that tyranny begins.” Benjamin Franklin

Today is Independence Day in the United States, the birthday of our country. What was born on that day was not only a nation but an idea eloquently expressed in the Declaration of Independence in these opening words:

We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness—That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed, that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these Ends it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its Foundation on such Principles, and organizing its Powers in such Form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

In these words are an assertion of the equality and human rights inherent in being a human being created by God. Government does not confer these but rather exist to secure these pre-existing rights, and properly derives its power to govern from these rights-bearers. Finally, there is the opening of an argument for the revolt the Founders led.

Along with a military revolution was an intellectual revolution led by some of the most brilliant political thinkers of the day. Franklin was wise enough to recognize that a thoughtful and well-informed citizenry was crucial in every generation if what was gained and established in our nation’s birth not be lost to anarchy or tyranny.

Might it not be appropriate amid our celebrations to resolve to enhance our understanding of the history, ideas, and challenges that have shaped the American experiment? One could conceive many lists to do this. One work not appearing in the list below that may be essential as any would be The Debates on the ConstitutionThis is not a single work but a series of letters and articles capturing the arguments about the shape our constitution would take.

Here are ten others, most of which have been reviewed at Bob on Books:

  1. The Glorious CauseRobert Middlekauf. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007. Perhaps the definitive account of the Revolutionary War, part of the Oxford History of the United States.
  2. John AdamsDavid McCullough. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2002. There are many full-length biographies of the founders. Adams is lesser known than some, but worthy of attention for his intellect, his courage, his efforts on both sides of the Atlantic for American freedom, and the incredible correspondence between him and his equally brilliant Abigail.
  3. The Return of George WashingtonEdward J. Larson. New York: Morrow, 2014. This narrative not only offers one more reason why Washington was the indispensable man, but also shows the difficulties of governance under the Articles of Confederation that led to the U.S. Constitution, and recounts the debates that gave us that Constitution. Review
  4. Lincoln and Douglas: The Debates the Defined AmericaAllen C. Guelzo. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2009. These debates in 1858 when these two were running for Senate (Lincoln lost) define the discussion around slavery. Guelzo helps us understand the extraordinary phenomenon of these hours long open air debates, the substance of each debate, and their significance in the lead up to the Civil War.
  5. America’s Original SinJim Wallis. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2016. The thesis of this book is: “The United States of America was established as a white society, founded upon the near genocide of another race and then the enslavement of yet another.” The author raises the question of whether we will face that history, understand the deeply engrained character of racism in our society, and begin a walk toward freedom from racism’s burden. Review
  6. The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, Isabel Wilkerson. New York: Vintage, 2011. The story of the black migration to the north and west following the failure of Reconstruction, and how it changed the lives of families who made that migration and the cities to which they moved. Review
  7. The American Spirit: Who We Are and What We Stand ForDavid McCullough. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2017. A wonderful collection of addresses by the author, mostly at college commencements, articulating some of the defining and distinctive qualities that define America at its best. Review
  8. The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels, Jon Meacham. New York: Random House, 2018. Just recently published, it narrates the battle between the politics of fear and the politics of hope for our national soul. Meacham gives examples of leaders of both parties who led with hope, even when challenged by a politics of fear. Review
  9. The Global Public SquareOs Guiness. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2013. Guinness argues for the critical importance of the human right of the freedom of conscience that undergirds our freedom of speech. Most societies through most of history have ruled by power and violence. The first amendment protections of our country are exceptional and worth not only protecting but extending to other countries, reflecting the equality of all human beings. Review
  10. Confident PluralismJohn D. Inazu. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016.  Recognizing the deep fissures in American society and the necessity of maintaining some kind of civil union in the face of the scary alternatives, this book explores the constitutional commitments and civic practices that make that possible. Review

There are hundreds of others, of course, that might be included. I suggest these because they help us understand ourselves at our best and less than our best. They help us understand the ideals that have shaped us, and the compromises we have made with those ideals. They explore what hope there may be for an America that is plural in character–a people of many nations and beliefs–yet dedicated to the idea of e pluribus unum–out of the many, one.

So, amid the fireworks and picnics and family gatherings, I hope you will find a moment to reflect on the ideas as a nation that make us what we are, and perhaps to grow in your understanding of our rights, leaving no room for the ignorance that is the seedbed of tyranny. Perhaps a book from this list might help!

Can You Make A Living at Book Reviewing?

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Thad Zajdowicz, “Book Review,” Public Domain via Flickr

It seems that this is a question being asked even among the elite reviewers of the National Book Critics Circle. Julia M. Kline spoke on a panel at Book Expo America about the challenges of getting paid to review books. A transcript of her remarks appears on Critical Mass, the NBCC’s blog.

The issue is both the shrinking space and the financial challenges both print and digital media are facing. Kline observes that the $1 a word rate paid Teddy Roosevelt seems extravagant today when freelancers might receive $.25-.50. Many review publications want reviews of 500 words or less. That is $125 to $250 for the time spent reading, writing, revising and submitting a review. She observed that the top rate paid by The Washington Post is $375. I’m fairly productive and might write 170 reviews a year. If all of them were accepted, I could earn $63,750. That’s in line with a median annual salary of $60,250 for all writers and authors in 2015 according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Staff writers, the relatively few that are left, might do that well.

I suspect most freelancers are doing something else for their day jobs. Reports are that Kirkus pays its reviewers $50 per completed review, Publisher’s Weekly $25. I suppose if you are going to review anyway and are willing to conform to their formats, it’s a nice way to pick up a little extra spending money. If you are interested, here is one of a number of websites listing places that will pay for reviews. But making a living, including covering your own health care. Not so much…

But why do we need this, you ask? If you go on Amazon, you can read reviews of anything. Likewise on Goodreads. Some of those reviews might even be good. I hope some of mine are. There are lots of book bloggers out there like me doing it for the fun of it, and for some free books, which is the only pay many of us get. You might even argue that this is the democratizing of reviewing, rather than a small group of elite reviewers determining our book reading tastes.

What distinguishes the great book critics, it seems to me, is not only that they write well and perceptively, but also, that in whatever genre they review, they’ve read the significant works in the genre, and can assess books against the best of the best, and situate them on the literary landscape. It can be a fascinating exercise to review a book yourself, and then compare your review to one of these critics–fascinating and humbling. I review on the side, and have limited time and sometimes wonder what it would be like to have the luxury of being able to focus on that work.

I’ve been writing this week about book review aggregator sites. For them to work, and connect their users with quality, someone has to write these reviews. To truly be useful, there needs to be a level of quality to them. Otherwise it is garbage in-garbage out. These sites are only as good as the reviews they are aggregating.

What is clear to me is that we get the book and literary culture we are willing to pay for, and increasingly, it seems we would rather pay for less. We would rather not subscribe to a literary review when we can get some kind of review for free. We’d rather not pay the extra costs of overhead for the ambiance of a brick and mortar bookstore so that we can save a few bucks on books delivered to our doors. I kind of wonder if in our search for cheap, easy, and quick, we will wake up some day and wonder where all the richness of life has gone, including the delight of reading a book critic at the top of his or her game.

 

A Book Review Aggregator for Religious Books?

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Alltop.com screenshot, by Alves Family (CC BY 2.0) via Flickr

Yesterday, I wrote about Book Marks, which is a book review aggregator website, an offshoot of content aggregator, Lit Hub. That got me to thinking. Religious publishing, and particularly Christian book publishing, is the second biggest category of books, after fiction, accounting in recent years for 16 percent of book sales. Yet the Religion category on Book Marks currently features just six books. I wondered whether a book review aggregator dedicated to this market segment focused on collecting quality reviews of new religious publications by categories could be a useful resource for authors, publishers, reviewers, booksellers, and end users in this segment of the book publishing world, for all the same reasons Book Marks is an asset to the wider publishing world.

It strikes me that one of the basic questions that needs to be answered for a project like this is, can a viable business model be established for a religious book reviews aggregator site? This article on Quora suggests costs and revenue sources for such a site and what it takes to create one.

Some questions that occur to me as I think further about this:

  • Audience: Is there an audience for such a site? How do people looking for religious books find out about new publications? Would a review aggregator become a popular “go to” in searching for religious reading? Would you focus on a particular religion or go for a multi-faith audience?
  • Categories: At least in Christian publishing, Christian fiction is most popular. What categories beyond this would be featured on an aggregator site. Would more academic titles be listed as well as more popular?
  • Review sources: Book Marks works with syndicated reviews from professional reviewers. Some books on a religious site would receive reviews from these reviewers but for many newly published books, other reviewers would need to be found. What publications would be used, and what standards would be used for acceptable reviews.
  • Curation: People would need to identify books from a number of publishers, coming from a variety of perspectives, and then find quality reviews of these publications. Breadth of knowledge and a significant work ethic would be crucial.
  • Marketing: This includes how you drive traffic to the site as well as developing revenue streams. How would you work with authors, publishers, booksellers, and end users. Are there ways to work with religious bodies, and not just serve individual users?
  • Promotion of a reading culture: It would seem like an important long term aim is the cultivation of a reading, literate, religious culture. This is plainly valued more by some than others. It is fascinating to me that reading often seems more highly prized among executives like Bill Gates or Warren Buffett, and some of our presidents, like Teddy Roosevelt, Barack Obama, and even George W. Bush, than in religious circles. Could a site, well-constructed and well-utilized, help with this?

The demise of Books and Culture magazine was a great loss, yet it occurs to me that there are a number, both of print publications, and respected online reviewers, whose content could be aggregated to provide a far broader and richer resource. If a similar model was used of helping people connect with brick and mortar booksellers that Book Marks uses, it could aid religious book sellers who are in the fight of their lives to stay viable. It could help those who curate religious libraries, booktables or even religious facility-based stores.

In researching this, I discovered that perhaps the most popular of the review aggregator sites is Rotten Tomatoesa movie review and rating site. Homework for anyone thinking of launching a review aggregator site probably should include spending time on sites like this and learning what they do well and why they are popular. One thing both this site and Book Marks have going is that they are fun places to explore. Also, Rotten Tomatoes is owned by Fandango, an online movie ticket company that integrates ticket sales into the Rotten Tomatoes site.

I have a day job, so this is not something I’d take on, but I do wonder if it ought to get on someone’s radar, if we think religious reading is a way to deepen our spiritual lives. It seems to me that religious teachers need connections to good scholarly resources with the latest scholarship.

I’d be curious what others think. Would you use such a site? Would you buy through such a site? Would you tell others about it? Who do you think are stakeholders who might invest in such an effort?

 

 

 

Lit Hub’s “Book Marks”

Book Marks The book review aggregator

Publishers’ Weekly recently featured a new initiative by Lit Hub called Book Marks which is an aggregator of book reviews across the web, primarily from syndicated publications like The New York Times and The Washington Post, and various review publications across the web.

I had a chance to visit yesterday and thought it was a pretty cool place, particularly to find reviews and ratings of new books. Here are some of the features you will find, from top to bottom.

On the right side of the black bar with Lit Hub on the left is a search box where you may enter the title of a book you want to see reviews for. Only books with three or more syndicated reviews will appear.

A site map across the top of the page takes you to the following pages:

  • Features: Review articles and other book related articles including content from Lit Hub.
  • New books: Recently published books with three or more reviews.
  • Biggest new books: The “hottest” books of the season. I presume this is by sales, because ratings on the books vary (more below)
  • Fiction: Reviews on recent fiction publications
  • Non-fiction: Reviews on recent non-fiction
  • All categories: Books listed by thirty-one categories. For each, four titles are listed by cover image with a “see more” link to the right.

Clicking on “Book Marks” will take you back to the home page. So much for navigation around the site.

On the home page, across the top most part of the page are cover images of the “biggest new books.” When you mouse over the cover image, you will see a summary of reviews ranked from “rave” to “positive” to “mixed” to “pan” and an overall average of these. Currently, for example, David Sedaris’s new book, Calypso has received more than 10 rave reviews, 5 positive, and none in the other two categories for an overall rating of “rave.” Meg Wollitzer’s The Female Persuasion has more than 10 rave reviews, 9 positive, 7 mixed and 3 pan for an overall “positive.” On the other hand, Bill Clinton and James Patterson’s The President is Missing received 3 raves, 5 positives, 6 mixed, and 4 pans for a “mixed” overall rating. Obviously reviewers don’t agree and you probably won’t either.

Clicking on the book cover image will take you to a page for the book with excerpts of several reviews, links to the full reviews and a link that will take you to all reviews for the book.Each page includes a “Buy From a Local Bookstore” box that will take you to Indie Bound and allow you to buy your book from a local bookstore. Take that, Amazon! The bottom of the page features similar books. Each page also includes a reviews “widget” for that page that may be embedded on a website of an author or publisher or bookseller. It is a great way to see the critical conversation going on about a book.

Below the Biggest New Books are Book Marks Features, then Latest Releases, Best Reviewed (not explained but it suggests that some of the best written reviews may be found here), a Daily Giveaway, More Fiction, More Non-fiction, LGBTQ Stories (I wonder if this selection changes), links to the various fiction and non-fiction categories on Book Marks, and links to the latest stories on Lit Hub. [Lit Hub also cross links their content with Book Marks.]

The three features which make this an extremely valuable site are the aggregated professional reviews (with names on them), the widgets, which help publishers and bookstores promote a book on their websites, and the function that allows you to find a local indie bookseller from whom to purchase books.

What could make this more valuable? I’d love to see them put together a phone app you could use when you are browsing in a book store. Scan the bar code for the book and the app pulls up the book page on Book Marks and allows you to see the ratings and read the reviews and decide if this book is for you. The one down side is that there are many books not yet loaded on the site since this is a new project, but particularly for new books on a variety of topics, and a selection of others, this is a great resource that promises to get better with time.

 

 

Reading or Listening?

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Photo by Photorama -CC0 via Pixabay

A while back, when I asked some friends on Facebook about why men read less, on average, than women, one responded, “I just enjoy listening to books more than reading them these days.” I started to explore and found that this is true for many people. I had been living in a kind of bubble, thinking books were things that you read.

Audiobooks have been around for a long time. At one times, they were on cassette tapes. Later they were burned onto CDs. My first exposure to audiobooks was on a trip between Madison, Wisconsin and Columbus, Ohio listening with my driving friend to a James Patterson thriller, feeding another CD into the player every hour or so. Only problem was that we got home before we got to the end of the book.

This trend has accelerated in the era of podcasts and digital downloads. Sales revenues of audiobooks have doubled between 2009 and 2015, and the number of titles published increased from 4,600 to 35,500 during the same period (Source: Statista). By 2017 the latter total reached 79,000 titles (Source: Good E-Reader). Library Journal reports that 86 percent of libraries reported increases in audiobook circulation in 2016. Audible (Amazon’s audiobook company) has reported membership growth of 40% a year for its $14.95 per month subscription service.

What’s behind all this growth? A Quartz article proposes that it is a relentless drive to greater productivity. Audiobooks and podcasts allow us to fill the downtime, or even the time spent doing something else that doesn’t demand all of our attention–driving, exercising, or commuting on public transportation. While sometimes we may just listen to a book, in most cases we are listening while we are doing something else–multitasking. Some tasks, like riding public transportation don’t take a great deal of attention as long as we notice when its time to disembark and this might be one of the best ways to use the time, particularly if all of the other riders are in their own media bubbles.

The question could be asked of the impact on our lives of this relentless drive to be doing something “productive” and the effects of multitasking, which research has shown makes us less effective in whatever tasks we are engaging. I know that I cannot listen to much more than the news while driving, and if I try to listen to an interview or lecture while engaged in a task like writing, I can remember almost nothing of what I was listening to. Research suggests it isn’t just me, but if you think you can pull this off, I won’t argue.

I’m also intrigued by the kinds of books that are most popular in terms of audiobook sales. As you might expect, fiction and literature, followed by mystery, thriller and suspense, science fiction and fantasy, and romance top the list of sales. Business books, children’s books, and biography and memoir are much further down. I can particularly understand why children’s books aren’t as popular in this format. The artwork is as important as the words, something that cannot be reproduced in audio format. Serious forms of non-fiction (a good part of my reading) don’t make the list, and from what I’ve observed, few of these titles are even published in audiobook format. That makes total sense to me, because close reading, reviewing arguments, and footnotes are a part of such texts. (Source: Statista).

It is probably not fair for me to make comments about using audiobooks to read. I don’t do it, but I can see for the genres that are most popular, listening can make as much sense as reading. I did enjoy listening to a James Patterson audiobook with others in the car over 500 miles of basically the same scenery.

I do wonder about the feeling that we have to fill every second with some form of input. Are we so afraid to be left alone with our own thoughts? I wonder if we go through life thinking that many of the things we do aren’t worth our full attention, including our books. We think they are insufficiently productive unless accompanied by some other activity (which we also are judging insufficiently productive in and of itself).

The ubiquity of our digital devices tempts us to this. I couldn’t even sit through the intermission of Phantom when it was in town without pulling out my phone, answering a few emails, approving an expense report, and checking Twitter. And here I was sitting in this gorgeous old theater having just enjoyed some glorious music performed magnificently. I wonder if I were to get into audiobooks whether this will tempt me even further to surrender life in the real world to a digital one.

Mostly, I find myself wondering about this phenomenon and whether this represents a temporary fad (e-books spiked and then faded) or whether this is something different. I suspect like many things, it is double-edged, with upsides and downsides. As you can tell, I really have little experience with this stuff. I’d love to know what others think who listen to their books.

The Great American Read

The Great American Read

Image from https://www.facebook.com/GreatAmericanReadPBS/

Have you heard about The Great American Read? On May 22, PBS will premiere an eight part series exploring the power of reading, hosted by Meredith Viera. The program explore this through the lens of 100 works of fiction selected through a poll of the favorite works of 7200 people and narrowed the list to 100 books. The series will consider how and why the authors of these books created their fictional worlds, how these books affect us, and what they say about the diverse mosaic that makes up America.

The first episode will run two hours and introduce the 100 books. The next five episodes will look at concepts common to this list. Then the final episode will announce America’s favorite book. And how do they discover that? Beginning May 22, we all can vote either online or on social media. Voting will continue all summer with the results announced in October 2018.

A few caveats on the books. Only works of fiction are included in this list. They must be in English. Series are allowed but only count as one book. Only one book per author is included on the list. The list ranges from classic works to contemporary novels, and covers various genres of fiction from mystery to thriller to young adult to science fiction.

So, what books are on the list? By going to “Read the 100 List” you can see cover images of the book and can click on a link giving a short summary of the book and a brief profile of the author. My only wish is that they had a downloadable list of the books. Obviously, some of the items on this list have not yet stood the test of time such as The Martian or Ready Player One. Young adult fiction like The Outlanders and The Hunger Games make the list.  I was surprised to see Christian thrillers by Frank Peretti, Dave Hunt, and Tim Lahaye, and Paul Young’s The Shack. I was pleased to see literature from an ethnically diverse selection of authors: Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Another Country James Baldwin, Beloved by Toni Morrison, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz, and others. Marilynne Robinson, C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien make the list, but Flannery O’Connor and G. K. Chesterton are missing. I’m also surprised at the absence of William Faulkner, Graham Greene, Chaim Potok, Saul Bellow, and John Le Carre.  There are others on the list I easily could replace with them. The list is called America’s “most loved” books–not the greatest works of fiction in English.

You can take a quiz as to how many of the 100 you have read. I’ve read 35 of the works on this list. There are some I will take a pass on, like The DaVinci Code or Fifty Shades of Grey (yes, this is on the list), but I also got a few new ideas like The Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan. I seriously hope I can read Don Quixote and The Count of Monte Cristo one of these days.

There are many different lists of great books, and I don’t agree fully with any of them. But one of the delightful aspects of this series is that it gets us talking as a country about books we care about, which might be a better conversation that much of what passes for public discourse. Having a vote for the most loved book is kind of like American Idol for book nerds. You can geek out on social media, following them on Facebook and Instagram and tweet about them at  #GreatReadPBS. The only thing I’d suggest is make sure you find a few on the list that interest you, and take some time to talk with others about what you like about them. Wouldn’t it be great if The Great American Read could become the Great American Conversation?

Why Do Men Read Less…on Average?

I recently came across the contention that men read fewer books a year than women. The statistics vary but the most current I could find indicated that on average, women read 14 books a year and men 9.

Clearly, I’m an anomaly, having read over 100 books a year each year of the current decade–but then I’ve always known I’m a bit of an anomaly! I read more than my wife, so our household is an exception to the norm.

Since I am an anomaly and not a good judge of these things, I thought I would go to that fount of all wisdom, Facebook, and ask my friends about this. Their responses seem in line with what has been written about this.

One friend wrote:

“While I can’t speak for all guys, I can remember growing up and it being seen by many as “nerdy” to read, and thus something to not do. This view was mostly held/expressed in elementary school, but I think that if someone absorbs this viewpoint at a young age, then it will likely be hard to change later in life.”

Another wrote:

“Could it be because it’s hard to read a book while you’re throwing or catching or hitting a ball?”

I resonate with this. Probably one of the reasons I read is that I wasn’t athletic in elementary school, usually the last to be chosen for teams. Since I already was teased for my lack of athleticism, I thought, why not read? But I can see how it would be harder for others who actually had athletic skills!

Another person responded,

“Women tend to have more verbal/language skills than males typically, it may be an off shoot of that trend”

This may relate to some other comments:

I just asked my husband, and his immediate response was “shorter attention span.” I think technology is to blame. He spends more time staring at screens, and he jumps around on them so much that it’s become a habit.”

“True for my wife and I. She reads many more books, I read a lot more news/blogs. Short attention span?”

“I’m post literate. Seriously though, I just enjoy listening to books more than reading them these days.”

Some have proposed that there may be biological differences between men’s and women’s brains but these comments also raise the question of technology. Do men and women interact differently with technology? Does listening to books count as “reading” and do these make it into these statistics? Or do men and women read different kinds of things? Statistically, the answer is “yes” with women reading far more fiction than men while men prefer non-fiction. This is particularly true in the category of romance fiction where women outnumber men 84 to 16 percent. Two of my respondents said,

Not positive but I suspect men read more newspapers. Women I know read fiction while men do not.”

I go to used bookstores, and I’m always amazed by the number of romance books they have. They really outnumber most other genres.”

This makes me wonder if some of the difference is the kinds of books read. We will tend to read fewer books that take time to read (densely written academic books for example, or history books with longer page counts that tend to have a male audience) than page turners, steamy or otherwise. One person (a woman) noted:

I read a lot less than the average person but largely academic books. The same is with my husband. Maybe that’s why we read a lot less. Some of the “average” women I do know also read mostly smut books…. which I refuse to partake.”

Another commented:

I’d be interested in a more complex breakdown of these numbers. I know some folk who put up huge Goodreads books numbers, but all they read are 200-pg pop fiction. With mass numbers and the common person, what kinds of books are the average women reading, etc?

“That information would tell us if we’re talking about “the average reader” (male and female) or “serious readers” or “academic readers”; my suspicion is that the gender differences will vary significantly between those three (or more) groups.”

I was thankful to find a few men who are as anomalous as I am. One wrote:

“I buy and read two or three times as many books as my wife, and she reads a lot.”

“We already know everything! 😂. Seriously, I read a LOT of books, so I don’t know why others don’t.” (Emoticons in actual comment.)

My very anecdotal and unscientific survey does suggest to me that there is much more to look at than the raw statistic of average books read for men and women. The questions of what kind of reading each do, including media other than books, what kind of books they read, and even what kind of readers we are all factor into this discussion. One article I looked at noted these types of readers:

  • Page Turners: avid readers (48% of women, 26 % of men)
  • Slow Worms: slow, serious readers who finish their books (18 % of women, 32 % of men).
  • Serial Shelvers: those who have shelves of books they haven’t (and probably won’t) read (17 % of women, 20 % of men)
  • Double Bookers: have at least two books going at a time (12 % of both women and men).

I found that a bit puzzling because I fall into three of the four above categories. What all this suggests though is that there is far more to be understood about our reading habits that these blunt-edged statistics don’t capture.

What are your thoughts about the differences between men and women when it comes to reading?

Do You Read Introductions?

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Beginning of the Introduction (p. 7) to the Norman Denny translation (published by Penguin) of Victor Hugo’s  Les Miserables.

Do you read the introductions and prefaces to books? And when do you read them if you do? I’m in a book group where this came up. We are reading Boccaccio’s Decameron. The edition we are using is a modern translation with a long introduction by the translator. Some of us ignored it. Some of us found profitable background. And some of us felt like it would make more sense after we had read the book, or even while we are reading the book.

I’m in the “read it, and read it first” camp, which may reflect a weird, OCD part of me. I’m always afraid I’ll miss something important that will better help me understand a book if I don’t. But I sympathize with those who read the introductions afterward, because sometimes, when it is someone else commenting on a book, the commentary doesn’t really make sense until I’ve read the book.

This is less of a problem when an author comments on their own work, particularly works of non-fiction. Often, they give helpful statements of why they wrote the book, what they are trying to get across (their argument), and how the book is organized. It fleshes out the table of contents and helps me not get lost in the forest of chapters and miss the big idea. Many writers of non-fiction write the Introduction last, perhaps because you don’t always know where a book is going to go until you’ve written it. Or it is a way of trying to bring a semblance of coherence to what they have written.

That’s one reason, when I go back to a book to review it, why I re-read or at least skim the introduction. I want to ask the question, “did they do what they said they were going to do and how well did they do it?” I also look at whether there were parts of the book that weren’t essential to the point that was being made and how well the book hangs together.

When it comes to fiction, most of the time I’m grateful when there is no introduction and we can just get into the story. Usually, an introduction feels like an admission of a writer’s lack of skill in getting his or her message across in the text itself. Most of the introductions to fiction are in classical works. The ones I appreciate the most give me the important contours of the life and times of the author and the setting of the work. I don’t find it as helpful when the introduction goes into literary criticism of the work. I would rather think for myself about it. Those who write these introductions should leave this kind of material to academic journals.

Good introductions are short. The one to my edition of Les Miserables is only seven pages for a 1232 page work. I can see why people embarking on reading a long work don’t want to wade through fifty pages before they even begin reading the actual work. What I do find helpful are footnotes or annotations that unobtrusively anticipate the details of place or culture about which many of us are unaware. To put most of this in the introduction means it will likely be forgotten when I get to page 800.

Those are my thoughts, for what it’s worth. Do you read introductions?

Princeton Theological Seminary Religious Texts on Internet Archive

Holsinger s history of the Tunkers and the Bret

One summer, years ago, I got my first exposure to the work of digitizing archives when my son, something of a computer geek, spent a summer during high school digitizing old documents and photographs, learning how to handle and document this work. He wore gloves to protect old paper as he scanned documents. His work along with that of countless other volunteers is still online at Worthington Memory.

Digital archives are a profound boon of the internet era. I’ve accessed out of print books, census, geneology, and death records, old newspaper articles, plat and survey maps in the course of blogging. One of the biggest sources of digital archives is the Internet Archive. A recent article on Open Culture reports that Princeton Theological Seminary has digitized over 70,000 religious texts from all the great world religions. You can look at a first edition of J. G. Frazer’s The Golden Bough, a King James Bible from 1606 or an edition of Osiris and the Egyptian Resurrection by E. A. Wallis Budge from 1912 (if I am reading the Roman numerals correctly).

When I visited the Princeton Theological Seminary archive, I was delighted to scroll down and find a history of our own small denomination, Holsinger’s History of the Tunkers and the Brethren ChurchIt is an amazing and eclectic collection with everything from Kathryn Kuhlman’s Victory in Jesus to an early edition of the MahabharataOne can find histories of particular congregations, mission society histories, hymnals, language studies, William Paley’s Natural Theologytheological monographs, and much more. These are not electronic texts but digital editions of works in the Princeton Seminary Library, with library stamps, signatures, damage and aging to the paper.

There is a search box, and you can filter by collections or individual texts, by year, by subject, by collection, by creator (denominations or individual authors), and by language. A few searches yielded everything from postcard images of Youngstown churches, to works of Charles and A. A. Hodge, and Benjamin Warfield.

Obviously, I had great fun just scrolling through the first few pages of texts. Some texts are simply early editions of books readily available. Some are works, like old Bible dictionaries, that have been superseded by recent scholarship. Yet I suspect there are scholars who find research-worthy studies in the comparison, or in tracking down earlier literature. Fine biblical and theological work has been done for centuries and to limit one’s study to the last ten years is limiting indeed.

This is just one archive within the Internet Archive. While browsing around I also came across the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) which advertises nearly 21 million images, texts, video and sound from across the United States. But that’s for another post!