Happy Birthday Bob on Books!

One of my TBR piles

One of my TBR piles

Bob on Books is two years old! The picture above is the one that adorned my very first post. Since then, I’ve read most of those books but some never managed to work their way to the top of the TBR pile, for reasons known only to my subconcious, if that. Looking back on that first post, I had no idea where this blog was going to lead! The one thing that has been true is lots of conversation on books, reading, and life.

Bob on Books by the numbers. This is my 689th post. One or another page on the blog has been viewed just under 100,000 times (I expect to hit this milestone later this week). The growth of the readership has been slow and steady–I write for a bit of a quirky audience–booklovers, university geeks, people of faith, and surprisingly, a loyal audience of people from my home town of Youngstown. In 2013, I averaged 23 views a day on the blog. Last year, this went up to 124, and this year so far, I’ve been averaging 227. Currently 2,229 “follow” the blog in some form, but the viewership is far wider because of posting in a number of groups and re-posting on other blogs. WordPress tells me that people have visited from 150 countries, the top five outside the U.S. being Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, Brazil (!), and India. Altogether, I don’t think this is too bad for a “toddler”!

Bob on Books — the conversation. I wrote early on that my hope for this blog was that it would be “a meeting place for anyone who cares about good literature, who loves books and reading, and wants to talk about ideas that matter.” It has been that and so much more. We’ve talked about what we liked and disliked about books, about what makes for a good society and a good life, and even a good pizza! We’ve explored this activity so many of us love and take for granted, the act of reading and what makes for good reading. We’ve talked about what we do with all those books once we’ve read them, and what we do about the ones we haven’t read.

A big surprise has been the continuing conversation with the unique tribe of people who, like me, grew up in Youngstown, Ohio. What began as a few posts to answer the question of what it was like to grow up in working class Youngstown has become a rich conversation about what made this such a good place. I’ll never forget a post from last fall in which I posted a picture of a cigar box, which many of us used for pencil boxes, only to get a flood of comments from others who did the same, and who, in some cases still had them. I’ve come to understand something I’d only dimly intuited–that growing up working class was an incredibly rich experience that has shaped my life more than I knew.

Bob on Books — On reviewing. I don’t think I anticipated when I started this blog that I would become far more reflective on the art and ethics of reviewing. One of the things I’ve discovered is that authors are engaging us in a conversation, and reviewing and discussing books via social media can be a wonderful way of turning monologue into real conversation, mostly with other readers, but sometimes with the authors. We don’t always agree, but what I hope for is that they can say, “you understood what I wrote and were fair in representing the book.”

I’ve come to realize that reviewers, and not just the ones in the New York Times, play an important role in connecting authors to readers and promoting a literate society. Fundamentally, we help people answer the basic question of “why should (or shouldn’t) I read this book when there are so many others?”

Bob on Books — The Vision. Years ago, a leader I respected said, “you may be a reading Christian without growing, but you cannot be a growing Christian without reading.” In an age of busyness and visual media saturation, I hope to encourage the rediscovery of ways the reading of good works may nourish our souls, deepen our intellects, and elevate our aspirations. There is more to life than reading, but I am firmly convinced that the best books point us to that “something more” and that the richest conversations in life are about that “something more.” I look forward to more of those as long as God grants me to write!

Bob on Books is Responsive!

If you have visited this site regularly you will notice a new look! I am now using a WordPress theme that is “responsive”. This means that it “responds” to the type of device you are using rather than just working well on a computer screen. I’ve been learning that many of you view posts on your smart phone, or maybe a tablet and that it didn’t render as well on these media. This new theme does. I have also learned that Google is modifying its search algorithms to favor “responsive” pages

I’ve made a few other changes as well. Now, all my post categories appear in the menu bar at the top. Clicking on an item, say “The Month in Reviews”, will take you to all the posts written under this category. You will notice that the font size is larger and easier to read. On all pages, the follow, blogs I follow, copyright, Goodreads and other “widgets” are on the right, a cleaner look. The RSS feed, which not many use, is in the footer area. I will be playing with this over the next days as I work with it, but I hope you like it. Let me know what you think!

My Apologies!

I’ve not been a very good citizen of the blogging and social media world of late! Life has been, let’s just say, very full of late, and about all I’ve been able to do is write posts and get them up, including posting them on some Facebook and Google groups that have been kind enough to welcome me.

What I haven’t done much of is look at, like, and comment on the posts of others. I was reminded of this by a gentle note from one friend who allows me to post on a page he administers. Comments and likes promote posts on news feeds, and all of us like to know that others are looking at what we’ve written–at least I do!

So, I want to apologize to my fellow writers. I know what this takes. I’m going to try to “like” at least one post on any page where I post and find one a day on which I will comment. That sounds pretty minimal, but at least its a start.

At the same time, I want to challenge others who are posting on these same pages. When I do scroll down the pages, it seems that very few are interacting with anyone’s posts. In a number of cases, it just looks like everyone is simply promoting there own book or some other product. Some of these sites have as many as 20,000 members yet it doesn’t appear many are actually interacting. [One interesting exception is on a couple Youngstown pages I post on where people interact extensively.]

I hope this doesn’t sound like I’m getting on my high horse. I’m posting to “promote” my stuff too. I do want people to view and interact with this blog. But I wonder if the Golden Rule applies here as in many places: interact with others posts as you would have them interact with yours.

I confess I struggle with the time this takes. I’m thinking that maybe this means posting in fewer places, perhaps focusing on those where it seems people are interacting, and doing so thoughtfully with each other. Maybe it means paying more attention to the blogs I follow.

I’m curious how those of you who have been at this a while deal with this? I’m obviously still on the learning curve!

A New Enhancement to Bob on Books

Book reviews are still the core of this blog, as much fun as the other posts have been. A new category has been added to make access to all the past reviews easier. On the homepage of Bob on Books, you will now find a category link on the left hand side of the page titled “The Month in Reviews” which will take you to the archived “The Month in Review Posts” This will allow you to skim through the books reviewed since February 2014 (eventually I may index those prior to then) and follow links to any of those reviews. This will serve as kind of a “cumulative index of reviews” for the blog.

This is a minor “tweak” but I hope one those of you who have discovered the blog as a resource for good reviews will find useful.

P.S. Fun sidenote: WordPress just informed me that this is my 500th post to this blog! Cool!

Bob on Books New Year’s Resolutions

IMG_2263I took some time over the past week to do some thinking about some directions for “Bob on Books” in 2015. Looking back at a similar post from the past year, I was able to do some of the things I came up with and also saw the blog go in some totally unanticipated directions. I suspect this year will be the same, so no guarantees but here is what I’m thinking:

  • Reviews: I will continue to review what I read and what interests me. At the encouragement of my son, I will probably throw in a few more graphic novel reviews –this is obviously a big segment of publishing and one that I find more intriguing than I thought I would. I also want to try to review more new books but look for me to weave in some old stuff that I’m interested in as well!
  • Interviews: This is something I want to try this year, particularly in conjunction with reviews. Some of the authors are people I know, or might like to, and I hope in at least some cases that this personal touch might interest you in their work. I’m also thinking of throwing in a few interviews with bookstore owners (particularly independents), perhaps someone working with libraries, and maybe others connected to the world of books.
  • The Reading Life: In case you haven’t noticed, I think reading, and engaging the world of books, is one of the things that can be life enriching. I want to continue to look for new slants on reading, perhaps profiling some other famous readers, as I did Teddy Roosevelt this year. As there are new technological developments that affect reading, I will explore those as well.
  • Bookstore Reviews: As time permits, I want to do something I tried last summer which is to review bookstores I visit. I might try to extend this to some online sources as well (though not Amazon, of which I think we probably all have our own opinions!).
  • Book Lists: I will do several kinds of things this year. I love getting folks together to share their favorite books and will probably do a few posts passing these along. Each month, I will post my “The Month in Reviews” list which will have all my reviews of the past month. I will also do some “category” lists of books I’ve reviewed in different categories. And look for my own “Best of the Year” post at the end of 2015, Lord willing. I’m looking forward to finding out what books I really like as well!
  • Posts on other things besides books: Oddly enough, these have been some of the most viewed in the past year (see my Bob on Books Top Ten Posts of 2014). Some of this is plain unpredictable–sometimes I just find something I want to write on and people really like it–or not! I plan to continue regular posts on Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown into the spring, which would cover a year. After this, I may post more occasionally, depending on how many new ideas I get for this series. I also will continue posts connected with my church’s Going Deeper blog, which are every other week reflections on our pastor’s messages.  And look for some posts on themes related to higher education as I do some research on “the changing university” over the next six months, related to a presentation I will be giving this summer.
  • Blog appearance: I will continue to tweak the appearance of the blog including categories to make this more usable–feedback from those of you who follow (no spammers please!) is welcome! At some time, I might even explore a face lift!

Blogging is social. I would love to know what you think of these ideas and wouldn’t mind hearing those “I wish he would write on…” ideas. The common thread for me that holds together the different things I write is engaging with others about the good, the true, and the beautiful as we encounter this in the experience of books, reading, and life. Your engagement with this blog is what makes writing a joy. I look forward to more of that in 2015!

Where is “Miss Manners” When We Need Her?

In the last two days, I’ve observed three incidents of page administrators or blog owners who have needed to clarify what are appropriate comments or posts on their pages. It is interesting that two of them brought up the question of censorship. Apparently, this accusation was hurled at them by individuals whose posts were taken down. In one instance, the post was unrelated to the stated purpose of the blog and to the material in the particular post. This is an instance of “hi-jacking”, that is using someone’s site to promote an agenda other than the site owner’s or administrator’s. In another instance, it was because of the offensive language and personal attacks used by a person posting on the site.

The Real Miss Manners: “Judith Martin, Miami Bookfair International, 1989” by MDCarchives – Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

The truth is that this would fall under some usages of the word censorship. Broadcast media will “bleep” profanity. Magazines will simply refuse to print letters or other content submitted to them that falls outside their editorial purposes. One might argue that there is an appropriate form of censorship that says no particular media outlet must publish or broadcast whatever a person wants to say using their free speech rights.  I would argue that this extends to “new media” like blogs, Facebook pages and other interactive social media. Part of the “freedom of the press” of these outlets is to determine what they will and won’t publish. And those whose ideas are not accepted on certain blogs or pages are free to establish their own pages where they can freely express their ideas, and in turn determine what things fall outside the purpose of those pages.

Invidious censorship is different.  It is the effort of an outside body, whether a group of citizens or a government agency that seeks to prevent the publication or suppress the expression of ideas considered objectionable. The American Library Association (as quoted on this PBS site) puts it well:

What Is Censorship? Censorship is the suppression of ideas and information that certain persons — individuals, groups or government officials — find objectionable or dangerous. It is no more complicated than someone saying, “Don’t let anyone read this book, or buy that magazine, or view that film, because I object to it!” Censors try to use the power of the state to impose their view of what is truthful and appropriate, or offensive and objectionable, on everyone else. Censors pressure public institutions, like libraries, to suppress and remove from public access information they judge inappropriate or dangerous, so that no one else has the chance to read or view the material and make up their own minds about it. The censor wants to prejudge materials for everyone.

For the ALA, technically censorship means the “The Removal of material from open access by government authority.” The ALA also distinguishes various levels of incidents in respect to materials in a library which may or may not lead to censorship: Inquiry, Expression of Concern, Complaint, Attack, and Censorship.

What the page admins and blog owners I mentioned above were dealing with is simply bad manners. It is bad manners to “hi-jack” conversations to promote one’s own agenda. It is bad manners to engage in personal attacks. It is bad manners to use profanity or coarse language in mixed company, which is what the internet is. Most of the time, this behavior is simply the result of individuals known around the ‘net as “trolls”. But one of their tactics is to hurl the accusation of “censorship” as a cover for their own bad manners and inappropriate behavior. Blog owners and page administrators should have no qualms about removing content like this. Sadly, I’ve seen some groups that run amuck because absentee administrators refuse to step in.

So far, I’ve personally experienced relatively few instances of this behavior. Here are my own (still evolving) guidelines for dealing with it:

1. I won’t tolerate profanity or ad hominem attacks, either upon myself or others. Let’s disagree without demonizing or using degrading language!

2. I also won’t tolerate posting comments unrelated to a post, particularly self-promoting or commercial material, but also anything that “hi-jacks” the conversation.

3. I try not to include spoilers in my review of fiction. If you include spoilers in your comments, I will take them down. I still like you, but I don’t want to spoil the end for others.

4. When in doubt, I’ll give the benefit of the doubt and try to respond graciously. If you are a real person (and not a commercial entity or a “bot”) and have taken the time to read what I write, I appreciate that and hope we can have a thoughtful conversation.

On my “About” page, I write, “We live in an amazingly diverse mosaic of peoples and ideas which can either be the source of endless conflict or the opportunity for rich engagement with one another across our differences in pursuing together goodness, truth, and beauty in our world. My hope is that this blog will contribute to the latter.” I hope you will hold me accountable to that standard in all I write on this blog, even as I hold others to this standard in their comments.

If you blog, or administer any pages, how do you approach “off topic” or otherwise inappropriate comments?

Blogging into My Second Year

Can you believe it has been almost a year? In a few weeks, I will mark a year at blogging. It’s been an education and a revelation. The education part includes everything from blogging software like that of WordPress to writing catchy titles and attention grabbing first sentences to figuring out what I want to write about. The revelation part has been how much I enjoy putting into writing my thoughts, reflections and reviews on books I’m reading and connecting my own life narratives to the narratives of others.

I have also learned a tremendous amount in dialogue with those who read and comment on the blog. When I’ve written about growing up in Youngstown, I’ve been reminded of memories buried deep but that are part of the fabric of my past that shape my present. When we dialogue about issues or books, I’m made to examine my own take on things and go deeper still. And I kind of hope, reader, that we have done this together.

I’ve been amazed by the exploration of working class and the tremendous interest from many Youngstown friends, and the awakening sense that how growing up in working class industrial cities shaped people in particular ways. As I go forward, I want to keep blogging about these things as well as to continue to explore and share some of the books I’m reading and thoughts about literacy in what seems to be an increasingly visual age.

My faith does inform my writing yet I hope not to be “preachy”. For some, my faith might not seem explicit enough in what I write. My own sense is that Christian spirituality touches all the ordinary and extraordinary things of my life and I hope shows through not in the “preachiness” of what I write but simply that the goodness, truth, and whatever beauty I can muster point to the One who I believe epitomizes these things.

My faith also challenges even how I think about blogging. I’m on a kind of retreat right now and it has struck me that  blogging has become too big a thing in my life at times. I’ve become compulsive  about writing daily. And it is easy to become compulsive about checking one’s numbers of followers, views, comments, and likes. So I’ve reached a couple of decisions. One is that I will take a blogging “sabbath” each week. Sabbath has actually been a life-giving practice in my life and my compulsiveness to write every day has encroached on this. So I won’t be posting, or checking the blog at all on Sundays, the day I usually set aside to sabbath. And second, I’ve decided that I will check the blog twice a day for comments and views and that sort of stuff–once in the morning, once at night. More takes away from other things that matter including time with my wife.

So I definitely want to respond to comments. And I wouldn’t be a writer if I wasn’t interested in knowing whether anyone is interested in this stuff. But it’s time to define some boundaries that keep it from becoming an inordinate thing in life. I actually hope that all this helps me better serve the craft of writing well.

For my blogging friends, how have you dealt with the compulsions that are peculiar to blogging? 

Are You Seeing This?

Obviously, the only way to answer this is yes! Otherwise, you don’t know that this post exists. Why do I mention it? The basic reason is that one of the ways I seek to publicize the blog is through posting it to my Facebook page (and sometimes to other Facebook groups I am a part of). And the statistics that show up on my dashboard indicate that Facebook is one of the principle routes through which views of my blog occur.

Why is that a big deal? For one simple reason: lots of people post material and Facebook wants to post the material that it thinks its viewers want to see and that will keep them coming back for more. It’s a business thing: more views means they can charge advertisers higher rates based on greater traffic. Also, most people will only scroll so far down on a feed and so it may be the case that if you have 2,000 friends and other pages you have liked and there are 500 posts in the last 12 hours from those pages, you may see 30 to 40 of them at most. This is because Facebook employs algorithms that look at your interest in post creators, how a post is performing among others, performance of past posts by the creator, the type of post (status, meme, photos, article links), and how recent the post was made.  The blog TechCrunch gives a great overview of this process.

Facebook is honest about the fact that it does this, as you can see in News Feed FYI: A Window into NewsfeedIt makes sense in many respects to try to provide its end-users the content that their own habits and other factors suggest that they’d be interested in. Amazon does the same thing with book recommendations and other product recommendations. The critical piece is to be aware that Facebook is doing this for you and that as a result you may not be seeing some of the things you might want to see and that to do so, you may have to take additional steps to ensure you see that content.

It appears that one of the simplest things you can do within the Facebook environment is to “like” and “comment” on the stuff that you really like. But for the things that you really do want to see, you may want to subscribe to or follow them directly, without the Facebook filter. Most provide the ability to subscribe via email and there are also other direct ways to be alerted to new content you like to see. For WordPress blogs, if you have a WordPress account you can follow any other WordPress blog as well as other blogs and have new posts show up on WordPress’s reader. There are also ways to set up RSS feeds to an RSS feed reader. If you do not have a WordPress account, on all my blog pages there is a little blue button that allows you to sign up to receive email versions of new blog posts. You don’t have to read them but it does let you know there is something new on the blog.

I am not presumptuous enough to think that lots of people are waiting with baited breath for the latest “pearl of wisdom” to appear on my blog! Not everything I write about is of wide interest. Some of it may appear pretty nerdy to some. I also follow some blogs where not all the posts are of equal interests but where the blogger writes often enough about things I care about that I want to know about it when they do. So what I would suggest is that when you find sources, whether of news, or whatever else interests you that you want to follow, you may want to consider subscribing or following directly.  Do you really want to limit yourself to the content Facebook’s algorithms decide will keep you coming back for more?

Ethics For Bloggers?

A while back I did a post on Ethics for Reviewers. An incident the other day provoked me to think more broadly about ethics for bloggers. I used a photo in a post for which I did not find attribution. Unexpectedly, the post went viral to a degree I never expected and ended up on the screen of the person who took that picture. Via Facebook, I received a request to either give proper attribution or take it down. It was a great photo so I gladly did so and that was the end of the matter. But this prompted me, perhaps as a matter of penance (!) to reflect on the ethics of the wider practice of blogging. Here are some of my thoughts:

1. Give proper attribution to all sources and don’t use sources you don’t have permission to use.  It’s actually stealing and a violation of copyright. Verbatim or substantive quoting of material without proper attribution is plagiarism. Provide source information for quotes or statistics, and attribution information for media you are sure you can use. I am not a copyright lawyer but it seems that the rule of thumb is that you can use it if: you created it and have not surrendered rights to it, it is public domain, or media in Wikimedia Commons (include all attribution info). If you err, correct it immediately if the correction is demonstrable.  Better yet, if in doubt, either ask or don’t do it.  That was my mistake the other day. Attribution in web-based media can include links back to the source, which also makes your blog of greater interest because it is a portal that takes people elsewhere.

Forgive the length of this–the rest will be briefer:

2. Do not intentionally deceive! None of us knows all there is to know about the things we write about, nor even about ourselves. But the internet is an uncurated place where a lie in digital print or image will become truth for many. Of course the danger of lying about yourself is that there are people who know better! The quality of the our blogging world and its contribution to our world’s health depends on telling the truth as we have light to see it.

3. Do not attack the character of people. Bloggers are generally better at this than media pundits or Facebookers, but ad hominem  attacks on people as opposed to discussion of disagreements about ideas, policies, takes on life degrades the blogging world.

4. Don’t write to chase an audience. It’s really tempting to tailor your writing to what gets views. It’s one thing if you’ve agreed to write pieces on a certain topic for pay. Most of us aren’t there, but views can become a kind of “pay” that shapes us if not careful. Write about what you know about and care about and views will take care of themselves.

5. Become a good citizen of the blogging community. Visit and comment on other blogs. This just makes good sense to get better at your craft. But it is also a real service to other bloggers who have bared their souls, raised an important question, or written something they hope will be helpful or funny. We all write to be read by others and those of us who do this are probably the best attuned to others. Just avoid something I saw the other day, a commenter who turned their comment into a blog post. Brief, complimentary, with maybe a genuine question or insight the blog raised for you is best.

Generally I’ve found the blogging world far more thoughtful, ethical, and sensitive than the Facebook world which can be incredibly mean and snarky and seems to just reinforce the fault lines of our society. I hope we can keep it that way. We are all “tenders of the commons”.

A Break From Blogging

Over the last six months, I believe I have not missed a day posting on “Bob on Books“. During that time, it has been delightful to interact with people around the world and in the blog’s first eight months, I’ve had over 7,000 visits.  Thank you!

Due to upcoming work and other responsibilities, and perhaps to re-charge the writing batteries, I will be taking a break from the blog for the next week. If time, and a compelling idea arise, you may see a post, but I plan to be back on Thursday April 17.

In the meanwhile, check out past blogs for what I hope you will find to be good ideas about books, reading, and life!