Twenty Years of Reading – 1989

I was married on January 2, 1989. I was reading A Perfect Spy by John Le Carre on our honeymoon. Arbitrarily I decided to keep track of everything I read. It has seemed silly at points but after more than 20 years I love that I know everything I’ve read since I’ve been married.

Looking over the list, I can see interests rise and fall; I can see authors discovered and their works exhausted; I can see those times I traveled more and the times I traveled less. Because reading has always been important to me it offers a good – if unintended – window into my life.

A few weeks ago I decided to look back and write about my reading. I pulled out the list (actually, a small journal) and went to work. I’ve read more than 450 books since I started and so the post quickly became unwieldy. For each year I was writing a brief overview of what I’d read, links to the books and then a few comments on selected titles. Trying to do that for 20-plus years in a single post was just too much.

Instead, I’ve decided to break it down year-by-year. This makes it much easier for me to write and will make it much easier for anyone to read. It also gives me more time and space to think and write about what I read. Looking through the list I realize that the further back I go the less I can recall but for what it’s worth, here’s the start.


1989 was the year I was married. It was also the year Wendy and I moved from Boston to San Francisco. There aren’t really any discernable patterns to what I read that year. Maybe the closest are the few books I read on JFK (I was working as a park ranger at his birthplace in Brookline when the year started) and a couple on the Cold War, which was an area of interest for me.

A Perfect Spy, John Le Carre

Leaving Home, Garrison Keillor

Remembering America, Richard Goodwin

The Serpent and the Rainbow, Wade Phillips

A Thousand Days, John Scheslenger Jr

The Complete Sherlock Holmes, Arthur Conan Doyle
I loved these stories. I read it after seeing a few of the stories on television with Jeremy Brett. I’d read a story here or there as a kid and saw some of the Basil Rathbone movies but the Brett portrayal really brought Holmes alive for me.

And as often happens, once I was hooked I wanted to go back to read the original stories – all of them. Over the years I’ve read a few of Conan Doyle’s other stories (The Lost World was great – his boxing stuff not so much . . .) but none captured me like Holmes. Recently my son started to get interested in Holmes as well and I’m hoping he and I can read a few of the stories together.

War and Peace in the Nuclear Age, John Newhouse

Your Cheatin’ Heart, Chet Filippo
When I was in college I worked at Mississippi’s Restaurant in Kenmore Square in Boston. One of the things I loved about the place (and there were many) was that everyone would put together mix tapes to play during their shift. Bill Grant made a mix called “Hank and Frank” that combined the music of Hank Williams and Frank Sinatra. It was a fun mix and it introduced me to Hank Williams – for which I will be forever grateful to Bill.

As with Holmes, I went whole hog. I bought several tapes and LPs of Hank and played them to death. I also decided to find out more about his life and got Filippo’s biography. Williams had a troubled and tragic life. A lot of that comes through in his music. Much more of it came through in his story.

JFK – A History of an Image, Tom Brown

Death in Midsummer, Yukio Mishima

In the Western Lands, William Burroughs

Atomic Candy, Phyllis Burke

Libra, Don DiLilo

The Private Elvis, May Mann

Harry S Truman, Margaret Truman
I bought a copy of this book at Aardvark Books on Church Street in San Francisco. At the time I think I was working at the Guinness Book of World Records museum on Fisherman’s Wharf (I was only 23 and new the the city, what can I say . . .). One day I was waiting for the bus to work on the Embarcadero. Somehow – with only a hundred pages left – I left the book at the bus stop. As soon as I realized what I’d done I got off the bus and ran the many blocks to retrieve my book. Alas, by the time I arrived it was gone . . . :(.

I ended up taking it out of the library to finish. It was OK but not worth buying twice.

Shock Value, John Waters

Crackpot, John Waters

Danger and Survival, McGeorge Bundy

That’s all I have for 1989. I was my first year as a dedicated reader – free from the required reading of college and setting off on what has been a wonderful life of reading.

Licensing is for Software NOT for Literature

I will be the first to admit that I love books. I grew up in a house and with a father who imparted me with a serious love of books and reading and my own library is in the thousands. I read widely and deeply – dozens of books every year and wish I had even more time to read. I love books and so perhaps you ought to dismiss everything I am about to write as the words of a committed bibliophile.

On the flip side though I am also nuts about technology. There are not that many pieces of consumer electronics that I don’t lust after; that I can’t convince myself – in my heart-of-hearts – will make my life better. Anyone who knows me knows that I carry a wide array (wider than most people) of electronics with me – an iPhone, a digital SLR, a video recorder of some sort, a Mac Book Pro, etc.

Ten years ago maybe I got a Handspring Visor. This was the same year the Rocket ebook reader came out and I lusted after the thing. The idea of being able to carry multiple books with me wherever I went was really appealing. My wife told me she had considered getting it for me but settled on the Visor since it had broader utility. A little disappointed maybe but I got an ebook reader for the Handspring and downloaded several books from Project Gutenberg. I wasn’t blown away.

Since then the market for ebooks and ebook readers has taken off. But at the same time my desire to won one has lessened. In part it’s because I enjoy the form factor of the book – all of the nostalgic things people love about them – their shape and weight, the way you can see your progress as the bookmark marches from front to back, etc. I love coming across old boarding passes that make me think of trips longs past, or the dried flower I wore as a boutonniere at a friend’s wedding.

Those tangible aspects of the book are only part of their appeal. A much bigger part of it has to do with ownership. When I buy a book it’s my book. The primary relationship is between me and the author and their work – not between me and the publisher or distributor. Sure – they are the means for me getting my hands on the work, but once I do, their part of the process has ended. With ebooks that isn’t the case. Once I make the purchase that relationship has only just begun.

For me, one of the wonderful things about books is their fluidity. I can read one and think of the friend for whom it would be perfect and then I can hand them my copy of the book. I can tell them to read it and to have my copy – even if I know I’ll never get it back. Often once I do that with a friend they’ll do the same for me sometime – recommending and sharing books. I like the ecosystem of readers that grows around books.

Back in 2006 I met Greg Boesel, the CEO of Swaptree. They gave me a whole new means of enjoying books – by allowing me to trade them with other readers using their service. Their model replaced something that had all but disappeared – the used book store – where I could off-load books that I had finished. With the rise of the big box bookshops and Amazon there stopped being easy ways to buy and sell used books and Swaptree nicely fills the void.

Right now there is no way to sell or trade or share ebooks. This might make sense for someone but it doesn’t for readers. Let’s look at how the print and electronic models approach your relationship to content.

Here is the copyright notice from Neal Stephenson’s Anathem:

Anathem. Copyright 2008 by Neal Stephenson. All rights reserved. Printed in the United States of America. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews. For more information address HarperCollins Publishers, 10 East 53 Street, New York, NY, 10022.

Pretty clear and simple.

Now here is the digital content section of the licensing agreement for the Amazon Kindle – which is in addition to the copyright of the publisher:

3. Digital Content

The Kindle Store. The Kindle Store enables you to download, display and use on your Device a variety of digitized electronic content, such as books, subscriptions to magazines, newspapers, journals and other periodicals, blogs, RSS feeds, and other digital content, as determined by Amazon from time to time (individually and collectively, “Digital Content”).

Use of Digital Content. Upon your payment of the applicable fees set by Amazon, Amazon grants you the non-exclusive right to keep a permanent copy of the applicable Digital Content and to view, use, and display such Digital Content an unlimited number of times, solely on the Device or as authorized by Amazon as part of the Service and solely for your personal, non-commercial use. Digital Content will be deemed licensed to you by Amazon under this Agreement unless otherwise expressly provided by Amazon.

Restrictions. Unless specifically indicated otherwise, you may not sell, rent, lease, distribute, broadcast, sublicense or otherwise assign any rights to the Digital Content or any portion of it to any third party, and you may not remove any proprietary notices or labels on the Digital Content. In addition, you may not, and you will not encourage, assist or authorize any other person to, bypass, modify, defeat or circumvent security features that protect the Digital Content.

Subscriptions. The following applies with respect to Digital Content made available to you on a subscription basis, including, but not limited to, electronic newspapers, magazines, journals and other periodicals (collectively, “Periodicals”): (i) you may request cancellation of your subscription by following the cancellation instructions in the Kindle Store; (ii) we may terminate a subscription at our discretion without notice, for example, if a Periodical is no longer available; (iii) if we terminate a subscription in advance of the end of its term, we will give you a prorated refund; (iv) we reserve the right to change subscription terms and fees from time to time, effective as of the beginning of the next term; and (v) taxes may apply to subscription fees and will be added if applicable.

Not so simple.

The written word differs from other content types – music, video and software – in that it hasn’t required anything but a set of eyes to use in the past. If you wanted to hear a song you had to either know how to play it, have a band who could play it or a device that could play it. The ease of reading is important. Music and video are also more ephemeral. A song is three of four minutes long – even a symphony is perhaps an hour. A book is a commitment to spending days – if not weeks – considering a topic or ideas or characters.

Because the relationship to the content is different between a book and a song, for example, it makes sense that they be treated differently. I can listen to a song over and over again in a single day but I’m unlikely to read many books more than once in the course of my lifetime.

Ebooks also encourage the kid-in-a-candy store model that Apple brought to music with iTunes. The fact that you can store dozens of books on a reader doesn’t mean you’re actually *reading* them all. For me reading is a much more conscious decision. I often have eight or 10 books on deck at any moment but eventually I choose one and commit to reading it. I buy and choose books very carefully because I know I’m going to be spending a lot of time with it.

Downloads make the selection process far less critical. As with a song you may have heard something about the book, might have enjoyed something else by the author, always wanted to read it, know it’s popular, etc. That impulse is one thing for ephemeral content but as I said books are not ephemeral. Their storage media lasts for a long, long time.

One of my favorite books is a copy of the Massachusetts Constitution that also includes the US Constitution, the Declaration of Independence and Washington’s Farewell Address. It was published – an bound in light wood – in 1805 when many of the drafters and signers and citizens and soldiers who had lived through the Revolution were still living. There’s something that transcends content at that point – there is a connection to a past that is lost when it is digitized.

You are being sold a bill of goods when you make the move from printed books to ebooks – make no mistake about it. This model is not in the interest of readers who may eventually find their libraries incompatible with later generation ebook readers, who cannot share or sell their books when finished and forced to make compromises that print readers do not (I love the glossy pages of illustrations in many of my books – they don’t do so well in an ebook).

While some issues will be addressed through improved technology, the different ways we connect with content requires different ways of owning that content – and the nature of printed works ought to have all of us saying that licensing is for software – not for literature.

Goodbye to Genji (for now)

I’m crying uncle for the second time with the Tale of Genji. I love so many things about the book but it just doesn’t grab me enough to keep reading. There are days and times when I can sit down and plow through 50 pages but there are too many other times when I read only a few pages in a day; and when you’re looking at a 1000+ page behemoth that isn’t going to cut it.

I may continue to read it in a few pages a day and just accept the fact that it’s going to take me forever to get through the book. . .

Instead I’ve decided to shift a little both in time and space – the Russia in the 19th century. Reading the Idiot in a translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. I’ve read their translations of several Dostoevsky novels and they’re really great.

Reading My Antonia

I just finished reading My Antonia. What a beautiful book. When I finished it and reread the back cover, I wonder if whomever wrote the back cover description had rad the same book as I had:

“Antonia Shimerda returns to Black Hawk, Nebraska, to make a fresh start after eloping with a railway conductor [this happens in the last 50 pages of the book] following the tragic death of her father [which happened when Antonia was perhaps 14, a decade before her failed elopement and more than 100 pages earlier]. Accustomed to living in a sod house and toiling along aside the med in the fields [she actually becomes a hired girl in Black Hawk as a young teenager] she is unprepared for the lecherous reaction her lush sensuality provokes when she moves to the city [huh? There is no lecherous reaction and nothing in her behavior during her failed near marriage can be called “lush sensuality. And whatever reaction does occur takes place back in Black Hawk, not the city at all.]. Despite betrayal and crushing opposition, Antonia steadfastly pursues her quest for happiness – a moving struggle that mirrors the quiet drama of the American landscape.”

This doesn’t accurately describe the story at all. Better might have been to say that the book presents the warm recollections of youth and life of a young man as reflected in his relationship with Antonia – a young Bohemian girl whose life and his touch and twine over the decades.

It’s certainly a great book but come on, a little better job by the publisher would be helpful.