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Tuesday, 17 January 2017


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I did a lot of reading as a kid and ended up with an English degree (Literature) from college. From after college, where I did an enormous amount of reading because of my major, through the many years until I retired, I read in what I would define as "heavy spurts". I wouldn't read anything for a while, then get mad at myself for not reading and go at it for a time until the next lull. There was a period of a few years where I traveled (long distance) for business a lot and swore that I would read on those flights - the reality was that I would carry the same book around for about a million miles and never get through it. When I retired about twelve years ago, I again swore that I would catch up on everything that I should have/meant to have read all those years. Then got into the quandary of what to read - years back I would always finish a book, no matter how unappealing. Now, much, much older, I will drop a book that doesn't hold my interest as life is too short. After reading your post, I realized that I am "reading around" subject matter. Amongst other things, I've long had an interest in American history and have allowed books that I have read to lead to other books that amplify something that I've picked up on. Reading fiction that I like tends to lead me to either books by the same author or others of a similar ilk, until I tire of them. Hadn't really thought about it until now, but I guess that this is my pattern.

By the way, I spent most of my forty year career toiling in the publishing business.


RE: A previous book post thanks for the mention of "Blue Highways." After the election I'd fallen into the arms of an old and comforting literary friend - Patrick O'Brien's Aubrey/Maturin series. Went through about 5 volumes before your post prompted me to dig out "Blue Highways" from the 'meaning to read' shelf where it had sat for far too long. I'm back to my usual pattern now, working on 2 or 3 books at a time and finishing one every week or two.

Sort the wheat out from the chaff. Only read books that are considered classics or recently published ones that have been critically acclaimed. There's a lot of rubbish out there.

Having someone you respect curate things for you. Your "random excellence" posts, for example. Or a good radio station (e.g. BBC Radio 6 Music). Someone who does the hard work of trawling through the tsunami and makes a selection. You have to have a curator who suits you though.

Even if you combine books and photography into just photography books, or even just monographs you would still be falling ever further behind.

You might also want to apply that same principle to engaging with your photography equipment...

I am an avid reader. Over a decade ago I was invited to join an existing "all guys" book group that is still going strong. At the time most of our wives or "significant others" were in book groups composed only of women, and one day one of us said "Hey! We read! Let's form our own group." It has turned out to be a really wonderful experience both from a reading and a social standpoint. The guys in the group are from quite varied professions and viewpoints. We alternate between works of fiction and non-fiction. We rotate who chooses the book and who hosts the gathering and an informal dinner is provided. We meet every 4-8 weeks depending upon the length of the book and what people feel like doing. Of course, I still read many other books outside of the group.

One of the aspects of the group that I most enjoy is that not infrequently the book choice is not of a book that I would normally have choosen for myself to read. But out of respect to the group I read the book anyway. I have found that I really have enjoyed many of those books and so my reading and my mind have been expanded in unexpected but welcome ways. The group also offers an opportunity for me to socialize with other men in an intellectually challenging and stimulating way--not related to sports, bars, kids, etc.. I find we men have far fewer of these sorts of opportunities than our more social female companions. All around a most welcome and enjoyable experience.

I read regularly and often, almost all fiction, but seldom more than an hour a day on average. I might read 30-50ish books a year depending on length. In case that matters in context.

But I think you're positing this issue as something that needs solving or optimising? Assuming that the point of reading is to achieve something as opposed to just entertainment?

For me, reading is my relaxation and wind down activity. I usually read in bed, before sleep, basically until I'm tired enough and ready to sleep. In times of stress I read a lot more, because it distracts me better than TV, because I guess it's less passive and less opportunity to keep over-thinking things.

I read mostly either fantasy books or classic literature. I have read a little of other genres but have not much interest in e.g. crime, thrillers, horror, romance books. But I have made good inroads into all of the 'best of' lists in my preferred genres. I guess this is the approach I choose (lists/recommendations) to get a good selection of reading material and not waste my time with bad choices.

In the case that reading is an entertainment/diversion, I wonder if trying to optimise or improve my reading habits or methods would detract from the purpose and even benefit of reading. I'm already reading at roughly my normal capacity (without setting aside extra time during the day) and I'm not likely to ever run out of good choices in my preferred genres, given the huge number of books as you described.

It just seems a bit of an 'engineering' approach to have to optimise this, and for me at least (a professional engineer) quite unnecessary to engineer everything in my life, especially my relaxation time.

Hope the dissenting opinion is interesting, I understand of course that many people might find this approach more fulfilling. I just don't feel the need to engineer everything at home as well as work!

[I can completely endorse your choices, Nick. Sounds like you are doing just what you should do for you. I really wanted to analogize this to photography and talk about some ways of engaging with photographers, but I ran out of steam too soon today. --Mike]

I am in awe of people that can read so many books! Reading was not something that I habitualized as a kid and I believe I am a relatively slow reader. Although I love a good book, my dedicated reading time is in bed before sleep and this tends to not last long!

I do think that when I do read, I become a fully absorbed reader. I am fully engaged. I seek out conversations around the book. I do spin off to others by same author or time period, etc. But if I read three or four books in a year it is a literary high water mark for me!

When do people read? How many hours in a day? I'm genuinely curious regarding others' reading habits.

Books. Books and more books and those who read them make for an interesting study. Knowing some with advanced degrees who "haven't read a book since I got out of college/grad school" as well as some who read anything that is not mentally challenging - it is a mixed bag.
Get varied answers when asking "What have you read lately"? Few I have met read poetry, especially new poetry or anything they did not get exposed to in school. Just as so many of them as photographers seldom visit galleries to look at art, photographic or otherwise. Even fewer buy art.
I suspect a questioning and seeking mind is rare in all societies and especially tragic when so few use it in societies such as ours where we have so much leisure time. Books, interests or images - I believe it does not matter much when you won't challenge yourself and spend your time with mediocre work.

Mike, you sound like you have an obligation to read every "worthwhile" book ever published, or at least as many of them as humanly possible. I don't know how you got that idea.
It's as if someone thinks they have an obligation to have a meaningful conversation with every person or earth. It's just not possible, and there is no reason why one should even try.

This reminds me of the following quote from the movie "Sideways":

"Good I like non fiction. There is so much to know about this world. I think you read something somebody just invented, waste of time."

Lord Acton, he of the remark that "Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely" was reputed to have read two books each and every day, which seems impossible.

Nope, you're right.. Can't read all those books. I would read however your book on Zander. Been waiting for that for some years now, since your intriguing mention some ways (waaays) back. An affair of the heart. I will wait. Warm Regards, Roy

Mike, I had to jump in here because I like one your other readers are a big fan of audio books. I used to drive 30-40000 miles a year in my car and I would go through about an audio book a week. It was a great way to use the time. My favorite thing was to read a book and then listen to it. Many times it was a different book listening than reading. One of my favorite authors is your friend John Camp/ Sandford. I have read and listened to every one of his books, just love his characters.
The best books to listen to are the ones with southern characters the actors reading them make them come alive. Another great author is James Lee Burke, if you haven't read him I would encourage you to do so. I still love audio books even though I am retired I still get them. Just finished Blue Highway, a book I read 30 years ago but you reminded me of it. It was a different book this time. Thanks for the great column on reading.

"Don't consume more, in other words; consume better."

Great post Mike!

About 20 years ago I took an interest in the 1955 Nobel prize winning author Halldór Laxness. After reading of few of his works, (and taking several trips to Iceland) I started a website devoted to him:


This expanded over the last few years into a resource for readers all over the world, with essays and commentary by dozens of readers-some scholars, other just interested readers. In the process, I've read (and re-read) all of Laxness in English, as well as other related books, and have seen the site become sort of a clearing-house for information on the author.

While you can't obviously do this with every author, it is amazing how much greater your appreciation becomes for one when you take the effort to go deeper.

Couldn't agree with Marvin's comments on audio book's more, although I may be changing the subject slightly as I have found podcasts to to be hugely informative and empowering. I'm a mature student but also a blue collar worker full time and I find that while my hands can be on the tools I can also be "attending" a symposium at Tate Modern, listening to Michael Sandel giving a philosophy lecture on ethics, or learning about the ins and outs of identity theft and scam dating on 'Criminal'. Love this site Mike, people actually discuss things here!

A subject close to my heart Mike. I turned 49 today and have been reading actively for 45 years. Sometime after turning 40 and realizing that I wouldn't have time, alongside work and family life with small kids, to read as widely as before (although almost exlusively within the area of fiction) I decided to focus and go deep (in selected authors' collected works) instead. So nowadays it is classics from Plato and onwards, international high modernism/post-modernism/literary meta-fiction, and from writers in my native language (Swedish) almost only poetry. And children's books. Still more than a heap to read but my engagement with what I read is much more meaningful now. Step by step I am also weeding out books that don't fit the plan to make room for the meaningful. Focus and weeding also applies to my photobooks, for much the same reason. Last year we purchased a new bookcase for close to the equivalent of 10 000 USD. I am still shocked. It swallows a lot but not close to everything which underlines the need for sticking to the plan (of course being the curious reader that I am the plan is just a guiding idea that will be ignored whenever I feel like it...). Since I don't want to shock myself again weeding is absolutely necessary. But oh so difficult.

I read a fair bit ... well, more than most of my acquaintances anyway ... maybe 100 - 150 books per year. Your post is a little depressing ... how many brilliant books an I missing?

I think I disagree with your "read around" premiss (unless of course you are a student, in which case it's essential).

Given the limited number of books we'll be able to read, I'd suggest taking more chances - read authors you've never read, different genres etc. It's very easy to get stuck in a comfort zone.

Sorry to be a smartass ( as it is peripheral to the main thrust of your argument) but should not Canada rather than Australia be the third English speaking country - according to my checking not only does it have a larger population but a larger number of English speakers as their first language.

[I meant only in terms of the number of books published. Although Wikipedia's data is not exactly fair to Canada...Australia is #14 with 28,234, but the figure comes from 2014; Canada is listed #20 with 19,900, but the figures come from 1996. But I don't have the time or the inclination to try to go after numbers that might be more accurate. We do have a fact-checking department, but he is very part-time because he has other duties. --Mike]

Am currently reading Sleepwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer. It hits your topic and so much more. Think: Tom Wolfe covering a Memory Competition. ( How fast can you remember a deck of cards!!)
There are quirky funny memory atheletes who are capable of amazing feats yet they all claim to have average memories. They have learned techniques that were commonly taught in classical times. It's also about efficient practice techniques to keep improving and not plateau-ing.
It addresses learning philosophies with larger than life jet setting global memory gurus.
It hits a lot topics. Well written. ( Writer was also one of the founders of Atlas Obscura : a wonderful travel website and now a book. )

I liked your picture of 'Jim in the poetry section'. Looked to good to be from an iPhone.

[Panasonic GF1 with the 20mm ƒ/1.7. --Mike]

Reading anything has been a lifelong habit with me and one I always encourage young people I meet to begin.
I had the good fortune to be given a private school education in my primary school years where reading was essential and we were schooled in speed reading techniques. Every summer we were given a reading list with the instruction to read and report on six books. I always left it to the last week of summer and thus the speed reading came in handy. Moby Dick was on my summer list in 5th grade. What torture that was then.
My parents shipped me to a boarding school in Boston for my 7th grade year (12-13) and I was so unhappy there, I got so many demerits I couldn’t leave the campus so I turned to reading to escape. In my high school years my group of friends and I were voracious readers, trading books back and forth, Vonnegut, Herbert, Asimov, arguing plot details and imagining new variations. As I matured into my 20’s I often had four or five books going at a time. Fiction, non-fiction, history, and science I read and read. In college I could not stand textbooks so didn’t do well there but I carry this wonderful reading habit with me today and fortunately passed it on to my sons. That did not start off well with my youngest until the Harry Potter series came along and it was as if he had been shot out of a cannon.
My wife and I live and travel around the US and Canada in our RV where we often have no access to the internet or TV so we read on our kindles when I am not editing photos in Lightroom. We write a blog to chronicle our travels and there is a lot of “reading around” those topics and places we write about. So that is about what we do most these days, reading, writing and taking pictures…

I figure I've read about 10,000 books over the past 50+ years, but by no means all with the same level of "engagement." Many of them have been my substitute for television (which I stopped watching a long time ago; I haven't even owned a TV for ages now), i.e., a pleasant but more or less mindless way to pass the time when I'm not up for anything more strenuous. And most (not all) of those have been so to speak "in one eye and out the other." At the other extreme, there have been some books that moved me so deeply that my life was manifestly changed by them and that I (often unexpectedly) found myself almost overwhelmingly engaged by, reading them many times over, especially when they were new to me. Some of those eventually ceased to interest me, and on the other hand some of my "light" reading has ended up, years and decades later, near the top of my own private "great books" list. Whatever else reading is — and it is a great many things — it is or can be an adventure, at it's most exciting when I've settled in for what I thought was going to be just a bit of light bedtime reading and found myself instead launched on a life-changing experience. Ya never know what's gonna happen next … and that's just one of the many pleasures of reading.

Last night on NPR there was a little girl who became "librarian for the day" at the Library of congress because she has read 1000 books. Her current favorite is "The Pigeon and the Hot Dog", not quite Moby Dick, but it sounds like she will get there soon.

It's easy to get a little consumed with consuming better, as most of us know. But I do like "reading around" a book. One book recently led me to the Norwegian poet and diarist Olav Hauge, and his book of poetry and journal selections, Luminous Spaces, gave me several other names to pursue.

It really speeds things up when one gets the guts to decide after a hundred pages that the book is a waste of time and one doesn't have to finish it just to justify the time investment already made on it.
After 75 years I've finally learned to do this, and in 2016 only finished about 10% of the books I've started. (Does not apply to old favorites being re-read for pleasure.)

NIce B&W photo of Jim in the Poetry section of the book store. But reminds me once again why I still shoot B&W film. That is a typical example of a B&W digital image that is way too smooth and clinical. At least to my eye.

I wonder how many of the books you speak of are text books, Mike? And then, as someone said, there are the cookbooks. LOL.

BUT I also wonder how many English language books are published in India. Indians are huge producers and consumers of books of all kinds and the work they see from Indian authors is some of the finest writing in the world, Arandhati Roy, Vikram Seth, for example.

I would like to second Ted's comment about the photo of Jim in the bookshop -- heaven knows home many shots I have taken of people in libraries and bookshops over the years -- I find them absolutely compelling. But forget the return to film, though. Never. :)

Cheers, Geoff

I used to be an avid reader, mainly of history, science and philosophy. That ended when I became obsessed with photography. There just doesn't seem to be enough time in my life for both. So I do like the idea of stressing the quality, rather than the quantity, of time spent with books.

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