I use this blog as a soap box to preach (ahem... to talk :-) about subjects that interest me.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

The book lives on

When I finally bought an iPad, I was looking forward to reading a lot of books that were no longer in print.  I warmed at the idea that one day I could take with me all the books I had ever read.

But then I discovered that the iPad was too heavy for comfort when reading in bed, where I do a non-negligible part of my reading.  And holding it by the edge meant that sometimes I would unintentionally flip a page.  Furthermore, sometimes I wanted to reflect on what I had just read or re-read a paragraph, and that resulted in a dimming of the display.  As Captain Picard said in the Star Trek episode Yesterday's Enterprise (one of my favourite), Not good enough, dammit, not good enough!

And yet, as Sherman Young convincingly affirms in his book The book is dead, the only way for the book to survive is if book lovers embrace eBooks.

Young's book was published in 2007, three years before the iPad became available (2010-04-03 in the USA).  Therefore, Young's vision of a heavenly library was still an act of faith. He wrote (p 151/152, his Italics):

We can imagine the heavenly library as the world's collection of books available in an instant. It will be searchable, downloadable, readable with recommendations and suggestions from other readers, authors and critics; and a place to contribute to discussions about the book in question. Imagine that it will allow access to titles that might not be feasible in print (one in which all the Vogel [my linking] shortlisters are published, not just the winner); where the new Patrick Whites get to hang out their talent for as many books as is required to find their voice. Imagine a catalogue of niches, made possible and searchable via electronic delivery; enabling a different set of publishing economics and priorities.

Does it sound familiar?  We are definitely getting there.  No more trees felled; no more money spent on printing books and shipping them around the world; no more books out of print; no more well-written books full of ideas that remain unpublished because they are systematically rejected.

Sherman points out that the term book has come to identify both a physical object consisting of bound printed pages and its conceptual content of information and ideas.  In his opinion, and I agree with him, we should distinguish between the two meanings.

There are many objects like telephone books, dictionaries, cookbooks, travel books, puzzle books, etc. that, although they consist of bounded printed pages, do not communicate any ideas, do not make the readers reflect on what they are reading, and do not contribute to a book culture that involves exchanging opinions and experiences with others.  Such objects effectively are non-books.

Other borderline non-books are most of those written by celebrities, regardless of whether they are performers (actors, sportspeople, politicians, etc.) or individuals who gained fame or notoriety by executing some news-making acts, like circumnavigating the world solo or killing somebody.

From a practical point of view, what the non-books have in common is that they are designed to make quick money for the publishers.  Publishers used to invest in promising authors and then nurture them to success, but today's big publishers (and most of the small publishers as well) are an industry like any other.  It doesn't make any difference to them that they are selling books instead of vacuum cleaners.  What counts is that they can show good quarterly figures.  In a sense, we cannot even blame them, because the whole society is fixed on making a quick buck.

Fortunately, the Internet and electronic publishing give us a new way of sustaining a book culture (and culture in general).  Those with ideas can express them and communicate them to like-minded people living anywhere in the world.

According to Chris Anderson (The Long Tail, p 127), "the future of business is selling less of more".  What he means in practical terms is that businesses can make more money by selling few instances of many items than by selling lots of instances of few items.  In his book, published in 2006, Anderson concentrated on the music industry, but what he wrote applies to eBooks as well.

To understand how this works, consider this: if 10 titles sell in one year 1,000,000 copies, they result in the sale of 10 million books; if, at the same time, 1,000,000 titles sell 50 copies each, they result in the sale of five time as many books as the blockbusters (these figures, which I have adapted from those reported by Anderson, are not far from the real figures for 2004).  According to the Wikipedia page on the long tail, "a large proportion of Amazon.com's book sales come from obscure books that [are] not available from brick-and-mortar stores".

What this means is that your ideas can reach their audience.  Social media and web sites like goodreads.com make possible a digital version of the book culture that used to revolve around printed books.

I just have to get used to reading eBooks.  Perhaps the mini-iPad or the iPad-air will be good enough.  For now, I have a paper-white Kindle and will try to get along with it!

How to avoid accumulating unread books

I only buy books that I am pretty confident I will read (it wasn't always like that!), but I have still been buying more books than I can read.  For example, last year, I read 57 books but bought 69.  As a result, the shelf I reserve for books I haven't yet read contains 62 books of non-fiction and 16 of fiction.

A couple of months ago, I instituted a new rule: I only allow myself to buy one book after reading two of the books I already have.  This means that I should drain my backlog of books in approximately two and a half years, after reading (62 + 16) x 1.5 = 117 books.

But I can always decide that I am not going to read some of the books I already have...   ;-)

The article on The book is dead, by Sherman Young, will be next.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

I am a book lover

I started this article with the idea of writing of a book I had just read, but got lost in reminescences.  I found covers of books I read more than 50 (yes, 50!) years ago and got sidetracked.  Very few, if any, could possibly be interested in my book-reading experiences.  But then, who cares?  I don't want to throw away this article simple because I am not a celebrity!  After all, with so much new stuff appearning on the Web every minute, most pages are never read or even accessed.  I'm very happy if somebody reads what I write and finds it either useful or amusing, but, ultimately, I write mainly for myself, because I have the need or simply the pleasure of expressing myself.  The article about the book I originally wanted to write about will come later.

Since when I was a child, not even a teen-ager, one of my favourite pastimes has been reading.  I started with adventure novels by Emilio Salgari.  After that, I read books like The Last of Mohicans, by James Fenimore Cooper, the Tarzan books by Edgard Rice Burroughs, and also the Ruyard Kipling's books.  Or perhaps I should say "L'ultimo dei mohicani" and "Tarzan delle scimmie", because I only understood Italian then.

I remember buying books published by Viglongo and Marzocco.  They were large-format books, sometimes quite thick.  My mother would come with me to the bookshop and chat with the salespersons while I choose the next book to read.  Sometimes, it took me the best part of half an hour because I couldn't decide what I wanted to read next.  Each book would cost 500 Italian Lire, which, at the time (we are talking about the late 1950s or perhaps the first 1960s), were worth less than one American Dollar.

When I was in bed with parotitis, my mother read out to me La città del re lebbroso (256 pages, published by Viglongo in 1956, available online), and she loved it too.

Then, I discovered Science Fiction.  The first book I read was Death's Deputy, By Ron Hubbard, published by Mondadori in 1954 as No. 37 of their SF series I Romanzi di Urania.  I didn't know then that most translations were also arbitrarily shortened to fit into the standard length of the series!  A shame, really.

A bit later, I discovered the crime novels.  In the early 1960s, the most widely known series of crime novels was I Gialli Mondadori, published by "Arnoldo Mondadori Editore" (founded in 1907 and bought by Berlusconi in 1991).  "Giallo" in Italian means "yellow" and, indeed, the book covers were all yellow.  In fact, they were (perhaps, still are) so popular, that in Italy all crime novels are simply called "libri gialli", regardless of who publishes them!  Here is the cover of the very first "Giallo", published from 1929 to 1941:

After the war, in 1946, Mondadory restarted the series with Erle Stanly Gardner's The Case of The Silent Partner (sorry I couldn't find a better image):

In the early 1960s, when I discovered Perry Mason, I bought all the novels I could find (eleven, I believe).  In one week, I read ten of them.  That got me saturated and never touched a Perry Mason novel again till very recently, when I read (obviously in English this time) two of them re-published by Penguin.

In 1963, I started attending high-school and kept reading all sorts of things.  Unfortunately, one day, my mother decided that I wouldn't re-read my adventure books and donated them all to a charity.  I would love to page through them again, but the past is the past.

Years later (in 1978), when I moved to Germany, I left all my stuff with my mother.  Unfortunately, her cellar was very humid and, one day, she indiscriminately tossed away everything I had left to remind me of my youth: books, magazines, pictures, small cameras, memorabilia, and even my school certificates.  If I had been there, I would have tried to salvage something, but I was 1,300km away.  What a loss!

It is true what the Buddhists say: attachment causes suffering.  The more you have, the more you are afraid of losing your possessions.  Eventually, everything will go.  The more you are aware of it, the less you will suffer.

And yet, I am very attached to my books.  Sometimes, I think I should give them all away and be free of that attachment, but I don't think I will ever really do it.  Actually, once, I almost did it.  I think it was in the late 1970s or early 1980s.  I decided I had to give up my possessions, including my books, to detach myself from "having" and fully embrace "being".  But I couldn't separate myself from three books: La venticinquesima ora, by Constantin Virgil Gheorghiu, Siddharta, by Hermann Hesse, and La dottrina del Tao, by Alberto Castellani.  Well, to be entirely correct, I also kept some reference books like a sky atlas and some textbooks.  But you get the idea.

I currently own 1,142 printed books, 143 of which are stored in cartons that fill the bottom level of a couple of wardrobes.  I have several bookshelves in my study, but a non-negligible part of the available space is taken up by DVDs, CDs, and various stacks of papers.

Now, you might wonder how I can possibly know the exact number of books I have...

I know it because I keep a spreadsheet with the full list of them.  Each item includes the following information:
  • Category (e.g., Hist);
  • Identification code (e.g., ha.01);
  • Last time read (e.g., 2002_04);
  • Language (e.g., E);
  • Title (e.g., The Custom of the Sea);
  • Author[s] (e.g., Neil Hanson);
  • Number of pages (e.g., 458);
  • Format (e.g., p);
  • Location (e.g., b).
In the example, The Custom of the Sea, by Neil Hanson, is a paperback of 458 pages, written in English; I classified it as Hist-ha.01; it was the fourth book I read in 2002, and is to be found in the "big" bookcase.

Yes.  You got it: I keep a list of all the books I read.  Each reading entry also includes the start and end dates and the number of pages I actually read (because sometimes I don't read them from cover to cover).  Unfortunately, I only started in 1991.

After studying the various classification methods used in libraries, I decided to develop my own.  The problem was that I didn't want to have to learn decimal classification (like in the Dewey system) or arbitrary letters (like in the Library of Congress system).  That is, I wanted to group the books in a way that would tell me what the book was about.  Here it is:

I initially placed the books in the proper order, but things got messy over the past couple of years.  I will have to put them back in order and then, perhaps, identify the books I should give away.

I also keep the list of books I read but no longer have, either because I gave them away or because I had borrowed them from libraries or friends.

And then (obviously!), I make all sorts of statistics.  For example, I know for each year since 1991 how many pages I read of books in each category.  It turns out that between 1991 and 2013, I read 45 books/year  and 39 pages/day, but the averages are increasing: in the ten years from 2004 to 2013, I read 49 books/year and 47 pages/day.

Now, eBooks in EPUB format are making my statistics more difficult to keep because their text "flows".  But I can still estimate a number of virtual pages by counting the words in an eBook page, multiplying it by the number of pages in the eBook, and dividing the result by 250...

In any case, although I bought an iPad and a Kindle, I don't really enjoy reading books in digital format.  I love the physicality of printed books.  In other words, although I recognise that the real value of books is in their content, I also love books as objects.

But enough for now.  I will write on the subject of printed books vs. digital books in my next article, when I will talk about The book is dead, by Sherman Young.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Jihad and Kamikazes

Paul Ham, in his book Hiroshima Nagasaki, reports that in 1945 the Japanese tried hard to recruit 15-year-old boys as Kamikaze pilots.

He writes:

In Hiroshima, Nagasaki and elsewhere, advertisements for ‘child soldiers’ appeared in the newspapers, encouraging parents to enlist their sons. Posters exhorted children to worship and imitate the death squads and kamikazes. Captions such as, ‘Mother! Father! Send me into the skies too!’ accompanied dreamy pictures of boys gazing into US ships. The Intelligence and Aviation Bureaus and the Great Japan Aeronautic Association were responsible for these desperate appeals.

As I keep saying in my articles, desperation is what drives terrorism. Let's give hope to those suicide bombers and they will stop blowing themselves up.