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August 25, 2011

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I'm a technical writer and believe me, no one reads tech manuals either! They do make handy doorstops and booster seats tho.

I still love to read, but not as much as I used to. Hard on the eyes after being in front of a computer all day. I do remember the librarian at my elementary school wouldn't let me check books out she thought above "my level".

When television was invented, who ever thought it would cause the downfall of our country? It really is that simple, television killed America.

Just about every bad behavior exhibited by Americans was "learned" or "promoted" by television programming.

30 plus hours of television viewing per week leaves how much free time for reading??

If, at midnight tonight, all television and all internet was switched off for an extended period of time, do you have any idea how fast books and magazines would disappear off library and store shelves? Can you say "at light speed".

Eminent, Jon. Not imminent. (Reference to your female editors. They would be shocked.) I started to read Rise and Fall of the Third Reich in fifth grade. I, um, put it away for about 30 years, but did manage to polish it off. My reading list in fifth grade was rather Hardy Boy and Tom Swift-heavy. Finally developed a taste for historical biography. Just finished one on Jackie Robinson. Reading is tough, and histories in particular, because feelings of great shame usually follow. This almost always requires the listening to and playing of rock'n'roll to aid in the recovery process.

by the way, using your book signings is not an apprpriate example. a handsome devil like youself writes a book and women show up for the book signing is not a surprise. I bet your security team has their hands full keeping those women from getting their hands on you.

Actually our entire entertainment industry today is geared to the comic book. Summer block busters are nothing more than moving comics and about as literate. TV is loaded with comic book characters, but all with a redneck southern bent on channel after channel. How anyone can watch for 30 hours a week is beyond me. Book TV on the weekends seems to show the decline you're talking about. You'll have some middle to older aged author talking to a sparingly filled room of gray heads.

My dad was an inveterate reader, mostly Civil War and WWII histories. We were cursed by his photographic memory since he would host lengthy monologues on those subjects during dinner. Watching TV afterwards conferred a Houdini-like sense of escape.

Dad was not what I would call educated even in the middle-class sense of the word since his obsessions were airless and ultimately dumb with pride. What good is it to know everything about the Civil War if you couldn't really synthesize insights from them? Simply knowing things to know things is why Trivial Pursuit and Jeopardy were invented. I say that with the humility of a champion.

If we read, we ought to be interested in the subject, which is oneself. We enclose the whole tawdry business of history, culture, and even its Olympian overview. We scratch every human scandal and unsuccess with a smug judgment that we are not like that. That's who we are. We need to be very interested in that.

When I read, I'm occasionally aware of the small self building yet more elaborate battlements of Knowledge. I don't quite tell myself that it will keep me safe but I know that the reward is less freedom than confirmation.

Never thought I wanted one, but was presented with a Kindle (large format, thank you!)and it goes everywhere with me. I'm deep into two books right now -- a novel and an account of one man's recent trek across Afghanistan. I can download something new as soon as I hear about it and read at lunch, on line, in the car, in the tent. It's comfortable to handle and my whole library will be at my fingertips everywhere! I hope the business model is fair to authors, because it's making me smarter.

Jon, If I may ask, without divulging the size of your literary fortune, what is the percentage of your fortune derived from paper books versus ebooks?

Reb,
My "fortune" is mostly real books, but audio and especially e-books are growing. Not all my titles are available on Kindle yet. That's frustrating, but the author's lot

Does "reading" include the Oregonian newspaper, the Economist magazine and the many articles I pick up from my trusty MacBook? If not, guess I'm in the doofus category. (sidebar: my 8 year old granddaughter reads at the 6th grade level)

"Really desirable women expected well-read men, and reading to one's lover is a sensual delight."

It's now called "sexting".

To those of you who have not already read Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television by Jerry Mander (yes that really is his name), I certainly recommend it. I'm re-reading it now while concurrently reading his In the Absence of the Sacred (with long subtitle). It would be very interesting to see what you all think of Mr. Mander's ideas. From the title you can tell that he doesn't pull any punches.

@azrebel, you've already summarized half of Mander's argument in your first comment above. He takes it a step further, though, and claims that television technology is inherently biased in such a way that the outcome you've stated is unavoidable regardless of the programming.

The lunatic-fringe right reads plenty of books. Lunatic-fringe books.

Rogue pointing this out previously has me reading... I used to enjoy reading but got out of the habit. I'm pushing myself back into it now that I see I'm part of the problem.

Eclectic... I try to get my software working without reading the manual. Its a macho thing. In the end I'm reading the manual to automate our nasty two tier WPF app. I'm used to automating well behaved webapps...

Jefferson nearly bankrupted himself with his book addiction.

Here's an excellent biography: "Jefferson and Monticello: The Biography of a Builder"

http://www.amazon.com/Jefferson-Monticello-Biography-Jack-Mclaughlin/dp/0805014632/

I wonder if he would have incorporated a TV room into Monticello?

Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television:

1) Fox 'News'
2) CNN
3) MSNBC
4) Everything else

Ever since the joyous discovery of "The Great Courses" there has been too little time for reading...

http://www.thegreatcourses.com/

...but my TV is finally being put to good use.

Jon, You rock!

Book learning is an attribute of the "elites". The revolutionary right in the US has a problem with books because trained historians describe an economic and historical past contrary to its world vision. Best to ignore those writings or revise the historical writings and continue forward with faith based policies which have previously failed.

Sure, men don't read; but neither do the majority of women. Readers seem to be polarized - there are those that read 20+ books a year, those that read one or two, and those that read none and are damn proud of the fact.

The complete failure of our inattention to education is evident in the failure to inspire our kids to learn for the love of learning, to read a novel and be transported to a new world, to read nonfiction just to explore something new.

I remember a day in elementary school, perhaps second grade very vividly. I got in trouble at recess for a scuffle and was sent to the principals office. My punishment was to be sent to "reading detention"; an hour of silent reading in the gym. I probably grabbed my Hardy boys book and thought I had gotten away great, I got out of class and got to read for a whole hour during school! And I remember my mother flipped when she found out, not because I was in trouble but because they were using reading as punishment.

The anti-intellectual, anti-science attitude and politics of way too many Americans is a direct result of functional illiteracy. When half of college graduates cannot even distinguish between two opposing op-ed pieces, just being able to sound out the words on the page does not make for a literate society.

Oh, gawd, here comes a long one. I apologize ahead of time...

This is an interesting post, Jon - one rife with rather intimate observations, if I may put it that way. So I will drift into TMI territory here.

I wonder where I stand on this spectrum of judgement?

The television *is* an abomination. Firstly, because the brain and its ocular tendencies are irresistibly drawn to the illuminated flicker[*]. Second, it is only a one-way medium, talking *at* you and generally discouraging internal dialogue. Elvis at least shot back once. Sports programming, too, at least generates talking (screaming) back (I don't follow sports, BTW) - and often the "news" causes some animation. Fictional programming? Never.

I haven't watched television in years, and I agree with others here that it is probably the most crippling aspect of modern civilization.

While books are also one-way, the reader may, if (s)he is a thinker, have an internal "conversation" with the book. I find this to be true only with non-fiction (or particularly difficult fiction.) So much fiction however, even from a book, also suffers from this dialogue suppression. I know a couple of fiction addicts, and they are nearly as vacuous as prime-time kiddies. Sorry to put this to novelist, but I can't find a way to be delicate about it.

Back to me. My mother taught me to read by the time I was four years old, and read well. I was found to be reading (American) college level by nine years old. While I devoured a great deal of fiction in my youth, I have always had a bent for non-fiction. As an adult - I would be surprised if fictional reading has accounted for even 1% of my book reading (two of your early novels, it happens, buttress that statistic, Mr. Talton.) My non-fiction interests are eclectic by anyone's standards. History, sociology, psychology, biography, the sciences - these are among the brightest lights for this reader. I actually read tech manuals occasionally too, eclecticdog - and have written a few programming manuals myself back the day!

I largely eschew modern fiction because I find it as escapist as television. Sure, it exercises those "muscles" so atrophied by television - and as such has its virtues - but my "physique" was established long ago.

I mention "spectrum of judgement" because I find myself reading tree-pulp rarely these days. I recently divested myself of "stuff" to lighten my life, and the hundreds of heavy books I sold/gave away were significant, and I do not miss their weight. While I like to have a (non-fiction) book on hand to digest, I do not savor the physical commitment any longer and, as I am now poor, cannot really afford the buy-and-trade ritual of a "Powell's". So I am here offering a characterization of the physical fact of a "book" as an indulgence, in the existential sense. An indulgence, I hasten to add, to which I willingly and reflexively fall prey. Just hand me a biography or a physics book and see, believe you me.

My reading pedigree, IMO, gives me a "pass" in making this reasoned judgement of soft disdain, IMO.

I have of late been entranced by the Internet, with the unprecedented "instant footnoting" of rabbit-hole links, that I find to be both distracting and a wonderful facilitation of quick and surprisingly in-depth education on a wide variety of subjects and perspectives. The combination of facts and real-time social evaluation (of the authors) suit my predilections perfectly. This is, in a way, the Internet's answer to the hypnotic "flicker" of the television but, as a blogger, it find it to be two-way medium. I *adore* conversation, the dance of "I and Thou."

My humble question is, I suppose - would the good readers here find me to have drifted into a 21st Century hypnosis?

(Thanks for the indulgence of this obscenely long comment - perhaps I should have written it up over at "my place" - but the post was provocative!)

---

[*]I recently encountered an "illuminating" anecdote here on the InterToobz: At some sort of a periodic meeting, where spirited conversation typically flowered, one participant subversively flicked on a screen with an empty channel, just "snow." It didn't take long for the conversation to die out, eyeballs becoming involuntarily distracted.

When I could afford to lounge in pubs - I did so for the people interface. This is why I despised the appearance of multiple TV screens at my then-favorite place. I hate television, yet even I could not help but drift towards the soundless images during "down-time," thus tamping opportunities to catch living eyeballs and provoke a conversation. Etc.

Petro,
Good post and thanks. I don't think it's either/or. The Internet can provide good reading and interactivity that is far better than the passivity of tv viewing. I still like the tactile pleasure of books, too.

I'm trying to figure this one out. I don't recall the mix of customers at bookstores (e.g., Bookman's) being so one-sided; and mystery fiction is traditionally a male pastime (especially the "noir" variety -- a universe which Mr. Talton's novels can be argued to inhabit, though neither formally nor formulaically). Also, I believe that Mr. Talton presided over some sort of mystery-themed book convention not long ago: perhaps he can recall the demographic?

So, I'm guessing that book signings, rather than bookstores per se, are more of a feminine venue. They're a quasi-social event that requires the participant to stand in line and chat with neighbors, most of whom are strangers, for a (generally) non-financial return. It may also be a function of the process used to gather attendees. How is it announced? Mail lists? What kind, and organized by whom?

More on this when time permits.

As a child, I was most contented when I was raiding the local library. Those were the happiest times of my life. Then another obsession took over (classical music). Some music critic wrote that the major difference between 'classical' music and pop is the length of the pieces. Not necessarily the level of sophistication or depth. Maybe that's the difference between the newspapers/internet and long-form book writing; a difference in patience, concentration, and synthesis (who knows)? Complaints about (non) readers with short attention spans are not new. Here is Frances Trollope (1779-1863):

"Our aversion to book learning is often blamed for this notorious inability to put two and two together. Not that we are or were completely illiterate. Mrs. Trollope noted that whereas our appreciation of literature was very meager indeed (her Ohio neighbors considered Shakespeare obscene and Chaucer obsolete), Americans were great newspaper readers. Today we are great television watchers and Web surfers. Our knowledge of the outside world, therefore, has mainly come to us in sensationalized fragments that are never connected and thus quickly forgotten. Hence the famous American ignorance. Books, by imparting a sense of continuity and context, can enlarge the imagination and enable you to weigh evidence, compare, contrast, and make important connections—in short, to exercise skepticism. Without this skill, your grasp of reality is going to be at best superficial and your ability to challenge prevailing myths nonexistent."
http://www.vanityfair.com/magazine/2007/06/essay_winner200706.print#gotopage2

Cultural pessimism is tricky. A diminished education is a sad thing but I believe most of the problems ahead will 'resolve' themselves.

PS: The internet allows me to read tabloid material I'd otherwise have no access to. Guess who comes out top in this 'ranking' of the worst states:

http://gawker.com/5834800/the-worst-50-states-in-america-the-final-five

Another idea: I suspect that many attendees of book signings will have heard about them at book discussion groups. These are social events (as such attracting more women) and many take place during the day (housewives with grown (or no) children and time on their hands).

I took an admittedly unsystematic look at a few of Mr. Talton's past book signings announced on the Internet. They include:

(1) Donis Casey (female, headliner pictured) w/ Talton Tues. 7pm Sept. 12, 2006 at Poisoned Pen. This would tend to attract a female audience of mystery readers, since Donis Casey is
a woman mystery author who writes about female detectives.

(2) Talton alone, 7:30 am Tom's Tavern May 31, 2007. 7:30 am? Ye gods and little fishes, I hope you have a new agent. I'm surprised anybody was there. Men were probably shaving for work, right about then, or else sleeping in if a weekend. Don't forget that you're competing with professional sports telecasts, etc., also, on weekend afternoons and evenings.

(3) Talton alone, Easter Sunday May 16, 2010, 2-4 pm. Easter Sunday afternoon? No wonder Eleanor Rigby showed up. Father MacKenzie was no doubt busy polishing his next sermon.

Is this representative?

I agree that the tactile pleasure of fondling a book as you read it is important, as Jon pointed out. But owning a book, making an author a part of my life, from the insignificant authors to the masters, is an obsession with me. Divesting myself of parts of my library as mere "stuff", as Petro has done, is truly frightening. Not that I disagree with Petro. Indeed I admire his courage. I admit that holding on to "stuff" keeps one from moving forward. In my 6th decade, I've taken mighty swoops at letting go, not only of my "stuff", but also of my concepts and beliefs. Letting go of my books? Toughest of all.

My books are a compendium of my life. What I've read is very much who I am. And I've done a good job of archiving my books (my life). I love my library. It's the warmest room in my house. I've carefully built it as if it were my biography -- including valuable first edition and rare books. Is this weird, for me to associate my being with mere words on pulp?

Who is this library for? What is it for? It surely feels like folly for me to hold on to its comforting bulk. My children? Who am I to assume that they will care -- and if I'm wrong am I only leaving them with a burden? My hope, perhaps why I hold on, is that they, or someone, will someday look at my books and appreciate my "well rounded" being.

Nowadays men are too busy looking at internet porn to read books (surprised no one has mentioned this yet). At the community college I used to work at, one of the IT guys told me that at any given minute of the day, 2/3 of the internet traffic through the school's servers was to porn sites.

I also agree about the demographics of book signings not being representative. Just because guys don't show up to hear you read or get your signature doesn't mean they're not reading.

Interesting post.

I guess I am an anomaly, because I'm right-wing AND I read. I'm also a proud owner of a library card that is well used. Right now, I'm reading Madame Bovary and I'm anxiously awaiting the next Cincinnati Case Files and Mapstone Books.

The sad irony is a certain brand of conservative was a deep reader, welcomed the intellect, and was often less dogmatic and more open-minded than many on the left. So good for you, Michael.

Bill Buckley comes to mind. Of course, he's dead.

Don't get too comfortable with Rogue's compliment; in the next breath, Jon may call you a 'teabagger'.

Emil !!

One sentence?

I have a difficult time finding fiction to read, especially in chain bookstores, which I don't patronize anyway because I can't afford to. Not just fiction, of course, but well-written fiction to my taste. Here's a short list of books read within the last few years which are worth mentioning.

Note that substitute titles by the same author are by no means guaranteed to please, though in some cases the author has written a large number of books of which (in the best cases) perhaps half are enjoyable. A preponderance of the authors are British and of earlier generations: I often find the technical writing skills of such authors to be of superior quality.

MYSTERY FICTION

Political Suicide; and The Skeleton in the Grass (both by Robert Barnard)

Old Hall, New Hall; and The Case of Sonya Wayward (Michael Innes)

The Asking Price; Independent Witness (Henry Cecil)

Die Like A Man; The Devil Finds Work (Michael Delving)

The Blackheath Poisonings; The Belting Inheritance (Julian Symons)

Vanish In An Instant; Stranger In My Grave (Margaret Millar)

Maigret and the Yellow Dog; Maigret At The Coroners (Georges Simenon) (The latter takes place in Tucson in the 1940s)

The Doorbell Rang; The Golden Spiders (Rex Stout)

Instruments of Darkness (Robert Wilson)

A Puzzle for Fools (Patrick Quentin) (An alias used by two authors, sometimes together and sometimes alone; writing quality varies considerably, but this novel is excellent.)

The Glimpses of the Moon (Edmund Crispin) (His last, and -- by far -- best novel; also quite humorous.)

The Reader Is Warned; Patrick Butler For The Defense (Carter Dickson / John Dickson Carr) (Carr, who wrote under more than one alias due to a prolific output, has a major strength in creating atmosphere; his major weakness is the Scooby-Do ending. The first title is a superior example of both: the reader is warned...)

Last but by no means least: Dry Heat (by You-Know-Who)

GENERAL FICTION

Zuleika Dobson (Max Beerbohm)

Martin Dressler (Steven Millhauser)

White Man Falling (Mike Stocks)

Remainder (Tom McCarthy)

Gringos (Charles Portis)

Lazarus (Henri Beraud)

Taking Off (Eric Kraft)

Dobry (Monica Shannon)

A Dirty Job (Christopher Moore) (odd and oddly humorous)

Agents and Patients (Anthony Powell) (quite funny)

NON-FICTION

Peter Mayle's "Provence" trilogy

A Walk In The Woods; In a Sunburned Country (Bill Bryson)

The Gates of Memory (biography of Geoffrey Keynes, surgeon and brother of the famous economist)

@azrebel:

Alas, it was two.

Read Barry Lopez.

"Arctic Dreams"

"Resistance"

The best works that I've read since "The Book of Laughter and Forgetting" and "100 Years of Solitude". Enjoy.

Nice posts everyone. Thankfully I write mostly for aviation mechanics (so lots of remove the bolt, install the bolt stuff). Now, I'm off to research about porn on the internet. I'm shocked. Really, shocked.

P.S. I meant to add "Buried for Pleasure" to the Edmund Crispin entry. Also, "The Gates of Memory" is autobiography, though perhaps "memoir" would be the mot juste. Also ,even though the list I provided is merely a sketch, there are four more titles I would be remiss in failing to include:

Martin Chuzzlewit (Dickens; the author's take on contemporary America)

Death Rat! (Michael J. Nelson; a comic novel about an academic writer who gets tired of selling a few hundred copies of meticulously researched books and decides to "sell out" and cash in by writing sensationalist fiction about a giant rat. Hilarious.)

The Other Side of Silence (Ted Albeury; one of the best espionage novels I've ever read, and I like them realistic: this reminds me a little of Eric Ambler -- whom I didn't include since I read all his stuff quite some years ago, but A Coffin For Dimitrios is hard to beat among the Ambler oeuvre...even the worst of Ambler is pretty readable, just stay away from his daffy first novel The Dark Frontier.)

Lapham Rising (Roger Rosenblatt; a comic novel about a guy who loses his career, his wife, then his mind as he becomes obsessed with his rich neighbor's excesses -- including an OUTDOOR air-conditioner for his eight acre estate in the Hamptons; includes a talking, evangelical dog for no apparent reason)

Three Who Made A Revolution (Bertram D. Wolfe; Wolfe brings to life developments in pre-revolutionary Russia, via interlocking biographies of Lenin, Trotsky, and Stalin. Wolfe actually co-founded the Communist Party of the United States in 1919, then left in the late 1920s in a bitter dispute over Stalin's attempts to run the Party from Moscow (which Wolfe opposed). Wolfe initially started a Bukharin oriented (rightist) international opposition faction, but eventually became a dedicated anti-Communist, going to work for the U.S. State Department and Voice of America. With all of his contacts in and out of government, he had access to a great deal of information, and actually met two of the subjects of the book. While detailed, this is the very opposite of dry, academic anti-Communism: he really brings the subject to life in a way that no other author has. It may be propaganda but if so it's of a sophisticated variety, unlike the work of many conservative anti-Communist icons.)

Late to the game, but I'm surprised nobody asked if you've had anyone request you sign their Kindle. :-)

I honestly believe that people today read more then ever, precisely because of the internet and the possibilities said medium provides. Actually I've read studies that confirm precisely that.
Furthermore, I'm also sure that people write more then ever before, also because of the internet.
This post is one big sign for techno-skepticism that is typical for non-hard-science, non-engineering intellectuals. I dont think that the so called humanities and literature are useless, quite the contrary is the case. But posts like this just make me sad, because as an intellectual, the poster should know better.

When I was in elementary school, we were taken into the extensive school library and expected to read for one hour every day. That was in the olden days, admittedly. But it did make reading as regular a part of my life as eating. By the way, Jon, The Secret Life of Bees is a very good book, in my humble opinion.

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