Chad Comello

Librarian, cinephile, et al

Tag: reading

Nothing to read here

This, from Andy Weir in his By the Book column at the New York Times, seems like an odd thing to say:

For the record, my stories are meant to be purely escapist. They have no subtext or message. If you think you see something like that, it’s in your head, not mine. I just want you to read and have fun.

#1: It’s not odd for an author to want his books to be purely escapist and fun. It is odd to insist that they have no subtext or message, and further, that if readers detect those things they are wrong.

#2: Not all subtext is intentional and not all intended “messages” are received by the reader.

#3: Authorial intent dies once the book hits the shelves.

Want to Read (∞): on becoming a good reader

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I’ve officially become a Reader. Reading books is built into my life, to the point where if I haven’t read anything for a while (a while being a few days) I feel anxious.

It didn’t used to be this way. Regularly reading for fun outside of schoolwork wasn’t a concept I grokked until the end of college, which is also when I started keeping track of my reading. In my post-undergrad phase from 2010 to 2012 I read 16 to 18 books per year. In 2013, when I finished grad school, had a long reading-friendly train commute to a summer internship, and weathered a few months of unemployment, I shot up to 49 books. The number continued to rise once I started working in libraries in 2014: 66 that year, 53 in 2015, and my peak of 80 in 2016. I’ll be close to that again this year.

But I’ll be OK with not one-upping myself, because recently I realized I am trying to one-up myself. Totally separate from the psychic nourishment reading provides me is the equally powerful desire to collect more and more books on my Read shelf, almost for its own sake. Accumulating information and knowledge and units (books in this case) is a key part of my personality—Input, Context, and Learner are three of my top five StrengthsFinder characteristics—so this makes sense. But it can also become counterproductive if collecting-for-collecting’s-sake crowds out the deeper benefits of reading, which are many.

What good is reading a lot if I don’t remember a lot of what I read? I’m one of those nerds who takes notes of quotes and interesting factoids as I read, usually in nonfiction books. But there are several books I’ve read, even within the last year, that I remember very little of, if at all, except a general sense of whether I liked it or not. I can’t imagine what it’s like for people who read 100+ books a year: do they have amazing memories? are they skimming a lot of them? do they do anything else?

I suppose it’s the nature of memory when you’re not a savant to filter out certain memories and solidify others. To say it was a waste of time reading those forgotten books wouldn’t be true because I enjoyed them in the moment, and perhaps they filtered down into my subconscious in a way I don’t understand.

But still, I’ve resolved to slow down a little bit, to not feel the need to rush through every book, and to allow time between books to let them settle and to let myself do other things with my time except read.

I know I’m gonna die one day and there’s just not enough time to read everything and that kinda pisses me off. But I’m willing to fail to hit whatever my ideal number of books is, as the benefits of such an arbitrary, artificial, and unsustainable quest will be far fewer than the benefits of quality reading.

Man Bookers

This New York Times story about all-male book clubs was not as inflammatory as I knew it would be taken in certain spheres. It turns out (wait for it…) some men are in book clubs just for men.

The reaction from one of the groups to the NYT story is worth reading for important context that didn’t get into the piece: that they do in fact read books by women, and that the group was started out of a desire to get back into reading after kids and life had intervened. The group’s mission: “to leave our day jobs behind, to find meaning and enjoyment in literature, and to know each other better in the process.” What a bunch of misogynist pigs!

They also correctly point out people start exclusive book clubs of every conceivable theme and parameter. To prohibit men from this privilege out of some anti-patriarchy crusade would be misguided, obtuse, and contrary to the spirit of reading.

As a librarian, I cheer anyone who joins a book club at all, or even just starts reading for fun again. And since men participate in book clubs and discussions much less than women, civic groups like this one ought to be applauded, not snickered at. (Although, yes, the International Ultra Manly Book Club has a silly name and some cheeky masculine posturing in the article.)

The morals of the story: Read! For fun! At whim! And do whatever it takes to do so. I didn’t start reading for fun until right after college, when I realized I didn’t have to take notes or bullshit write a critical essay on the material anymore. I could just read what looked interesting. And I’ve been doing that ever since.

Every Book Its Clean Reader

I was ready to scoff at the makers of Clean Reader, an app that blocks swear words from being seen on ebooks. Jared and Kirsten Maughan offered rationale for their app in the FAQ:

The number one argument against Clean Reader is essentially that an author is an artist and they put specific words in specific places for a reason. Therefore we as the consumers of this “art” should consume it exactly as it was presented by the author/artist.

I suppose these same people would hate going to dinner with me at a restaurant.  I’m not a fan of blue cheese.  Some friends of mine love it.  I’ve tried to learn to like it, tasted it several times in several different settings and dishes.  To me it tastes like furniture lacquer.  When I get a salad at a restaurant and the chef thinks the salad is best served with blue cheese on it, I will spend a significant amount of time trying to find and remove every piece of blue cheese.  Then I’m able to enjoy the salad.  In the restaurant world the chef is the artist.  He has spent his entire professional life trying to create masterful pieces of art to be served on a dish or in a bowl.  Is the chef offended when I don’t eat the blue cheese?  Perhaps.  Do I care?  Nope.  I payed [sic] good money for the food and if I want to consume only part of it then I have that right.

So many things going on here: authorial intent, censorship, intellectual freedom and the freedom to read… But the strangest thing is that I kinda agree with the Maughans.

I believe in authorial intent (which we can extend to creator’s intent) inasmuch as I recognize an author typically has any intention for her writing and interpretation of it. But as it pertains to the reader’s or consumer’s experience with the creation it matters not at all. It sits entirely outside the bounds of the creation, and it can’t go home again. Authors do not have the right to be right. They don’t even have the right to be read. Can you imagine if restaurants no longer allowed substitutions or omissions of dish elements? Or if CDs didn’t allow you to skip tracks? I suppose they could, but as a customer I’d feel mighty condescended to, as if the artist’s interpretation were the only valid one and that we all needed to shove it down, no questions asked, no matter how gross it tastes. You can’t read at whim and for pleasure with your nose plugged.

I’m a librarian who firmly believes in openness and intellectual freedom. I get it: this reeks of censorship and nannyism and is symptomatic of the pervasive “trigger warning” epidemic. That’s why I’ll never use the app. (I’m also an adult without kids who doesn’t mind a few well-placed swears in my reading.) Most libraries have content blockers installed on the kids’ computers. Is that censorship? Definitely, but a kind most people are OK with, and for good reason. The computers for adults are another story. Many libraries, like the ones I work at, have no restricting software on the computers but reserve the right to expel a patron for viewing explicit content; others install the blockers everywhere and take a hardline approach to internet viewing.

And that relates to the question I have about Clean Reader: What’s on the naughty list? The software libraries have allows for blocking specific domains, certain keyword searches, and really any site it deems inappropriate according to the code of conduct established by the administration and approved by the library board of trustees. Clean Reader is just two people, free to define for themselves what “clean” means. And they do:

The “Clean” setting only blocks major swear words from display. This includes all uses of the F-word we could find. The “Cleaner” setting blocks everything that “Clean” blocks plus more. “Squeaky Clean” is the most restrictive setting and will block the most profanity from a book including some hurtful racial terms.

Pretty opaque. A Washington Post story about the app says it “automatically obscures the F-word and all its remarkable permutations, along with the S-word, different names for deity, racial slurs and, Jared says, ‘anatomical terms that can be a little racy.'” Add to this the execution of the app, which covers curses with a grey box and a blue dot. Tap on the dot and the app reveals a sanitized alternative: heck for hell, dang for damn, etc.

They’re having it both ways. They say “no changes are made to the original book the user downloads when they buy a book,” but by inserting the Maughan-approved into the narrative, even indirectly, they are altering the work. That’s a no-no, even in the name of shielding Little Maughan from words she’s gonna hear eventually.

And there, as they say, is the rub. Unless I knew my artistic sensibilities were identical to one Mormon couple from Idaho, why should I trust them to decide which words and phrases are kosher and which aren’t? Since the app was founded upon the belief in individual choice, shouldn’t users get to choose what makes their blocked list? Heck, make some money off it: charge a buck for access to the Master List and a few more for editing powers. Even if the ability to modify the list isn’t possible, a better understanding of what qualifies as Clean, Cleaner, and Squeaky Clean is.

Update: Cory Doctorow wrote about Clean Reader a few weeks ago. I’m glad I didn’t read it before writing this because I would have just linked to his post: “It’s a truism of free expression that if you only defend speech you agree with, you don’t believe in free expression. That doesn’t mean you have to defend the content of the expression: it means you have to support the right of people to say stupid, awful things. You can and should criticize the stupid, awful things [like Clean Reader]. It’s the distinction between the right to express a stupid idea, and the stupidity of the idea itself.”

Hat-tip to the five laws of library science for the post title.

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