Tag Archives: reading

Don’t miss this NYT interview with Philip Roth

Author Philip Roth, now nearly 85 and retired from writing, has given an interview to New York Times journalist Charles McGrath, and it is fascinating.

Roth talks about what it was like to be a writer:

Exhilaration and groaning. Frustration and freedom. Inspiration and uncertainty. Abundance and emptiness. Blazing forth and muddling through. The day-by-day repertoire of oscillating dualities that any talent withstands — and tremendous solitude, too. And the silence: 50 years in a room silent as the bottom of a pool, eking out, when all went well, my minimum daily allowance of usable prose.

How close is his novel The Plot Against America to current political conditions?

However prescient “The Plot Against America” might seem to you, there is surely one enormous difference between the political circumstances I invent there for the U.S. in 1940 and the political calamity that dismays us so today. It’s the difference in stature between a President Lindbergh and a President Trump. Charles Lindbergh, in life as in my novel, may have been a genuine racist and an anti-Semite and a white supremacist sympathetic to Fascism, but he was also — because of the extraordinary feat of his solo trans-Atlantic flight at the age of 25 — an authentic American hero . . . . Trump, by comparison, is a massive fraud, the evil sum of his deficiencies, devoid of everything but the hollow ideology of a megalomaniac.

How is he spending his time now that he’s not writing?

I read — strangely or not so strangely, very little fiction. I spent my whole working life reading fiction, teaching fiction, studying fiction and writing fiction. I thought of little else until about seven years ago. Since then I’ve spent a good part of each day reading history, mainly American history but also modern European history. Reading has taken the place of writing, and constitutes the major part, the stimulus, of my thinking life.

These are just some of the good parts. There’s more, although it isn’t a terribly long read at all.

Don’t miss it.

Source: No Longer Writing, Philip Roth Still Has Plenty to Say – The New York Times

girl reading

New theories on why we can’t – or don’t – read

The man who can read books and does not is no better off than the man who cannot read.

Author unknown

For many of us, the pleasure of reading cannot be matched by any other human activity.

Reading transports us to a different place. It fires our imagination. It satisfies our interests and curiosities.

But with so many good things coming out of reading, the question becomes, “Why don’t more people read?”

girl readingScientists and scholars are taking a closer look at that question these days and are coming up with some interesting, and occasionally surprising, answers.

According to a recent article in the New York Times (How to Get Your Mind to Read – The New York Times) by Daniel Willingham, our reading problems stem not from an inability to see words and translate them or from the ubiquitous technology that we have in our hands:

The problem is not bad reading habits engendered by smartphones, but bad education habits engendered by a misunderstanding of how the mind reads.

Willingham (@DTWillingham) is a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia and the author, most recently, of The Reading Mind: A Cognitive Approach to Understanding How the Mind Reads.  Willingham has written other books about reading, including Raising Kids to Read.

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To read just about anything above the level of literature for young children requires a base of knowledge — a set of background facts — that many people simply do not have.

All prose has factual gaps that must be filled by the reader. Consider “I promised not to play with it, but Mom still wouldn’t let me bring my Rubik’s Cube to the library.” The author has omitted three facts vital to comprehension: you must be quiet in a library; Rubik’s Cubes make noise; kids don’t resist tempting toys very well. If you don’t know these facts, you might understand the literal meaning of the sentence, but you’ll miss why Mom forbade the toy in the library.

American education’s approach to the problem is to treat reading comprehension as an isolated skill and to spend too much time trying to hone that skill, according to Willingham.

Instead, he says, we should spend far less time on reading comprehension and far more time on helping student broaden their knowledge base.

. . . the systematic building of knowledge must be a priority in curriculum design. The Common Core Standards for reading specify nearly nothing by way of content that children are supposed to know — the document valorizes reading skills. State officials should go beyond the Common Core Standards by writing content-rich grade-level standards and supporting district personnel in writing curriculums to help students meet the standards. That’s what Massachusetts did in the 1990s to become the nation’s education leader. Louisiana has recently taken this approach, and early results are encouraging.

Learn more facts, the professor says. That way, reading will become easier and more enjoyable — and we will be more likely to do it.

Good point.

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Philip Yancey on reading and building a ‘fortress of habits’

Read. Think. Meditate/Pray. Listen.

Who among us does enough of these vital activities? Who has the time?

Who has the power to turn away from our Facebook feeds, tweets and texts, television ads, sidebars and come-ons — even our Distractor-in-Chief — to do the things we know would nourish us emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually?

Religious writer Philip Yancey (What’s So Amazing About Grace and many other books) has an interesting and perceptive take on all of this in a recent article published by the Washington Post.

The death of reading is threatening the soul – The Washington Post 

Yancey cites the many distractions of modern life, especially those brought on our technology:

We’re engaged in a war, and technology wields the heavy weapons. 

Yancey quotes Warren Buffett on the need to build a “fortress of habits,” writing:

Willpower alone is not enough, he (Buffett) says. We need to construct what he calls “a fortress of habits.” I like that image. Recently I checked author Annie Dillard’s website, in which she states, “I can no longer travel, can’t meet with strangers, can’t sign books but will sign labels with SASE, can’t write by request, and can’t answer letters. I’ve got to read and concentrate. Why? Beats me.” Now that’s a fortress.

People such as Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk, and Mark Cuban have such a fortress, and their fortresses are devoted reading. Buffett says he reads 500 pages a day.

Technology is a problem, but it is not The Problem. We make the choices of how we spend our time. Technology often helps us make the wrong choice.

Hat-tip to Shane Parrish and his Farnham Street’s Brain Food newsletter for pointing to this article.

Author Gene Doucette offers a lucid account of the ‘collective insanity of the publishing industry’

Fantasy Author Gene Doucette has posted one of the clearest and most lucid account of the “collective insanity” of the publishing industry to date. (Source: The collective insanity of the publishing industry – Gene Doucette)

Traditional publishers are desperately fighting to maintain an economic model that in the world of ebooks, digital access and independent publishing is no longer viable. They have created their own fantasy — ebook reading is down and print sales are up — and have decided to believe with all their hearts in that fantasy.

Doucette give an easy-to-read account of how they did it.

The publishers have even convinced the New York Times and a few other clueless journalists (and, sadly, authors) that the fantasy is real.

Doucette writes:

If the Big 5 are under the impression that they can strangle the ebook market, they’re mistaken.  All they really can do is strangle their corner of it.

If you’re wondering, driving readers toward print and away from ebooks is actually the idea behind this madness.  Given the overhead costs of one versus the other, it makes almost no business sense, except for one detail: the Big 5 can exert a lot more control over print and distribution of paper copies than they can over electronic copies.  So if you’re looking for logic in this scheme, that’s probably where you’ll find it.  A true resurgence in print could mean a revival of physical bookstores and a resumption of Big 5 control over the publishing industry as a whole.  And maybe a pony, a recipe for no-calorie fudge, and a cure for male-pattern baldness. (quoted)

Read the entire article. It’s a bit of a laugh, but it’s also sad.

Reading on the web – and writing for it

Web usability guru Jakob Nielsen has taught us that web page visitors are unlikely to read the content of a website. Instead, they scan. They’re looking for information.

Now he gives us a new wrinkle in the notion of website reading:paragraph-fully-read-eyetracking

When website visitors come across something they’re really interested in, they will stop scanning and start reading.

It makes sense, but Nielsen is not just reporting common sense. He is reporting the results of some intensive research. That’s why he is worth paying attention to. He and his group analyzed 1.5 million eye-tracking fixations, and they found that users focus in on sentences and paragraphs where they can get the information they want, as demonstrated by the illustration here from a zoo’s website.

Nielsen’s conclusions:

It’s good that the user could focus her attention on the information of interest and ignore the rest. When we see people read on websites, it’s usually because the site meets two usability goals:

Good information architecture (IA), with clear navigation that allows users to quickly get to a page that’s relevant to their interest. If users are bogged down by slow or misleading navigation, their interest peters out — as does their motivation to read much once they finally arrive on the desired page. Furthermore, each page should be clearly signposted, with a good heading and other design elements that signal that this is indeed the page users need.

Good page layout that quickly guides the eye to the relevant part of the page, utilizing well-written subheads to summarize the information in each segment (as in the zoo example).

Nielsen has more to say about words on a website, but his main conclusions are what they have always been:

  • Writers should write concisely.
  • The writing should contain the information that viewers are seeking.
  • It should be easy to find.

That’s the challenge that modern teachers of writing, particularly journalism instructors, face.