Shallow Thoughts : tags : books

Akkana's Musings on Open Source Computing and Technology, Science, and Nature.

Sun, 06 Jan 2019

Keeping track of reading

About fifteen years ago, a friend in LinuxChix blogged about doing the "50-50 Book Challenge". The goal was to read fifty new books in a year, plus another fifty old books she'd read before.

I had no idea whether this was a lot of books or not. How many books do I read in a year? I had no idea. But now I wanted to know. So I started keeping a list: not for the 50-50 challenge specifically, but just to see what the numbers were like.

It would be easy enough to do this in a spreadsheet, but I'm not really a spreadsheet kind of girl, unless there's a good reason to use one, like accounting tables or other numeric data. So I used a plain text file with a simple, readable format, like these entries from that first year, 2004:

Dragon Hunter: Roy Chapman Andrews and the Central Asiatic Expeditions, Charles Gallenkamp, Michael J. Novacek
  Fascinating account of a series of expeditions in the early 1900s
  searching for evidence of early man.  Instead, they found
  groundbreaking dinosaur discoveries, including the first evidence
  of dinosaurs protecting their eggs (Oviraptor).

Life of Pi
  Uneven, quirky, weird.  Parts of it are good, parts are awful.
  I found myself annoyed by it ... but somehow compelled to keep
  reading.  The ending may have redeemed it.

The Lions of Tsavo : Exploring the Legacy of Africa's Notorious Man-Eaters, Bruce D. Patterson
  Excellent overview of the Tsavo lion story, including some recent
  findings.  Makes me want to find the original book, which turns
  out to be public domain in Project Gutenberg.

- Bellwether, Connie Willis
  What can I say?  Connie Willis is one of my favorite writers and
  this is arguably her best book.  Everyone should read it.
  I can't imagine anyone not liking it.

If there's a punctuation mark in the first column, it's a reread. (I keep forgetting what character to use, so sometimes it's a dot, sometimes a dash, sometimes an atsign.) If there's anything else besides a space, it's a new book. Lines starting with spaces are short notes on what I thought of the book. I'm not trying to write formal reviews, just reminders. If I don't have anything in specific to say, I leave it blank or write a word or two, like "fun" or "disappointing".

Crunching the numbers

That means it's fairly easy to pull out book titles and count them with grep and wc. For years I just used simple aliases:

 All books this year: egrep '^[^ ]' books2019 | wc -l
 Just new books:      egrep '^[^ -.@]' books2019 | wc -l
 Just reread books:   egrep '^[-.@]' books2019 | wc -l

But after I had years of accumulated data I started wanting to see it all together, so I wrote a shell alias that I put in my .zshrc:

booksread() {
  setopt extendedglob
  for f in ~/Docs/Lists/books/books[0-9](#c4); do
    year=$(echo $f | sed 's/.*books//')
    let allbooks=$(egrep '^[^ ]' $f | grep -v 'Book List:' | wc -l)
    let rereads=$(egrep '^[-.@\*]' $f  | grep -v 'Book List:'| wc -l)
    printf "%4s:   All: %3d   New: %3d   rereads: %3d\n" \
           $year $allbooks $(($allbooks - $rereads)) $rereads

In case you're curious, my numbers are all over the map:

$ booksread
2004:   All:  53   New:  44   rereads:   9
2005:   All:  51   New:  36   rereads:  15
2006:   All:  72   New:  59   rereads:  13
2007:   All:  59   New:  49   rereads:  10
2008:   All:  42   New:  33   rereads:   9
2009:   All:  56   New:  47   rereads:   9
2010:   All:  43   New:  27   rereads:  16
2011:   All:  80   New:  55   rereads:  25
2012:   All:  65   New:  58   rereads:   7
2013:   All:  59   New:  54   rereads:   5
2014:   All: 128   New: 121   rereads:   7
2015:   All: 111   New: 103   rereads:   8
2016:   All:  66   New:  62   rereads:   4
2017:   All:  57   New:  56   rereads:   1
2018:   All:  74   New:  71   rereads:   3
2019:   All:   3   New:   3   rereads:   0

So sometimes I beat that 100-book target that the 50-50 people advocated, other times not. I'm not worried about the overall numbers. Some years I race through a lot of lightweight series mysteries; other years I spend more time delving into long nonfiction books.

But I have learned quite a few interesting tidbits.

What Does it all Mean?

I expected my reread count would be quite high. As it turns out, I don't reread nearly as much as I thought. I have quite a few "comfort books" that I like to read over and over again (am I still five years old?), especially when I'm tired or ill. I sometimes feel guilty about that, like I'm wasting time when I could be improving my mind. I tell myself that it's not entirely a waste: by reading these favorite books over and over, perhaps I'll absorb some of the beautiful rhythms, strong characters, or clever plot twists, that make me love them; and that maybe some of that will carry over into my own writing. But it feels like rationalization.

But that first year, 2004, I read 44 new books and reread 9, including the Lord of the Rings trilogy that I hadn't read since I was a teenager. So I don't actually "waste" that much time on rereading. Over the years, my highest reread count was 25 in 2011, when I reread the whole Tony Hillerman series.

Is my reread count low because I'm conscious of the record-keeping, and therefore I reread less than I would otherwise? I don't think so. I'm still happy to pull out a battered copy of Tea with the Black Dragon or Bellweather or Watership Down or The Lion when I don't feel up to launching into a new book.

Another thing I wondered: would keeping count encourage me to read more short mysteries and fewer weighty non-fiction tomes? I admit I am a bit more aware of book lengths now -- oh, god, the new Stephenson is how many pages? -- but I try not to get competitive, even with myself, about numbers, and I don't let a quest for big numbers keep me from reading Blood and Thunder or The Invention of Nature. (And I had that sinking feeling about Stephenson even before I started keeping a book list. The man can write, but he could use an editor with a firm hand.)

What counts as a book? Do I feel tempted to pile up short, easy books to "get credit" for them, or to finish a bad book I'm not enjoying? Sometimes a little, but mostly no. What about novellas? What about partial reads, like skipping chapters? I decide on a case by case basis but don't stress over it. I do keep entries for books I start and don't finish (with spaces at the beginning of the line so they don't show up in the count), with notes on why I gave up on them, or where I left off if I intend to go back.

Unexpected Benefits

Keeping track of my reading has turned out to have other benefits. For instance, it prevents accidental rereads. Last year Dave checked a mystery out of the library (we read a lot of the same books, so anything one of us reads, the other will at least consider). I looked at it and said "That sounds awfully familiar. Haven't we already read it?" Sure enough, it was on my list from the previous year, and I hadn't liked it. Dave doesn't keep a book list, so he started reading, but eventually realized that he, too, had read it before.

And sometimes my memory of a book isn't very clear, and my notes on what I thought of a book are useful. Last year, on a hike, a friend and I got to talking about the efforts to eradicate rats on southern California's Channel Islands. I said "Oh, I read an interesting novel about that recently. Was it Barbara Kingsolver? No, wait ... I think it was T.C. Boyle. Interesting book, you should check it out."

When I got home, I consulted my book lists and found it in 2011:

When the Killing's Done, T.C. Boyle
  A tough slog through part 1, but it gets somewhat better in part 2
  (there are actually a few characters you don't hate, finally)
  and some plot eventually emerges, near the end of the novel.

I sent my friend an email rescinding my recommendation. I told her the book does cover some interesting details related to the rat eradication, but I'd forgotten that it was a poor excuse for a novel. In the end she decided to read it anyway, and her opinion agreed with mine. I believe she's started keeping a book list of her own now.

On the other hand, it's also good to have a record of delightful new discoveries. A gem from last year:

Mr. Penumbra's 24-hour bookstore, Robin Sloan
  Unexpectedly good! I read this because Sloan was on the Embedded
  podcast, but I didn't expect much. Turns out Sloan can write!
  Had me going from the beginning. Also, the glow-in-the-dark books
  on the cover were fun.

Even if I forget Sloan's name (sad, I know, but I have a poor memory for names), when I see a new book of his I'll know to check it out. I didn't love his second book, Sourdough, quite as much as Mr. Penumbra, but he's still an author worth following.

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[ 12:09 Jan 06, 2019    More misc | permalink to this entry | comments ]

Wed, 03 Jul 2013

Mad Moon Models

[This a slight revision of my monthly "Shallow Sky" column in the SJAA Ephemeris newsletter. Looks like the Ephemeris no longer has an online HTML version, just the PDF of the whole newsletter, so I may start reposting my Ephemeris columns here more often.]

[Plate IX: The Lunar Apennines, Archemedes &c.] Last month I stumbled upon a loony moon book I hadn't seen before, one that deserves consideration by all lunar observers.

The book is The Moon: Considered as a Planet, a World, and a Satellite by James Nasmyth, C.E. and James Carpenter, F.R.A.S. It's subtitled "with twenty-six illustrative plates of lunar objects, phenomena, and scenery; numerous woodcuts &c." It was written in 1885.

Astronomers may recognize the name Nasmyth: his name is attached to a modified Cassegrain focus design used in a lot of big observatory telescopes. Astronomy was just a hobby for him, though; he was primarily a mechanical engineer. His coauthor, James Carpenter, was an astronomer at the Royal Greenwich Observatory.

The most interesting thing about their book is the plates illustrating lunar features. In 1885, photography wasn't far enough along to get good close-up photos of the moon through a telescope. But Nasmyth and Carpenter wanted to show something beyond sketches. So they built highly detailed models of some of the most interesting areas of the moon, complete with all their mountains, craters and rilles, then photographed them under the right lighting conditions for interesting shadows similar to what you'd see when that area was on the terminator.

[David North explaining the moon] I loved the idea, since I'd worked on a similar but much less ambitious project myself. Over a decade ago, before we were married, Dave North got the idea to make a 3-D model of the full moon that he could use for the SJAA astronomy class. I got drafted to help. We started by cutting a 3-foot disk of wood, on which we drew a carefully measured grid corresponding to the sections in Rukl's Atlas of the Moon. Then, section by section, we drew in the major features we wanted to incorporate. Once the drawing was done, we mixed up some spackle -- some light, and some with a little black paint in it for the mare areas -- and started building up relief on top of the features we'd sketched. The project was a lot of fun, and we use the moon model when giving talks (otherwise it hangs on the living room wall).

Nasmyth and Carpenter's models cover only small sections of the moon -- Copernicus, Plato, the Apennines -- but in amazing detail. Looking at their photos really is like looking at the moon at high magnification on a night of great seeing.

So I had to get the book. Amazon has two versions, a paperback and a hardcover. I opted for the paperback, which turns out to be scanned from a library book (there's even a scan of the pocket where the book's index card goes). Some of the scanning is good, but some of the plates come out all black. Not very satisfying.

But once I realized that an 1885 book was old enough to be public domain, I checked the web. I found two versions: one at and one on Google Books. They're scans from two different libraries; the scan is better, but the epub version I downloaded for my ebook reader has some garbled text and a few key plates, like Clavius, missing. The Google version is a much worse scan and I couldn't figure out if they had an epub version. I suspect the hardcover on Amazon is likely a scan from yet a fourth library.

At the risk of sounding like some crusty old Linux-head, wouldn't it be nice if these groups could cooperate on making one GOOD version rather than a bunch of bad ones?

I also discovered that the San Jose library has a copy. A REAL copy, not a scan. It gave me a nice excuse to take the glass elevator up to the 8th floor and take in the view of San Jose. And once I got it, I scanned all the moon sculpture plates myself. Sadly, like the ebook, the San Jose copy is missing Copernicus. I wonder if vandals are cutting that page out of library copies? That makes me wince even to think of it, but I know such things happen.

Whichever version you prefer, I'd recommend that lunies get hold of a copy. It's a great introduction to planetary science, with very readable discussions of how you measure things like the distance and size of the moon. It's an even better introduction to lunar observing: if you merely go through all of their descriptions of interesting lunar areas and try to observe the features they mention, you'll have a great start on a lunar observing program that'll keep you busy for months. For experienced observers, it might give you a new appreciation of some lunar regions you thought you already knew well. Not at super-fine levels of detail -- no Alpine Valley rille -- but a lot of good discussion of each area.

[Plate XVIII: Aristarchus & Herodotus ] Other parts of the book are interesting only from a historical perspective. The physical nature of lunar features wasn't a settled issue in 1885, but Nasmyth and Carpenter feel confident that all of the major features can be explained as volcanism. Lunar craters are the calderas of enormous volcanoes; mountain ranges are volcanic too, built up from long cracks in the moon's crust, like the Cascades range in the Pacific Northwest.

There's a whole chapter on "Cracks and Radiating Streaks", including a wonderful plate of a glass ball with cracks, caused by deformation, radiating from a single point. They actually did the experiment: they filled a glass globe with water and sealed it, then "plunged it into a warm bath". The cracks that resulted really do look a bit like Tycho's rays (if you don't look TOO closely: lunar rays actually line up with the edges of the crater, not the center).

It's fun to read all the arguments that are plausible, well reasoned -- and dead wrong. The idea that craters are caused by meteorite impacts apparently hadn't even been suggested at the time.

Anyway, I enjoyed the book and would definitely recommend it. The plates and observing advice can hold their own against any modern observing book, and the rest ... is a fun historical note.

Here are some places to get it:


Or, try your local public library -- they might have a real copy!

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[ 16:12 Jul 03, 2013    More science/astro | permalink to this entry | comments ]