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Wanted: An App for Adding Value to Reading

(Trying to see the Big Picture, while camping at the edge of a cliff, halfway up Mt. Taylor near Grants NM.) 

With all the progress in our Information Age, it might seem ungrateful and spoiled to merely shrug it off as being over-rated. But I can't help it. Most of this "progress" comes down to building a bigger mountain of useless crap.

What we really need is qualitative improvement, not mere quantitative enlargement. And how much of that have you ever run into, in this techno-narcissistic society? Having eBook gadgets might offer some conveniences; and in principle they should lower the price of books. But it doesn't add much to the effectiveness or impact of reading books. Gadgets don't help you find books that are worth reading.

The other day I reread "Gone with the Wind", for whatever reason. I never cared that much for the movie or the book; they were too easy to shrug off as being "for women."  The main character, Scarlett O'Hara, just wasn't that interesting to me.

But when rereading the book I was surprised to find something of value, albeit in the background of the silly love triangles.  The issues faced by the book's characters show up in any era.

How should a person react to defeat and humiliation? Go on a vengeful rampage? Wallow in romantic dreams of the good old days or the "Lost Cause?" Or adapt to reality?

Scarlett adapted and survived. But that too has its dangers if you become too much like the hateful creatures that conquered you.

There are many times in a person's life when they might go through this experience of defeat-and-adaptation to survive. The most frequent example would be a reorganization at your workplace; or the winds of Wall Street blowing in the wrong direction; or a lost election; or economic changes that you don't approve of, but are powerless to stop. You can find yourself on the losing end of cultural changes, as well.

This is just an example of how much a reader could benefit from a new "value added" layer in our Information economy. We'd benefit from an app that does more than just recommend books to read; it should function almost as a pointer, or look-up table, that recommends book X when you are having a certain problem Y, or are in a mood Z.

It should tell you, not just What to read, but When and Why.


In other words you want someone else to tell you what to read by sorting out books to just what they want to have you learn from? Sounds like a perfect Obamanation. No Thanks I will chose my own education.
XXXXX said…
Truth is we humans are an anomaly and we prefer to think that this points to our superiority but I have my doubts.
We are the only species that insists on making meaning of absolutely everything and then spend 95% of our waking lives either in arguing or supporting our cause. It is not such a blessing.
It's all a game and the best one can hope for is to see it as such.
Speaking of books. Ran across "The Way of the Dog" by Sam Savage. Quite off the wall, I think. You might like it. Not sure. A novel about a bizarre sort of man, slowly dying, looking at his life with some bitterness and gradually finding some peace of mind.
Here is a quote from p. 101: (Roy is his dead dog.)
Even during the final summer, with both of us on our last legs, I would still walk down to the park with Roy, though I didn't throw sticks anymore. He had lost interest in sticks. I would lift him onto the bench beside me. We would sit there, facing the railroad tracks and the river, the city across the river, and the hills beyond that. I would go over the events of my life, the old dead sticks of the past that I dug up and chewed on, while Roy stared at me blankly. Now and then he would thump his tail against the bench to show that he was listening, a bushy tail that he carried with panache right to the end. Learn from dogs, he seemed to say. Every day is all there is. The past does not exist. The future doesn't exist. What holds past and future together is memory and what holds memory together are stories, and dogs don't tell themselves stories.

Unknown said…
Sounds like the opposite of book banning. Or it could be the Chinese experiment with Mao when everything was scripted by the government.

For me, I wouldn't trust a self analysis of "needs/feelings". It would be loaded with personal biases.

On a positive note, how about checking out a list (and short reason why) of the best fiction books over the past 100 years/all time. That would be as good as any app and just as valid.
Whoa, wait a minute. How did you and Barney jump to conclusion that I was in favor of ONE and only ONE, official book selection app? I might have been talking about ONE, but only as a rhetorical construct, and for the sake of brevity.

Obviously many such competing apps would be desired -- but not to the point that there is such a giant slag heap of competing apps that it would take a human lifetime to sift through.
"and then spend 95% of our waking lives either in arguing or supporting our cause. It is not such a blessing." This sounds un-Georgeishly anti-intellectual. (grin)

I never know what to say when somebody recommends a book, unless they tell Why. And the truth is that I'm too cheap to spend $10 on a book. On the other hand, if they were only $5...
Michael said…

Overall, I sympathize with your frustration that technology seems to focus on quantitative rather than qualitative advances. Bigger, faster, more, instead of wiser, deeper, more joyful, etc.

Still, I think it's good to acknowledge that quantity sometimes turns into quality--as in faster computers now, yes now, enabling one to find far more quickly all kinds of wisdom and intelligence at one's fingertips online than was the case even 10 years ago.

And I would also remind you that the best of anything good--deepest wisdom, tenderest love, most exquisite cuisine, etc.--can only be appreciated by those who bring certain sensibilities "to the table." It's been said that "One has to be wise to recognize wisdom." Still, with that modicum of wisdom that it takes to discern wisdom, one can benefit from the additional wisdom. And this readiness, even eagerness, to pursue quality cannot be created by technology, but rather by more essential and old fashioned human spiritual/interpersonal/mental efforts.

So technology (though driven mostly by advances in quantity) will, and does, give us access to some elements that support higher quality of life... But we, as individuals and societies, must value higher quality...and not just more flash and noise and preening.

And that is another entire set of discussions.

A final thought: I think technology apps or products will gradually be the equivalent of a digital/mental mirror, in gathering information about us and our previous choices and preferences, and reflect back to us ever more accurate guesses as to what we might want to know about...or read. Google search and do this already to some degree; but, in the coming years and decades such technologies are bound to make current efforts seem laughably primitive.
Michael, yes, Quantity does sometimes "leak" into Quality. But I'm still looking for an app (or Information product) that helps me find books worth reading.

I am not the techno-optimist that you are, because I think there are important economic reasons why readers need to be kept at the mercy of large publishing houses and their marketing departments.
Randy said…
Great essay---generally agree. My concern is that reading so much is addictive----and so much easier than experiencing. Whitman says: (to himself) Walt: You've read enough----time to let it out. (act?create?) right now, I'm whiling the day away at my computer---one could do worse---but I have a blog to write and led lights to install. Brad Blanton says that he became enlightened when he learned the difference between a thought and an experience.
Randy, I think I've known people who were addicted to reading. For other people, like me, reading is unpleasant enough to preclude addiction. We don't really enjoy the act of reading, but merely tolerate it for the sake of the ideas presented.

But after all, a retiree has a lot of time on his hands, and those hours have to get soaked up somehow, especially at night or during hot windy afternoons. Your concern about "reading versus experiencing" applies better to television addiction. (ahem)

And recall your Boswell, in "Life of Johnson:"
"In February, 1767, there happened one of the most remarkable incidents of Johnson's life... This was his being honoured by a private conversation with his Majesty, in the library at the Queen's house.

His Majesty having been informed of his occasional visits, was pleased to signify a desire that he should be told when Dr. Johnson came next to the library. Accordingly, the next time that Johnson did come, as soon as he was fairly engaged with a book, on which, while he sat by the fire, he seemed quite intent...

... Being entered, Mr. Barnard stepped forward hastily to Dr. Johnson, who was still in a profound study, and whispered him, 'Sir, here is the King.' Johnson started up, and stood still. His Majesty approached him, and at once was courteously easy.

His Majesty enquired if he was then writing any thing. He answered, he was not, for he had pretty well told the world what he knew, and must now read to acquire more knowledge. "
edlfrey said…
You might try the very old 'app' called a librarian. In the small towns that you frequent I'm sure that the librarian would talk your ear off if you ask for some book recommendations. If you did that in every town that you stayed close to I would think that you would have a good reading list that could be continually updated.
Bob Giddings said…
Maybe you want to rethink that a little, Barney. "Choosing your own education" doesn't sound like education at all, but rather confirmation.

What Boonie is talking about, I think, is a series of filters that will separate the wheat from the chaff, at an age when he, you, and I no longer have all the time in the world to choke on chaff.

I suggest browsing the reading lists current for various courses at Universities throughout the country, in subjects you are interested in. It ain't foolproof, but it's a start. The best wisdom filter is a mind marinated in the subject for 40 or 50 years, and required or recommended reading in courses taught by such is the cheapest and quickest route to such an acquaintance.

Of course there's never any certainty you won't meet a fool that way. But just browsing around a used book store ain't proof against that either. Hell, I meet one every day I shave.
Librarians? Maybe I'm too prejudiced against spinsterish/school marmish tastes. They would probably suggest something by the Bronte sisters.
XXXXX said…
I sure disagree with that impression of librarians. It was true when I was a kid, probably you too, a sign of the times, constantly having stuff screened. Actually, I get some really good stuff from the "librarians recommend" table. Give it a try.
Bob Giddings said…
I was pretty impressed with "Wuthering Heights" once. Emily was always the wild child of the sisters. There is a kind of fever barely leashed by her prose. Like listening to someone slowly but inevitably going crazy not by falling apart, but by coming together.

Most Victorian novels are various evocations of the comedy of manners. Emily is not mannerly. More about the breakage of manners. Sort of sneaks up on you. Nothing obvious, but something powerful growing all around and through it with a logic too primitive to be captured by the cliches of romance.

Read Wuthering Heights if you want to understand - or remember - why and how teenagers can come to commit suicide, when to the outside world they seem to have all the world before them. It has to do with feelings being more powerful than reason.

It is a book that can confound your expectations. Not "school-marmish" at all, to my mind. But very female in an ancient and scary way. But you have to read it indirectly, like you are listening to the wind.
XXXXX said…
The whole genre of gothic novels is a very worthwhile read. It is amazing that Charlotte and Emily came from the same family. "Jane Eyre"...the good demure obedient woman and "Wuthering Heights" you say, Bob, an ancient and scary feminine unleashed. Nineteenth century British novels are particularly interesting because of the underlying tension between the Catholics and Protestants that existed in the country and the novels of the time are challenging the disbeliefs in a fictionalized sort of way. Remember that novels themselves, in mass, were still a new thing. Another book that is terrific is called "The Monk", available free on line, another profound challenge to religious belief and to the dark side of mankind. That's another theme of the gothic novels. They truly do touch on our dark side. Remember though that people wrote differently in those days and patience is required. Not for those just looking for an easy entertaining read.
Anonymous said…
It isn't an "app", but is intended to do something like what you're requesting. YMMV. (Note: it was recently purchased by
Tesaje said…
And Project Gutenberg
Albireo said…
Good idea for an app. The seeker could input past favorite books, current mood, relevant circumstances. Beg your pardon as I attempt to be a human app of that sort. Judging from your recent blog entries, books worth reading for you at this time might include *The Big Sky* and *The Way West*, both by AB Gutherie. Not available at, I checked :(