Reading Is Fundamental, Steve

Earlier this year, I quietly set out to prove Steve Jobs wrong. You may remember what I’m talking about: in that inimitably dismissive way that he has, the Apple CEO rejected the idea that the Amazon Kindle held much promise, contending that “Americans don’t read anymore.” It wasn’t that I wanted to prove him wrong on the Kindle (a product for which I find it hard to muster much enthusiasm). Rather, I wanted to disprove at least for myself his statement that “the fact is that people don’t read anymore.”

Jobs argued, “Forty percent of the people in the U.S. read one book or less last year.” But somewhere along the way I got it in my head that to really prove anything to, well, myself, then I’d have to read a book a month, at least. So it’s two-thirds of the way through the year now. Here’s my progress.

Reading Machine

Things got off to a shaky start early in the year; I didn’t really feel committed to this personal test until February, at least, and even then I started off by reading “Conversations with Woody Allen.” It was a fascinating document of several decades of the director’s thinking, but it didn’t actually make for challenging reading material. Worse, it sent me on several detours in front of my television, as I spent much of the following months watching as many films from Allen’s back catalog as I could. As it turns out, watching movies is not a great way to get books read.

Conversations with Woody Allen, In Cold Blood, and A General Theory of Love

However, when I finished that, I picked up a copy of Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood,” which I’d never read before. It was satisfyingly rich and harrowingly beautiful, but between traveling and work, it took me much longer than it should have to get fully immersed into its story. My dallying through the early chapters aside though, Capote’s prose eventually proved as irresistibly gripping as I’d always been told. By the final chapters, I was fully into the rhythm of devouring as many pages as I could on a regular schedule.

Since then, I’ve powered through a handful of books, most of them admittedly of lighter fare: “A General Theory of Love,” a fascinating, scientific analysis of emotional health with a terrible title; “But Didn’t We Have Fun?,” an historical account of baseball’s first several decades (I could read books about baseball history all day); and “The Ten-Cent Plague,” a truly excellent, unprecedentedly thoughtful look at how and why American society came to demonize comic books in the mid-twentieth century.

But Didn't We Have Fun?, The Ten-Cent Plague, and The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher

Right now I’m in the home stretch with “The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher,” a procedural re-creation of an infamous domestic murder that took place in nineteenth century Britain. More than just a non-fiction crime novel, it takes a close look at how that particular tragedy and its public reception reflected modern society’s evolving understanding of crime, family life and privacy. Another ninety pages, and it’ll be my sixth book for the year.

The Moral of the Story

The list, as you can see, is starving for a bit of fiction. It’s true that my natural reading habit these days is overwhelming biased towards non-fiction. In fact, I have nothing against novels or short stories; it’s just not often that I come across fiction that draws me in, and I admit I have less patience for it than I’d like. However, queued up after “The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher,” is a fresh copy of Nam Le’s “The Boat,” the hotly-tipped debut collection of short stories from a young Vietnamese-Australian author (it was a gift from a friend, but I had actually put it into my Amazon queue not long beforehand). It’s sitting on my night table next to Richard Price’s “Lush Life,” a novel of the Bloomberg-era Lower East Side of Manhattan (yes, it’s an era now) that I’ve also been fitfully, erratically reading for some months.

Lush Life, and The Boat

Granted, I’m clearly not leading the world of ideas with this reading list, but it sets the stage for more challenging fare. Now that reading is a daily habit for me for the first time in at least a decade, I can feel myself getting incrementally more ambitious in what I choose. Even with this catalog though, I’m proud of at least the fact that my days are filled with more reading than ever, Somewhat perversely even, I now rather relish long subway commutes, halting bus rides, even inept layovers when flying — and it’s not unusual for me to turn off the computer, even, and spend time on the couch with whatever book I’m currently reading. Which is to say, I’m reading again and I like it. Take that, Steve Jobs.

  1. So you’re now in the other 60%. 😉

    I don’t read much at all, and apparently I’m the kind of person that people around me expect to read. When I pick up books out of nowhere, they are usually crap, and I’m about 2-for-28 for appreciating recommendations. I am allergic to books that read like they’re written, at least fiction books, and it often takes me an astounding quality for the book to shock me out of it. (For the Hitchhiker’s Guide, it was humor. For God’s Debris, which, yes, I read as a PDF in Preview on-screen, it was the interesting proposition.)

    So with fiction, I don’t feel like I have the time or knowledge to reliably separate the chaff from the wheat. However, it occurs to me that I probably read many books worth of good articles in NetNewsWire, one way or the other, every year. I might start reading factual or documentary books, but the problem there is simply one of acquisition; many interesting books are in English, and I live in Sweden. Sure, I can order from Amazon (and have), but it seems to me like the e-book should have been way further along by now that I wouldn’t need to. Even the Kindle is still a joke as far as I’m concerned.

  2. Khoi, your humility honors you.

    Congratulations, the public testimony of a leading person starting from scratch on a matter as basic as reading books, is rare and precious.

    Thank you for that, and don’t forget to thank Steve ; ^ )

  3. Jobs is right, reading is dead. This year, more people will use cocaine than will read a book to their children.

    Are these facts scaring you, or are they not?

  4. I found that for most of the people who do read, a connection to the physical book is also exists. Different size, weight, and ‘feel’ of books make a difference when reading a lot, so I’d wager that finishing to read a digital book will have a lesser feeling associated…

    Would you have felt the same finishing 6 digital books instead?

  5. Forty percent of the people in the U.S. read one book or less last year. is a horribly sad thing. I think what it comes down to is the fact that a lot of people assume reading isn’t for them, without even trying.

    Which, I’d argue, comes from schooling a lot of people are forced to read things they aren’t interested in, so are left with a fowl taste in their mouth. But considering how much is out there, the amount of topics covered, shouldn’t really be happening.

  6. I love the idea here, but all you’re really doing (by the amount of effort it’s taking you to get back ‘into’ reading) is proving Jobs’s statement right – nobody reads any more.

    Now, that’s not to say that nobody wants to read, or that we should associate that statement with the old feeling that smart people read, dumb people don’t. I, for one, have only just managed to claw my way back into ‘reading’ by subscribing to Audible. A new son, being self employed and trying to be a good husband all eat into what time is available for me to pick up a book, find a comfy spot, settle down uninterrupted, and all the other attendant requirements for enjoying a book.

    So, I don’t ‘read’, but that doesn’t mean I’m not devouring books. iPhone + Audible account = 4 books so far the last 3 months, which is about 400% more than I’ve managed in the last couple of years.

    I think ‘reading’, or the consumption of written material, is changing shape, but for so long the choice has been ‘read the book or watch the TV show’, with the latter being such a snobbishly inferior proposition, that book-reading has become elevated to an elite aspiration (much like knowing your wine, having a fine library on display brings a great sense of middle-class achievement).

    Is listening to books/reading them on the Kindle/reading them on your laptop a different experience from opening a physical book? Of course. So is buying music online versus buying the CD with its case and booklet. Does it feel like you’re losing something? Perhaps. Is it perhaps more that the physical artefacts are products of learned behaviour, like taking the wrapping of the cigarettes being almost as enjoyable as smoking the cigarette in the first place?


    In which case, maybe digital distribution is really letting us cut past the cruft and attendant distractions, giving us more direct access to the thing that we said we wanted in the first place. I know with the iTunes Store, I judge music much less by its cover, and much more by the 30 second clip, than I ever would have done in HMV.

    Perhaps books are the next target. Maybe we’ll finally stop calling them ‘books’ and start calling them ‘stories’ again.

  7. I thought Mr. Jobs’ statement was just a blind, covering up the real reason Apple wasn’t interested in building an e-reader: because his company couldn’t build a store for content, the way it could with iTunes.

    That is, he knew book publishers would never give him decent selling terms, the way music labels did, for a variety of reasons, central among which was that Amazon was already in position to deliver e-books in a closed ecosystem. Faced with a viable competitor, Apple sat out of this market, and Mr. Jobs felt it was best to deride, um, literacy.

    I’ve enjoyed reading on my Kindle for the four months I’ve owned it, and it’s bumming me out that the translation of Montaigne’s essays I’m reading (Donald Frame) isn’t available for the e-reader; carrying around a 1,300-page hardcover really isn’t fun.

  8. wow. you sound like such a prick lately. all of the posts you’ve made over the last little while are either complaining about something totally trivial, or tooting your own horn about something totally trivial.

    this blog is getting worse all the time.

  9. I used to be a voracious reader until the web smashed my attention span into tiny, 2-minute fragments, but I’ve been getting back into reading in a fairly major way as well.

    A recommendation: If you haven’t read it yet, Legs McNeil’s ‘Please Kill Me’ is possibly one of the best books on modern music I’ve ever read, and it’s perfectly set up to allow quick dips in and out of as you read other things.

    The fiction nut is a bit tougher to crack. It’s interesting, though, as I know a *lot* of people who have the same hesitation with fiction. I don’t know if this is an indication of how our expectations of pace and the speed that a narrative unfolds has changed or if it’s something more complex. I do know that for a long time I would read partway through a novel and then put it down and not come back to it for no real tangible reason.

    What worked for me was to start reading shorter works first to get my mind more accustomed to the pacing and ebb and flow of fiction again, and to try and carve out dedicated time every day to read.

    I’m definitely interested to hear what you and others have been reading – these types of recommendations are golden.

  10. There was definitely a spark in Steve Jobs’ comment that caused a reaction among certain people.

    Like you, I took it as a challenge to do more reading, and quietly set out to read one book each week. It’s the 33rd week of 2008 and I’m on book #27. I’ve fallen a bit behind, clearly, but it’s been a fun ride. The biggest change was dedicating my subway commute to reading instead of iPoding. Take that Mr. Jobs!

  11. Khoi, congrats on getting your reading mojo back.

    As someone who reads ~25 books a year, every year, since 1995 (when I started keeping track) I know how hard it can be to make time for reading. A few tips:

    — Cancel some of your magazine subscriptions. Magazines suck up a lot of the little moments when you can read, i.e., the subway and in bed at night.
    — Don’t let the laptop follow you around the house. The laptop, say, is for the desk and the dining room table. The couch is for books.
    — Stop with the iPhone games on the subway. 😉
    — Don’t start a book unless you’re pretty sure you’re gonna love it. This is the most important. It’s SOOOO easy to bog down in a book that doesn’t grab you and next thing you know, 6 months of magazine and blog-reading have sucked up your time.

    Keep up the great reading!


    Books so good, they’ll keep you up past your bedtime. 😉

  12. Reading in general, and reading books are different?

    I used to read books, but in recent years, I prefer reading blogs on a wide range topics. So I probably am not a ‘reader’ in a traditional sense. But does it really make any difference?

  13. Jin-

    I feel very strongly that there’s a difference between reading books and reading in general (books, magazines, blogs).

    Books are the only reading medium I know that allows for the depth, sophistication and nuance that allows for highly complex ideas to be communicated.

    Can you imagine _Crime and Punishment_ written as a blog entry? Would John Irving have ever written anything if books didn’t exist anymore?

    Have you ever seen a blog entry that’s equal in length to more than, say, 10 pages of a book?

    Maybe, after a decade or two of evolution, we’ll get there — to the point where people read very lengthy material online, but for now, I think the book is the only means of communicating lengthy, complex ideas or stories and people WANT those complex ideas and stories (or, at least 60% of us do.)

    (Ok, so Dickens did indeed write most of his work via magazine installments, but you get my point. And now that I think about it, the Harry Potter series would have been pretty kick-ass if each chapter were released online, one after the other, one per month. Hmmmm….)


    Books so good, they’ll keep you up past your bedtime. 😉

  14. Well I think the success of Amazon, a quick look around a commuter train and fact that 40% is a minority are enough to call bullshit on the claim that nobody reads.

    The number of dedicated fiction consumers is a fairly small market, and always has been. Don’t forget that the paperback novel was invented after cinema and not long before TV became a widespread medium. I don’t work for Pengiun but I’m guessing they sell more, not less, novels than in any supposed heyday.

    You’re quite brave to jump into In Cold Blood as a return to fiction its a ponderous book and can drag in places. I find short stories and novellas are pretty easy going when I can’t quite get stuck into my reading. You can’t go wrong with Chekhov or Saki for short stories.

    That said, there is nothing quite like a long enthralling novel to draw you in. Finding that novel is the hard part. You do build an idea though of what books you like, and can follow trails much as once does when hunting down interesting bands. I find the authors themselves are often as good as anyone for suggesting books. Who did they hang around with, what did they read? If you like Capote, try Harper Lee, for example.

    A bibliophile

  15. I write a blog and I’m certainly no opponent of reading online. But I definitely don’t believe those modes of reading are the same — or frankly, as high in quality — as reading a book. A book (a good one) demands that you sustain your attention and your willingness to explore a topic from many different sides. Blogs just aren’t a replacement for that, in my opinion.

    Nor are newspapers, even, or magazines.

    Peter’s recommendation to cancel all magazines is probably a good one; right now I only subscribe to one that holds my attention (The New Yorker), and I find it informative and challenging enough that I will probably continue to receive it. But yeah, trying to get through each week’s issue does cut down a lot on my book reading time.

  16. I’m Jerry and I was a readaholic for most of my adult years. (150+/year) Since entering the digital arena, my addictions have changed. I purchase on average twelve ‘technical’ how-to manual in print per year, and my magazine subscriptions have declined from 27 to two…New Yorker and B&W Photography. I read little else in print form, but voraciously scour the net. eBooks and Audio Books hold no interest, though I do purchase tutorial videos downloads with regularity.

    How is this? My interest have turned entirely to creating, and participating with those who are actually…doing something…this site for instance.

  17. Khoi-

    I’m not suggesting that you cancel ALL your subscriptions… just that you take a hard look at them and decide which ones are truly needed.

    And if keep the New Yorker, it’s not required to read every article every week. You can be just as discriminating with their articles as you were with your subscriptions overall and the books you read. Don’t read the article just because it seems interesting. Only read it if it seems truly fascinating.


    Books so good, they’ll keep you up past your bedtime. 😉

  18. As a fiction writer, book designer, and editor of an online journal, I feel that reading online is a perfectly valid form of reading. Obviously, people do read a lot these days, just in formats different from the past.

    Now, the real question is whether a dedicate e-book device (e.g., Kindle) is needed or can a small, portable device (e.g., the new mini-laptops or Nokia’s Internet tablet) provide a better mobile reading experience by also offering more options? I think that’s what Steve Jobs is more concerned about.

  19. Sorry I should’ve clarified some. The types of books I used to read were all non-fictional, technical type of books. A lot of blogs I read now are equal in the quality content wise. I admit blog entries are shorter than a typical book I used to read. But I feel what I get out of reading from both medium is the same. Of course, this may not apply to others type of readers.

  20. I love to read, and so I read everything that comes under my eyes, be it blog, website, documentation, essay, book.

    The pleasure of reading a book can’t be found anywhere else. I like things that make me think…

    But well, I read nearly a book a day too. So I’m not in the norm it seem (I read pretty fast, it helps).

    Hope you find your pleasure in those book Khoi!

  21. Call me old school, but I’m not ready to switch to a Kindle yet. Yes, I’ve held one and checked it out, and it just doesn’t compare to holding a book. The weight-saving benefits don’t do it for me.

    I’m like Jin in some respects – a lot of my reading these days is technical, whether it’s blogs or books.

    That said, I do love to read fiction, and need to make more time for it. The best novel I’ve read recently was Cormac McCarthy’s ‘The Road’. Yes, it got a lot of hype, but deservedly so in my opinion. I’m also a big fan of Haruki Murakami’s novels if you’re looking for more fiction.

  22. May I suggest the David Sedaris books. Great light entertaining reading for the summer.

    In regards to the Steve Jobs quote: it might be sad but true. Our attention spans are becoming so short that we have to make an effort to read books for entertainment. Think of how Twiiter comes in to this equation…

  23. I think Steve Jobs comment about people not reading anymore was too literal. I believe he was referring to the fact that people do not read anymore because they instead surf, blog, chat, search, buy, listen, watch, play online games, scan, browse, click, touch, copy and paste. This leading to the idea that people do not read anymore. Yet to do any of these things, you have to read a little bit of copy to navigate to your destination. Then infused the one book a year reading statistic there after. At the same time, we’ve seen countless amounts of people leaving for because of these same reasons. People want their news delivered to them via video which cnn easily provides. Being book smart has its limitations.

  24. Perhaps Jobs’ comment was implying that reading – be it in paper-form books or ebooks – does not have the potential to be a growth platform, like music was for Apple. What the iPod and iTunes did was release a bottleneck that existed for consumers in the acquisition and listening convenience of music, which in turn led to the explosive growth in music listening. Bringing in millions of new customers who were content with listening to the radio.

    The number of readers will hold steady or even enjoy some growth in the years to come. Reading is not conducive to multi-tasking like music is. You can’t jog, walk, work or drive while reading. You can do all of that and more while listening to music, now more conveniently so with the iPod.

    All the Kindle does is make it easier to carry around a library of reading material and to an extent easier to acquire. It does not make it easier to read a tome or enjoy reading and therefore does not provide an innovative model that will grow the market exponentially.

  25. I’m trying to read more and more offline away from the computer. With a two hour drive to/from work each day I’ve found audiobooks are a great way to learn about different topics and enjoy fiction too. It’s not reading per se, but it’s still information intake. 😉

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