How to read more books

I use goodreads to review books as I read them (and to keep track of all the wonderful new books I discover that I absolutely MUST read in the future). As a result, several of my friends have recently started commenting on my reading activity and wondering how I manage to read so much. I don’t think it is “so much,” especially since reading is an incredible form of entertainment and escapism, really more of a guilty pleasure than any kind of virtue. :) But it is true that I have been reading more lately than I had in the past, and (like anything else) it is a combination of making it a priority and making it a habit.

I just came across a fabulous article by Ali Binazir that sums up a lot of my views far better than I ever could, and also includes some great tips if you would like to increase your own reading. Unlike some other advice about increasing reading activity, Ali emphasizes that it isn’t a race and that it is a “joy and a privilege” to live in a time when we have an astonishing level of access to books and the leisure time to enjoy them (yes, we do).

According to this article, the average (median) American reads 4 books each year. Four!! I read 80 books last year and am gunning for more in 2019. In that context, I guess it does seem like I read “so much.” But the more I read, the more I find that my appetite for reading increases (bookbeast!). Where do you draw the line between an enjoyable hobby and an addiction?

For me personally, I read during meals. This has the slight downside of making me less aware of my food (and there are several good reasons to be more mindful when you’re eating), but it guarantees me timeslices every day in which I get to read. I also read in the evening to unwind, and often I read right before bed. The anticipation of getting to read a good book helps me drag myself away from my phone or computer and do something without screens before falling asleep, which is supposed to help you sleep better.

I also alternate between several different books rather than pursuing one to the end before starting the next. I seem to have a strong desire for diversity; it is like nibbling at all sorts of different treats at a buffet. I agree with Ali, too, that some books are better choices than others for pre-bedtime reading, so it’s good to have several currently-reading books to choose from, depending on the time of day and your mood.

I do occasionally consume audiobooks, as Ali suggests, but they take longer than visual reading and they are less available than the cornucopia of things I want to read in physical form at the library (or in stacks at my house). During my commutes, I mostly listen to podcasts, which can feel like a book (e.g., This American Life), but more often are thought-provoking bits that make up the bulk of my non-fiction consumption. Most of my pleasure reading has been fiction of late (although I feel some desire to change that up and get more non-fiction into my diet).

Also as Ali mentions, having a goal is motivating. I use the Goodreads “reading challenge” to declare a target number of books to read in a given year, and I do find that it motivates me. I make myself write up a short review of each book I read, which takes discipline (often I am just eager to pick up the next book), but it is very valuable for going back later to refresh my memory, or just to solidify what I got out of the book (especially non-fiction). It’s amazing how very much we forget!

I enjoyed reading Ali’s article, and I hope you will too. (As a side effect, I finally understand what a “cloud atlas” is. Thanks, Ali!)

What are your tips and strategies and habits for reading? Do share!

Understanding introversion and its strengths and weaknesses

I just finished reading “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking,” which makes me want to talk!

Cain’s book is a fascinating account of the latest research on introverts and extroverts. It pulls together ideas from antiquity up through today about what distinguishes these basic personality types, how they form (nature vs. nurture?), and what their strengths and weaknesses are. Cain’s tone throughout is a bit defensive or apologetic (hence the title’s emphasis on the “power” of introverts) due to our cultural bias in favor of extroversion – but both sides are discussed. Introverts will find advice herein about how to connect, communicate, and thrive (and know yourself better).

The main message I got (which fits my own life experience) was that introversion is likely an inborn trait (not an environmentally imposed one), but we can (and do) adapt to situations as needed, including performing as extroverts if it’s in pursuit of a goal that we highly value.

One aspect of introversion that was new to me is that introverts tend to be more sensitive to the thoughts and actions of others. I am reminded of how I would anthropomorphize everything as a kid, including feeling sorry when I stepped on rocks in case it “hurt” them. Here I’d thought that everyone did that :) And it’s true that I find it nearly impossible to rest if I think I’ve inconvenienced, hurt, or annoyed someone. I feel compelled to address and resolve it.

I was also surprised to read that “at the university level, introversion predicts academic performance better than cognitive ability” and that “introverts receive disproportionate numbers of graduate degrees.” Cain does not argue that introverts are smarter than extroverts (in fact, she points out that IQ tests show no difference), but that they are more focused, invested, and studious – traits that are rewarded in academia. In contrast, extroverts are better at “handling information overload,” perhaps because introverts are devoting “cognitive capacity” to reflecting on experiences as they are happening. I can identify with that!

But the part that really hit me hard was the discussion of being “reward-oriented” versus “threat-oriented” (one way of thinking about extroverts and introverts). Reading through this characterization, I realized that this theory captures my own behaviors remarkably well. And I went through a short existential crisis, because this is not how I have ever viewed myself consciously, and it felt like a disappointment. While there are up sides to being cautious and conscientious and thorough, it seems … less impressive, somehow, than being a risk-taker and go-getter and achiever. I’m not sure that I want to think of myself as motivated by fears.

An industrious individual converted Cain’s short 10-question quiz into an online quiz, so if you don’t have access to the book, you can still determine where you fall on the reward-threat spectrum.

Cain shares the results of studies on how well people think and work in solo situations versus group settings, with important implications for your own productivity and for the workplace. She makes some powerful points about the need for both introverts and extroverts for balanced decision making (e.g., in financial markets, but everywhere else, too).

There are also chapters devoted to the teaching or parenting of introverts. I found these less compelling or insightful. The main message is about awareness of diversity in personalities and strengths. As an introvert myself, I find the recommended strategies to be overly meddlesome, but it’s always possible that others would find them beneficial.

Overall, this was a thought-provoking read that yielded some new insights about myself and my behavior. I wrote extensively in the margins and will likely come back to browse and review over time.

The usability of everyday things

I’m taking a class on “Web Usability”, and our first assigned reading is The Design of Everyday Things by Don Norman. This is a very readable tour through design principles that can help us create devices and systems that are easy and even enjoyable to use.

The book is peppered with interesting examples of bizarre or cryptic designs. Norman seems particularly fond of talking about light switches (such a simple device, and yet so many are hard to use!). As a pilot, I also enjoyed the frequent examples he cited from the world of aviation, where a bad interface can mean the difference between life and death. However, he also says that his personal rule is to avoid criticizing unless he has a solution to offer. Now there’s a high bar!

Norman identifies “discoverability” (can you figure out what actions are possible?) and “understanding” (do you know what the controls/displays mean?) as key components of good design. He also emphasizes the importance of a user having a good “conceptual model” of the device – even if that model is inaccurate in a technical sense. A successful model is one that allows the user to operate the device successfully.

I also found his discussion of the balance between “knowledge in the head” (memory and learned skills) versus “knowledge in the world” (objects, signs, instructions) to be thought-provoking. It makes sense to try to strike a good balance between how much advance training/prep the user needs versus how much they’ll have to read/learn/absorb while using the device. Going too far in either direction makes things harder to operate.

One of the biggest takeaways for me was his encouragement to remove the concept of “error” from an interface. He points out that when we don’t understand something another human says, we don’t say “You made a speaking error.” Instead, we interact and try to figure out what meaning was intended. Similarly, devices (and computer programs) could shift from “error” feedback to help or guidance that aids the user in specifying their intent in the form that is needed. He suggests that we think of a user action as an approximation to what is desired, and help the user to improve it. Great idea!

Chapter 5 is devoted to an analysis of errors: different types, different causes, and different remedies. I like the suggestion to treat errors as learning opportunities (for the user and for the designer); we can brainstorm ways that the error could be entirely precluded in the future. I will be on the lookout for ways to apply this in my ongoing flight training.

Some quotes I enjoyed or found insightful:

  • “Machines require us to be precise and accurate, things we are not very good at.”
  • “We have to accept human behavior the way it is, not the way we wish it to be.”
  • “We use logic and reason after the fact, to justify our decisions to ourselves (to our conscious minds) and to others.”
  • “How can the designer put knowledge in the device itself?”
  • “Expert [users] minimize the need for conscious reasoning.”

Discarding books from the library

I have a new volunteer role at the Monrovia Public Library – helping them get rid of books.

I know, I know, it sounds awful. But like any other kind of possession, book clutter builds up. Books get damaged from use. New versions supersede old ones (especially in the computer software section – one book we processed was “Photoshop Elements” from 2001. Don’t worry – the Pasadena Library still has it). Some books just never circulate. Sometimes the right thing to do is to let a book go, so you free up space for new books.

The librarians have already been busy identifying which books to discard (a process called “weeding”). (Amusingly, my just-completed MLIS thesis is on weeding – specifically, how to use machine learning classifiers to help prioritize books for removal.) I was shown an entire wall of shelves in the back room where hundreds of books are already in pre-discard limbo.

I was shown how to select one of those books, then edit the library’s catalog to remove it, and then remove the book from the OCLC (Online Computer Library Center). Among other things, the OCLC maintains a central database of library holdings, which enables you to search for an item once and find out which libraries have it, ordered by proximity to your location. Try it out: Search WorldCat.

I’m impressed and a little awed that the library would entrust me with making edits (deletions) to their catalog and their entries in OCLC. However, I’m nearly done with my MLIS, so I’m almost fully qualified to be a librarian myself, I guess! The class I took on Cataloging is suddenly very relevant; we worked with library catalog entries and strategies for a semester, and the terminology and tools are familiar.

One final challenge is that the library is switching to new catalog software on June 13, so the removal procedure will change. More significantly, that date coincides with the start of our Summer Reading Program, at which point library circulation sky-rockets. The patrons are going to have some growing pains, no doubt, and so will the staff. Fun times ahead!

Sibling dynamics in picture books

This week for my History of Youth Literature class, we were tasked to pick out three picture books, written in different decades, that portray family dynamics, and compare them. Here are the three picture books I chose, spanning 1964 to 2008:

1. A Baby Sister for Frances (by Russell Hoban, 1964)


This is a story about the challenges of a new sibling entering into the family (in this case, a skunk family). Frances feels left out and unimportant; her dress doesn’t get ironed before school, and there are no raisins for her oatmeal. “Things are not very good around here anymore,” she says, and decides to run away. She packs her things and runs away to the dining room. Her parents talk about how much they miss her, so as to be deliberately overheard. “A family is everybody all together,” they say. She comes back and her mom makes a chocolate cake.

2. Rosie Runs Away (by Maryann Macdonald, 1990)


This story about a rabbit family has almost the exact same plot as A Baby Sister for Frances. Rosie struggles to compete with baby Mat for Mama’s attention. Rosie tries to help by shushing Mat, then taking him outside to play, but she gets in trouble for this. She packs her things and runs away to sit under a tree, far enough to see her house but not be seen. She reflects how even if Mama doesn’t miss her, Mat and dad will. She comes back and bakes pies with Mama.

3. Kitchen Dance (by Maurie J. Manning, 2008)


This story begins with a mystery; the children wake up to strange noises coming from the kitchen. They investigate and find mother and father dancing around while washing the dishes. When they are discovered, their parents pull them in for some whole-family dancing, then gently put them back to bed. There is a strong atmosphere of love and acceptance. There is no sibling rivalry or competition.

Discussion

In all three books, children are indulged. Frances is allowed to “run away” and then provided with affection that compels her to choose to come back on her own. She negotiates for a higher allowance because she’s a big sister now. Rosie also runs away and is welcomed back with hugs and pie-baking. Rosie does get reprimanded for taking Mat outside by herself (and getting him dirty), but the feeling is exasperation rather than anger. These messages can help children work through their own feelings of frustration and sibling competition for attention without fearing punishment.

The children in Kitchen Dance are not chastised for getting up at night, but instead embraced and included. The magic in this book, I think, is the fascination kids have with the mystery of what adults do, once the kids are in bed, and the feeling of being drawn in and loved and included in that special time.

For the first two books, from 1964 and 1990, the gender roles are very traditional. Frances’s mom feeds the baby (from a bottle, not her breast), gets Frances ready for school, knits, and bakes a cake. Rosie’s mom bakes and tends to the baby. Frances’s dad (literally) reads a newspaper, smoking a pipe, in a comfortable chair. Rosie’s dad only appears on the last page, when he comes home (with groceries), and in a fond memory Rosie has of telling him jokes when he “comes home tired”, presumably from work. (In the picture, he too is sitting in a very comfortable chair with a newspaper on his lap.)

Kitchen Dance departs from the traditional view in that both parents share the domestic duties equally – washing dishes and putting the children to bed. They are equally domestic and nurturing. We don’t get to see what they do for work or childcare during the day.

All three families are two-parent families with a mom and dad. No extended family are present. The first two books have animal protagonists, but they feel very “white.” Kitchen Dance is explicitly hispanic. The father sings “Cómo te quiero,” a phrase that is repeated multiple times in the book. The family members all have dark skins rendered with beautiful colors.

The theme of conflict between a single child and a new sibling is one with enduring appeal and relevance. Still, I was surprised to see almost exactly the same plot in books written 26 years apart. Kitchen Dance portrays sibling dynamics in a subtle way; when the narrator (the youngest child) wakes up, she wakes her older brother to include him in investigating the noise, rather than seeking out parent time for herself.

There is also a consistent theme about food providing comfort. At the conclusion of the first two books, the family celebrates being back together by baking a cake or a pie. Kitchen Dance occurs in the aftermath of (presumably) a family dinner.

From this small sample, I would conclude that traditional family structures and gender roles continue to appeal to authors, illustrators, and readers. Our lecture notes for the week discuss the 1980’s and 1990’s as a time when working mothers were more recognized and social issues like divorce and out-of-wedlock pregnancy began to be portrayed, but these books don’t touch on any negative aspects. Overall, I enjoyed having this chance to dive into the world of picture books!

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