How Do You Take Your Words

Over the years I’ve seen a shift in my preferred ways to intake words.

Ten years ago and more, I read mountains of paperbacks. I started out as a young fella with mass-market paperbacks and by the late 80s and early 90s moved to more trade paperbacks. Through all this, I read only a few hardbacks, mainly just picking up a release day hardcover if there was some book I was particularly anxious for. I didn’t listen to audiobooks or there was no such thing as an ebook.

Today, I’d list my format preferences in this order.

1. Hardcover
I used to hate these. They’re big and heavy, and the dust jacket tends to slip up and down while you’re reading. Now I love them. They tend to be made with better paper. You can read them, loan them, share them, and they still look like new. If I have a book I want to keep, to hold onto and revisit again and again, it must be a nice hardcover. Recently, if I read something in paperback (or listen to it in audiobook) and end up really loving it, I end up purchasing a hardcover so I’ll have a “keeper” version.

2. Ebook
I started off the ebook era strongly opposed to the concept but the format has grown on me. As I read more and more, all kinds of tidbits and rough drafts and articles and e-zines and stuff, I get more used to this and no longer mind it. The best thing is the reduced clutter, if you’re someone who reads a lot. I can see how a full-time book reviewer might focus almost completely on ebook versions. Among these formats, I think EPUB is my favorite, for iPad compatibility. MOBI (for Amazon Kindle) or PDF work just fine too.

3. Audiobook
Many readers don’t consider this “reading” at all, but I do. I have a long commute. My car stereo lets me plug in an iPod full of audiobooks and listen comfortably without headphones. Some kinds of fiction, the more ornate, poetic or obscure I suppose, doesn’t work well when you’re partially distracted by driving. I tend to focus on more mass-market, mainstream or young adult fiction in audio format. Something like The Hunger Games, or a novel by Stephen King or Tom Clancy, is just about perfect. It’s engaging enough to make the drive seem to go by faster, but if my attention lapses for 1/2 second I won’t end up losing all track of the story.

4. Trade paperback
I used to love this format above all others. The late eighties and early nineties, when I read perhaps more than I ever have (finishing up a lit degree and just getting started writing serious fiction), this format was booming. I loved those Vintage Contemporaries by Raymond Carver, Nicholson Baker, Frederick Exley, Jonathan Carroll. This made for an attractive and classy paperback, more economical than a hardcover and also smaller and lighter.

5. Mass-market paperback
These used to form the bulk of my book collection, and I’m sure they still constitute a big percentage of the books sold in the world, even today. This cheap, junky format has given me countless thousands of hours of pleasure, enlightenment and escape. Thanks for all you’ve done for me, but I’ve moved on. All those mountains of yellowing, pulpy paper are overrunning the house. Piles and piles of Elmore Leonard, Greg Bear, Clive Barker, not to mention all the hundreds of classics any college Lit major accumulates. The format itself is neither aesthetically appealing nor especially durable. What I’ve always really cared about is the content itself. The words. That’s something I can get now from ebooks.

In summary…

My purchases of paperbacks will now be mostly limited to books released in only that format, or books I’m anxious to read on release date that come out in that format first.

For a quick, light or exploratory read, ebooks work just as well as paperbacks, and don’t pile up to the ceiling.

Audiobooks are a perfectly good way to increase one’s word intake, especially with straightforward and easy to follow fiction.

If the book is something I care about enough to want to keep, I love hardcovers.

When You Can’t Read, Listen

My reading time has been short lately so I’ve been limited to audiobook listening during my long-ish commute. I just finished Stephen King’s Dreamcatcher and I’m about to start The Road by Cormac McCarthy.

I’ve been thinking a lot about writers who create work that transcends genre, and these two writers are noteworthy in that regard. I’ll post something about that later today.

Words In: Horns by Joe Hill

Just finishing up Horns by Joe Hill, in audiobook format. Hill’s first novel Heart Shaped Box was one of my favorite new discoveries of last year, a somewhat dark, edgy book of clever, compact nastiness. If you didn’t already know this, Joe Hill is Stephen King’s son, and decided to try writing under a pseudonym to see if he could have a career of his own without his dad’s influence. Eventually his cover was blown, but he continues to use the name. His real-life name is Joe Hillstrom King so the pen name is really just the first half of his full, proper name anyway. Hey, maybe I should try to get published as “Michael Jay?”

The earlier book followed a somewhat washed-up rock-and-roller whose life is turned upside down when he purchases an old man’s suit that turns out to be cursed. Hill’s follow-up, Horns, likewise observes the intrusion into a character’s life of a dark influence. In this case, a year after Ig Parrish’s girlfriend is raped and murdered (a crime for which he was the main suspect, though no case is ever brought against Ig or any other culprit) Ig Parrish finds himself with a pair of devil-like horns sprouting from his forehead. And not just horns, but a strange influence over everyone he comes across, a certain power over their will, and insight into things they’ve done before that they wouldn’t want anyone else to know.

His life has already been essentially ruined as the book begins, as his girlfriend is gone, and everyone who knows them, including Ig’s own family, thinks Ig killed her and got away with it. Having hit bottom, Ig follows the power and influence of the horns, and though they bring him a lot of trouble they also help him to discover some facts about troubling events in his life, including his girlfriend’s murder.

Hill’s short story collection Twentieth Century Ghosts, followed by the top-notch debut novel Heart Shaped Box and now his sophomore novel effort Horns, are enough to establish him as one of the strongest talents working in the field of suspense and horror fiction. His writing has a lot of similarities to his own father’s early work, in particular such high points as The Shining, Dead Zone, and Carrie.

Overall I’d judge Horns to be slightly below the standard of the first novel, though still worth reading and still indicative of the likelihood of strong future work coming from this writer.

Really Loving The Door Into Summer

I’m not quite done with The Door Into Summer yet, but really enjoying it. I was just thinking, as I read this, that Robert Heinlein reminded me an awful lot of Tom Clancy, then I stumbled upon a quote in which Clancy expressed admiration for Heinlein. Weird, because they wrote such different stuff, and to me the similarity was really just in the simple, old-fashioned masculine confidence of the characters. Both writers obviously respect hard work and military service and expertise in things like engineering and science and economics.

Anyway, this blog isn’t really meant for formal reviews, more like semi-formal expressions of enthusiasm or disdain, but I still haven’t quite finished the book yet so I’ll wait before writing more.

Just wanted to say this one puts a smile on my face at least once per day, and though it was written before I was born, the small dated aspects don’t bother me at all. Makes me want to read a bunch more Heinlein this summer!

Red Dragon and the Queen of Angels

I’ve seen the movie Silence of the Lambs many times, and the movie Manhunter once, but haven’t previously read any work by Thomas Harris. Manhunter is based on Harris’s third novel Red Dragon which was more recently re-made into a film of the same name starring Ed Norton.

I’m now listening to the audiobook of Red Dragon and I’m pretty impressed with it. Harris’s style is simple, kind of terse and unornamented, more of a gritty detective story than a horror story in terms of feel, but there are these incredibly hard-hitting and awful scenes of horror interspersed throughout. The horror feels real, though, not supernatural or make-believe. I haven’t enjoyed a new fiction author discovery as much since Robert Charles Wilson a few years ago, and I look forward to reading Harris’s later books, though I’ve heard Hannibal is not quite as good and Hannibal Rising is fairly questionable. OK, let’s just say I’m looking forward to finishing this one up, and then reading Silence of the Lambs.

Just recently finished Queen of Angels by Greg Bear and found it a challenging, thought-provoking piece of science fiction, quite different in style from the other Greg Bear works I’ve read. Though definitely a science fiction story, this one feels more literary and sort of poetic than his other stuff, though maybe closest to Blood Music. An interesting story focusing on distortions of the mind, and questions of consciousness and soul, both human and artificial. I’ll probably want to pick this up again in a year or two and go through it once more, as it’s fairly thick with ideas.

Star Trek Memories by William Shatner

This week I’ve been listening to an old audiobook I’ve had lying around for a long time which for some reason I’d postponed listening to, only to find it’s as interesting and entertaining as I could’ve hoped.

Star Trek Memories

The audiobook is read by The Shatner himself, and that would probably be enough to make it entertaining. But the book is full of interesting details of the lead-up to the production of the original Star Trek series, and varied reminiscences of Shatner and other cast and crew.


Did I mention that William Shatner is one of the coolest guys ever to have lived? Even if there had never been a Denny Crane, or a TJ Hooker, or the fantastic/funny/clever album, “Has Been,” he’s still Captain Kirk.

Has Been

I haven’t finished it, but have been having so much fun listening to all the stories of how the cast came together, how Gene Roddenberry dealt with production hurdles and studio annoyances, and how the actors and crew figured out how to portray the characters and design the sets and costumes and makeup.

So far, very highly recommended. It’s short, so I’ll be done soon.

Captain Kirk

More Dick

OK, I’m somewhere past the halfway point of Eye in the Sky, the Philip K. Dick audiobook I’ve been listening to. I said before that I felt Phil Dick was more of an “idea guy” than a prose stylist and that has only been reinforced by this book.

Yes, his writing became more sophisticated and careful later in his career, and I suspect these early novels of his were written in a quick rush of a week or two, just for the money. But still, the quality of the writing is very poor. Sentence after sentence follows precisely the same template.

“Flinching wildly, she set the glass down on the table…”

“Ducking suddenly, he turned to his wife and said…”

“Blinking incredulously, Hamilton tried to think of the right words…”

Almost very sentence starts with someone verbing something adverbially. Ugh. It becomes pretty distracting after a while.

Reading and listening

Yesterday’s post about Eye in the Sky reminded me of a subject that interests me, which is the difference between reading a book on paper, and listening to an audiobook.

I certainly wouldn’t say the audiobook experience is the same as, or even equivalent to, the experience of reading words on a page. There’s a difference for sure, a difference in how the information is received by the reader or listener’s brain. I’d say one’s attention is more likely to drift while listening, especially if you’re listening while driving or riding the bus, than while you’re reading a book, especially if you’re reading while relatively undisturbed. For that reason there are certain kinds of books — instructional material, or literature with a strongly poetic, ornate style — that I wouldn’t try to listen to, as opposed to reading.

Audiobooks are great for straightforward non-fiction like biographies, or for fiction in the realm of Stephen King, Anne Rice, or Tom Clancy.

Another difference between the two is that with audiobooks, the quality of the reader (I mean, the voice actor doing the reading of the book for the recording) makes such a huge difference in how it comes across. I listened to a Harlan Ellison reading of Ursula LeGuin’s first Earthsea book, and Ellison’s silly voice antics completely ruined it. Likewise, Stephen King reading one of his own Dark Tower books was very distracting. Other readers, like John Slattery who read Stephen King’s Duma Key, do a great job conveying difference voice qualities for different characters’ dialog, and also manage to spit out the words of complex sentences in a way that helps you decode them while you listen. With poorly-read books I often get the impression that the reader didn’t really know how to parse the sentence and was just speaking the words in sequence, without emphasis.

Before I started reading audiobooks, I always looked down my nose at the. I considered them kind of a half-assed way to consume a book, a reading alternative for semi-literates. Now, especially since I have a fairly long commute, and since I have nowhere near as much real reading time as I would like, I very much value the extra “story time.”