Technology, OpenDyslexia and Asym

Life is funny sometimes. We create technology to solve a problem, only to create a new problem. Then we create more technology to solve those problems.

Dyslexia is a learning disorder characterized by a difficulty reading. It is not a sign of laziness or low intelligence. In fact many dyslexics are very bright and highly creative. The list of famous people with dyslexia is prestigious.

Dyslexia is a brain disorder. It’s not that they can not see or read the letters in front of them, it’s that they have trouble converting those symbols into words. Dyslexia runs in families. Their brains are slightly different on MRI scans and they use different portions of the brain to compensate for the way their brains are. (Please note, different does not imply better or worse.)

Dyslexia is a man made disease. Writing is a technology and a recent one at that. Our brains simply didn’t evolve to read. We have to learn to do it. There is nothing natural about the process.

How recent is writing?

Sumerian cuneiform is generally recognized as the first written language, originating around 3100 bce, over five thousand years ago. There is a yet undeciphered Harappan language that might predate it by a few hundred years.  Counting and trading tokens predate actually writing and may go back nearly nine thousand years. While nine thousand years is a long time in history, it’s a blip in human evolution.

This kind of symbol processing is new to our brains. If you do not have dyslexia, that’s pure luck. You happened to have the right neuro-pathways in your brain to complete a completely unnatural mental task. You should really quit telling dyslexics they have a disorder and admit you got lucky.

Even though writing has been around for more five thousand years, widespread literacy is much newer. For most of history, writing was kept for an elite few. Broad public education for the masses was a notion that only became common in the 1700’s. Even then many labor class children dropped out of school early to work. Throughout the 1800’s for example, literacy in Great Britain hovered around fifty percent.

The biggest change in the last century, the change that has led to a rise in dyslexia in the western world is not just a rise in literacy, but a rise in it’s importance. The dwindling labor economy and growing service economy of the late twentieth century and today require literacy.

This is not only true of dyslexia, but also for ADHD, Asperger’s and many learning disorders. A hundred years ago having a learning disorder limited your academic life, but there were many other avenues to having a good life. Gone are the days of apprenticeships, learning skills hands on from a master craftsman. Gone are the days of making a decent living without an education. My point is not that people didn’t suffer from dyslexia before the twentieth century, but that it wasn’t the same barrier to success that it is today.

None of these disorders are diseases in the medical sense. They are differences in brain chemistry or make up, but they make it incredibly hard to succeed in our highly specialized society that demands reading and academic achievement of every citizen.

So what are we going to do about them? That’s always a good question. Technology has recently provided some interesting answers to the question of dyslexia.

open-dyslexia-is-a-font

Dyslexics often have difficulty translating letters into the correct mental meaning in their minds. Certain letters offer a greater challenge than others. Flipping letters, perceiving a b as d or vice versa, is a common symptom. It was probably not surprising that someone would decide that maybe we should look at the letters themselves, instead of the brains of dyslexics. Open Dyslexic is a font created for dyslexic readers. The letters of Opendyslexic are shaded in such a way as to help readers avoid flipping or inverting them. The creators admit that it doesn’t work for every single dyslexic, but it can be a godsend for some. If you or someone you love has dyslexia, you can download the font here.

Once the font is installed on a computer, using it with any word processors should be a snap, so if you can get editable files from school or wherever, you can convert them to this font. For ereaders it might be tougher. The Kobo allows custom fonts. Epub files, like Apple and Kobo can include custom fonts. If you are a little bit of a geek, you can use Calibre to add Opendyslexic to your favorite epub books. As of right now, Kindle doesn’t allow custom fonts but maybe someday they will, or at least include Opendyslexic in their fonts.

This page will show you how to change your fonts on most web browsers. With so much of our reading being done digitally these days, there is hope that we can adjust that reading to suit the reader, rather than forcing the reader to adjust themselves.

But there is more to reading, and reading issues, than the shape of the letters. Another interesting development is Asymetrica. This article talks about how the spaces between letters affect reading comprehension and engagement. A web browser tool can be found here.

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Human beings have a real knack for changing the environment around us. Unfortunately we often create as many problems as we solve in this way. Writing has been one of our greatest inventions of all times, and has revolutionized our world many times over. However for an estimated one in ten people that have dyslexia, it has made life a lot tougher. They struggle to learn what is increasingly an essential skill. They may be told they are stupid or lazy; lies that simply hold them back.

Hopefully the same knack for changing the environment can be turned to good. As we learn more about this disorder and as we come to rely more on digital technology, changing the reading environment to make it easier for dyslexics to read seems like a life changing idea. Hopefully we can get the word out about these projects and others like them.

In my science fiction serial The Galactic Consortium, humans living in the consortium don’t have dyslexia, ADHD, or any of the learning disorders common on earth. At first they wonder why this is, they aren’t so different from us after all. The truth is buried so deep in their history that they’ve forgotten it. Their educational system and digital environment was adjusted millennia ago to accommodate a wider range of human neurology. Their script has been optimized for comprehension and their educational system is flexible and works with many different learning styles. I can only hope our real world systems will learn the same lesson in our near future.

Read more about the Galactic Consortium here.

Read more about the Galactic Consortium here.

What Makes a Great Sci-fi/Fantasy Story?

I have been thinking lately about what makes a great science fiction or fantasy novel great. What elements do I look for in a book or series?

I’ve distilled it down to three main elements and I strive to include them in my own writing as well. Those elements are lush world building, mythic storytelling and the ability to challenge our assumptions.

Lush World Building

I love novels that transport you into the world the writer is creating. I don’t want to read a story, I want to become enmeshed in it. I want to escape this world and live in that one, at least for an hour or two.

I think this is something that sets science fiction and fantasy apart from other genres. A romance novel needs strong believable characters. We need a great storyline. If we have those, we can forgive a flat poorly developed setting. We can all envision real world settings well enough to give literary writers a pass if their characters meet at a generic coffee shop.

In science fiction and fantasy the world itself is as important as the characters and story. We need to create that world. That can include physical descriptions, an understanding of the physical and cultural rules and a feel for the setting. A science fiction or fantasy novel with a flat setting is like a B movie with poor special effects. We just don’t buy into it. And that makes us not buy the story either.

Mythic Storytelling

An editor once told me that the greatest stories are about those times when the character realizes something that changes them forever. If the main characters are not left forever changed by the story, your reader won’t be either.

To put it another way, stories need to be a mythic journey. Even if its only a story about a kid standing up to schoolyard bullies, he is the Hero. Even if the great revelation is simply that we don’t understand the whole world, our character is the Sage. We must see their growth, feel their revelations in our bones.

I read recently that the real power of literature is that it allows us to experience many lives in the space of one. With every story I ask myself, is this a life worth experiencing? Will I grow somehow by exploring this life? What about my readers?

Challenging Assumptions

What if has always been one of the most popular questions for science fiction or fantasy writers. The what ifs can be big or small. We can wonder what if werewolves were real, or if magic was real. What if aliens came to our planet. There are a million possible what ifs.

There is more to these sorts of questions than simple curiosity. Science fiction and fantasy allows us to challenge some very basic assumptions about our world. We can do this in a way that gets past the critical mind and lets us really explore the ideas.

Is it any surprise that the television series that has had more impact on society than any other was Star Trek. From the now ubiquitous automatic door to cell phones to tablet computers, our society has outstripped so much of Star Treks technology, as an entire generation took Star Treks “what if” and turned it into “why not?”

Star Treks’ what if went beyond technical innovations. The original series featured a racially diverse crew in a time period when desegregation was still controversial. It almost doesn’t register in modern American culture, but in 1966 we were still embroiled in the cold war, but a Russian set at the controls of the Starship Enterprise. Gene Roddenberry’s vision of an egalitarian society has motivated generations.

On the surface of things, Gene Roddenberry has set the bar high. But if you scratch the surface of any great science fiction or fantasy novel you will find they too challenge your assumptions.

Underneath the swords and sorcery of Lord of the Rings it is the peace loving Hobbits that save the day and challenge our assumptions about power. Dystopian novels like The Handmaid’s Tale challenge our sense of right and wrong. Stranger in a Strange Land challenges our sense of what is possible. The Mists of Avalon challenges both the Arthurian legends and the role of women in history.

It’s gotten so that if I read a science fiction or fantasy novel and don’t come away thinking differently about our world, I feel cheated. I think about that when I write. Does this story challenge my readers assumptions? Will it broaden their world in some way? If the answer is no, I pass on those stories.

 

Those are three elements that I think set a great science fiction or fantasy read from a mediocre one. What about you? What do you value about the sci-fi/fantasy genre? Let me know in the comments.

 

A Digital Expat — and an Answer to Hugh Howey

In Hugh Howey’s Confessions of a Digital Immigrant he asks for other people’s story about their adoption of digital reading. So Hugh, here you go.

If Hugh is a digital immigrant, I am an expatriate. I swore years ago that I would never abandon print books for ereading. And yet, I have. My reading is about ninety five percent digital.

My ereading story begins in 2010. I am transgender and I was preparing to take a trip to Thailand for my final surgery for my transition. I would be there for a month. I read at least two or three books a week normally, but I would be spending a lot of the month recovering from surgery, so I figured I would read more. How could I possibly bring enough books? Could I find English language books in Bangkok, Thailand?

The answer was to purchase my first kindle. I got it about a month before my trip and as soon as I started using it, it was magic. The device fit easily in my purse, dramatically reducing the amount of weight I carried.

My first kindle. Broken now but still loved.

My first kindle. Broken now but still loved.

Before my kindle, I carried a physical book everywhere. I used to joke, “happiness is a small book.” Small books are great for when you are waiting in line, stuck at the doctor’s office, or have a few minutes downtime at work.

There were two problems with this. Big, thick books are happiness, too, but they don’t fit so well in a purse. The second problem was that I often carried more than one book. If I was more than three quarters of a way through a book, I’d become afraid of finishing while I was out somewhere, and not having the next book to read. So I’d figure out what I was going to read next, and then carry that one as well.

With the kindle, those problems went away. It didn’t matter whether the book is long or short, the kindle still weighs the same. The next book is already there, on the same device. I downloaded what I thought would be a month’s worth of reading and headed to Thailand.

Two things occurred while I was in Thailand. I didn’t have all the books I needed. I was stuck there longer than expected and I needed more books. That was okay, I could easily shop and download more. That, too, was magic. To be sitting in a cafe in Bangkok, Thailand and buying books from the United States on Amazon, and then downloading them instantly, was magic.

The other problem was with my computer. To make a long story short, I needed a couple of reference manuals to fix what was wrong. In print they would have been big, expensive and I would have had to mail order them. On the kindle I was able to download them instantly for a fraction of the price.

In Hugh’s blog he claims that its older readers that have adopted ereading the most. That seems counter intuitive, but the more I think about it, the more sense it makes. When I came back from Thailand, now in love with my kindle, I started looking around the house. Could I replace some of my print books with ebooks?

Just one of the five bookshelves that used to fill my house.

Just one of the five bookshelves that used to fill my house.

I understand what he says about young people loving their print books. I was like that once upon a time. Now I watch book bloggers on youtube, flashing their copies of their five favorite novels and think, “five? That’s cute.” A life-long reader at age forty five, I could be smothered by a fraction of my favorite books.

Looking around my house at the end of 2010, I had one book shelf in the entryway to the kitchen just for cookbooks. I had another in the main room for books I kept for reference, or because I frequently picked them up and read portions of them. I had a library with three more bookshelves. That’s five full book shelves.

And then there were the flats. I had discovered years ago that paperback books fit well in those plastic underbed storage boxes. That became the most convenient way to store and move most of my books, which were trade paperback science fiction and fantasy. By 2010 I had stacks of them in my basement. Somewhere in my late twenties and early thirties a love of books had crossed the line into hoarding. I had to do something.

My love of books crossed into hoarding. I had stacks of these in my basement for years.

My love of books crossed into hoarding. I had stacks of these in my basement for years.

The kindle became the solution and the excuse to declutter my life. Many of the reference books that I had to have were classics, books of poetry, mythology, etc. I would never know when I needed one for a quote, or to settle some debate.

(What? You’ve never suddenly needed to know what it says in the Bhagavad Gita? Or needed a quote from the finnish epic Kalevala? You haven’t been to my house, then. It happens.) The kindle and the Gutenberg project cut deep into that shelf.

I have a problem letting go of novels. The reason is that I’ve bought many books two or three times. I’ll buy a book, read it and think, “that was good but I’ll probably never read it again.” I give it away or sell to a used bookstore. Five years later I want to read it again and buy another copy. Then I get paranoid about giving up that copy, because who knows? In five years I might want to read it a third time. But the book collection keeps growing and there’s only so much room.

With my kindle I don’t have that problem. If I choose to keep a book, it doesn’t add any weight or take up any space. If I let it go, it’s still in my cloud somewhere if I change my mind later.

What else?

A lot of the same things that others have said about ereaders played a role in my adoption as well. I will admit that being able resize text is a lot easier than admitting that I’m getting older. Cheaply priced ebooks are a godsend to active readers who plow through many books in a month.

The ability to shop at home was another huge factor. I love going to the bookstore, I do. Going to the library is another treat for me. But let’s face it, life gets busy and sometimes it’s a pain. Just getting there isn’t the only problem. Buying books once or twice a month at the bookstore means knowing what I am going to want to read after I finish my current book. Sometimes I finish a book and find myself in the mood for something similar, sometimes I want something different. Pulling the next book out I would discover that I got it right, some of the time, and I would get it wrong some of the time. Now I choose what I want to read next when I am ready for it.

A note on Indie authors and pricing

As an ereader I’ve become far more price sensitive. There are three reasons. The most obvious is that I read a lot. The choice between one book at 9.99 and three books at 2.99 is an easy one for me, especially if I am just looking for something to read.

The second reason I am more price sensitive now is because there is one real downside to digital reading. Its not nearly as easy to share a digital book. With print it’s easy to hand the book off to a friend and say, “here, read this. You’ll love it.” When you are trying to tell someone they should lay down money to read something because you think they’ll like it, it’s a different ball game. With a cheap book, 2-3 dollars, I have no problem expecting friends to fork over for their own copy. But when publishers price their ebooks over ten dollars it creates a lot of frustration for me. Knowing I can’t share the book and feeling like I can’t recommend it, takes a lot of pleasure out of reading for me.

The third reason I am so price sensitive has to do with being an indie author myself. I have, or feel like I have, a good notion of how much work and cost goes into an ebook. I understand how the market works.

I track my expenses on each book and I know how much I have to make for each to break even. I hire a professional editor and professional cover artist. Once those set costs are paid, the cost of keeping an ebook on the market is marginal. I sell most of my books for less than five dollars. At the 70% I make from Amazon, it will take a few hundred sales on average for a book to break even and start making money.

So when big publishers tell us that they need to price the latest Patterson book at twelve dollars to make money, I don’t believe them. He has hundreds of thousands of fans. His books will start turning a profit almost as soon as they are out.

My point is that when major publishers push higher ebook prices, I assume they are just fleecing consumers, using ebook sales to prop up less profitable portions of their corporate structure. Maybe that’s just me, but it’s an important reason why I read so few big names these days, and so many indie authors.

My writing shelf went digital as well, for many of the same reasons. Here are the hard copies from before I started relying on cloud backups.

My writing shelf went digital as well, for many of the same reasons. Here are the hard copies from before I started relying on cloud backups.

Do I buy any print books?

Yes, I do still buy print books. There are three reasons I still buy print.

When I meet a fellow author at an event or signing, I buy copies. I have a growing collection of signed copies from authors I know personally. I am very proud of that collection and I look forward to adding to it. That said I often come home, put the book on the shelf and then download the ebook to my kindle to actually read the book.

I recently decided to read a couple of books that are pretty popular. Unfortunately, the ebooks were more expensive than I usually care to pay. So I went to the local half price book store and found one of them for less than the ebook. That might be seen as a win for the “high ebook price to help conserve print sales” theory, except it was a second hand book and didn’t help the publisher.

There are a few books that aren’t available for the kindle. It’s getting rare in these days, but it happens. Current authors are almost all available in digital forms. Books old enough to be public domain have probably been uploaded by someone. In between, books old enough to have been published before the digital revolution but not so old as to be public domain, may only exist in print.

So there you have it, the confessions of digital expat.

 

What the Media is getting wrong about Kindle Unlimited

Amazon is one of those love em or hate em kind of companies, or so the media would have us believe. The truth for most writers is, I think, a lot more nuanced than that. A lot of indie writers have made careers thanks to Kindle Direct Publishing. And yet at the same time, they know that having all your eggs in one basket is a dangerous mistake. Other writers have made careers in traditional publishing, and when Amazon and Hachette had their dispute it was hard not to wonder how it was going to affect them. Still, at the end of the day we all understand that Amazon is a business with it’s own business interests. It’s an enormously successful business and it’s decision affect every writer, so we pay attention to anything it does.

That said, I am growing tired of how every Amazon related piece of news is spun to either show how much we love or hate the retailer. Kindle Unlimited has become the latest victim to this spin, even when that’s not what the very authors are saying.

According to the spin the Kindle Unlimited program has opened a huge riff with the indie community. We are being treated like second class citizens. Big name authors like H. M. Ward and even Joe Konrath are up in rebellion, leaving the program in droves.

There is some truth to all this. A select few authors have been allowed in the Kindle Unlimited program without exclusivity but most of us have to choose, enroll in select and have our books become Amazon exclusives or opt out. A few publishers have been offered their full cut on each borrow, the average indie gets paid out of a pot.

There are just a couple of problems with the spin. The first is that while many authors are disappointed with the way this program is working out, they don’t hate Amazon because of it. Even those pulling their books from the program aren’t pulling their books from Amazon. Even those praising the program are cognizant that it hasn’t been good for everyone.

The bigger problem with the spin is that it’s missing the central idea, the program isn’t working. It’s not an Amazon-is-a-terrible-company sort of problem. It’s not that indies are being mistreated. The program should be a good tool for indies wanting to get discovered, but it’s not working out that way.

Why isn’t it working? If we screw the spin and go straight to the source we see the problem. H. M. Ward pulled her books for two reasons, borrows weren’t paying enough and her sales were dropping. In fact, her sales plus her borrows were dropping.

I am nowhere near as popular as H. M. Ward, but I can see her point. The first couple of months I saw a lot of borrows and I got paid enough on each borrow that it was close to what my royalties were. Then borrows started to drop. Now, I can’t say that it’s worth it to stay in the program.

This combination of dropping pay out and dropping borrows points to a more specific problem then how Amazon treats indies. I think the issue has to do with the ratio of readers to writers. Most of the bloggers so far have focused on the huge number of indie authors jumping into the program, and the giant pile of books available. Not only is this disingenuous, since none of those writers is going to stop putting their books into the program, it misses the other side of the equation. How many readers have opted into the subscription service? I am guessing the pace adoption on the consumer side simply hasn’t kept up with the number of authors. That would explain the dropping payouts.

And it points to the real issue with a reader subscription service. I am not just a writer, but an avid reader as well. I opted in with the Kindle Unlimited early on. I loved it for about a month. I read a half dozen or more of the big names they recruited into the program, books I’d wanted to read for sometime because of the hype around them (like the Hunger Games books) but hadn’t wanted to buy. Then I started sampling from the large library of available books, many of them by indie authors. I got passed the ten percent mark, where the author gets paid, on many of them. But I didn’t fall in love with any of them either.

A couple months later I realized that I had stopped borrowing books and gone back to buying them. I just got tired of sorting through hundreds of titles that I might possible want to read and returned to picking out, and paying for, the ones I knew I wanted to read. I got tired of passing by books that I wanted to read, because they weren’t free. Just using KU, I could save money. But having some KU books and some bought books, I was losing money. In the end it wasn’t worth it. I cancelled my subscription.

And that is the problem with a reader subscription service. Books are a huge investment of time, even if they are free. That’s why libraries never destroyed bookstores. Readers don’t seem to care that there are thousands of books available for free at the local library. They only care about the few books that they want right now. The bookstore does a better job of providing those titles. So readers go there and fork over cash.

Libraries stay open because they are publically funded. Do you think it’s possible to have a subscription based library with monthly fees? It hasn’t worked so far. I think Amazon will discover the same thing with KU.

I know, Pandora, Spotify, changing the music industry, blah, blah, blah. Maybe Amazon will eventually pull this one off, maybe they will get around consumer reluctance and author concerns and make Kindle Unlimited work.

As a reader, I’ve ditched Kindle Unlimited. I’m not sure what would bring me back. As an author, I’m leaving some of my YA books in the program, and I will continue to monitor how it works. But I am not intending to put any of my new books in.

Contrary to what the media might say, it doesn’t mean I hate Amazon.

 

Books Everyone Talks About but Almost No One Reads

There are books that everyone has heard of, are frequently discussed in various circles and yet almost no one has ever actually read. Here is my list.

1. The Bible


When I was a young person, the Lutheran church gave every kid, upon reaching a certain age, a copy of the Bible. Being an avid reader even then, I plowed through it from start to finish. Chapter upon chapter of so and so begat so and so. All the disjointed stories of the old testament, the list of rules in Leviticus that make almost no sense to the modern reader, you name it. I only recall a fraction of it now, but I read it once upon a time.

It is not my intention to get into a religious debate. But there is something that has always bothered me about a lot of fundamentalists. If you believe this one book is the actual written word of God, shouldn’t you read it? But in many churches, this is not how it’s done. Instead “Bible Study” is largely learning a few choice phrases out of context and very little actual reading of whole books in context.

And yes, I know, a lot of people have read the Bible. Still it belongs on this list because the number of people who have read it pales to the number of people who claim it as the holy testament of their religion.

2. The Big Book


Sometimes called the blue book or even the big blue book (not the one you find car prices in) because the dominant cover is a light blue. Written in 1939 by Bill W. one of the founders of AA, the Big Book is a long rambling testament, laying out the twelve steps, peppered with lots and lots of anecdotes about people who have been helped by them.

As AA has grown to become the predominant treatment for addictions of all kinds, the Big Book has undergone many editions and printings. It is handed out in meetings, sold in bookstores and passed from hand to hand by many people.

The quintessential symbol of what the Big Book has become was a recent TMZ photo of actress Lindsay Lohan entering a nightclub clutching the Big Book, as though it were a talisman to prevent relapse. Perhaps her recovery would have gone better if she had stayed home and actually read the damn thing.

I work in mental health and our unit always has a half dozen copies of the big book floating around. One night I got curious enough to crack the Big Book and see what it’s all about. And I have to say, I tend to agree with the non-readers on this one. It’s long. It rambles. The twelve steps are pretty well known by now, and explained more concisely in other books. The Big Book remains important as a testament to the history of the movement.

3. The Constitution


The Constitution of the United States of America is not really a book. I include it in this list because it shares so much in common with the first two books on the list. It’s often held up as a symbolic emblem by people who haven’t read it and are often arguing against it.

I won’t open an ugly can of worms by discussing politics here. However, in my school days every student had to read the Constitution and at least attempt to understand it. Judging from the state of politics today, I doubt many people have done either.

4. Atlas Shrugged


Love it or hate it, Ayn Rand’s objectivist manifesto, Atlas Shrugged in one of the most important works of the twentieth century. A large chunk of the Neo-libertarian Republicans in politics today swear by Ayn Rand’s philosophical world view.

If you want to appear intellectual and hip among that crowd, you must have a passing familiarity with Atlas Shrugged. But if you try to engage such people in debate you will find that it often ends at a passing familiarity.

Honestly I am not a fan of either the philosophy or the book. Judging the book solely on its literary merits, it’s long, dense and stilted. The characters are flat and spend most of their time espousing Ayn Rand’s philosophy rather than interacting with each other. I tend to agree with reviewer Dorothy Parker, who said, “This is not a novel tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force.” And all the pseudo-intellectuals that quote Ayn Rand should be forced to read her entire collection for themselves.

5. Anything by James Joyce


“For this, O Dearly Beloved, is the genuine Christinne: body, and soul and blood and ouns. Slow music, please. Shut your eyes, Gents. One moment. A little trouble about those white corpuscles. Silence, all.”

James Joyce is the great grandmaster of the modern novel. Stream of consciousness? He practically invented it. He revolutionized novel structure. He wrote in his own Irish accent and voice, and in doing so championed a new literary form. His work is some of the most scrutinized and studied in all of literature.

The literary snobs of the world will sneer their contempt at anyone who suggests that they would prefer to read something, well, a little more readable than most Joyce. Which probably explains why literary aficionados everywhere tend to agree with the snobs, mutter an apology for not having “gotten around” to Joyce and quickly change the subject.

6. War and Peace


Tolstoy’s great masterpiece about the Napoleonic invasion of Russia is a giant of a book. Everyone knows its a masterpiece and one of those books you ought to read. But they never seem to get around to it, put off by the size of the book or the long Russian names.

It’s too bad, because it really is one of my favourites. How I finally got around the size of the book was to realize, it’s not any longer than many of the fantasy series I read regularly. If you have read all seven of the Harry Potter books you’ve devoured more pages than War and Peace. So grab a copy and get cracking.

7. The Communist Manifesto


Karl Marx’s short little book, The Communist Manifesto belongs on this list because it’s influence far out reaches it readership. It has spawned revolutions, been the primary influence on numerous communist, socialist and marxist governments. But how many people have actually read the manifesto?

8. The Tao Te Ching


The Tao Te Ching is an ancient Chinese classic, penned by the sage Lao Tsu. The book is second to only the Bible in terms of the numbers of language it’s been translated into. It has been enormously influential in the east. It has been seeping into western thought since it’s translation in the mid eighteen hundreds.

Carl Jung was influenced by the Tao Te Ching. Many of the new agers, from Wayne Dyer to The Secret, will quote freely from the Tao Te Ching.

But reading the book is another story. It’s an ancient spiritual text and it tends to be dense and obscure at times, not what you would call light reading. Which explains why so many people talk about it, own it, but few have actually read it.

That’s my list. What books would you add?

My ten favorite banned books

When I was in high school a local politician riled up a bunch of parents to start a campaign to ban certain books from the school library. The big concern for this group was Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare, which depicts teenagers having sex.

At the time I was reading a science fiction book, which I had gotten from the school library, by Frank Herbert. In the book, The Heaven Makers, an alien races manipulates mankinds emotions because they are immortal and easily bored. There was one scene as I recall where these aliens turned the pleasure centers on one of the female characters up and down, just to watch as she spontaneously orgasmed. I told one of my friends, “I don’t think these conservatives have a clue what is actually in most of these books, or they wouldn’t have started with Romeo and Juliet.”

The book banning frenzy didn’t go anywhere. I grew up in a small town filled with strongly Lutheran immigrants, either German or Norwegian. You couldn’t have described them as liberals by any stretch of the imagination but they had two traits that made book banning unlikely. They valued education, a lot. The notion of stopping someone from learning went against the grain. They also had enough common sense to realize that banning a book about a certain subject wasn’t going to make that subject go away. Keeping teens ignorant about sex was not going to stop them from discovering it on their own. In fact, if your daughter was at home reading Romeo and Juliet she was not in the back seat of some boy’s car getting knocked up.

One good thing came out of that incident. I already had a passion for books, but after that I had a passion for banned books specifically. Here are my favorite banned books.

1. All is Quiet on the Western Front


All is Quiet on the Western Front is the granddaddy of modern banned books. It was condemned almost as soon as it was published in Germany for being defeatist and anti-nationalist. During World War II it was banned by many governments, because it’s bleak portrayal of war was too damaging to recruitment efforts.

2. Farenheit 451


Ray Bradbury’s classic tale of censorship and book banning has had its own brushes with banning. When it was first published it was criticized for its language, indeed some schools blacked out the damns and hells from early versions. Personally I can’t help but think it’s an excuse. Anyone interested in banning books is not going to like a book that discusses the consequences of banning books.

3. The Handmaid’s Tale

 


Just as book banners don’t really want a book about banned books, they really don’t like a book that talks about what happens when fundamentalist take over the country. The Handmaid’s Tale is a bleak dystopian world ruled by religious conservatives where women are less than second class characters.
Fans of the Hunger Games and Divergent might want to check out this classic dystopian tale.

4. Annie on my Mind


Annie on my Mind is a coming out tale written in the mid seventies. While it’s not the first lesbian story to be told by any stretch, what made it the source of wrath for conservatives was that it had a happy ending.

Annie on my Mind was also my first “official” banned book, in that I knew it had been the source of controversy before I read it, and I read it during banned book week.

5. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee


Even the textbook version of Native American history today accepts that they were mistreated by white settlers. But in 1970 when this book came out, that was a controversial suggestion. The book was banned or challenged in schools across the country for creating controversy.

6. Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut


Another anti-war book, banned or challenged, frequently for it’s language and sexual content.

Cat’s Cradle, also by Vonnegut, has an equally long history of being challenged and condemned, for mostly the same reasons.

7. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

 


Mark Twain’s classic has been challenged throughout it’s history. Dealing frankly with race and slavery made it an instant target for conservatives in it’s day. Ironically now it’s more often liberals, offended by the language of the times, that challenge the book.

8. The Color Purple


Why get bent out of shape over graphic depictions of racism, or open depictions of LGBT characters when you can have both? The Color Purple has everything a good book banning needs. Alice Walker challenges racial stereotypes, gender, sexism and sexuality in this book.

9. Moby Dick


This book was banned in Texas back in the nineties, in a case that has the American Library Association scratching it’s head. Why was it banned? Apparently it “conflicts with the community values.” It’s a great novel and worthy of reading, banned or not.

10. Harry Potter


The entire Harry Potter series is one of the more popular challenged books of our generation. I discovered Harry Potter long before the book banners had any clue about the boy who lived. My best guess is that they don’t like magic, the muggles.

Bonus Round!

Major geek points if you already knew this.

 

Once upon a time, the prize of banned book collection was a slender volume, La Stratoj De Askelon (The Streets of Ashkelon) by Harry Harrison. The story goes that the short story was so controversial that Harrison couldn’t find an English publisher willing to touch it, so it was first published in the international language of Esperanto.

It tells the story of a missionary attempting to spread Christianity to a group of aliens. The attempt goes horribly awry when the aliens decide to test the crucifixion by stringing up the missionary to see if he would come back to life in three days.

The story was eventually published in English and has been through many anthologies.

 

My Favorite Opening Lines

We all know that you need to have a great beginning to get readers hooked on your novel. However coming up with the perfect opening scene/line isn’t easy. Carrie Slager over at TheMadReviewer listed her favorite book beginnings. It got me thinking and we had a short twitter conversation about it. I said that my favorites were too long and too obscure for twitter. So I have decided to blog about them instead.

The Kalevala:

The Kalevala is a long epic poem. It is Elias Lonnrot’s attempt to record some of the oral history of Finnish people before it was corrupted by modern influences. The first translation I read was Keith Bosley’s. I had never been exposed to this kind of oral poetry before. The first time I read it, I got stuck on the introductory poem. It literally took me hours, and multiple readings, before I could go on, it was that entrancing.

“I have a good mind

take it into my head

to start off singing

To begin reciting

reeling off a tale of kin

singing a tale of kind

The words unfreeze in my mouth

and the phrases are tumbling

upon my tongue they scramble

Along my teeth they scatter.

It goes on like this for several pages. The rhythm, when you read it, is hypnotic. I love that opening.

Kon Tiki by Thor Heyerdahl

Kon Tiki is a classic true life adventure story. Attempting to prove his unconventional theory about the origins of the Polynesians, Norwegian archaeologist Thor Heyerdahl sets off across the Pacific Ocean on a balsa wood raft. Here is how he opens the story:

“Once in awhile you find yourself in an odd situation. You get into it by degrees and in the most natural way but, when you are right in the midst of it, you are suddenly astonished and ask yourself how in the world it all came about.”

He goes on to describe writing in his journal on May 7th. He is cook for the day. They found seven flying fish on deck, one squid on the cabin roof and one unknown fish in Torstein’s sleeping bag…

Am I hooked? Who is Torstein? How the heck did he wake up with an unknown fish in his sleeping bag? These are questions that will require me to read this book. I consider that scene to be the greatest narrative hook of all time.

The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien

J. R. R. Tolkien would later claim that the idea for the Hobbit came to him when he found a blank sheet of paper. He looked at it and then wrote “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” From these words the rest of the tale sprang.

Whether true or not it makes a great story. It also makes a stunning opening line. The rest of the opening supports this first line in almost as elegant of a fashion, explaining that “not a dirty, nasty wet hole filled the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit on or to eat, it was a hobbit-hole and that means comfort.”

I have no clue what a hobbit is at this point but I know they live in holes and they like comfort. But what is most important is that I want to know more. I am intrigued about what this creature is, what they look like and both how and why they live in holes.

Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut

It takes a true master to know when, and how, to break the rules. There is no doubt that Kurt Vonnegut is a master storyteller and one of the great novelist of this century. He is most famous for his casual disregard for suspense, informing his writing students to “give the readers enough information to finish the novel themselves, if the cockroaches were to eat the final pages.” Breakfast of Champions is a novel that breaks almost all the rules of novel writing. He starts by throwing out every rule for opening lines and narrative hooks and starts off with one word.

“Listen:”

Few writers have the credibility to simply tell us, “shut up and read on. I have written something important here.” Vonnegut is probably the only one in our time, so I wouldn’t recommend other writers using this device.

Vonnegut knows how to start a novel. This list would not be complete without a nod towards one of his other great works, Cat’s Cradle. It begins with the line “Everything in this book is a lie.”

A full discussion of opening lines could easily stretch several pages and numerous novels. But these are the ones that leap to mind for me. What about you? Which opening lines or scenes stand out even years later?

Ten Novels that Influenced Me Growing Up

Here are the ten novels that influenced me the most growing up. Note, these aren’t necessarily my favorite novels now or the ones I consider to be the most important or influential novels. Tastes change as we grow older and experience gives us a different perspective on what it important or not important. These are, rather, ten novels I remember reading and rereading throughout my childhood and teen years. They shaped who I am today.

  1. The Hobbit by J. R. Tolkien: I love anything Lord of the Rings, but the Hobbit will always hold a special place in my heart. The opening lines, “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit…” have always been among my favorite opening to any book. I wrote a book report about the Hobbit every single year of school from somewhere in middle school all the way through high school. And I reread it each time.

  2. The Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury: I come back to Ray Bradbury regularly. He is one of my all time favorite writers even now, and The Illustrated Man is my favorite work by far.

  3. Dune by Frank Herbert: I was in 8th grade when I discovered Dune at the local library. My mother insisted it was above my reading level. I read it purely to prove her wrong. Looking back on it, I am sure she only said it because she knew that would make me read it. She was that kind of crafty. I loved it and it fueled a love to Science Fiction.

  4. Foundation by Isaac Asimov: Asimov was another writer I read obsessively growing up. I have a long epic fantasy series of my own that I am working on, the Gilded Empire, about a giant magical empire. For a long time my best description of this series was, “I read foundation too many times as a kid and played too much D&D.”

  5. A Spell for Chameleon by Piers Anthony: My sister Mickey got me started reading this book when I was middle school. Throughout high school Xanth was one of those series that I waited impatiently for the next book to come out. I made it through the first nine book before I stopped obsessing. I have read some of the later ones more recently. Either my tastes have changed, or his writing, because I don’t enjoy the series as much anymore.

  6. Dragonriders of Pern by Anne MccAffrey: I got the first one through one of the many book clubs I belonged to and loved it. I read several more in the series throughout high school.

  7. The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. Le Guin: I have to confess that I saw the movie first on this one. PBS was a big part of my life growing up, watching Doctor Who on Saturday Nights and then other old B science fiction that they showed. Then I saw their original 1980 movie, The Lathe of Heaven. I was entranced and had to read the book.

  8. The Mist of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley: I can still recall getting the thick hardcover copy from a book club and wondering if it was going to be worth the dough I had forked over, all based on a beautiful cover. It was. I read it multiple times. I have reread it as an adult and, sad to say, it’s not nearly as good as I remembered it to be.

  9. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams: Adams is a master of comedy. This series opened my eyes to the lighter side of being a science fiction geek. I read the entire series. I watched the early BBC miniseries. I played the original text based computer game that came on the large floppy disks, back when we had large floppy disks. This was one of my all time favorite series.

  10. The Sword of Shannara by Terry Brooks: This list is probably dating me pretty bad, but I was around the first paperback release of the Sword of Shannara as well. I loved it and read it several times. I got through the first two trilogies before moving on.

 

That’s my list. I know there are a lot of really good novels that aren’t on the list. Some I didn’t encounter until later in my life, some hadn’t come out yet. I tried hard not to list only one book per author, though I could have easily put a half dozen Ray Bradbury books down (Or Asimov, Tolkien, or Herbert) but I didn’t want to limit the list that way.