A small Railroad Library

National Railroad Bookshelf, José Luis Martínez library, Biblioteca Vasconcelos

In Mexico City’s Juarez neighborhood today, we stumbled across the personal library of the scholar and essayist José Luis Martínez, which is preserved, intact, in a suite of blond-wood rooms in the Biblioteca Vasconcelos. It’s a working writer’s library, full of creased paperbacks and reference books as well as signed first editions (from Juan Rulfo, among others). The item pictured above, which hangs on a wall in one of the back rooms, I found especially moving. Here’s a translation of the wall text:

During his work for the National Railroads between 1952 and 1958, José Luis Martínez thought of the possibility of establishing a small Railroad Library, and thought that in the caboose of every train there should be a bookshelf like this one with a small selection of books. We have arranged one of these bookshelves as an hommage to the man who labored so that all Mexicans could have a book in their hands.

A talk in Portland

Reed College and the University of Portland have invited me to give a talk at the end of March in Portland, Oregon. I’ll be giving the same lecture at both places. The title is going to be “The Disenchantment of Literature in the Age of the Hit Counter,” and here are the details:

Both are free and open to the public. Please come!

Trends in reading

Minutes per day spent on reading for pleasure by Americans age 15 or older

A few weeks ago, I started writing “The Disenchantment of Literature in the Age of the Hit Counter,” a talk that I’m going to deliver at Reed College on March 30 and at the University of Portland on March 31. I found myself wondering whether there was a way to get a quick update of some of the statistics on literacy and reading in America that I collected in 2007, when I wrote an article called “Twilight of the Books” for The New Yorker, and I turned to the American Time-Use Survey (ATUS), which I remembered as one of the most solid sets of data, least subject to the very old-fashioned problem of respondents who lie and say they read more than they actually do. ATUS began in 2003, and it now has a decade of data.

The result is the chart above. In order to compile it, I had to do some arithmetic, which may not be entirely bulletproof, so let me explain. For some reason, in 2003 ATUS reported separate results for time spent reading by men and time spent reading by women, but didn’t report an average for the general population, so to come up with a single number, I weighted those results by what seems to have been the gender balance in America that year, 0.51 men to 0.49 women. In later years, ATUS reported separately time spent reading on weekdays and time spent reading on weekends and holidays, so to get a single average in those years I weighted the results by the ratio of 0.7 weekdays to 0.3 weekends and holidays. (I wondered whether ATUS was properly measuring reading on the internet, so I looked up ATUS’s coding rules for computer activity: “Code the activity the respondent did as the primary activity. For example, if the respondent used the computer to search for work, code as Job Search and Interviewing.” Presumably this means that if the respondent was using the computer to read, the time would be coded as reading, or rather, Leisure/Reading for Personal Interest.)

As you can see, what seems to be happening is a very slow, stately sinking. This is entirely consonant with a Dutch time-use study, much longer term, that tracked the time spent reading in the Netherlands for the first forty years after the introduction of television. I don’t know of an equivalent American study, but I imagine that the pattern in America resembled the one in the graph below.

Hours spent reading vs. watching television as a primary activity, weekends and weekday evenings, by Dutch citizens 12 and older

Hivemind bleg: distant reading, 18th-century-style

Not too long ago, I read a letter in which a young woman recorded the hour of the day when she would be reading a certain book, in hopes that her correspondent would read the same book at the same time, and a communion would be established between them across distance. It would make a great anecdote for an essay I’m trying to write—but I can’t remember where I read the letter! Does it ring a bell for anyone? My hazy memory is that the writer of the letter was English, though she might have been American, and that she was writing in the 18th or 19th century. She may have been writing to her sister or mother rather than to a friend.

Google hasn’t been much help, because all the search terms I’m looking for (“letter,” “same time,” “book”) are too common. Also, as I remember, the letter itself was a little hermetic about what was going on, and it was an editor’s annotation that made it clear what the young woman was up to. Through Google I did find a 1793 letter from Maria Edgeworth, in which Edgeworth seems to have been making fun of the notion of making “a bargain with anyone I loved, to read the same book with them at the same hour,” so I suspect that this particular kind of bibliomancy was a thing. If anyone knows of any scholarly discussion of the practice, please send that my way, too, because I’m coming up empty-handed in Jstor.

A retrospective glance

The New Yorker, as you may have heard, has redesigned its website, and is making all articles published since 2007 free, for the summer, in hopes of addicting you as a reader. Once you’re hooked, they’ll winch up the drawbridge, and you’ll have to pay, pay, pay. But for the moment let’s not think about either the metaphor I just mixed or its consequences, shall we?

A self-publicist’s work is never done, and it seemed to behoove me to take advantage of the occasion. So I googled myself. It turns out that I’ve been writing for the New Yorker since 2005 and that ten articles of mine have appeared in the print magazine over the years. All seem to be on the free side of the paywall as of this writing (though a glitch appears to have put several of the early articles almost entirely into italics). Enjoy!

“Rail-Splitting,” 7 November 2005: Was Lincoln depressed? Was he a team player?
“The Terror Last Time,” 13 March 2006: How much evidence did you need to hang a terrorist in 1887?
“Surveillance Society,” 11 September 2006: In the 1930s, a group of British intellectuals tried to record the texture of everyday life
“Bad Precedent,” 29 January 2007: Andrew Jackson declares martial law
“There She Blew,” 23 July 2007: The history of whaling
“Twilight of the Books,” 24 December 2007: This is your brain on reading
“There Was Blood,” 19 January 2009: A fossil-fueled massacre
“Bootylicious,” 7 September 2009: The economics of piracy
“It Happened One Decade,” 21 September 2009: The books and movies that buoyed America during the Great Depression
“Tea and Antipathy,” 20 December 2010: Was the Tea Party such a good idea the first time around?
Unfortunate Events, 22 October 2012: What was the War of 1812 even about?
“Four Legs Good,” 28 October 2013: Jack London goes to the dogs
“The Red and the Scarlet,” 30 June 2014: Where the pursuit of experience took Stephen Crane