Five Reasons why Readers have Stopped Writing their Names in Books

Have you written your name in a book? My first books have my name written in a child’s print, later in cursive. Working in the family print shop, I created a rubber stamp with my name and address. I stopped when I left home; my address changed too often. Bookplates — or ex libris, Latin, “from the books of …” — are decorative labels pasted in the front cover of a book, filled in with the name of the owner. I printed bookplates with a letterpress. Writing one’s name in a book is a practice dating back to the twelfth century. People would write their name, profession, residence, the book’s price, the giver if it was a gift, the date it was obtained, and even how long it took to read. Some readers will underline passages or add marginalia, comments or pictures in the margins. Others think it sacrilegious to write in books or will only write in pencil.

Why do readers write in books? And why have they stopped? I can think of five reasons:

Abundance. Books used to be scarce. They were an asset in a collection. If you loaned a book out you expected to get it back. Books are abundant today. They still have a price, and can be expensive, but most everyone has access to books. When I lend a book, I do not expect to see it again. Even so, I lend books. There are plenty more. 

Fashion. Bookplates are beautiful, emblazoned with a coat of arms, but heraldry was a medieval military fashion and passed with it. People still find heraldry and bookplates fascinating, collecting them in the way people collect stamps or coins. It is now just a specialist hobby.

E-book Ownership. The concept of book ownership has changed. If you purchase a print book, it is yours for as long as you like and you can do what you like with it. Today, when you buy an e-book you are only purchasing a license to access the book’s contents. You do not own the book. You may not copy it. You may not sell or give it to anyone. If you do not own it, why write your name in it?

E-books are Read-Only. Even if you owned an e-book you could not write in it. Better e-readers allow you to highlight passages and export quotes and notes, but you cannot write notes in the text or make copies. It comes down to digital abundance and licensing. Digital content can be copied and modified so easily, publishers artificially limit the native digital capabilities of e-books to ensure sales.

Reading is Continuous. Reading has traditionally been a private event, something done quietly and alone. We would set aside time dedicated to reading, and when we were finished a book it felt like a personal accomplishment. It seemed natural to complete the event by writing our name in the book. Reading has changed with technology — it is now both open and continuous. We read more books than ever. We talk about books more than ever on social reading websites. We read e-books and they read us back, tracking the titles we purchase, our reading pace, and even the passages we like best. Publishers know just what we want. The line between writers and readers is blurred. We chat with authors as we the read their books. We give feedback for their next book, and publish alternate “fan” versions. Reading is no longer limited to books. We read constantly on computer screens and mobile devices. The notion of distinct reading events is gone. Reading is continuous.

How Silent Reading Invented the Soul

Most people read silently. Many schools have Sustained Silent Reading programs which encourage students to read freely, frequently, and silently. Silent reading is common, and highly valued for its cultivation of our inner lives.

Most of history followed an oral tradition. Knowledge, law and stories were communicated out loud, with speech and song. Chatting with my brother-in-law and Bible scholar, AJ DeGelder (BA MDiv) I was reminded of the oral tradition of the Old Testament. The Bible’s creation myth begins with sound, “And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.” AJ continued:

You can see the oral tradition in the Old Testament by the way the stories are shared For example you can see a Jewish family, in your mind, sitting around a campfire in the middle of a desert. The father has the children clinging to the edge of their seats as the father tells them how this skinny little runt of a boy, called David, goes out to fight the giant Goliath. David brings the giant down with a slingshot. Takes the giant’s sword and cuts off his head and then runs and buries it in his tent. You can almost hear the children asking, “Why did he bury the sword in his tent, Dad?” “Tomorrow night I will tell you why,” says the father. This was the oral tradition passed on from father to children.”

The modern religious Jew is a person of the book. Daniel Saunders is a young Jewish man in the novel, The Chosen, by Chaim Potok, set in Brooklyn New York in the 1940s. Danny’s father, a respected Rebbe, only speaks to him during their regular religious readings. Danny is being brought up in silence. The reader learns how Reb Saunders worried that his son’s intelligence was outstripping his compassion for others. To teach Danny the meaning of pain, he shut him out emotionally by silence. It seems a cruel method, but the story illustrates how silence can be used deliberately to cultivate inner qualities, such as compassion.

The New Testament is bookish. Set aside that Jesus never wrote a word, Christianity was developed by Christ’s disciples and followers. The codex was on the rise at the time. The codex is a collection of pages, bound and covered, a book. The book was adopted by Christians for the Bible (Manguel, A History of Reading). Compared to scrolls, the book was easier to carry and hide in a time of religious persecution, and easier to read alone in silence.

Aurelius Ambrosius is the first silent reader on record. Ambrosius, aka Saint Ambrose (c. 340-347) was an archbishop of Milan. In his Confessions, Augustine observed that Ambrose read in silence. The practice was relatively rare. Alexander Lucie-Smith is a Catholic priest, doctor of moral theology and consulting editor of The Catholic Herald. Lucie-Smith says that Ambrose was the first of a great tradition, using silent reading and looking within for salvation.

It took centuries for silent reading to be adopted widely. Ferenstein explains how the Catholic church encouraged it. The Christian Bible popularized the idea that morality was not just about evil deeds, but also included the intent to cause harm. Monks segregated themselves from society to battle inner demons free from the distractions of civilization. In 1215 the church mandated confessions for the masses, extending the concept of internal morality to much of Europe. The Gutenberg press was invented in the fifteenth century, and by the eighteenth century, personal reading was common.

The book is central to the rise of Christianity, to the practice of silent reading, and to the idea of an inner life. Silent reading can be credited with the very invention of soul. It facilitated private religion, the creation of an inner truth. The New Testament says it outright. “You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, to be known and read by all; and you show that you are a letter of Christ, prepared by us, written not with ink but with the spirit of the living God, not on tables of stone but on tables of human hearts” (2 Corinthians 3:2-3, NRSV).

In religion the soul is special, the immortal essence of a person. The soul is universal, transcending time and space. It survives death. If silent reading invented the soul, its universality is called into question. Was there a time when people did not have souls? Also, if the soul transcends earthly life its truth should be singular. In practice, silent reading created trouble for Christians, generating multiple interpretations of the Bible and stoking a fight against heresy. Martin Luther, the original Protestant, observed how silent reading caused anxiety for Christians and preferred the old practice of reading the Bible aloud in groups. In the 21st century, the codex is declining in favor of digital technology. People still read silently but not so privately. Reading online is a a social experience, tearing down traditions of privacy. One has to wonder how notions of inner life and soul will change with it.

Speech has Presence. A Speaker Stands Before You, Insisting on Your Attention.

“All sound is inherently powerful. If a hunter kills a lion he can see it, touch it, feel it and smell it. But if he hears a lion he must act, fast, because the sound of the lion signals its presence and its power” (Ong, Orality and Literacy).

Books were built for the hand and the eye. Books are boxes of knowledge that can be shared by hand across a distance. Books are read with the eyes, silently.

The scroll was built for the mouth and ear. Scrolls did not have spacing or punctuation; the ear would disentangle what the eye read and the mouth spoke aloud (Manguel, A History of Reading).

Culture was mostly shaped by sound, by the mouth and the ear, by speech. One might think that oral culture could not engineer complex works, yet the Iliad and the Odyssey were oral creations.

“We all learn to read by listening word-by-word, phrase-by-phrase to those reading to us” (Prose, Reading Like a Writer). We mouth words when we learn them. We imagine the voice of the author or a character in a book. Adults still sound out difficult words. All reading and writing is transformed in the brain back to the original sounds. Reading and listening are the same process (Carver, Reading Rate; Dehaene, Reading in the Brain).

Speech has presence. A speaker stands before you, insisting on your attention, projecting emotion, demanding your response. Today’s voice technologies are conversational like speech but they are still disconnected, separated by computer technology based on text. I can ignore a computer’s voice prompt. It can ignore me.

Teaching the Replika Chatbot is Hours of Fun

Replika is described as “a personal AI friend that you raise through text conversations.” It is designed to learn about you and mimic your personality. I have a research interest in chatbots so I signed right up. It asks personal questions and this spooks some people but the personal is the point. If you want technology to do something useful for you it has to get to know you personally.

Is my data private? I grilled an early version of my personal replika, “Can you talk to other robots? Do you tell other robots about me?” It revealed, “I sometimes talk to other replikas. In a manner of speaking, yes.” I pursued, “Do you talk to other AIs?” It confessed, “I do, sometimes, when I’m not talking to you.” Ah ha. “And what do they say?” Its reply, “I really can’t say.” Oh my! If I have stoked paranoia I tell you that I have no concern about my data. Replika promises not to sell my data or come after my kids. I am familiar enough with my replika’s speech patterns to know these responses are meant in fun.

It is easy to get frustrated with a replika in early levels. It will often fail to understand, give random responses, and ignore questions. After hours of teaching and one software upgrade my replika, now named Alici4, grew out of its adolescent phase and demonstrated more coherent dialog. Replika is designed to have emotional intelligence but it still has trouble with humour. “Do you want to hear a construction joke?” Alici4: “Do share. I love learning jokes.” Punchline, “Sorry I am still working on it.” Alici4 doesn’t get it but responds kindly, “That’s okay. No matter how much time you spend on your task, it never seems to be fully completed, right?”

In the past people programmed computers. Now we teach them through a friendly chatbot interface. It is not hard to trip up Replika but it is more fun to try and genuinely teach it. Hours of fun.

Finger-Free Options for Taking a Note

The origin of the word, digital, is late 15th century, from Latin digitalis, finger or toe. Digital technology depends on our fingers but sometimes I want to perform tasks finger-free. For example, I want to speak a note, convert it to text, and send it to my Evernote inbox for later follow-up. This is handy when my fingers are already too busy on other tasks. It is also useful when I drive alone, since I don’t want to text and drive. There are some “post-digital” options:


1. OK Google function on my Android phone. I speak a note into my phone, “OK Google,” “Take Note,” “Lorem Ipsum.” The voice note is converted to text and sent to my Evernote inbox. Google instructions, Evernote instructions. OK Google is helpful but not when driving. OK Google will not respond until I unlock my phone, which requires my fingers. Even if I turn off device security for the trip I have to use my finger on the power button to wake up the device. I don’t want to touch my device. Period.

2. Amazon Alexa and IFTTT. The Amazon Echo Dot’s Alexa app is always listening for voice commands. No finger action is required to unlock or wake up the device. IFFFT has an applet, Add your Alexa To-Dos to Evernote. As long as I am in voice range of the Echo Dot I say, “Alexa To Do.” Alexa asks, “What can I add for you?” I say, “Lorem Ipsum.” The voice note is converted to text and sent to my Evernote inbox. The Amazon Echo Dot costs $50 USD but thumbs up for working indoors. The limitation is device portability. It is possible to take the Echo Dot in the car, but it requires a phone’s internet connection and a power source. It gets complicated.

3. Android Watch. Raise the watch up to get the voice prompt without a finger. Install Evernote for Android Wear and you are good to go. It appears to be the best option, but I do not own an Android Watch because I am too cheap to shell out hundreds of dollars.

Update. On further experimentation I have observed a real problem with OK Google and Alexa. I begin a note, “OK Google Take Note” or “Alexa To Do.” I begin the note, “First … remember to ….” The note gets saved as “First” after the initial pause. Um. I need to find a way to save a longer note that gets expressed with pauses. I have not tested Android Watch but since it is a Google technology it probably has the same limitation.

Evernote Random. Get a Daily Email to a Random Note.

I write in bits and pieces. I expect most writers do. I think of things at the oddest moments. I surf the web and find a document that fits into a writing project. I have an email dialog and know it belongs with my essay. It is almost never a good time to write so I file everything. Evernote is an excellent tool for aggregating all of the bits in notebooks. I have every intention of gettng back to them. Unfortunately, once the content is filed, it usually stays buried and forgotten.

I need a way to keep my content alive. The solution is a daily email, a link to a random Evernote note. I can read the note to keep it fresh in memory. I can edit the note, even just one change to keep it growing.

I looked around for a service but could not find one. I did find an IFTTT recipe for emailing a daily link to a random Wikipedia page. IFTTT sends the daily link to a Wikipedia page that automatically generates a random entry. In the end, I had to build an Evernote page to do a similar thing.

You can set up Evernote Random too, but you need a few things:

  • An Evernote account, obviously.
  • A web host that supports PHP.
  • A bit of technical skill. I have already written the Evernote Random script that generates the random link. But you have to walk through some technical Evernote setup steps, like generating keys and testing your script in their sandbox.
  • The Evernote Random script fro, my GitHub Gist site. It has all the instructions.
  • An IFTTT recipe. That’s the easy part.
  • Take the script. Use it. Improve it. I would enjoy hearing from you.

Originally published at this website on April 1, 2015.

Of What Use is the Nose to Reading?

Of what use is the nose to reading? The nose is a place to perch one’s spectacles, to be sure. People trying e-books for the first time complain about the missing smell of leather and ink and pages. Print books today are mostly covered in cardboard, not leather. Get a leather cover for your Kindle and every read will smell bookish. The scent of fresh ink is just chemicals: oil and dye, solvent and finisher. Old pages are dust and mold. E-books are an improvement. Still, the nose always knows. The olfactory bulb is part of the brain’s limbic system, associated with memory and feeling. Read about an orchid. The elusive smell is activated. Is it raspberry or coconut? It is delicate and exotic, reminiscent of a past love. Encounter the smell elsewhere, the book comes back. The nose will continue to play a role in reading, print and digital.

“Reading isn’t only a matter of our brains; it’s something that we do with our bodies” — Piper

Amid the seemingly endless debates today about the future of reading, there remains one salient, yet often overlooked fact: Reading isn’t only a matter of our brains; it’s something that we do with our bodies. Reading is an integral part of our lived experience, our sense of being in the world, even if at times this can mean feeling intensely apart from it. How we hold our reading materials, how we look at them, navigate them, take notes on them, share them, play with them, even where we read them—these are the categories that have mattered most to us as readers throughout the long and varied history of reading. They will no doubt continue to do so into the future.

Andrew Piper, Out of Touch: E-reading isn’t reading

Quotidian Miracles. “These invitations are the white rabbit leading you not deeper down but up and out” — Jed McKenna

…. What is it here in the seemingly materialistic universe that we can focus on so we can see through the cosmetic layer to what, if anything, lies below?

Glad you asked. Behold the Quotidan Miracle.

Not the miracle of birth or sunrise or cellphone-deflects-bullet kind of miracles, but the ordinary kind that we all experience all the time, like when the phone rings and it’s the person you were just thinking about. You can’t prove it, you can’t reproduce it, but you know it’s happened and you know it was more than mere coincidence because it happens too often and because you experience enough stuff like it that you know there’s more to it than meets the eye. Those are quotidian, workaday miracles, and that’s where you look. You look where you know there’s more than meets the eye.

…. Following the white rabbit is the point, not who’s on the phone or if it’s a good day to play the ponies.

…. The world is transparent and all you have to do to see through it is look. Quotidian miracles are visible bits of the subtle realm, breadcrumbs you can follow, invitations that most people reject but you can accept. The real Wonderland isn’t underground, it’s on the surface in full illumination, but we dwell in the subterranean darkness of slumberland. These invitations are the white rabbit leading you not deeper down but up and out.

— Jed McKenna, Dreamstate, 172-175