Iran Opens One of the World’s Largest Book Centers

Iran rarely features positively in any news reports. Yet the nation of over 80 million is young, cosmopolitan, and freer-thinking than its regime (or its enemies) make it out to be. Just one case in point — on top of centuries of rich cultural heritage — is the opening last year of what may be the largest educational complexes of its kind. As reported in Newsweek: Continue reading

The Untold Legacy of the Mongols

When someone on Quora, a discussion forum, asked “What was the greatest empire in world history?”, one history enthusiast named Balaji Viswanathan made a detailed and comprehensive case for the Mongols. Far from bloodthirsty conquerors — though they were certainly that — the humble nomads founded one of history’s most extensive, advanced, and influential empires in human history, one whose legacy remains to this very day.

First, we begin with the Mongols’ better known achievement: conquering everyone that stood in their way, including some of the most powerful states of the time. Continue reading

What Students At Top U.S. Colleges Read

The Open Syllabus Project is recently launched database that has compiled more than a million course syllabi over the last fifteen years from colleges and universities across the English-speaking world (including Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the U.K.). Among its findings regarding the top U.S. universities is the dominance of the works by Plato, Hobbes, Machiavelli, and Aristotle in required reading lists.

As Quartz reports:

In the U.S., Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s “Frankenstein” is the most taught work of fiction, with Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales” a close second. In history titles, George Brown Tindall and David Emory Shi’s textbook, “America: A Narrative History”, is No. 1, with Anne Moody’s “Coming of Age in Mississippi”, a memoir about life as an African-American woman in Jim Crow America, at No. 2. “The Communist Manifesto” is the third most taught in history, and is the top title in sociology.

The project admits that its dataset is still a work in progress, as there is a margin of error for unusual or misspelled readings; moreover, it can rely only on whatever is publicly accessible from college websites.

Still, it is pretty much the only source for what the future academic and political elites of the Anglophone world are reading. The Open Syllabus Project allows users to search by country, state/province, institution, and academic field to see what tops a given reading list. Here is the overall list among all the curricula across all five major English speaking countries. (Note that the heavy leaning towards the humanities reflects the fact the reading lists for such courses are larger than in the hard sciences.)

screenshot-explorer opensyllabusproject org 2016-02-23 20-46-06

Source: The Open Syllabus Project

Seems like this would make a great individual reading list all on its own! Granted, it would be nice to see more prominent non-Western works — there is a wealth of interesting perspectives, philosophies, and narratives worth exploring, especially for the ostensibly best and brightest of future generations.

To learn more, visit the project page here.

The Whimsical Bookwheel

The bookwheel (sometimes called a reading wheel) is a rotating bookcase that allows one person to easily read a variety of heavy books in one location. The books rotate in a manner similar to a water wheel, rather than on a flat table surface (the Chinese apparently invented the horizontal variety over a thousand years ago).

The first and most well-known bookwheel design was featured in a book by 16th century Italian engineer Agostino Ramelli (which was delightfully titled “The Various and Ingenious Machines of Captain Agostino Ramelli”). Other inventors like Nicolas Grollier de Servière proposed their own variation this concept. Interesting, while his design inspired other bookwheels, Ramelli himself never constructed his own. Below is his original illustration.

Bookwheel (Agostino Ramelli)

Ramelli’s concept was deliberately complex, utilizing all sorts of gears and mechanics previously found only in clocks; this was because he wanted to display his mathematical and engineering skill. Ramelli described his invention as a “beautiful and ingenious machine, very useful and convenient for anybody who takes pleasure in study, especially for those who are indisposed and tormented by gout [a form of inflammatory arthritis especially common among the wealthy].” However, it is disputed to what extent it was purchased for its practical purposes rather than its unusual and aesthetic properties.

In any case, the bookwheel was an early attempt to solve the new problem of managing printed works, which were emerging in greater numbers due to the rapid spread of the printing press (books back then were far larger and heavier). Thus it is considered one of the earliest “information retrieval” devices – akin to modern technologies like hypertext and e-readers – that allow readers to store and cross-reference large amounts of information.

Nowadays, the bookwheel is valued for its historical importance, decorative appeal, and symbolic significance, making the rise of mass data and media. I would certainly love one as well.

Ramelli Bookwheel

A modern-day recreation by Léa Lagasse (Photo by Stroom Den Haag).

Taipei Sounds Like My Kind of Town

A typical Saturday night in Taiwan’s largest city.

Among the many places on my travel list is Taiwan (officially the Republic of China). As one of the most developed and multicultural countries in the world, it offers a lot to see and do — including one of the world’s most thriving bibliophile communities. As the New York Times highlights, its lively capital, Taipei, leads the world in 24-hour bookstores.

At a time when many bookstores in the United States are struggling in the face of an onslaught from the online retailer Amazon, Eslite is thriving. It has 43 stores in Taiwan and one in Hong Kong. The company has plans to open two branches in mainland China this year, in Shanghai and Suzhou. Sales rose more than 15 percent in 2013 in its listed arm, and profits are rising as well.

One secret to Eslite’s success is that it is far more than a bookstore. While the Borders chain, now defunct, in the United States featured coffee shops, Eslite stores are more like self-contained shopping malls. About 60 percent of sales come from books. The rest comes from items like food, kitchenware, music, wine, jewelry, watches, movies, toys — sold in shops interspersed throughout the bookstores. One branch in Taipei has a movie theater.

Another reason for its success is the character of the city where the company was founded in 1989. As in many Asian cities, people work late into the night, and a company survey in 1999 suggested that many people would frequent a 24-hour bookstore. The busiest time for the bookstore is between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m., according to Timothy Wang, a company spokesman.

Indeed, it appears there is something particularly Taiwanese about this business model, which is perhaps why it seems unique only to the country.

“People in Taiwan, particularly in Taipei, are really calm. They really like to read books,” Ms. Yang said. “This is entertainment for us.”

“People really wanted to come read books late at night,” Mr. Wang said in a telephone interview. “Some young travelers who can’t find a hotel bring their baggage and settle down in the bookstore. They feel that the environment at Eslite is really peaceful.”

I cannot wait to experience it for myself someday.

Articles of Interest: Somali Bananas, Bibliophile Americans, and More

Somalia experiences an unlikely resurgence in an unlikely way…

Somalia elected a new president and adopted a constitution in 2012, bringing some stability, and attracting pledges of aid from international donors. Somali pirates, who once threatened international shipping in the Indian Ocean, have largely been contained and the Shabab have lost their grip over many towns.

“By any measure, Somalia today is in a better situation than it has been for the past 23 years,” said Nicholas Kay, the United Nations’ special representative for Somalia.

That stability has allowed farmers like Mr. Nasir, who studied agriculture at Mogadishu University, to return to a business that has been in his family for four generations.

How have Roman monuments endured all these centuries…?

In a new study, researchers drilled down into the chemistry of Roman concrete to find out what makes it so resilient. As suspected, the key ingredient is the specific blend of limestone and volcanic ash used in the mortar, says Gail Silluvan for the Washington Post.

Mixing mortar according to the recipe of 1st century Roman architect Vitruvius, the scientists’ analyses unveiled that the mortar included “dense clusters of a durable mineral called strätlingite.”

“The crystals formed because of a reaction that took place over time between the lime and volcanic matter in the mortar,” says Sullivan, and “helped prevent the spread of microscopic cracks by reinforcing interfacial zones, which researchers called ‘the weakest link of modern cement-based concrete.'”

The reasons why Pakistan and India are in perennial conflict…

Pakistan’s military leaders have known since the 1960s that they cannot take Kashmir by force. Why, then, have they persisted? The answer is simple: political solutions haven’t been forthcoming. India holds the balance of power, and for all its repression in Kashmir, the world sees no evil. For the Pakistani Army, confrontation has become the only way to keep the issue alive, forcing the world’s attention. India’s brutal counterinsurgency might not make news, but a shootout between two nuclear powers gets everyone’s attention. As long as the deadlock over Kashmir remains, Pakistan’s need for confrontation will persist.

Americans love books more than ever despite the Internet…

In 1957, not even a quarter of Americans were reading a book or novel. By 2005, that number had shot up to 47 percent. I couldn’t find a more recent number, but I think it’s fair to say that reading probably hasn’t declined to the horrific levels of the 1950s.

All this to say: our collective memory of past is astoundingly inaccurate. Not only has the number of people reading not declined precipitously, it’s actually gone up since the perceived golden age of American letters.

So, then why is there this widespread perception that we are a fallen literary people? I think, as Marshall Kirkpatrick says, that social media acts as a kind of truth serum. Before, only the literary people had platforms. Now, all the people have platforms. And so we see that not everyone shares our love for Dos Passos. Or any books at all. Or reading in general.

The Twenty-Four Hour Bookstore

It no doubt sounds like a dream to most fellow bibliophiles: a well-stocked bookstore that is freely available 24/7 for as long as you want, even if you do not buy a single thing. Not only would I love to patronize such an establishment, but one of my dreams is open one of my own.

A recent article in the Guardian reveals that a company in Taiwan has already beat me to this idea by several years: Eslite, one of that country’s largest retail bookstores. (Official website, in Chinese, here.) Bucking the trend of most chain bookstores the world over, the company welcomes as many non-paying visitors for as long as they wish to stay:

When I visited the 24-hour shop, the busiest time was from 10pm to 2am. People were hunkered down in corners, sitting on the stairs, or hovering over the display tables. Everybody was absorbed in a book.

Yao Hong, a 31-year-old office worker, who was sitting on a set of small, hardwood steps, explained why Eslite’s Dunnan branch is a favourite hangout. “I come here three to four times a week. On Saturdays, I arrive around noon and stay till 4am the next day,” she said. “I’ve been to bars, but I don’t like them. I love to read. Here, I can read books I like and nobody bothers me.” That night, she had already ploughed through to page 275 of a 319-page memoir.

What attracts the large and loyal crowds is not only the wide selection of books – there are around 250,000 in the Dunnan store alone – but Eslite’s policy of allowing customers to read for as long as they want without having to buy.

Given the beleaguered state of a lot of bookstores across the world, from independent vendors to national chains, how does Elsite manage to pull this seemingly unprofitable business model and still remain highly successful?

Apparently, by coming one big arts and media center, offering everything from wine, tea, and food, to clothing, art exhibits, and film screenings. The company’s approach no doubt endears itself to customers as well: I would be more than happy to shell out a few extra dollars than I otherwise would if it meant keeping such an establishment afloat.

Bookstores seeking to innovate in an era of declining brick-and-mortar sales should take note of this approach — I know I will!

The Greatest Books According to 125 Top Authors

Given the sheer volume of literature out there — and just in the English-speaking world alone! — deciding the best works of fiction seems virtually impossible. Every great book has something exceptional to offer, and each is distinct enough in style, theme, narrative, and so on that none really compete; rather, these works complement each other, together offering a rich selection of morals, concepts, characters, and inspirations to draw from.

Nevertheless, it is always an interesting exercise to see what books have most captivated and impacted readers, especially when the audience consists of other authors of great books. Who better to weigh-in on the subject than some of the (Anglophone) world’s current literary greats? The Atlantic has more:

The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books asks 125 of modernity’s greatest British and American writers—including Norman Mailer, Ann Patchett, Jonathan Franzen, Claire Messud, and Joyce Carol Oates—”to provide a list, ranked, in order, of what [they] consider the ten greatest works of fiction of all time- novels, story collections, plays, or poems.”

Of the 544 separate titles selected, each is assigned a reverse-order point value based on the number position at which it appears on any list—so, a book that tops a list at number one receives 10 points, and a book that graces the bottom, at number ten, receives 1 point.

As the article observes, you can learn a lot about a writer from what they selected as their favorites books and authors, since it reveals some of the possible influences, motivations, and ideas that color their own works — after all, what great writer hasn’t had at least contemporary or predecessor to inspire them?

You would have to read the book to see what each respondent listed, but you can view the overall consensus below (the asterisks denote links to free public domain works):

Top Ten Works of the 20th Century

  1. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
  2. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  3. In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust
  4. Ulysses* by James Joyce
  5. Dubliners* by James Joyce
  6. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  7. The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner
  8. To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
  9. The complete stories of Flannery O’Connor
  10. Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov

Top Ten Works of the 19th Century

  1. Anna Karenina* by Leo Tolstoy
  2. Madame Bovary* by Gustave Flaubert
  3. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
  4. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
  5. The stories of Anton Chekhov
  6. Middlemarch* by George Eliot
  7. Moby-Dick by Herman Melville
  8. Great Expectations* by Charles Dickens
  9. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky
  10. Emma* by Jane Austen

Top Ten Authors by Number of Books Selected

  1. William Shakespeare – 11
  2. William Faulkner – 6
  3. Henry James – 6
  4. Jane Austen – 5
  5. Charles Dickens – 5
  6. Fyodor Dostoevsky – 5
  7. Ernest Hemingway – 5
  8. Franz Kafka – 5
  9. Tied: James Joyce, Thomas Mann, Vladimir Nabokov, Mark Twain, Virginia Woolf – 4

Top Ten Authors by Points Earned

  1. Leo Tolstoy – 327
  2. William Shakespeare – 293
  3. James Joyce – 194
  4. Vladimir Nabokov – 190
  5. Fyodor Dostoevsky – 177
  6. William Faulkner – 173
  7. Charles Dickens – 168
  8. Anton Chekhov – 165
  9. Gustave Flaubert – 163
  10. Jane Austen – 161

I would have to put a lot of thought into what my  own top ten would be in these categories, although I do personally concur with most of the top selection (namely Lolita and One Hundred Years of Solitude). I am definitely intrigued to read more James Joyce, Flannery O’Connor, and William Faulkner, whom I have always heard are amazing.

It is also interesting to see Tolstoy figure so prominently in terms of 19th century literature and total points; he is one of my all-time favorite authors, but I never realized his works were that acclaimed until recently (I have seen a lot more articles discussing his brilliance and literary influence as of late).

I would love to see the answers and opinions of non-Anglophone writers, especially since the overwhelming majority of the world’s non-English literature remains untranslated and thus largely unknown. I am sure it would be very revealing. A similar list involving non-fiction works, perhaps divided by genre (politics, science, etc.) would also be very interesting, if perhaps a bit more difficult.

Anyway, what do you think of these results? What would your own top ten lists look like?

Millennials are out-reading older generations

Another pervasive myth about Millennials is called into question: not only are people under thirty reading more than previous generations, but they still place a high value on books and other “offline” sources of information — including “obsolete” public libraries — belying the perception that young people are too absorbed into new media to concern themselves with the “outside” world.

Granted, the quality of what is being absorbed is a different matter entirely — maybe it is mostly vapid pseudoscience and mediocre teen romance rather than philosophy or the classics — but even if that were the case, it would still be nothing new: as with most criticisms levied against “young people these days”, their trends and preferences are fundamentally no different than what older people have always complained about.

Books and Meaningful Activities Lead to Happy Lives

As a lifelong bibliophile and culture aficionado, I didn’t need any scientific verification that reading, listening to music, visiting art galleries, and engaging in other forms of cultural immersion were good for my heart and soul. Of course, it never hurts to have some sort of research back these things up, so I was pleased, if not unsurprising, with the following report from NPR:

Going to the library gives people the same kick as getting a raise does — a £1,359 ($ 2,282) raise, to be exact — according to a study commissioned by the U.K.’s Department for Culture, Media & Sport. The study, which looks at the ways “cultural engagement” affects overall well-being, concluded that a significant association was found between frequent library use and reported well-being. The same was true of dancing, swimming and going to plays. The study notes that “causal direction needs to be considered further” — that is, it’s hard to tell whether happy people go to the library, or going to the library makes people happy. But either way, the immortal words of Arthur the Aardvark ring true: “Having fun isn’t hard when you’ve got a library card!”

Well, this certainly explains why I legitimately get happy when I go to a library or bookstore, or even when I’m in my room surrounded by my books. I could never explain how or why I’d be happy exactly; I would just feel an ineffable and natural sense of calm and contentment, as if I were engaging in something therapeutic — which indeed, seems to be what these activities are. I feel a similar sensation when I’m gardening, tidying up my living space, or going to a local culture festival. 

This finding sort of coincides with another study I came across recently that came to a similar conclusion: people who regularly engage in meaningful activities — ranging from exercise and sports to gardening and art — tend to feel better in the long run, especially if they’re helping people along the way.

For the study, published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the researchers followed a group of 39 teenagers over the course of one year to see whether the way their brains reacted to either eudaimonic or hedonic rewards correlated with how depressed they felt over time.

First, the subjects underwent an fMRI while making a decision about whether to keep money for themselves (a hedonic reward) or to donate it to their families (eudaimonic). They also played a game to determine if they were willing to take risks for the possibility of a greater financial reward (hedonic).

The subjects then filled out a self-report questionnaire of depressive symptoms during the initial scan, and again a year later.

It turned out the teens who had the greatest brain response to the generous, family-donation financial decision had the greatest declines in depressive symptoms over time. And those who got a boost from the risk-taking game were more likely to have an increase in depression. The types of rewards the teens responded to, it seems, changed their behavior in ways that altered their overall well-being.

“For example,” the authors write, “adolescents who show heightened activation in the ventral striatum during eudaimonic decisions likely experience a sense of reward from supporting their family and may therefore show increases in the time they spend helping their family.”

It’s important to note that this doesn’t necessarily mean parents can inoculate their teens against depression by forcing them to seek happiness through volunteering. But it could be that teens who already do that kind of thing because it really does lift their spirits are likely to have that lift stick with them.

“Taken together, our findings suggest that well-being may depend on attending to higher values related to family, culture, and morality, rather than to immediate, selfish pleasure,” the authors write.

Taken together, these findings — which coincide with plenty of anecdotal and philosophical observations as well — make clear that doing something meaningful and stimulating is beneficial to mental health. That may seem somewhat obvious, but it’s easy to underestimate how seemingly mundane activities and tasks could help enrich our lives to some degree or another. While results may vary, and such things are far from substitutes for psychiatric care, it never hurts to explore the world around us and find interests and activities that could make us feel better.