Category Archives: Uncategorized

Top 10 Books of all time?

The Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss, 1957

The Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss, 1957 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This list of the 100 Best Books of all Time in the world is interesting.  I’ve read 6 thanks mostly to Shakespeare, and 2 halves (100 Years of Solitude; which I’ve been reading for 21 years now and haven’t quite finished, and Hans Christian Anderson’s Fairy Tales). I have often laughed at the idea of creating a list of books that in some way ranked them.  There’s a fashion for lists, especially in blogs for all kinds of things.  I’ve tried in the past to name a top 10 of books and failed.

I’m just not able to wittle it down and order them.  So I’m not going to try to do that.  Instead I’m going to record a number of books that I think have changed my world view, stayed with me, or I read at important stages of my life.  I’m going to write this quickly and not think

about it too much, otherwise I’ll get all pretentious.  I might write another post, looking at it in more detail.  I’m really going to try to dredge them out here.  So I’m not numbering them, and I’m not counting them.  Let’s see where I end up.

The Cat in the HatDr Seuss: A book I remember blowing my mind during a “wet play”.  I’d never seen anything like it.

Pauline Baynes

Pauline Baynes (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe – C.S.Lewis:  Not strictly a book I read, I had it read to me and it changed my attitude towards reading and education.  So very important.

The Time Traveller’s Wife – Audrey Niffeneger:  Probably would be top of the list if it was ordered.  An absolutely unbelievable

premise made believable.  So emotionally real.  A masterpiece (shame about the film, perhaps they should rename it so they aren’t connected)

The Da Vinci Code – Dan Brown: A good story.  Sorry.

The Shadow of the WindCarlos Ruiz Zafon:  I read this after my brother died and I still really enjoyed it, so it must be good.

The Lovely Bones – Alice Sebold:  How can this book be uplifting?

Wolf BrotherMichelle Paver:  This is one of those books that make you think you know about pre-history.  It’s so well imagined and researched.  So believable.  I read the whole series.

To Kill A Mockingbird – Harper Lee:  A great story, very evocative of a place and time.

Jasper Jones – Criag Silvey:  A great story, very evocative of a place and time.

A Vision of Elena Silves – Nicholas Shakespeare:  It took me somewhere completely different when I was a teenager.

Chatterton – Peter Ackroyd:  A fantastic weaving together of many story lines, introducing me to some great British arty types.  I still find the painting The Death of Chatterton whenever I go to the Tate.

Wolf Brother

Wolf Brother (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte:  A tribute to my English teacher Mrs Seymour, who brought this book alive.  I still look back at those scary English lessons with enjoyment, I can’t remember much else from my Secondary schooling.

Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen:  As above really, but Jane and I have been moving in the same circles (geographically speaking)

The Giggler Treatment – Roddy Doyle: I loved reading this with my children.  Just what children’s books should be, funny and a bit naughty/rude

Galore – Michael Crummey:  It feels like a load of village gossip and folktales woven together into a plausible history of a family and a place.

The Belgariad – David Eddings:  I can’t think of a reason why, but I loved it at the time.

Eragon – Christopher Paolini:  Some very original ideas here (magic with a cost).

Sandmouth People – Ronald Frame:  Original and a bit quirky, but captures a British town in a way I find believable.

Panic – Jeff Abbott:  Introduced me to a new style of high-octane thrillers.

Before I Go To Sleep – S.J.Watson:  A brilliant, clever story that kept me guessing to the end.  Actually I think I knew and that only made it more enjoyable.

Into the Darkest Corner – Elizabeth Haynes:  Scary but believable, taking me to a world of an obsessive compulsive and an abuse victim (I make it sound great, but it is well worth reading).

Crime ZeroMichael Cordy:  An excellent writer.  Far, far better than Michael Crichton.  A well imagined near future.

The French Lieutenant’s Woman – John Fowles: Not some soppy romance, but an analysis of image, stigma and the media.  Surprisingly recommended to me by a guy I worked with, until I read it.

Holes – Louis Sachar:  Symmetry.

Winter’s Tale – Mark Helprin:  An introduction to adult weirdness.

The World According To Garp – John Irving:  Gritty honest characters.

Phew.  I made it.  I had to stop myself writing Just Read It at the end of each one!

Does reading fiction make you a better person?

This is a "thought bubble". It is an...

This is a “thought bubble”. It is an illustration depicting thought. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I instinctively answer yes to this question and that got me thinking!  Do I have any basis for this view?

I thought it was obvious.  The biggy for me is

Empathy: if I think of how many people’s heads I’ve been in and how many eyes I’ve looked at the world through; that must mean I am more tolerant and empathic?

Knowledge:  I must have learnt some things from reading as long as the authors did their research properly and haven’t just made it up.  Even if they have, they must have got some of the experiential stuff right (what it feels like to gut a fish, riding a motor bike, first love etc).

Tolerance:  Seeing things from a wide range of viewpoints must make you tolerant.

But what about reading books that underline your prejudices and give justification to the unjustifiable.  I have read a few things that I fundamentally disagreed with but which because they are written down and well structured almost had me convinced.  Print carries weight.

I was prompted by an article on the BBC which stated that people who read books are better learners.  So I thought I’d have a quick look around at what evidence based findings were available.  Studies I could find focussed on measuring the impact of reading on intelligence and educational outcomes.  Tolerance and empathy are harder to measure.  It’s not like we have a world of history where all the percieved baddies are illiterate.  Far from it in fact.  It would appear that very few world leaders have had little education, irrespective of whether they were good or bad!

The study What Reading Does for the Mind showed two main findings of the benefits of reading in children.

  1. Early acquisition of reading opened doors to further learning (positive feedback and building the ability to think)
  2. All children benefit from reading, whatever their level of achievement.

This article The Powers of Reading is quite interesting, if a little politically motivated!

So, there’s a library of stuff out there, which lean towards the positive benefits on the individual but I would say a there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that it isn’t a guarantee that it will make you good.  (Good is a hard concept to tie down too).  I would like to think that I am far better for the books I’ve read and I think BIBs in particular must be even better for you, because you aren’t reinforcing your viewpoint with books you have chosen.

I almost missed my stop!

 

 

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It’s been a long time since I nearly missed my bus stop because of a book!  But it happened today with I Am Pilgrim.  And yesterday, on the way home, I got off a stop later because I had to know the outcome.  It was very exciting.

 

 

 

 

 

 

I read on the bus, with my head down and being partially sighted I need to pay attention to what I’m reading.  You would think that this causes me to nearly miss my stop a lot.  However, I have learnt that I have a subconscious awareness of where I am on the journey.  I expect I am monitoring the turns subconscously and, when I look up I know where we are before I’ve seen.  It works very well.  Except on a few notable occassions where I have been so engrossed in my book that only a fortuitous glance, moments before the stop, has prevented me from missing it entirely.  I think if I did I’d just carry on reading and have a day out!

 

English: Agatha Christie Bus Tour bus (reg. AH...

English: Agatha Christie Bus Tour bus (reg. AHL 694), a 1947 Leyland Tiger PS1/1 single-decker with Barnaby bodywork. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

But this morning was one of those mornings.  This is a special book indeed.  It is very well paced, with the author dropping breadcrumbs, leaving you to gather them up at a satisfying pace.  None of your Agatha Christie “I want everyone in the library where I shall reveal the murderer” here, where all the breadcrumbs are gathered in an overwhelming handful.  If I had any criticism, and I think this is an anti-criticism (like “My only fault is I’m too hard working”) it would be that everything, although chaotic, is a bit too perfect.  Our hero’s hunches pay off.  But perhaps I’m being a bit harsh and just caught up in the story and not noticing the blind alleys he runs up.

 

 

 

The other great thing about this great book is that it’s long and well paced.  So you can keep reading in great swathes without worrying about running out of story.  Like your favourite biscuits coming in a big enough packet that you can’t eat them in one sitting.

So read it!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Racist or just interested?

I’m going to break one of my rules now (I know!  They didn’t last long did they?) and talk a little about the BIB I’m reading.  So if you want to read I Am Pilgrim as a BIB (I would recommend it) read no further.

English: No racism Lietuvių: Ne rasizmui

English: No racism Lietuvių: Ne rasizmui (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Cards on the table.  Talking about racism is hard.  We can’t understand it or our own attitudes better without talking about it, and saying things that make us uncomfortable.

I had a long conversation with a good friend at work about racism that he had experienced, and it was excruciating for me.  I think he found it equally difficult.  He’s Indian.  We’ve had lots of conversations about family, children and looking after your parents as they need you, and I think we’ve both enjoyed those conversations and learnt a lot from each other.  We didn’t shy away from differences in attitude acquired from our culturally different backgrouds, but these were obliquely approached.  This particular conversation was overtly about racism, no getting away from it.  I wanted to know so I could empathise and be more informed.  I was practically silent because I didn’t want to make any racist statement, give offence, make assumptions or upset him.  But in the end we came to the conclusion that in order to think about racism on a personal basis you can’t pussyfoot around.  You just have to say these things that make you uncomfortable like “Has anyone called you a paki?”, otherwise you’re in danger of trying to deal with the unpleasantness of being a human by ignoring it and hoping it will just go away.  We agreed that we’re all different and that the extent of differences had little to do with race, we could both find people from our home towns who were far different to us than we were to each other, and that differences between any two people were far fewer than the similarities.

So back to the book.  Similar to What do I know about anything?  Help me please! I would like to know what to think of this book.  This book is partly about a Muslim radical, and I would really like to get a view of a Muslim on it.  I’d like to know whether this book offers any insight into a Muslim world (it’s not all about muslim radicalism, parts are set in Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and Turkey), does it present a world that my colleagues at work and Muslims in my community would recognise.  Is this book offensive?  Is it patronising?  Is it worrying?  Does it make you mad?

But I’m uncomfortable about this.  Is that patronising?  Am I being racist?  I’ve talked about books with my friend before, but what would I say if I handed this book to him?

I tried to think about it the other way around.

I’ve read thousands of books set in a world I recognise with characters who have a similar cultural background and they’ve been serial killers, murderers, lovers, heroes, brave, arseholes, fun and average people.  If someone came up to me and said

“Read this book about a mass murderer, he’s from your religion, does this ring true?”

how would I feel?  It probably depends how they were portrayed, with sympathy or as an embodiment of evil.

I’m also visually impaired.  I initially thought I’d really like to read a book about a visually impaired character, but then, the one’s I’ve come across haven’t been serial killers or murderers (If you know of any visually impaired characters in books I’d love to know, don’t worry I’ve got Blind Pew from Treasure Island).  So again it depends how they are depicted.  I loved Rhubarb – Craig Silvey, which made me want to march up to a blind person and ask them whether this is what it’s like to be blind?  I thought the depiction in Rhubarb was very convincing.

So the character in I Am Pilgrim, the Saracen (which is probably offensive in itself), how is he depicted?  I haven’t read the whole book yet, but so far from my position of ignorance, his story seems to have been treated with some sympathy.  There are credible incidents that lead to his acts in the book and I am at some level convinced that he is a real character, not some archetypal baddie with only one dimension.

So what should I do?  I feel like I’m on thin ice with this?  I feel like I need to say something and then end it with “don’t take it that way” or “I don’t mean it like it just sounded”.  But I want to know, I want to get more out of this book than entertainment.  I want to understand more.  Discretion, on the other hand tells me to keep my mouth shut, sweep it under the carpet and try to remember it’s only a fiction book and not to read too much into it.

Readability of the web?

Friedrich Nietzsche

Friedrich Nietzsche (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My wife came across this in the The Times (Oct 19, 2013) under the headline Beowuluf? It’s not as epic as Google’s rules.

Apparently researchers at the University of Nottingham have incorporated a standard literacy level test used by teachers (using only word and sentence length) into a browser plug in called Literatin and compare internet texts to established literary works.

Then using this tool to look at terms and conditions of various websites they found…

Google’s are more complex than Beowulf!

Facebook’s are worse and similar in complexity to The Prince by Machiavelli!

Scottish Power tops the list with its comparable to Beyond Good and Evil by Nietzsche!

No wonder we just whizz through them and click accept.

It amazes me that we tolerate this given that so much of the development effort put into these web services and sites is around usability and the user experience, Google is popular because it’s got one box and knows what you are thinking, and yet they can’t put their terms and conditions into plain English. I’m not a conspiracy theorist but I think I know why.
Update: I wonder if their new customer pages have the same readability as 50 Shades of Grey?

 

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“This is an excellent book” – I couldn’t stop myself saying it out loud. You have to read it, it’s great as just a book or a Blissfully Ignorant Book (BIB). It has the feeling of being extremely well constructed and worked on, so either Terry Hayes is a genius or is a very good editor of his own work. Just read it. I am Pilgrim

Unleash your creativity?

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“Everybody has a secret world inside of them. I mean everybody. All of the people in the whole world, I mean everybody — no matter how dull and boring they are on the outside. Inside them they’ve all got unimaginable, magnificent, wonderful, stupid, amazing worlds… Not just one world. Hundreds of them. Thousands, maybe.”

Neil Gaiman, The Sandman, Vol. 5: A Game of You

In the spirit of the quote above (better than the old George Bernard Shaw quote about everyone having a novel inside them ) I came across this the other day

National Novel Writing Month – http://nanowrimo.org/

National Novel Writing Month is a fun, seat-of-your-pants approach to novel writing. Participants begin writing on November 1. The goal is to write a 50,000-word (approximately 175-page) novel by 11:59:59 PM on November 30.

Valuing enthusiasm and perseverance over painstaking craft, NaNoWriMo is a novel-writing program for everyone who has thought fleetingly about writing a novel but has been scared away by the time and effort involved.

What a fantastic idea.  It’s run by a charity (The Office of Letters and Light http://www.lettersandlight.org/) which aims to unlock people’s creative potential – The Office of Letters and Light organizes events where children and adults find the inspiration, encouragement, and structure they need to achieve their creative potential.

They’ve had quite a lot of success, with loads of novels being published.  I wonder if I’ve read any or any have made it really big?  So far this year 52,697 authors have signed up.

I know from my own experience that creative acts bring me the most pleasure in life.

Compare this to the feeling I sometimes get in my work life where there are constant initiatives, rounds of annual appraisal with objectives, target setting and improvement plans which are supposed to make be better year on year, to develop my career. This approach is ultimately flawed.  We can’t all be ambitious, grappling for promotion and “success”.  There’s only so much room at the top.  I do, however, know that we can all always improve.

So what are we here for?  For some of us this is the a creative act; we can’t all be ambitious and strive for the “success” measured by wealth and status, but the act of knitting a jumper, resolving a dispute, painting a picture or writing a novel (creating order and beauty out of chaos) is life affirming, satisfying and I feel ultimately what we are here for, to create a bit of order and see others appreciate it.

It’s a shame this isn’t happening in the UK.  (Or perhaps it is).  I’d love to have a go, but at the moment…

I have an idea, I think I’d have to do quite a lot of research to make it worthwhile.  I think I’d need to take the month off work!  I’m not sure my family would cooperate with this either.  Maybe another year.  But creating ideas is still creating, so I’m enjoying contemplating it.

Pilgrim081013I am pilgrim – still delivering as an excellent BIB

I Am Pilgrim – Early thoughts as a BIB

So far I’ve been unable to do much of a book review about a BIB (Blissfully Ignorant Book) and keeping within The Rules, without robbing you of the chance of reading it Blissfully Ignorantly too.

However, with I Am Pilgrim – Terry Hayes I do have something I can say.

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As you can see I’ve been busy, for me anyway, reading.  This is a big book (700 paper pages apparently – I’m reading the e-book version).  I am thoroughly enjoying it.  Not just as a book, but as a BIB.

It starts well.  I thought I had it pegged, a good book of its genre.  But it quickly changed into something else.  I think that is the key to a good BIB; surprise,  changing genre, unexpectedly finding yourself in a situation alongside the characters and wondering how you’re going to get back.

Now 15% of the way through I’m not sure what I’m reading!  Brilliant! The author is laying out a series of questions like a trail of breadcrumbs for me, which I hope lead along a path where they are all answered or consumed!  The books I love best are like that as I’ve blogged about before.  There’s plenty of swapping between story lines, not sure how they are going to come together, but it looks pretty massive in scope from here.  Can the author pull it off I wonder?

I would probably have ignored this book in a bookshop as too serious.  I’m very glad I was recommended this book.  I wonder if the author will sustain my interest and recommendation as a BIB.  This is the first BIB since starting this blog that I would highly recommend.

Why not try it?  Read along with me.  But don’t look at reviews etc.  I can tell you that Amazon has lots of ratings and they’re all around 4-5 stars!

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The world of people and the world of books

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Running home from work the other day I began (as I often do these days) to wonder about the number of books in the world.  Since the time when books were written by hand in the ancient civilisations, to the modern day where they are printed in their millions and digitally produced as e-books.  I wondered how many books the entire population of the world would have each?

I imagined that we’d all end with quite a stack!

So looking around I found some very interesting resources.

Firstly on the number of books, I found information from our friends at Google!  (You’ve got to love them, no you really do otherwise they’ll know) with this blog post Books of the world, stand up and be counted which tell you the number and how they went about working out how many books there are and how they defined a book.  Now I know this isn’t individual copies, and this figure was in 2010 but it was still fascinating.  So

Books = 129,864,880

World population was much more straightforward.  Well done to Geohive for their Current world population (ranked), which is updated daily!  Very simple and clear.

People = 7,171,582,065

So books per person is

129,864,880 / 7,171,582,065 = 0.02 or about 1 book to every 50 people

Which explains my photo at the top, there are 50 diverse characters representing 50 people, and between them they would get one title.

So thinking about the number of copies of each original book, I think everyone would end up with a small stack.  I think that a lot of them would contain religious texts like the Quran or the Bible, then Shakespeare, “The Natural History of Selbourne” – Gilbert White (just up the road from where I live this is one of the most popular books still in print since 1798), a Dan Brown and probably “Fifty Shades of Grey“.  Now there’s a pile to have on your bedside table!

I am very surprised that in all time we haven’t produced more books, I expected the world to overrun with them!  I wonder if there are more web pages than people?  Perhaps another day.

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Paper or Pixels?

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If you’re buying books to try Blissfully Ignorantly then it’s definitely easier to do this with an e-reader. You can make the purchase without the unfettered blurb, flick throughs, reviews and possibly comments f rom other people around you that you might be tempted by when getting a paper book.

I must confess that I have an e-reader and couldn’t be without it – which surprises me. I thought I’d be a purist – I still love bookshops and the feel of a book, weighing how big a book is in my hand often would give me a feel as to whether I’d want to read it (is that allowed in Blissfully Ignorant Reading? I think that’s legitimate otherwise you wont be able to pick them up!) I find paper books far more tempting than e-books, but I buy more e-books. I’ve even been known to buy the e-book of a book that has been lent to me.

I have a very good reason and I’m not sure how much this has influenced my liking of the e-reader. I am visually impaired ( I used to be partially sighted until a man in Vision Express told me I wasn’t allowed to call myself that as it wasn’t politically correct – I still prefer partially sighted: more drama and sounds like a real issue as visually impaired sound a bit like “restricted view” on theatre tickets). So with an e-reader I can change font, bump up the size and have white on black! These combined make reading a much more relaxing pleasure but mean that reading on the bus is a public affair (everyone can read what I’m reading!) Which is fine most of the time, but even the most uncontroversial books have sex in them! I don’t want everyone on the bus to think I’m a pervert. I was discussing this with a friend on the bus and then settled down to read, on the very next page appeared the word c**t ( I think it was Atonement – Ian McEwan – a worthy book so you won’t judge me too harshly), so I quickly flashed my page at him and he was shocked. So now I sit at the back of the bus!

E-book sales are constantly rising but I would say the vast majority of readers I talk to are unimpressed and not tempted to either get an e-reader or to move away from paper altogether. So I think paper is safe for a while. What worries me the most is what will happen to bookshops. I’m sorry to say that I think it inevitable that we will lose our beloved bookshops in their current form some time soon.

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As an experiment I wrote this post by hand on paper first! My hand hurts now. I was telling my dyslexic son that it is ironic that you write by hand all though school and in your exams. Then you might as well throw your pencil-case away! In work who hand writes any amount these days? I take notes in meetings – but am starting to feel that I should have a tablet to help me sort and organise my notes, but any serious writing, like a report, are done electronically.

It’s strange writing this by hand. I know I’ll restructure and edit it when I transfer it to the blog but Im surprised how complete this paper version feels. Am I using a different writing technique; where I am more consciously structuring and editing? Perhaps I’m not re-reading as I go along as I do on the PC? This is feeling more like a final draft than a first draft (and in fact as I type it in I’m not changing much at all but my goodness my touchtyping has gone out the window!)

If you are a writer I bet you write on a laptop or PC. You should try hand writing for a while. It’s very different. I thought I’d find it really difficult, but actually it’s okay. It’s also interesting to see a quantity of my handwriting. The last time I wrote anything this long was an account of my eldest’s birth! I’m quite pleased with the quality of my handwriting, I thought it would be really irregular but it’s survived well through lack of use and if anything seems to have improved.

So what do you think? Paper or pixels? For me, for reading it’s definitely pixels, writing, well I’ll be back on the PC for the next post, so I that must be pixels too. It’s easy to romanticise paper, but the electronic stuff is there to meet a need. Is it meeting yours?

 

 

Is it wrong to want books to end well?

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Oh dear, that looks pretty damning doesn’t it?  This post isn’t just about The PostmistressSarah Blake, but it is a case in point.  I’ll add a little review at the end of this – it’s okay because I wouldn’t recommend this as a BIB (Blissfully Ignorant Book).

I’m not very proud of this but I like books that are happy; that turn out well.  Where characters get what they generally deserve, justice is seen to be done, that whole thing of “You get what you give”.  I can stand a little challenge to this, I don’t mind if books make me cry ( in fact The Postmistress did make me cry, on the bus, a little).  I don’t want syrupy saccharine sweet; where everything is unrealistically positive either.  I want books to be a bit like life and certainly about the ability of humans to bring something to the world.

G is for George smothered under a rug - Day 16...

G is for George smothered under a rug – Day 167 of Project 365 (Photo credit: purplemattfish)

Things I hate most in books

  • unnecessary killing of a character (doesn’t move the story on, just makes you miserable, especially when they had everything to live for)
  • shoddy, unthought out endings, where the questions laid out in a book are unsatisfactorily answered, or not at all (Surprisingly I find Michael Crichton falls into this category where the scientifically based plot is undermined by some almost “magic” at the end, they have a rushed feel)
  • a lack of justice because that’s what the world is like (unless it’s a true story, and this can be saved by other characters observing this)
  • an ending that is so unexpected (ironically) that you feel stupid for not seeing it coming (Life of Pi – yuck sorry, but yuck, it made me feel really stupid!)

There are plenty of books with sad themes but somehow are uplifting and mean something, they stay with you for days, weeks even years after (like The Lovely Bones – Alice Sebold).  So I don’t want jolly, but I do want achieve something!

The Postmistress – short review…

Overall rating 4 for the ending, as you can see by the BiblioGraph above.

Not recommended as a BIB because once you start you know what you’ve got.

I really like the premise, the general story line and the introduction to a US attitude to WWII, the evocation of the blitz in London was fantastic, it contained loads of detail and really achieved a feeling of time and place.  So a big thumbs up for that, which is why I read to the end.  What let it down at the end was that I just didn’t understand what it was getting at, it was a bit too subtle and just fizzled out like an incendiary dropped in the Thames.

There seems to be a bit of theme here:  Am I a bit too thick for these books?