Reading more, paying less

My reading habits have been changing and it’s worrying me. Don’t worry, I haven’t started reading the Daily Mail or anything. On the contrary, I’ve been reading loads of great journalism recently (The Vitamin Myth: why we think we need supplements and The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Food, to mention but two articles). The thing is, I haven’t paid for any of it and that makes me wonder how such journalism can continue to exist in future.

Storability, Readability

Readability is a cross-platform app that does two things really well: it reformats articles on websites to make them easier to read on whatever screen you’re using and it stores articles in your own personal reading list for you to read later, even when you’re offline. If I spot something I want to read later I just click a little button on my browser (or share it to Readability on the smartphone). It adds it to my reading list, strips out most or all of the images and serves up the text in an easily readable layout.

Before having this app, if I came across an interesting looking article but didn’t have time to read it right away it was a case of bookmarking it (using the excellent Xmarks) and going back to it later. Readability has made it much easier which also means that I’ve started seeking out good sources of new articles.

Finding the good stuff

I’m referring here primarily to longer pieces that take 15 to 30 minutes to read, or maybe even a little longer. Sources would include, for example, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Slate, Rolling Stone, feature articles in quality Sunday newspapers, etc., or even Readability’s own website. The subject matter could be politics, science, the arts, history – just about anything.

Sometimes I’ll visit a few of the sites mentioned above and bookmark some recent articles. I’ll also come across things via reddit or But the most useful source is a site called Longreads that aggregates together the best new articles over 1,500 words each week. Their weekly mailout usually throws up a handful of articles that end up on my reading list.

Who pays?

We once had a subscription to The New Yorker (and would have renewed after the gift expired if it hadn’t been for the fact that we struggled to find time to keep up with the weekly issues) and used to buy a lot of newspapers, particularly at the weekend. Now I’m using a free app that strips out the advertising to read the same quality journalism for free. It’s not sustainable.

I’ve just learned that I can become a member of Longreads, to contribute towards the upkeep and development of the service (and intend to do that), but it’s not clear whether any of that money supports the journalists and publications. I’ve seen that some publishers use Longreads to promote books by allowing them to publish an extract, but that doesn’t address the fundamental problem.

We stopped buying CDs more than five years ago, instead downloading our music. But we still pay for it all, so the artists are still getting some remuneration (at least from those of us that do still pay for music). With newspaper and magazine sales on a downward slide and the failure so far of paywalls as a viable model, what will enable quality journalism to continue to exist?

Gateway drug

One little personal postscript to all of the above is that I find I’m reading more and more on my smartphone, which naturally eats into the time I spend with an old-fashioned book in my hands. I’ve resisted the jump to an e-reader until now, claiming that I like the feel of a book in my hands, don’t want to read from a screen, want to be able to pass books on to others, etc. But I can see that I’m not that far from making the leap and joining many, many book-loving friends that now swear by their Kindle.

So it seems the combo of Readability and Longreads is pulling me inexorably to the world of the e-reader, which means our bookshelves might go the way of our CD racks before them. It makes me a little bit sad, but I guess it’s not worth getting too worried about. On the other hand, I’ll be interested to see what business models rise from the rubble when the publishing industry follows in the footsteps of the record industry. It’s all in flux for now.

A random reading list

I was involved last week in the first round interviews for the position I’m about to vacate at the EBU. As a closing question each of the five candidates interviewed was asked what book they are currently reading (or have most recently read). Here, apropos of nothing, are the five books mentioned:

Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure (Tim Harford)

The Bean Trees (Barbara Kingsolver)

The Geography of Bliss (Eric Weiner)

The Art of Thinking Clearly: Better Thinking, Better Decisions (Rolf Dobelli)

What is the What (Dave Eggers)

An interesting list, no? It had no bearing on the decision of course, but for what it’s worth it was the candidates who mentioned the first, third and fourth books above that made it to the second round.

Tale of the Gael – Collège des Coudriers – 15.11.2013

Attending GLAS events in Geneva is often like heading home to Ireland for an evening without any need for Aer Lingus (and their stupidly early morning return flight); and last night was one of those occasions. Tale of the Gael is a kind of collective of musicians whose centre of gravity is Catherine Rhatigan and her harp.They perform themed evenings with a line-up that changes from show to show.

Last night’s show was inspired by the music of Turlough O’Carolan and the poetry of W. B. Yeats. The ensemble featured uilleann pipes, flute and tin whistle, fiddles, bouzouki and double bass, along with a woman who sang and recited poetry. Catherine stepped out from behind her harp to introduce each set of tunes and words, with many interesting stories about the parallels between the lives of Yeats and O’Carolan.

The music was wonderful and at times quite moving. I was happy to close my eyes and let it wash over me for the most part, but I also had a great view of the piper, Micky Dunne, whose technique was impressive to watch. He also told a story about his link to one of the leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising. (His wife is a granddaughter of The O’Rahilly, who was shot by a British machine gun and, as described in a poem by Yeats, wrote his dying words in blood in a doorway on Moore Street.) It felt special to hear him tell the story but even more special to listen to his solo rendition of the lament Róisín Dubh, by Seán Ó Riada. I’m sure it got the biggest round of applause of the whole evening.

I was also really pleased that Yeats’s He wishes for the cloths of heaven was included. It’s a short, but very beautiful poem that I’ve loved since my schooldays. I think I would have liked to hear even more poetry and songs during the evening – the tunes were excellent, but I start to miss the lyrics after a while!

All in all another superb evening of entertainment thanks to Denis McClean, the driving force behind GLAS. Music and poetry, stories and songs, and Micky Dunne wearing Finbar Furey’s shirt. (A long story…)

(I will admit that the one little disappointment for me on the night was the final song, Van Morrison’s Moondance. It’s a great song and the performance was musically good, but it was such a leap from everything that had gone before that it kind of broke the spell a bit I thought. I hope Catherine didn’t mind me saying that to her later on in the evening back at Charly O’Neill’s pub! She told me their next show will be based on the life of Brian Boru, another interesting character from Irish history. Maybe Denis will have a good reason to invite them back to Geneva for that one.)

No excuses

The two things below gave me food for thought this evening. Both came from via, a site I may visit more often in future.

The first speaks for itself…

The Holstee Manifesto


And this one, from illustrating a Charles Bukowski poem, is why I need to stop making excuses about time and space and start just making.


Amusing ourselves to death

Studying communications at DCU in Dublin, as you’d expect, we had to do a lot of reading. (With something like 12 hours of lectures per week, I guess we had to do something with all that spare time!) I know now that the things I read there, from the age of 17 to 20, influenced the way I thought and still think about the world today.

One book that definitely had an impact was Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death. It cropped up again for me recently when I came across the comic below – on reddit I think – and it brought back to me how much I really believed that Postman was right in his central thesis. It’s Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World we should fear more than Orwell’s vision of 1984. We risk failing to “take into account man’s infinite appetite for distractions”. Even in these hyper-connected days when many of us are glued to our smartphones and tablets in every spare moment (guilty!), television viewing is actually on the increase. Indeed it’s mobile and social media that are serving to drive viewing figures for many TV shows.

All of this reminds me that there was a programme on the BBC called Why Don’t You? on Saturday mornings when I was a young whippersnapper growing up in Greystones, Co. Wicklow. It’s theme tune included the words:

Why don’t you just switch off your television set and go out and do something less boring instead?

For many years now I haven’t really watched TV, aside from a rugby match here and there, and an episode of a comedy or drama series on DVD a couple of times a week. I don’t know if it was the influence of that Neil Postman book – or maybe even Why Don’t You?!! – but somewhere along the line I made a deliberate decision that there are more useful, valuable ways to spend my time. I’m in the minority on that front. The average European spends almost four hours per day – PER DAY! – watching television.

Anyway, here’s the cartoon version of Amusing Ourselves To Death. It’s worth a read if this kind of thing interests you; even though it was written in 1987, I suspect it’s even more relevant now.


Amusing Ourselves To Death - comic by Stuart McMillen, based on Neil Postman's book

Strive to be happy

During a meeting at work this week a Welsh colleague used the word desiderata. At lunchtime that day another colleague, from Croatia, asked me what it meant and I had to confess that I didn’t know. I knew it was the title of the poem but couldn’t remember much more about it.

I looked up the poem, by Max Ehrmann, and liked it – even loved it – straight away. I think some people know it as “Go placidly”. (By the way, the word desiderata is the singular of desideratum, meaning somthing that is wanted or needed. It’s also used in French.)

Desiderata – Max Ehrmann

Go placidly amidst the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence. As far as possible without surrender be on good terms with all persons. Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even the dull and the ignorant; they too have their story.

Avoid loud and aggressive persons, they are vexatious to the spirit. If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain and bitter; for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.

Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans. Keep interested in your own career, however humble; it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.

Exercise caution in your business affairs; for the world is full of trickery. But let this not blind you to what virtue there is; many persons strive for high ideals; and everywhere life is full of heroism.

Be yourself. Especially, do not feign affection. Neither be cynical about love; for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment it is as perennial as the grass.

Take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth. Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune. But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings. Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.

Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here.

And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should. Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be, and whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul. With all its shams, drudgery, and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be cheerful.

Strive to be happy.

Text via Wikipedia.

2012: good reads and listens

With Robert’s arrival late last year I’ve had less time for reading, but we’ve still been listening to lots of music. So, in no particular order, these were the five books and albums that I enjoyed most during 2012 (all bought during the year, but not necessarily published/released this year):


  1. Little Gods by Anna Richards – freakishly tall girl tries to find her niche in the post-WWII world.
  2. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell – fastidious trader tries to stay on the straight and narrow when posted to a Dutch trading post in 19th century Japan.
  3. The Book of Chameleons by Jose Eduardo Agualusa – the story of an Angolan who sells personal histories, as narrated by a gecko.
  4. Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín – Wexford lass finds out it’s not all that easy to escape small town Ireland in the 1950s.
  5. Deaf Sentence by David Lodge – onset of deafness makes tricky situations even trickier for a middle-aged college professor.


  1. There’s No Leaving Now by The Tallest Man on Earth –  if Bob Dylan were a Swedish hipster
  2. Passenger by Lisa Hannigan – equally catchy follow-up to Sea Sew
  3. Wounded Rhymes by Lykke Li – Florence and the Machine with a bit more character
  4. My Head is an Animal by Of Monsters And Men – very silly lyrics, very hummable tunes… Mumford & Sons meets Arcade Fire.
  5. What we saw from the cheap seats by Regina Spektor – a quirky lady sings quirky songs.

Didn’t see a whole lot of live music this year, but really enjoyed all that I did get along to: Lisa Hannigan, Of Monsters and Men, Suzanne Vega, Luka Bloom and Moya Brennan.

And, finally, when I told Nadine I was writing this post she said I should also mention that her favourite album was Ben Howard’s Every Kingdom.

Thrilling trilogy

I’ve spent the last couple of weeks reading Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Triology. Actually, it took me a week to read the first book and then I quickly polished off the second and third installments on a couple of long haul flights to Montreal and back. The description “page-turner” could have been invented for this series. Brilliantly believable characters populate plot lines that weave in and out in ever more complex, intriguing and exciting twists. The third book in particular, The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest, starts at an incredible pace and doesn’t let up until almost the final page.

As popular crime thrillers you might expect them to be a bit on the trashy side, but the writing is really very good, if not exactly what you’d describe as literary. In any case, the story pulls you along so urgently that you don’t really have time to think about the writing. (The very specific mentions of brands and products grates a bit now and then – was this product placement?!)

I knew nothing about the story lines before starting; the books came recommended by friends which was enough for me. And I recommend them to you.