Book cover for Lost in Shangri-La by Mitchell Zuckoff

Here’s something I didn’t know. Amazon actually has a special web page where they share with Kindle owners what they believe to be the “Best Books of May.” It’s got links not only to new e-books — but also some other special lists created by Amazon’s own book editors.

At the top of the page? A real-life thriller called “Lost in Shangri-La: A True Story of Survival, Adventure, and the Most Incredible Rescue Mission of World War II.” In May of 1945, an airplane carrying 24 tourists crashed in the jungles of New Guinea, leaving behind just three stunned and wounded survivors. “Caught between man-eating headhunters and enemy Japanese, the wounded passengers endured a harrowing hike down the mountainside,” according to the book’s description on Amazon.com, “a journey into the unknown that would lead them straight into a primitive tribe of superstitious natives who had never before seen a white man – or woman.”

The book’s author pulled out all the stops to research this book — including declassified military documents and even one of the survivor’s diaries — and at one point even returned to the jungle in New Guinea to track down any natives in the villages who might remember the day 65 years ago when strangers fell from the sky. It sounds fascinating, but it’s a book I wouldn’t have known about without Amazon’s “Best Books of May” page. And the page offers a nice variety of reading choices. There’s several novels, a couple of thrillers, a short story collection, and even a history book.

But there’s also some specialized categories — like the “Best Books for Young Adults” or “Best Books for Middle-Grade Readers”. (I have to complement one of the authors on a very clever title. “The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making!”) And my favorite list is a fascinating hybrid, showing which of the editor’s picks are currently also best-sellers in Amazon’s Kindle store.

At the top of the list is Tina Fey’s Bossypants, and of course Stieg Larsson’s trilogy (including “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”) is still going strong in the top 10. But the list keeps on going, ultimately offering 100 different recommendations. It’s got a great variety of authors, featuring books by everyone from Stephen King to Keith Richards. (And there’s even a new book by Mark Twain — a new edition of his autobiography.) I’ve noticed that my Kindle makes me want to set aside more time for reading.

And now Amazon’s “Best of May” web page makes it easier to find something to read!

I had an interesting idea. I’m trying to make a list of all the different devices on which I’ve read a complete story.

See, right now I’m reading a Star Trek novel on my Kindle — which is super-weird, because I’d also read these as paperback books when I was a teenager in the 1970s. They’re stories set in the distant future, but now I’m in the future — 30 years from the 1970s — and I’m using a real futuristic reading device…to read about a fictitious future!

And meanwhile my screensaver’s showing me a picture of the Gutenberg press…

So over my lifetime, I’ve read stories on lots of different devices. And as an exercise, I tried to write up a complete list of them all. I mean, the first thing I ever read was a “See Dick Run” children’s reader. And when I was six years old, my parents bought me a comic book about two squirrels. So here’s how that list would begin…

A picture book
Comic books

I thought about also including “The titles of cartoons on TV,” but realized it would take too long to list everything I’ve ever read. (Billboards, valentines, medicine bottles, the instructions on parking meters…) So I tried narrowing the list to devices on which I’ve read a complete story.
Even then, I still ended up with…

Bubble gum comics

Technically, a Bazooka Joe comic strip is still a story. (And for that matter, so are the four-panel “stories” that you’d read in a daily newspaper.) But still, most of the stories I read were published as books. Until the internet came along and added new ways to read stories…

Online eTexts from Project Gutenberg
Short stories posted to Usenet
A type-written manuscript that a writer sent me…

Someone in Hollywood also once sent me a PDF file with a TV show’s script. And I think that completes my list of every device on which I’ve read an actual story.

But it’s a very challenging exercise — try it! (Because I’d love to know what other story-reading mediums I’ve missed…) And it’s also a very satisfying experience. It’s like tallying up an entire lifetime spent reading, while also highlighting the moments when new technologies came along. And of course, the exercise has to end by adding one final item.

Reading stories on my Kindle

Aging, Reading, and the Kindle

January 7th, 2010

“I love reading history,” writes Barbara Strauch, “and the shelves in my living room are lined with fat, fact-filled books.

“The problem is, as much as I’ve enjoyed these books, I don’t really remember reading any of them.”

She’s the health editor at The New York Times – and she’s written a book about the problems of an aging mind. It’s something I’ve worried about: will I still be able to enjoy reading as I grow older? I have fantasies of retiring, and finally having all day to read. (Maybe then I could finally tackle Remembrance of Things Past or War and Peace.) One reason I bought my Kindle was to increase the font sizes on books — so I wouldn’t need spectacles or special Large-Print editions. And with WhisperNet, I’m now invisibly connected to all the literature I could ever want to read.

The problem now isn’t the reading technology — it’s the physical problems of the reader! Will reading be a different experience when you’re doing it with a differently-aged brain? Strauch apparently answers the question in her upcoming book – but there’s reason to be optimistic. The book’s subtitle is “The Surprising Talents of the Middle-Aged Mind,” and according to the blurb on Amazon, “the middle-aged brain is more flexible and more capable than previously thought.”

And in the New York Times this week, Strauch informs us that “The brain, as it traverses middle age, gets better at recognizing the central idea, the big picture.” So I won’t lose my ability to enjoy the great works of literature before I die. And in fact, if I’m understanding her correctly, our ability to literature may actually improve with age.

“If kept in good shape, the brain can continue to build pathways that help its owner recognize patterns and, as a consequence, see significance and even solutions much faster than a young person can…”