Reading? Bah, Humbug.

September 17, 2001

JackGanssle-September 17, 2001

Reading? Bah, Humbug.
USA Today - my least favorite newspaper in the world, but the one most hotels insist on dropping before each door, this week polled readers and found that 43% of American men haven't read a book in the last six months. Women fare better, with only 29% reaching for the remote control rather than some weighty tome.

I was appalled.

In one of those weird juxtapositions this poll appeared the same day I was doing a book-signing at the 2001 Boston Embedded Systems Conference. The CMP booth was awash in visitors greedily pawing through stacks of books targeted at embedded developers. None would be considered "an easy read"; these are all textbooks, more or less, filled with the arcana of our business. And they're not cheap, with prices ranging from $50 to twice that. Yet the credit cards flew as the shelves emptied.

I challenged the visitors. Do they actually read these purchases or are they just shelf litter? Most claimed to study much of each book, though they usually admitted that they rarely read a technical book from cover to cover. That's pretty understandable: engineers look for solutions to problems, extracting what's needed and then moving on.

Tom DeMarco, noted software guru and author, complains, "software people don't read." I don't know if this is just a grievance from someone whose living depends on book sales, or if it's an industry truism. Yet there's been a flood of books about software engineering; surely someone is reading this stuff.

Bookstores have enjoyed an impressive resurgence. Borders, Barnes & Noble, and of course Amazon.com all are megaliths that pander to the nation's reading -- or at least buying. Critics complain that these behemoths have replaced the eclectic local bookstore, a sad loss, for sure. The little place across the street from me failed a few months ago, removing something wonderful from my neighborhood. Now it's a 15-minute dingy ride to the closest store in Baltimore, which of course is a Barnes & Noble. Which is of course part of an ESPN Zone complex, giving the odd mix of library-like entertainment with pounding audio-visual stimulation.

Big stores also crowd out less popular titles. It seems every Borders and Barnes & Noble across the country stocks the same few thousand books. Wits also decry the effect of the mass hyped volumes like the Harry Potter series, or those promoted by Oprah. They fear a loss of diversity as we focus on just a few books. Yet Harry Potter is quite a wonderful story, and some of Oprah's recommendations simply brilliant. Try the poignant I Know This Much is True by Wally Lamb. I for one much prefer listening to people debate the latest Potter or Oprah selection than hearing about some sitcom.

I'm locally known as somewhat of an ogre for mandating no TV and an early bedtime for my kids. But they are allowed to stay awake reading in bed as late as they wish. Besides the obvious and important benefit of creating a bit of parental peace it's my firm belief that a love of reading is the most critical part of a great education. Everything else pales.

So what's the deal? Is reading dying? Are we techies better or worse at reading than the typical USA Today subscriber?

Jack G. Ganssle is a lecturer and consultant on embedded development issues. He conducts seminars on embedded systems and helps companies with their embedded challenges. He founded two companies specializing in embedded systems. Contact him at jack@ganssle.com. His website is www.ganssle.com.

Reader Feedback

Jack,

Re: Reading. As a (a?)typical engineer I have been known to curl up with a good data book or technical book now and then. I also browse thru the stacks at the library and pick up more traditional literature on a regular basis. I don't see how people expect to learn and expand there knowledgebase otherwise. Many seem to think that once they have completed their formal schooling that they are finished learning. Well, in my opinion it is after you get out of school that your real education starts. Books can be a great part of that continuing education process, I don't think I've heard anyone lately saying that television is an education tool.

Mark Walter
Proj Engineer
Eaton Aerospace


Jack,

Books are an important part of a good education because they let us learn from the experiences and mistakes of others.

But it is possible to overrate something as worthwhile as reading. We also need to have hands on experience and make our own mistakes. Back in high school I was active in amateur radio (and still am) and learned a lot by building things from parts stripped from old TV sets. I wonder what your kids or others are doing outside of school to get some hands on experiences?

Concerning Mr. Larkins' choice of books: Blue Highways is one I enjoyed many years ago, The Death and Life of Great American Cities is in my reading queue (I often buy books faster than I read them), I avoid books with "... for Dummies" in the title. And I believe that DeMarco and Lister's Peopleware should be the number one book on the reading list of every software developer and manager. Too bad that none of the managers pay any attention to it, so most work places continue to provide material for Scott Adams' Dilbert.

Might as well throw in a couple of book recommendations: Hunt, The Maxwellians and Resnick,Turtles, Termites, and Traffic Jams".

Gary Chatters
Title: Senior Software Engineer
Company: Syntek Systems Corp.

JACK REPLIES: Agreed, especially about "Peopleware". This book is profoundly important for people sentenced to cubicles.


Jack,

I am a Hungarian process control engineer, editor of Process Control Magazine. Sometimes I read your articles, and find it very useful to read about "human", not technical issues in technical magazines. I write similar articles as well...

I only want to add one thing to this books vs. TV issue: I guess you are sad seeing your people watching so much low quality american TV programs. (thrillers, sitcoms, etc.) Please imagine, how sad I am seeing Hungarians watching so much low quality American TV programs. (thrillers, sitcoms, etc.) Because our TV channels are full of American products... You hardly can find a Hungarian film. 95% American, 4% European, 1% Hungarian...

This is the same in the whole world. The agressive invasion of the American video products, promoting "American lifestyle" is surely one of the reasons why certain people do not like US at all...

You, and the other good people there, must balance this.

Regards,

Sandor Fule


Jack,

I too am appalled at the statistic but not surprised. Many engineers I talk to tell me they, "read technical material" when I ask what and if they read. As if they might curl up on the couch on a Sunday afternoon with a nice technical specification or data book - Yuck! On the other hand, if the typical engineer's experience is limited to reading the drivel that can masquerade as technical material, I can understand why they might never pick up a novel. Just as mathematics is generalized, much of the written data in our realm has been abstracted to unreadability (the sort that only lawyers could love). As for me, there are worlds, places and people I can vicariously travel and be!

By the way, I enjoy reading your column.

Sincerely,

Eric Gnoske
Atmel Corp.


Jack,

Great column. Couldn't agree with you more. I especially love this part:

"I'm locally known as somewhat of an ogre for mandating no TV and an early bedtime for my kids. But they are allowed to stay awake reading in bed as late as they wish. Besides the obvious and important benefit of creating a bit of parental peace it's my firm belief that a love of reading is the most critical part of a great education. Everything else pales."

Our house is a "TV-Free Zone". We consider the TV the most destructive influence in America. And our kids are similiarly allowed a great deal of latitude to read books. One interesting part about having no TV is the look of astonishment on other Parents' faces, then the amazingly predictable sequence of comments, questions and denials: "How do you do it?" " What do the kids do all day?" "I don't think we could ELIMINATE the TV." and my all time favorite: "We really don't watch that much, just a couple things each week." which is often followed by "There is some really good stuff on though that you are missing." It's like listening to an alcoholic in denial at times. For us, it's easy. There hasn't been a TV in my primary residence since I left home for college 21 years ago. In fact having no TV is easier than having one and enforcing limits. It's much harder to eat ice cream that isn't in the freezer.

Books are a big part of our life. When we take the kids to the library, we come back with 25 books or more. They ain't doing any good sitting on the shelf at the library. My wife has two books and a magazine going and I have four books going at the moment. You may appreciate the titles: "Blue Highways", "The Death and Life of Great American Cities", "Business Plans for Dummies" and "Peopleware".

Keep the great columns coming.

Sincerely,

Bill Larkins
Reciprocal Designs, Inc.

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