Ben Crowder

Blog: #books

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Booknotes 1.1

  • Weeknotes are dead, long live booknotes. In the interest of experimentation and partly because weeknotes were starting to lose their appeal for me, I’m retiring that format. In its place: booknotes. They’ll be effectively the same as the reading section of the weeknotes. The rest of what I used to write about in weeknotes will move back to normal (if sporadic) blog posts.
  • I’m also planning to try out seasons, so this is season 1, issue/episode/whatever 1. I have no idea how long the season will be or what would warrant moving to a new season, but I figured it would be fun to try out and see how it goes.
  • I’m dropping my reading goal from 100 pages/day to 50, so that I have more time for projects.
  • Another thing I want to start doing with these booknotes is, when first mentioning a book, talk about why I’m reading it and what I hope to get out of it. (At this point I plan to do this only for nonfiction. I unofficially sort of started doing it in my last weeknotes.)


  • I finished The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind. Great book. I really, really enjoyed the parts where he made things like the circuit breaker and the windmill itself, and that’s exactly what I wanted out of it. I hope to find many more books like it, with lots and lots of making things.
  • I’m now reading Steven Johnson’s The Ghost Map, about cholera in 1850s London. I’d heard about the book several times before, and I’m interested in the story of how they figured out what was causing the epidemic, and in learning more about the London of that time. So far (I’m a fifth of the way in), it’s great. But cholera is not great.
  • I need to make more time to read Isaacson’s Benjamin Franklin, because I’m really liking it and just hardly ever get to it. As far as intention goes, I’m reading it to learn more about Franklin’s work as a printer, inventor, and scientist, and secondarily to learn more about his political career.
  • The Vitruvius is somewhat slow going but fascinating. There’s a bit about good buildings lasting forever, which made me realize I tend to think of buildings as somewhat more ephemeral and I’m not sure why. Perhaps it’s because buildings on campus are always going up or coming down. Or maybe it’s a habit of mind stemming from all the time I spend building ephemeral software. Whatever the case, the idea of fairly permanent alteration of the landscape (not just in preparing for buildings to go up but the building itself) intrigues me.


  • I finished Killer Dungeon. Fun series. Not a whole lot to say about it.
  • This week has not at all been a fiction week for me. I’m around a fifth of the way into Claire North’s The Gameshouse but haven’t really gotten hooked yet. I can’t tell if that’s because of everything else going on (nationally and personally). I think I’ll stick with it for now.

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Lector intro

Yet another entry in the ignominious series talking about my personal productivity tools.

Lector is a reading app for macOS. It’s an Electron app for now. The name comes from the Latin (for someone who reads), with a homophonic hat tip to Hannibal. It came about from wanting a minimalist app that would let me read PDFs and scanned books in dark mode and keep track of my spot across multiple books.


A Lector book is just a directory full of images. (PDFs have to be split up into image files first, so I have a small script to do that.) When the app starts up, it looks at the book list directory to see what books are available. It also has a JSON file to track where I’m at on each book (which page and which part of the page), what size the window is, which book I last had open, etc.

The app itself looks like this, on an empty desktop to show how I usually use it:


No title bar, since I find that distracting. And the page images are scaled by default to fit the window width.

Hitting g / brings up a brief panel showing the books that are in the system, with alphabetized keys to get to them (so g a to go to the first, g b for the second, etc.). When I’m done reading a book, I delete its directory, so these mappings change fairly regularly.

j and f and double-clicking all go to the next page; k and d both go back to the previous page. J and K move up and down the page (in larger jumps), and the mouse can also be used to scroll. (I find that I mostly use the mouse for scrolling and f/d for page navigation, but every once in a while I’ll use the other keys.)

As you can see in the screenshot, it defaults to dark mode, with slightly lowered contrast for easier reading. i inverts the colors and s toggles the higher contrast view.

How I use Lector

I use it when I want to read a book I’ve scanned (usually with Scanbook). I haven’t used it as often lately, but I fully expect that to change soon. (It’s been very handy for reading textbooks.)

I’ve found that I prefer the window size shown in the screenshot, wide (so that the text is large enough) with just enough vertical room for a paragraph or so (since reading in smaller chunks is easier).

The future

I’d like to move off Electron at some point, probably to a native Swift app. Having it support PDFs directly (or splitting them up itself) would be nice, and having a way within the app to remove books would also be good.

Finally, I’d love to add EPUB support at some point. (I haven’t yet found a desktop EPUB reader I like. Marvin’s great on iOS, though.)

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Bookshelf intro

Yet another entry in the forever-long series talking about my personal productivity tools.

Bookshelf is my reading tracking app. It’s a Python app running Django. The name comes from, uh, the thing that holds books.


Behold the books:


At the top there’s the stats panel, which shows how much I read the last six days with color coding for the genre tags (and yes, Wednesday and Friday I didn’t meet my 100-pages-per-day goal), my page total so far this month (932), how many books I’ve finished so far this month (2), and how much of my reading this month has come from each tag (I usually try to read around 50% nonfiction, but I usually fail).

And then there’s the book list itself. Title, progress bar with some extra data (including how long since I started the book), current page number (clicking this opens a panel where I can record the page I’m on along with a comment), and how long it’s been since my last entry.

Each book has a staleness limit (default is five days), where if I haven’t read the book at all in that period of time, it changes the color of the title to a glaring, awful red, and that’s sufficient motivation for me to get back to that book. (To be honest, lately I haven’t seen it come up much since I’ve been reading only a few books at a time, but in those crazy days when I was reading twenty to thirty books at a time, I saw it a lot.)

Also: the sixth book (in case you were wondering) is A Disciple’s Life, which is only visible on Sundays (I reserve it for Sunday reading).

And the mobile view, for the heck of it, and since it’s the one I use almost all of the time:


There’s also a stats page, since the statistics are surprisingly helpful in motivating me to make time for reading:


(Yes, as of a couple days ago I’ve read more this year so far than all of last year in total. This makes me inordinately proud even though it really doesn’t matter.)

And, lastly, the hopefully self-evident history page:


How I use Bookshelf

On my phone, I have it saved to my homescreen as a PWA, and that’s primarily where I use it, since I mainly read on my phone these days. On my laptop, I have it open in Firefox as a pinned tab.

I use Bookshelf every day to track my reading, both for individual books and for my daily/monthly reading goals. It’s handy, too, as a bookmark that toddlers can’t pull out.

The future

The desktop view needs some love, particularly that stats page. (I added those genre tags to it a month or two ago and realize now that I never actually looked at the desktop version. Whoops.)

Also (this should be no surprise by now), I’m planning to switch it to FastAPI along with plain text files for storage, for the same reasons I gave in those other posts.

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Two quick thoughts on reading:

Over the last few years I’ve wanted to get back into reading classics (“back into” referring to high school and college lit classes), but…it’s a struggle. I’ve DNFed pretty much all the classic novels I’ve tried to read — Oliver Twist, Madame Bovary, War & Peace, and Scaramouche, among others. What I suspect is probably at fault here: my fiction tastes skew heavily toward genre (primarily sf&f with occasional forays into mystery and thrillers), with realistic/literary fiction (basically all those aforementioned classics falling into this category) usually boring me out of my mind. Not entirely sure what to do about it yet, other than to try reading something like Dracula to see if the same thing happens.

Also, from the flip side of the coin: I’ve been reading a fair amount of more contemporary sf&f lately (the last several years) and goodness, there’s a lot of great fantasy and science fiction being published these days.

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I love this quote from Carl Sagan’s Cosmos:

What an astonishing thing a book is. It’s a flat object made from a tree with flexible parts on which are imprinted lots of funny dark squiggles. But one glance at it and you’re inside the mind of another person, maybe somebody dead for thousands of years. Across the millennia, an author is speaking clearly and silently inside your head, directly to you. Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people who never knew each other, citizens of distant epochs. Books break the shackles of time. A book is proof that humans are capable of working magic.

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