How to improve scholarly writing

I would not be surprised if the title of this blog – or some variation – has appeared on many books, websites, videos, and the like. Assuming I am right, you could reasonably ask, why another?

My answer is that I see far too many papers being written for publication in scientific journals that are remarkably badly written. That may mean that the advice from my predecessors was not good enough, or, more likely, that it was not read or followed. I am sufficiently humble to know that I will not be able to remedy most writing problems in a single blog, but I want to try.

In fact, I could accomplish much of what is needed simply by filling the rest of this blog with one word: REVISE! If authors were to do nothing more than read their work repeatedly, correct errors, and simplify their text, the result would surely be better. Revisions need not be endless, although it may sometimes feel as if they are. Good writers persist until they reach a point when they simply cannot tolerate one more revision, even when they accept that each one is an improvement. They don’t stop revising being they are satisfied they have achieved perfection.

Many elements of a text are bound to change when revising. The goal is always utmost clarity. This is especially critical in scholarly writing because misunderstandings can be dangerous. There are so many ways seemingly simple ideas can get muddled. Every element of writing can cause confusion: a poor choice of words, badly constructed sentences, the neglect or misuse of punctuation, careless typos, and even some misspellings. If that seems intimidating it may help if writers think of themselves as drivers in Montreal, surrounded by hundreds of potholes. These must first be spotted, then avoided. 

One way to help identify parts that need to be improved is to read the entire text aloud. When you do, you are almost certain to uncover previously hidden problems. If you have co-authors, ask them to read it to themselves and then to you. After all, they are obliged (in several different ways) to approve the final draft before it is submitted. Many journals stipulate that co-authors must be able to support the findings to qualify as authors.  If you don’t have co-authors, however, find a good friend willing to read your paper. But, don’t choose someone who wants to please you; you need someone who will be reasonably tough.

In the last few years there has been much debate about whether the traditional rules of writing still apply. Personally, I am somewhat torn. I understand the appeal of being lax about the rules but when pressed I am inclined to follow the tried (and ? true) line. Either way, before you choose, for example, to not bother to understand the proper meaning of words like ‘literally’ you must know and understand the rule. In this case it comes down to a choice between the word’s correct meaning i.e., literally as meaning what is actually so, as opposed to the popular current distortion i.e., what is only so metaphorically. The same applies to all the other old guidelines; know what they are and why they came into being before you opt to treat them lightly.

For those who write for scholarly journals that may require some form of peer review, there is another dimension to this controversy. Even reviewers who are not wedded to the rules draw the line somewhere. Because you cannot be certain, even if you know the identity of a reviewer, where that line is, I advise that you play it safe and choose convention, not whatever is now fashionable.   

Finally, I urge you find the time to read one of the many excellent books about writing.  It is not good enough to have an old copy of Strunk and White on your shelf. My current favourite is not only wise but funny: ‘Dreyer’s English: An Absolutely Correct Guide to Clarity and Style’. The author, Ben Dreyer, was the chief copy editor at Random House and has seen it all. His footnotes alone are worth the price of this book. It bursts with wisdom and strikes a comfortable balance between the old and new fashions. When he chooses either, he offers persuasive reasons.  

I have not yet read another recently published book that has received mostly enthusiastic reviews, “Don’t Believe A Word: The Surprising Truth About Language”. The author, David Shariatmadari, took a leaf out of his own book in an essay appearing in the Guardian with the provocative title, “Language wars: the 19 greatest linguistic spats of all time.”  Some examples of these spats are ‘Apostrophe catastrophe’, ‘Are you really disinterested?’, ‘Shipshape and patriarchal’, ‘Nucular war’, and ‘Trumped by language’. The last of these includes reference to ‘covfefe’ among other ‘multisyllabic manglings’. In case you missed it, both the last two spats are contributions from presidents of the United States. 

“Don’t Believe A Word” is reviewed in an August issue of The Guardian by Joe Moran. In an entirely laudatory review, Moran describes Shariatmadari’s approach to language as ‘pro-diversity and anti-pedantry’. A web post for a lecture to be given by the author states, “most of us know as much about language today as we did about physics before Galileo, and the little we know is still largely based on folklore, instinct or hearsay.” It adds, “‘Don’t Believe A Word’ takes us on a mind-boggling journey through the science of language, urging us to abandon our prejudices in a bid to uncover the (far more interesting) truth about what we do with words.” Other reviews assert, “David Shariatmadari is an energetic guide to the beauty and quirkiness of humanity’s greatest achievement.”

I never before thought that writing was ‘humanity’s greatest achievement’, but I now struggle to find a reason to disagree.

PS… For the record, I do try to practise what I preach: this blog was revised at least 10 times and was critiqued by a colleague who is a writer and translator. 

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A musical dilemma

A few weeks ago, I went with a friend to a Nuit Blanche being held on the 8thfloor deck of her condo building. The literal translation of this French phrase is ‘white night’.  According to Wikipedia the event began in 1989, when the Helsinki Festival established a Night of the Arts. On that occasion “every gallery, museum and bookshop stayed open until midnight or later. The whole city became a giant performance and carnival venue” perhaps in an effort to combat the seasonal blues. The event was a great success and since 1989 many other cities, including Montreal, have followed the Finnish example.

The Nuit Blanche I attended differed considerably from the original. It was neither all-night, nor in the winter, nor did it involve any museums or galleries. But, from the eighth floor of my friend’s condo we were able to watch the last night of Montreal’s annual International Fireworks Competition. It was as splendid as it was in 1990 when the Competition began. As well, the food was wonderful, the company charming, and the conversation was (I believe) witty and amusing. (I cannot be certain because my witty French is woefully deficient).

However, for me the best part of the evening was the presence of a harpist, Denis. I am an enthusiastic music-lover but I have never before had the opportunity to hear or see a harp up close. I was enchanted and spellbound by the instrument, and by the music Denis chose was hypnotic – mostly pieces composed by Mary Lattimore, who he considers to be a genius.


This brings me to my dilemma:  I was so smitten that I was seriously tempted to rush out and buy a harp just like his. But, in light of my failing attempts to master the clarinet after 36 years, or to resurrect my never-very-good piano skills, was it the least bit sensible to even consider tackling this bewitching instrument? Perhaps the best reason for doing so even if I utterly failed might be that the image of me plucking harp strings was certain to impress someone! Even, perhaps, my children!!!

PS: Some of the condo dwellers invited me to join them in a game of pétanque. Before the match, not wanting to seem like a typical clueless Anglais, I searched the web for some guidance. Unfortunately, I entered the word ‘petoncles’ and learned more than I needed to know about scallops. As the match progressed (the French vs the Canadians), I frantically continued to try to gain a better understanding of the strategies and rules with the help of the web. Why do some players have three balls and others only two? Why does the order of play seem to change and who decides? Why did I not win when, by pure chance, my boule hit the cochonnet (jack)?

But, I did learn one thing that might give me an opportunity to impress my fellow boulers (or whatever the right term is). I discovered that the balls in boule and in pétanque differ slightly. I realize however that even that gem can be as confusing as all else in this ancient game because boule is the word for ball and also for the game that is played with those balls… or the others. Have I gained your sympathy for my confusion? To add to the joys, learning how to throw accurately remains a complete mystery because everyone seemed to have a different technique.

All that confusion aside, much less mysterious was the marvelous meal that followed on the seventh floor deck. Who can resist a bowl of moules after a long game of boules?

Merci à tous du comité social!

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Bucket lists and the like

gray steel cooking pot hanged by brown steel chain

Photo by Peter Fazekas on

As I age, people seem fond of asking if I have made a ‘bucket list.’ Until recently I had not figured out what this meant so I would reply, “No, I have not”. Then I began guessing the meaning and gave the question a bit more thought. What is a soon-to-be 87-year-old wanting to do with the time remains? My questioners seemed to think that I should be planning a parachute jump, a visit to many famous ruins, or even an escapade with a movie star. Those recommending these ideas have many other activities along those lines they imagined I should indulge in, but few, if any actions of this nature, hold any appeal.

Besides, there are some more mundane things I want to do and hope there is enough time to do most of them. If that sounds morbid, so be it. In any event, I don’t see the time problem in that light. Interestingly, one of the items (fairly far down on the list) is to write more blogs, although I seem to be running out of ideas.

What do I want to do? To start with, I want to listen again to all the CDs I have collected. Even better would be to be able to listen to some recordings more than once.  I certainly want to read more books, especially those that have languished on my shelves for far too long. I want to look at more art and stare at more trees and clouds. I want to visit old friends and relive old times.

Much less important is to have a chance to go through hundreds of old files and succeed in refraining from re-reading them. I must get rid of a pile of old electronics starting with my first miraculous hand-held calculator, a Palm Pilot, two ancient lap tops and one, long deceased iMac computer. As well, there are boxes of wires, connectors, plugs, and the like that I have kept but cannot figure out why. They need to be tossed out though I cannot help thinking I will need some one day. I need to decide what to do with precious old scrap books.

[I know, I know. I need to declutter. I agree. Stop badgering me!]

Returning to the top level, I probably need to include fanciful things that could never come about. These include reliving certain experiences and being able to have a long chat with an idol. For example, I have several questions I would like to ask Gabriel Garcia Marquez about Love in the Time of Cholera but I know he is no longer alive. That sort of request could apply to the work of many other favourite writers, especially poets. To be greedy, I would also like Benny Goodman or any other great clarinetist to give me a few lessons and some encouragement. Or maybe just a pianist would suffice. (That put-down ‘just’ is for our son, a wonderful pianist, who insists I will never be a good musician because my timing is so bad.  He is right, of course).

What else? The list could be endless so I will stop here. But, if I were to continue I would  refrain from referring to the topic as a ‘bucket list’. I have no intention of kicking buckets because I won’t be kicking; I will just be gliding off gently into that good night. (I wonder if that concluding phrase is a variant on name dropping?)

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Beard Adventures

When I was a teenager I had trouble getting served in bars or liquor stores. This was because I looked younger than I actually was and no amount of ID, real or faked, could overcome that youthful appearance. I credit my Dad who among a host of other precious gifts gave me some excellent genes. He, too, in his 90s seemed not a day over 70. To address the non-drinking problem and the young women who refused to take me seriously, I decided to grow a beard.

younf me w pipe

I believe I was about 18 when I grew the first one. It was far from impressive. So much so that a few years later when I was in pre-meds a crotchety chemistry teacher remarked: “Tis a fine and manly thing that you do. I recommend trying some extract of bulls’ testes.” I was not sure how to interpret this or how to proceed but did not accept this advice. My  beard remained straggly and small. 


me unbearded age 30



Between the third and final year of medical school another good friend and I spent the summer hitchhiking around Europe. After we split up and went our own ways, I found myself in Ireland simply because a lift took me to the port in Wales from which the ferry sailed for the Emerald Isle. Seemed a good idea. The day after I arrived I proceeded to begin the hitching ritual despite the relatively few cars on the road. I was taken through a series of small villages. In one, as I was proceeding on foot through the town, I was followed by a group of children. Apparently they had not seen a real person who was bearded before and concluded that I had to be Jesus.  

There followed a few naked chin years. Then, right after graduation, a classmate and I went to work at a summer camp readying it for occupancy while we awaited our graduation ceremony. During that time, we both grew beards and when the time came to return to medical school for the big event, we agreed we would show up at graduation with our beards. Note that this was 1958 and, apart from Fidel Castro, beards were far from fashionable. When we gathered for the occasion I discovered that my buddy did not have a beard but I did. Too late to do anything about it, My appearance prompted the Dean to ad lib something along the lines of, ‘over the years we have all changed, Most of you have lost some hair while one other has acquired some in a strange place.’ Much laughter and fingers pointed at the target of this comment. 

On to residency with beard firmly in place. The custom in those days was to move up the ranks from intern, to junior, then senior resident (and for the creme de la creme, only one, to chief resident). At each step the chair of the department sent a letter at the end of the year inviting those who had not ‘blotted their copy books’, to join the ranks of those being promoted. When the time came for me to graduate from junior to senior resident many letters had been received but mine failed to come. Worried and anxious I asked the chief resident if I had failed to do the job well. He said that was not the case but mused that maybe I should try shaving my beard. I did. The letter came almost immediately. I am too good an epidemiologist to conclude a cause and effect relationship, but one cannot help but wonder. 

me white beard

All of that was over 60 years ago. The beard has remained ‘on’ for most of that time. It is now grey, or white, but still straggly and, apparently, somewhat uneven. Consequently, many ‘admirers‘- family, friends, and even occasional strangers – offer to trim it. So far I have resisted because I am determined to eventually achieve the high standard set by the friend shown below. I shall blog again if I succeed. Wish me luck.  


The High Standard to Which I Aspire

PS.. I have a can of shaving cream that I use when I shave the bare bit of each cheek. So far it has lasted over 20 years. This is another, perhaps much better, reason for keeping my eard. 


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Words: good, bad, and ugly

Picky, I know.

There are some words and phrases to which I’m allergic. I don’t sneeze when I come across them, but I do shudder. The first is ‘vast majority’ because I rarely see the latter word without the former and, I reason that not all majorities can possibly be that large. The second, which many experts will disagree with, is ‘multiple’, when it is used in place of ‘many’. A third is ‘small’ in place of ”young. Some young people are small and vice versa, but this is not always true; literally is often used when what is meant is ‘figuratively’. Finally, for now at least, I remind readers that in spite of what POTUS may say, nothing is ‘very unique’.

Ugly or bad

Not really ‘ugly; I simply could not find a better adjective. These are just words and phrases that I dislike because they are so pervasive and so often mindlessly used. They include: “So” (when used to start a sentence); “like” (when it has no meaning whatsoever or when it is incorrectly used in place of ‘as’; “you know” (when I don’t have a clue); “at the end of the day” when it is neither the end nor a day and when it has become a cliche); 24/7 (when it would be simpler to say ‘all the time’. Many of these are clichés and the list of these in extremely long.

Good, unused words

I have decided to start a collection of words whose meanings I know but which I almost never use in speech or in writing.  Ultimately, the list will be long, but for starters here are a few.  The goal of this gathering is to expand my vocabulary and thereby make my writing more appealing. Those here at the beginning of my list  have little in common other than the fact that I have seldom used them.

Inured, skullduggery, largesse, provenance, painfully, coffers, dolorous, attest, iteration, remiss, veer, vexing, opaque, frenzy, flout, flaunt, stupefaction, succumb, craves, exhort, narrative, groundless, repugnance.

When I was younger and smarter, I used to teach a course called ‘Scientific Presentations” to epidemiology students. It was intended to cover both writing and oral presentations. In the written part, I often gave feedback on assignments, and one item that I would highlight with the annotation, ‘CW’, was when the choice of  word needed to be improved, or at least, reconsidered.  Most writers – especially lazy ones – tend to use the first word that comes to mind. But, more often than not, with a bit more thought, we can do better. ‘Nice’ comes to mind: surely, we can come up with something more specific, more colourful, or more informative.

I am not suggesting that you always find a way to work ‘largesse’ into your next essay. But I do want to flaunt (not flout) the suggestion that you give the choice of words more attention. (Actually, ‘flaunt ‘is not the right word either, nor is flout: As the Mirrian Webster dictionary reminds us, “If you treat a convention with disdain you are flouting it. If you make an ostentatious display of something then you are flaunting it.” People often confuse the two.  

As well, there are many misused words. The Web has several lists of these ranging from 20 to 58 words long. Some common examples are ‘bring vs take’, ‘less vs fewer’, and ‘lie vs lay’. Pinker, expert on all things linguistic, insists that ‘irony’ and its variation, ‘ironic’, ranks at the top. But, as a good friend who is both a writer and an artist pointed out, these misuses are far more important in writing than when speaking.

But, to keep pointing out such ‘errors’ may simply be ‘picky’. So, I literally stand picked!


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Marmalade adventures: If at first you fail, use pectin

Each year when the seville oranges arrive, usually in January, our family tradition is to make orange marmalade. Until this year I thought I was getting the hang of it. This time I made a small change in the recipe. To be precise, after using the juicer to remove the pulp, I thinly sliced the skins as usual. Then, unlike past years, I put the skins in the juice in the fridge overnight. The next day, full of hope and eager expectations, I boiled the skins and added what seemed like large quantities of sugar. (My wife taught me to first heat the sugar in the oven to avoid chilling the heating process). I did so and boiled the mixture as usual and then did the cold-plate test for firmness. It failed. So I boiled again and tried again. This time I convinced myself that all was well. Then, after the mix in the large pan cooled, I distributed the contents into 8 sterilized jars and applied the lids. At that point the contents of the jars seemed too liquid, but I convinced myself that after a night in the fridge all would be well.

Alas, the next morning the marmalade remained as runny as before. I consulted my Bible of jam making, Cyril James paperback “The Right Way to Make Jams“. As CJ instructs, I poured all the jars’ contents into the big pot, added more sugar and lemon juice, and boiled again. The cold-plate firmness test was still somewhat ambiguous but having gone to all that trouble I was certain I had succeeded. The next morning – yikes – the stuff was still too runny!

In desperation, I took the ultimate step. I went off to the grocery to buy some pectin. When I returned I discovered that I already had some. Being the skinflint that I am, I was on the verge of using the old stuff when I decided to take the unusual step of actually reading the directions. They stated, with no uncertainty, if the package was past the expiration date it would not work. I proceeded to use the newly bought packets but discovered that the dates were on the box not on the actual containers! Apparently I had discarded the boxes and may have mixed the two up! There was no way to tell which was new and which was the long expired packet. I had no choice but to take a chance.

I added the pectin and this time continued boiling until I was certain I would pass with a good grade. In fact, as suggested by a friend, I went so far as to separate the already well-cooked skins from the liquid juice and only boiled the juice until it was reduced by nearly one half. After returning both parts (skins and juice) to the large pot for a final quick boil that may have overshot the mark, I repeated the cold plate test, this time following the instructions precisely. Still, I feared that this time all the jars’ contents would be rock solid.



But the next day, my virtue and persistence was rewarded! The colour and consistency was perfect, the taste equally so. After three tries I had achieved success! I would offer a moral to this story along the lines of  “If at first….” but I think someone has already come up with it.

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You are never too old

As I approach my 87th birthday and occasionally protest that I am too old to do one thing or another, some people argue that this is never true. Generally, I disagree because as I was once a physician, I know that most elderly folks are definitely too old to do certain activities. Few are able to run marathons, for example, (although one classmate still plays tennis!) But, I am obliged to agree that the reprimand is probably true for many other things such as various mental exercises (including, perhaps, crossword puzzles – see earlier blog about ‘how to cheat’*), trying new foods, certain cultural activities, or making new friends. The list is undoubtedly much longer but I am too old to remember what else I should add.

All of which is to say that earlier today I discovered that addressing and possibly removing some preconceptions should be on the list of exceptions. The lesson I have in mind has to do with painters (and, by extension, composers). I love art and classical music. My favourite galleries are the National, the Portrait, the Courtauld, and, especially the Wallace Collection – all in London. Staring at certain paintings seems to release my endorphins. My preferences in artists are equally broad although there are some who I long ago decided I did not like. Among these were Picasso, Dali, and Calder. My reasons for disliking them varied: I thought Picasso was teasing us; that Dali was exploiting us; and that Calder was sterile.

However, a few years ago after discovering the Picasso museum in Paris, I realized that he was far more versatile than I realized and that even the ‘silly’ bits were splendidly rendered. So I changed my mind about Pablo. I still believe Dali was prone to doing the same piece on different papers to persuade buyers that print editions were smaller than they really were.

As for Calder’s ‘sterility’, well, that is the essence of this blog. I confess I had come to this conclusion without ever seeing an exhibit of his work. I only thought of him in terms of cubes, triangles, bright colours, and bits hanging on strings. That was true until I visited the Calder exhibit now on at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. As they say, I was simply ‘gob smacked’! A one-trick pony he is not. Set aside the idea that Calder is all triangles or mobiles. Or bright coloured square abstracts. What I saw covered an astonishing range. He painted; the mobiles are varied and ingenious; his circus is fun and clever; his jewellery breathtaking; and his sculptures intriguing. Above all the wire stuff? Amazing. The gallery has an old movie of him working with pliers and the bits of wire come alive. Wearing my old paediatrician’s hat I especially enjoyed the few drawings and clever bits he assembled as a child.


While I am indulging in this mea culpa, I had also ruled out liking the music of Olivier Messiaen. But after watching an episode of Mozart in the Jungle in which bits of his music is played, I completely reversed that judgment. Similarly, I told a musical son that I did not like Faure’s chamber music. He urged me to listen again and I changed my mind.

The lesson I learned from all this was that it is foolish to convince yourself that your mind cannot change in old age. I am resolved to try to avoid longstanding prejudices especially when it comes to art or music.

*PS – to cheat when struggling with a Crossword Puzzle try using the website . My own favourite puzzles are the Quick Crosswords in the Guardian Weekly. (Not ‘quick’ for me, only quick for younger folks I guess). For them, when my frustration has reached its limits I go to

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D H Lawrence’s Rananim: another failed Utopia

As I truly enjoy most everything Richard Smith writes in his non-medical blogs I want to share this with some of my followers, who, I hope include all my children.

Richard Smith's non-medical blogs

During the First World War D H Lawrence wanted to found a society of friends with whom he could “sail away from the world at war and found a little colony.” He called it Rananim after hearing the Hebrew song Rananim Sadekim Badenoi (which unusually I can’t find on Google or Napster and can’t translate using Google translate). It would be in Florida, and its emblem would be a black phoenix.

Florida, the penniless Lawrence soon realised, was impractical and so he opted for Garsington in Oxfordshire, the home of his then great friend Ottoline Morrell. “I want you,” he told Ottoline, “to form the nucleus of a new community which shall start a new life amongst us, a life in which the only riches is integrity of character…We can all come croppers, but what does it matter? We can laugh at each other, and dislike each other, but the…

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My musical career

When I turned 50 I was on sabbatical in London, England. One of our sons – an excellent pianist – was a final year student at Pimlico secondary school. We chose Pimlico because it had a highly-regarded music program. The father of one of his classmates played and collected clarinets. Our son thought this would be a suitable birthday gift and persuaded my wife to buy it for me. I then found an excellent teacher who lived nearby and began taking lessons. My teacher quickly persuaded me to change to a more modern, lighter, clarinet. Because it had fewer keys it helped me overcome many fingering challenges. Subsequently I enjoyed practising and developed a reasonably good tone. Unfortunately, my timing was poor and is still pretty awful.

After returning to Montreal I found a new teacher at the Mcgill Conservatory. Under his patient guidance I managed to pass the Grade II examination. That was truly a proud moment. I continue to play, but as I age I’m definitely slipping.

For my 80 birthday the same son, gave me six lessons with his splendid teacher.  Her unusual teaching technique got me off to a good start. Interestingly, however, the first piece she chose for me to learn was a Bach prelude from the Well Tempered Clavichord.  Six years later I’m still struggling to master it. (‘Master’ is actually a much too strong word! I just want to be able to play the darn thing without making mistakes or having to look at the score!)

The question for readers of this blog is whether I should persist or give up? Having asked questions previously and received few answers, I’m forced to conclude one of the following: few actually read this blog, all the readers are shy, or they simply can’t be bothered with my silly questions. I will continue to ask until I get a good answer. And I will persist with the Well Tempered but not well-played Bach.

PS… I am also trying to learn a Satie ‘Gnossieme’ which is actually a much greater challenge because my hands are not large enough. (That is the best excuse I can come up with.)

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A book lover’s dilemma

A few nights ago an old friend came to dinner. I asked what was new. With considerable excitement she replied, “I just finished re-reading War and Peace! It was much better than when I read it 30 or 40 years ago!” That got me thinking about what I should be reading at age 86. I expect that, like me, most book-lovers have a pile of books beside their bed, favourite chair, or on their ebook reader that they intend to read. But, realistically, if the list is as long as mine, they are not likely to fit them all in before ‘the last page arrives’. (That is another euphemism for dying!) (See former BMJ editor Richard Smith’s blog on Pet Peeves… this is one of them). So, the question becomes: which should we choose – reading or re-reading greats like War and Peace or settling for current favourites like Peter May’s books (see my blog), those of Philip Kerr, or Michelle Obama’s promising autobiography? Truly, I can’t decide. Last year, encouraged by something I read and by one of my sons, I started reading (and listening to) Moby Dick. I was loving it, but it got bumped for something else. I have resolved to finish it come what may. Which reminds me that, for me, and perhaps other elderly folks who belong to a library, thanks to Overdrive, there is often the option of listening to ‘affordable’ (i.e., free!) audiobooks. A bonus from listening,  apart from sparing eyesight, is that most audiobooks are brilliantly read. That poses yet another decision: read or listen?

Readers of this blog are invited to submit their thoughts. But, please do so promptly before the list gets any longer and the time any shorter!

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