The Library Basement
Reading under ground

Readings for October 2015

I promise, I have a bunch of longer books going. I promise.


  • Harper's August 2015 - I found it fascinating to read about the Parsis of India in Nell Freudenberger's article "House of Fire".

  • Harper's September 2015

Until next time.

Category: books Tags: readings

LXX Mean Log Word Frequency

In another recent post, James Tauber covers the topic of mean log word frequency as a measure of difficulty of reading. I adapted James' code to address the CATSS LXX data (new format still forthcoming, I promise!).

Output columns are mean log word frequency, and then book+chapter (insert caveat about LXX chapter numbering). The higher the first column, the harder to read. Here are the top ten hardest chapters by this measure:

7983 Wisdom 17
7708 1 Chronicles 1
7281 2 Esdras 2
7217 Proverbs 10
7128 3 Maccabees 4
7114 Wisdom 11
7110 Wisdom 13
7092 Proverbs 14
7076 Proverbs 11
7065 Wisdom 14

Wisdom 17 has the unique distinction of having a broader vocabulary than a list of names, which is impressive. And now the easiest:

4752 Psalm 133
4752 Psalm 135
4792 Deuteronomy 30
4809 Deuteronomy 26
4836 1 Kings 13
4837 Psalm 116
4851 Ezekiel 20
4852 2 Chronicles 7
4856 Ezekiel 37
4881 Ezekiel 33

Top five hardest books:

6777 Wisdom
6677 4 Maccabees
6664 3 Maccabees
6634 Proverbs
6484 Joshua A
6402 2 Maccabees

Books composed in Greek appear to have the edge. I included a sixth because "Joshua A" in this corpus is not a full-length work. Now the five eastiest:

5189 Deuteronomy
5205 2 Chronicles
5239 1 Samuel
5242 Judges A
5256 Baruck

That's all for now.

Ancient Greek 80% Core Vocab Flashcards

Imagine you wanted to study vocabulary in advance of reading not just a work, but an entire corpus, or perhaps the super-corpus of the Greek Classics. Wilfred Major advocated for learning a core vocabulary in his paper It's Not the Size, It's the Frequency. In it he provides some good news:

Ancient Greek has a high-frequency core vocabulary scarcely half the size of many other languages.

He provides lists of lemmata which comprise 50% or 80% of the words in the ancient Greek corpus. The 80% has only 1,100 entries, so it is definitely achievable for advanced students.

I have made a flashcard pack at Quisition which contains this vocab list. If you think it would be useful to your studies, you can add it to a deck and start memorizing.

Category: language Tags: Greek

LXX Vocabulary Coverage

James Tauber is blogging daily until SBL, and several of his posts have piqued my interest, so expect to see a few derivative posts here.

The first post covers vocabulary coverage statistics for the SBLGNT. The concept can take a moment to wrap your mind around: given a count of vocabulary learned (vertical axis), assuming you want to be able to read a certain percentage of words in a verse (horizontal axis), in what percentage of verses will you be successful (intersection of the two).

My usual instinct when reading posts about New Testament Greek is to try the same thing with the Septuagint. Here is the data for the LXXM using the methodology outlined in James' post:

             ANY    50.00%    75.00%    90.00%    95.00%   100.00% 
   100    99.78%    88.63%    27.16%     1.99%     0.74%     0.62% 
   200    99.80%    94.19%    51.25%     8.65%     2.58%     1.56% 
   500    99.84%    98.38%    78.01%    33.00%    13.95%     8.30% 
  1000    99.89%    99.35%    89.86%    58.46%    34.27%    23.08% 
  2000    99.92%    99.61%    95.93%    79.25%    59.45%    46.20% 
  5000    99.99%    99.87%    98.67%    93.72%    85.12%    77.44% 
 10000   100.00%    99.99%    99.78%    98.31%    95.33%    92.15% 
   ALL   100.00%   100.00%   100.00%   100.00%   100.00%   100.00%

(In order to obtain the necessary input data, I had to restructure the lxxmorph-unicode dataset - after proofing I'd like to release the new format soon.)

Say you had learned 500 words, and only wanted to look up about one word per verse (90%), you would be successful in 13.95% of verses. Another way of looking at it: if you wanted to know 75% of words in 90% of verses, how big would your vocabulary need to be? About 1000 words.

I have been convinced by smart and experienced educators that vocabulary mastery really is the key to mastery of reading Greek. Just imagine the frustration of having to look up words that often even after learning so many. Wait, you probably don't have to imagine it - we've all been there! Vocab is king.

The LXX is a much bigger corpus than the New Testament (and maybe has more lexical diversity - perhaps the subject of a forthcoming post). By way of comparison with the above, a vocab of 500 targeting 90% coverage would be successful in 36.57% of verses.

I wonder if maybe the number of proper nouns in the LXX may significantly skew these numbers. Proper nouns are not vocabulary words per se - the knowledge and memory of them works differently than vocab words. So what if I remove them from consideration (in this case just filtering out words which start with a capital letter from the input file). This decreased the word count from 623,685 to 589,731. Here is the updated coverage:

             ANY    50.00%    75.00%    90.00%    95.00%   100.00% 
   100    99.91%    91.57%    40.48%     6.54%     3.36%     3.02% 
   200    99.92%    95.92%    63.30%    18.17%     7.77%     5.79% 
   500    99.97%    99.21%    85.79%    47.92%    26.03%    18.13% 
  1000    99.99%    99.84%    94.92%    72.53%    49.98%    38.05% 
  2000    99.99%    99.97%    98.84%    89.13%    74.26%    63.61% 
  5000   100.00%   100.00%    99.92%    98.40%    93.92%    89.70% 
 10000   100.00%   100.00%   100.00%   100.00%   100.00%   100.00% 
   ALL   100.00%   100.00%   100.00%   100.00%   100.00%   100.00%

That change upped the 500/90% result to 26.03% from 13.95%. Still pretty daunting, but less intimidating when you think of it that way.

Readings for September 2015

In which I discover that reading on an e-reader may lead to you to forget the name of the novel you are reading.

The Fires of Heaven by Robert Jordan

I was planning what to read for our family's vacation and wedding travel this May when I decided to read the next volume in the Wheel of Time saga. Luckily my wife had already bought me the paperback, so I grabbed it off the shelf and started reading a night or two before the trip. In the course of reading the first chapter I was getting the most incredible sensation of deja-vu, and upon starting the second it become clear: I was accidentally re-reading the preceding book in the series, which I completed in February 2014.

Well, that was somewhat embarrassing, because I was the one who told the wife which book to buy. The day before the trip, I walked to Powell's from work to get The Fires of Heaven, the fifth book in the series, and the actually correct one. And they literally had every single book in the 14-book series except this one.

With no time left, I decided to try something new: I purchased an electronic copy for reading on my wife's e-reader. That was quite the experience. I really enjoyed not having to lug around a big heavy book, and liked that I could customize the font, the size, and what headers and footers to include (or not). As I alluded in the introduction, I actually forgot the name of the novel by the time I finished it, partly due to a long break in reading, and partly due to never seeing the cover. Ultimately I won't invest more in e-books, since I don't like the terms of service and digital restrictions management which go along with them. Maybe someday the great technology will be partnered with new content without draconian protections.

Great story about e-readers! What about the book? Well, I have to say this was not the greatest read. It felt like Jordan was marking time in this book, not progressing very quickly at all. I feel like it could have easily shed 400 pages and still covered all of the pertinent plot points and character development.

But am I ready to quit the series? Not exactly. I've already invested so much in it, and in a 14-book series, you're allowed to have a stinker or two.

Readings for August 2015

In which I made progress on long books but did not finish anything.


  • Harper's May 2015 - You know when you think you lost an issue of a magazine, but you find it under a pile of stuff? That's pure joy.
  • Harper's July 2015

Until next month.

Category: books Tags: readings

Readings for July 2015

Summer reading was in full swing, but where was I?


  • Tin House 61 - Hard to believe this was already my 12th issue from the venerable Tin House.
  • Harper's June 2015
Category: books Tags: readings

Readings for June 2015

The sweet beginnings of summer reading.

The Spirit of Eastern Christendom by Jaroslav Pelikan

In graduate school our course on historical theology had us reading the first and third volumes of Jaroslav Pelikan's The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine. At the time our professor recommended volume two, which though it was not part of the curriculum for the course, was still an excellent insight into Eastern Orthodoxy (which to most American Christians is vague and mysterious). I purchased the volume at the time, but never got around to reading it . . .

. . . until now. And I am glad that I did. First of all, by reading a historical theology of the Eastern Church, it helps me as a Western-centric Christian to appreciate that my scope is not the whole of Christianity. Secondly, it provides a good examinations of theological controversies, some of which are still alive, some of which are mostly settled, and some of which made me really question my position.

The most difficult part of The Spirit of Eastern Christendom is the focus on Christological and Trinitarian controversies, which occupy the first part of the work. I was familiar with them all, but some of them go into such detail that at times I was having trouble actually understanding the distinction being debated by past theologians (perhaps their parishioners felt the same way). I was a bit relieved when a few of the controversies were basically deemed unanswerable and therefore out of bounds for debate.

I really enjoyed learning about the iconoclastic controversies, and how those related to the Eastern Churches' relationship with the West, Islam, and Judaism. I also became acquainted with the rather fascinating notion that Rome was Never Wrong (TM) on theological debates, which as a protestant I find cute.

Pelikan is a great academic writer, so be warned about the density of this work. If you like historical theology, or want to learn more about Eastern Orthodoxy, this is certainly recommended.

My Struggle: Book 3 by Karl Ove Knausgaard

The next volume of Knausgaard's magnum opus arrived in English translation in paperback, so I picked it up. In this volume the author retells his boyhood, from about the time he started primary school until he moved away before high school. There will be boyish high-jinks, parental angst, the beginnings of romance, and poignant observations about the nature of things.

I thought I had come to divine something of a pattern from the first two volumes, but this one broke the mold a bit, with no ill effects. It is more chronological, with fewer flashes forward and backward in time. It also lacks the meta narrative which provided the framework for the first two volumes. Volume four apparently continues on into high school, so I am getting the feeling that these will form something of a double volume of youthful recollections.

Still recommended.

Readings for May 2015

It's that season when you are finishing up an old job, going on a long vacation, and then starting a new job afterward. You get a decent amount of reading done on vacation, at least, but it is in an epic fantasy novel, and does not result in getting to add it to the reading log. So May looks pretty pathetic, but I'm turning things around.


  • Harper's April 2015
Category: books Tags: readings

Readings for April 2015

Potential job transition leads to slowdown in reading.

The Color of Magic by Terry Pratchett

I had picked up The Color of Magic some time ago, having wanted to test the waters of the Discworld series for some time. When Pratchett passed away recently, I decided it was a fitting time to dive in.

Now this is a bit of a strange review for me, because I was not very engaged by reading this entire month. I believe that was due to being distracted by other developments in life. So this may color my review a bit.

Pratchett's Discworld is a great premise. I love the goofy universe, the characters, the magic, etc. I find Pratchett's comic writing to be superb, and I had some real guffaws whilst reading. However, for whatever reason, this was not a page turner for me. It took me quite a while to get through a short novel, because I was just not all that interested in finding out what came next.

I may try another Discworld novel, just because people I respect love Pratchett so much. But for now, I did not love The Color of Magic.


  • Harper's March 2015

Readings for March 2015

In which I went full Knausgaard.

My Struggle, Books 1 and 2 by Karl Ove Knausgaard

If you have read any literary reviews in the past years, you have read about Karl Ove Knausgaard. His six-volume autobiographical novel My Struggle been written about everywhere, mostly favorably. Seeing that book one was out in paperback, I picked it up, and it was not long until I picked up book two.

This is going to sound silly, but here it goes: Knausgaard's work had to classed as fiction because it is too true to be a proper autobiography. He writes with incredible candor about personal matters, and does not spare his ego nor the feelings of those around him in what appears on the page. So in spite of the literary praise reckoning him to Proust and other superlatives, one of the most exciting aspects of readings this work is to see just what observations he makes which most would not dare to commit to writing.

Some readers approach the immense count of pages with trepidation, fearing that this is simply a tome of over-sharing, a vast catalog of "what I had for lunch" status updates. But it is a lot more than that. Knausgaard's prose and power of observation make for the most sublime reading in the midst of any topic. His characters are vivid, and the stories are compelling.

Quite frankly I loved the first two volumes. Knausgaard's struggle is stated in different ways in each of the first two volumes so far, but I felt resonance with both. He wants to do good work, and feels he is capable of doing so, but his life circumstances (arrived at through his own will) constrain him. I think that is a common sentiment, especially among those who review books.


The Noble Hustle by Colson Whitehead

As I was reading Colson Whitehead's newest, I got a funny feeling that I had read it before. And then I realized that I had indeed - it was excerpted in the pages of Harper's some months before. So that accelerated my enthusiasm, which is already very great when it comes to reading Whitehead.

The Noble Hustle's premise is simple: writer gets staked to play in the World Series of Poker. If you know anything about Whitehead, you know that his wit and irony is going to make for great description of that strange world. I had not read any of Whitehead's non-fiction, and it was definitely a treat.

Pick it up, read it. Learn a bit about poker and the crazed world which surrounds it. Root for the author to win it all, but don't be too sad when he doesn't. Recommended.

Readings for February 2015

With apologies for the lateness of this post . . .

The Restaurant at the End of the Universe by Douglas Adams

I read The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy in 2008, therefore this is the next installment in a very occasional series. I have a volume which combines all of the Hitchhikers novels, so I will eventually get through all of them.

This novel was, well, delightful. Just a silly, fun read, and very enjoyable. The series is compulsory for any self-respecting nerd, so this is of course recommended.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien

It is my intention to read all of the Lord of the Rings again, but I cut short after the first volume to make way for other interesting new reads (to be covered in a subsequent readings post). This was my second time through, so it was interesting to see how my recollection help up. Mostly the Fellowship seemed longer than I remembered, though not overlong.

I was dismayed by one little bit in the story. I have been quite critical of The Hobbit films for adding too much to the story, including the bit where Gandalf et al confront the crypto-Sauron at Dol Guldur. I thought it was a rather silly bit of story-telling for the filmmakers to pull a fast one: "the real significance of this story is that it has the same ultimate villain as the other trilogy. It was Sauron the whole time!" Of course I discovered that the White Council's unmasking and repulsion of Sauron from Dol Guldur is actually a fairly prominent plot point, mentioned multiple times in the text of Fellowship of the Ring, not just in the appendices. So yeah, fair play on that one (though I still think all that was not necessary to make a good Hobbit film).

What, am I not going to recommend part of the Lord of the Rings? That's crazy. Recommended.


  • Journal of Biblical Literature volume 132 number 1

Readings for January 2015

My reading log is now seven years old. Pretty cool.

Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson

The new novel Steelheart kicks off a new fantasy series for Brandon Sanderson. The twist is that this is marketed as young adult fiction (though I think it is being broadly read among adult Sanderson fans). I must admit I was taken aback by the "young adult" label, as this novel has more violence, particularly gun violence, than other works by the same author. Perhaps the descriptions are less gruesome? I don't know, but the older I get, the more sensitive I get to such things.

Oh yeah, the book! Hey, it's a Sanderson read. Maybe you can use this one to get the next generation hooked on one of your favorites. Recommended.

The Understory by Pam Erens

This slim novel is a treat. I was doubtful at first that Erens would be able to get me interested in her trust-fund pretender protagonist, but it all works out. Set in Manhattan and at an upstate Buddhist monestary, the reader follows a lonely soul who is desperate for human contact and determinedly trying to hang on to his rent-controlled apartment. Recommended.

I Will Fear No Evil by Robert Heinlein

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice... This is the second consecutive Robert Heinlein novel I've rage quit, only to pick up and finish a year later. The last one, the Number of the Beast, should have been a lesson to me, namely that I've already read all the Heinlein novels I'll like. But no, I had to try one more time with I Will Fear No Evil (since it was already on the shelf).

The premise is decent: brain transplant. And imagine the hilarity and weighty implications if an old man acquired the body of a young woman. You can see the potential. But let me spoil a few things for you: After the transplant, the protagonist realizes he can communicate with the spirit of the former occupant of the body, s/he goes on to explore uncomfortable transformations of social relationships (e.g. business partner into lover), sleep with literally everyone who is breathing, and ends up impregnating herself with his own archived sperm donation.

Unfortunately the bulk of the novel is taken up with the copious, seemingly endless, expansive, vapid internal dialog of the protagonist. This of course serves as the primary vehicle for Heinlein's favorite authorial activity: letting the reader know about all the better ideas he has about everything, particularly in the realms of government, self-sufficiency, and sexual relationships. Just endless, ceaseless pages of the plot going nowhere, with zero character development despite all of the talking.

There is a decent twist at the end of the novel which I hope explains some of the worst features, though I am not sure of the scope. Nonetheless I'll take it on faith that this dialog between the old man and the young woman is not meant to be a faithful representation of a realistic relationship, but rather a satire of everything an old man wishes that an attractive young woman was thinking. If not, this goes from farce to tripe in a hurry. Definitely not recommended.

We Still Don't Get It by Douglas Moo

This essay arrived bundled with a Zondervan Academic catalog. It is adapted from a talk Moo apparently gave to the Evangelical Theological Society on the topic of Bible translation. I happen to agree with virtually all of Moo's positions there.

Given the publisher, you can probably guess that the product which benefits most from his praise is the NIV. As such I found it quite unseemly that Moo's talk, given to an academic meeting, had been repackaged as marketing material for a publisher. That feels like a betrayal of trust to me, and was in poor taste.


  • Journal of Biblical Literature volume 131 number 4
  • Harper's February 2015

How many unique words in the Greek NT?

How many unique words are there in the Greek New Testament? Well, that depends on how you count.

I am doing some research and experimentation on indexing the Greek NT (or Koine Greek in general). One crucial aspect of indexing is to normalize the text so that potential search matches are not missed by the presence of punctuation, capitalization, contextual accentuation, etc.

At the same time there are some words which have the same normalized form which we should nonetheless count as different words, such as when morphology overlaps or different lemmas get inflected to the same forms.

So I set out to analyze the Greek NT and find how many unique instances of words there are. Namely, words are grouped if the share the same lemma, normal form, and parsing. To begin I used MorphGNT, which is based on SBLGNT. MorphGNT contains a column for the normal form of each word, as well as the parsing information, so it is just the ticket.

I used Python to find all unique instances of lemma, normal form, and parsing info. Then I used James Tauber's pyuca module to sort the results. You can find them in a compressed file here, sorted by lemma.

Using this methodology, I found 18,873 unique words in the Greek New Testament.

Here is a sample of the output:

ἅγιος ἁγίων A- ----GPM-
ἅγιος ἁγίων A- ----GPN-
ἅγιος ἁγιωτάτῃ A- ----DSFS
ἁγιότης ἁγιότητι N- ----DSF-
ἁγιότης ἁγιότητος N- ----GSF-
ἁγιωσύνη ἁγιωσύνῃ N- ----DSF-
ἁγιωσύνη ἁγιωσύνην N- ----ASF-
ἁγιωσύνη ἁγιωσύνης N- ----GSF-
ἀγκάλη ἀγκάλας N- ----APF-

Anyway, I hope to have more to share on this front later, but this just tickled my fancy.

Readings for December 2014

For the first time I admitted that I was not keeping up with my load of periodicals, and stopped trying to stay on top of Scientific American. It is a shame, but I have all the issues, so I can get caught up if I ever so desire. I am also way behind on Journal of Biblical Literature.

Nonetheless this was a great year for reading.


  • Harper's December 2014
  • Tin House #60
  • Harper's January 2015

Year-end notes

In 2014 I read:

  • 19 magazines
  • 20 books
  • 11,109 pages
  • or about 30 pages per day

Up from last year!

Category: books Tags: readings