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Why Charles Broskoski Read 356 O'Reilly Books in 400 Days

By Sara Peyton
May 14, 2008 | Comments: 1

How many technology books do you read in a single year? Twenty or thirty? Perhaps a book a week? When it comes to reading geeky volumes, Charles Broskoski, a student of NYC's Parsons School of Design, thinks big. In fact, he read 356 O'Reilly books in 400 days.

broskoski1.jpg In an email to Tim O'Reilly earlier last month, Charles, 25, described an intriguing (and yes, flattering) performing art project. "I am reading over 300 O'Reilly e-books on the computer, sometimes two or three a day," he wrote. "To document this process, I take notes (also on the computer) and various photographs and screen shots."

Charles had only one request. He wrote that his art project-now called "Computer Skills"-would be on display at Manhattan's Chelsea Art Gallery. He hoped we'd help him communicate his artistic intentions by supplying physical copies of the books he'd read in time for the May 14 opening.

Well, how could we resist putting the books we love into an art piece? Folks at O'Reilly Media located 250 of the books in a hurry, got them packed into 13 boxes, and sent them on their way. I also used the opportunity to talk to Charles and learn more about his motivations for what must be the geekiest performance art book piece on record.

You'll find more information about the art show at the end of the interview. Now, here's Charles...

SP: So Charles, what made you decide to go on a diet of 356 O'Reilly books? And how did you come to choose O'Reilly books as opposed to other publishers.

To be honest, and without trying to fawn, O'Reilly books strike me as the only ones taken seriously by the computer community.

As for the idea, I have always been interested in the idea of spending an extended period of time perfecting one skill (similar to training sequences in kung-fu movies). Of course, it didn't exactly turn out that way, but I did spend a large amount of my weekends staying home and catching up on my reading.

SP: What are you studying at Parsons?

I am in the Design and Technology program, which is centered on technology and design (obviously) but also tends to be a bit looser than the other programs at the school. Some students end up working in traditional graphic design, some do computer animation, and some students practice varieties of new media art.

SP: Tell us more about your art project?

Essentially, I considered my reading the books a performance, and the items presented at the show will be documentation of that performance. Before I started reading, I printed out the file list, and every time I finished a book I crossed it off the list, wrote the date and time, and took a picture. So, I have as many photos as the amount of books I read as well as the actual crossed off lists. Additionally, while I read, I typed notes on the computer about what I was reading. These notes varied throughout the project, in the beginning they were standard school-style notes, but they evolved into something different by the end. These notes will be printed and bound into a book for the show and will also be available online. (You can view it here: http://cs.supercentral.org/)

Approaching work this way isn't a new idea; plenty of artists have done it before (Chris Burden, "On Kawara," etc.) but I liked the idea of a conceptual art piece that computer nerds would understand.

SP: When did you start reading the books? And where would you read them?


I finished my first book (sed & awk) on February 18, 2007. (In April of 2008, I completed the last book.) Obviously, I read all the books on my computer, but I have a laptop, so the location varied.

SP: How did you decide which order to read them in. Did you have an overarching architecture in mind?

The order in which I read the books was the only thing I wasn't strict about throughout the project. In the beginning, I tried to keep a nice balance between books I was really excited about and ones that I assumed would be a little more on the dry side. In the end, I discovered that there is no way of knowing which books would be good or bad (you can't judge a book by its cover).

SP: I see you've read books from the Hacks series, Missing Manuals, and Definitive Guides. Did you prefer one style of book over another?

If I had to choose, I would say the Definitive Guide series.

SP: And, did you have a least favorite O'Reilly book?

I had a hard time getting through any book that was basically just a reference, like Java Reference Library or some of the "In a Nutshell" books.

SP: What do your friends and loved ones think of this project?

They were surprisingly supportive, but at times, I think they didn't understand why I was doing it, especially when I would turn down fun activities to read computer books instead.

SP: Did you always read them in the same place or all over NYC?

<029regex.jpgMostly I read them in my room, sitting up, in my bed. In the first month, I pinned an eye chart to my wall, so I could periodically check and see if my vision was leaving me.

SP: So what did you hope to get out of reading so many books?

I secretly hoped that I would remember everything I read from the books and become an amazing programmer.

SP: What are the most significant things you learned from reading these books?

Honestly, the thing that resonated with me the most was the amount of times the authors thanked their significant others for letting them spend time on the computer while they were on their honeymoon.

I think what I gained is a heightened sense of how computers operate, and a better idea of the humanity behind all programming languages.

SP: Now that you've read 356 books on your laptop what do you think about the future of publishing? I mean who has room for 356 technology books in NYC.

I wonder about that, I really have no problem in reading books on the computer, in fact I might even prefer it at this point, but often the first thing people would ask me about the project is if my eyes hurt all the time from reading so many books on screen.

It could be a generational thing, but I think for some people the idea of reading a book is often romanticized to be curling up on a couch with a good book and hot chocolate or whatever, and it's hard to imagine a glaring laptop entering into that situation. Whereas, other media, which have successfully made a transition to computers (movies, music, etc.), are imagined to have always been rooted in electricity, so there isn't as much of a difference as there is in books.

SP: What do you plan to do once you graduate from school?

I am interested in art, but I am not really sure yet whether I want to pursue making a living from it yet. So I think I will probably end up getting some kind of programming job using every single one of the skills I learned from my project.

SP: What other kind of artwork do you do?

parson books.jpgMost of my artwork relates to computers in one way or another, either by subject or by medium. But honestly, I grew up with computers so it is more natural for me to make art with a computer than a pencil and paper, and I know a lot of my peers feel the same way.

SP: Is your other work available to view online?

Yes, my website is http://supercentral.org/9/.

SP: One more question, I understand you downloaded all the content-but when you told us about your project we decided to send you all the books. Was this just a ploy to get a lot of free books.

No, but it was a nice surprise ending.

SP: In the future will you be buying books?

Yes, I just bought an O'Reilly Regular Expression book the other day!


Here are the details about Parson's Technology and Design department's show of senior projects, including Charles Broskoski 's piece. The show opens tonight, May 14, at 6 p.m. at the Chelsea Art Museum located in Manhattan at 556 West 22nd Street, New York, NY 10011.

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        I find this interesting from many different angles. First, there is a subtly subversive aspect to this that O'Reilly has embraced, which I find both surprising and compelling. Namely, that the books were originally downloaded as a torrent, "just because." Each industry (read: each medium) must find its way of dealing with the inevitability of digitization taking over their market (eventually). In this case, Broskoski admits that curling up with a laptop and a hot chocolate is less desirable (and perhaps more dangerous) than with a paper book. As the digital technology improves, I wonder how long this will be true and, more interestingly, what the reaction of publishers, O'Reilly specifically, will be to file sharing at that time.

        The element of self-governance here that most publishers (record labels, TV networks, movie studios) seem to miss. By Broskoski's own admission, he downloaded these 350 some-odd books for the same reason a dog licks himself. Is it really worth the DRM, the licensing, the monthy fees, the limitations and restrictions, when all that a significant majority will do is let them collect digitial-dust? More to the point, wouldn't it really be more stimulating to the market, your business, and the readers and researchers most importantly, to have the texts available free and clear—to read, to use, to build on?

        I, for one, would like to see this acceptance of the "Rogue Downloader" extend into O'Reilly's digital marketing model. Release the restrictions on digital versions of its books and accept the idea that digital books will circulate, and that the issue of payment will always be one of self-governance. Torrents, like them or leave them, will exists in some form or another--for some, "just because," for others as a means to buy. Step forward, and be a leader, and accept this turn...


"The more your tighten your grip... the more star systems will slip through your fingers..."


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