Friday, 24 December 2010

Holiday break

Best of 3 is on holiday from today. See you again around about 10 January.

If you're looking for some holiday reading, my consistently most-favourite blog of 2010 was Pippin Barr's combo of cartoons and video game/tv/life reviews. You should give them a whirl.

Thursday, 23 December 2010

Web muster

The Louvre raises a million Euro online to help purchase Cranach's Three Graces*

Roberta Smith on the 2010 art year; participation, culture wars, women

David Walsh's MONA (Museum of Old and New Art) is swiftly becoming reason enough for me to go to Tasmania

Carol Fisher Salor is copy editing an e-reader edition of the Iliad and asks whether it's time to stop moaning that digital delivery removes the humanity from the reading experience.

And finally, one of my best reads of the year: a 1969 Paris Review interview with E.B. White (long time New Yorker editor, author of Charlotte's Web, the White of Strunk and White) which is stuffed full of felicitous sentences and unexpected statements:

I was never a voracious reader and, in fact, have done little reading in my life. There are too many other things I would rather do than read. ... In order to read, one must sit down, usually indoors. I am restless and would rather sail a boat than crack a book. I’ve never had a very lively literary curiosity, and it has sometimes seemed to me that I am not really a literary fellow at all. Except that I write for a living.


Delay is natural to a writer. He is like a surfer—he bides his time, waits for the perfect wave on which to ride in. Delay is instinctive with him. He waits for the surge (of emotion? of strength? of courage?) that will carry him along. I have no warm-up exercises, other than to take an occasional drink. I am apt to let something simmer for a while in my mind before trying to put it into words. I walk around, straightening pictures on the wall, rugs on the floor—as though not until everything in the world was lined up and perfectly true could anybody reasonably expect me to set a word down on paper.


I’m not familiar with books on style. My role in the revival of Strunk’s book was a fluke—just something I took on because I was not doing anything else at the time. It cost me a year out of my life, so little did I know about grammar.


If sometimes there seems to be a sort of sameness of sound in The New Yorker, it probably can be traced to the magazine’s copy desk, which is a marvelous fortress of grammatical exactitude and stylish convention. Commas in The New Yorker fall with the precision of knives in a circus act, outlining the victim. This may sometimes have a slight tendency to make one writer sound a bit like another. But on the whole, New Yorker writers are jealous of their own way of doing things and they are never chivied against their will into doing it some other way.

*I can't get over how saucily modern the central figure in this painting looks. I'm totally smitten.

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Say it ain't so

The Guardian is reporting that the London Review of Books is going to drop its Personals column.

These hyperliterate lonely hearts ads have been published for the past 10 years. Although they're not a money-earner in themselves, they've built a reputation large enough to be collated into two anthologies, They Call Me Naughty Lola and Sexually, I'm More of a Switzerland. More recently, the ads have been condensed down for the 140-character format of Twitter.

I'd be sad to see them go.

On editing

I have two metaphors for editing texts.

One is being faced with a tangle of wool. You find a loose end, then you tease all the knots out. Sometimes the text will fall happily into orderly loops with merely a tug or two; sometimes it will be a fight for every clear inch.

One other is almost more a physical feeling than a description. It's that feeling you get when you gather up a duvet and, with a deft flick of your wrist, roll it out over the bed and watch all the creases magically disappear. Disorder is transformed into a smooth expanse.

I like to ask other people what their metaphors are, and I like it when I stumble across people's metaphors, as I did this morning with Barbara Epler:

Actual editing consists so much of petting and patting beautiful writing.

With the poets, that means allowing for differences. One poet, alive like the inside of a light bulb, requires five or six sets of proofs: allow time. One might need a suggested re-jigging of the order of contents: allow possible irritation. Allow "grey" and "gray" in the same volume (the former greenish and the latter more blue: the opposite of what I'd guessed).

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Holiday reading list

For the past few weeks I've been mentally tending to my Christmas holiday reading pile, adding and removing and debating over books. Here's where I'm at now:


I'm still working my way through the 2010 Royal Society science book shortlist. I'm currently reading (and loving) Nick Lane's Life Ascending: The Ten Great Inventions of Evolution:

Thermodynamics is one of those words best avoided in a book with any pretence to be popular, but it's more engaging if it's seen for what it is: the science of 'desire'. The existence of atoms and molecules is dominated by 'attractions', 'repulsions', 'wants' and 'discharges', to the point that it becomes virtually impossible to write about chemistry without giving in to some sort of randy anthropomorphism. Molecules 'want' to lose or gain electrons; attract opposite charges, repulse similar charges; or cohabit with molecules of similar character. A chemical reaction happens spontaneously if all the molecular partners desire to participate; or they can be pressed to react unwillingly through greater force. And of course some molecules really want to react but find it hard to overcome their innate shyness. A little gentle flirtation might prompt a massive release of lust, a discharge of pure energy. But perhaps I should stop there.

From that shortlist, I also have Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw's Why Does E=mc2? on loan from the library to take away with me.


Having recently been bowled over by this 1969 interview with E.B. White, I've collected a copy of One Man's Meat, a 1944 collection of his essays, written on his farm in Maine.

And left-over from last Christmas: Michael Chabon's Manhood for Amateurs.


A buck three way - the first three books of Anthony Powell's Dance to the music of time in one chubby edition, Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian, and Paolo Bacigalupi's The Wind-up Girl.

Young Adults

The last book in Patrick Ness's Chaos Walking trilogy, Monsters of Men has finally arrived in paperback, so I could finally satisfy my obsessive-compulsive need to have a copy that matched my first two books in the series. In an act of great sacrifice, I lent my brand-new copy to a friend who I recently put on to the series. I'll be collecting it back on my travels.


I'm housesitting for an avid reader during my holiday, so all the good intentions above may be swept away by the call of their bookshelf.

Francis Crick - What Mad Pursuit

It's that time of the year when publications put out their Best of 2010s. Because a lot of my energy in 2010 has gone into feeding Goodreads, I thought I'd share some of the highlights of my reading year as recorded originally on the site. Today, Francis Crick's What Mad Pursuit: A Personal View of Scientific Discovery


I guess the risk of reading autobiographies is that you might come out not enjoying the book because you don't like the person.

In James Watson's The Double Helix Francis Crick is painted as brilliant, impatient, prone to irritate others with his bumptious nature and unwelcome knowledge-sharing. Watson portrays himself as the shyer, more uncertain half of the duo - out of place both culturally (as an American) and scientifically (he's blagging time away when he's meant to be working on - phages, I think).

Crick's What Mad Pursuit is, like The Double Helix, a story about scientific research. He is however a more self-conscious story-teller than Watson, possibly because he is writing after several attempts have been made to tell the story of the discovery of the structure of DNA in different media.

As he writes at the beginning of the chapter 'Books and movies about DNA':

I recall when Jim was writing his book he read a chapter to me while we were dining together at a small restaurant near Harvard Square. I found it difficult to take his account seriously. "Who," I asked myself, "could possibly what to read stuff like this?" Little did I know!

Crick shows some impatience with the general reader:

The average adult can usually enjoy something only if it relates to what he knows already, and what he knows about science is in many cases pitifully inadequate. What almost everybody is familiar with is the vagaries of personal behaviour. People find it much easier to appreciate stories of competition, frustration, and animosity, against a background of parties, foreign girls, and punting on the river, than the details of the science involved.

This cut me to my reading quick. It's shit like this that I get off on - and it's stuff like this that has taken me from someone who gave up on chemistry in 5th form (because I, with typical teenage disdain, despised my teacher) and suffered through physics in 6th form without learning a damn thing, to someone who now actually understand what the LHC is there to do.

Crick often comes across as quite abrasive. His demeaning adjective of choice is 'sloppy' - sloppy thinking, sloppy model-making, sloppy maths. My favourite write-off, when describing a mathematician he clearly felt to be lack-lustre: "Either he had not read our paper carefully enough or, if he had read it, he had not understood it. But then in my experience most mathematicians are intellectually lazy and especially dislike reading experimental papers."

So, the tone of the book was not one I admired. I did come to appreciate Crick's sheer mental avidity: in his sixties he moved to the Salk Institute and took up serious research on the brain, applying the same vigour and challenging attitude to this that he did back in Cambridge in the 1950s.

And one small paragraph just blew my mind:

The laws of physics, it is believed, are the same everywhere in the universe. This is unlikely to to be true of biology. We have no idea how similar extraterrestrial biology (if it exists) is to our own. We may consider it likely that it too will be governed by natural selection, or something rather like it, but even this is only a plausible guess.

The closest I've ever come to a religious feeling was when I read about cosmic rays - muons that come from outerspace, pass through the earth's atmosphere, and down into the Earth. I suddenly felt like something much bigger than myself. Particles that had come from the sun could be passing through me right now. Light, sound, rainbows - none have had this almost physical sense of coming to an understanding and connection that this did.

The three sentences above had a similar thrill. I've never been interested in aliens. But the idea that they might not be subject to the same evolutionary mechanism that we are - I imagine I felt the same way that some Christian astronomer did once, laying eyes on a distant galaxy and suddenly wondering - can my God be there too?

And for that moment, I will forgive much else.

Monday, 20 December 2010

E.H. Gombrich - A Little History of the World

It's that time of the year when publications put out their Best of 2010s. Because a lot of my energy in 2010 has gone into feeding Goodreads, I thought I'd share some of the highlights of my reading year as recorded originally on the site. E.H. Gombrich's A Little History of the World was one of my favourite non-fiction reads of the year, and a book that I wrote about half-way through here, and then all the way through on Goodreads.


Here's what I wrote earlier this week about 'A Little History', when I was just about to hit the Renaissance:

In my professional life, speed is highly valued. I'm an advocate of Agile project management, for example, with its emphasis on time-boxed development periods and fast, focused releases. I've worked on numerous projects that have gone from 'here's what we want' to 'here it is' in 12 weeks. I've been to a million talks and presentations where people have preached the cult of failing fast and failing often, of rapid iteration and daily releases.

Which is why I'm currently filled with admiration for E.H. Gombrich. Start-up founders could take a lesson or two from a man who managed to summarise the history of human civilisation in under 300 pages and on a 6 week deadlines.

A Little History of the World was written in 1935, when Gombrich was 25. He'd finished his thesis, but hadn't found a job. Given an English history book for children to translate into German, he was distinctly underwhelmed by the text. He wrote a sample chapter of a rival book for the publisher, who gave him a conditional yes; the book would be published if it could be completed on the same deadline as the translation.

Gombrich worked 6 days a week on the manuscript - Sundays were spent with his wife, to whom he read each section. Each day, Gombrich would tackle a chapter: the morning for research at home, the afternoon for research at the library, and the evening for writing.

The resulting book - which I'm reading at the moment - is a marvel. Although the tone feels a little dated, especially the questions and comments directed at the intended child reader, the clarity is extraordinary. Gombrich introduces history as a long story, passed down from generation to generation. Writing history, he says, is like lighting a scrap of paper and dropping it down a deep well - the flare lights up the past as it descends. His flare lights up people, places and moments that shaped human culture, from the invention of writing to the age of chivalry.

Reviewing the book when it was finally released in English in 2005, Peter Conrad described it as a 'mental microcosm', and Lisa Jardine as "a manifesto for freedom and integrity". The thing that astounds me about the book is its personal tone - smilingly ironic, sincerely admiring, occasionally melancholy, rarely angered. Above all, it is wise and gentle - but never dull.


Of course I have some criticisms of the book. It is without a doubt a Eurocentric history, one where Asian, Muslim and African nations and peoples are discussed only in the terms in which they impacted on European history; America features in a quite minimal way up to the point of World War II.

Gombrich also tends to cast the occasions where Muslim ('Arab') armies are beaten back as times when something terrible is averted (even if, as he notes, these cultures gave us numbers, letters, and held on to the knowledge of ancient Greece and Rome whilst the Europeans had gone back to hitting each over the head with clubs).

Women feature hardly at all - Cleopatra is seduced, Joan of Arc is inspired by and inspiring with faith, Marie Antoinette is a child who gaily enters the French courts revels and quickly heads off to the guillotine.

On the other hand. I think we native New Zealanders have a tendency to think of Europe as old, deeply rooted, basically unchanging. Of course, when you start thinking about it - say, the re-drawing of boundaries post-World War I - that gets exposed as shallow thinking. But to read just how fluid the notion of "Italy" or "Germany" has been until extremely recently was still a bit of an eye-opener.

Also. A Little History of the World is, in terms of Gombrich's values, the non-fiction version of the book that has formed my moral compass, T.H. White's 'The Sword in the Stone'. Intelligence, reason, tolerance and mercy are all - wisdom is the ability, and the urge, to apply these qualities to improving the lives of the people around you.

You get the sense Gombrich saw much of the 20th century as a failing and betrayal of the values of the Enlightenment that he so treasures. World War II is the acid test of Gombrich's values. The book was published in 1935; Gombrich, part of a Jewish family, left Austria in 1938. In a conclusion written towards the end of his life, he forces himself to address happenings you sense he would rather avoid.

Although he has left the original text unchanged, he retracted his assessment of Wilson's actions at the end of World War I, and the promises the American president 'failed to keep' to Germany and Austria, leaving people deprived and justly aggrieved. Earlier in the book, writing of Spain's conquistadores in Mexico, he said:

there and in other parts of America they set about exterminating the ancient, cultivated Indian peoples in the most horrendous way. This chapter in the history of mankind is so appalling and so shameful to us Europeans that I would rather not say anything more about it.

World War II forced him to revisit this statement:

I am even more reluctant to talk about the monstrous crime that was committed in our own century - after all, this book is intended for young readers who should not have to read about such things. But children grow up, and they too must learn from history how easy it is for human beings to be transformed into inhuman beings through incitement and intolerance.

One of the best arguments I have heard for the value of reading fiction is that it teaches you empathy. That should go for non-fiction as well.

Saturday, 18 December 2010

Terry Pratchett - Nation

It's that time of the year when publications put out their Best of 2010s. Because a lot of my energy in 2010 has gone into feeding Goodreads, I thought I'd share some of the highlights of my reading year as recorded originally on the site. Today, Terry Pratchett's Nation


After half a lifetime's parting, this year I reunited with Terry Pratchett.

As a teenager, I wasn't a huge fan of the Discworld novels - no, let me refine that. I lapped up any Discworld book that focused on Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg, who respectively, taught me about psychology and innuendo. The series I truly loved though was the Bromeliad (Truckers, Diggers and Wings), the epic tale of a community of nomes who have their faith destroyed and then rebuilt, in a kinder, wiser way. While the series probably lent strength to my growing skepticism about religious belief, it taught me a lot about people.

Last summer I picked up a copy of 'The Amazing Maurice', and rediscovered Pratchett. And then, joy of joys, I met Tiffany Aching - with Roald Dahl's Matilda, one of the most human, most likable, most entertaining and wisest characters you'll ever come across. You can learn a lot from Tiffany Aching, and it won't hurt a bit.

I find there's little point in trying to describe what a Pratchett book is 'about' - I doubt a synopsis of a storyline will ever convince a non-believer to pick one up. However, I think you can summarise the general feelings a Pratchett book will evoke - alongside the wry and occasionally broad humour, there's a deep, deep love of our humankind with all its foibles, feeble- and narrowmindedness, and latent glory.

I have to admit, I didn't go into Nation with any particular expectations. I finished it this afternoon in tears. As is my wont, after reading it I went in search of reviews.

The reviewer in the Independent seemed to hit the "point" of the book, but miss the magic:

The idea of starting out afresh on a tiny island has brought out the best in fiction writers from Defoe to William Golding. Children relish these stories, but in this novel Pratchett is writing for everyone. Mau's Dawkins-type monologues as he questions all his supernatural beliefs go on a bit at times, but also point the way to Pratchett's central belief in the power of science and reason to liberate – if left in the right hands. True to form, Mau's island ends up incorporated by the Royal Society as a haven for visiting scholars.

Odd anthropological insights – sometimes backed up by jaunty footnotes – combine with fantasy as Pratchett introduces tree-climbing octopuses and beer that has to be spat in to make it potable. There are plenty of jokes. Aware that local gossip is trying to pair her off with Mau, Daphne thinks "It was like being in a Jane Austen novel, but one with far less clothing".

Frank Cottrell Boyce in the Guardian though (one of my favourite YA reviewers) seems to have found what I did

Nation has profound, subtle and original things to say about the interplay between tradition and knowledge, faith and questioning. During his initiation ritual, for instance, Mau discovers that the island isn't haunted at all, and that his dad and uncle have already been there and left supplies and a canoe for him. On one level this means the ancient ritual is a piece of empty theatre. In another sense, though, it's a rite of passage that is supposed to teach him self-reliance and courage. In fact, it gives Mau a much more profound knowledge - of how much his dad loves him and how valued he is by his society. Without the theatre of the ghosts, he wouldn't experience the reality of the love.

Pratchett has visited this theme before, in the Bromeliad trilogy, where a group of nomes have developed an obviously stupid religion based on a magic stone, "the Thing", and a belief in "the Heavens". It's ridiculous, but it turns out to be sort of true.

Ridiculous, but sort of true. Pratchett in a nutshell.

p.s. Late Pratchett seems to feature less knowing footnotes. Although they delighted me as a teen, as an adult I am finding this to be A Good Thing.

Friday, 17 December 2010

Reading list

My Christmas reading list is rapidly stacking up - I might post it here next week.

On it already are two books by the New Yorker music critic Alex Ross. He has followed up his phenomenally popular The Rest is Noise (a history of 20th century music) with Listen to This, a collection of revised essays from the past 10 years, spanning Mozart to Radiohead.

Despite knowing nothing bout music (or potentially because of knowing nothing about music) I love Ross's reviews. It's a sign of masterful writing when you can take the reader along with you, regardless of their level of knowledge. I make a point of seeking out his irregular pieces in the Guardian, which recently included this article, asking why 'we' embrace avant-garde architecture and art, but not music. Ross suggests:

The music profession [in the 20th century] became focused on the manic polishing of a display of masterpieces. By the time Schoenberg, Stravinsky and company introduced a new vocabulary of chords and rhythms, the game was fixed against them. Even composers who bent over backwards to accommodate a taste for Romantic tonality encountered scepticism; they could not overcome, except by drastic measures, the disadvantage of being alive.

Museums and galleries took a markedly different approach. In America, the Museum of Modern Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, and other leading institutions propagandised for modern art. Wealthy patrons embraced some of the most radical new work; dealers whipped up publicity; critics romanticised Pollock and company as go-it-alone heroes. The idea took hold that museums could be sites of intellectual adventure. On a recent trip to MoMA, I was struck by a poster at the entrance: "Belong to something brilliant, electrifying, radical, curious, sharp, moving . . . unruly, visionary, dramatic, current, provocative, bold . . ."

It feels a little ironic that a music critic is using the art world as a model of tolerance and curiosity, when here in New Zealand I still regularly hear accusations of charlatanism being hurled against McCahon, and the disgraceful debacle over et al's selection for the 2005 Venice Biennale is (in my opinion, anyway) the biggest art-hits-the-headlines story of the century thus far.

Thursday, 16 December 2010

Laura Miller - The Magician's Book

It's that time of the year when publications put out their Best of 2010s. Because a lot of my energy in 2010 has gone into feeding Goodreads, I thought I'd share some of the highlights of my reading year as recorded originally on the site. Today, Laura Miller's The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia


Growing up, I got my biblical language (rounded, rhythmical, intonational) from Kipling and my moral compass from King Arthur and Robin Hood, by way of TH White and Roger Lancelyn Green. By the time I was introduced to Christian mythology, the space in my imagination where God might have fit was already filled with Greek and Roman and Norse figures, before whom the Christian story paled into dull insignificance.

So it's not surprising that I was one of the legion of young readers - including Laura Miller - left disappointed, angered, even bereft when they discovered that the Chronicles of Narnia were in some ways a retelling of the Christian story. (In my case, the news was broken by a born-again uncle when I spotted a copy of the Screwtape Letters on his shelf).

In the Chronicles I had recognised and rejoiced in seeing Bacchus and dryads and fauns (dear old Mr Tumescent). I had been devastated and confused when Aslan gave himself up to the White Witch and overjoyed when he woke up, but I had no inkling that what I was reading was a version of the Passion Story. When I did unravel it all I was deeply offended that Lewis had tried to pull a fast one on me - to slip me something I did believe in by disguising it in things that I desperately wanted to.

Literary critic and one of the founders of Laura Miller had a similar experience (as did Neil Gaiman, and hearing him talk about this earlier this year was wonderful). She writes:

Lewis, Carter explained, was famously Christian, a fact I'd somehow managed to miss. I was shocked, almost nauseated. I'd been tricked, cheated, betrayed. I went over the rest of the Chronicles, and in almost every one found some element that lined up with this unwelcome and, to me, ulterior meaning. I felt like a character in one of those surreal, existential 1960s TV dramas, like The Prisoner or The Twilight Zone, a captive who pulled off a daring escape from his cell only to find himself inside another, another cell identical to the first.

'The Magician's Book' is an extension of an earlier essay Miller wrote about TLTWATW, a reader and writer's meditation on her own experience, and the life and writing of Lewis, a great reader and writer. In it she places the Chronicles in the context of Lewis's life, religious conversion, profession and friends, while binding in her own experience of reading the books, and that of other writers including Neil Gaiman and Susanna Clarke.

It's a wonderful, rich, enjoyable read, ideal for anyone interested in Lewis, Tolkien, fantasy fiction, children's literature, how writers think, medieval cosmology, the history of allegorical writing, and/or Narnia.

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Not overload - just explanation

The OED has re-written its entry for information - a 9,400 word explanation now traces the word from the Norman invasion of France to the first mention of the Information Age in the mid 20th century to TMI. James Gleick gives a lovely overview of the word and its new trappings on the New York Review of Books blog.

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

C.P. Snow - The Physicists

It's that time of the year when publications put out their Best of 2010s. Because a lot of my energy in 2010 has gone into feeding Goodreads, I thought I'd share some of the highlights of my reading year as recorded originally on the site. Today, C.P. Snow's The Physicists


Either my understanding of physics is getting better, or C.P. Snow was a gifted science communicator. I'm happy to think maybe my enjoyment of The Physicists owes a little to both.

'The Physicists' is the first draft, completed just before Snow's death in July 1980, of what was intended to be a much longer book on the history of nuclear physics. According to the introduction Snow wrote the book largely from memory: his editor, William Cooper, observes

It's odd - memory, even a memory as comprehensive as his, has its selectiveness, its patches, its things that stand out for reasons of other than factual importance. When an artist calls upon memory, what he writes has a life and a moving quality which scarcely ever infuses the product of the filing cabinet which we now refer to as researched information.

Snow viewed the development of the study of nuclear physics - through theory and through experiment - as the defining intellectual achievement of the 20th century. His book begins with Faraday, Maxwell Clark, J.J.Thomson, Roentgen and the Curies, and then spends a long, pleasurable time with Rutherford, Bohr and Einstein, looking at how experimental and theoretical science spurred each other along.

Snow's thumbnail sketches of scientists of this period - many of whom he studied under, worked with or met during his time lecturing at Cambridge prior to WWII and his entry into the public service - are sympathetic and insightful. He captures the magic of this time, the collegiality, the courtesy, the extraordinary advances in knowledge.

So far in my reading about 20th century physics I've avoided the atomic bomb. Perhaps like some scientists of the era, I feel like this moment in our history somehow desecrated the beauty and the purity of the research - a betrayal of the intellect. Snow's chapters on the science and politics of the development of the nuclear (and later hydrogen bomb) are engrossing, but I find his final verdict - that a nuclear stand-off, where everyone has enough power to blow up bits of the world and therefore has reason not to exercise it - a little chilling. The end of the book seems to want to divert concern away from the threat of nuclear weapons towards hopes for clean nuclear energy (a potential, he thought, that would 'be realised within our children's life times').

Snow's interest in the moral questions of science make for interesting reading. This book was written the year after I was born, after 35 years of concern and fear around the bomb. Snow points to a new area of worry - the development of computers and microprocessors. The threat they posed was to to disrupt the labour force, and create widespread unemployment. "It is silly to be frightened of computers" he writes, but this latest development in applied physics may, "Like other gifts, ... be a two-edged sword or have two faces".

Near the end of the book Snow touches on molecular biology. He comes to it via crystollography, a branch of physics examines the physical structure of atoms using radiography, a science that, although respectable, Rutherford would not allow into the Cavendish Lab, and ultimately, the science that provided Crick and Watson to put together the model of the double helix. Here I found Snow's observations particularly interesting:

'Biotechnology' is becoming a major new industry. Philosophically, the ability to alter the basis of life at will may have even more effect. The meaning of this work hasn't sunk into popular consciousness, even among intellectual persons, with anything like the rapidity of Darwin's 'On the Origin of Species'. In the long run it may do as much or more to alter men's view of themselves. That, though, will have to wait until the twenty-first century.

A far more accurate prediction than his hopes for fusion energy, it turns out. Overall, this short, swift book is a robust discussion of roughly a century of science, highly personalised but not in the least quirky or whimsical. Highly recommended.

Monday, 13 December 2010

Adam Gopnik - Angels and Ages

It's that time of the year when publications put out their Best of 2010s. Because a lot of my energy in 2010 has gone into feeding Goodreads, I thought I'd share some of the highlights of my reading year as recorded originally on the site. Today, Adam Gopnik's Angels and Ages: A short book about Darwin, Lincoln and modern life


'Extraordinary' is a rather hyped-up word to apply to this meditative, intelligent book - or booklet; while not exactly short, it's a focused view onto two lives that have been expansively and exhaustively documented.

Gopnik notes that it is of course coincidence that Lincoln and Darwin were born on the same day, and sketches out the differences in their social contexts. The connection he draws between them is that both found a way of communicating that allowed them to bring into the world ideas that changed the way Western society thinks, behaves, and views its history.

Lincoln is not a figure who particularly interests me, so while I enjoyed those chapters, it was the Darwin chapters that made the book for me. Gopnik explicates the way Darwin wrote and structured arguments - his long, slow, detailed amassing of eventually undeniable detail, and his quiet, occasionally humorously understated conclusions.

I thoroughly recommend the book if you're up to a thoughtful read - it's not a snappy, quirky book, but one which rewards being taken slowly. Gopnik also includes a bibliography which is worth the price of admission in itself - here's what I wrote on my blog:

I recently re-read Peter Doherty's 'A Beginner's Guide to Winning the Nobel Prize'. While I still find the book over-long and over-written (although there is some terrific stuff in there about the business of being a research scientist) the thing that really struck me was how good the list of recommended reading is.

When I get to the end of a book that has piqued my interest, by an author who I've come to trust, I want them to tell me what they found helpful and interesting when they were doing their research. Not just a bibliography, but recommendations of where I should go next.

Reading Doherty's book put me on to James Gleick's bio of Feynman, James Watson's simultaneously wonderful and infuriating 'The Double Helix' and a terrific book about the 1918-19 flu epidemic by John M Barry that I plan to re-read as soon as I get some breathing space. It also reminded me that Brenda Maddox's biography of Rosalind Franklin is still languishing on my to-read list.

Fifty pages into Adam Gopnik's Angels and Ages. I flipped to the bibliography. And was delighted.

In one of the Darwin chapters of the book, Gopnik writes about the pressures Darwin was under as he finally sat down to write 'On the Origin of Species'

All the pleasures and pressures of the past decade acted on him: the pleasure of explanation in simple terms, the pressure of not being understood; the pleasure of having accumulated abundant examples, the pressure of succumbing to overabundant illustration; the pleasure of having a clear argument to make, the pressure of having to make it clear; the pleasure of pushing at last to make a summary of an argument, the crucial pressure of having Alfred Wallace, polite and deferential but, after all, also in possession of the same theory, waiting.

Of course, this is the same situation that faced Gopnik (and any other writer who's got to that stage where they sit down, photocopies and books amassed around them, and try to face down the blank screen). His 'bibliographic note' summarises this beautifully: 'The Darwin literature is merely immeasurable; the Lincoln literature is infinite. When you are already up to your armpits in it, you realise you have hardly dipped a toe.'

Gopnik provides two pages each of recommended reading on Darwin and Lincoln - not a list of books, but a brief summary of his research journey, of what he read, and what he learnt, and what he believes we will find useful and engaging. It's not just a bibliography, it's a deeply personalised recommendation, and I love it.

Friday, 10 December 2010

My feelings exactly

Thanks to a friend who knows my idiosyncrasies well, a link to Jolisa Gracewood's interview with New Zealand YA writer Karen Healey popped up in my feedreader today.

I haven't read Healey's Guardian of the Dead yet (I've just booked it at the public library), but here's the Goodreads precis:

This is an intriguing YA urban fantasy in the tradition of Holly Black and Wicked Lovely. Set in New Zealand, Ellie's main concerns at her boarding school are hanging out with her best friend Kevin, her crush on the mysterious Mark, and her paper deadline. That is, until a mysterious older woman seems to set her sights on Kevin, who is Maori, and has more than just romantic plans for him. In an effort to save him, Ellie is thrown into the world of Maori lore, and eventually finds herself in an all-out war with mist dwelling Maori fairy people called the patupaiarehe who need human lives to gain immortality.

The strong, fresh voice of the narrator will pull readers in, along with all the deliciously scary details: the serial killer who removes victim's eyes; the mysterious crazy bum who forces a Bible on Ellie telling her she needs it; handsome, mysterious Mark who steals the Bible from her and then casts a forgetting charm on her. All of this culminates in a unique, incredible adventure steeped with mythology, Maori fairies, monsters, betrayal, and an epic battle.

In the interview, Gracewood notes that while YA is relatively neglected in critical literature/review pages, commercially it is thriving, even in the internet age:

From where I sit -- credentialled by the literary-academic establishment, and mostly a reviewer of Serious Adult Fiction for Serious Adults -- YA literature seems kind of the fierce but neglected younger sibling who just can't get no respect. Especially in the review pages of Big Important Papers and Magazines. And yet: Harry Potter! Twilight! Mockingjay! Percy Jackson!*

Healey responds:

I don't write YA because I'm not skilled enough to write adult literature, or because I think teenagers are a passive audience who will indiscriminately devour any old garbage. On the contrary, I think they are demanding, involved, canny readers. They won't keep going with something that's "improving" literature if they don't like it - they get enough of that in school. If a book doesn't entertain them in their leisure time, they'll toss it. The YA blogosphere is amazing. These young readers establish international book tours, run prize draws, and engage in social media in a lot of ways that more established review outlets have entirely ignored, to, I think, their detriment.

So yeah, it's annoying that YA is all but ignored in the major review outlets. I think a lot of adult readers are missing out on stuff they would really enjoy, although more and more of them are crossing over into the YA section, where they are very welcome. But, you know, we're doing our own thing. It would be nice to have the big names take more notice, but in the YA world, we don't really need them to get by.

There's an interesting section about the setting of Healey's novel, a very detailed Christchurch. Gracewood poses the query that such detail is unusual in YA-slash-fantasy; Healey points to other examples of such realism. And there's also a good discussion of Healey's decision to use, and experience of using, Māori mythology at the heart of her book.

This reminded me of a book I read and enjoyed earlier this year, Frances Hardinge's The Lost Conspiracy. It's aimed at younger readers than Healey's book, and has a much stronger (based on what I've read so far) fantasy streak, but Hardinge's use of Māori mythology intrigued me. Here's what I wrote at the time:


When Neil Gaiman spoke at Wellington Town Hall a few weeks ago, the thing I was most struck by were his comments on CS Lewis.

Like me (and many, many fortunate people) Gaiman didn't get the Christian references in the Narnia series until quite late in the series (me, I had to wait til my born-again uncle told me). He observed, sweetly, that as a Christian allegory, The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe was obviously a bit of a failure. He felt instead that Lewis crammed into TLTW&TW all the things he loved from Christian, Greek and other mythologies.

I thought of that reading The Lost Conspiracy (titled 'Gullstruck Island' in the UK). It is loooooong, and it is *relentlessly* inventive, and although I noticed both those things as an adult reader, as a kid I would have been head over heels in love.

When I read Elizabeth Knox's YA duo - the Dreamhunter books - I felt she'd failed to provide a sufficiently detailed, sufficiently strange alternate late-colonial New Zealand. The books just didn't have that lushness of imagination, that wealth of detail that you sink into, that The Hobbit or TLTW&TW have.

Reading The Lost Conspiracy is like swimming through a swelling sea of invention - breasting endless new takes on peoples, birds and beats, religion, ancestor worship, and a mythic and physical relationship between a people and a land.

It was also curious spotting a strangely familiar tale of two male mountains fighting over the attentions of a third, female mountain, with the loser fleeing and carving a deep gouge of anger out of the landscape. When I got to the end, it was one of those funny cultural cringe oh wow moments when Hardinge talked about the legend of Taranaki, Ruapehu and Ngaruhoe, and her research into the Tarawera eruption.

The book occasionally feels a little overladen with all this extraordinary detail. But have you ever heard a kid who loves reader complain about a book being too long, or too full of remarkable things? Highly recommended.

*My personal feelings: Harry Potter - meh; Twilight - bloody scary, but for all the wrong reasons; Mockingjay - not as affecting as Patrick Ness's Chaos Walking trilogy, but utterly engrossing; Percy Jackson - great premise, somewhat predictable.

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

C.S. Lewis - A Grief Observed

It's that time of the year when publications put out their Best of 2010s. Because a lot of my energy in 2010 has gone into feeding Goodreads, I thought I'd share some of the highlights of my reading year as recorded originally on the site. This is the book that most moved me this year - C. S. Lewis's A Grief Observed.


"No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning. I keep on swallowing."
I don't think I've ever felt the prickle of tears over the first paragraph of a book.

'A Grief Observed' is barely a book - 70 small pages of short paragraphs - lancing, glancing thoughts. Lewis wrote as a way of coping after the death of his wife from bone cancer; he had no original intention to publish the contents of the four little notebooks, and when they were first published, they were released under a pseudonym. Although writing was how Lewis got through the period ('reading is not enough of a drug') he struggled with the connotations of the act:

"What would H. herself think of this terrible little notebook to which I come back and back? Are these jottings morbid? I once read the sentence 'I lay awake all night with toothache, thinking about toothache and about lying awake.' That's true to life. Part of every misery is, so to speak, the misery's shadow or reflection: that fact that you don't merely suffer but have to keep on thinking about the fact that you suffer. I not only live each endless day in grief, but live each day thinking about living each day in grief."

Later: "This is the fourth - and the last - empty MS. book I can find in the house, at least nearly empty, for there are some pages of very ancient arithmetic at the end by J. I resolve to let this limit my jottings. I will not start buying books for the purpose."

This slim volume is, I guess, about two things: Lewis's observation of his grief over the death of his wife, and the questions he had to ask of and about god as a result.

Lewis grapples with what Leibniz named as theodicy: the question of whether evil and pain in our world does not conflict with the essential goodness of god. His writing and thinking here is searingly honest. But his writing about his wife ... you realise that something late and precious and extraordinary happened between these two people. It is some of the most sweetly, sadly, realistically erotic writing I've ever read:
"Her mind was lithe and quick and muscular as a leopard. ... How many bubbles of mine she pricked! I soon learned not to talk rot to her unless I did it for the sheer pleasure - and there's another red-hot jab - of being exposed and laughed at. I was never less silly than as H.'s love."
"I see I've described H. as being like a sword. That's true as far as it goes. But utterly inadequate by itself, and misleading. I ought to have balanced it. I ought to have said, 'But also like a garden. Like a nest of gardens, wall within wall, hedge within hedge, more secret, more full of fragrant and fertile life, the further you entered.'"
I will buy a copy of this book today. But before I put it on the shelf, or begin pressing it upon friends, I shall tear out every page of Lewis's step-son's introduction. I cannot and I will not conscience statements like this:
"[Lewis] had written also about the great poets and songs of love, but somehow neither his learning nor his experiences had ever prepared him for the combination of both the great love, and the great loss which is its counterpoint; the soaring joy which is the finding and winning of the mate whom God has prepared for us and the crushing blow, the loss, which is Satan's corruption of that great gift of loving and being loved."
"I had yet to learn that all human relationships end in pain - it is the price that our imperfection has allowed Satan to exact from us for the privilege of love."
And instead, I will give the last word to Lewis

"If, as I can't help but suspecting, the dead also feel the pains of suffering (and this may be one of their purgatorial sufferings) then for both lovers, and for all pairs of lovers without exception, bereavement is a universal and integral part of our experience of love. It follows marriage as normally as marriage follows courtship or as autumn follows summer. It is not a truncation of the process but one of its phases; not the interruption of the dance, but the next figure. ...

I wrote the other night that bereavement is not the truncation of married life but one of its regular phases - like the honeymoon. What we want is to live our marriage faithfully and well through that phase too. If it hurts (and it certainly will) we will accept the pains as a necessary part of this phase. we don't want to escape them at the price of desertion of divorce. Killing the dead a second time. We were one flesh. Now that it has been cut in two, we don't want to pretend that it is whole and complete. We will still be married, still in love. Therefore we shall still ache. But we are not at all - if we understand ourselves - seeking the aches for their own sake. The less of them the better, so long as the marriage is preserved. And the more joy there can be in the marriage between dead and living, the better."

Monday, 6 December 2010

Web muster

Umberto Eco on lists (hitting that link will probably pop up up a print dialog box, but just cancel it and all will be well):

SPIEGEL: You yourself are more likely to work with books, and you have a library of 30,000 volumes. It probably doesn't work without a list or catalogue.

Eco: I'm afraid that, by now, it might actually be 50,000 books. When my secretary wanted to catalogue them, I asked her not to. My interests change constantly, and so does my library. By the way, if you constantly change your interests, your library will constantly be saying something different about you. Besides, even without a catalogue, I'm forced to remember my books. I have a hallway for literature that's 70 meters long. I walk through it several times a day, and I feel good when I do. Culture isn't knowing when Napoleon died. Culture means knowing how I can find out in two minutes. Of course, nowadays I can find this kind of information on the Internet in no time. But, as I said, you never know with the Internet.

Jonathan Jones on Chinese firms copycatting UK architects

Alan Jacobs ask whether looking at the 18th century can help us understand the early 21st

Many of the ethical norms of the previous century were loosened significantly, and folks tended to have a sense that they were operating in greater freedom than their ancestors (which most, but not all, of them thought was wonderful). Thus traditional Christian self-examination for signs of unconfronted sins was replaced by something quite different: “When educated Georgian polite society examined itself, however, the tone was more subjective, even narcissistic. Diaries and autobiographies . . . show that people were dwelling more on their own psychological make-up, and often indulging, rather than quelling, their humours and passions.”

Filed under 'books I shall read soon' - Alexandra Harris's Romantic Moderns wins the Guardian's First Book prize.

But if you read one thing this week, make it this extraordinary piece by New Zealand journalist and news commentator Julie Starr: My brother was shot in the head on a Monday night.

Friday, 3 December 2010

culture club

The Transformations in Cultural Communication conference and masterclasses are running again in Melbourne next April. Now that the first wave of enthusiasm and experimentation with social media inside museums has crested, the conference is moving on to look at how these tools and platforms can be used to serve culturally diverse audiences.

Featured speakers include Seb Chan from the Powerhouse Museum, Nancy Procter from the Smithsonian, and Caroline Payson and Mei Mah from the Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum, backed up by Lynda Kelley and Angelina Russo.

The conference registration is a very friendly AU$180, and, well, what need I say about the allurements of a trip to Melbourne?

Thursday, 2 December 2010


Kara Walker meets sticky notes with Stipee bookmarks (photo via BLTD; packs of bookmarks available at Japanese Gift Market).

For the past year, I've been using stickers made to publicise ArtBabble as bookmarks - they're perfectly sized, resilient, and make me think of faraway friends whenever I open or close a book. When travelling I use plane tickets, although with Air New Zealand's handy iPhone app, I rarely get a physical ticket anymore. (Does anyone ever just marvel at how much the process of flying has changed in a decade? Ten years ago when flying home from uni in Dunedin I went to a tarvel agent to buy my tickets and got them in a little blue plastic pouch: today I buy them online, tap a reference number into my phone, then wave my phone at a scanner as I'm about to walk on to the plane. Who says we're still waiting for the future?)

Anyway. The more I use Goodreads to record what I'm reading, the more I find myself dog-earing pages in books so I can reference them in my write-up. I still don't have the guts (or bad manners) to pencil comments in books - not ones I own or ones I've borrowed) but somehow this naughty little habit has crept back up on me.

Then again, as ereaders become more common, I feel like celebrating the paper page - in all its vulnerability and tactility - even more. Dog-ears have become like lovebites - slightly destructive marks of enjoyment.