Tuesday, October 5, 2010


The Victorian Internet

Utterly fascinating history of the invention, development, spread, ubiquitous use, and decline of the telegraph. The Victorian Internet is a very important global read - this invention was truly one of the most important our species has ever created. The phone, fax, internet, and satellite systems were all just continuations of this idea. A connected planet, exchanging information in real-time. Standage, just as in his "A History of the World in Six Glasses," manages to communicate a subject that could be convoluted, dry, and inaccessible in an extremely clear and entertaining fashion. Couldn't put it down.

Quick notes - because an in-depth summary would be silly for a book of this nature:

Samuel Morse essentially invents the electric telegraph (after the French and the British try to make use of the optical telegraph - which is essentially an elaborate windmill whose arms you can manipulate). He manages to invent Morse Code at the same time.

He has the darndest time getting anyone to think it's anything more useful than a funny trick.

Thomas Edison not only invented the lightbulb, but he got his start running messages back and forth in complex telegraph stations (as did Andrew Carnegie), became an excellent Morse Code operator, and then revolutionized the existing technology behind the telegraph. Smart guy.

It took a lot of false starts to lay down the Transatlantic Telegraph Cable, but the process essentially involved dumping miles and miles of reinforced cable out of a boat and chugging to the other side.

Because you paid by the word, people developed elaborate code systems to communicate by long nonsense words that required a codebook to translate.

Highly recommended.


The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time

This is easily one of the better books I've read all year. "the curious incident of the dog in the night-time" is funny, intelligent, and gripping. Somehow Christopher, the autistic narrator who hates metaphors, can make you feel the emotions of the serious things happening to him despite not being able to feel them himself.

His father ended up becoming the main character in the emotional realm to me. Because Chris doesn't like to be touched, his father, despite losing his wife, is only able to express his love and devotion to his son by holding up his hand and spreading his fingers, and then joining their fingertips. Anything else will set Chris off, and though it seems like a consolation Christopher makes to the odd emotional needs of the people he's forced to share a planet with, his boiler-repairman father clings to the gesture like a life preserver.

I loved the diagrams, pictures, and sketches he includes in the book to better communicate imagery. Christopher doesn't like metaphors, though he'll try out similes.

I love how he has to wrap his head around one of his father's friends' odd habit of socializing with his father:

"When I got home Rhodri was there. Rhodri is the man who works for father, helping him to do heating maintenance and boiler repair. And he sometimes comes round to the house in the evening to drink beer with Father and watch the television and have a conversation."

If you don't like this paragraph, you probably won't like the book:

"Eventually scientists will discover something that explains ghosts, just like they discovered electricity, which explained lightning, and it might be something about people's brains, or something about the Earth's magnetic field, or it might be some new force altogether. And then ghosts won't be mysteries. They will be like electricity and rainbows and nonstick frying pans."

Seems like everyone I know has read this, but if you haven't, it's a quick read and I predict you'll enjoy it.


Assassination Vacation

I really enjoyed Assassination Vacation. I've seen Sarah Vowell on the Daily Show, and her incredibly subtle, dry sense of humor practically forces you to read her books.

This is about three presidential assassinations - Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley. Lincoln's murder, being slightly more well-known than the other two, requires more digging, and Vowell really goes the distance. She goes from historical landmarks, monuments, graveyards, seashore dying places (Garfield was shot in DC and after months of not healing, went to the Jersey Shore to escape the summer humidity), assassin enablers' prisons and, for instance, the store John Wilkes Booth bought his gun. She drags along her sister and young nephew for many of these treks because she doesn't drive. Her sister tries gamely to humor the morbid nature of these trips, but the nephew loves it all - he calls cemeteries "Halloween Parks."

You learn a lot about all three presidents, their VPs, the history of the late 1800s and early 1900s, and America's peculiar fascination with guns. You learn that though Lincoln freed the slaves, his memorial service was segregated. Garfield's assassin was much more than "a disappointed presidential appointment-seeker: he wanted to be appointed Ambassador to France, was crazy, hilarious, homeless, and a product of an Upstate NY Bible Communist Sex Cult. Also, the guy who sheltered John Wilkes Booth after he fled DC apparently knew more about Booth than he let on to authorities: "Which is why, when authorities questioned Mudd, Mudd played dumb, claiming that he didn't recognize Booth because Booth was wearing a fake beard - lame."

Lame. Awesome. More than the history and the factoids that she imparts to her readers, I love her voice. She really does show herself in the narrative, and she's a sarcastic, nosy, lovable, dark, know-it-all. For this book, that voice really works perfectly.

Monday, October 4, 2010


The Library at Night

I think Paul recommended I read The Library At Night, and I had no idea what it'd be about. It's a sort of history, sort of memoir, sort of exploration of his personal library, but mostly it's about the importance of reading and the history of the written word and libraries.

I appreciated learning about ancient Greek, Arabic, and European libraries, as well as global efforts to organize books. This is perfect for librarians and those, like myself, who grew up in libraries and worked in them as a teenager. I liked his thoughts on reading in general, as well as his particular literary loves. Lots of quotes in the book mean that he's thought about quotations in general:

"...to quote is to continue a conversation from the past in order to give context to the present."

I like that. I also like:

"A dictionary from the seventh century B.C. carries this prayer: 'May Ishtar bless the reader who will not alter this tablet now place it elsewhere in the library, and may She denounce in anger he who dares withdraw it from this building.'"

"The idea persists even today: our books will bear witness for or against us, our books reflect who we are and who we have been, our books hold the share of pages granted to us from the Book of Life. By the books we call ours will we be judged."

"And yet, however careful our reading, remembered texts often under go curious changes; they fragment, shrivel up or grow unpredictably long. In my mental library, The Tempest is reduced to a few immortal lines, while a brief novel such as Juan Rulfo's Pedro Paramo occupies my entire Mexican imaginary landscape. A couple of sentences by George Orwell in the essay "Shooting an Elephant" expand in my memory to several pages of description and reflection that I think I can actually see in my mind, printed on the page; of the lengthy medieval romance The Devoured Heart, all I can remember is the title."

I could spend hours in most libraries, and I always leave with far too much. Thinking about what books sit on our shelves is important to me, and when I visit someone's house, I always check out their collection. And the final thought about remembering shades of books is so true - not only for books but for life in general. There's so much we forget, that remembering the important things, good and bad, is critical. You seem to learn that as you tack on the years.

One final note is that this is the first book I've read on the Kindle. I'm borrowing it from my mother, and it's been an interesting experience. Some of the tools I like - I also like being able to set it down, not needing to prob it open in one hand with thumb and pinky. But the price of a new book will probably prevent me from ever getting one, and candidly, the button for "next page" is annoying after you press it several hundred times. We'll see.

Sunday, October 3, 2010


As for my experience with audiobooks, and to their detractors, let me just say this - it's a different experience than reading in the same way that blind people experience the world in a different way than those with sight. They miss out on brightness, color, and motion, while hearing and smelling and tasting and feeling more acutely and more fully than people who can see. There is definitely an experience that you get by picking through the words on your own via pages. I certainly prefer it, but audiobooks go back to the way stories were told around the campfire - they're given to you. They're an experience. And yet... your brain can still pause, dissect, interpret, cogitate, and process the information in the same way a visually read book can.

There are benefits aside from the convenience of reading while running or doing the dishes. You gain (or have to endure, depending on the performer) the cadence, pronunciation, accents, and mood of the prose. Neil Gaiman reading me his short stories, Barack Obama telling me about his childhood - these are experiences I simply could not manufacture on my own, reading their printed words. Even if I were to adopt my own internal monologue - such as having Sean Connery read Great Expectations to me in my head when I was a high school freshman - it would not have been the same.

I recently read Alberto Manguel's "The Library at Night," and I found these passages to be illuminating in exploring what reading means:

"Socrates - who despised books because he thought they were a threat to our gift of memory, and never deigned to leave a written word - chose to read the speech of the orator Lycias, not to hear it recited by the enthusiastic Phaedrus."

"Precision of recall was deemed all-important, and throughout the Islamic Middle Ages, it was considered more valuable to learn by listening to books read out loud than by private study, because the text then entered the body through the mind and not merely through the eyes. Authors published not so much by transcribing their work themselves as by directing it to their assistants, and students learned by hearing those texts read out to them or by reading them to a teacher."

So sometimes it's better to read with your eyes, and yet it is possible to read with your ears. There is a value to absorbing the information through two different senses.

The caveat is that yes, it's certainly possible to have an audiobook playing in the background, words flowing past your consciousness without being given the attention they deserve. However, it's equally possible to have a book in front of you, turning page after page, skimming along and absorbing absolutely nothing.

In terms of my challenge this year, it's been fascinating to see people push the idea of audiobooks being a "cheat." If the logic goes that I'm not absorbing information - the same logic should extend to skimming. I'm doing my best not to do either, which is why it's so important to me to select books that I'm fairly certain will be good. You don't skim or half-listen to good books. You want every word in your brain.