Short Friday Reading Notes/List
Amidst the ruins of the day (and it’s only 10:24 a.m. as I start this!) just a quick note to highlight some stuff I hope to blog at greater length about soon.
First: Just this early a.m. finished Masha Gessen’s Perfect Rigor, about Grigory Perelman, the Poincare Conjecture, the nature of mathematics and mathematicians, and the last days of the Soviet empire.
Readers of this blog from back a year or so ago will know that I am serious fan of Masha’s, and have recommended her previous book, Blood Matters as the best account I’ve seen of the science, personal and social implications of genomics as applied to human health and well being.
Perfect Rigor is a very different book, of course, but it captures such a range of human experience: passion and/or obsession, the cost of purity, the vicious absurdities of Soviet history, utopianism within mathematics, greed, envy, desire: the whole shooting match, all centered on a deceptively simple-seeming statement about the nature of a shape we almost — but can’t, really — see in our mind’s eye. It’s great historical writing; it’s a test of the limits of biography (what do you do when your living central character will not talk, not to you, not, anymore, to anyone?); it’s subtle blend of memoir, history, and contemporary conflict evokes a comparison with another book I’ve recently read and admired, Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of HEnrietta LAcks — and I want to write about all this with a bit more depth soon. But for now, take my word for it: Masha is a fine, fine writer, with an economy and elegance of style to match the intelligence and — her word applies here — the rigor her subjects demand.
Another book I’ve just begun and have not yet fully digested, but am loving, is just out: Timothy Ferris’s The Science of Liberty. Tim and I are old friends, and I’ve been hearing about this book for years; it’s the product of years of thought and reading. I’m just getting started, so I don’t have a detailed comment yet, but it is as beautifully written as the best of Tim’s prior work, and it is smart as hell. I’m going to be curious when I get to Chapter Ten, “Totalitarian Antiscience,” to place Tim’s thinking in the context of Loren Graham’s very nuanced studies of Soviet science — the disasters (see The Ghost of the Executed Engineer) and the surprising moments of accomplishment, (see What have we learned about science and technology from the Russian Experience?). But that’s the pull of this book for me: Tim’s not trying merely to write descriptive history. He wants to argue with his reader, to persuade, and I am interested in both his subject and the structure of his thinking.
Last, for this Friday at least, some pure fun: Elif Batuman’s The Possesssed, a memoir/polemic/picaresque of reading and thinking and graduate school (not always conducive to either) and Russian literature. Batuman is a craftsman of sentences (and she would loathe hearing herself described so, given her brutal dismissal of what she rather inaccurately terms a specifically New England tradition of writing instruction), and as craft does in the hands of artists, those sentences become beautiful, singly and in combination.
She’s also a viciously, hilariously acute observer, of herself and of anyone or anything in range. It’s a serious hoot, with equal emphasis on both adjective and noun. Plus the one thing taken deadly (but not humorlessly) seriously throughout is great fiction by dead Russians, works which accumulate into one of the mother lodes of investigation of the human condition.
Worth your time, in other words…have fun.
Image: Nicolas Neufchâtel, “Bildnis des Nürnberger Schreibmeisters Johann Neudörffer und eines Schülers,” 1561.