Posted tagged ‘books’

For a Good Time In Radioland (Short Notice Self Aggrandizement)

October 6, 2016

ETA: So, we lost the connection to Blog Talk radio.  Jay and I continued the conversation to tape; he’s editing it now and will post the audio as a podcast tomorrow.  I’ll let y’all know when it’s up.  Sorry…

dou_astronomer-by-candlelight

Don’t know if anyone reading this has had their fill of The Hunt For Vulcan, but just in case you haven’t, I’ll be talking soon about that book, missing planets, error in science (and life, perhaps) and more with Jay Ackroyd on his internet radio program, Virtually Speaking.

Time: 9 p.m. Eastern, 6 Pacific (one hour from now!)

Here’s the link.

Tune in, if you’re not absorbed in more down-to-earth matters. (I.e….Go Sox!)

Image:  Gerrit Dou, Astronomer by candlelight1665

For A Good Time In Tucson…And Then Tn Charlottesville.

March 11, 2016

[Obligatory sound track]

Way late with this post, but if any of y’all happen to be in the Tucson, AZ area this weekend, I’ll be doing a bunch of stuff at the excellent Tucson Festival of Books.  It’s truly an all-in event; just an outrageous amount of book love crammed into two days.

Simon_Luttichuys_001

My own motes in this maelstrom come at 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. both days.  On Saturday, I’ll be participating in a couple of panels, “Genius: Lives in Science” in the morning and “How We Got Here: Histories of Science” in the afternoon.  Sunday morning I’ll be doing a workshop/Q & A on science writing — how that will go will depend on who shows up and what they want to talk about — and in the afternoon we’ll be on to “Our Nearest Neighbors In The Solar System,” a chance to talk Planet Nine, Kuiper Belt Objects, those funky moons that orbit the Pluto-Charon system…and maybe just a bit about our should-be, could-be, never-was friend, Vulcan.

Some come by if you can.  And check out everything else going on — or rather, as that’s more than any one person could manage, check out what you like.

Also — an author’s plea.  If you happen to have read The Hunt for Vulcan (so nice I linked it twice) do tell your friends, and if you’re feeling extra generous, pop up a review on Amazon, or whatever social media venue floats your boat.

Also, also:  for anyone in the Charlottesville, VA vicinity next week, I’ll be talking at the Virginia Festival of the Book as part of a panel on “Mysteries of the Cosmos.”  That’ll be on Friday, March 18 at 4 p.m.  That’s another great celebration of writing, reading and the wondrousness of words; it too has an amazing line up of authors, with only yours-truly mucking up the joint; and a spring weekend spent in sight of the Blue Ridge is never wasted.

And just to broaden out the thread — how about talking about what you’re reading now.  For me, I just finished work in a genre I don’t usually read much: N. K. Jemisin’s Inheritance Trilogywhich I enjoyed a lot, and to which I turned after being truly wowed by her The Fifth Season — a novel of geophysics, race, love and vengeance. I’m not sure what the next novel will be just yet.

My non-fiction jones is being fed by a dual read of Andrea Wulf’s The Invention of Nature:  Alexander Humboldt’s New World and Humboldt’s own Personal Narrative of Travels to the Equinoctial Regions of Americaand a nightly, just-before-bed dip into Susan Howe’s My Emily Dickinson — which is just wonderful, a poet diving into another poet’s life and work in a bravura demonstration of criticism as high art.

What’s on your pile?

Image: Simon Luttichuijs, Vanitas still life with skull, books, prints and paintings by Rembrandt and Jan Lievens, with a reflection of the painter at workbetw. 1635-1640.

You Can Thank Me Later

March 7, 2015

Nothing but unicorns and rainbows in this post.

Every now and then, rarely, a book comes along that makes you want to grab strangers on the street and hold them by their shirtfronts until they promise — pinky swear, no mental reservations allowed — that they will get and read that irreplaceable book as soon as you let them get go.

I’m a few pages into that book.  So I’m doing all that to you, grabbing hold as firmly as I can, to the limit our intertubes allow.

The work is Helen MacDonald’s H is for Hawk.*  It is a work of intensely observed natural history, if that’s the way you take it.  From another angle, it’s a memoir of grief.  From any point of view, it’s a work of art.  MacDonald’s prose is simply beautiful: resonant on the sentence level, unbelievably sharp — you’ll cut yourself on her images — and even in the slow entry I’ve allowed myself so far,** possessed of an accumulating beauty that reminds me of something I too easily forget, why it is I love the practice of words.

For a proper learned review, a lovely piece of writing in itself, see Kathryn Schulz’s elegant review at The New Yorker.  Here’s a taste:

Macdonald’s story has a different ending. One day, crouching over a rabbit she has just killed, feeling like “an executioner after a thousand deaths,” she comes to see that she has been travelling with her hawk not further from grief but further from life. Scared by her own numbness and darkness, she begins to seek help: from loving relatives, attentive friends, modern psychopharmacology—all the advantages she had that White did not. Slowly, her grief starts to lift. As it does, she finds that she disagrees with Merlyn and Muir. “The wild is not a panacea for the human soul,” she writes. “Too much in the air can corrode it to nothing.” All along, she had wanted to be her hawk: fierce, solitary, inhuman. Instead, she now realizes, “I was the figure standing underneath the tree at nightfall, collar upturned against the damp, waiting patiently for the hawk to return.” Her father, she knows, will never rejoin the human world. But she can. Like a figure in a myth who followed a hawk to the land of the dead, Macdonald turns around and comes home.

Simone_Martini_038

For my part, I’ll just tease you with the first paragraph of the book.  It’s a soft open:

Forty-five minutes north-east of Cambridge is a landscape I’ve come to love very much indeed.  It’s where wet fen gives way to parched sand.  It’s a land of twisted pine trees, burned out cars, shotgun-peppered road signs and US Air Force bases.  There are ghosts here:  houses crumble inside numbered blocks of pine forestry.  There are spaces built for aid-delivered nukes inside grassy tumuli behind twelve-foot fences, tattoo parlours and US Air Force golf courses.  In spring, it’s a riot of noise:  constnt plane traffic, gas guns over pea fields, woodlarks and jet engines.  It’s called the Brecklands — the broken lands — and it’s where I ended up that morning, seven years ago, in early spring, on a trip I hadn’t planned at all. At five in the morning I’d been staring at a square of streetlight on the ceiling, listening to a couple of late party-leavers chatting on the pavement outside.  I felt odd: overtired, overwrought, unpleasantly like my brain had been removed and my skull stuffed with smoething like microwaved aluminium foil, dinted, charred and shorting with sparks.  Nnnngh. Must get out, I thought, throwing back the covers. Out! I pulled on jeans, boots and a jumper, scalded my mouth with burned coffee, and it was only my frozen ancient Volkswagen and I were halfway down the A14 that I worked out where I was going, and why.  Out there, beyond the foggy windscreen and white lines, was the forest.  The broken forest.  That’s where I was headed. To see goshawks.

A soft open indeed.  Action, of a sort, but (as yet) not terribly consequential.  A character, with whom we haven’t had the chance to form a bond of sympathy.  Lists.

And yet, as I read these few lines again, I’m sitting here gobsmacked, full of professional admiration, taking notes.  So much good writing, so much promise, in what, told baldly, is an utterly unpromising scene.  (I couldn’t sleep so I got in my car to look for some birds in a nasty bit of wasteland.)

What I’m feeling on this read is the rhythm.  MacDonald’s a published poet, among other things, and she writes prose that recalls that discipline, with word-by-word attention to sound and beat, to build into a play of sentences that imposes a kind of music on top of sense.  As I’ve dived further into the book I forget, sometimes, to pay attention to that kind of fine-grained technique.  Instead, I’m being carried along by who she is and why she’s doing what she’s doing.  As Schulz says, this is a “wondrously atypical book.”  It delivers its goods polyphonically; there’s always another level to experience.

I’ll stop there, but I hope you won’t.  I’m grabbing you, folks.  I’m pulling hard on your lapels.  I’m leaning in.  I’ll speak slowly, so there’s no chance of a failure to communicate.

Buy this book.  Read it.

You can thank me later.

*Amazon link for reference purposes.  If you can support your local bookshop, it’s the policy of this blogger to encourage you to do so.

**I’ve had to stop myself from dropping everything — sleep included — and racing too fast through this one.  It really is that good.

Image:  Simone Martini, St. Martin of Tours, 1322-1326

 

For Good Times In Cambridge: Fallows/Kummer and Merry White Distant Early Warning

December 2, 2013

Good stuff coming up this Thursday, Dec. 5.

First off:  I’ll be introducing The Atlantic’s James Fallows and Corby Kummer at the last MIT Communications Forum event of the year.  It’ll run from 5-7 in MIT building 66, room 110. (Map at the link.)

Fallows you all know, I think.  He’s been national correspondent at The Atlantic since forever, with a stint at Jimmy Carter’s head speechwriter thrown in.  He’s covered an enormous range of stories from a great range of places — Washington, Shanghai, Beijing,  and any civil aviation landing strip he can find.  Politics, flight, international relations, China-watching, beer and much more.  He’s a National Magazine Award and American Book Award winner.  Kummer is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he has shepherded many of its signature pieces from wisp in a writer’s eye to publication.  (He’s also one of America’s leading food writers, winner of 5 James Beard Journalism awards including one my previous post would suggest I find most impressive, the M. F. K. Fisher Distinguished Writing Award.

Here’s what the two of them will talk about: “Long Form Journalism: Inside The Atlantic.”

Mary_Cassatt_Woman_Reading_in_a_Garden

The session will focus on two questions: what goes into the making of a major piece of journalism.  First: what’s required to conceive, report, develop, refine, fix, verify, and then, finally, produce a long piece of writing that can both demonstrate the proposition and persuade its readers of its truth and importance.  Second: why such journalism matters (and, perhaps, some commentary on the curious fact that despite the internet’s supposed slaughter of attention, long form non-fiction seems it be entering something of a golden age.)

This will be videotaped, and I’ll post the clip and/or links to same when it goes live (and I  know that I’ve still got to get the promised Coates-Hertzberg video ready to roll…)  But if you’re in town on Thursday, this should be a good one.  We’ll probably be focusing on a single, maybe a couple of signature Fallows articles that went under Kummer’s watchful eye, and as I find out the texts, I’ll post those links in my next reminder.

The other event that Greater-Cambridge folks might want to check out is a truly happy book event for one of my oldest and dearest friends, Merry “Corky” White, (my college tutor, as it happens), whose classic Cooking for Crowds (illustrated by Koren!) is being re-iussed in a 40th anniversary edition.

Jan_Steen_-_Feast_of_the_Chamber_of_Rhetoricians_near_a_Town-Gate_-_WGA21727

She’ll be talking the book at Harvard Bookstore at 7 p.m. on Thursday — and I’ll be dashing as fast as I can from 02139 to 02138 to cheer her on.  If you can, you should too.  (No media for this one, alas.)

BTW: here’s the Amazon link to Corky’s book — but in the spirit of time, place and season, get it at Harvard Books if that’s near you, or from and the independent bookstore you normally use if you’re one of the lucky ones to still possess such a community treasure.

Images: Mary Cassat, Woman Reading in a Gardenbefore 1926

Jan Steen, Feast of the Rhetoricians Near a Town Gate, before 1679

Instrumental, With Words (Self Aggrandizement Alert)

September 9, 2012

Just in case any of y’all might be interested, I’m going to be talking with the really wonderful interviewer, Desiree Schell, about my almost twenty year old book, Measure for Measure, my attempt to retell the history of science through the stories of a series of musical and scientific instruments — from the pipe organ to the digital synthesizer, with stops along the way at the microscope, the scale, chimeric mice (sic!) and the ‘cello:

The conversation will take place on Desiree’s Skeptically Speaking radio show, and can be heard live there at 8 p.m. EDT, 5 p.m. PDT.  It’ll be archived and podcast later too, of course.  (If you are a glutton for punishment, you can catch my earlier chat on the same program with Desiree’s guest host, Marie-Claire Shanahan, on my more recent book, Newton and the Counterfeiter.

In the meantime, I hope everyone is enjoying the first full day of NFL football (Patriots begin as I hope they go on…), and that’s about it.

Image:  Amedeo Modgiliani, Cello Player, before 1920.

Why We Fight (Kind of Meta)

July 21, 2012

Attention Conservation notice [w. apologies to Cosma Shalizi, from whom the phrase is stolen]What follows is what in the newspaper business used to be called a thumbsucker  — in this case, yet another way to see the GOP as not just wrong, but so steeped in an error of principle, of worldview, as to be irredeemable.  It’s got a nice anecdote in it, lifted from someone else, but there’s no need to read on if you don’t like such stuff.  Which last is, of course, a PGO of its own.  See:  I’m fractally unnecessary.

______________

I don’t recall an election in which two such strikingly opposite visions not just of the United States, but of human nature, so clearly set the stakes.  Let me get to part of what I see by some indirection:

I’ve been doing a lot of reading lately, with (thanks to the exceptional luxury of a sabbatical) much more to come.  I’ve started out by trying to catch up on some of the political books I’ve missed recently — and I’ll probably have some thoughts to share about Christopher Hayes’ Twilight of the Elites before long.  I just finished Michael Sandel’s What Money Can’t Buy too, though I found it perfectly interesting, but less compelling than Hayes’ book for a number f reasons.  Still that’s a philosopher’s take on the same problem explored in the book that prompts this post, Virginia Sweet’s God’s Hotel.  

Sweet’s work is a memoir of her doubled journey as a doctor at the last surviving American big city alms house, San Francisco’s Laguna Honda Hospital, and as a scholar trying to understand Hildegard von Bingen’s spiritual and practical approach to her form of medicine.  Sweet’s book has been enthusiastically received, and I can see why, though it didn’t move me in quite the same way it seems to have for some others.  It’s Sweet’s lack of struggle that gets me, I guess; there’s no doubt in my mind she did sweat and suffer over her 20 years caring for the poor, but in recollection the life  unfolds with an easy rhythm, no matter how tumultuous the world around her might be.

That said, though, the core message of the book is that there is a profound difference between health care and medicine, and that we ignore the virtues of the art and practice of medicine at our great cost.  As one of  her reviewers notes, this is a subversive thought:  Medicine is a craft, performed one-on-one, slowly…

…while health care is a commodity, something that can be abstracted and, in a sense, mass-produced:

Sweet doesn’t romanticize much, and she never suggests that she, her patients or anyone should trade modern medicine and its quantifying tools for Hildegard’s actual practice.  But she makes the point a good historian of ideas should: one studies the past not to recreate it, but to understand what its thoughts meant to its thinkers — and then what meaning those same insights may have in the radically different time and place in which the historian lives.  Use Hildegard as a tool to probe what the consequences may be if we commit ourselves to life within Mitt Romney’s vision of America.

In that frame, here’s just a brief passage, in which Sweet describes her even-tempered reaction to the consequences of an infestation of her hospital by the kind of consultants that Romney’s parent firm Bain produces:

Above all, the [consultants’] report said, they’d been amazed by the anachronistic presence of a head nurse on every one of the hospital’s thirty-eight wards.  As far as they could tell, this head nurse did nothing but sit most of the day in  her chair in the nursing station.  She answered the phone, to be sure, and kept the charts tidy; now and again she when out and inspected a patient with one of her nurses.  Also, she made coffee, kept the TV room and lounge neat, organized patients’ birthed parties and in general, did whatever needed to be done. It was a pleasant job [the consultants] observed, helpful, no doubt, but one hundred years after Frederic Taylor’s description of scientific management, and in a time of tightening health-care budgets, such a use of a skilled RN was excessive.  They’d even seen one head  nurse whose only task was knitting.  That’s right, a head nurse who, as far as they could tell, spent all day in her chair at the head of her ward, doing nothing but knitting blankets and booties for her patients.

So their main recommendation was to change the nursing structure at Laguna Honda.  The job of head nurse should be eliminated.  Instead, a new nose manager position should be created, where each nurse manager would be responsible for two wards instead of one.  She would no longer answer the phones, tidy the charts, or help out with patient care.  Rather she would manage the staff…

It was a lesson in the inefficiency of efficiency.  And the best way to explain is to tell you about the head nurse who knit….[hers] was a little-old-lady-ward, with thirty-six little old ladies — white-haired, tiny and old — and sure enough almost everyone one was wrapped in or had on her bed a hand-knit blanket; white and green, white and red, white and yellow.  And there was the head nurse sitting in her chair at the nursing station, answering the phone, fussing with the charts, observing her charges, and knitting one of the few blankets remaining to be done.

I’ve thought a lot about those blankets since the disappearance of the head nurses and their well – run neighborhoods of wards.  About what the blankets meant and what they signified.  And here’s the thing: The blankets made me sit up and take notice.  Made me pay attention. Marked out that head nurse as especially attentive, especially present, especially caring.  It put me and everyone else on notice.

It’s not that the ladies for whom they were knitted appreciated them or even noticed them. Who did notice was — everyone else. Visiting family noticed.  Looking down the center aisle, they saw two rows of little white-haired ladies — their mothers, great-aunts, and sisters — each lady bundled up in a bright, many-colored hand -knit blanket. They also saw that each had makeup on, and her hair done and her nails polished by the nurses who knew that, down at the end of the ward, was the head nurse, knitting. The Russian ambulance drivers noticed, when they rushed onto the ward to pick up one of the ladies…Even the doctors noticed.  The blankets put us all on notice that this was a head nurse who cared.

…those blankets signified even more than attention and caring. The click of that head nurse’s knitting needles was the meditative click of — nothing more to be done.  Although it had seemed to [the consultants] that the head nurse  did nothing except knit, that nothing was, as the Tao says, what the Superior Man does when everything that was supposed to be done has been done.

We did get used to the new system eventually.  The remaining staff learned to answer the phones, tidy the charts, talk to families, help the doctors, survey the ward and support one another at the same tim they were looking on the computer or filling out the forms that the new nurse managers created.  But the new system had a cost.  It was stressful. After the head nurses were cut in half, there were more illnesses and more sick days among the staff; there were more injuries more disabilities, and earlier retirements. Among the patients there war emore falls, more bedsores, more fights, and more tears.  And this, in the broader scheme of things — even economics — is not efficient.

…The [consultants’] report  taught me not only the lesson of the inefficiency of efficiency.  It also taught me the lesson of the efficiency of inefficiency.

Because it wasn’t just the tasks of the head nurse that fell by the wayside with [the] recommendations. It wasn’t even their watchful re-creation of neighborhoods within the village of the hospital.  It was the time they had, the unassigned time, that not only belonged to them but spread itself to all the staff — doctors included. That unassigned time, as inefficient as it seemed to be… turned out to be one of the secret ingredients of Laguna Honda.  With the elimination of the head nurses, so economical on paper, some of that extra time was also eliminated, and with it, some of the mental space to focus and care.  There was, I discovered, a connection between inefficiency and good care…

I don’t want to romanticize here, any more than Sweet does through her long narrative.  To channel my inner Freud, sometimes the old ways of doing stuff really are outmoded.  No one who has recently spent four years in academic administration needs to be reminded of that.

But Sweet’s point is one I’ve been thinking of more and more as each Bain vulture capitalism story makes its way in and out of the Look! Shiny! media narrative.  Sweet mentions that the consultants who got rid of half of the head nurses shifted $2 million in the budget.  They collected $200,000 for their recommendation — an agreed 10% bounty on all “savings” their study produced. They correctly determined an individual inefficiency, and missed, in Sweet’s account, the systemic advantages of what seemed to their analytical framework, their faith, to be an obviously flawed system.

And so it goes throughout the current GOP worldview.  We know that the private sector is the GOP solution to (putative) problems in the public schools [paywall] by selecting the right measurement criteria.  Bobby Jindal can determine the cost of libraries, but not the cost in money or possibility of their loss. The number wins; the uncertain future weighs for nought.  The usual catchphrase for all this is privatizing profit and socializing risk — which is what the GOP seeks for social capital as much as the financial kind.  Hence the stakes of this coming election.

But beyond that pretty familiar notion, what came to front-of-mind as I read Sweet’s story was the reminder, if any were needed that the basic worldview of the two sides in this election are not the same, for all the overlap of interest and elite corruption and all that the circular firing squads of the left can (sometimes accurately) describe. I said this was meta, and it is, and I should probably let y’all get back to your Saturdays.  But behind the consultant’s technical apparatus is a vision of a world of individual action and reaction. Cut here, save the money, Profit!

Taken to the level of politics and national elections, it’s a vision (sic!) of a country best understood as an assemblage of 300 million individuals. Hence, among the adherents of this view, the furor over the suggestion that business folk had any help building their businesses.

If you think that such a view of the lack of connection between one person’s endeavor and the next is the way to educate a population, receive health care in a timely and useful fashion, to innovate, then the GOP is for you.  If you think we live in society in which individuals  gain freedom of opportunity and access to experience supported by the links between the lives of all those 300 million — if you inhabit reality, that is — then we need to destroy the current GOP root and branch, now and for the forseeable future.

Put another way:  we need to recall that I didn’t build this blog…without the internet, without its readers, without…you get the idea. 😉

And that’s enough meandering.  I’ve just finished my next, post-Sweet book in this orgy of reading, Elaine Pagels, Revelations. Interesting, culminating in a very good explanation of what from my perspective I read as the reason Isaac Newton so excoriated what he saw as the theft of Christ’s church by Athanasius, his imperial patrons and his allies.  Not sure what to grab next.  No matter.  What a joy it is to read and read and read…

Images: Jan Steen, The Sick Woman, ​ before 1679.

Max Liebermann, The Canning Factory, ​1879.

 

For A Good Time On The InterTubes (Self Aggrandizement Alert)

May 6, 2012

Most of you probably know that I published a book (my fourth!) a couple of years ago:  Newton and the Counterfeiter. (Kindle, Nook, Indiebound, Powell’s multiplatform ebook and Powell’s, Barnes and Noble, Amazon, Amazon UK, audio version, Your Local Book Store)

As you all also know, two or three years is a lifetime in book  years, so I’ve been doing almost no talking or promotion on that project for a while.

That changes in a few hours, when I’ll spend an hour on Skeptically Speaking with Marie-Claire Shanahan talking Newton, crime, the birth of the modern idea of money, and wherever else the conversation wanders.  The show starts at 8 p.m. EDT, 6 p.m. MDT, and will go up as a podcast next Friday.  Listen here, and or subscribe via iTunes.

It probably isn’t too much of a spoiler to say that it wasn’t the brightest move of even a genuinely clever criminal to try to match wits with my man Izzy. Just sayin….

Image:  William Blake,Isaac Newton1775.

 

Self Agrandizement Alert, Newton and the Counterfeiter, unexpected praise, (Karl Rove…yes, that Karl Rove edition)

March 20, 2010

I have to admit, I did  not see this coming.  Or rather, I did, but only because Karl Rove…that Karl R., the former senior advisor and deputy chief of staff to President George W. Bush, showed me the notable courtesy of sending me a personal note to tell me how much he liked Newton and the Counterfeiter. (AmazonPowellsBarnes and NobleIndiebound and  across the pond at Amazon.co.ukWaterstonesBlackwellsBorders, and John Smith & Son — not to mention electronically at Amazon’s Kindle store, and in audiobook form at Audible.com).

I’m not going to repeat the nice things Mr. Rove said in his brief note — when in this age so profligate of bytes someone takes the trouble to send a physical object, on which a human hand has inscribes some private words, it seems right to keep those sentiments private.  But obviously, it’s wonderful to get kind thoughts from readers under any circumstances. Writing is such a solitary act, and the connection between writer and reader so abstract, so distant, most of the time, that when someone does take the trouble to let you know that you’ve connected with another mind, it’s just great. (Keep those cards and letters coming, folks!)

And it’s even better when a reader with unquestioned broader influence chooses to do the unexpected kindness of announcing his or her pleasure in a public way.  So of course, my thanks to Mr. Rove for his positive mention of my story of Newton and his pursuit of criminals amidst economic chaos and opportunity on his website.

But we all know that I’m just dodging around the point here.

Karl Rove?  Karl Rove!

Readers of this blog know that there is not much, probably not anything of consequence on which the two of us would agree.

Until now.

You see:, it turns out, we do come together on at least one issue:  we share his expressed hope for good book sales.  See:  bipartisanship is possible!

Image:  Edouard Manet, “The Reader” 1861.

On Memory, Memoir, and Rebecca Skloot’s journey with and to Henrietta Lacks

February 9, 2010

It’s harder than I thought it would be to weigh in with a blog-review of Rebecca Skloot’s new book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.

It’s not that I don’t like the book – it’s wonderful, and I highly recommend you all go read it.

It’s not that I don’t have some thoughts about the work.  It offers plenty of grist for engagement, from its compelling story to some formal considerations in the writing, to the practical lesson Rebecca is giving us all on what it takes to promote a book in this late-stage of the traditional approaches to publishing.

It’s not that there isn’t a wealth of material to talk about.  Rebecca has written a compelling story, a genuine page turner, populated with characters – people – whom you come to care about deeply, that is at the same time an important inquiry into issues of race, class, personal autonomy and the claims of authority in America.

It’s just that all of this has been said already.  I agree with the assessments of the host of reviewers and bloggers who have already weighed in on the book:  it’s a great achievement, it’s a compelling read, and it is at once emotionally moving and intellectually demanding, which is my idea of a fine, fine book.

So what to add?

Well, I’ve got one thing to say more from my perspective as a writer who also teaches writing than as a straight reviewer/critic.  At least one of Rebecca’s choices of technique in this book was hard won, complicated, and very  important to the ultimate power of the work.

That is:  a number of people have noted what they see as the use of some of the story telling tools from fiction in the tale – and that’s certainly fair.  Her telling of scenes from the story of Henrietta Lacks herself with a novel’s third person, seemingly omniscient narrator is a case in point.

But to me the dominant source-genre for the book is not fiction but that very tricky approach to non-fiction that falls under the umbrella of memoir.

I heard Rebecca tell Terri Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air that she resisted inserting herself into the story until it became inevitable, until her odyssey with the Lacks family became so intimately intertwined with what she thought her formal narrative to be that she had to emerge as a character in her own book.

That decision shapes the entire work, much for the better I think.  We enter the tale with her 16 year old self, a not-entirely successful high school student, catching a stray remark in a biology class about an important line of cells, and their source, Henrietta Lacks, of whom the instructor said, as an aside, “she was a black woman.”

With that we’re off, and we are able to understand the entire work that follows as a journey undertaken by a maturing Rebecca to come to grips with that sudden, strange, and almost comically opaque revelation.

That journey is not undertaken by an omniscient narrator, for all that the device shows up here and there; we don’t have a Virgil on this sometimes infernal journey.

Rather, we have Rebecca herself, a changing person and voice, someone with accumulating, always incomplete knowledge.  Most important for the power of the book, Rebecca is implicated in the tale:  each discovery she makes has both an explanatory signficance and an emotional one, for her. And hence for us, once we’ve invested our concern in the teller of the tale.

By the way, in this I don’t mean that Rebecca comes to dominate the story.  Henrietta herself, and even more, Henrietta’s daughter, Deborah, are the emotional centers of the story. But that’s how memoirs work.  They are not simply, or even mostly (in the best ones) about the author; rather, they provide a bridge through the author to sympathy with the people and experiences encountered on a life’s journey.  A keen memoirist uses what she or he knows to be a subjective view to create a connection between the reader and both what and the way she or he sees the world.

That’s what makes the most controversial scene in Rebecca’s book so valuable, narratively.  At one point, in the midst of Henrietta’s family, Rebecca experiences a kind of exorcism.  She’s a rationalist, a science writer, for heaven’s sake.  And yet this experience is real, felt and…as written, present for the reader.

All of which is to say, that memoir isn’t just a “what I did today” account of a life:  it is a conscious and complicated narrative stance, which, when wielded by a writer of skill and sensitivity constructs a world fo feeling out of an account of fact – or what seemed like fact as lived.  Doing it well is really hard – and having done so is one reason that Rebecca produced a book that works so well.

Image: Ary Scheffer, “Dante and Virgil encounter the ghosts of Paulo and Francesca” 1854.

Diary of a Trade Book (Newton and the Counterfeiter) no number quick update on blogs and books…

January 16, 2010

…which is the topic of tomorrows session at Science Online 2010, led by Rebecca Skloot, Brian Switek and your humble (sure about that?–ed.) blogger.

In the haste of getting to the hotel and then getting together with Rebecca and Brian to figure out what we really are going to talk about tomorrow, I haven’t found the time to write in detail what I had wanted to talk about today:  some thoughts on what the blogs can do — or even whether they should — to step into the void left by the collapse of the American book journalism at the mass media level.

So here’s a truncated version, which I will try to develop later with whatever insights come out of our conversatons tomorrow.

First:  there are tons of books being published — I’ve seen numbers in excess of 200,000 per year in the US.  I expect that number to both rise and fall in coming years:  rise through the opportunities to self publish that exist now in ways that no vanity publisher of an era gone by could have ever imagined; and fall in the category of books published by institutions attempting to reach large audiences through some kind of worked out distribution and publicity channels — “real” publishing as we’ve known it for a couple of centuries, at least.

Second:  whatever the precise balance between non-traditional and old fashioned publishing will turn out to be, the idea of national or broad conversations centered on books is mostly gone.  There are basically three remaining MSM outlets that can drive a book that does not already have its own media platform (Sarah Palin’s memoir, which was an industrial operation, not a literary one, for an obvious recent example).

Those three, in my guess as to order of importance, are The New York Times Sunday Book Review; NPR (which is not a unitary operation, of course) and, a rather distant third, The New Yorker. Some might through the NY Review of Books in there — and it is true that though its circulation is small, it is influential. Other radio and certain TV outlets are important as well, but these are the outlets that still make a claim to provide real literary journalism — to treat books as cultural events to be covered as news.*

(It’s different in the UK, where there is still a considerable literary news hole; but the mother country (literally, in my case is  have a different problem — an exceptionally rapid decline in their high street retail book trade.  But that’s for another post.)

This is not how it used to be.  Earlier in my career, even though I’ve never gotten much of a rise out of the Times, major newspapers around the country actually had reviewers, and devoted some real space to them, and I found I could hope for significant public discussion of my work in the LA Times, in the Chicago Papers, in the Washington Post…a bunch of places.

Now many of those places have stopped reviewing, picking up the AP review if there is one, or simply not bothering.  Meanwhile the Times has cut its reviewing hole, and now maybe checks out, in brief notices included, something between 1,000 and 2,000 books a year.  And there’s a vicious circle there too: book reviewing space in the NYT and in any other newspaper tracks advertising dollars spent to support such space.  As publishers consolidate and find their profit margins shrinking, they spend less on such ads.  As they do so, the book review hole declines…and the opportunity to sell more product goes with it…

and you know that tune.

So here’s the problem:  blogs and web attempts to create communities of writers, readers, and critics are popping up all the time.  They are important. They work — my post of a piece on Scalzi’s Whatever blog, as part of his Big Idea series drove Amazon sales and other blog interest.

But it’s a really big blog that gets 10,000 hits a day.  Only a small handful can hope to get 100,000.  A decent newspaper in a moderate metro area used to do that every day — in quite recent memory.

And of course, mere numbers only tell a part of the story.  Consider, for example the audience partitioning that goes on in the web is another impediment to permitting a book to find that part of its audience that doesn’t know yet that they might be interested in, say, a story about a scientist-cop whose detective career illuminates the birth of the modern idea of money. (If that describes you, here is the inevitable plug: you can find it at  AmazonPowellsBarnes and NobleIndiebound and  across the pond at Amazon.co.ukWaterstonesBlackwellsBorders, and John Smith & Son — not to mention electronically Amazon’s Kindle store.)

So the thought to consider, in all this doom and gloom, is what, if anything, can be done to make up for the gap left by the MSM abandonment of serious books as an essential beat in cultural journalism.

I have some ideas — as do my co-presenters…all to be discussed, I hope, in tomorrow’s session. From thence, to more bloggy meanderings.

*There is one type of venue that is new and that can do enormous good for a book: the non-book oriented avidly followed TV show.  The gold standard now for book publicity is a gig on The Daily Show, or Colbert, or — and happy indeed are the happy few who achieve this for non-fiction trade book — Oprah.  But we are talking a few dozen books at most in any given year, single digits of which would be science or history-of-science works.  So for purposes of this discussion, hope for the best, and prepare for an acceptable alternative.

Image:  Norman Rockwell, “Fact and Fiction,” 1917