Wednesday, September 24, 2008

A sublime confection

For the past couple of weeks I've been listening on and off to an audio novel titled The Book of Air and Shadows by one Michael Gruber, who I’ve never heard of before although I find he has five recently published novels on Amazon. He must have achieved significant success with one and then had publishers eager to bring out his former efforts.

I’m only about halfway through Air and Shadows; yet he has already managed to include a bookie, an intellectual property lawyer, the Russian mob, Shakespeare scholars, a document ciphered in the 16th century, a discussion of world class weightlifting, a Palestinian driver who formerly served as one of Yassir Arafat’s bodyguards, a detailed discussion of bookbinding, a pistol formerly owned by a decorated member of the SS and a world class model. What a sublime confection. When I have such an audio book in the car I yearn for the days of long commutes.

In enumerating the list above I’m only scratching the surface of the complexity; yet he makes it delightfully readable, or rather listenable. I have to be careful of that distinction because on more than one occasion I've found novels that enrapture me in audio to later bore me on the printed page - and not because I’ve read them as my second go around, already knowing the plot. I often reread novels, yet I only rarely find my first judgment faulty on second or third reading. The very best novels, in fact, become like old friends, improving with the rereading at different stages of life. In that class I can name, off the top of my head: Tai-Pan, Hawaii, The Godfather, The Mote in God's Eye, The Winds of War, War and Remembrance, Shogun, Stranger in a Strange Land, Shibumi, A Soldier of the Great War, Kim. . . I'd better stop; the list could go on for a long time.

Lest you think me a total time wastrel I should point out that I took a one credit hour speed reading course way back when at Illinois Tech. I came out of that course barely able to sustain eleven hundred words per minute, almost a page of easy material at a glance; although a headache would stop me after about a half hour. So, when I say I read something, I might mean I savored it at a couple of hundred words per minute, and I might mean I slammed through it at six or seven hundred words per minute. There was a time when I could slam through an interesting novel of a certain sort at almost a thousand words per minute without the headache.

Here's a cheery thought for you young folks - the performance of one's central processing unit, among other things, does not improve with age; and furthermore, as a general rule, what does not improve over time degrades over time. I used to see more than a dozen stars in The Great Square of Pegasus - now I see two. That is not all the result of light pollution.

The physicist Richard Feynman did a long running study of his own central processing unit by regularly doing certain mental calculations and recording the time and accuracy in his notebook. If you find his writeup of that study it will not improve your mood. There's another great book - What Do You Care What Other People Think - and another - Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman. Not for nothing did Freeman Dyson once refer to him as "all genius, all buffoon" - what a character. I once believed that I had attained a glimmer of understanding of why his seemingly simple little idea of Feynman Diagrams was worthy of a Nobel Prize in physics but I gave up on thinking I understood that kind of stuff a long time ago.

Another related story, Albert Einstein once wrote a simple little book in plain language about general relativity. I can't remember the title; but I remember foolishly thinking I understood what he was saying - this was back when I foolishly thought I grasped the Lorentz Transformations because I could ponderously follow the equations when they were laid out in front of me. Later I read that Niels Bohr, I think, once said that there were perhaps a dozen people in the world capable of fully understanding the implications of Einstein's simple little book. Taking Bohr as speaking figuratively, I knew one of those "dozen" once, and had a bit of a chance to appreciate the workings of her mind - in fact that has a lot to do with why I'm a words schlub rather than a science schlub; but I see that I have digressed a bit - that's a story for another day.

Anyway, I’ll definitely find The Book of Air and Shadows as a print book after I finish the audio. I hope it doesn’t disappoint.

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