Most coffee table books just give you pretty pictures to look at. Powers of Ten, or to cite its full title, Powers of ten : a book about the relative size of things in the universe and the effect of adding another zero, takes you on a journey. You zoom in from the scale of the known universe until you can recognize humans laying on a blanket, and then you zoom in some more until you’re looking at quarks (artist’s rendition, of course).
I’ve begun reading Carl Hiaasen’s Scat, another YA novel. What can I say? I enjoy them. And I’m having fun reading this one out loud. As usual, the plot seems to involve real-estate developers, murder, and assorted mayhem. But since I’m only through the first four chapters, I couldn’t be sure. Nah, who am I kidding? I’m sure.
I’ve most recently finished I’d Tell You I Love You, But Then I’d Have to Kill You by Ally Carter. I got what I was looking for, which was a fun YA novel about spies who are still in high school, and I’ll probably continue reading the series. I’m not going to tell you anything about the plot, though. I’ll leave the fun to you! (Plus, I don’t want to have to kill you.)
Poetry usually gets filed in nonfiction, but I think that’s the sort of counterintuitive, cargo-cult nonsense libraries ought to curtail.
Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass is one of my very favorite works of creative writing. If someday you’re reading this because you’re planning my funeral, first of all, I’m as sorry for your loss as modesty will allow, and secondly, please read this out loud:
A child said, What is the grass? fetching it to me with full
How could I answer the child?. . . .I do not know what it
is any more than he.
I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful
green stuff woven.
Or I guess it is the handkerchief of the Lord,
A scented gift and remembrancer designedly dropped,
Bearing the owner's name someway in the corners, that we
may see and remark, and say Whose?
Or I guess the grass is itself a child. . . .the produced babe
of the vegetation.
Or I guess it is a uniform hieroglyphic,
And it means, Sprouting alike in broad zones and narrow
Growing among black folks as among white,
Kanuck, Tuckahoe, Congressman, Cuff, I give them the
same, I receive them the same.
And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves.
Tenderly will I use you curling grass,
It may be you transpire from the breasts of young men,
It may be if I had known them I would have loved them;
It may be you are from old people and from women, and
from offspring taken soon out of their mother's laps,
And here you are the mother's laps.
This grass is very dark to be from the white heads of old
Darker than the colorless beards of old men,
Dark to come from under the faint red roofs of mouths.
O I perceive after all so many uttering tongues!
And I perceive they do not come from the roofs of mouths
I wish I could translate the hints about the dead young men
And the hints about old men and mothers, and the offspring
taken soon out of their laps.
What do you think has become of the young and old men?
What do you think has become of the women and
They are alive and well somewhere;
The smallest sprouts show there is really no death,
And if ever there was it led forward life, and does not wait
at the end to arrest it,
And ceased the moment life appeared.
All goes onward and outward. . . .and nothing collapses,
And to die is different from what any one supposed, and
Had more people taken to heart the message of Ain’t Nobody’s Business if You Do: The Absurdity of Consensual Crimes in Our Free Country, its author, Peter McWilliams, would have suffered less in his last years.
The idea is pretty simple: The only thing that should be punished as a crime is that which violates the person or property of another who does not consent. Anything else might be something you’d find outrageous, abominable, or disgusting, but it shouldn’t be punished by criminal law.
Getting paid to use your body to operate machinery isn’t a crime; getting paid to use your body to give someone sexual pleasure shouldn’t be a crime.
Smoking tobacco isn’t a crime; smoking pot shouldn’t be a crime.
Agreeing when your grandfather asks you to help him put on a shirt isn’t a crime; agreeing when your grandfather asks you to help him end his life shouldn’t be a crime.
Peter McWilliams used marijuana to avoid vomiting as a side effect of treatment for cancer and AIDS. Then he was arrested, and the judge forbade him to explain to a jury that he was using marijuana because of his illness. So he entered a plea of guilty and asked for mercy. He was released from jail until he could be sentenced, on the condition that he submit to weekly tests proving that he was not using marijuana.
So he tried Marinol, which worked about one time out of three, but since his mother had put up her house as security for his bond, he stuck with Marinol because “the federal prosecutor personally called my mother to tell her that if I was found with even a trace of medical marijuana, her house would be taken away”. And when Marinol didn’t work, the other two times out of three, he vomited.
Peter McWilliams was found dead, apparently having choked on his vomit, before he could be sentenced to federal prison for using pot to treat nausea and vomiting.
Julius Caesar’s De bello gallico (his commentaries “on the Gallic war”) is the first book I ever read in another language, which makes it one of my favorites from school.
But here’s what cinched the top spot: I still remember the delight I felt when I recognized an idiom that survives over 2,000 years later, through several intermediate languages:
Eā rē impetrātā sēsē omnēs flentēs Cæsarī ad pedēs prōiēcērunt
or, in English: This having been achieved [Eā rē impetrātā], everyone threw themselves [sēsē omnēs prōiēcērunt], weeping [flentēs], at Caesar’s feet [Cæsarī ad pedēs].
That shock of recognition — they threw themselves at his feet in a plea for mercy! — remains one of my favorite memories of reading in school.
The book itself is somewhat boring, but the act of reading it was greatly enjoyable. Does that make sense?
As always, the link goes to WorldCat so you can find a copy near you. I didn’t read the Loeb edition because my assignment was to translate it, but I recommend the Loeb Classical Library in general, because it has the original text (here, Latin) printed side-by-side with English. The image above is not the Loeb edition.
Most of my favorite scenes are the “big reveal” of the book or series, in which we learn dramatically what’s really been going on. This scene is no exception, so if you don’t want Harry Potter spoilers, see you tomorrow.
"You have kept him alive so that he can die at the right moment?"
"Don’t be shocked, Severus. How many men and women have you watched die?"
"Lately, only those whom I could not save," said Snape. He stood up. "You have used me."
"I have spied for you and lied for you, put myself in mortal danger for you. Everything was supposed to be to keep Lily Potter’s son safe. Now you tell me you have been raising him like a pig for slaughter—"
"But this is touching, Severus," said Dumbledore seriously. "Have you grown to care for the boy, after all?"
"For him?" shouted Snape. "Expecto Patronum!”
From the tip of his wand burst the silver doe. She landed on the office floor, bounded once across the office, and soared out of the window. Dumbledore watched her fly away, and as her silvery glow faded he turned back to Snape, and his eyes were full of tears.
Day 23: Book you tell people you’ve read, but haven’t (or haven’t actually finished)
That was when I saw the Pendulum. The sphere, hanging from a long wire set into the ceiling of the choir, swayed back and forth with isochronal majesty. I knew — but anyone could have sensed it in the magic of that serene breathing — that the period was governed by the square root of the length of the wire and by pi, that number which however irrational to sublunar minds, through a higher rationality binds the circumference and diameter of all possible circles. The time it took the sphere to swing from end to end was determined by an arcane conspiracy between the most timeless of measures: the singularity of the point of suspension, the duality of the plane’s dimensions, the triadic beginning of pi, the secret quadratic nature of the root, and the unnumbered perfection of the circle itself.
Foucault’s Pendulum is a mystery, of sorts, by Umberto Eco. And even though I’ve skimmed it without trying to grasp all the plot, and have tried to read all the way through, and find the Abulafia password gambit deliciously clever, I haven’t even come close to reading it entirely.
You see, every chapter begins with an epigram, and not all of them are in English. There are some in Greek, some in Hebrew, some in languages I actually have a chance of partially understanding without a dictionary. And I can’t really comprehend the whole book unless I know at least how those epigrams would conventionally be translated. There’s probably a website out there somewhere offering translations, but websites weren’t a big thing when I first read it in the early 1990s.
I can’t say much about the book itself, having not yet read it, but my motivation for reading it is part deplorably voyeuristic (perhaps I’ll feel a fraction of the endorphin rush from a gory scene without exposing myself to the risk and loss), and part genuine interest in understanding the experiences of those who, deliberately or otherwise, have been in a situation where they were expected to be willing if called upon to become a killer. Warfighters are among my friends (though I’m not sure I know anyone who’s been on the front lines) and I have pretty much no basis for understanding this stuff. I’m hoping to gain a bit of understanding.
Instead, let me tell you about Alvin’s Secret Code, the book by Clifford B. Hicks that introduced me to the craft of analyzing the world around me to see the sense behind the sound and fury. “SERIOUS MILLY HIDING THURSDAY. START SECRETS. IVAN HIDING MESSAGE OAK. REMAIN SILENT.”, said the piece of paper that confounded Alvin. Milly is clearly a spy of some sort!
Alvin’s neighbor, a retired cryptographer, explains that this is likely a way of compressing language into fewer words by using a book of codes so that an entire paragraph about business orders could be sent cheaply by telegram. Armed with the knowledge that businesses use codes to make more money, Alvin analyzes the tags at a television shop and saves his family money by confronting the salesman with his newly discovered knowledge about which models have been sitting around in the showroom for several years.
I learned from Alvin’s Secret Code that many things about the world make a hidden kind of sense to one who has the patience and intellect to put together the pieces. And that’s how I ended up where I am now, as a librarian whose job it is to make sense of a firehose of data and turn it into orderly nuggets of information that people can use to make well-informed decisions.
And I love that Alvin’s mind appears to him to be somewhat independent of his control, just like mine. I, too, have a “Magnificent Brain” that comes up with ideas simultaneously ridiculous and sublime, and entertains me. Here’s a bit from Alvin Fernald, Superweasel:
Alvin Fernald slumped at his desk as Miss Miles droned on. He was amusing himself with a silent mental exercise. His opponent was his own Magnificent Brain. 'Seat four, row two,' Alvin whispered silently to himself.
'Room 201,' responded his Magnificent Brain just as silently.
The whole idea of the game was to describe, in graduated steps, where the players were while playing the game.
'Roosevelt School,' said Alvin.
'Town of Riverton.'
'State of Indiana.'
'North Central States.' Alvin was proud of that one. He'd never thought of it before.
'United States of America.'
'North American Continent.'
'Northern Hemisphere.' Ah! There was another new one, this time scored by the Magnficent Brain.
'Solar System!' shot back the Magnificent Brain, believing it had won the contest.
'UNIVERSE!' Alvin banged his feet on the floor and shouted it aloud.
'Alvin!' The voice came from the general direction of Miss Miles's desk. 'Alvin, please return from outer space by the first available rocketship and help us solve the serious problems we have here on Earth.'
Frankly, the only thing about that scene that isn’t directly lifted from my childhood (printed over ten years before I was born) is that both Alvin and the M.B. overlook steps like ‘Milky Way’, and I wouldn’t have.
[I don’t know how this failed to post on schedule, but I’m posting it now.]