Together in Spirit

An online reading group ('TIS a reading group!) to bring together friends, and friends of friends, who aren't able to be in a conventional reading group due to constraints of time or geography.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

“Emily, have you been reading Bill Bryson again?”

Said John, noticing that I am suddenly full of fascinating facts (the difficulty of anything getting fossilized at all, the whole of Yellowstone being a volcanic crater but only discernible from the air, Marie Curie's COOKbooks still being too dangerous to handle, etc). I invariably finish Bryson's factual books thinking, in vain, “lots to remember”. But reading it with you inspired me to take notes and engage more: thank you!

Bryson has a real instinct for the telling detail, and expresses it deftly. For instance, he describes the “inventive but not terribly plausible explanations” posited for glaciation, such as: “the gouges on rocks could be attributed to passing carts or even the scrape of hobnailed boots.”

He also writes boldly, for eg: “We are astoundingly, sumptuously, radiantly ignorant of life beneath the seas”. I enjoyed such exaggerated language for its humour and accuracy. The book really communicated the extent of our ignorance, set against the extraordinary complexity, mystery and beauty of the world.

I have also found it thought-provoking to be analysing a factual book for a change. What do you all think about the line he's walked between entertainment and education? Between impartiality and persuasion? Using an engaging, accessible style is invaluable (cf. Hutton: “encouraged by his friends to expand his theory, in the touching hope that he might somehow stumble into clarity in a more expansive format” - how MANY pieces of writing have I encountered which do that! But Hutton had a Bryson-like Playfair: “who could not only write silken prose but... actually understood what Hutton was trying to say, most of the time.”). I do like Bryson's wit. Could the book have worked without it?

Another tactic I noticed was that Bryson only gives his side of the story. It's a little odd to read a book of this length which emphasises that life here is virtually impossible and we can't imagine how it started or how it runs, and yet never mentions that the theory of intelligent design exists. You don't have to agree with the theory to see that it does at least posit a possible answer to an undeniable question. Surely it wouldn't hurt to refer in passing to the alternative theories for some aspects of life on earth.

Bryson nails how the planet operates so very implausibly: “Bohr once commented that a person who wasn't outraged on first hearing about quantum theory didn't understand what had been said” (sounds like Christianity!) and Bryson also appreciates the finely-balanced mechanisms by which the world DOES work when you find out about them, just like the “Geologists, as McPhee has noted, [who] found themselves in the giddying position where the whole earth suddenly made sense”.

I certainly found it easier to retain information because Bryson had clear, re-iterated, distillations for us. (Handy, since I have forgotten most of the detail!) I noticed the injustice, typically: “an important paper, which was almost universally ignored. Sometimes the world just isn't ready for a good idea” . Contrarily, loopy ideas often seem to find: “support especially [among] those whose conclusions were not complicated by actual familiarity with the [subject]”. The general rule does seem to be that the credit goes, if at all possible, to the wrong person, and that there's more money and recognition in oil than in science. There was a lot more human interest than I was expecting. The personalities/ rivalries in science had such an effect, and, despite all the breathtaking intellect and research, so many advances or dead-ends seemed dictated by trivial circumstances. What did you others take away as themes?