I love books as much and maybe more than I love food, even. After a dry spell earlier this year, I’ve had a fiercely wonderful last few months in reading. Every new book seems to interlock with and comment upon and deepen my understanding of the one that went before. I think it started with Throwim Way Leg by the wonderful Tim Flannery. (Links to the books down there on the right.) I’d tried to read it years ago but never got stuck in. This time it swept me away, most memorably to the murder of two children by Rio Tinto security guards, an incident for which Flannery clearly hasn’t forgiven himself.
From there it was a short step to Jared Diamond’s The Third Chimpanzee, because Flannery and Diamond share a passion for the fabulous strangeness of the Papua New Guinean highlands. I also read Flannery’s The Eternal Frontier and Robert Sapolsky’s heartbreaking A Primate’s Memoir. Thanks to all of these, and they’re all great, I started thinking pretty hard about people as animals, and about the instinctive roots of much of our behavior.
Evolutionary biology revived my interests in feminism and psychology, hence Adrienne Rich’s Of Woman Born and DW Winnicott’s Home is Where We Start From. Rich is great on anger, and Winnicott has some reassuring words on being a good enough mother – your faults, after all, are what prompts your child to grow up and get over it. But I’m much more interested in science and history than theory these days – I’ve become that thirtysomething that used to annoy the piss out of me by saying “Fiction just doesn’t grab me any more” – so I drifted back to A Peace to End All Peace.
Though it took me weeks and weeks to get through it (I took holidays in Mating and in Thackeray’s Vanity Fair), I have to say it’s one of the best and most illuminating books I think I’ve ever read. I look at maps of the Middle East with new eyes, and you can’t ask fairer than that. I also learned a great deal about TE Lawrence and – much more interestingly – Winston Churchill, so that puts Seven Pillars and The Second World War on my list of things to get to.
Most recently, I plowed through the first volume of Janet Browne’s Darwin, which she jokes she should have called Darwin: Another Biography. She’s way too modest, because it’s just wonderful, like reading Jane Austen or Patrick O’Brian. Browne pulls off the astounding trick of making Darwin’s intellectual life absolutely gripping. You get to watch him look at the world and think about what he sees and wrestle with the awful consequences – to himself and to the people he loves – of telling the truth. Honestly, I can’t praise it highly enough.
How unbelievably lucky, then, that the very next thing I picked up is just as good, in its way. It’s Oliver Sacks’ memoir, Uncle Tungsten, and it describes a boyhood strikingly similar to Darwin’s, though a hundred and ten or twenty years later. Both were solemn little doctor’s sons, privileged, much loved, but exposed to loss and horror far too young. Both sought refuge in chemistry labs. Sacks is tremendous on the history of chemistry, and his book reminds me of the two great classics of the genre, Atkins’ Periodic Kingdom and Levi’s Periodic Table. It’s that vivid, that perceptive.
Nelson Denoon, the hero of Mating, comments somewhere that when your life is proceeding according to plan, happy coincidences and serendipity confirm the choices you are making. Sacks mentions that it was his aunt Alida who worked for Chaim Weitzman and translated the Balfour Declaration; as this is a key document for A Peace to End All Peace, I choose to take this as proof that I’m on the right track intellectually.
Still to come: the second volume of Browne’s Darwin; Jenny Uglow’s The Lunar Men, about Darwin’s grandfather Erasmus Darwin, Thomas Wedgwood, James Watt and others; Seven Pillars and The Second World War, as I mentioned, and I think I’ll have another crack at Lawrence and the Arabs now that I have more context for it. And The Voyage of the Beagle and On the Origin of Species, since I really have no excuse for not reading primary sources. And some more Dawkins, who I’ve never done justice to. (Speaking of Dawkins, there was a great piece in the New Yorker about his bete noir, Stephen Jay Gould, and the influence on him – for good and bad – of Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. I wonder idly whether Stephen Wolfram has read any Kuhn?)
That ought to keep me busy, at least for a month or two.
(I haven’t even mentioned Copenhagen, Arcadia and Hydrotaphia. I love plays but if a 500-page biography is too short for me, and it is, a two-hour play is barely one bath’s worth of reading. Anyway I think Michael Frayn is most interesting for being married to Jane Austen’s best biographer, Claire Tomalin, who has a very beautiful name.)
One thing I envied both Sacks and Darwin was their apparently-unconscious ability to take their intellectual lives very seriously, by documenting their reading, for example. Hence, in a way, this entry. Two or three years ago I was examining with great optimism several newish, post-surplus social organizations that seemed to me to offer hope for the future. Those convictions haven’t faded, exactly, but they’ve been tested pretty hard. I’ve been forced to face up to the continuing presence of scarcity, both real and artificial, and to its human consequences. Ursula Le Guin says somewhere that good fiction is a set of provisional answers to the question How are we going to live? I’m more worried about this now than ever, and my provisional answer, my Charlie Ravioli, is somewhere in these books, this history, these birds, this botanical garden, this collection of shells and stones.
(As I write this, the Blue Angels are flying directly over my head, practising for Fleet Week. I used to love their perfect lines, the roar of their jets rattling the windows. Now they sound like the Four Horsemen of the military-industrial-entertainment complex, and I have Laurie Anderson’s sad O Superman lodged in my head. “They’re American planes, made in America… so hold me now, in your long arms, your petrochemical arms, your military arms.” How are we going to live through this horrible, inevitable war? How are we going to live with each other? How are we going to live?)