A Different Flavor of Science Fiction–The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert

By James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, February 3, 2015

The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert is fiction about the heart of science. Alma Whittaker, the protagonist represents the empirical ideal, while Ambrose Pike stands in for the mystical and metaphysical. The Signature of All Things is another kind of science fiction, a story about scientific thinking, set in the 19th century, the century where the scientist came into being, the century where we turned from reading the word of God to reading all things natural, the century where evolution was revealed as the driving force of creation.

I love The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert so much that I hunger to know how it was written. This book is such a perfect mixture of historical detail, psychological realism and imagined characterization that it becomes deeply philosophical, going well beyond just a great story. I can’t help but believe it’s Gilbert’s personal statement about the nature of reality. I don’t know if Alma Whittaker is Elizabeth Gilbert, but she’s probably the woman Gilbert would want to be if she lived in the 19th century. Don’t let any prejudice about Gilbert’s earlier books keep you from reading this one.

If you love stories of the 19th century, especially ones about natural philosophers becoming scientists, then you should read The Signature of All Things. Gilbert’s sprawling tale covers two lifetimes beginning in the 18th century and ending in the 19th, and includes sea voyages, botany, biology, lithography, Tahiti, Captain Cook, Joseph Banks, Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace. This time around, we get to live an alternate history where there is a woman scientist, Alma Whittaker, who made some very great discoveries on her own. Alma Whittaker is the person you’d want to be if you could reincarnate backwards in time.

If you’ve ever fantasized about living in the 19th century and becoming an amateur scientist yourself, The Signature of All Things is among the more detailed of such fantasies. Science fiction has always looked to the future, but the future hasn’t turned out to be everything it was cracked up to be, so many science fiction fans have turned to fantasy, and many of them love steampunk, a retro look at the Victorian era. This book isn’t steampunk, but it wears the same appealing fashions. I think there are many deep rooted psychological reasons why us futurists have turned to look backwards to Darwin and Dickens. This book is historical, but not quite historical fiction. It has intense sense of wonder, but it’s not science fiction, not in the traditional sense, but it should appeal to the science minded person.

Science fiction itself evolved out of Victorian era sense of wonders, and we grew up believing in lone inventors who could master the magical incantations of science. We love all those butterfly collections, scientific sea voyages and dinosaur hunters.

Orchid lithograph

The Signature of All Things is a love letter to those who embrace the natural world over the metaphysical.

The entire time I read The Signature of All Things I kept wondering how Gilbert imagined her novel. I’d gladly buy The Making of The Signature of All Things if Gilbert would write it. The book is an amazing feat of imagination, research, inspiration and psychology. In one sense it’s a feminist fantasy, and on the other hand, it’s a fantasy for anyone who reveres the 19th century. I got on the Internet hoping to find clues as to how and why Gilbert wrote this novel, and I luckily discovered that Gilbert had a Pinterest page devoted to The Signature of All Things. The financial success of Eat, Pray, Love let Gilbert spend three years researching The Signature of All Things. Few writers get such an opportunity, and her hard work paid off in a big way.

The first fifty pages of the book is about Henry Whittaker, a fascinating character that could have easily overshadowed the main character, his daughter Alma. Alma Whittaker is the ultimate free-range child educated by her stern Dutch mother, Beatrix. Alma was born January 5, 1800, so she ages with the century. Alma grows up on a huge estate outside of Philadelphia, and her father invited the most interesting men in the world to visit. Even as a child, Alma was expected to carry on an adult conversation at the dinner table. She mastered many living and dead languages, read everything in her father’s large library, and taught herself to become a botanist, specializing in mosses.

I can’t begin to chronicle all the ideas in this novel. Gilbert distilled her three years research into five hundred pages of fiction, and on almost every page, I wondered about her choice of detail to reveal. The book is tightly plotted, with an abundance of vivid characters, and the reader travels around the world three times. And it’s not until the end, that everything finally comes together. It’s a very satisfying ending, yet I wanted to know more. I wanted to know how and why Gilbert made her writing decisions.  I found some of the answers I sought in this interview:

Victorian scientists were big on developing classification systems, mapping every scrap of land and sea, inventing coordinate grids and measurement systems, taxonomies, and most of all, collecting. Science in the time of Dickens was small enough in scope, that most intelligent individuals could be well-versed generalists. There is a special kind of appeal to science before relativity and quantum mechanics. A gentleman or gentlewoman with a microscope and telescope could confirm most of what they read, and it was still possible to keep up with the reading in most fields.

Alma Whittaker, is a woman that wants to understand, and through almost endless hardships, becomes enlightened.

JWH

Should We Force Ourselves to Read Great Books Even If We Don’t Like Them?

By James Wallace Harris, Thursday, January 29, 2015

People discipline themselves to eat healthy even though they crave Ben & Jerry’s. People push  themselves to exercise, even though they’d rather keep playing Call of Duty. Should we make ourselves read James Joyce instead of James Patterson? Should we put down Gone Girl and pick up Anna Karenina?

Anna-Karenina

My friend Mike just finished Don Quixote and emailed,

Are books like Ulysses and Gravity’s Rainbow and Infinite Jest really worth the time and effort required to read them? What does the reader get in return? When I finished the final page of Don Quixote, my only feeling was relief that I didn’t have to read another word about Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. All that time invested and my only feeling was relief.

That’s not very good testimony for reading the classics, is it? However, I should point out that Mike has read widely in the classics, and this could be an example that not all classic books work for all people. Evidently he loves Homer and Dickens, but not Cervantes.

But that still brings back the question: Should we read the classics because they are good for us? Even if they bore us? I’m not sure I buy into the Great Books of the Western World theory of education. I think we need to be reading great books, but not necessarily the most famous ones.

For instance, at The Top Ten, a site that tries to identify the best of the best books, the #1 book they identify is Anna Karenina, from 1877. I thought it good enough when I read it a couple years ago, but not great. I much preferred The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope, from 1875, to explore that time period of history. I learned a lot about Russia and the serfs from Anna Karenina, but not as much as I learned about London from Trollope. Maybe my personality is tuned to resonate with Trollope, but not Tolstoy.

Ulysses-Remastered-Book-Cover 

Even great writers on the best of the best lists, can’t agree about what is great literature, here’s a recent quote from Vladimir Nabokov on great books:

I’ve been perplexed and amused by fabricated notions about so-called “great books.” That, for instance, Mann’s asinine Death in Venice, or Pasternak’s melodramatic, vilely written Doctor Zhivago, or Faulkner’s corncobby chronicles can be considered masterpieces, or at least what journalists term “great books,” is to me the same sort of absurd delusion as when a hypnotized person makes love to a chair.

Nabakov’s Lolita is #5 on The Top Ten list, which is based 125 writers each picking their Top Ten books, and assembling a list of which books were on the most lists in a weighted system. 25 of the 125 writers had put Anna Karenina on their list, so who am I to argue with them. But I do. The Greatest Books uses a different system to identify the best books of all time, and 7 of its top ten overlap with the Top Ten list, but Anna Karenina was #16, and Lolita #15. And, The Way We Live Now isn’t on their list at all.

I’m currently struggling through Ulysses by James Joyce. I understand why it’s brilliant. I recently read The Most Dangerous Book Kevin Birmingham, a history of Ulysses, to prepare for listening to Ulysses. I know the struggles Joyce went through to write his masterpiece, the tremendous hurdles to get it published, and all the legal battles over its moral value. Yet, I can’t quite say it’s a fun read. I’m having to make myself absorb Ulysses. I can sense its brilliance, no question, but I can also sense brilliance when a physicist writes arcane mathematics on a blackboard that I can’t comprehend.

the signature of all things

On the other hand, the more I push myself into the fictional world James Joyce created the more I learn about history and literature, and the development of modern thinking that emerged in the 20th century. My trouble with Ulysses is I fail to escape into it. I stopped reading Ulysses to read The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert, a book that captivates me in its recreation of the 19th century. Both books draw me into the past, but one was written by an observer of its time and place, and the other by an author who must imagine the past. You’d think the massive abundance of actually observed details would be more seductive, yet Joyce actually makes it hard for the reader.

I’m not sure if this quote is even close to correct, but I believe Joyce said he’d rather have one reader who read his book a million times than a million readers. I might ask is it better to read a thousand books once, or a hundred books ten times. At what stage in our reading life do we need to read books that require greater effort?

Ultimately, to answer the title question of this essay we must examine why we read. Whether we’re reading fiction or nonfiction, I think we have psychological motivations for spending so many hours staring at black marks on white pages. Doesn’t it really come down to this:

  • Escapism
  • Education
  • Entertainment
  • Enlightenment

Many critics use the word escapism as a criticism, but I think it’s one of the more powerful appeals of reading. Reading is a like a drug, where we turn off our awareness of here and now, and go somewhere else. Even great scholarship is escapist. We love to immerse our minds into novelty, whether fiction or nonfiction, and forget about our mundane reality.

the way we live now

Even if we’re reading a trashy best-seller, we like to think we’re learning something about the world. If I choose to read Fifty Shades of Grey I’d like to think I was actually learning something about why people are into S&M. We don’t read for one of these qualities, but all of them. The best of books allow us to escape into an alternate reality built with words, where we seek pleasure, knowledge and epiphanies.

The reason why I have trouble reading Ulysses is because it doesn’t allow me to escape, and it’s low on the entertainment scale. It is high on the education and enlightenment scales. The Signature of All Things is addictive where Ulysses is not because of its escapist and entertainment values, but also because it is educational, and maybe even enlightening.

This doesn’t mean I’ve giving up on Ulysses. I created a study group to push myself harder with Ulysses, to see if it will pay off. Of course, this equates reading Joyce to mountain climbing. Will I be like Mike, and just be glad I finished when I’m done, that getting through the book is the goal, like getting to the top of a tall mountain? Or will the exercise make my literary mind and body healthier?

I don’t know, but maybe will by the end of June 16th.

JWH

Creating Book Club to Read Ulysses by James Joyce

By James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, January 28, 2015

My friend Mike and I decided to read and discuss Ulysses by James Joyce. We’ve been reading about the book’s various editions, and whether or not new readers should use study guides. Since all of this was getting so interesting, I suggested we create a public group at Yahoogroups, and Mike agreed. Because we want to finish up some other books, and because I thought it would be cool to finish our discussion of Ulysses on Bloomsday (Ulysses takes place June 16, 1904), we decided to start February 17th. The book has eighteen chapters, and we’ll discuss one a week, finishing the last, “Penelope,” the week of 6/16/15. This gives people three weeks to finish up their books, find a copy of Ulysses, and maybe study up on it some.

If you’re interested, you can join here if you have a Yahoo account: https://groups.yahoo.com/neo/groups/ulysses-2015/info . Otherwise, shoot an email to ulysses-2015-owner@yahoogroups.com and I’ll add you manually to the mailing list. Ulysses is one of those books that many people intend to read, but never do. It’s been on my To-Be-Read pile for over forty years. I’ve read Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man three times to get ready, but have never followed through. Recently I read The Most Dangerous Book by Kevin Birmingham, a 2014 book about the history of writing, publishing and legal battles over Ulysses. I figure if Joyce went through that much suffering to write his novel, and so many people were willing to risk jail to publish it in America and England, then maybe I need to make more of an effort.

Ulysses-Gabler edition

Ulysses was an incredibly notorious book in the early part of the 20th century. It was banned in America and Great Britain, and Americans would smuggle copies from Paris. Because it was frequently pirated, and because Joyce constantly changed it, even adding large amounts of new material to the printers’ page proofs, Ulysses has had many editions and corrected editions. Because it was originally set in type by French printers that often did not know English, there were lots of typographical errors. The public domain editions that are now available as free ebooks use those older editions. Mike and I are going to use the Gabler edition, but that’s controversial too. Many are happy with the 1960/61 editions. There is much argument over which edition to read and how to read Ulysses – with or without supplemental guides.

I plan to listen to Ulysses. I have two audio editions, know of a third commercial one, and a fourth free audio edition. I’m going to buy the Gabler print edition because it has line numbers, making referencing easier. I’m also going to get Joyce’s Ulysses, a 24-lecture audiobook from The Great Courses by Professor James A. W. Heffernan. It’s available at Audible.com for $35 or 1 credit, and at iTunes for $30. A detail description of that can be found at The Great Courses site, but it’s too expensive to buy there when it’s not on sale.

One reason to listen to Ulysses is it sounds wonderful. Especially if read by a narrator with an Irish accent.

I usually like to read one large classic literary novel each year, so this year I thought I’d go all out for Ulysses. Ulysses can be daunting to read, because some sections of it feel like gobbledygook. Plus it has the reputation of being very intellectual. Strangely, it’s not intellectual, at least the parts I’ve read so far. It reminds me more of modern observational stand-up comedy. The book is very sexual and bodily, dealing with all kinds of human appetites and passions. Where the book gets into trouble with most modern readers is the stream-of-conscious passages. Joyce wanted to show how our minds work – which is often incoherently, with lots of free associations and unconscious impulses.

The reason to read Ulysses is because it divides classic literature and modern literature, in the same way the inventions of Thomas Edison divides humanity between that of gas light and electric light. Or the way George Carlin and Richard Pryor divides stand-up comedy before the seven deadly words you can’t say on TV, or the difference between Marlo Thomas’ That Girl and Girls on HBO. Some inventions, some works of art, some scientific insights, just change the whole human race. Understanding those changes are personally enlightening.

We’re constantly redefining what’s modern, which is another reason why it’s hard to read Ulysses. To young readers today, this 1922 novel is not shocking, other than the fact that characters don’t talk on smartphones or socialize on the Internet. To Joyce, his youth seemed radically different from the world of his parents, and he spent so many years trying to capture June 16, 1904 that I wonder if Joyce noticed the world radically changed again by 1922?

Ulysses is a novel, but it’s both literary archeology, and from the viewpoint of the 22nd century, historical insight into the early 20th century.

JWH

Picking 52 Books to Read in 2015

By James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Last year I read 67 books. At first thought, I wondered if I could read 100 books in 2015.  But I neither want to spend all my time reading, nor do I want to be in a race to finish 100 books. Reading one book a week is a nice pace for me, however for many years now, I’ve been buying about five books a week. This certainly presents a problem if I don’t want to speed up my reading pace.

To complicate the situation, I’ve been buying some rather outstanding books that I’m lusting to read soon. I’ve gathered books for decades in anticipation of retiring. I thought for sure retiring would let me read 100-200 books a year, but after my first year of not working I’ve discovered I’m not inclined to be a superbookworm. I now have more books than I could read in five retired lives. Once on my bookshelf, books are out-of-sight out-of-mind, leaving me literary hungry to prowl the bookstores. I need to fix that.

Since I’m always compelled to start projects I never finished, I thought this week’s ambitious endeavor would be to go through my physical bookshelves, my library at Audible.com and my Kindle library at Amazon.com and pick the 52 books I’d most loved to read most. To nag myself daily of this project, I thought I’d pile them up somewhere very visible so they will sneer at me to be read. But since so many are digital, invisible from view, I figured I needed to slightly amend that inspiration. Thus the muse for this blog post. I’ll make a list that I will meditate on daily, and keep it near the pile of physical books that are begging me to be read.

Here are the 52 books I’d love to read in 2015. I’d be immensely satisfied with myself if I did, and very proud if I read half their number. They will be in no order – just listed as I pull them from the shelves and stack them in their special pile. This is a nice snapshot of my interests at the beginning of 2015. It will be revealing to see how I do at the beginning of 2016. I’m pretty sure I’ll have read 52 books, but will it be these books?

I know myself well enough to know I won’t stick to the plan exactly, but I’m curious how close I can get at predicting my reading future. I know I will read a bunch of science fiction books I haven’t listed, and books for my book clubs that haven’t been selected yet. I will promote these books when we nominate books though, so I can get some extra incentive to read them. In fact, some of the books listed here are books I was supposed to read in 2014 for book clubs, but didn’t. And some of these books are ones I’ve started and never completed.

What’s interesting, is 52 books is probably more books than I read to get my Bachelor’s degree. And this list covers a lot of subjects. If I do read and comprehend them, it will be like getting another degree.

  1. This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate by Naomi Klein
  2. The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce Ulysses by Kevin Birmingham
  3. The Age of Atheists: How We Have Sought to Live Since the Death of God by Peter Watson
  4. Ulysses by James Joyce
  5. The Man Who Knew Too Much: Alan Turing and the Invention of the Computer by David Leavitt
  6. Grace Hopper and the Invention of the Information Age by Kurt W. Beyer
  7. ENIAC: The Triumphs and Tragedies of The World’s First Computer by Scott McCartney
  8. Old Friends by Tracy Kidder
  9. What Makes This Book so Great by Jo Walton
  10. Consciousness Explained by Daniel C. Dennett
  11. Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge by Edward O. Wilson
  12. Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other by Sherry Turkle
  13. On Writing Well by William Zinsser
  14. Lord of the Flies by William Golding
  15. The History of Mr. Wells by Michael Foot
  16. About Town: The New Yorker and the World it Made by Ben Yagoda
  17. Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth and Faith in the New China by Evan Osnos
  18. Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies by Nick Bostrom
  19. It’s Complicated by Danah Boyd
  20. The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution by Francis Fukuyama
  21. This Will Make You Smarter: New Scientific Concepts to Improve Your Thinking by John Brockman
  22. Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry
  23. Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meaning of Life by Daniel C. Dennett
  24. The End of Growth: Adapting to Our New Economic Reality by Richard Heinberg
  25. Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahnerman
  26. Civilization: The West and the Rest by Niall Ferguson
  27. The Social Conquest of Earth by Edward O. Wilson
  28. Can You Forgive Her? by Anthony Trollope
  29. The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science by Richard Holmes
  30. Turing’s Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe by George Dyson
  31. The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined by Steven Pinker
  32. Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets by Nassim Nicholas Taleb
  33. Before the Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors by Nicholas Wade
  34. The Dream of Reason: A History of Philosophy from the Greeks to the Renaissance by Anthony Gottlieb
  35. The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin
  36. Atonement by Ian McEwan
  37. The Math Book by Clifford Pickover
  38. Mathematics: The Loss of Certainty by Morris Kline
  39. A Path Appears: Transforming Lives, Creating Opportunity by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn
  40. Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software by Steven Johnson
  41. Darwin Among the Machines: The Evolution of Global Intelligence by George B. Dyson
  42. The Roads to Modernity: The British, French, and American Enlightenments by Gertrude Himmelfarb
  43. The Meaning of Human Existence by Edward O. Wilson
  44. A City So Grand: The Rise of an American Metropolis, Boston 1850-1900 by Stephen Puleo
  45. The Closing of the Western Mind: The Rise of Faith and the Fall of Reason by Charles Freeman
  46. The Violinist’s Thumb by Sam Kean
  47. Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
  48. How To Live or A Life of Montaigne by Sarah Bakewell
  49. Glut: Mastering Information Through the Ages by Alex Wright
  50. The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields
  51. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves
  52. Children of God by Mary Doria Russell

JWH

Physical Bookshelves versus Kindle Library

By James Wallace Harris, Monday, January 5, 2015

I’m in a buying quandary. Is it better to own a hardback or a digital book? This particular problem arose just now because I’m wondering how to acquire Ada’s Algorithm by James Essinger, a new book about Ada Lovelace. At Amazon it’s $12.99 for the Kindle edition, and $19.41 for the hardback. I’d save $6.42 by buying the digital book – that’s a good bit for a retired person. But since I routinely buy used hardback books for $3-5, I’d could save even more if I wait. But then Mr. Essinger would earn no royalty.  In fact, while reading about Ada’s Algorithm I see that he also wrote Jacquard’s Web, which I immediately bought just now for $4 (1 cent for the book, $3.99 for shipping). If I waited I could eventually get the same deal on the book about Ada Lovelace.

However, there is more to my buying decision than price. In the long run – defined as rest of my life – is it better to own a hardback or ebook? Which format is easier to read? Which format is easier to review? Which format is easier to reference and look stuff up?  Which format is easier to lend to friends? Once I start thinking about all these other factors, my brain begins begging for a nap.

ada_800x494

I love holding a hardback book. I love their dust jackets. But I don’t like owning a lot of possessions. I often cull my old books and give them to the Friends of the Library after I’ve read them, so buying the hardback doesn’t mean owning it for life. One advantage of buying the Kindle edition at Amazon is I own it without having to shelve and store it. In other words, Kindle books don’t weigh heavy on my sense of possessions, and thus I have them as long as Amazon remains in business, which if I’m lucky, is for the rest of my life.

If Kindle books were as exactly usable as hardbacks I think I would always buy the Kindle edition. Unfortunately, they aren’t – at least not at this moment. Hardbacks are far more user friendly when it comes to flipping around the book, and reading randomly. Hardbacks are nicer to lend to friends, and use for reference. Kindle books are easier to hold. Kindle books are easier to copy quotes from. And I can find a Kindle book faster.  And it’s a snap to search for a keyword.

I really wish Amazon would put some major effort into making managing my digital library more fun and useful. I own a whole lot of Kindle books I’ve forgotten that I own. Kindle books would be more appealing for collecting if we had better library management tools.

Man, my brain is really begging for a nap now. If Ada’s Algorithm had been $7.99 for the Kindle, I would have bought it immediately, and not even thought about writing this essay. Mr. Essiinger would have gotten paid, and I would be reading. Instead, I’ll wait for Jacquard’s Web to show up in the mail. In other words, price will determine what kind of book I buy. Next Christmas when I’m going through my old Wish List items at Amazon, I’ll see Ada’s Algorithm and if there’s a cheap hardback, order it. I ordered four or five books that way this Christmas when I was reviewing my Wish List for things to tell my wife what I want Santa Claus to bring me.  Hell, I don’t mind when Santa has to pay new hardback prices. I wish I had gotten Santa to get me the Ada book this Christmas.

That said, I do wish I had digital copies of all the books I’ve ever read or owned. I often give away books and later want to look at them again. Publishers want to raise ebook prices. That’s their prerogative.  As long as I can get used hardbacks for $3-5, then that’s the price that makes my decision. I’d be willing to pay two or three dollars more for ebooks, so the author gets paid, but not two or three times as much.

Finally, if I wait long enough, I see the ebook edition of books I want in the Kindle Daily Deal or Bookbub for $1.99. At that price I often buy books I’ve read just to have a copy for my digital library. Someday I don’t think I’ll have bookshelves or own hardback books, and it might even happen before I die. (Yes, it’s always about me.)

JWH