Something a little different today, below the fold. But first
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I am reading, or just finished, two extraordinary books and two good but relatively ordinary books:
The extraordinary ones are:
the Ghost Map by Steven Johnson and
Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson
The good but ordinary ones are:
Fermat’s Enigma by Simon Singh
Trading in Danger by Elizabeth Moon.
Note that I think these are good books….just not at the level of the other two.
a while back, on this diary, I got a suggestion to compare nonfiction and fiction reading. What better way than with two outstanding and two good but ordinary books like these?
The Ghost Map is the story of a cholera epidemic in London, in 1854. Thousands died, often only a couple of days (or less) after being healthy. They were killed by cholera, but no one knew how it was spread. John Snow and Henry Whitehead together figured it out. This book, like their investigation, is a triumph of multi-disciplinary research. Snow, a highly respected physician, went into some of the worst neighborhoods in London and, knocking on doors, interviewed hundreds of people about their behaviors. Whitehead, a local curate, contributed enormous local knowledge. The book deals with epidemiology, urban planning, scientific prejudice, statistics, cartography, and much else. And the author manages to make everything clear without talking down to the audience
Cryptonomicon is many things. The Seattle Times review said “Imagine Tom Clancy mated to William Gibson with James Michener acting as midwife, and you begin to get the idea”. It’s really three novels in one, at two different time points. In novel 1, it’s World War 2, and we follow the adventures of Bobby Shaftoe (a gung ho Marine Sergeant) and Goto Dengo, a Japanese soldier of remarkable intelligence and courage. In novel 2, it’s also World War 2, and we follow the adventure of Lawrence Waterhouse and Alan Turing and other geniuses involved with deciphering the German codes. In novel 3, it’s the present day, or a little in the future, and we follow the startup company Epiphyte, which is run by Avi, and employs Randy Waterhouse (child of Lawrence) and also Douglas MacArthur Shaftoe (child of Bobby) and his daughter America. In addition to three well plotted novels, we get lessons on cryptography, various parts of computer science, how to live in the jungle, ethnography of New Guinea, and much else. Again, everything is more or less comprehensible, and there’s no talking down to anyone.
Fermat’s Enigma is the story of Fermat’s Last Theorem, and of Andrew Wiles’ proof of it. The book has much going for it: It’s a popular math book, which immediately makes me want to like it. Singh knows how to write an English sentence (and if you’ve read scientific papers, you know that isn’t a universal trait), he holds your interest, and he tries to make something comprehensible, even though he himself doesn’t understand it. (Fewer than 100 people, probably, fully understand Wiles’ work. I don’t, Singh doesn’t). But it has some problems. He gushes. At one point, Wiles thinks he’s solved it, and Singh writes “he, along with everyone else in the room, was oblivious of the horrors to come”. A bit over the top. He gets some facts slightly wrong. Fermat’s Last Theorem is not the simplest unsolved math problem, nor the oldest. One that is both simpler and older is the twin prime problem (that is, we know that there are an infinite number of primes…. Euclid proved that. But twin primes are pairs of primes separated by 2 (3 and 5, 5 and 7, 11 and 13) and one knows if there are an infinitude of them.
Trading in Danger is good, solid, military SF. But Moon has a tendency to overwrite. One rule of good writing I’ve heard is “show, don’t tell”. Moons shows and then tells. Hearts leap into throats. (OK, a father thinks his daughter might be dead, then a phone call comes in….do we need to be told that the father’s heart leapt?). The plot is decent, it held my interest, but the characters are sort of one-dimensional (the heroic daughter, the highly successful but over-protective father, the loyal assistant, the nefarious enemy). Contrast this with Stephenson, who paints all his characters in the rich hues that pretty much all humans come in.
Now, fiction vs. nonfiction. How do we read each? What do we want from each? What turns us off in each? How much effort do we want to put into each?
My answers are somewhat apparent from above. I like solid, grounded, deep books. I like technical stuff (one reason I like hard SF). I get turned off by inaccuracy and gushiness. I am willing to put considerable mental effort into each. The fiction I like best teaches, as well as entertains. The nonfiction I like best entertains, as well as teaches.
What about you?