21 April 2006

Unexpected, All Around

Looking down through the trees,
an unexpected, privileged
glimpse into Nature's bedroom
through curtains parted.
Private, serene beauty hidden,
spied on a foggy sad morning.

15 April 2006

A Fibbing Attempt for Nat'l Poetry Month

Sun gleaming.
A few days echo
Winter's last shivering demand.

Overcoming ice with color,
Dull diminishes.
Sun brightens,
Earth warms.

For the rules of a Fib (a poem based on the Fibonacci sequence) see Gregory K's blog, Gottabook.

10 April 2006

Precious Gems in the Night Sky: The Planets by Dava Sobel

"For myself, I confess that none of the truly staggering data I have been privileged to share here has altered the planets' fundamental appeal to me as an assortment of magic beans or precious gems in a little private cabinet of wonder -- portable, evocative, and swirled in beauty." -- Dava Sobel, The Planets

Three things recommended this book to me: the eye-catching cover depicting a map of Tyco Brahe's universe, the author Dava Sobel whose books Longitude and Galelio's Daughter I thoroughly enjoyed reading, and its simple title: The Planets. A wonderful science writer writing about the cosmos, with a cool cover to boot. There was much to expect, but, it turns out, plenty to disappoint.

The Planets is divided into 11 chapters -- one for each planet, an intro & a coda. But the titles of each chapter suggests something different: Mythology, Beauty, Geography, Night Air. Each chapter discusses a portion of our Solar System in conjunction with a corresponding theme. Part history, part lore, part scientific discussion, each chapter discusses not only the heavenly body referred to in the chapter title, but also a history of how the heavens have been defined otherwise throughout the history of western thought.

In some chapters this works well, such as the chapter on Mythology and Mercury, or the chapter on Sci-F and Mars. But elsewhere, this device seemed too contrived and annoyed me. For instance, in "Music of the Spheres", Sobel writes of Holst symphony "The Planets" and Saturn. After a few paragraphs the connection becomes overworked. Perhaps Holst's well-known piece did represent a view of our universe, but what does it tell us about the universe? Isn't the music really just inspired by the planets, not descriptive of them -- not in a scientific way at any rate -- although ancient astronomers may have written of the music of the stars? Maybe there are solar sounds and ratio in orbital patterns similar to music, but is there really a connection, a harmony more physical than metaphysical? If so, I didn't get it from Sobel's writing.

Similarly, while Sobel's description of astrology is interesting, she seems to both support and refute its validity. From a historical perspective, the book discusses astrology's importance throughout history, and how the scientific revelation the the earth was not the center of the universe made astrology obsolete. Yet, she writes of a 'star chart' for a satellite's launch date and how 'accurate' it was. Elsewhere she begins with an elaborate description of an Ellis Island immigrant and likens it to 'false memories' of those who claim to be victims of alien abductions. She then makes a quantum cognitive jump into the cosmos to discuss the search for Pluto and the discovery of the Kuiper Body Objects. Once the leap is executed, the reader doesn't return to the alien kidnappings; there is no connection and perhaps the only thing worse than this preposterous association would have been if Sobel DID loop back in some sort of literary mobius strip way to the world of aliens. If Sobel wants to believe in astrology or Roswellian creatures performing surgeries on the human populace during REM sleep, fine with me, but I don't like the scientific mysticism attributed to it in this book.

Lastly, in a few places I tired of reading information from Sobel's other books. Intrigued as I was in learning about Harrison's clocks and his efforts to solve the 'longitude problem', the information regarding maps and efforts to define longitude seemed repetitive. Information that seemed almost a recitation from Galileo's Daughter, while not completely irrelevant, read as if a lazy editor had cloned the earlier text in order to lengthen this book.

I like the idea of this book -- science facts regarding our universe coupled with a history of how the universe has been understood throughout the ages by art, literature and religion. That there was a time -- long before we had the words to define and describe our solar system in today's scientific terms -- when the arts and science and faith were so intertwined that they were inseparable. But, because it can't always be connected specifically to current scientific knowledge, the book in its execution becomes too disjointed.

Yet, to return to the passage quoted above: "...[N]one of the truly staggering data I have been privileged to share here has altered the planets' fundamental appeal to me as an assortment of...precious gems in a little private cabinet of wonder..." If Sobel's intent is to evoke wonder and awe of our universe, perhaps she is successful in showing how it has inspired throughout the centuries. Those precious sparkling gems in the night sky have symbolized an abundance of human thought and experience. Maybe the poets and the scientists marvel at the same thing, but for different reasons, in different voices, in different times....

Postscript -- On a readerly level, I most enjoyed the first half of Chapter 10, 'Night Air' in which Sobel writes a 'fictionalized' letter from astronomer Caroline Herschel (1750 - 1848) to astronomer Maria Mitchell (1818 - 1889). In the notes section Sobel indicates that the facts in the letter are true although it is unknown if the women corresponded. Maybe Sobel should try her hand at historical fiction next time.

03 April 2006

Vous et nul autre

Neat new feature on LibraryThing sure to excite Thingamabrarians*: Tim has programmed a new feature that lists books that only you & one other person own -- vous et nol autre. This 'fun statistic' certainly was; I spent a couple hours browsing and comparing my catalog to others who with whom I share a common work.

Paging through some of the users, I was surprised that we only shared one book since we shared similar interests: art, computer, history, literature, cooking. Interesingly, though, of most of the catalogs that included computer books, travel books, or cookbooks, there were no intersections between our catalogs. The 'one other' book frequently was not common ground with the other owner's library. But, in some catalogs, where there was an obvious similar reading interest, I usually had read or previously owned many of the same books, but had not included them in my catalog. On average, I owned 19.9 books in common with the 50 readers on my 'votre et nul autre' list.

There were only 4 readers with whom I shared no other books:

Reader #1 only had 37 books catalogued. Maybe after he has more, we might have more books in common. However, of the 4, his was the library I would feel most comfortable with. In total, there were only 4 or 5 books that wouldn't have interested me enough to pick off a shelf or browse through in a bookstore. The book we own in common has been lingering in my TBR pile-- Flag: An American Biography. I was intrigued by the idea of a history of a cultural icon being a 'biography'. Picked this up in a Smithsonian Museum gift shop on my last trip to D.C. late last summer.

Reader #2 Myth of the Northern Lands, published in 1895. #2 indicated that this was her oldest book. Mine too! I have had it for about 20 years, was sort of a gift from a professor. I reclaimed it from a discard pile when he was cleaning out his office and remarked that it was really old. After looking through it, he gave it to me and told me to enjoy it. #2 indicates that it is copyrighted in 1923. My copy was inscribed in 1901, so maybe an earlier edition unless her note is incorrect.

Reader #3 -- The book in common is Russel's Rules and I'm not sure that I have read it. I think I gave it to my spouse for Christmas and only casually perused it. Since we talk so much about books, sometimes if a work isn't memorable, it's difficult to recall whether I actually read it, or just heard about it. Reader #3 and I use 5 similar tags and actually 'share' one other work -- a novel I borrowed from the public library but never owned. #3's catalog is slanted towards religious books and sports books -- 2 types of books I wouldn't typically read.

Reader #4 -- We share a Fodor's guide to Paris. While I have 61 books tagged 'travel', #4 has only 1. 4 of #4's books -- all computer instruction books -- could have been books I might have owned, but chose a competing title. Two of 4's books I owned previously -- Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, and Lake Wobegon Days, by Garrison Kellior. Having lost a few thousand books to water damage a few years ago, my libary is sparse and represents mainly books acquired in the last 4 years. Who knows, maybe if I still had all of those books that had to be destroyed, I might have had other et nul autres.

* If you have read this far and haven't discovered LibraryThing, go check it out now at On-line cataloging and social networking. It's lots of fun. What's a Thingamabrarian? -- one addicted to LibraryThing!

01 April 2006

What Middletown Was Reading 100 Years Ago

Being a lover of books, I'm often intrigued by old books. Deep within the pages, between the dust and the type, untold stories linger: Who owned this book? Did the reader like it, cherish it, recommend it to others? Would the original reader's reactions be similar to mine? Did the author ever imagine that someone might read it 50, 100, 125 years later?

Thanks to some library serendipity, library record books from 1894 - 1902 belonging to the Muncie Public Library have been re-discovered and are now the focus of a research project of the Center for Middletown Studies of Ball State University. While the project won't uncover what an individual reader thought of a book, it will provide analysis of reading habits and book-borrowing in a Midwestern town at the turn of the century.

"Middletown" was a sociological study of a 'typical' American town conducted in the 1920's in the East-Central Indiana town of Muncie. In the years since, additional studies have been done, making Muncie one of the most studied towns in the country. How fitting it is, then, that these records have been found and can provide researchers with information on reading habits 100 years ago.

For more information, check out the Center for Middletown Studies and read Professor Frank Felsenstein's article What Middletown Read recently published in the Ball State Alumnus magazine. It was Felsenstein's discovery that lead to this project which intends to digitize the library ledgers and create a database for further study.