Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Alberto Manguel, The City of Words, 2007.

I’ve been fond of Alberto Manguel since first reading A History of Reading. I’m not a fan of his fiction, but his expository work is brilliant, so I was excited to hear that he is giving this year’s Massey lectures. The public lectures began this past Friday; they’ll be broadcast on Ideas in early November (the 5th to the 9th). In the midst of the scheduled lectures are some readings, and I’m looking forward to hearing one, at McMaster next Monday (tickets available from Bryan Prince Bookseller). His argument is that stories offer insight to help us with in the political arena in which we lead our lives.

The first lecture introduced me to Alfred Döblin. Manguel draws a comparison between Döblin and Cassandra, the prophet who was so cursed as not to be believed: Döblin, he suggests, offers a view to a better future through his writing, but is ignored. At the heart of the lecture is one question: what role do stories play in our societal conversations about what society ought to be?
Manguel’s asserts
Under certain conditions, stories can assist us. Sometimes they can heal us, illuminate us, and show us the way. Above all, they can remind us of our condition, break through the superficial appearance of things, and make us aware of underlying currents and depths. (9-10)

Stories can do this because of how they use language. Because unlike “the limiting imagination of bureaucracies”—-and, with them, the limited use of language—-stories “can oppose an open, unlimited mirror-universe of words to help us perceive an image of ourselves together” (27), and thus allow us to build/rebuild/move toward a new organisation possible because of the maker’s craft.

I don’t think it’s an especially easy argument to follow, or to which assent can be readily given. It’s often highly reminiscent of a simple reading of Matthew Arnold, that poetry can be our salvation in a secular world. Manguel is—-appropriately—-much more cautious, but his lectures offer a vision of the prophetic role which literature can play in our, in which language and possibility are too often diminished and ill-used. I am, though, a sympathetic audience.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything, 2003.

I picked up Bryson’s book—having been urged to read it for some time now—-in the airport in Glasgow, because I had nothing I wanted to read on the flight home.

Bryson’s book won’t teach you anything you didn’t know, detail-wise, about science if you’re remotely interested in science. So why read it? My answer is that it gave me two things: a light-hearted and amusing look at some of the back-stories that lie behind scientific discovery (and in particular, a view of interesting personalities), and a renewed appreciation for the sense of scale in a scientific approach to the world. The first is light-hearted fun. The second is at turns a delightful reminder of our human egocentrism that allows us to neglect both the vast number of things left to be discovered and the sheer complexity of what we do know; and at others a scary reminder of the precariousness of human life (be it in terms of axial tilt, ice ages, super-volcanoes, diseases, mutation, …). All in all, if you like science, it’s a pleasant read—I bothered to finish it upon my return, albeit slowly—after starting it late in the plane ride following a Robert Ludlum divertissement.