Thursday, May 28, 2015

Book Review: The Wright Brothers

The Wright Brothers
David McCullough
Biography

David McCullough is a wonderful writer. The Wright Brothers is a wonderful book. There just isn't enough of it.


The Wright Brothers is biography that reads like a novel. That's no accident; McCullough treats the brothers as his protagonists, and there's scarcely a scene that doesn't involve one of them (and the few exceptions mostly feature their sister Katharine). This book is the story arc of their lives. It's all here: the humble beginnings, the talent that flowers in obscurity, the dedication and courage to an impossible cause, the difficulties, and the eventual triumph. 

It's good to see these two men get some of the credit they deserve. Wilbur Wright was unquestionably an genius, and Orville was an extraordinary builder and designer. Alas, there are some writers--mostly European--who unjustly but obstinately champion other early aviators, especially Alberto Santos-Dumont. Some of those writers apparently feel that by doing thousands of meticulous trials, including literally writing the book on wing shapes using a home-made wind tunnel, those bloody lower-class Americans were cheating (while the aristocratic Santos-Dumont was swanning about the boulevards of Paris like a proper gentleman inventor).

So I loved The Wright Brothers; I recommend it without reservation; but it's incomplete, nonetheless.

In the first place, it's quite light on technical details. I realize that it's a book for the general intelligent reader, but its hard to get a sense of just how major were the Wrights' contributions without this information.

In the second place: in Truman and John Adams, David McCullough showed a tendency to be a little too forgiving of his heroes. He does the same here, I think. Reading this book, you'd never really guess that the very qualities that made the Wrights such superb inventors--confidence, perseverance, an unquestionable faith in themselves, and a healthy lack of reverence for the say-so of others--made them very poor businessmen. There are barely hints of the ongoing feuds and lawsuits that consumed the Wrights' business ventures, or of their repeated frustrations in trying to actually sell their invention.

I will grant that, on my reading of the evidence, the Wrights were generally more sinned against than sinning--particularly in the case of the Smithsonian Institution, which acted rather dishonorably towards them for many years. And yet ... this is a part of the history, even though it doesn't really fit with McCullough's story structure.

So: read the book. Give Wilbur and Orville the credit they deserve.  But be aware that there's more to the story.

(The "more to the story" can be found in a number of books. I particularly recommend Tom Crouch's The Bishop's Boys, a thorough, sympathetic, definitive, and very readable biography. Lawrence Goldstone's Birdmen is a good overview of the post-Kitty-Hawk imbroglios that the Wrights waded into.)

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Book Review: The Meaning of Human Existence

The Meaning of Human Existence
Edward O. Wilson
Science, philosophy

Edward Wilson is a fine writer--a Pulitzer Prize winner--an original thinker, and a first-class scientist. The Meaning of Human Existence showcases all of those talents . . . in spots. It does not, however, synthesize them into a coherent narrative. The book reads like a collection of essays, which in part it is.

Mind you, the individual essays are in many places excellent. The sections on the behaviors of Wilson's beloved ants are riveting, for example, and the discussion of different models of group evolution is fascinating (at least, it's fascinating for anyone with a deep enough level of knowledge and interest). It's just not easy to see how they relate to one another, or to the many places where he presents bald assertions as fact, or to the scattershot and largely unsurprising conclusions.

I largely agree with those conclusions, for the record. I wish, however, that Wilson had chosen a less aggressive title, or provided a more coherent defense of it. As it is, the book is not likely to influence or interest anyone who doesn't already buy into Wilson's worldview.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Book Review: Snow

Snow: The Double Life of a World War II Spy
Nigel West, Madoc Roberts
History

It's an interesting set of facts, and the level of research is commendable, but the writing isn't up to the task. Snow reads like a bureaucrat's report, even though the underlying material would make a tolerable thriller. A first-rate author, or even a good magazine editor, could have improved this immensely.

For a fast-paced and very readable introduction to the facts, I highly recommend Ben Macintyre's Double Cross. It's a long way from being deep, and I suspect that Macintyre was not nearly skeptical enough of his sources, but it's a fun read nonetheless.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Book Review: Why Did the Chicken Cross the World?

Why Did the Chicken Cross the World? The Epic Story of the Bird That Powers Civilization
Andrew Lawler
Sociology, biology, history

This book could have been entitled 1001 Fascinating Anecdotes About Chickens. I like fascinating anecdotes as well as the next guy, but when the title of your book is a "why" question I expect a little bit more in the way of insight, analysis, and explanation. This could have been a terrific website; as a book it's a little thin, and a little lacking in connective tissue. The chapters stand alone, instead of contributing to a narrative whole.

Having gotten that off my (all-white-meat) chest, Why Did the Chicken Cross the World? is actually a pretty good and very informative read. Chickens, it turns out, have had cross-cultural symbolic and religious importance, in addition to their culinary contributions. The importance of the latter is relatively recent, and is the result of deliberate human engineering as much as anything: the bird is really something of a Frankenchicken compared to its wild relatives. 

No book on chickens, sadly, would be complete without a discussion of factory farming. The one in WDtCCtW isn't gratuitously gruesome, but it's there. I won't attempt to editorialize, as in practice I am a hypocrite on this subject.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Book Review: The Innovators

The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution
Walter Isaacson
Computers, engineering

This is a long, sprawling, and engrossing biography of the so-called "Information Revolution," via the people who made it happen. It has a couple of consistent, strongly-presented themes:
  1. With rare exceptions, innovators are not lonely genuises toiling away in obscurity. Instead, creativity and invention seem to spring from getting many creative thinkers together and giving them the freedom to interact. Often, it turns out that two or more innovators can compensate for one anothers' shortcomings, and succeed jointly where they would have failed individually.
  2. Isaacson makes a strong case--which accords with my personal and professional prejudices, for what that's worth--that the future lies less with artificial intelligence than with so-called "augmented intelligence". That is, humans and computers can complement each others' strengths and weaknesses in much the same way as different inventors have done.
The other thing I'd note is that the actors here have something in common. It's not background, nor personality, nor politics, nor academic success. Indeed, the cast of characters ranges from borderline sociopaths (William Shockley, co-inventor of the transistor) to outright hippies (Steward Brand, one of the pioneers of the "online community" idea) to buttoned-down engineers in the Dilbert mold (a lot of them). It's not even intelligence, although that's clearly a requisite. Rather, the common factor is that virtually all of them reached a point where they were absolutely, obsessively, myopically, completely, and immersively focused on one thing. That singleness of vision, rather than intelligence, is clearly what led them to success.

The Innovators is written in a nicely conversational tone, and it's intelligently structured: Isaacson has an enormous cast of characters, but in any chapter only an interconnected few are in the spotlight. That makes it relatively easy to remember who he's talking about, which isn't always the case in books this ambitious. He's also good at making unobtrusive connections to and reminders of earlier material, so you're less likely to have those "Huh? Who he? Invented the what?" moments. The level of technological detail is quite modest, and well-explained, so it's not just for us geeks. Highly recommended.

Crossover reading: many of the same themes, and some of the same characters, appear in Jon Gertner's The Idea Factory. If you like this book, you'll almost certainly like that one, and vice versa.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Book Review: Lincoln and the Power of the Press

Lincoln and the Power of the Press: The War for Public Opinion
Harold Holzer
Biography

Lincoln and the Power of the Press is packaged as a popular, rather than a scholarly, work. In reality, it's something of both. The writing is pitched the general educated reader. The subject matter, however, is rendered at a fairly granular level. It's likely to appeal strongly to people who are already knowledgeable about Lincoln; it's not a book for Lincoln novices.


For dedicated readers of Lincolniana, Lincoln and the Power of the Press is a good, fresh way of looking at some familiar (and a few unfamiliar) facts. Holzer makes the wise choice to focus heavily on the three most influential newspapermen of the period: Horace Greeley, Henry Raymond, and James Gordon Bennett. This provides him with a trio of larger-than-life central characters, while mostly avoiding the temptation to get lost in a morass of men's and newspapers' names. (All three editors hated one another, and Greeley and Bennett were both wackos.)

The book is less of an argument than a survey--a series of anecdotes, vignettes, case studies, and examples, whipped into narrative shape by a clear-minded author. Politicians manipulated the press; the press shaped politicians; editors ran for office; elected officials wrote for, or even bought, newspapers. Lincoln participated fully in this process, and mastered it, as he mastered so many other things. Among other virtues, Lincoln and the Power of the Press presents a side of Lincoln that's less often appreciated: he was a canny, occasionally ruthless political operator.

The obvious comparison volume is Doris Kearns Goodwin's The Bully Pulpit. The latter is better written and broader; Holzer's volume is more thorough and more scholarly.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Book Review: Water to the Angels

Water to the Angels: William Mulholland, His Monumental Aqueduct, and the Rise of Los Angeles
Les Standiford
Engineering

There used to be a comedian (Sam Kinison, if I remember rightly) who used the line "We have deserts in America--we just don't live in them!"

WRONG.

Engineering is everywhere. Even when it's invisible--maybe especially when it's invisible--it's important. Los Angeles is an artificial city. Without engineering, it wouldn't exist; it'd be a desert, or at least a semi-desert. Water to the Angels is the story of the man and the aqueduct that made Los Angeles possible.

I like stories of this sort, and I liked this book. Having said that, I can't help feeling that Water to the Angels was written as an explicit rebuttal to the film Chinatown (which I saw as a college freshman; I didn't care for it). In fact, Standiford interviewed the screenwriter, and that's one of the few really original pieces of this book. As a rebuttal, it works pretty well. As a work that stands on its own, it's has its limits. Les Standiford admits to being besotted with Los Angeles, and that stops him from asking any of the larger questions that the book implicitly touches on. Water to the Angels is strictly about William Mulholland and the day-by-day narrative of aqueduct building, and it doesn't go beyond those bounds. Its tone is consistently admiring, though fortunately not hagiographic, and in my opinion it somewhat overstates the magnitude of Mulholland's achievement.

Water to the Angles has crossover appeal with David McCullough's wonderful classic The Path Between the Seas. A more recent book that might also appeal is Earl Swift's The Big Roads.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Book Review: The Secret Life of Words

The Secret Life of Words: How English Became English
Henry Hitchings
Linguistics

This is a book for word mavens, of whom I am one. Does it make your day to discover that the Russian word for a train station (vokzal) derives from a specific train station (Vauxhall) in South London? Do you cherish the knowledge that "robot" is etymologically related to the German "arbeit"? Then The Secret Life of Words is for you. 

TSLoW is structured as a chrono-thematic journey through English. It purports to demonstrate how English acquired vocabulary from other language in response to specific circumstances, and to be fair it does some of that. 

But, really, it's all about the words. 

TSLoW  is chatty. It's digressive. It's full of largely useless but enjoyable facts--no human being could possibly remember any appreciable fraction of the etymologies herein. Naturally, I liked it a lot.

Good crossover reads include John McWhorter's Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue and Bill Bryson's The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way. The first is more learned, but very readable; it's a bit of a favorite of mine. The second is somewhat unreliable--take it with a pinch of salt--but entertaining.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Book Review: The Boston Raphael

The Boston Raphael: A Mysterious Painting, an Embattled Museum in an Era of Change, and a Daughter's Search for the Truth
Belinda Rathbone
Art

This is a fairly good book about a fairly bad painting.


Image hosted at Art New England

The Boston Museum of Fine Arts bought this painting, around 1969, under the impression that it was by Raphael. And yet, look at it ...

  • The right side of the subject's face (left, if you're looking at the painting) is drawn as if it's facing flat forward. There's almost no shading to indicate the rounding of the cheek, the shape of the eye isn't in perspective, and there's too much space between the outer corner of the eye and the edge of face.
  • Even allowing for the conventions of Renaissance beauty, the neck is absurdly elongated.
  • The irises of the eyes don't even line up on the same horizontal plane. The right eye is looking very slightly up, giving the portrait a subtly cockeyed look.
So why all the fuss? Why was the MFA so eager to get this thing? And why, thereafter, were the Italians (or, at least, a few Italians) dead set on getting it back?

The answers have to do with museums, and what their role is, and how that role was changing in the tumult of the 1960s and 1970s. Nowadays we're familiar with the idea that museums host "blockbuster exhibitions," usually with corporate sponsorship. That wasn't always so. In the old days, they operated more like clubby little familial enterprises. The right sort of people could go and survey a collection of certified Good Art and feel satisfied about being cultured, while hoi polloi were permitted to wander in and better themselves.

The strongest parts of The Boston Raphael are about this phase transition. Boston's high society before the 1960s was extraordinarily insulated--I'm tempted to say "inbred". The Museum's high-profile director, Perry Rathbone, was a major part of the seismic shift away from that culture, and his acquisition of the so-called Raphael was par for the course.

The weakest part of  The Boston Raphael, contrarily, is that it doesn't know what it wants to be when it grows up. Author Belinda Rathbone is Perry Rathbone's daughter, so this could have been a deeply personal account of how the blowup over the painting affected her family . . . and there's a little of that, but not much. Or it could have been the story of Rathbone himself and his rise into the privileged classes--and there's some of that, too, but it isn't sustained. There's a lot of detail--too much; we're talking a memo-by-memo instant replay here--about the battles between Rathbone and the explicitly corporate George Seybolt for control of the MFA's administration. There's a thread about the Italian attempt to reclaim the painting, coupled with a rather dry legal question about whether it was properly declared at U.S. customs.

And then there's the story of the painting itself, which is vexatiously incomplete--almost to the point of being an afterthought. Which is a pity, because the whole book begs the questions I started with: why? Is this painting automatically made worthy by virtue of being a Raphael? If it turns out that it isn't a Raphael, does that automatically make it unworthy? What, fundamentally, makes a piece of art worth spending a lot of money on, or going to a museum for, or fighting for possession of? The Boston Raphael isn't a bad book, but it doesn't really come down to brass tacks on these questions, or really on anything else.

Crossover reading:
  • A secondary character in The Boston Raphael is Thomas Hoving, who ran the Metropolitan Museum in New York. His memoir Making the Mummies Dance is unreliable, gossipy, name-dropping, opinionated, and quite entertaining.
  • The American Leonardo by John Brewer covers some similar territory about art and connoisseurship, but it's badly flawed by virtue of its poor structure.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Special Guest Reviewer

As if one guy blathering away about his reading habits weren't enough, here's another. My good friend Mr. Mike Phipps has been doing this for at least as long as I have, and far more consistently. The masses of faithful readers who regularly flood this site will see some common elements between his reading and mine--and some differences, as well. Enjoy!

By the way, Mike's favorite book of 2014 was the same as mine.