Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Book Review: Finding North

Finding North: How Navigation Makes Us Human
George Michelson Foy

Finding North is what I've dubbed a personal-theme book. It is, however, far more "personal" than "theme". There's some factual information in there around navigation and wayfinding and whatnot, but mainly this book is about George Michelson Foy.

In other words, if you're looking for another Rust, or even another The Triumph of Seeds, this isn't the place to find it. You won't learn much. The longest fact-oriented segment in Finding North occurs when Foy visits the U.S. Air Force center that controls our G.P.S. system. There he gathers the same information he could have gotten from a Wikipedia article--which he admits he doesn't really understand, but condenses and summarizes anyway.

Foy isn't really interested in things. He's interested in his reaction to things. (In this he reminds me of Paul Theroux, whom I find alternately involving and pretentious.)

With that out of the way, I quite liked Finding North. Foy is an unusually lucid, fluent, and lyrical writer. He's terrific with description, with sense of place. His personal story, which drives the book's narrative, is both interesting and moving. Granted that he's a little precious sometimes--non-fiction written in the present tense is always a danger sign--he mostly gets away with writing deliberately for style, for effect.

In addition to Foy's five-generation family saga, Finding North contains continuing minor chord of complaint against G.P.S. and all it represents. I must be one of the few people in the western hemisphere who has literally never navigated using G.P.S., nor had any real need to do so. Ergo, I have a certain sympathy with his viewpoint--especially when it's backed up by one of the few really informative scientific passages in the book. It's a little bit predictable, all the same. Foy is, and writes as, a humanist in a technological world. It puts limits on Finding North's audience. Given how good some of the writing is, I can't help but think that's a shame.

The writer who most lucidly combines a literate style with a command of facts is probably Tracy Kidder. Though technologically long outdated, his The Soul of a New Machine remains a don't-miss classic about what it feels like to be an engineer.

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