Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Books Again

I haven't written anything for a while about the books I've been reading. I've gone through a batch of good ones in the past two weeks or so, and if I say nothing about them now, I may forget.

  • Isaac Newton (James Gleick)

    I like Gleick's writing. I know I've written before about his book Faster, and I think I've written about Chaos, a book I read in high school. Isaac Newton is short (191 pages in the text), well-written, and thoroughly researched (56 pages of endnotes and sources). A biography of Newton could be written in many ways: a paean to a hero, a story of the time in which he lived, or a technical account of his scientific work. What Gleick wrote is an account of Newton's life, his interactions with the world, and his scientific discoveries. There are no mathematical details, though Gleick describes the impact of Newton's mathematical and physical thinking. Gleick paints a broad picture of the times, with details where relevant, but he writes mostly about Newton, not Newton and his times. I thought the book was well-balanced and well worth reading.

  • Just for Fun (Linus Torvalds and David Diamond)

    On the page between the introduction and the table of contents to this book is the text of an e-mail from Torvalds to Diamond, in which he writes If you think we can make a fun book, and more importantly if you think we can have fun making it, let's go for it. I think they succeeded. This book is not profound in any way, but it is fun, and it was a great book to read on the BART train. The book includes some interesting things about Finland, beyond the facts that it is cold and that the Finns love cell phones. There is a chapter at the end in which Torvalds prognosticates for a bit -- under some duress, it seems. But the book is mostly a wise-cracking autobiography by someone who likes to play with computers and doesn't take himself too seriously, and that's what it's supposed to be.

  • Babel-17 (Samuel Delaney)

    The last time I was in the science fiction section at Black Oaks books, I saw that they'd put several fancy leather-bound volumes in between the paperbacks. The proprietors of Black Oaks are some of the savviest book managers I know -- to my regret, sometimes, since (unlike at Half Price or Pegasus and Pendragon), I never walk out of Black Oaks with a book I think is a steal -- so when they choose to put expensive leather-bound science fiction books into their stacks, I take notice. I pulled one of these books from the shelf to admire the binding and to read the foreword, then put it back and pulled out the much-less-expensive paperback copy of the same book. I ended up buying the paperback copy of the book: Babel-17, printed together with the novella Empire Star.

    I walked around in a daze for about half an hour after I read this one. It's a quick read, though not as quick as you might expect from the length; and it contains some interesting ideas and beautiful sentences. It is by far the most literary science fiction work I've read in the past six months -- maybe longer, since I know longer remember when exactly I picked up the anthology of Modern Classics of Science Fiction which is the last thing I read to which I might make a reasonable comparison. I'll recommend this one to some of my friends and family who don't usually read science fiction.

  • A Passion for Books (Harold Rabinowitz and Rob Kaplan)

    The title of this book was chosen well. This collection of lists, essays, cartoons, and short narrative pieces is not a book about reading, though reading is a part of it. This is a book about books, the things you hold in your hand and smell and collect. The subtitle is A Book Lover's Treasury of Stories, Essays, Humor, Lore, and Lists on Collecting, Reading, Borrowing, Lending, Caring for, and Appreciating Books. This is a good book to read bit by bit: a little while waiting for tea water to boil, a little before going to sleep, and a little more while sitting outside and enjoying the sun. I haven't found it to be a particularly inspiring book, though, and while I've had fun reading it -- and will likely go back through some of the lists at some point in the future -- I doubt I'll re-read it.

  • Currently drinking: Black tea flavored with peach