Sunday, January 16, 2005

Car Books

I'm reading a particularly enjoyable car book at the moment, so thought I would recommend it to others.

By 'car book', I am not of course referring to a book about cars. I've only ever read one book about cars, and that was a sociological analysis of the history of cars by the Montreal Museum, and was really about sociology of design, not cars per se.

No, by 'car book', I mean those books one keeps in the car in case of emergencies, since it is unthinkable to be caught for any extended period without reading matter. I learned this from my older brother, Doug, when growing up. We'd get stuck in a traffic jam and he'd calmly open the glove compartment, pull out a book, and start reading. While all about him the other drivers were getting frustrated with the delays and suffering rising blood pressure and declining urban lifestyle, my brother would be contentedly reading. Similarly, if called upon to drive a family member to an appointment, instead of relying upon the reading material provided in the doctor's sitting room or pacing impatiently, he would simply retrieve his car book and read that as time pleasantly evaporated.

Of course, the one flaw in this approach is that one has recourse to one's car book at random and often widely spaced intervals, so it is often difficult to maintain continuity. Novels do not make good car books because one ends up having to re-read the early chapters to remind oneself of what's going on, and progress is often so slow as to seriously impair enjoyment. It is hard to relate to a character one encounters only briefly at random intervals, and even harder to follow any kind of complicated plot developments. One could, of course, simply take one's current reading with one in the car, but I have found this just means that I am frequently caught short as my current read is left in the car when I need it in the office or at bedtime, or it's on the bedside table when I need it to be in the car. No, one needs a designated car book to keep in the glove compartment which can be read in parallel with one's regular reading.

My brother's book was Max Weber's Capitalism and the Protestant Work Ethic, which I believe took him the better parts of two decades to finish. I generally prefer something a little less demanding, and more easily divisible into bite size chunks. I have therefore consumed several popular culture books, on the history of cinema, for example, where one can easily read entries on a particular year or a particular director in a single sitting, put the book away for several weeks or even longer, and pick it up again at the next entry without any loss in continuity. The only trick was to have two distinct bookmarks – one for me and one for my wife – to tack where we are, since opening it to where it was last read can be confusing when there are two of you practicing car book reading.

Since the birth of my second daughter, I have had occasion to make heavier than usual use of my car books, since often the only way to get Kasia to sleep is to driver her around until the car noise and motion knocks her out. I then find myself at some random location in the city with nothing to do until Kasia wakes, unless I have had the foresight to bring my iBook, and that is not always possible, since Kasia sleep emergencies arise suddenly and unpredictably.

In any event, my current car book is Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything which is the most enjoyable history of science I've read in years. His is the perfect balance between tracking the flow of ideas and biography of the various cranks, egomaniacs, and eccentrics who originally came up with them. I recognize that the stereotype of the absent minded professor or the eccentric scientist is perpetuated in popular culture as one way of diffusing public resentment against people who are clearly smarter than ourselves, but Bryson's parade of annoying or bizarre personalities does seem to lend support to the view that brilliance and madness are often separated by a vanishingly thin line. And the scientific themes are equally engaging, since Bryson is embracing the really big questions: how do we know how much the earth weighs, how old the universe is, the origin of species and so on. If it were up to me, I would toss 99% of high school science curriculum and replace them with this text. I no longer remember, and do not greatly care, how to balance a chemical equation, not being a chemist, but I do care about the implications of chemistry and the other sciences, and books like this one would go a good deal farther, in my view, towards increasing scientific literacy in our culture than our current approach.

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