Tomes 2011: Very Late and Not Quite Grand Finale


Not much reading happened in the latter part of 2011, alas. Too many other things intruding on my reading time. But I managed a few books, some of which were quite excellent and put a decent enough finish on the year. At the risk of making your already-overburdened bookshelves upset, I shall tell you about them.

A History of Asia

We’ll pass lightly over this one on our way to better and brighter things. It’s one of those books I picked up used on a lark and used for bathroom reading. My edition was from 1964, and mostly notable for demonstrating why my mother hated history so much as a schoolgirl. Wars and dynasties. One gets a sense of an inordinate number of wars and dynasties, listed out in dry prose. You’d be better off with a more modern tome, but this one at least helped me get a sense of the wars and dynasties, and it made a good companion upon the porcelain throne.

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Emblems of Mind

This is a delightful little book about music and mathematics, and the connections between the two, and I have to say that for a book filled with equations and rather technical discussion of music, it was very nearly painless to read. I say nearly. This book needs a second life as an enhanced ebook, where one can tap on an equation to watch it come to life, or on a musical phrase to hear it. If that happens, this book will be complete.

Edward Rothstein has a melodious writing style that isn’t ostentatious, and an obvious love of music, math and science that infuses every page. If you want to get a little music theory and history combined with science and math, topped off with some mind-challenging ideas, this is a good choice.

And for those who will read the book and be intrigued by this mysterious diabolus in musica, here’s an explanation:

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A Leg to Stand On

In this book, Dr. Oliver Sacks, famous neurologist, finds himself a sometimes impatient patient. One minute, perfect health: the next, a stumble on a mountain path whilst outrunning a bull, and a severely damaged leg. No problem. Drag self down mountain, encounter a father-son team from the village just in time to save ass from dying of exposure, comfy stay in hospital whilst leg is fixed, and all is well.

Except his leg became an alien thing, an inert mass of chalk, a dead weight inexplicably attached to his body.

This book explores the phenomenon, from a very personal perspective, of losing one’s leg while it’s still attached, and its rediscovery. This scotoma (inability to perceive or “see” one’s limb as one’s own) is, apparently, quite common in folks who’ve damaged a limb and had it immobilized in a cast: it’s also a consequence of various neurological mishaps. One thing wonderful about this book, aside from the fact that Oliver Sacks is a superb writer and describes things so well you might as well have experienced them yourself, although you probably aren’t quite as prone to poetical prose, is that it prepares you for the possibility that you, too, may awaken one day with an alien limb attached. It’s nice to know that weird neurological side effects can happen, and that if they happen to you, there’s plenty of hope that it’s just a temporary incident, nothing to worry about.

This book takes on even more significance for me now that Suzanne’s in a full leg cast. I may have to send her this book, just in case.

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 Geology of the Pacific Northwest

The Orrs are somewhat required reading for anyone seriously interested in Northwest geology. This book is a fantastic overview of the geology of the region. It, like all of their books, is filled with illustrations and diagrams that do an excellent job illustrating the concepts and features discussed.

This book doesn’t have room to drill down to fine detail, but if you want a solid big-picture look at the geology of the region, stretching from northern California through Oregon, Idaho, Washington and British Columbia, this is where you go. Layfolk like myself can manage it quite easily, even though it’s written for a more informed audience: as long as you’ve read up on the basics of geology and are willing to dart for a dictionary occasionally, you won’t have too much trouble grasping matters. It’s a no-nonsense reference tome, one you can dash back to for a solid geological grounding after seeing some of the spectacular landforms we’ve got round here.

Now if I can only get the buggers to write one up for Washington State alone….