Friday, December 29, 2006

Book to book to book

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you probably have a sense of the oblique routes I take from one book or subject to another. Today’s post is a brief glimpse into that process.

Last week, I read Graham Greene’s A Gun for Sale (1936) because in Julian MacLaren-Ross’s Memoirs of the Forties, which I read earlier this month, he describes meeting Greene to discuss the possibility of MacLaren-Ross’s adapting the novel for the BBC. It turned out to be the right time of year to read the book, because I always like to read some Christmas book or other in December, and the events of A Gun for Sale take place right around the holiday. It’s a Graham Greene Christmas, however, so (even though this was before his Catholic novels) it’s a Christmas that serves mostly as a shabby attempt to tart up a fallen, grubby world. Raven, an utterly amoral professional gunman, finds himself hunted by the police in the town of Nottwich, and he soon discovers that, rare as aid and comfort are, goodness itself is even less common, in the upper classes or the lower. Raven is an outsider in a world of outsiders, which renders a holiday like Christmas mostly a cruel joke and life a painful struggle to the death:
Death came to him in the form of unbearable pain. It was as if he had to deliver this pain as a woman delivers a child, and he sobbed and moaned in the effort. At last it came out of him and he followed his only child into a vast desolation.

A Gun for Sale reminded me of the existence of James Jones’s The Pistol (1958), a tightly written novella about Richard Mast, a U.S. Army private in Hawaii who takes advantage of the confusion immediately following the attack on Pearl Harbor to hold onto a pistol that he had been temporarily issued. Over the next few weeks, as the Army fortifies the beaches and roads of Hawaii in anticipation of a Japanese amphibious invasion, the pistol becomes a talisman, the tangible form of his hope for survival. With the pistol, he half-reasons, half-feels, he’ll have just enough advantage, just enough edge to make it through what’s ahead.

Word of his illicit firearm makes its way rapidly through the company, and Mast’s fellow soldiers fixate on taking it for themselves, by force if necessary. Most of them deliver variations on the same argument: “I need the pistol more than you because . . .” The repeated arguments and the symbolic role of the pistol could easily push the novella too far into allegory, but Jones pays such close attention to the details of life and work that the story doesn't ever come unmoored from reality. It’s a quick read and, if you’ve been interested in Jones but unwilling to commit the time to From Here to Eternity or The Thin Red Line, it would be a good starting point, giving a glimpse of his understanding of human motivations and of how men behave under pressure.

Logic would have led me from The Pistol to Eric Ambler’s Journey into Fear (1940), which was sitting on my table and would have kept up some of the tone and subject of the Greene and the Jones, concerning as it does an English armaments engineer who finds himself caught up in World War II intrigue. But that will have to wait, because Christmas intervened, and for Christmas Stacey got me Steven Johnson’s The Ghost Map (2006). It tells the story of the London cholera epidemic of 1854 and Dr. John Snow’s discovery that cholera is transmitted through contaminated water. In recent weeks I'd discussed the book with friends who, like me, knew some of the story from Edward Tufte’s discussion in Visual Explanation of the map of mortality that Snow drew up as part of his evidence. But whereas Tufte was primarily interested in the successful information design of Snow’s map, Johnson tells, in gripping fashion, the larger story of the epidemic and what Snow’s discovery reveals about history, innovation, science, intuition, and human thought in general.

Johnson presents Snow (and the mostly forgotten Reverend Henry Whitehead, whose work, both independently and with Snow, contributed greatly to the ultimate vindication of Snow’s theory) as a consilient thinker, someone who, by being interested in all fields and—more important—willing to apply insights from one field of study to a problem in another—was able to see connections and draw conclusions that other scientists and medical professionals of the era, blinded by received wisdom, were simply unable to see. As Johnson presents the evidence, it is extremely hard to understand how anyone could fail to accept Snow’s conclusions. Yet many extremely smart and educated people refused to surrender their adherence to the longstanding theory that disease was caused by “miasma” emanating from the slums.

As Johnson explores that blindness, the book becomes more than just good popular history. Johnson is fascinated by the question of how ideas come together and how various factors, from individual temperaments to religion to social thought to urban planning (or lack thereof) aid or hinder the furthering of knowledge and the acceptance of ideas. As he explains,
This is how great intellectual breakthroughs usually happen in practice. It is rarely the isolated genius having a eureka moment alone in the lab. Nor is it merely a question of building on precedent, of standing on the shoulders of giants, in Newton’s famous phrase. Great breakthroughs are closer to what happens in a flood plain: a dozen separate tributaries converge, and the rising waters lift the genius high enough that he or she can see around the conceptual obstructions of the age.
By the conclusion of the book, a Jane Jacobs-driven paean to urban living, The Ghost Map has become as much a book about ideas and knowledge in general as about the 1854 cholera epidemic itself. It's a success in both regards.

And, finally, where will The Ghost Map lead me? Well, one reason I had been discussing it earlier in the month with my friend Maggie is that she was reading Robinson Crusoe, which led to us talking about Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year (1722), which led to The Ghost Map. And I've never read A Journal of the Plague Year. . .

And now you understand why I’ll never get everything on my shelves read.

1 comment:

  1. sarah2:38 PM

    Speaking of connections, while reading Ghost Map I flashed back to a modern medical thriller I read a few years back. Death of Innocents is in part about a very creepy case of Munchausen-by-proxy misidentified as SIDS. (Lots and lots of SIDS. In one family.)

    But really it's about how scientists, in pursuit of the next big find, can twist research to match their theories, often changing public behavior in unexpected and harmful ways.