Category Archives: On the Bookshelf

UNDERLAND

A powerful book, this, and beautifully written.  Author Robert Macfarlane explores the caverns, crypts, mines, tombs, glacial caves, underground nuclear waste storage facilities (!), subterranean rivers, and forest root systems beneath our unknowing feet. He meets able guides in all these realms, people who know their way through the caves or mines or catacombs.  And he ponders how human technology can change the world.  The striking book cover painting represents a holloway – a road so well traveled that it’s worn way down into the ground.  Specifically, it’s looking through a holloway toward a nuclear blast.

Highly recommended.

HOUSTON, SPACE CITY USA

Texas A & M University Press 2019

Here’s a book of photographs of Houston emphasizing the connection to the Apollo program. The photos are as inevitable as astronauts, as exuberant as the space-themed murals and painted traffic signal control boxes around town, and as subtle as the Hermann Park statue of Sam Houston pointing east – toward  a full moon in the night sky.  In addition to the photos, author Ray Viator includes well-researched information about the inception of Johnson Space Center and its ties with area universities and research centers. But the images are why I leafed through the book again and again. Not sure which was my fave, but maybe the Hubble-telescope-inspired, meteor-fragment-containing window at Webster Presbyterian Church.

Recommended!

 

BECAUSE INTERNET

To the strict constructionists who think the Internet, including email, texting, Twitter, and all, is ruining the written language – this book says, “Well, no.” Author Gretchen McCulloch is a linguist who approaches Internet language as more like informal speech than like composed, grammatical writing. For once in the history of linguistics, there’s plenty of such material for her analysis. The informal, spoken word very seldom got documented in ages past.  Now it does.  She has real fun with it all and makes the reader better appreciate the casual, fluid, inventive qualities of Internet language and, for that matter, everyday speech.  Recommended!

 

BUILT

Here is a recent (2018) and wonderfully interesting book about structural engineering.  Yes, that topic is interesting – HIGHLY interesting when it come to skyscrapers!  The author, a structural engineer involved with notable projects including London’s towering new skyscraper, the Shard, shares her wonder at bricks and concrete, spider webbing and wind loading, bridges, and  the sorts of calculation that are crucial to the structures of civilization.  She takes the reader around the world to see notable buildings from ancient to modern times. And she looks into the American past to salute Emily Warren Roebling, the defacto chief engineer of the Brooklyn Bridge.  Recommended!

Lenten Sacrifice

 

Some of you may know that I am neither Christian nor Jewish nor Buddhist, nor a conventionally religious person of any sort. I am a humanist, which means, in part, that I have tried to behave decently without any expectation of rewards or punishments after I’m dead. … I myself have written, “If it weren’t for the message of mercy and pity in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, I wouldn’t want to be a human being. I would just as soon be a rattlesnake.”

–Kurt Vonnegut

A quarter century ago Peter Menzel published his remarkable book, Material World.  Subtitled A Global Family Portrait, it portrayed statistically average families representing thirty nations.  The most memorable feature of the book was a series of photographs of each family’s worldly goods:  they’d emptied their homes for the photographers and deposited all of their material possessions in front of the homes so that these fascinating collections, meager or extensive, could be photographed.

Think of all of the objects you have in your home.  Almost  every one of those items arrived with the promise that it would in some way make your life richer, fuller, better.

And almost without exception, every one of these items ended up with you taking care of it:  you have to wash it, wax it, renew its registration, dust it, change its oil or its batteries, update its software, or otherwise service it in some way.  Possessions we acquired to make our lives better now possess us instead.

It is the season of Lent when many liturgical Christians give something up.  I once worked with a woman who faithfully gave up chocolate for Lent every year.  A friend of mine – a Lutheran minister – gives up Facebook  for Lent.  Imagine that – more time to interact with flesh and blood friends and family in person!  (Wasn’t Facebook’s original premise that it would help us stay connected?)

It occurs to me that giving up whatever promised to make our lives better, but doesn’t serves us as intended, is worth doing. For example:  fear’s original purpose was to help us human beings survive in a dangerous world.  But some fears we may own now are, like snowmobiles and salad shooters, far more trouble than they’re worth. What if we gave up some of our fears for Lent?

Suppose we gave up our fear of being found out for who we really are?  The fear of being different,  unlovable, hopelessly inadequate, or too strange for anyone to like us? Jesus emphatically said, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Meaning we are worth being loved by ourselves. And what if we gave up our fear of our neighbor? You know, the one whose skin color, foreign origins, socio-economic class, politics, or sexuality prompts useless, burdensome fear.

We might find that once Lent is over we don’t need to resume these fears. Or at least that they wouldn’t stick to us quite as stubbornly after Easter Sunday.

Today, April 11, is the twelfth anniversary of Kurt Vonnegut’s death.

THE WHOLE STORY OF CLIMATE

 

This is a remarkable book with lucid, approachable geological science. It’s written in a way that shows the author’s passion for geology and for teaching. She also folds in memorable vignettes about the lives of figures whose discoveries paved the way to what we know now about climate science. This is a very, very good read, and equally thought-provoking.   It methodically builds a case that the Earth’s climate is more unstable than we knew:  it can – and has, in historical eras  – drastically changed in less than a lifetime.  

Highly recommended.

SHAPESHIFTERS

Following the example of a professor who always finds really interesting nonfiction books in the Rice University library, and who checked this book back in, I just read Shapeshifters by Gavin Francis, MD. I’m glad I did. This book is an expertly guided tour of how the human body is fundamentally changeable through both natural development and different diseases. Dr. Francis tells these medical tales with fascination, compassion, and strong, clear, evocative writing. This is highly recommended reading for writers of science fiction, fantasy and mystery – there’s so much good material here!

The Card Catalog

Knowing I’d be on a panel about Libraries of the Future at the Texas Library Association Conference in Dallas this Spring, I read up on libraries of the PAST, and found this book.  Yes, it tells about the evolution of the Card Catalog through history.  The book is richly illustrated with reproductions of cards from the Library of Congress catalog, which  they have NOT done away with.  Hand-written on the old cards are scraps of bibliographic information that never made it into on-line cataloging. Recommended!

“A scholar is just a library’s way of making another library. ” – Daniel Dennett, philosopher, writer, and professor (b. 28 Mar 1942), quoted in A Word A Day.