my vacation reading

As I type these words it’s 8:40 a.m. in North Vancouver on this last day of 2012. Outside it’s 1° C, and still twilight. It’s a working day, but I hear no traffic. In my book Truth of the Python I use the phrase “that sense of domestic hibernation between Christmas and New Year”, and that is what prevails here.

I’m on vacation. I recognized this belatedly after Christmas when I didn’t feel like reading the books I had going in my stack: Shakespeare, Aristotle, A Study of History, and so on. No, I realized I wanted some vacation reading.

What counts as vacation reading for me? People used to talk about “beach books”, fat bestsellers that you take to the beach on your summer vacation to pass the time. In my old blog I described how I have lost the ability to read potboilers for pleasure. But now I realize that I do need a break from my regular “work-related” reading after all. So what do I fill my break with?

I asked myself, What kind of thing do you feel like reading? I wanted to read something journalistic. But on what topic? Politics? Science?

The first book to pop into my head was The World Without Us by Alan Weisman, a paperback I bought in October 2008, when it had become fairly famous, praised by Time magazine and Scientific American, as I recall. The premise is alluring: a sustained thought-experiment to imagine what would happen on Earth if the human race were suddenly to vanish. Interesting though I found this idea, I only made it to page 102 when I bought the book before I discovered that I was no longer reading it and shelved it. Now I thought it might fit the bill for vacation reading, so I pulled it from the science shelves here in my office wall bookcase, and dove back in.

I’d chosen well. Even though the author spends a lot of time talking about things other than just what the world will look like minus Homo sapiens, I enjoy his vivid, fast-moving journalistic style. Just flipping back now to find the last passage I highlighted. It’s from page 194, in chapter 11, “The World Without Farms”:

in a rural landscape rushing to meet the dietary demands of a rapidly growing urban industrial society, farmers no longer had the luxury of raising enough dairy cows and pigs to produce the requisite tons of organic manure. Throughout 19th-century Europe, farmers desperately sought food for their grain and vegetables. South Pacific islands were stripped of centuries of accumulated guano; stables were scoured for droppings. According to von Liebig, both horse and human bones from the Battle of Waterloo were ground and applied to crops.

(Passage slightly compressed due to my highlights.)

It’s a good example of how Weisman treats his subject: by preparing for glimpses of a posthuman future by delving into the details of our human past. I like his actual writing, and there are not too many writers I can say that about. So I’m pleased to sail on with it for my vacation.

But since my reading attention-span is not very long, I need more than one book to fill up my reading block each day. What else could I add to my vacation stack? I prowled my shelves for more. I felt that I was open to reading even more science, a subject area I used to read all the time.

This time I chose Power, Sex, Suicide: Mitochondria and the Meaning of Life by Nick Lane, a paperback I picked up in June. It was an impulse purchase that I made while buying another book online. The Amazon trick of presenting you with other books during the checkout process worked this time. I’m interested in cellular biology and have long been curious about the organelles called mitochondria—the power-plants of our bodies. Here was a highly rated book on them, so I clicked to add it to my cart.

I bought it, but I didn’t read it. With so many other books on the go, I just couldn’t fit it into my schedule, not even to try the first few pages, so I shelved it in the “library” (three Ikea Billy bookshelves standing in the storage room by our deep-freeze). Now, vacation-time, was a chance to give this thing a try. So brought it upstairs and dove in.

And so far, so good. Lane has that quality that I’ve noted in some scientists I’ve known of having an eagerness for his topic that manifests in a desire to make you understand it clearly. He’s excited by the connections that he thinks mitochondria have to questions about evolution, the origins of life and consciousness, and the existence of intelligent life in the universe. It’s a technical subject but Lane explains things clearly and does his best to impart vividness with similes and analogies.

A sampler? My latest highlights, again compressed, from pages 41–42:

More than a thousand species of primitive eukaryotes do not possess mitochondria. To generate energy, most of these cells depend on fermentations in the same way as yeast. While a few of them tolerate oxygen, most grow best at very low levels or even in the complete absence of the gas. Cavalier-Smith named this hypothetical group the “archezoa” in deference to their ancient roots and their animal-like, scavenging mode of living, as well as their similarities to the archaea. Four groups of primitive-looking eukaryotes, which not only lacked mitochondria but also most other organelles, were confirmed by genetic analysis to be amongst the oldest of the eukaryotes.

(For the curious: a eukaryote is a cell that possesses a nucleus: the kind of cell from which all multicellular living things, plant and animal, are made.)

No regrets here either. I’ll keep reading.

My reading period still not filled, I hunted out another book. This time I chose The Great War for Civilisation by Robert Fisk, a massive (1368 pages) memoir of the journalist’s career covering the Middle East. Here again is brisk journalistic writing, this time offering an eyewitness account of key events in this sensitive geopolitical trouble spot. I bought this book in June 2008, having spotted it on the shelves at Chapters-Indigo at Park Royal. I made it 158 pages in before my interest had moved on and I was obliged to shelve it. Now I’m ready to pick it up again.

I’m in chapter 5, “The Path to War”, about Iraq. Fisk is talking about the history leading up to the most recent Iraq wars. And here is my last highlight, from page 179:

Lawrence remarked in a 1920 letter to the Observer that “these risings take a regular course. There is a preliminary Arab success, then British reinforcements go out as a punitive force. They fight their way (our losses are slight, the Arab losses heavy) to their objective, which is meanwhile bombarded by artillery, aeroplanes, or gunboats.” This same description entirely fits American military operations in Iraq in 2004, once the occupying powers and their puppet governments lost control of most of Iraq.

(The Lawrence mentioned here is T. E. Lawrence—Lawrence of Arabia.)

So there you have it: my vacation reading as I sit each evening by the fireside, sipping my green tea and later red wine, the little Christmas tree lit beside me. May you enjoy such pleasures in your life.

And an excellent 2013 to you.

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