I read probably half of the book and initially enjoyed it, but it seems Mitchell's style and content works best in smaller measures, such as the New YI read probably half of the book and initially enjoyed it, but it seems Mitchell's style and content works best in smaller measures, such as the New Yorker. After a few hundred pages, I got the feeling that it was just going to be more of the same......more
I'd heard about this fellow's work from several directions before I ever picked up the book (one of my oldest friends has agreed to donate his body toI'd heard about this fellow's work from several directions before I ever picked up the book (one of my oldest friends has agreed to donate his body to this research facility), and I was frankly enamored with the idea (of the research facility, not the donation).
I was actually mildly disappointed with the scale of his facility -- I had imagined it as a huge spread, out in the wilds of southern Appalachia, with various experiments scattered in the hollows and tucked away at the end of meandering paths.
Sort of like a hiking area the Adamms family might enjoy.
The memoir approach also surprised me, but it worked quite well, since Bass's career certainly had drama to it.
But, still, the book didn't work as well as I expected. I blame the editors, since Bass must remain the hero in this story, but it is too bad he didn't get a better book out of this.
(The review in the Economist which recommended this book to me is here, and their obituary of Kapuściński is also available, here.)
I’ve recently been(The review in the Economist which recommended this book to me is here, and their obituary of Kapuściński is also available, here.)
I’ve recently been categorizing my reading material into “fast” and “slow”, but after reading Kapuściński’s Travels with Herodotus I think I need to rethink the “slow” category.
Fast books are those that pull you along without any effort — page-turners. Slow books are those that take more time. Sometimes when I glance at the stack of books waiting their turn on the bedside table that seems to be a bad thing, but it really isn’t. I like it when my book forces me to pause, stare into the middle distance, and ponder. If I’m reading fiction, that’s one of the ways I define the difference between “literature” and just-plain-fiction.
But Travels with Herodotus revealed a problem with this. It’s slowness is hidden. It would be fairly easy to read the book as one might read an article in some airline’s in-flight magazine. On the face of it, this is a memoir of a famous reporter who witnessed some very dramatic events in what we often think of as “troubled” areas of the world. His previous books have taken us behind the scenes that we might see in the evening news, and he is justly famous for showing the human side of this history.
Of course, there is the curious inclusion of Herodotus, but it would be easy to see this just as a gimmick, an unusual device. He tells us that Herodotus was the first witness to globalization. And that he was not really what we consider a historian today, but more of a chronicler, or even a reporter.
But Kapuściński is writing a book that also works at a deeper level. He doesn’t require this. It is conceivable that he isn’t even aware of it, but he coyly makes the point on page 219:
... one must read Herodotus’s book — and every great book — repeatedly; with each reading it will reveal another layer, previously overlooked themes, images, and meanings. For within every great book there are several others.
Kapuściński undoubtedly suspected this would be his last book, and it seems certain he wanted this to be a “great” book. In this context, Herodotus has a further role to play: to show how little has changed for the individual when great events crash in like a breaking wave — or seep in like a rising flood.
However, when looking for the subtext here is that one can never be certain it is there at all. It isn’t as though there’s a great white whale that is symbolic of something or other. When Kapuściński is telling us a story about Herodotus, sometimes if you pause and consider what Kapuściński was living through at the time, parallels creep in. Or the link might be to the place, not the time.
Just one example: near the end of the book Kapuściński is in Algiers discussing the clash between east and west, between Islam and Christianity, between the tolerant Islam of the merchants and traders and the xenophobic faith of the shepherds and nomads of the desert. Then in the next chapter, on page 232, he tells us he is now in the Eastern Mediterranean and conveys Herodotus’s record of the despair of a warrior, about to die in a superfluous battle between east and west, and knowing how useless his death will be: There’s no more terrible pain a man can endure than to see clearly and be able to do nothing. As I’m reading this, the region is yet again in the headlines, with blood being shed in the chronic conflict. Perhaps it is just a coincidence that this anecdote is told while the author is in this area, but I’m fairly sure the author deserves a lot more credit than that.
But there isn’t always a connection — sometimes the bigger picture is the point. Herodotus was exploring a world that no one had yet documented. And Kapuściński’s first explorations are equally naive — his first visits to India and China have an almost Kafka-esque surrealness in his lack of any knowledge of his surroundings.
What Travels with Herodotus reminded me of, oddly, was Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. Both books can be read at a superficial level, as mere stories of what happened as recorded on the page. But to a modern reader, these books read in this way will be slow, dull things. Pedestrian, quotidian, and disappointing.
Which gets back to the distinction among slow books. Some are slow but still do the work for you, still draw you back into a plot that is inexorably moving forward. War and Peace, for example, or Jude the Obscure.
But Kapuściński’s memoir, like Proust’s, isn’t so yielding of its secrets. There are two old men here, neither of which was interested in the ephemeral, and whose stories told in conjunction have a depth, like layers of shellac, that goes beyond the shiny surface of the written text. You’ll have to decide on your own when to pause and reflect, when to recall what you know of history, of geography, of the cultures that might illuminate or be illuminated by the story. If you simply turn the page without asking, you’ll only get the passive story.
This is not a book for the impatient reader. ...more
This was a curiously fractured book. Those moderately rare folks expecting the subject to stay close to the title will be surprised: although PoundstoThis was a curiously fractured book. Those moderately rare folks expecting the subject to stay close to the title will be surprised: although Poundstone does spend quite a bit of time and text explaining the Prisoner's Dilemma (the archetypal game theoretic problem), this is almost as much a biography of the scientist John Von Neumann.
The nexus is the cold war fascination with the PD as a mechanism for strategic analysis of the arms race. Unfortunately, game theory was seized upon as a means of understanding long before academia (economics, mathematicians, philosophers, political scientists) actually understood what the games had to tell us in the abstract, thus horribly warping what we thought we could learn about interacting with the enemy. (Specifically, early examiners hadn't yet seen how iterated games radically changed the strategies and tactics of play.)
For most folks, Poundstone's book is weaker for the confusion. The tale isn't told well enough to draw the reader in, so only those who arrive already interested in each of the topic areas examined will tolerate the union.