Thursday, January 7, 2010

Continuing education, part I

I have begun my quest to continue to read works of nonfiction even though no one is making me do so for a class, and to read outside of the areas which I normally gravitate to. (I'm thinking of this project as like being back in grad school, only this time I get to pick the syllabus.) It's going very well so far.

The first book I chose to read was The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science by Richard Holmes. I decided to read this book because while I'm interested in the Romantic era, I don't know nearly enough about it, and because I have been missing reading about science. The Age of Wonder was a phenomenal book. I can easily understand why it had been shortlisted for prizes and why I have seen it on so many best-of lists. Holmes profiles key people in a number of scientific fields - anthropology, chemistry, astronomy, aeronautics - and gives a sense not only of the people working in these fields, but of the culture of science during the Romantic period. I was astounded at just how much was discovered during this time, and in awe of the people who risked their lives for the sake of knowledge. Holmes also shows how the culture of science was intertwined with philosophy and literature. Coleridge, Byron, Percy and Mary Shelley make regular appearances in these pages as well. In fact, my favorite chapter was "Dr Frankenstein and the Soul." The Age of Wonder is a brilliant and beautiful work, and I'm very glad I read it.

I also read Spook by Mary Roach. People have been recommending Roach's books to me for a while now, and I decided to start with this one because what happens after death plays a large role in the novel I'm currently working on. I didn't read Spook for research in the normal sense, but more for atmosphere and flavor. It was absolutely delightful. Roach's genuine curiosity comes through on the page, and she gives the sense that the most important thing is learning the answer, no matter how strange the learning process or how odd the eventual answer is. In an area where so many aspects of the subject could have been held up to ridicule, Roach treats everything and everyone involved with respect, from the scientists involved in soul-weighing to the modern research being done on near death experiences. I enjoyed reading this so much that I am now reading Roach's book on cadavers, Stiff.

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