Monday, September 29, 2008

The Map that Changed the World: William Smith and the Birth of Modern Geology / Simon Winchester -- NY: Harper Collins, 2001.

The Map that Changed the World by Simon Winchester is really about the man who made the map that changed the world: William Smith. It's an illuminating biography of an 18th century miner and canal builder who hailed from the working class. Smith comes to recognize the repeated sequences of rock lying just below England's topsoil. From these observations, he develops a theory of the history of rock formation and sets out on a long project to map the geology of the British Isles.

Winchester's prose is often repetative and sensational. The early pages read like a poorly written trailer to a movie that you know can't possibly be as good as the trailer suggests. In the end, though, Winchester portrays Smith's life well enough for the reader to understand Smith to be a complex character, incapable of writing the book that would establish his place in the history of science. Instead, Smith's place is established by his authorship of a magnificent map. Even here, the map is only produced when it is sponsored by the leading map maker of the time.

The book combines biography with accounts of class relations in late-Georgian England and a smattering of the fundamental principles of geology. The main story is centered on Smith's life-long struggle to make a living and his roller coaster relationship with his patrons in the English aristocracy. Smith comes off as a gifted geologist and hydrologist, but a pathetic business person and academic scientist. All in all it was not the page turner I had desired, but it was interesting enough, especially for how it illuminated the circumstances surrounding the foundation of the science of geology. I would have appreciated a bit more geology (or even the technicalities of map making) and a little less biography.

Monday, September 22, 2008

From the Holy Mountain: A Journey Among the Christians of the Middle East / William Dalrymple -- N.Y.: Holt,1997.

William Dalrymple’s From The Holy Mountain: A Journey Among the Christians of the Middle East combines two of my favorite book genres: history and travel. The book records Dalrymple’s 1994 attempt to follow Byzantine traveler-monk John Moschos and his pupil, Sophronius the Sophist, on their extraordinary late 6th century journey across the Eastern Byzantine world. Moschos’ goal was to gather and record the wisdom of the Christian desert fathers of the Byzantine East before that world disappeared. His book The Spiritual Meadow is a collection of the stories, sayings, and anecdotes that he collected during those wanderings among the monasteries and hermitages of the Levant. Dalrymple weaves Moscos’ anecdotes with his own in a poignant witness to the fate of the successors of those 6th century Christians.

Like Dalrymple, Moschos and Sophronius traveled at a pivotal and dangerous time in the history of the Middle East. The declining Byzantine Empire was being attacked from the west by Slavs, Goths, Lombards and Avars, while in the east Sassanian Persia and raids from desert nomads were disrupting life. Moschos records monasteries burned and populations slaughtered or sold into slavery. Many of the great cities of the East, cities such as Antioch and Tyre, had decayed to mere backwaters. More significantly perhaps, Moschos was an almost exact contemporary to Mohammed. In fact, his young companion on the journey, Sophronius the Sophist was eventually appointed Patriarch of Jerusalem and defended the city against the first army of Islam as it emerged from Arabia to defeat all before it.

The conflict between modern day Islamic states and Israel dominates our current understanding of the Middle East. The fate of practitioners of third major religion to arise in the Middle East, Christianity, seldom occurs to us. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam share a common heritage. They have many common prophets, holy spaces, and even practices; all are mid-eastern religions. Dalrymple goes so far as to state the Islam actually preserves very ancient Christian ritual; he observes that John Moschos would feel more “at home” with Suni Islamic ritual practices than with those practiced in many of the modern Christian churches. Yet Christians, be they Armenian, Palestianian, Syriac, Coptic, or Maronite are being driven from their historic homelands.

Dalrymple witnesses to their suffering and dispossession. In Turkey and Palestine, at current emigration rates, it is probable that neither Christian community will exist by 2020. In Lebanon and Egypt, the larger size of the Christian population predicts that they will exist longer, but they are experiencing decreasing influence. Only in Syria did he see a “confident” Christian population, but they fear a severe backlash whenever Asad’s repressive regime collapses. Dalrymple points out Moschos’ significance as observer and recorder of the”beginning of the end” for Christians in the historic home of Christianity. He sees his own journey as witness to the end of that fourteen hundred year Christian exodus.

Dalrymple weaves a fascinating blend of history, politics, travel, and spirituality. He successfully evokes the clouds of incense and mystery of Orthodox worship, the dry and cruel landscapes preferred by 6th century ascetics, and the terror of traveling where wandering bands of insurgents shoot foreigners. The stories from The Spiritual Meadow greatly enhanced the story of Dalrymple’s own journey. This is a terrific book (one that I’ve actually read twice). What is missing in this book is a map. Travel books must have maps.

Monday, September 15, 2008

The World Without Us / Alan Weisman -- NY: St. Martin's, 2007.

Alan Weisman's The World Without Us is based on the implausible premise that all human beings on the planet might suddenly and simultaneously disappear. What then? How much of what we have created will remain and for how long? As absurd as such a premise is, the inquiry sheds light on the ecological role of humans on the planet and how we have and have not irreversably changed it. Weisman writes that many of the non-native plants that we established in one place or another will, in time, lose ground to the native plants. Others will survive. Domesticated farm animals will be easy targets for a regenerated population of preditors. Dogs will not survive, but cats might.

Some of his most interesting passages describe the slow decay of buildings and their eventual complete decomposition. He compares the probable lifespan of specific artificial substances and comes to some rather interesting conclusions. For example, in time, little of Phoenix, Arizona will remain in a regenerated dessert but shards of glass and fire hydrants. The longest lasting materials will be plastics and nuclear waste. Both will continue to be deadly dangers to the remaining, recovering, or newly evolving species left behind.

Plastics will not retain their present form. Instead, they will decompose, but this will mean only that they will fragment into smaller and smaller peices. At first this seems benign, but Weisman points out that while we are familiar with birds and other animals that die because they mistakenly swallow plastic artifacts, the decomposition of these artifacts means that smaller and smaller animals will become the victims of our plastics. Plastic is the substance "that keeps on killing." The long-lived danger of nuclear waste is, of course, well known.

Among Weisman's more interesting observations is that much of the existing built world remains only because of constant maintanence by people. For example, without a constant supply of electricity, pumps that daily evacuate water from the New York subway system would fail, and much of system would flood. Water damage would cause widespread collapse of structures over and around the subway lines.

The World Without Us is not, however, a single coherent story. Weisman runs off on frequent tangents that make grasping the whole of the work difficult. After some of these tangents, he appears to recall that he is writing about the world without us and offers a tenuous link between his tangent and the main theme. Unfortunately, this hodge-podge structure is all too common in books I have read recently. It's as though authors don't quite have enough material on a subject to fill 250-300 pages, and are given the freedom by their editors to throw in whatever interesting padding they can vaguely relate to the book's subject. It makes me long for solid sustained treatments of a single subject.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

The Queen's Empire, or Ind and Her Pearl / Joseph Moore -- Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott, 1886.

Travel logs can be quite entertaining, but when they were written long ago, one not only gets a glimpse of the visited world, but one gets a glimpse of the traveler's world. This is certainly true of The Queen's Empire by Joseph Moore. Moore opens his narrative by telling us how he indignantly protested the lack of adequate food service on a slow train trip in Colorado. The vignette sets the stage for reading the account of a haughty American traveler, making his way from London to Ceylon (present day Sri Lanka.) Along the way we see his racism, classism, and ethnocentrism, along with a healthy dose of anglophilia. It's a stark reminder of the attitudes current in the privileged classes in late 19th century America.

Nonetheless, Moore gives a fascinating account of his travels in Italy, Egypt, India, and Ceylon, especially the latter two countries. His travels in India take him from Bombay to Dehli, and across the country to Calcutta. He gives lucid accounts of the people and sights along the way, including the Taj Mahal, temples, and a British fort. From Calcutta, he travels north to Darjeeling and the Himalayas where he spends a week at the foot of Kanchinjanga, the world's second highest mountain. Finally, he travels by steamer down the eastern coast of India, stopping at Madras and continuing to Ceylon.

Throughout the account, Moore gives special attention to the religious views, rites, and customs he encounters, particularly those of Zoroastrianism, Hinduism, and Buddhism. Perhaps his most vivid writing comes at the very end of the book, where he describes the capture of wild elephants in Ceylon. The captors (with the cooperation of tame elephants) patiently herd the elephants to an encloser where two ropes are tied around their back legs. In time, they are chained to a tame elephant and taken away for sale.

In the process, Moore describes the death of one man and two elephants. The man, of course, is crushed by an angry elephant. Of the elephants, one received a mortal wound from a rifle. Here is Moore's description of the death of the other: the elephant "writhed, screamed, tore at the foliage, pawed the earth, tossed clouds of dust over her back, flung her trunk about fiercely, and planted her head upon the ground for leverage to rend asunder the bonds. At length she fell, in exhaustion, anguish, and despair, and lay motionless and resigned. The natives well knew that these symptoms forebode the loss of their prize. She panted for an hour or more, sighed deeply, and died--of 'broken heart.'"

Moore's engaging prose is accompanied by drawings and photographs on 52 plates and a fine foldout map of India and Ceylon.