This blog represents most of the newspaper columns (appearing in various Colorado Community Newspapers and Yourhub.com) written by me, James LaRue, during the time in which I was the director of the Douglas County Libraries in Douglas County, Colorado. (Some columns are missing, due to my own filing errors.) This blog covers the time period from April 11, 1990 to January 12, 2012.

Unless I say so, the views expressed here are mine and mine alone. They may be quoted elsewhere, so long as you give attribution. The dates are (at least according my records) the dates of publication in one of the above print newspapers.

The blog archive (web view) is in chronological order. The display of entries, below, seems to be in reverse order, new to old.

All of the mistakes are of course my own responsibility.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

January 21, 2010 - reading is science and magic

I'm a pretty fast reader. Because of that, I usually only read one book at a time. (That also helps me keep the characters and plots straight.)

But last weekend, I broke the pattern, in part because the formats of the books were so different.

One book was "The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science," by Richard Holmes. It's a non-fiction title. The other was "The Alchemy of Stone," by Ekaterina Sedia. It's a fantasy novel.

The books were themselves a fascinating contrast. "The Age of Wonder" was about what was going on in Europe around the time of the American Revolution. I had no idea! The first visits by Europeans to Tahiti. The discovery of the planet Uranus by a musician turned telescope maker, assisted by his younger sister, who became a famous comet-spotter. The exploration of the effects of nitrous oxide -- by the same man who later solved a devastating problem for miners by inventing the safety light. (Interestingly, it never occurred to this man that nitrous oxide might be used to deal with an utterly common issue of the time -- the absence of any kind of anesthesia.)

Sprinkled throughout the tale were a host of Romantic poets, among them Coleridge, Shelley, and Byron. Yet these poets were also caught up in the scientific fervor of the day -- Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein" (arguably one of the first science fiction novels) being one example.

Holmes's writing is supple, incisive, and sympathetic. He makes the characters of the time wonderfully vivid, both human and heroic.

The second book was the haunting tale of life in a very different reality. The main character is Mattie, "a clockwork woman." She was originally designed and built by her troubled and mysterious creator as a household automaton. Gradually he made her smarter, smart enough to talk with. But soon Mattie seeks her emancipation, the right to pursue her own career as an alchemist. Then, she is approached by the gargoyle guardians of the city, who are slowly dying as they turn to stone. Can Mattie help them?

As she undertakes to do so, she must negotiate a growing conflict between the Mechanics and the Alchemists, hold conversations with ghosts swallowed by a blind opium-smoker, experience the first giddy intersection of love and sex, and manage her relationship with her creator. That last is particularly poignant. Despite having freed her, he keeps one thing Mattie desperately longs for: the key to her wind-up heart.

So I spent the weekend alternating between the world of science, and the world of fantasy.

But I mentioned another difference. Although I checked out both of the books from the library, I was reading "The Age of Wonder" on a Sony Reader. (Click "eMedia2Go" from our home page.) "The Alchemy of Stone" was an oversize paperback.

And somehow, that was part of the unique experience of each. I was able to immerse myself in the experience of reading an ebook, where I got caught up in the text itself, not the device.

It still wasn't as easy to read as print on paper. Part of that may be simple familiarity. I'm used to paper. I'm still learning the ebook. There are many things that are useful on the Sony: tap a word twice to look it up in the dictionary, tap the top of the screen to make a bookmark, sweep your thumb across the edge to turn the page. But the contrast of ink on paper is sharper, brighter, clearer, less irritatingly reflective, then e-ink.

What stayed with me, beyond the sheer intelligence and insight of both these books, was the fact that reading is somehow independent of the format. We make meaning, we understand the world and ourselves better, we inhabit whole universes, just by rolling our eyes over smudges.

The physics of all that is pretty interesting. But for me, it still feels like magic.

LaRue's Views are his own.

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