Recent Readings

This is more of a “status” post than a topical one.  My time for “thinking” has become spread out over a broad space of activities, with a particular focus on my astronomy hobby and the course I’m running for children, as well as a significant increase in the level of thought devoted to my occupation.  This has reduced the intensity with which I’ve been pursuing big-picture thinking; I’ve fallen into a sort-of autopilot mode.  This phase will end, but for now my stimulus remains the material I’m reading.

My current “large” reading project is the fourth volume of Durant’s History of Civilization – “The Age of Faith”.  I’m finding this particular volume to be really slow going, in part because my reading time has shrunk a bit, but that in turn is in part because this reading is, well, boring.  What is of some interest (and may become a more complete topic later on) is the history and core philosophy of Islam.  This isn’t new information for me, but in the current world context it is more relevant now than the last time I exposed myself to this history (in some other work).  My interest this time around centers on these themes:

  1. Islam in its original form nominally supported a laissez-faire economy – what caused this to change?
  2. What caused the fall of the “golden age” of Islam, when most of what we know of the classical world was retained only through the translation of works by the Islamic society?  Just when the Islamic world was beginning to make an impact on scientific thought, the progress ceased.

In parallel with this reading, I’ve started reading e-books once again.  The recent acquisition (Christmas) of an ITouch ensures that I’ll be doing quite a bit more with e-books in the short term, as the Kindle reader is SO much more useable than Microsoft Reader on the Dell Axim (which is still a fine PDA, just becoming dated and starting to fail).  In the past month, I’ve read Billy Budd (Melville), All Around the Moon (Verne), Journey to Other Worlds (Astor), and currently Michael Strogoff, Courier of the Czar (Verne).

Each of these contained surprises.  Billy Budd remains a great timeless story of the balance between ethics and military discipline.  An exceptional English merchant sailor is impressed into naval service, runs afoul of an evil officer of the Navy who dislikes him because of his exceptional character, and ends up killing the officer with a single blow when the officer accuses him of assisting in plotting a non-existant mutiny.  At a time following a recent mutiny elsewhere in the Navy, the military law is strictly enforced, which makes striking an officer (no less killing him) a capital offense, regardless of cause or circumstance.  The required sentence is carried out.  Is this an ethical outcome? I believe the answer to be unclear.

Jules Verne has always been a fascinatingly confusing author, and these two works just add to that confusion.  “All Around the Moon” was published some 5 years after the more famous work “From the Earth to the Moon”.  In the earlier work, preparations for a launch of a spacecraft, using a ballistic cannon, are completed after a lengthy development of technology and inter-personal politics (note that I have NOT read this earlier book).  Apparently, at the very end of “From the Earth to the Moon”, the launch occurs successfully, but nothing is said about the fate of the voyage.  “All Around the Moon” recounts the voyage itself.  This is a fascinatingly boring book – Verne takes the story as a stage on which to narrate at exhausting length on the physics of spaceflight.  He is amazingly accurate on many of the topics that he covers, especially because he is completely mistaken about some of the fundamental physics involved.  He uses a ballistic approach to achieving escape velocity, even makes approximately the correct calculation, but has the occupants of the spacecraft continually experiencing the force of gravity, holding their feet to the floor toward the Earth until they reach a “neutral point”, then flipping over to have the base of the craft, and the gravitational force, pointed toward the Moon.  Very surprising that he did not understand that during ballistic flight one always experiences “free fall” (weightlessness).  To make the story even less appealing, the spacecraft misses the Moon due to the gravitational influence of a “comet”, and winds up in the Pacific Ocean after circumnavigating the Moon.

In Michael Strogoff, Courier of the Czar, we get the “other” Verne.  This is an adventure story, along the lines of “20000 Leagues Under the Sea”, while “All Around the Moon” is in line with “Around the World in 80 Days”, which I recall to be another fascinatingly boring book.  But Verne’s adventure stories are truly excellent, and Strogoff is a wonderful book to read.  A combination of a predictable plot outline – Strogoff needs to travel from Moscow to Irkust as quickly and quietly as possible, and we know this within the first 5 pages – and a good dose of mystery and suspense – there is a Tartar rebellion that threatens the Czar’s brother in Irkust, and the rebel leader is traveling in disguise – add together intricately to keep the reader glued to the story (or in my case, the screen).

What I can’t understand is how one author can have created both of these streams of work – and honestly, how monstrousities like Around the World in 80 Days can be considered great works.  I understand that Verne’s publisher (Hetzel) had a great influence on his writing, but both All Around the Moon (as well as the earlier part of that story) and Strogoff were published by Hetzel, so this is not the explanation.

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