3 Books Weekly #28: Sensuous space-time and revolutionary Yugoslavia
09.00, Tuesday 13 Sep 2016 Link to this post
The following was first posted on the 3 Books Weekly email newsletter and has since been archived here.
First things first – 3 BOOKS WEEKLY is a little late this week because I’ve got a new gig and my goodness it is eating all my thoughts. Good place to be. Counter-intuitively, it’s also done wonders for my reading: Sitting with the Kindle is a great way to relax both eyes and mind, and I am chewing through some amazing Golden Age sci-fi in the evenings.
The main event: I am super pleased to bring you recommendations from GRAND MASTER OF MEMORY Ed Cooke today. Ed is founder of gorgeous learning startup Memrise, on Twitter as @tedcooke, and– Hang on, I hear you say, Grand Master of what now???
Yeah. This is somewhat weird. Read about it on Wikipedia. Being a Grand Master of Memory means Ed can memorise the order of 10 decks of cards in an hour. Also a 1,000 random digits. It’s insane, and it’s for this reason he pops up in odd places. I remember waking up in the middle of the night one night to Ed’s dulcet tones on the radio - I sleep with the radio on - and having that “um is this a dream” moment.
Ed tells me that one of his three picks, Ada (Nabokov), is the one he’d take to a desert island with him. Only he goes on: “Not for its first chapters, mind you, which are ludicrously turgid. Incidentally, I suspect that Nabokov, who was an awful snob, put them there to scare us ordinary readers off. Don’t be fooled.”
ALSO! This is the first time a Featured Recommender has picked a book that was previously picked. So if you like these, continue by checking out Daniel Fogg’s picks in edition #17.
Ok ok ok enough from me, on with the show.
#1. The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science, by Richard Holmes
It’s a story about the scientific revolution in late 18th century Britain – a moment in time when the nature of the world was wide-open and mysterious, the word scientist hadn’t yet been coined, and the divisions between disciplines that today chain our imaginations were entirely absent. Each chapter is a sketch of one of these proto-scientists: An adventurer, balloonist, telescope-maker, chemist, author… Take the chapter on Humphrey Davy, which reveals how his notebooks were filled with rhyming couplets, because poetry and science hadn’t yet separated; that after synthesising a chemical in the lab, he’d routinely inhale a load of it to see its effects on the mind (better for laughing gas than carbon monoxide); that he’s constantly in love. Holmes brings out the genius and fun and romance of this generation. It’s enough to help one fall in love with science again, and reconnect to a more general love for the world.
#2. Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle (Penguin Modern Classics), by Vladimir Nabokov
I’ve read Ada five times, and each time I do, I feel like I must have been half asleep on the previous occasion to have missed quite so many moments of magic. There are people on web forums who say that it keeps delivering similarly after 20 or 30 readings. Its 700-odd pages recount the story of an 80-year-long love affair (between Ada and her lover, Van, the author) set in an alternate universe of impossible cultural, social, intellectual and sexual riches. All aspects of reality - space-time, geography, science, culture - are sensuously reimagined, every dimension of human experience is dialled to the max, and the prose, oh boy, the prose is just mind-bendingly awesome and painterly and fizzing with novelty and Beethovan-level emotion. It was reading Ada that made me realise that no form of future virtual reality will ever likely out-gun reading as a tool of imagination; that reading, said differently, is the first and best form of virtual reality.
#3. Eastern Approaches (Penguin World War II Collection), by Fitzroy MaClean
The third section is the peak of Eastern Approaches: The tale of MacLean’s experiences in Yugoslavia, into which he was parachuted in late 1943 to investigate a resistance movement, or person, or something-or-other called Tito. Turns out to be the the future President Tito, at that point fighting an improbable guerrilla resistance to German occupation with his small band of Partisans from their piratical HQ in a ruined castle. For two years, MacLean fights alongside and helps out the amazingly impressive Tito and his band of Partisans till they successfully run the Germans out of the country. Tito, by this point a national hero, assumes power over a united Yugoslavia at the end of the war, masterfully plays the Russians off against the Americans, and creates a ‘Third Way’ between communism and capitalism, which, by all accounts, was pretty solid.