Two books

I read two books this weekend.

1. The Man Who Loved China, Simon Winchester

(This reaction written Friday 10:14, gliding slightly over Chicago)

I’m reading Simon Winchester’s The Man Who Loved China and while I take issue with the subtitle “the fantastic story of the eccentric scientist who unlocked the mysteries of the Middle Kingdom” (what is this, Foursquare? maybe ‘unlock’ is wholly appropriate, but it just seems overly active-passive at present). You must read it.

Reason? The eccentric scientist (biochemist, to start) in question, Joseph Needham, is such a badass. No other way to put it. He started out as an awkward undergrad who took long meditative walks, but really blossomed, became a nudist, married into an open marriage (before it was the cool liberal normal thing to do), learned to speak German at age 10 by reading a hefty tome, enjoyed translating things;

But the other aspect that impresses me is that I’m understanding more about China’s early 20th century history. Winchester’s portrayal, whatever this statement says about me now, seems neutral. The book explains how China’s academic infrastructure got royally screwed: deliberately targeted by the Japanese powers in 1937-38; poverty and wealth inequality was so bad under Chiang Kai-Shek that rare books were sold for pennies to whatever holder of foreign currency would pass by, curious; and we all know where this is going after Mao. Kind of.

It’s all very sad, but to think of this loving, flickering, familial academic flame in China (people grinding optical glass in caves to avoid being twisty-stabbed, you know), not this harsh fluorescent $$$-driven academic factory that exists now, is nice.

But what I also found very comforting about this book is that Joseph Needham (remember: Cambridge biochemist, with a biochemist wife) got interested in China due to a woman, and this turned out quite OK. I often worry about choosing academic pursuits due to people, and, well, I guess it’s not so bad.

You also get to read about his epic travels in southern and western china (in a truck), which seems totally uncomfortable, and entertaining when all you have to complain about is that 6 hours is a long time, and the airmadams (flight attendants? is that what they’re called now?) on Southwest are mean to you.

(they just always assumed that I was doing something wrong and scolding instead of speaking to me, and I have my usual problems with middle-aged women)

Oh, right: Winchester’s good. He uses fun words, except I forgot to write them down to look them up later. Winchester will make you keep swooning over Needham’s awesome; the author has a history of writing about epic academic works: he also wrote The Professor and the Madman, about the Oxford English Dictionary.

2. A Pale View of Hills, Kazuo Ishiguro

Um it’s hard to say what happened. Gauzy hills. Conflict of old and new. “Loyalty.” Drowning kittens?

One thought on “Two books

  1. Pingback: Dr. Joseph Chen on Joseph Needham / The Man Who Loved China (Simon Winchester) | even function

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