From ‘Going Solo’ by Roald Dahl

I was struck by this passage from Roald Dahl’s autobiography, Going Solo. In 1939 when he went to Africa, he had to learn Swahili.

The first thing you had to do when you came to work in Dar es Salem was to learn Swahili, otherwise you could not communicate either with your own boy or with any other native of the country because none of them spoke a word of English. In those benighted days of Empire it was considered impertinent for a black man to understand English, let alone to speak it.

So the typical Englishman was not Colonel Blimp barging around Africa demanding that the natives speak English. Reading Roald Dahl’s descriptions of the English men and women who were with him on the boat to Africa in 1939, ‘typical’ is about the last word I would use to describe them.

And speaking of atypical people,

StoryBlogging Carnival 25 is up at Fiddle and Burn.

Links and Observations

  • Fiddle and Burn is accepting submissions for the twenty-fifth storyblogging carnival. Entries are due Saturday, 13 August.
  • I’m reading Pilgrim’s Progress online. I have usually preferred to read anything extensive in print, but this is going very well. The layout is good, the usability is good enough; Being able to enlarge the type is a real advantage. The people at Christian Classics Ethereal Library have put together a great resource. It also looks like they are doing some innovative things with XML, if you’re into that.
  • My television doesn’t need a mute button, it needs a sound button. It should be silent by default. Everything should be silent by default.
  • Ken Kesey said he would rather be a lightning rod than a seismometer. I would rather be a flywheel than a spring.

Reading

Doc Rampage has posted the Twenty-Third Storyblogging Carnival. Go and have a look.


The Island of the Mighty is a good and interesting book, but rather slow going. I do intend to get back to it latter, but for now I’ve put aside read the latest from J.K. Rowling.

I haven’t usually been successful at planning my reading in advance. I start out with good intentions, but soon I get distracted by, for example, the new Harry Potter. For the last few months I’ve been able to stay on track, reading some classic fantasy and science-fiction novels that I’d overlooked; Kind of filling in the gaps in my reading. After Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, I want to finish The Island of the Mighty. Then, if nothing pops up to distract me, I hope to read The Once and Future King, by T.H. White. Then I’ll take a break from fantasy and read some Dickens, or maybe a mainstream modern novel.

Sometime in the next tweleve months I want to get going on Pilgrim’s Progress. This is a devotional work and I plan to read it as such, but clearly it must have had a big influence on early imaginative literature.

Who?

Popular books I didn’t know about

Ransom, The Crusty Curmudgeon, has posted a list of the one hundred novels most popular in the UK. In The UK’s best-loved novels, he highlights those he’s read and adds a Canadian supplement. He says,

I am, as anyone knows who regularly reads this blog, a complete sucker for long lists of books of which I have only read a few.

In a more hopeful, forward-looking spirit, I’ve highlighted the books I’d never heard of. Not to say that I’ve read all the others; Just that I’d never even heard of those I’ve marked. That’s where I hope the surprises are; Where I might find a great writer I hadn’t know was there. I’ve included a few recommendations of my own at the end.

Books I’d never heard of are in bold

  1. The Lord of the Rings, JRR Tolkien
  2. Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen
  3. His Dark Materials, Philip Pullman
  4. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams
  5. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, JK Rowling
  6. To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee
  7. Winnie the Pooh, AA Milne
  8. Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell
  9. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, CS Lewis
  10. Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë
  11. Catch-22, Joseph Heller
  12. Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë
  13. Birdsong, Sebastian Faulks
  14. Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier
  15. The Catcher in the Rye, JD Salinger
  16. The Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame
  17. Great Expectations, Charles Dickens
  18. Little Women, Louisa May Alcott
  19. Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, Louis de Bernieres
  20. War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy
  21. Gone with the Wind, Margaret Mitchell
  22. Harry Potter And The Philosopher’s Stone, JK Rowling
  23. Harry Potter And The Chamber Of Secrets, JK Rowling
  24. Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban, JK Rowling
  25. The Hobbit, JRR Tolkien
  26. Tess Of The D’Urbervilles, Thomas Hardy
  27. Middlemarch, George Eliot
  28. A Prayer For Owen Meany, John Irving
  29. The Grapes Of Wrath, John Steinbeck
  30. Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland, Lewis Carroll
  31. The Story Of Tracy Beaker, Jacqueline Wilson
  32. One Hundred Years Of Solitude, Gabriel García Márquez
  33. The Pillars Of The Earth, Ken Follett
  34. David Copperfield, Charles Dickens
  35. Charlie And The Chocolate Factory, Roald Dahl
  36. Treasure Island, Robert Louis Stevenson
  37. A Town Like Alice, Nevil Shute
  38. Persuasion, Jane Austen
  39. Dune, Frank Herbert
  40. Emma, Jane Austen
  41. Anne Of Green Gables, LM Montgomery
  42. Watership Down, Richard Adams
  43. The Great Gatsby, F Scott Fitzgerald
  44. The Count Of Monte Cristo, Alexandre Dumas
  45. Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh
  46. Animal Farm, George Orwell
  47. A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens
  48. Far From The Madding Crowd, Thomas Hardy
  49. Goodnight Mister Tom, Michelle Magorian
  50. The Shell Seekers, Rosamunde Pilcher
  51. The Secret Garden, Frances Hodgson Burnett
  52. Of Mice And Men, John Steinbeck
  53. The Stand, Stephen King
  54. Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy
  55. A Suitable Boy, Vikram Seth
  56. The BFG, Roald Dahl
  57. Swallows And Amazons, Arthur Ransome
  58. Black Beauty, Anna Sewell
  59. Artemis Fowl, Eoin Colfer
  60. Crime And Punishment, Fyodor Dostoyevsky
  61. Noughts And Crosses, Malorie Blackman
  62. Memoirs Of A Geisha, Arthur Golden
  63. A Tale Of Two Cities, Charles Dickens
  64. The Thorn Birds, Colleen McCollough
  65. Mort, Terry Pratchett
  66. The Magic Faraway Tree, Enid Blyton
  67. The Magus, John Fowles
  68. Good Omens, Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman
  69. Guards! Guards!, Terry Pratchett
  70. Lord Of The Flies, William Golding
  71. Perfume, Patrick Süskind
  72. The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, Robert Tressell
  73. Night Watch, Terry Pratchett
  74. Matilda, Roald Dahl
  75. Bridget Jones’s Diary, Helen Fielding
  76. The Secret History, Donna Tartt
  77. The Woman In White, Wilkie Collins
  78. Ulysses, James Joyce
  79. Bleak House, Charles Dickens
  80. Double Act, Jacqueline Wilson
  81. The Twits, Roald Dahl
  82. I Capture The Castle, Dodie Smith
  83. Holes, Louis Sachar
  84. Gormenghast, Mervyn Peake
  85. The God Of Small Things, Arundhati Roy
  86. Vicky Angel, Jacqueline Wilson
  87. Brave New World, Aldous Huxley
  88. Cold Comfort Farm, Stella Gibbons
  89. Magician, Raymond E Feist
  90. On The Road, Jack Kerouac
  91. The Godfather, Mario Puzo
  92. The Clan Of The Cave Bear, Jean M Auel
  93. The Colour Of Magic, Terry Pratchett
  94. The Alchemist, Paulo Coelho
  95. Katherine, Anya Seton
  96. Kane And Abel, Jeffrey Archer
  97. Love In The Time Of Cholera, Gabriel García Márquez
  98. Girls In Love, Jacqueline Wilson
  99. The Princess Diaries, Meg Cabot
  100. Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie

I’m glad to see that John Updike is nowhere on the list. I detest Updike’s books. I’m surprised not to see Patrick O’Brian and Joseph Conrad. I mean, His Dark Materials but not Master and Commander? The Great Gatsby but not Lord Jim? Of course second-guessing is half the fun.

His Canadian supplement, with my highlights:

  • Jacob Two-Two and the Hooded Fang, Mordecai Richler
  • The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood
  • Life of Pi, Yann Martel
  • Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town, Stephen Leacock
  • Life After God, Douglas Coupland
  • Tempest-Tost, Robertson Davies
  • The Englishman’s Boy, Guy Vanderhaeghe
  • Owls in the Family, Farley Mowat

So there’s about thirty possibly-good books I hadn’t even know were out there; Like I need to add to my ‘maybe read this someday’ stack. Lately I’ve been reading older fantasy and science-fiction classics, and folklore. Maybe this fall I’ll be up for something different.

For my contribution, here are a few novels I really enjoyed. These are less well-known than they deserve to be:

  • Northwest Passage, by Kenneth Roberts, is an absolutely brilliant historical novel about Major Robert Rodgers. Like the best of any genre fiction, it’s a great novel in it’s own right.
  • The King Must Die, by Mary Renault. Also nominally historical fiction, and very carefully researched, it can stand with the best character studies. It does include some pretty graphic homosexuality, but I didn’t find it gratuitous. It’s about Theseus and the Minotaur, at least in the sense that Great Expectations is about growing up in England.
  • Three Men in a Boat, by Jerome K. Jerome, is a really funny book about three guys who take a boating vacation down the Thames in the late 1800’s.
  • Grendel, by John Gardner, is Beowulf from another point of view.
  • The Milagro Beanfield War, by John Nichols, was made into a movie that I liked pretty well. The novel is better yet. Magic meets economics is the American southwest.

Thought for the day

“They call it a breakdown at first,” said my mind, “and send you to a nursing home; later on they move you to an asylum.”

— from Perelandra, by C.S. Lewis

I’ve moved my reading list to a separate page listed in the right sidebar. I’m using a WordPress plugin to manage the list, but I’m not entirely satisfied with it’s usability. I seem to have to log in as admin to modify the lists. I also wish there were an easy way to move something from one list (Reading) to another (Finished). I might do better to just keep the list in a text file with some markup and whomp up some php to turn it into a webpage.

Not your father’s workshop (I hope)

An excerpt from The Worm Ouroboros by E.R. Eddison

Now the fashion of the chamber was that it was round, filling the whole space of the loftiest floor of the round donjon keep. It was now gathering dusk, and weak twilight only entered through the deep embrasures of the windows that pierced the walls of the tower, looking to the four quarters of the heavens. A furnace glowing in the big hearth threw fitful gleams into the recesses of the chamber, lighting up strange shapes of glass and earthenware, flasks and retorts, balances, hour-glasses, crucibles and astrolabes, a monstrous three-necked alembic of phosphorescent glass supported on a bain-marie, and other instruments of doubtful and unlawful aspect. Under the northern window over against the doorway was a massive table blackened with age, whereon lay great books bound in black leather with iron guards and heavy padlocks. And in a mighty chair beside this table was King Gorice XII, robed in his conjuring robe of black and gold, resting his cheek on his hand that was lean as an eagle’s claw. The low light, mother of shade and secrecy, that hovered in that chamber moved about the still figure of the King, his nose hooked as the eagle’s beak, his cropped hair, his thick close-cut beard and shaven upper lip, his high cheek-bones and cruel heavy jaw, and the dark eaves of his brows whence the glint of green eyes showed as no friendly lamp to them without.

That’s better than having a Shopsmith.

For us the living

In his posthumously published novel “For Us the Living”, Robert Heinlein refers to “the US Medical Academy.” This is where all the doctors are trained in his fictional World of Tomorrow. He’s not specific in how it all works; his point is that things could be different and still work quite well.

We could train bright people to do heart by-pass surgery. No need for years of med school. Just follow the procedure step by step, like it says in the flow-chart; There would need to be recognized levels of skill: apprentice, journeyman, master. Two years of technical training, followed by testing, apprenticeship, and certification; Clearly, a master by-passer would make good money. Possibly as much as a master plumber.

Master bypasser? Okay, we’d also have to develop good terminology, but we’re Americans; we excel at that.

I maintain that the success rate would probably be as good as we have now, and the whole thing would be way cheaper. To the extent that patient outcomes were suboptimal, this would be offset by enhanced access. (See? Think a European could have coined that phrase? And I’m just an amateur. We rule!) But it’s not just about medical efficacy. There’s a whole set of social consequences to consider.

Taking the money out of it would, well, take the money out of it. Prosperous doctors need insurance to protect their assets from their own fallibility and from predation. An insurance company is a big pot of money held in reserve for emergencies. Money attracts lawyers like blood attracts ticks, in an ecological sense. That’s not to say that lawyers are uniquely wicked. In the past, money attracted armed bands of Anglo-Saxon reivers, so there’s progress, of a sort.

My point is that it’s an ecological process. Exterminate the brutes (I’m referring to the ticks, of course) and something else will emerge to take their place, because the blood is a tempting target. Blood necessitates bloodsuckers. Would you rather have tiny blood-sucking hummingbirds?

Of course people would oppose adoption of this new system. They’d cite safety concerns; They’d point out that only a highly trained physician could respond to the unexpected. Ignoring questions of cost and availability, they’d launch ad campaigns featuring the grieving and the grateful. Every identifiable group that’s part of the existing system, except the anesthetists, would line up to fight the changes. Even if it were finally adopted, my ingenious new system would evolve as part of an ecology as well.

Suppose we had a large union of smart, well-paid technicians whose livelihood depended on doing bypasses. What might the consequences be? Think that’d have any effect on surgical innovation? Would the union lobby urge caution in the approval of new drugs? How hard would it be to get into the union? Would the union have any political clout?

But this isn’t really about unions, or even the medical system. It’s about the limits of directed action; Our inability to do just one thing. Our whole system is so tightly optimized and interconnected that any change comes out somewhere else almost immediately. It’s the law of unintended consequences, on steroids. Faced with such a system, how might we move forward?

  1. We don’t; we just muddle along while avoiding complete collapse;
  2. Pursue a course of incremental, opportunistic change and hope it leads to a better arrangement tomorrow;
  3. Scrap the existing system, more or less violently, and replace it with a better system.

The third option is the most risky, but has the biggest potential payoff. If applied to the whole society, it could lead us to a workers’ paradise. A society of peace, justice, and universal prosperity that would endure until…

Right; until protestors tore down the wall and burned the headquarters of the secret police. So that one’s out.

I guess we have to choose between one and two.