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Mon 02 Jan 2006

The Good Books Guide

Category : Commentary/GoodBooksGuide.txt

Look, you can get all these books from our Library. It's been a lazy December but I did get a lot of reading done. The great thing about using the Library is that you can try out lots of different stuff - God knows I've got tons of great-looking but utterly useless books strewn all over the house. (Guess what a second-hand book store would pay for them now? 30 cents each, I just asked).

This is how I found "The Cloud Sketcher" by Richard Rayner. Architecture, jazz, New York in the early 1900s, Finland, and a skyscraper - the cloud sketcher. It looked interesting and I enjoyed it. Quite like Ayn Rand's Fountainhead. Only in Ayn Rand, the characters are concepts (like creativity, power, individualism, even love), not people. Here the people are a little more accessible. Imagine you're little Esko, disfigured by the fire that took your mother, uncomfortable in a suit, an outsider at a local dance, and somehow a pretty girl is making her way towards you, she's got a little mirror in her hand, which she uses to ward off the other boys like a gypsy, and she's asked you to dance, beautiful Esko. And you're smitten. Fate brings her back to your life when you're older and you know that there's such a thing as a soul mate.

Esko grows up to be an architect and he builds his skyscraper for Katerina. Rayner's evocation of the early years of the 20th century - where cars, elevators, street lamps, electricity, ocean liners and airplanes are novelties, as well as the invention of the steel that allowed skyscrapers to be built - reminds me how much of human technological progress had been compressd within the last hundred years. And it made me pick up another book - about oil.

Oil was what made all these things possible. In many ways, world history in the last 150 years was the history of oil. Daniel Yergin's "The Prize" is how history should be written - clever, entertaining and illuminating. Exxon, BP, Shell/Royal Dutch, Rockefeller, the Shah of Persia, Iraq and Kuwait, Tony Blair and the George Bushes. You can see how the actions of today are made inevitable by decisions in the past. And just as the basis for our digital technology could be traced to the exigencies of World War 2, automobiles and mechanised transport could be traced to the necessities of World War 1. ("The British Expeditionary Force that went to France in August 1914 had just 827 motor cars and a mere 15 motorcycles. By the last months of the war, British Army vehicles included 56,000 trucks, 23,000 motorcars, and 34,000 motorcycles.") I understand things a lot better now.

Posted at 1:56PM UTC | permalink


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