A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson, 2003.

Mind-blowing–the epitome of “sense of wonder.” I’ve liked Bill Bryson’s work since Made in America: an Informal History of the English Language in the United States (1995), before he hit the big time with A Walk in the Woods, still his funniest book. I can see why some people don’t like him; his jocularity could become irritating, and his bemused persona can start to feel a little forced. But to me it’s just the right amount–a laugh every page or so–and he judiciously plays it down in this book, a whirlwind tour of the universe and the people who’ve discovered the little we know about this amazing place. The other strengths he shows here are an ability to find the most interesting anecdotes (many I haven’t heard before, I’m sure some exaggerated a little for effect), excellent descriptive skills to help the reader begin to picture what’s inconceivably large, small, numerous, etc., and of course clear writing.

Things I learned: How very little we know about the inside of our planet. That Yellowstone is a HUGE volcano, so large that there is no cone:

Beneath the surface is a magma chamber that is about forty-five miles across–roughly the same dimensions as the park–and about eight miles thick at its thickest point. Imagine a pile of TNT about the size of Rhode Island and reaching eight miles into the sky, about the height of the highest cirrus clouds, and you have some idea of what visitors to Yellowstone are shuffling around on top of.

That Linneaus was a sex-obsessed egomaniac. (The less-stellar qualities of scientists are on disply throughout, but not in a way that discredits their achievements.) A sense of how incredibly complex and speedy the activities of a single cell are.

Every cell in nature is a thing of wonder. Even the simplest are far beyond the limits of human ingenuity. To build the most basic yeast cell, for example, you would have to miniaturize about the same number of components as are found in a Boeing 777 jetliner and fit them into a sphere just five microns across; then somehow you would have to persuade that sphere to reproduce.

It saddens me that so many people think the material world is so much simpler than it is, that it’s “mere” matter. There is nothing mere about it. The simplification and pattern-grouping that makes the human consciouness see a fairly unified, comprehensible “interface” to the world has the downside of blinding us to so much. A book like this can temporarily open a window on the jaw-droppingly amazing all around us.

Tennysonian Love: The Strange Diagonal by Gerhard Joseph (1969)

Gerhard is a close friend of my mother’s who’s become a friend of ours too; he’s a witty and brilliant conversationalist, and also happens to specialize in Tennyson, my favorite poet. A few years ago he kindly gave us a copy of this book (with a funny inscription) and I finally got around to reading it. The reason it took me such a long time is mostly laziness; makes me realize how often I reach for what’s easy and/or familiar to read rather than something more challenging. Not that it was hard to read (on the contrary, it’s admirably clear and well-constructed), but to do justice to literary criticism takes a certain kind of attention and focus that I often seem to lack. I jotted down notes as I went along, which helped. (learned some new words: psychomachy, kex, fuscus, theodicy, vatic, ogdoad, oread)

The book helped me understand more clearly a lot of what appeals to me in Tennyson (gee, I guess that’s what this lit crit fad is all about, huh?)–his theme of “the tragic inevitability of change and of human mortality.” (The discussion of “Tears, Idle Tears” is especially good. Gerhard traces the conflicts in Tennyson’s depictions of love (in the broadest sense), between sensuousness and idealism, between classic myth and Christianity, between “hearth and home” and the “fatal woman.” The last chapter, “The Myth of Western Love” (discussing Idylls of the King), talks about why the stories of Arthur/Guinevere/Lancelot and Tristan/Iseult/Mark were popular topics for the Victorians, which in turn made me appreciate T.H. White’s The Once and Future King (one of my all-time favorites) in a new way.

The lasting significance of the Idylls of the King is the comprehensive way in which it outlines the most basic of human tragedies, the personal and social dislocations that arise from man’s passion to transcend mutability and mortality. Muted in our own sensibility is the extreme aversion to the human body that certain historical periods have stressed in the sense/soul division of both Platonic eros and Christian agape. But man’s fleshly nature is still his most pesistent reminder of change and death; his heroic drive to elude these twin terrors is as intense as ever; and the certainty of their triumph over his best efforts is as much the occasion of idle tears as it has always been. Whether or not we insist upon translating into a contemporary idiom the Platonic/Christian terminology (a marriage-war between sense and soul) in which Tennyson couches these themes, we cannot escape the continuing relevance for our restless, questing selves of Tennyson’s vast Arthurian tapestry.