When I finished John McPhee’s Encounters with the Archdruid on Thursday morning two and a half weeks ago, I thought the timing perfect because Ian Rankin’s latest Rebus crime novel, Saints of the Shadow Bible, was due to arrive in the post later that day from the UK. (I had pre-ordered it from the UK Amazon, unwilling to wait for its US publication in mid-January.) But when I got home that evening, it wasn’t there. Meanwhile, Dwight Garner’s review of Ari Shavit’s My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel had appeared in the NYT the day before, reawakening the interest I had in it after reading Oren Kessler’s WSJ review two weeks before.
In the spring of 1897 a steamer carrying a delegation of 21 British Jews left Port Said, Egypt, for Jaffa—the last leg of its journey to the Holy Land. Leading the pack was Herbert Bentwich, an affluent London lawyer and Zionist leader and the great-grandfather of Ari Shavit, a columnist for the Haaretz newspaper and one of Israel’s most influential political commentators.
In “My Promised Land,” his first book in English, Mr. Shavit charts Israel’s history partly through the lives of his pioneering forebears: His grandfather, Herbert’s son, was a Cambridge-educated pedagogue who helped develop Israel’s education system, while his father was a chemist at the eye of Israel’s nuclear program. The result is roughly equal parts personal and family memoir, Israeli history, and prophecies for the land’s future. It is one of the most nuanced and challenging books written on Israel in years.
“My Promised Land” shifts into higher gear in its middle sections, with the claiming of the Masada fortress in the 1940s as a symbol for Zionism, and with the founding of the state of Israel in 1948. This book’s middle 200 pages are almost certainly the most powerful pages of nonfiction I’ve read this year.
It’s not just that Mr. Shavit lays out the story of Israel’s founding with clarity and precision. This is a story we’ve read before, in a stack of books that, laid end to end, would wrap 88 times around the outskirts of Tel Aviv. It’s that he so deliberately scrutinizes the denial he locates at the heart of Israeli consciousness.
This book’s central chapter is probably the one about how the Palestinian citizenry was driven from the Arab city of Lydda in 1948. Many were killed; some were tortured during interrogations. There was looting. Tens of thousands of Palestinians, long columns, were driven from their homes into the desert. In expulsions like this one lie his country’s original sin, the author argues, beyond the settlements of its later expansion.
“Lydda is our black box,” he declares. “In it lies the dark secret of Zionism.” Mr. Shavit is a powerful writer about denial. The miracle that is Israel, he says, is “based on denial. The nation I am born into has erased Palestine from the face of the earth.”
It’s among Mr. Shavit’s gifts as a writer and thinker that he can see this fact plainly yet condemn “the bleeding-heart Israeli liberals of later years who condemn what” was done in Lydda “but enjoy the fruits of their deed.”
Garner’s claim that the “book’s middle 200 pages” are “the most powerful pages of nonfiction I’ve read this year” sure got my attention. I downloaded the free portion that Thursday evening and began reading. Rankin’s book arrived the next day, but it was too late. I was hooked. (I also saw that next day, with the NYT Sunday book review posted online, that it would featured as the subject of the lead review, by Leon Wieseltier.
Until we get to the tedious later pages, each chapter of My Promised Land focuses on a particular time, place, and set of people, with some superb story telling based on historical research and interviews. The first chapter revolves around Shavit’s great-grandfather’s 1897 visit. The second drew me in through its treatment of Jewish settlement in the Harod Valley in the 1920s, with a focus on Kibbutz Ein Harod.
The further I read into this chapter, the more I had a sense of déja vu. Not that I had been there, but my cousin Batia had settled a kibbutz in the 1920s, and I began to suspect that it was in the same valley. Sure enough, later in the chapter, Shavit wrote about a day in April 1926 when the members of Ein Harod and some neighboring kibbutzim, including Beit Alpha, stopped work early to wash up and prepare to attend a concert held in a valley amphitheater. Shavit takes a moment here to explain that none other than Jascha Heifetz had performed in this quarry a few months earlier. As for Beit Alpha, that’s the kibbutz my cousin founded.
Batia was my mother’s (much older) first cousin. Her mother and grandmother—my grandfather’s sister and mother—were active Zionists in Poland. Batia moved to Beit Alpha in the 1920s. Her sister and mother stayed behind to continue their efforts, ultimately perishing in the Holocaust. When I met Batia over forty years later, in the summer of 1970, she was a kind older woman (not so much older perhaps than I am now) living in Tel Aviv with her husband, a chemist at the Weizmann Institute of Science who commuted to Rehovot daily to work on a chemistry curriculum for the nation’s high schools. One son was an engineer with two young children, living in a suburb south of Tel Aviv. The other was an advanced student at the Technion, still serving in the Army. It was a professional urban family, living in a modest apartment where I spent a lot of time.
A year later, on a return trip to Israel, I came to Tel Aviv one weekend to visit Batia and Fritz, as was the norm, and off we went on a Saturday morning on a long drive to a kibbutz where they had friends. It was Beit Alpha. To my surprise, when we arrived Batia and Fritz were treated like honored guests, as pioneer members decades before. This was counter to everything I knew about them. We had the most delightful afternoon. I remember the kibbutz as sitting on the lower slopes of a hill or mountain, with the West Bank border just beyond. On reading Shavit’s account, I realized this was Mount Gilboa.
Anyway, as Garner mentions in his review, the book hits full stride in chapter 4 with Shavit’s treatment of the expulsion of Arabs from Lydda in the 1948 war. From there, for 200 pages or more, the reader is in for a powerful experience. An essential theme for Shavit is that the Jewish settlers lost their way, or their innocence, not with the West Bank settlements in the aftermath of the 1967 and 1973 wars but with the expulsion of Arabs in the 1948 war. This was, as it were, the original sin.
The book lost its way, at least for me, in the closing chapters, which become more a monologue in which Shavit expresses his concerns about Israel’s direction, less a historically focused treatment of key moments in Israel’s history in which a series of fascinating characters is introduced. The penultimate chapter goes on and on about the threat of Iran’s nuclear weapon development, something that evidently was a Shavit cause in his newspaper writing for years. The final chapter, one of the two longest, is an extended essay on the challenges the country faces. I would have been happy if the book ended before them.
Despite being a decades-long John McPhee fan, I had never read his 1971 book Encounters with the Archdruid. A year or two ago, when I saw that Joel had put it on his Amazon wish list, I bought it for him, this being an indirect way to buy it for myself as well, since we share a Kindle account.
I didn’t touch the book for a while. It was Joel’s after all. But I eventually downloaded it and read a few pages here and there, continuing to wait for Joel to read it first before plunging in. Finally, a couple of weeks ago, plunge in I did.
What a marvelous book. It’s three independent pieces, each featuring an encounter between environmentalist David Brower and someone whose work places him in opposition to Brower’s principles. First we meet a famed geologist at Stanford who advises mining companies. McPhee sets up a trip to Glacier Peak National Forest here in the Cascades, accompanying the two as they hike through the mountains argue over developing a copper mine. Next McPhee brings Brower together with the man who developed Hilton Head Island as they visit Cumberland Island, off the coast where Georgia meets Florida. Cumberland is in private hands and undeveloped, but development is on the way. Or perhaps a takeover by the federal government, which can convert it to national seashore. The third encounter, between Brower and the nation’s great dam builder, fresh off his completion of the Glen Canyon Dam, has the pair ride down the Colorado and debate future dams in the Grand Canyon.
The secret to the book is that each of Brower’s foes is entirely likable, a delightful character whom one finds oneself rooting for. I could quote countless passages to illustrate this, but I’d end up quoting the book as a whole. Here’s one I marked in which Dominy, the dam builder, recounts a trip with Robert Frost.
He and I went to Russia together. I was going to visit Russian dams, and he was on some cultural exchange, and we sat beside each other on the plane all the way to Moscow. He talked and talked, and I smoked cigars. He said eventually, “So you’re the dam man. You’re the creator of the great concrete monoliths—turbines, generators, stored water” And then he started to talk poetically about me, right there in the plane. He said, “Turning, turning, turning … creating, creating … creating energy for the people … for the people … .”
Most of the day, Frost reminisced about his childhood, and he asked about mine, and I told him I’d been born in a town so small that the entrance and exit signs were on the same post. Land as dry and rough as a cob. You’ll never see any land better than that for irrigating. God damn, she lays pretty. And he asked about my own family, and I told him about our farm in Virginia, and how my son and I put up nine hundred and sixty feet of fence in one day. I told my son, “I’ll teach you how to work. You teach yourself how to play.”
A year ago, Adam Hochschild wrote a piece about McPhee that explains the book’s greatness far better than I can. I’ll outsource the rest of the post to Hochschild.
To my mind, McPhee’s engineering masterpiece is his Encounters with the Archdruid, the text of which, like almost all of his books, first appeared in The New Yorker. A portrait of the environmental activist David Brower (1912-2000), it is structured like no other biography or profile you will read. Brower was a militant, not a compromiser or deal-maker, and his passionate, lifelong defense of the American wilderness against any threat dependably left his enemies fuming. And so the book is arranged around three prolonged encounters between the “evangelical” Brower, as McPhee calls him, and people who detest everything he stands for.
The first is a prominent mining geologist named Charles Park, whose entire life has been devoted to targeting deposits of valuable minerals, wherever they are found. He was a man who believed, McPhee says, “that if copper were to be found under the White House, the White House should be moved.” How does McPhee bring him together with Brower? He takes the two of them camping and hiking for a week or so in the Glacier Peak Wilderness in Washington State. The setting is shrewdly chosen: Glacier Peak is a federal wilderness area, “not to receive even the use given a national park, not to be entered by a machine of any kind except in extreme emergency, not to be developed or lumbered – forevermore.” But there’s a key exception: mining claims, including a huge one held by Kennecott Copper, remain valid, and, at the time the men were making this trip, for more than a dozen years into the future new claims could still be made. To display two political enemies in combat, McPhee could not have picked a better battleground. Park chips away at rocks with his geologist’s tools, curious about what metals could be mined here to feed the American economy; Brower praises the beauty of the mountains, still unravaged by men like Park. Almost any writer, doing a story like this, would have elicited these rival points of view by interviewing the two men separately. McPhee, however, brings them together, where, with spectacular scenery in the background, they argue at length, providing him with writer’s gold: dialogue.
The second encounter McPhee sets up, again for what appears to be a week or so, is between Brower and a businessman who wants to build a vast housing development on a wild island off the coast of Georgia, complete with an airport suitable for private jets. Compared to the first encounter, the conversation between the two antagonists is much more polite. However, the businessman, Charles Fraser, has great contempt for environmentalists, calling them “druids.” He tells Brower, “I call anyone a druid who prefers trees to people” – hence the book’s title.
The third encounter is the most dramatic, and threaded through it, providing its narrative backbone, is one of the more spectacular journeys available in the lower 48 states: going down the Grand Canyon by raft. In the 1950s and 1960s some of the most furious American environmental battles were over the building of dams. As McPhee puts it, to environmental types:
The outermost circle of the Devil’s world seems to be a moat filled mainly with DDT. Next to it is a moat of burning gasoline. Within that is a ring of pinheads each covered with a million people – and so on past phalanxed bulldozers and bicuspid chain saws into the absolute epicenter of Hell on earth, where stands a dam. Conservationists who can hold themselves in reasonable check before new oil spills and fresh megalopolises mysteriously go insane at even the thought of a dam. … possibly the reaction to dams is so violent because rivers are the ultimate metaphors of existence, and dams destroy rivers.
David Brower regarded the building of the Glen Canyon Dam, upstream on the Colorado River from the Grand Canyon, as “the greatest failure of his life,” McPhee says. But after losing that battle, he went on to furiously wage and win several others, stopping Bureau of Reclamation plans to build two more large dams in parts of the Grand Canyon itself. His arch-enemy in this prolonged warfare, the proud builder of the Glen Canyon Dam, defeated for the moment in the later struggles, was Floyd Dominy, longtime commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation, in effect chief dam-builder for the U.S. government.
McPhee’s swift brush strokes make Dominy leap off the page: “He appears to have been lifted off a horse with block and tackle. He wears bluejeans, a white-and-black striped shirt, and leather boots with heels two inches high. His belt buckle is silver and could not be covered over with a playing card. He wears a string tie that is secured with a piece of petrified dinosaur bone. On his head is a white Stetson.”
In my first post last Sunday, after my extended absence, I listed eight items to write about. The first was Paul Schneider’s new book Old Man River: The Mississippi River in North American History, which I finished a week ago. Here’s the description from the book’s website:
In Old Man River, Paul Schneider tells the story of the river at the center of America’s rich history—the Mississippi. Some fifteen thousand years ago, the majestic river provided Paleolithic humans with the routes by which early man began to explore the continent’s interior. Since then, the river has been the site of historical significance, from the arrival of Spanish and French explorers in the 16th century to the Civil War. George Washington fought his first battle near the river, and Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman both came to President Lincoln’s attention after their spectacular victories on the lower Mississippi.
In the 19th century, home-grown folk heroes such as Daniel Boone and the half-alligator, half-horse, Mike Fink, were creatures of the river. Mark Twain and Herman Melville led their characters down its stream in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Confidence-Man. A conduit of real-life American prowess, the Mississippi is also a river of stories and myth.
Schneider traces the history of the Mississippi from its origins in the deep geologic past to the present. Though the busiest waterway on the planet today, the Mississippi remains a paradox—a devastated product of American ingenuity, and a magnificent natural wonder.
I first learned about the book in a Wall Street Journal review by Fergus Bordewich a few weeks ago. An excerpt:
In “Old Man River,” Paul Schneider takes us on an epic journey of his own that encompasses the furthest reaches of the Mississippi watershed, from remote geological prehistory down to the re-engineering of the river by modern planners and politicians. Along the way, we encounter Stone Age mammoth hunters, mound-building Indians, explorers such as Hernando de Soto, Robert de LaSalle and Zebulon Pike, and a collection of riverine bandits, hustlers, loggers, antebellum slaves, bone hunters and archaeologists.
Always a lively and companionable guide, Mr. Schneider punctuates his excursions into the past with accounts of his own efforts to canoe the river’s reaches. “As soon as you are in the coffee-colored water, you know immediately that you belong to the Mississippi River,” he writes. “It commands every sense. There’s the sound a truly big river makes—not loud but nonetheless vast and soothing, more like wind over grasses than a waterfall. There is an odor to the river as well, vaguely sweet and earthy, though oddly more like the sea than like a mountain stream or a lake.”
Mr. Schneider is equally observant of the workaday river—the giant barges loaded with grain and gravel, the dams and other man-made obstructions that have altered its character, and the heavy industry that in places crowds its banks.
Mr. Schneider eventually delivers us to a river that—while still majestic—has been vastly altered by more than a century of human interference (most of which he detests) intended to make it more easily navigable and safer. A system of damming and hardening of the shoreline throughout the watershed has eliminated natural outlets to wetlands and deepened channels in ways that have led to catastrophic flooding and to the hemorrhaging of soil that was once distributed more or less evenly along the course of the river. “Every forty-five minutes an area of Louisiana marsh roughly the size of a football field disappears under the waves of the Gulf of Mexico,” he writes. This works out, he says, to the disappearance of 2,000 square miles of Louisiana over the past 70 years. “Think one Manhattan a year, one Delaware a century.”
Given that the book is short and the scope vast, the journey is a whirlwind, akin to a visit to eight major European cities in fifteen days. But Schneider chooses his stops well. I wasn’t eager to cover
ground water I’d already been over with Mark Twain, or get a recap of the Civil War. Fortunately, I didn’t have to.
Instead, I learned a lot about Native American civilization (the coverage of the Indian mounds is superb), the French explorers, and the siege of Vicksburg. Nor did I want to re-read the story John McPhee already told so well in his classic The Control of Nature. Schneider knows there’s no point trying to outdo McPhee, so he moves on quickly.
Regarding Indian mounds, Schneider’s recounting of his stop at Effigy Mounds National Monument in Iowa is superb. He becomes entranced as he walks amid the giant bears.
When I moved on to the second beast in the row, though, I unconsciously slowed down and became, as a result, more conscious. The path turned sharply left, then right, then right again, then left as I walked around first one bear leg, then another. Then along the long belly of the beast. When I completed my circuit of the third mound, for some reason I didn’t move on but began again down the same great neck to the grass-furry paw. I walked myself into a trance.
Whether walking the outline of an effigy mound was part of the original rituals practiced by the builders I couldn’t say, but it felt reflexively correct. … Tracing the outline of a knee-high bear in the dimming light above the Mississippi River felt less a pilgrimage than some kind of devotional act. I was going around in circles, after all, not to some holy place. …
I don’t currently practice any circumambulation regularly, other than taking two trips around every new rental car to make sure there are no dings or dents before leaving the parking lot. Truth is I don’t take part in much organized ceremonialism of any sort, thank God. Whether this makes a person more or less vulnerable to surprise attacks from global bear spirits, I have no way of knowing, but I do know that on my fifth trip around the third bear, what hair there is on the back of my neck stood up and would not stand back down.
Effigy Mounds National Monument is now on my list of places to visit. As are so many of Schneider’s stops.
In the five years of Ron’s View, this is by far my longest hiatus. Sorry about that. The longer I go without writing, the larger my list of overdue items and the harder it is to get back in the rhythm. Being in San Francisco two weekends ago (for a wedding) and New York/Chicago last weekend (for family, then business) made it difficult to find time to write. Yet, the trips gave me more to write about. And this weekend had its own major event, which perhaps I’ll get to at some point.
In any case, here I am. Topics I may get to eventually:
1. Paul Schneider’s new book Old Man River: The Mississippi River in North American History, which I finished three nights ago.
2. John McPhee’s Encounters with the Archdruid, his classic of four decades ago, which I’ve been reading intermittently.
3. Ian Rankin’s latest John Rebus crime novel, Saints of the Shadow Bible, which was just released in the UK and arrived by post two days ago. (I couldn’t wait for its US publication in mid-January.)
4. Dinner at Cafe Tiramisu in San Francisco.
6. A Sunday morning drive over the bridge to Sausalito, with an unexpected “grass is greener on the other side” tale.
7. The happy coincidence of our New York trip and the arrival at the Frick of the exhibition Vermeer, Rembrandt, and Hals: Masterpieces of Dutch Painting from the Mauritshuis, which we attended last weekend.
I will surely write more about some of these items.
Almost three years ago, Paul Krugman wrote a post mentioning three books:
As it happens, I’m rereading William Cronon’s Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West — yes, on my Kindle, which has made a serious improvement in my life. And everyone with any interest in economics should read his account of the rise of the Chicago Board of Trade. Railroads changed everything. It wasn’t just the fact that stuff could be shipped further, faster, cheaper; the railroad also led to the replacement of concrete with abstract forms of ownership (the farmer owned a receipt for a bushel of grain, not a particular sack), standard-setting, futures markets, and on and on. If you’ve read Marc Levinson’s The Box, about containerization (which you should), it’s startling to see how many of the themes were prefigured by the grain trade, as standard-sized rail cars replaced flatboats, as grain elevators essentially began treating grain as a fluid rather than a solid, as conveyor belts replaced stevedores toting sacks.
Add in the telegraph — the Victorian Internet, as another must-read book puts it — and it was an incredible change.
That spring I read Cronon’s book, and it was extraordinary. (See post here.) I got to The Box a couple of months later. But I never did move on to the third book, Tom Standage’s The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century’s On-line Pioneers.
Earlier this week, Krugman recommended Standage’s newest book, Writing on the Wall: Social Media – The First 2,000 Years.
I just want to give a shoutout to a book I’m reading, and really enjoying: Tom Standage’s Writing on the Wall: Social Media — The First 2,000 Years. I’ve been a big fan of Standage’s ever since his book The Victorian Internet, about the rise of the telegraph, which shed a lot of light on network technologies while also being great fun. Now he’s done it again.
Standage’s argument is that the essential aspects of social media — exchange of information that runs horizontally, among people who are affiliated in some way, rather than top-down from centralized sources — have been pervasive through history, with the industrial age’s news media only a temporary episode of disruption. As he shows, Cicero didn’t get his news from Rome Today or Rupertus Murdochus — he got it through constant exchanges of letters with people he knew, letters that were often both passed on to multiple readers and copied, much like tweets being retweeted.
My response? I went straight to Amazon and downloaded The Victorian Internet. I’m halfway through and it is indeed great fun.
I’ve just started a chapter discussing the use of telegraphy to cheat to obtain insider information on stocks and horse races, and the parallel use of encryption methods. We’re more or less in the 1870s at this point. But already earlier in the century, when techniques were developed in France, and then Britain, to send visual signals from tower to tower, one telegraph hill to the next (discussed in the early part of the book; a system in Britain used six on or off signals at each tower, essentially converting data to binary form as modern computers do), people were cheating to gain financial advantage on the stock exchange.
I haven’t yet reached the part where the precursor to the NSA was vacuuming up all messages and listening in on Chancellor Bismarck. Maybe next chapter.
The paperback reissue last month of David Skinner’s The Story of Ain’t: America, Its Language, and the Most Controversial Dictionary Ever Published prompted Language Log’s Mark Liberman to write an enthusiastic post.
Next Tuesday, David Skinner’s The Story of Ain’t is coming out in a new paperback edition, with a new epilog. I’m happy to have this occasion to post an enthusiastic recommendation: You should immediately run out (virtually or physically) and buy this book, in any of its editions.
I wondered why I hadn’t remembered an equally enthusiastic recommendation when the book appeared a year ago. In the next paragraph, Mark explained,
I began a similarly enthusiastic recommendation back when the book was originally published, in the fall of 2012. As usual for me, I framed the post around some quotations from the text — but every time I made a selection, I recalled an even better section a bit later, or realized that the full impact of the passage that I’d chosen required some background from an earlier chapter. So my post never got posted.
Last summer I taught a course at the LSA Institute in Ann Arbor, and I brought my copy of The Story of Ain’t with me, in the hopes of resolving my dilemma and finally posting a recommendation. One afternoon, my roommate Pieter Muysken happened to pick this book off my desk and sat on the living room couch to skim it.
For the next hour or so, Pieter regaled me with a series of variously commented passages: “Listen to this…”, “Oh, this is funny…”, “This man can write…”, punctuated with bursts of laughter, grunts of appreciation, and dramatic readings of selected sentences, paragraphs, or pages.
My sentiments exactly. Do yourself a favor and buy this book!
I did, downloading it after just a moment’s pause. The reason for my pause—and I must say, this is a continuing annoyance with regard to Kindle editions—was the realization that despite the existence of a new epilog, my only option was to download the original version. I have yet to see a Kindleization updated upon the publication of a paperback with new material.
I started the book that day, but it’s been slow going since. I keep getting distracted by various duties, our never-ending remodel, travel plans, and even another book. I hope to get more focused soon.
Here is part of David Skinner description at the book’s website of its origins.
Webster’s Second was puritanical and uncontroversial, created for the living room and the classroom. Its pronunciations represented “formal platform speech,” and its pages contained almost no dirty words. It labored to stay on the right side of schoolmarms and grammarians.
Webster’s Third was scientific in method and, at the same time, surprisingly current on popular culture. It contained almost all the dirty words and among its quotations were such linguistic authorities as Betty Grable and Mickey Spillane. It had not been designed for either the living room or the classroom. It did not play nice with what Gove called “artifical notions of correctness.” Many people—including a fair number of journalists and literary figures—hated it.
Shortly after Webster’s Third was published, the New York Times called on Merriam to take it back and start over. Dwight Macdonald in the New Yorker compared it to the end of civilization. The Editorial Board of the American Scholar didn’t even bother reading it before deputizing Jacques Barzun to denounce Webster’s Third as “the longest political pamphlet ever put together by a party.” Meanwhile, James Parton and the American Heritage Company sought to use the controversy to win a controlling position among Merriam stockholders and take over America’s most venerable dictionary brand.
The Story of Ain’t is about the people who made Webster’s Third and the people who loathed it, and all that was going on in the language and in linguistics in the years leading up to 1961. It is a detective story, but it is also a cultural history with an amazing set of characters. I wrote it in order to understand what led to the controversy and why it remains a singular episode in the history of dictionaries and the history of America culture. And I wrote it because I thought it would be fun to sit back and watch the fireworks of a great intellectual controversy.
After reading the first third of Theresa Levitt’s A Short Bright Flash: Augustin Fresnel and the Birth of the Modern Lighthouse and writing about it two weeks ago, I proceeded to put it aside for over a week. The opening portion about Fresnel’s scientific career and his development of lighthouse technology in early nineteenth-century France was fascinating, but then I got bogged down as Levitt traced Fresnel’s successors and France’s successful effort by mid-century to light its coast.
Eager to get on with other books, I returned to A Short Bright Flash a few days ago, finishing it yesterday morning. After treating France and Britain, Levitt turns to the United States. In a long chapter, she lays out the harm done by Stephen Pleasonton, head of the US Lighthouse Establishment, over decades in refusing to introduce Fresnel’s technology. Finally, in 1847, Congress approved the construction of new lighthouses in five locations, the first to be completed being our very favorite lighthouse, Nantucket’s Sankaty Head. (Though the one we love is not the original.) Things picked up from there, only for the Civil War to bring the systematic destruction of Fresnel lenses across the South’s Atlantic and Gulf coasts, the subject of another chapter.
[Photo by me, September 2011]
A whirlwind final chapter takes us back to Europe, down to the Suez Canal, and through World Wars I and II, the latter of which brought radar and a halt to the production of first-order seacoast lights. Levitt observes that Fresnel’s “original design remains downright ubiquitous, spurred by the increasingly inexpensive techniques of molding glass and plastic. Fresnel stage lights have become a staple of theaters everywhere. Stoplights, car lights, and overhead projectors all employ the genius of his optical insight. … Even as the U.S. decommissions many of its lighthouses, the lenses become museum centerpieces.”
In this era of anti-government politics in the US, one point that emerges from the book is that the creation of a system of lighthouses in France—and later the US—depended entirely on government investment. Both because of the difficulty of manufacturing precision lenses and the scale of production required, no private company would have taken on such a project by itself. Levitt contrasts France with Britain.
The glass industry was undergoing its own transformation. In many ways, it was emblematic of the French style of industrialization, characterized by much stronger government involvement than what was seen with the English model.
Writing about the Exposition Universelle of 1855, in which a Fresnel lens was on prominent display, Levitt quotes from the exposition guide, which
stressed the lens’s role as France’s gift to humanity. Its manufacture was an “eminently national industry,” which showed France in its best light:
The invention of these devices, due to a French engineer, encouraged and developed by the public administration, brings to a very high degree the imprint of the particular nature of our spirit and general tendencies, for which it was deduced from considerations of a purely scientific order, conceived outside of any private speculation, in view of general interests, and classed immediately in the number of benefits for humanity. …
Two of the features that separated French industrialization from its English counterpart were its strong contingent of scientifally trained state engineers and its lesser dependence on private investment.
Turning to the US of the 1840s and 1850s, Levitt writes that the “government’s investment in rail, steam, and telegraphs was all done with an eye toward improving trade. The Fresnel lens sat perfectly within this constellation, as an exemplar of scientific technology, an enabler of increased trade, and a compelling argument for government investment.”
I suppose I’ve made my point. But let me offer one more quote, from Levitt’s closing assessment of Fresnel’s legacy.
Fresnel’s lens united the major themes of burgeoning modernity: science, industrialization, national ambition. There is a well-known phrase in French that touches on the particular mixture of glory, nationalism, and global ambitions: Faire rayonner la France, or “make France radiant.” This is precisely what the Fresnel lens did, in the most literal of ways. Making their way into the remotest corners of the world, these products of France not only shed light on the seas, but also illuminated the French system of valuing pure science and providing state support for industry.
With this in mind, one might have a look at the letter that Nobel Prize laureate and National Cancer Institute director Harold Varmus wrote two days ago to NCI staff, grantees, and reviewers, the full text of which is embedded in a post by Jim Fallows earlier today. A radical segment of today’s Republican Party is showing, through the shutdown, how little they value pure science. Perhaps this shouldn’t be a surprise, given their propensity for denying scientific evidence.
I’ve written before that the Wall Street Journal book reviews are one of the reasons I read the paper. From time to time, a book is discussed that falls a bit outside the mainstream, one I might otherwise not know about. For example, this past Monday, Henry Petroski reviewed Theresa Levitt’s A Short Bright Flash: Augustin Fresnel and the Birth of the Modern Lighthouse, which came out last June but I hadn’t seen mention of anywhere else.*
*It turns out that Levitt’s book was mentioned in the NYT last May in an article on antiques(!). The article was really three separate notes, the first of which was the source of the article’s title, “The Fall of Gnomes: Tasteful to Tacky.” No wonder I missed it.
Here’s the blurb at the publisher’s website:
How a scientific outsider came up with a revolutionary theory of light and saved untold numbers of lives.
Augustin Fresnel (1788–1827) shocked the scientific elite with his unique understanding of the physics of light. The lens he invented was a brilliant feat of engineering that made lighthouses blaze many times brighter, farther, and more efficiently. Battling the establishment, his own poor health, and the limited technology of the time, Fresnel was able to achieve his goal of illuminating the entire French coast. At first, the British sought to outdo the new Fresnel-equipped lighthouses as a matter of national pride. Americans, too, resisted abandoning their primitive lamps, but the superiority of the Fresnel lens could not be denied for long. Soon, from Dunkirk to Saigon, shores were brightened with it. The Fresnel legacy played an important role in geopolitical events, including the American Civil War. No sooner were Fresnel lenses finally installed along U.S. shores than they were drafted: the Union blockaded the Confederate coast; the Confederacy set about thwarting it by dismantling and hiding or destroying the powerful new lights.
Levitt’s scientific and historical account, rich in anecdote and personality, brings to life the fascinating untold story of Augustin Fresnel and his powerful invention.
Petroski, the WSJ reviewer, is a professor of civil engineering at Duke University. He describes Levitt’s book as “captivating,” concluding that she
recounts all this in fine prose, combining matters of biography, science, engineering, technology, art, history, economics and politics seemingly effortlessly and definitely seamlessly. “A Short Bright Flash” is an excellent book and a joy to read.”
Even though I had just started another book, I was unexpectedly taken by the notion of reading lighthouse history. I downloaded the book Monday night and began reading. I’m a little past the one-third point now. Fresnel is rolling out lighthouses with the new lenses the length of the French coast, the primary obstacle being the difficulty of finding glassmakers able to manufacture the lenses to suitable tolerances.
In the first chapter, I learned about Fresnel’s pioneering work on the wave theory of light. He encountered severe difficulty getting his ideas heard against the background of the prevailing particle (or corpuscular) theory of light, especially given that one of the proponents of the particle theory was the great mathematician and scientist Pierre-Simon Laplace. Levitt explains that Laplace
sought to explain light through a similar [to Newtonian gravity] inverse square force acting on particles of light, and he gave several students … the task of exploring optical phenomena within that framework. The particle theory of light thus underlay his broader vision for a triumphant Newtonian worldview, making Fresnel’s work on diffraction deeply heretical.
It’s a great story, which Levitt tells all too briefly. Of course, we now understand that Laplace and Fresnel were both right, the complementarity principle being a central tenet of quantum mechanics.
This is weird. Three nights ago I finished a post on Amanda Ripley’s book The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way. I logged into my WordPress account a few minutes ago and it didn’t show up on my list of posts. I searched my list of drafts in case something went wrong when I clicked on the publish button, but it wasn’t there. I was getting anxious that the post was lost entirely, but then I spotted it, listed as a post from September 15, two weeks ago.
I don’t know how that happened. In case you missed it, this post serves as a pointer. It’s here.
In addition to pointing, let me add some new content by noting the publication of Diane Ravitch’s book Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools, reviewed by Jonathan Kozol today in the Sunday NYT.
Whenever I see a Ravitch piece in the New York Review of Books, I read it immediately. In the same spirit, I should download the book right now. However, I fear that I’ll find it to be an expanded version of the articles I’ve already read.
In any case, I’m a big fan. So too is Kozol, and he sure knows a lot more about the issues than I do. From his review:
Diane Ravitch was for many years one of the strongest advocates for the testing-and-accountability agenda. Because of her impeccable credentials as a scholar and historian of education, she was a commanding presence among critics of our schools. Some years ago, however, she reconsidered her long-held beliefs and, in an influential book, “The Death and Life of the Great American School System,” parted ways with her former allies and joined the highly vocal opposition.
In her new book, “Reign of Error,” she arrows in more directly, and polemically, on the privatization movement, which she calls a “hoax” and a “danger” that has fed on the myth that schools are failing. Scores go up and down from year to year — usually, as she explains, because the testing instruments are changed and vary in their difficulty. But, pointing to the National Assessment of Education Progress, which has sampled math and reading scores every two years since 1992 and, in an alternate version, every four years since the early 1970s, Ravitch demonstrates that levels of achievement have been rising, incrementally but steadily, from one decade to the next. And — surprise! — those scores are now “at their highest point ever recorded.” Graduation rates are also at their highest level, with more young people entering college than at any time before.
What passes for reform today, Ravitch writes, is “a deliberate effort” to replace public schools with a market system. The “unnatural focus on testing” has produced “perverse but predictable results.” It has narrowed curriculums to testable subjects, to the exclusion of the arts and the full capaciousness of culture. And it has encouraged the manipulation of scores on state exams. “Teaching to the test, once considered unprofessional and unethical,” is now “common.”
All of this, she says, has continued unrelentingly under the administration of President Obama, who has given “full-throated Democratic endorsement” to “the longstanding Republican agenda.” The president’s signature education package, Race to the Top, is “only marginally different from No Child Left Behind.” In fact, it compounds the damage by requiring that states evaluate teachers, partially at least, on the basis of yearly gains in students’ scores — no matter if the teacher has a different group of children from year to year, which is usually the case, and no matter whether a teacher has more troubled children, or more with disabilities, than another teacher who comes up with higher scores.
In its funding practices, the White House has “abandoned equity as the driving principle of federal aid,” offering new funds on condition that states expand the scope of competition by opening more charter schools and outsourcing normal functions of public schools to private agencies. This, Ravitch says, is “the first time in history” the government has “designed programs with the intent of stimulating private-sector investors to create for-profit ventures in American education.”
Ravitch’s book and Ripley’s converge in their focus on Finland. Kozol again:
If we are to cast about for international comparisons, Ravitch urges us — this is not a new suggestion but is, I think, a useful one — to take a good, hard look at Finland, which operates one of the most successful education systems in the world. Teachers there, after competing for admission to schools of education and then receiving a superb course of instruction, are “held in high regard” and “exercise broad autonomy.” They are not judged by students’ test scores, because “there are no scores.” The country has no charter schools and no “Teach for Finland.” But, as Ravitch reminds us, there is one other, crucial difference: “Less than 5 percent of children in Finland are growing up in poverty.” In the United States, 23 percent do.
Maybe I should read it after all.
Four days ago I announced a policy change at Ron’s View, promising shorter and less-thought-out posts so that I could return to old posting volumes. Four posts followed that evening, but nothing since. Maybe it’s time to work through my backlog of drafts and get some of them out, finished or not.
For example, when we were on Nantucket a few weeks ago, I assembled some pieces about a book I had started reading, intending to write in more detail once finished. But that has yet to happen. Let me salvage something from those pieces.
During our Nantucket stay, I read Lee Child’s new Jack Reacher thriller Never Go Back, to which I had devoted three posts (last one here). The day I finished it, I saw a reference to a book that had received a lot of attention when it came out a few weeks earlier, Amanda Ripley’s The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way. I downloaded the free Kindle sample that night, read it, then downloaded the full book the next morning.
From the review:
“If you want the American dream, go to Finland.” These blunt words from a British politician, quoted by Amanda Ripley in “The Smartest Kids in the World,” may lead readers to imagine that her book belongs to a very particular and popular genre. We love to read about how other cultures do it better (stay slim, have sex, raise children). In this case, Ripley is offering to show how other nations educate students so much more effectively than we do, and her opening pages hold out a promising suggestion of masochistic satisfaction. “American educators described Finland as a silky paradise,” she writes, “a place where all the teachers were admired and all the children beloved.”
But Ripley … has a more challenging, and more interesting, project in mind. Yes, she travels to Finland to observe the “Nordic robots” who achieve such remarkably high scores on international tests — and to South Korea and Poland, two other nations where students handily surpass Americans’ mediocre performance. In the best tradition of travel writing, however, she gets well beneath the glossy surfaces of these foreign cultures, and manages to make our own culture look newly strange.
In reporting her book, Ripley made the canny choice to enlist “field agents” who could penetrate other countries’ schools far more fully than she: three American students, each studying abroad for a year. Kim, a restless 15-year-old from rural Oklahoma, heads off to Finland, a place she had only read about, “a snow-castle country with white nights and strong coffee.” Instead, what she finds is a trudge through the cold dark, to a dingy school with desks in rows and an old-fashioned chalkboard — not an iPad or interactive whiteboard in sight. What Kim’s school in the small town of Pietarsaari does have is bright, talented teachers who are well trained and love their jobs.
It’s the review’s conclusion that really got my attention.
Ripley succeeds in making our own culture and our own choices seem alien — quite a feat for an institution as familiar and fiercely defended as high school. The question is whether the startling perspective provided by this masterly book can also generate the will to make changes. For all our griping about American education, Ripley notes, we’ve got the schools we want.
Still, I forgot about the book until that day on Nantucket. It’s short. After downloading it, I read a ways into it while we sat by the ocean, read another chunk in the afternoon by the bay, then finished it the next day.
Here is the blurb from the book’s website:
In a handful of nations, virtually all children are learning to make complex arguments and solve problems they’ve never seen before. They are learning to think, in other words, and to thrive in the modern economy. What is it like to be a child in these new education superpowers?
In a global quest to find answers for our own children, author and Time Magazine journalist Amanda Ripley follows three Americans embedded in these countries for one year. Kim, 15, raises $10,000 so she can move from Oklahoma to Finland; Eric, 18, exchanges a high-achieving Minnesota suburb for a booming city in South Korea; and Tom, 17, leaves a historic Pennsylvania village for a gritty city in Poland.
Their stories, along with groundbreaking research into learning in other cultures, reveal a pattern of startling transformation: none of these countries had many “smart” kids a few decades ago. They had changed. Teaching had become more rigorous; parents had focused on things that mattered; and children had bought into the promise of education.
And there’s also a video:
By far the most enjoyable passages are those in which we follow the three American students in Finland, South Korea, and Poland. Back when I read the book and started this post, I anticipated elaborating on this. No point now. The students are mostly forgotten.
I also anticipated quoting some passages about math education. Not that I claim any special expertise on this, despite years of teaching mathematics. I know a few things about math, maybe even a few things about teaching, but not much about how K-12 math education is best done. I have ideas, yes, but haven’t studied the research or the data, so I don’t presume that my ideas have any special merit. Nonetheless, there were some fascinating bits.
Here’s one, not from the main text, but from an appendix on “how to spot a world-class education.”
In 2011, I took a tour of a Washington, D.C., private school that was hard to get into and cost about $30,000 a year. … strange things happened on this visit. When the head of the school talked, nothing she said made sense to me. There was a lot of jargon about the curriculum and vague promises of wondrous field trips and holistic projects. All the visiting parents nodded; I got the sense that no one wanted to say anything off key that might hurt a child’s admission chances.
Then a parent with three children at the school took us for a tour. We saw gleaming floors, bright, colorful walls, beautiful, framed art projects, and other seductive tokens. Finally, one visiting father asked a good question.
“Every school has its weaknesses. What is this school’s weakness?”
“You know, I’d have to say the math program is weak.”
I was speechless. Imagine visiting a tony private hospital that only admitted healthy patients who could afford its services, and finding out the surgery practice was weak. What did it mean if the math program was weak at a school that made small children take I.Q. tests before they were even accepted. That particular parent wrote a check each year for about $90,000 to this school to cover the tuition for her three children. Wouldn’t she demand decent math classes in exchange?
But no one said anything. Maybe all the parents were stunned as I was. Then the tour guide parent added one more thing.
“Oh, and I wish the football program was stronger.”
Suddenly, the parents perked up.
“Really, what do you mean? Is there not a football team? What age does it start?”
I wandered out into the parking lot, mystified. Perhaps this explained why our most affluent kids scored eighteenth in math compared to affluent kids worldwide: Even wealthy American parents didn’t care about math as much as football.
I would say more, but I have to go catch some highlights from tonight’s 49ers football game.