Monday 1 August 2016

Catching the Light, Arthur Zajonc

The humanity of Catching the Light: The Entwined History of Light and Mind by Arthur Zajonc (a great watery roving Slav name) is what makes it hard to read except glidingly. I have always read science books for whatever briefly made sense, and for whatever decisively didn't. I like being bemused. I can rest across paragraphs and sentences I don't understand. Arthur Zajonc's history of light and mind is history, illuminated, orderly. I have to rewrite it as I read, take off where I can. A phrase about looking through a vacuum to the other side, another about the tenderness you learn in childhood—a quick dash through my childhood reveals none, except in the music of Schubert.

Reading science in my twenties I learned to open a book at random and rove around till I lit on a phrase I didn't understand in a pleasurable way. Douglas Hofstadter. Richard Feynman. Paracelsus. Lucretius. I preferred reading that was beyond me. And so learned to live there.

As my onetime neighbour in Sussex, Sally Corbett  (SNEC) asked, when I enthused about Carlyle's Sartor Resartus, my reading of the moment, I don't read much, she said, I need to know before I start do I need to read this? Yes, I said. Everyone needs to understand a tailor retailored.

The quality of thought is concurrent with the quality of light. The way I might read Catching the Light, or Sartor Resartus, in summer differs from the way I'd read in winter; or next week, or half an hour from now, after I have released a blackbird from the greenhouse, a juvenile I think, with young, anxious feathers.

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