Friday, June 10, 2005

COM: Whoa, a handoff from . . .

I just discovered that i've been passed a meme from Snail's Tales, a really cool blog about my favorite research subjects. It's about books, and i'm going to have to do some thinking . . . i'll get back to you on this! Look for an update on this post.

Update: Okay maybe you'll pardon me if i do this in waves -- some of the questions are pretty easy -- others, well . . .

Update 2: Okay, i think i'm there. First, i apologize for taking this and running with it. Most folks simply make lists, i make encyclopedias. Second, please go backwards and check out the previous takers -- i've already found gems amongst their choices. Third, go forward and keep tabs on the folks i passed this on to.

In the meantime check out Aydin Örstan's answers at his place . . .

Here are the questions i have to deal with . . .

Number of books I own? I really have no way to tell, but . . . i collect books like crazy, not really for value, etc., but because i like books.

So i once counted (on a bet) the books i own about soccer, and that total was nearly 1200 (with few additions since). It's the single largest collection i have on any one topic. I also have pretty large collections of field guides, and books on technical biological matters (birds, dragonflies, butterflies and moths, molluscs, plants, reptiles, evolution, ecology, etc.)-- several hundred all told. And a fair collection of bibles in different languages. And everything written by William Goyen (my favorite writer) as well as quite a few by other favorite writers. A pretty handy collection of books written by friends of mine (glancing at it tonight, it's larger than even i realized). Lots of poetry, and lots of film and play scripts. And well, lots of things (a glance at my blog is indicative of my interests -- and if i have interests i have books). So, just a completely blind guess that i may have about 2500 books.

Last book I bought? Well, i buy in waves -- and i did so a few weeks ago at a conference where i was premiering a film. I probably bought eight or nine books, but there are three i'm particularly happy with -- two are exceptional works by friends in the Odonate business -- one a huge, gorgeous, rendition of Dragonfly biology, A Dazzle of Dragonflies by Forrest Mitchell and James Lasswell; the other an incredible piece of technical work, The Dragonflies and Damselflies of Texas and the South-Central United States by John Abbott. And the third book, one i found that was totally unexpected, but has me trying to identify hundreds of my pictures -- a new guide to the Grasshoppers, Crickets and Katydids of the US (and which i don't have at hand, but i'll get the proper title etc to you soon). [The real title is: Field Guide to the Grasshoppers, Katydids and Crickets of the United States, by John L. Capinera, Ralph D. Scott and Thomas J. Walker]

And, get this, today in the mail is a package from Chris Anderson. Chris is the UCLA Ph.D. candidate who spent a week here studying Hetaerina damselflies on the river. Not only did he send me two great books, but i can't begin to thank him for the obvious thoughtfulness that went into his selection of the books. So, now i have two books to get read soon and hopefully the meme will come back around -- the books are A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson, and America (The Book): A Citizen's Guide to Democracy Inaction by the Daily Show Crew (with a forward by Thomas Jefferson) . . .

Last book I read (for the first time)? Well, one of the above sorta, except they're browsing kind of books, and so i haven't read one front to back yet. So, in terms of actually reading one, the last book i covered end to end was Down and Dirty Pictures by Peter Biskind, an inside look at Miramax and Sundance -- two players in the Independent film business.

Five books that have influenced me a lot? I'm going to cheat a little here since it's really a pretty broad question, and stick to books that influenced me in my pursuit of science since the meme's been passed lately amongst bioblogs. But i am going to try to stick with the idea of books that influenced me.

First, i'm going to harass the donkey a little and say The Bible. It shaped my life greatly, though it plays little active part now. The way in which it affected me most is in giving me a profound respect for life, which led to a deep curiosity about the world and humanity. Who's to know if i would've been a biologist, or a writer, or anything useful, had i never encountered the book or been raised Christian. All i know is that i can trace many things back to it.

Second, A Paradise of Birds by Helen Gere Cruickshank (whom i never met, but i had given a lecture once and told the story of this book's influence on me, and that anecdote was passed through a couple of people to her unbeknownst to me, and she found my address and wrote me what is now a cherished note). I grew up in the Lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas, famous now (as it was then although i didn't really understand that) for its birds, and was enamored of the many incredible birds i was finding down there. I read voraciously about birds, but found little of use to me -- indeed the few books i could find which actually put labels on birds had species i'd never seen so i had to invent my own names. Well, one day i found this book, and not only did i find eloquent language and knowledge of bird things i never fathomed, but whole sections of the book were devoted to places nearly in my back yard. I could even intuit that some of the birds i was seeing were some of the birds they had names for. It took me until i was nearly out of my teens to find someone else who was actually a birdwatcher (a Beverly Hillbillies Mrs. Hathaway was my only knowledge that such a creature existed), and from there it was off to the races, but this was really the bigger part of the start of it all.

Third, (i'm cheating again so i get all my choices in -- this is two books from one author). Metamagical Themas: Questing for the Essence of Mind and Pattern and Le Ton Beau de Marot: In Praise of the Music of Language, both by Douglass Hofstadter. Influence is a tricky modifier. I read Themas first, and it blew me away. It certainly has raised my cognizance level significantly. While, not directly biological, it nevertheless allowed me to learn to logic things out by organizing my thinking. It also, more than any science text, helped me gain an appreciation for controls and limiting variables in experimentation (which failure by the majority of latter day students is actually responsible, i believe, for the general failure of understanding science by the masses). Le Ton Beau is a masterpiece. While ostensibly about a little French poem and language, it is also about the nuances of language, especially in translation, about communication and its difficulties, the evolution of language and text, about love and loss, and about logic. If there were a single non-fiction book i could recommend to everyone, with the idea that everyone who read it would gain immeasurably from it, this would be it.

Fourth, House of Breath by William Goyen. Another backstory of growing up. I spent 15 summers of my youngest adulthood on the shores of the Trinity River near Trinity in the Big Thicket of east Texas. It was then, and at least retains the legend of, dark secrets and ghosts, and bears and panthers, sweaty nights with a million frogs barking and the wind in the pines whistling you to sleep. It was the place of my first real love, and of my first real loss, and of days deep in the woods amongst some of the rarest creatures on the planet. Somewhere about my tenth year there i wandered into a tiny library in Trinity and found a shrine of sorts to a guy named William Goyen. In a glass case were yellowed newspaper clippings, snippets from France, New York, Los Angeles -- all about this writer fellow from Trinity. There were several books in the case with his name on them. I was especially curious about a review that said Goyen was considered, in France, to be the finest writer ever to arise from the states. So i found the book that was reviewed, House of Breath, on the main shelf and checked it out. That night, in my cabin, i read it and found in the mysterious language Goyen created every bit of the subtlety of the woods i knew so well. Perhaps because i was so familiar with the "place" i found the book to be magical. In any case i sought out more and soon had a collection of Savata, Ghost and Flesh, Had I Hundred Mouths, and everything else i could find, including the posthumous Arcadio. I knew the day he died, the obituary immediately caught my eye. I have reviews, stories, scripts. I've had conversations with friends of his, and i feel fully within his soul now. What can i say, he nailed a wild place for me once and for all. This would be the one fiction book i would recommend to anyone i could.

I think i'll end my official list with another cheat by, instead of naming books, saying i've been highly influenced by the writings of Stephen Jay Gould (i.e., Ontogeny and Phylogeny, The Panda's Thumb, Hen's Teeth and Horse's Toes, The Flamingo's Smile, etc.), Donald Quammen (i.e., The Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinctions, Monster of God), Susan Power (i.e., Grass Dancer), Naomi Shihab Nye (i.e., Fuel, 19 Varieties of Gazelle), Joy Harjo (i.e., She Had Some Horses, How We Became Human), and James Welch (i.e., Fool's Crow, Killing Custer) in addition to the above writers (all for their ability to discern and dissect the world, natural and human, and to depict it as worthy of our most detailed attention), and though they're not books, the blogs Orcinus, Peacefile and Pharyngula and all the evolutionary bent blogs have got me doing lots more thinking the last few months than i would normally would have done.

Honorable Mention:
Lovesong of the Giant Contessa by Stephen Tye Culbert -- which is also about "place" in much the same way that Goyen is, uses a rare language and style (such that i even asked Culbert, sensing some connection, if he read Goyen and he'd never heard of him [but if you read and like the Goyen you ought to try this too]). I do have some biological quibbles with the book, but it's a stunning read.

The Sun Came Down by Percy Bullchild -- the Blackfeet creation myth.

A Parrot Without a Name by Don Stapp. I always thought i was born about 100 years too late, that i'd missed the age of discovery. Now though i'm not certain that's true. I've made a few modest discoveries myself, done more than a few expeditions, and done some things i'm proud of, and looking back i think maybe i didn't miss anything at all. Although i've never quite achieved the pinnacle depicted in this book, i think that Stapp better than any other writer i've read chronicles this sense of discovery in all its exhilaration. This might have made the main list but i've had trouble convincing myself that it actually influenced me . . . still it's a fun read, and is also nicely accurate (which can be a real problem for someone writing of technical biology without the background themselves).

Goedel, Escher, Bach by Douglass Hofstadter, which i came to by way of seeking out more of his writing after Themas, and while it is the tome i think least directly applicable to my own work, it does frit about with music and logic, and is a fine other work to read.

Five bloggers to inflict this on? Well Curt Steinhorst at Curt from Curt for one. Because he can get this going in another sphere, because he's sharp as a tack at thinking through philosophical things, and because in the last four days he's asked half a dozen times if i had read such-and-such a book, and he needs something to get his blog going.

Gimme Some Truth, because Scott Davis is neither in school or at camp and based on the recent film he stars in he has plenty of time to do this on his blog which doesn't get updated nearly enough!

You know, this is actually the hardest question because many of the blogs i read (ESPECIALLY the science blogs) have already done this. I only know what this thing is because i've seen it on their blogs! And a couple i would've considered, Bootstrap Analysis and Urban Dragon Hunters, were picked by Snail's Tales at the same time i got picked. Sooooo . . .

how about i pick on . . .

Thoughts from Kansas

stranger fruit

and finally Organic Matter

No takers yet, but i'm hopeful.

Update Saturday -- hallellujah, can i hear an amen, Josh Rosenau Thoughts from Kansas heard the call and took me up on the challenge and produced this fine list.

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