Monthly Archives: January 2007

What I got for Christmas, or, My James Burke story

That was a nice holiday. The Divine Miss T is now of an age to really get a lock on this whole Christmas business, and she’s now a pro. She and Dances With Mermaids made out like bandits, as well they should have.

Dances With Mermaids had two goals for the Christmas break: ice-skate as much as possible and watch all of The Lord of the Rings with me. The first she achieved repeatedly; the second squeaked in the afternoon before school restarted. I’m happy to report that, once again, Sauron was short-circuited and Middle-earth was saved.

For me, the only swag was also the best I’ve gotten in years: the complete first season of Connections on DVD. The original ten-part series knocked me out when it aired on PBS in 1978 and over the years I’ve pursued it across the Learning Channel and other cable venues, taping as I went. It wasn’t until a few months ago that I even learned it was available on DVD through Ambrose Video.

The original ten-part series, created by the genial science historian James Burke, takes eight world-changing inventions and shows the daisy-chain of accidents and moments of inspiration that, unfolding over the course of centuries, allowed them to happen. Thus the search for a coating to protect the hulls of ships leads to modern plastics, or the punch-cards used in a Jacquard loom set the stage for early data-processing technology.

The play of ideas can leave your brain fizzing after each show, but the big attraction is Burke’s dryly funny delivery. In a segment about medieval fortifications, Burke ran down all the calculations attackers made while gauging the elevation of their cannons. While the calculations were very accurate, Burke deadpanned, “the only problem was that while they were doing all this, they [the defenders] shot you.”

When The Learning Channel re-ran the series in the 1990s, it proved so popular that TLC bankrolled a pair of sequels. Neither rose to the level of the original — one couldn’t help feeling that many of the connections were a little too arbitrary — but the third one allowed me to get a big laugh from the man himself.

A friend of mine who writes for the Record (formerly the Bergen Record, based in Hackensack, N.J.) spoke with Burke over the telephone as he was preparing a feature on the third series. Since he knew I was a fan of the original Connections, my friend asked me if I had a question I’d like to ask James Burke.

Indeed I did. When I told him the question, my friend said: “You can’t be serious. I can’t ask him that.”

Go ahead, I said, ask him.

He did, but he waited until the interview was just about done. “Mr. Burke,” he said, “I have a friend who admires your work as much as I do. He has a question he’d like me to ask you. Unfortunately, it’s a very impertinent one.”

Burke, always game, said “Fire away,” or something like that.

“He’d like to know,” my friend said, “why all the great inventions of mankind can only be explained with a trip to Bologna.” Because it’s true, you know — Bologna figures in quite a few of the connectons Burke makes.

After a moment of silence, Burke busted out in a long, loud laugh. He confessed that Bologna is one of his favorite places in the world, and as soon as he hooks up with an expense account it’s only a matter of time before he books a flight. To be fair, I should note that Bologna is a cultural and high-tech center in northern Italy, so the connection isn’t always a stretch.

So ended my brush with greatness.

Local hero

Here’s sad news. Micawber Books, one of my homes-away-from-home in Princeton, is closing down in March. The New York Times takes note of the passage.

Micawber started out in 1981 as a used-book store and gradually widened out to sell a mix of new and used. The widening out included expansion into a neighboring space, making for a place that was very pleasant to walk through and explore in leisurely fashion.

One of the things I’ve always liked about Princeton is that it’s such a booky town. In addition to the university store, which is a pretty serious bookstore in its own right as well as a place to get textbooks, there’s another used-book place a couple of blocks down from Micawber. People in Princeton take this culture stuff pretty seriously. Where else would you find a town where, on Superbowl Sunday, masses of people would head to the Montgomery Center cinema to pack the house for Kenneth Branagh’s production of Henry V? (I was two rows down from Joyce Carol Oates — we few, we happy few, baby!)

Because of that Born To Be Twee spirit, Micawber Books was in no particular financial trouble. The owner, Logan Fox, simply recognized that old-school bookstores are a dying breed, and in another decade or so there would probably be no buyer at all on the horizon. As it is, we’re fortunate that the building has been acquired by Princeton University, which is bringing in Labyrinth Books, a small scholarly-minded chain with links in Manhattan and New Haven.

Micawber goes dark in March, so you still have a chance to go and savor that independent bookstore spirit. Stock up on Moleskines, exchange glances over the display table and chat somebody up by the big wall of Penguin Classics. I’m not going to slag the big-box stores or Amazon (I use them all the time) but there’s no substitute for the vibe of a well-run independent bookstore. There are still a few left, and if the news about Micawber saddens you, go out and park some dollars at one of them. Personally, my favorite is the Montclair Book Center — what’s yours?

Love ode to a love ode

This blog post about a recently published book is one of the most charming things I’ve read in weeks. It’s not every day you learn about an intriguing blog and an intriguing book at the same time.