Tag Archives: Jacob Bronowski

Bruno’s tunes

Regular readers of this blog — to the extent that such people exist — know of my admiration for Dr. Jacob Bronowski, still best known for his magnificent BBC series The Ascent of Man. While doing some research, I came across this January 1974 entry in the BBC’s Desert Island Discs program, in which Bruno listed eight records he would take with him for castaway duty. Bronowski was a formidable polymath but he often joked that music was a language in which he stuttered. Despite all that, his list is intriguing: Winterreise alongside The Threepenny Opera, Ewan MacColl rubbing elbows with Marlene Dietrich, Benjamin Britten playing next to Tom Lehrer. Of course, Lehrer and Bronowski were both mathematicians; when you hear Bronowski’s remarks about the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, you’ll realize the two men shared other qualities as well. 

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January is Bruno’s month

January 18 is the birthday of philosopher Jacob Bronowski. This is “Knowledge or Certainty,” one of the most powerful essays in his grand series The Ascent of Man. The dominance of our politics by a rising tide of deeply convinced idiots, led by the phalanx of teabaggers now in government, makes his message more timely than ever.

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Bruno and the drunk guy

The drunk guy showed up a little past three in the afternoon, when business at the bookstore starts to slow down. I know he was drunk because he told me, right off the bat: “I don’t know if you can tell, but I’m pretty wasted right now.” I shrugged. It was a blazing hot day, part of the crushingly humid heat wave that made summer 2010 such a trial. Nothing was moving outside the store. On a day like that, drinking yourself into a stupor wasn’t the worst thing you could do.

For a guy who was blinking, owl-eyed drunk, he was pretty articulate. “I just finished an engineering exam and I wanna read something different,” he said. “I don’t wanna beach book. It has to be something demanding.”

“Nonfiction?” I asked.

“Nonfiction,” he said. “I’m reading a lot of philosophy right now.”

Engineering and philosophy? “Have you read Jacob Bronowski?” I asked him.

“No. Don’t know him.”

We headed to the cool of the back room. I plucked The Ascent of Man off the philosophy shelf.

“He was a trained scientist but his first books were about poetry and William Blake,” I said. “He was all about how the spirit of science and asking questions was the best defense against dogma and evil.”

“That sounds interesting,” he said. I handed him the book.

We went back to the front. I rang up the sale, wrapped the book up, and handed it to him.

“Keep it here, okay?” he asked. “I going to Charlie Brown’s for some more drinks. I don’t want the book to get messed up.”

“No problem,” I said. I stuck the book on a shelf behind the counter and watched him head out the door. He didn’t stumble or trip. Some people are like that when they’re really drunk.

That was well over a month ago and the drunk guy has yet to return. The Ascent of Man remains in its spot. I wonder if the drunk guy is sober now. Does he even remember buying the book?

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Fifteen big ones

Via Lance Mannion, I have discovered the meme known as 15 Books That Will Always Stick With Me. This meme is so powerful that one needn’t be tagged directly to succumb to its awesome level of Not Lameness. In fact, I’m going to emulate Lance by dividing the books into pre-high school, high school and college categories. And once you’ve read it, don’t consider yourself tagged. Consider yourself invited to participate with a list of your own special books.

Pre-high school

THE OCTOBER COUNTRY, Ray Bradbury: A tall decanter full of dreams. If memory serves, I got into Bradbury via the film version of Fahrenheit 451, which was on TV quite a bit for a while, and which I liked mainly for the glorious music by Bernard Herrmann. I had already devoured R Is For RocketThe Illustrated Man, and The Golden Apples of the Sun, but this is the collection I always think of when somebody asks me about Bradbury in his prime. These stories were culled and revised from Bradbury’s first book, Dark Carnival, and are some of the most macabre stuff he ever wrote.

WHY I AM NOT A CHRISTIAN, Bertrand Russell: The title essay is the reason I never finished confirmation classes at the church my parents were flogging me into every Sunday. Does a book’s impact get any more personal than that? 

DO ANDROIDS DREAM OF ELECTRIC SHEEP? Philip K. Dick: My introduction to PKD came from a small library of paperbacks that lined a couple of shelves in my seventh-grade science teacher’s classroom. The back cover promised all kinds of smutty science fiction fun. What I got was a cage-rattling meditation on the nature of human identity, and an undertow of tragedy that just about knocked me sidewways at my tender age.

THE ASCENT OF MAN, Jacob Bronowski: My introduction to Bruno came via the Channel 13 broadcast of the BBC series, and as soon as it was done I got a copy of the hardcover book by joining the Literary Guild. Did I understand everything I read. Of course not, but the effort did me good.

GODS, GRAVES, AND SCHOLARS, C.W. Ceram: A great popular history of archaeology, loaded with Indiana Jones stuff as well as some excellent leads on other works of history. I learned about Cortes and the conquest of Mexico from this book, which led to a lifelong fascination with the subject.        

THE HEIGHTS OF MACCHU PICCHU, Pablo Neruda: My introduction to the greatest poem by one of our greatest poets came about through a science fiction story, “Come to Me Not in Winter’s White” by Roger Zelazny and Harlan Ellison, which I read in Ellison’s collection of collaborative stories, Partners in Wonder. Art is where you find it. 

High school

CANNERY ROW/THE PASTURES OF HEAVEN, John Steinbeck: After coming across a beat-up copy of Travels With Charley in a Sea Isle City bungalow, I spent the summer between my freshman and sophomore years reading every Steinbeck title I could get my hands on. For my money, these are his two best novels.

A FAREWELL TO ARMS/IN OUR TIME, Ernest Hemingway: The next summer was spent plowing through the big guy’s works, which didn’t take as long as the Steinbeck Summer, so I filled out August with a few Herman Hesse titles. (This was the mid-Seventies, when high schoolers looking for stirrings of transcendance felt obligated to read Siddhartha and Steppenwolf.) Since I was also going through my Sorrows of Young Werther period, the romantic longings in A Farewell to Arms really struck a deep chord, and I continue to admire the spare music of Hemingwway’s short stories.   

THE GLORY AND THE DREAM, William Manchester: Mid-20th century American history, from the arrival of the Bonus Army marchers in Washington D.C. to the eviction of Richard Nixon from the White House. Narrative history at its finest. I think it’s a tragedy Manchester never got to finish his three-part Churchill biography.   

WRITINGS AND DRAWINGS, Bob Dylan: Lucky me. Not only was Blood on the Tracks my first Bob Dylan album, but 1975 was a great year to be a Dylan fan. Blood on the Tracks came out in January, The Basement Tapes was released (in water-down form) in June, and all through the fall I followed the glamorous wanderings of the Rolling Thunder Revue in the pages of Rolling Stone, and Desire came out so early in January that I have a hard time remembering it as a 1976 release. Somewhere along the way I acquired  this collection of lyrics, album cover notes and poetry in a slick tan cover, which is the reason I knew most of Dylan’s other albums by reading them before I listened to them.

INTERVIEW WITH HISTORY, Oriana Fallaci: I never made good on my teen fantasy of having an affair with the diminutive hellraiser, but I did the next best thing and spent a lot of quality time with this collection of interviews, in which Fallaci made Yasir Arafat, Henry Kissinger and the Shah of Iran (among others) deeply and profoundly regret the day they opened their doors to her. Kissinger once said that agreeing to talk with Fallaci was “the stupidest thing I ever did.” Years later, when I found myself bumping shoulders with Kissinger at a buffet table, the only thing I could imagine saying to him was, “Damn, Henry, Oriana really pounded that one up your ass, didn’t she?” And yet I kept quiet! What demon possessed me, that I behaved so well? 

College

RED HARVEST, Dashiell Hammett: After the farm wagon dropped me off at Livingston College, I batted some of the straw out of my hair and headed for the campus bookstore, where my very first purchase was this detective novel by a writer I’d been hearing about for some time. It has the most perfect opening of any noir book I’ve read. I think I spent the rest of the semester talking out of the side of my mouth.

MATTERS OF FACT AND OF FICTION, Gore Vidal: I’d long had a vague idea of Gore Vidal, but it took someone lending me this book while I spent several weeks recovering from a bout of mono to show me what I’d been missing. Exemplary essays and reviews that opened up a lot of new horizons for me. In fact, one of the reviews led me to . . .

THE POWER BROKER, Robert Caro: When I wrote The Last Three Miles, I had in mind doing something with a bit of the same historic sweep that makes this massive biography so engrossing. Robert Moses’ heroic image as the master builder of New York City was overturned by Caro’s examination, which takes in virtually every significant trend affecting mid-20th century America and New York City, and shows how one man really can make a difference — for good and for ill. The book’s level of detail is daunting, its argument commanding, its scope breathtaking.      

PATRIOTIC GORE, Edmund Wilson: My introduction to the Civil War as something more than a collection of dates and battles with odd names came through this massive collection of essays on the era’s literature. Abraham Lincoln’s ritings, William Tecumseh Sherman’s diaries, Mary Chestnut’s diaries . . . and Carl Sandburg’s cornpone myth-mongering, praised and/or debunked as the occasion demands.

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My back pages

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Here is a year-end roundup of this site’s greatest hits to date, selected on the basis of site traffic, commentary and authorial pride.

BRUNO: An appreciation of Jacob Bronowski (above), the philosopher whose work still speaks to me, as clearly and persuasively as ever, decades after my first encounter.

THE BEST SWORDFIGHT MOVIES OF ALL TIME: The hands-down, dead-cert champion click magnet, thanks to a much appreciated link from Kung Fu Cinema that continues to bring in viewers. It was written in installments, so if you want to get the build, start here, go to here and finish up here. Some commenters have noted the prejudice in favor of European-style swordplay, and I admit I know very little about the Asian styles and genres, and my predilection is for realism over fanciful imagery. This leaves out Asian entries like Hero, in which the fight sequences are rapturously beautiful without being (or intending to be) the least bit convincing. I’m always ready to hear arguments to the contrary, however.

A NOVEL DARKLY, A MOVIE DIMLY: Regarding Philip K. Dick and the film adaptation of his finest, most disturbing novel, A Scanner Darkly.

SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS: This brutally witty Burt Lancaster film is one of my favorite movies, and this article about it is one of my favorite posts.

mingus_charles_450pWHAT THE CLOWN KNEW: “The Clown” is a dark little fable about show business that has the same place in Charles Mingus’ huge catalogue that “The Mysterious Stranger” has in Mark Twain’s body of work. Mingus tried to merge words and music throughout his long career; with the help of  radio personality and raconteurJean Shepherd, who at the time was the reigning king of the “night people,” he made the merger work brilliantly.

EMINENCE GRAY: An appreciation of critic and biographer Michael Gray, one of the finest writers on the subject of one of the towering artists of 20th century music.

A POET WHO KEPT HIS WORD: Kenneth Fearing’s poem “Newspaperman” inspires angry and sad thoughts about the death of the newspaper business.

EVEN THE EVIL: What fallen chess grandmaster Bobby Fischer had in common with Icelandic outlaw Grettir Asmundarsen. Maybe that sounds like a stretch, but gimme a little benefit of the doubt on this.

ALL THINGS FILBOID: The genesis of the Bugs Bunny Appreciation Society was an article on the unlikely spot where Termite Terrace overlaps with the work of Hector Hugh Munro, aka Saki.

SUZE ROTOLO, SCENE STEALER: The deranging process of achieving fame, described by someone who was there to see it happen.

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