Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Lydia: 1; Entropy: 0

Hello from the depths of the science fiction section! I have been back there shelving new science fiction and reorganizing the whole place for days. On the one hand, it's a break from Literary Criticism ... on the other, I have a really hard time not reading while I work! But now I'm done. This may not be as exciting to you all as it is to me, but I consider it a massive victory against the entropy that constantly besets any good bookshop.

At any rate. My major distraction today actually lay not in the Science Fiction and Fantasy section, but in trying to figure out what was going on in this Affordable and Interesting little pamphlet:

Title: "The Working Wasps: A Historical Drama of No Great Length but Fraught With Much Significance". Of the Vanishing Press, which printed it, this description (click here) is all I can find. Inside the front cover is this somewhat mysterious description:

Paper, we are told, was invented in the first century, in or near China. But what about Prehistory? Are we to suppose that in the decades following the Invention the great warehouses of Canton and Shanghai filled up with paper, awaiting the invention of paper work? No: the egg preceded the chick.

The conceit of the following few-page play appears to be that the Emperor, Empress, and Chamberlain of China have all kinds of paperwork, but must first invent paper to put it on. There are some wryly amusing lines ("Scientists, you know," sighs the Chamberlain, "They did invent the umbrella a few weeks ago."), but the whole appears not intended as a comedy: "A play is a parable, not a monograph," explains the postscript. (I'm not sure what the Chinese characters on every page mean ... was the whole play also translated into Chinese?) Perhaps the moral of the story is supposed to be that people ought to create institutions previous to creating infrastructure for them? Hmmm ... well, I appreciate the typesetting, and while I may buy this (at $3.00) for one of my China-and-irony-obsessed postmodern friends, I think I'll leave it in the shop for a while to give local paper enthusiasts the first crack at it.

Here are some Collector's Items printed on very beautiful paper:

These little art pamphlets are mostly in French, but a few have criticism or poetry in English as well. Doug priced them at $75.00 to $150.00 each, so -- wondering what made them so collectible -- I went and did some research on them. They're lovely, but it turns out that their value comes largely from the collector / gallery owner who printed them: Heinz Berggruen, who died in 2007 (you can read his NYTimes obituary by clicking here). He became a celebrity because of a legendary gesture of generosity.

It seems that, a Jew, Mr. Berggruen fled Germany in his youth and went on to become a great collector; but, several years ago, he sold much of his modern art collection to a German museum at a fraction of its market value. (Germany's museums apparently felt a great lack of modern art, because such work was purged from the country by the Third Reich.) I felt stirred by this story -- the idea of a man who had suffered so much, and the art that had likewise suffered, coming to a kind of reconciliation. If it has a moral, it's that art is above our conflicts, no matter how devastating those conflicts can be.

Perhaps I should have saved the ironic pamphlet for last, just to get the sweetness of that moral out of my mouth! Ick. But I'm afraid this week's Favorite is also beautiful and sappy:

I first picked up the Torch-Bearers trilogy because of the beautiful covers. I assumed them to be science fiction, but it seems that they're actually volumes of scientific history -- in poetic form. As the Introduction says, The story of scientific discovery has its own epic unity -- a unity of purpose and endeavour -- the single torch passing from hand to hand through the centuries; and the great moments of science when, after long labour, the pioneers saw their accumulated facts falling into a significant order -- sometimes in the form of a law that revolutionised the whole world of thought -- have an intense human interest, and belong essentially to the creative imagination of poetry.

Thus, the first volume is a long poem about Copernicus, Tycho Brahe, Kepler, and others; the next two volumes continue the story. Even removing the covers and framing them would be worth the set's price of $60.00, I would think (though I do hope whoever takes these home doesn't abuse them so); but these would be a particularly good gift for a scientist who doesn't lose his appreciation for beauty to hard facts, or a poet who sees beauty even in the spare outlines of science. I find the grandeur of such a poem stirring, myself ....

Ah, it's late. Time to go home now, dear readers -- and don't let my sappiness spoil your dinner!

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