When a few of the people I follow on Twitter started tweeting about #infinitesummer the other week, I was intrigued. The idea is to have a sort of web-based reading group, all reading in a roughly synchronized way David Foster Wallace’s doorstop of a novel, Infinite Jest. It’s “only” just over 1,000 pages, so a relatively leisurely sub-100 pages a week will take you through the book before Labor Day. Why not, I thought.
I’m still game, but I violated the rules of Infinite Summer by reading the first 100 or so pages before the start date. So far, meh. But first impressions can mislead.
I have, however, put my copy of Infinite Jest on hiatus. I scoured my bookshelves for some substitute reading. We have a lot of books in our house (although the number has been winnowed down in our move from London a few years ago), and I’ve read the great majority of them. There are some volumes that I bought over the years, full of good intent, and they never made it to the top of the pile.
I narrowed my choice to three. What about Richard Evans’ Death in Hamburg? Evans is now well-known for his trilogy on the history of the Third Reich. But he came to public prominence as a historian when he won the Wolfson Prize for Death in Hamburg, a look at the cholera epidemic of 1892 (I find certain prizes — the Wolfson for history, the Royal Society for science — a great guide to finding wonderful books). But when I pulled it down from the shelf I discovered a problem. My Penguin edition runs about 600 pages, but the type is cripplingly small. I’ll return to Death in Hamburg when I find a copy in a library or secondhand that has type that I can read comfortably.
So I turned to Dark Sun, Richard Rhodes’ follow-up to The Making of the Atomic Bomb, one of my all-time favorites. I’ll certainly read Dark Sun in the next few months, but it was just pipped by my final candidate.
I remember when David Landes’ The Wealth and Poverty of Nations came out in the late ’90s. Howard Davies wrote a truly ecstatic review in the Financial Times (FT.com only indexes to 2004 so I can’t retrieve that review). I bought it straight away. But somehow it languished on my shelves. Well, dear reader, I’m thrilled I pulled it out. As the reviews way back when promised, it’s wonderfully written, filled with telling details and grapples with the crucial question of why some countries are rich and others are poor.
I’ll try to tweet occasional snippets from Landes, but here’s my favorite from today, on the importance of the European invention of eyeglasses:
Europe enjoyed a monopoly of corrective lenses for three to four hundred years. In effect they doubled the skilled craft workforce, and more than doubled it if one takes into account the value of experience.