Tuesday, January 19, 2010

What I am reading these days

Now that I am back in Toronto and have unlimited access to probably one of the greatest public libraries in the world, I am spending a lot of time reading. Between internet surfing and library book reading, I could easily fill up all my days. I have set a couple of goals for this winter, but at the present rate I suspect that those goals will go the way of the goals I set for myself last summer. Nowhere.

Anyway. What I am reading.

Now or Never, by Tim Flannery. Dire predictions for the future based on the prospects for climate change and the lack of adequate action on that front. I read his earlier book, Weather Makers, and had heard good things about this one too. However, I think I may have maxed out on climate change books, it kind of went in one ear and out the other.

Elsewhere, and I wish I could remember the website (or had bookmarked it!), I was reading about a company that was trying to develop better weather/climate modelling software. Virtually all of the dire predictions for climate change are based on modelling software, programs that take inputs of a variety of data and churn out predictions of what the earth's climate will doin response to all that data. But apparently the current software being used is seriously limited, and the predictions based on that software are rather shaky. Anywhere from: the world as we know it will end this century regardless of any action we may take, to relax, not a problem, go back to sleep. Kind of makes it difficult to organize globally united action when you don't know what's happening, what we can do about it, or what the consequences of action/inaction are.


...but moving right along:

U-turn, by Bruce Grierson. This is kind of fascinating, I haven't finished it yet but the further into it I get the more fascinated I am. This book is about people who make U-turns in life, who, how, why. Not just why they made the U-turn (e.g., turning from active career as animal experimentalist to ardent PETA activist), but examining theories about why and how people make that kind of radical change in life direction. The author is not content with simple answers. One of the interesting ideas he mentions (but doesn't necessarily dwell on) is that frequently U-turns involve returning to childhood dreams of what one wants to do in life.

Grierson suggests that around age 11 we are fully formed as who we are, but then life gets complicated and before we know it we are headed somewhere else entirely different. When we finally get a chance to think about what we really want in life, it turns out that what we really want is what we wanted when we were 11, no matter how impractical or outlandish that may have been. And when we talk about becoming truly ourselves, we are talking about returning to who we were when we were 11. Well, not exactly 11, for some of us it's 10 or 12 or somewhere else in that rough time frame. But you get the idea.

Where were you when you were "11"? What did you think you would be doing with your life? Are you? Would/could/should you?

Another thing is about changing your mind. A lot of the U-turns described in this book involve 180 degree changes of mind, but he asks the question, why do some make the change and some do not? There is a lot of pressure in life to maintain the same viewpoint, perspective, opinion on things, changing your mind can be traumatic. But additionally, there is neurological resistance to changing your mind. Children can change their minds comparatively easily because they have a multiplicity of neural pathways in their brains that make it easy; after a certain point in brain development "pruning" sets in, our brains systematically remove large numbers of neural pathways, narrowing our thinking process options in such a way that changing your opinion is actually hard to do. There is biological pressure to maintain the status quo, to stick to the tried and true even if it's not so true any more.

With a Tangled Skein, by Piers Anthony. This is fairly light reading, a fantasy/science fiction novel in a series of seven books altogether called Incarnations of Immortality. Each book is about an aspect of life such as Death, Fate, Nature and so forth. This one is about Fate. I liked some of the ideas expressed in the first book of the series (On a Pale Horse, about Death) so I thought I'd read the rest. So far this one is a good yarn but nothing striking yet.

I like to keep something relatively light to read by the bed for those nights when I wake up in the middle bright-eyed and bushy-tailed but unwilling to give up entirely on sleep. At the end of each novel in the series the author writes about what was going on in his life while he was writing the book, and how it relates to the theme of the book. In the first book I found that part of the book very interesting, so I am looking forward to reading that part of this book too (the central theme/character is Fate).

But first I have to finish the story. May take a while, I bought this book when I was in Nova Scotia and so far I am less than halfway through.

How to Live, by Henry Alford. This is supposed to be a book about the wisdom of old people, the search for and recording of while they are still alive. It seems to be as much a story of the author's parents' divorce as anything else. He goes after a few well-known elders for their bits of wisdom, some bite some don't, and there's a few "ordinary" old people too. I don't know what to say about this book other than that. Well written and enjoyable but unless I find some really wonderful nugget of wisdom in the book I won't be urging you all to read it.

National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America. This book was recommended to me by a naturalist and guide in Belize as one of the better bird books. I left my trusty old bird book at a friend's place out west and am debating whether to ask them to mail it to me or just bite the bullet and buy a newer one, my old book being over 40 years old now. What I like about this book is that it is very comprehensive and the illustrations are drawings not photos.

So far the bird books I've seen that rely on photos for identifying birds have been inadequate. You'd think a photo was better than a drawing, it is after all the "real thing", but when you're trying to identify an unknown bird you need to know what it's key characteristics are and how those key characteristics differ from every other bird possibility. A photographer has to be both extremely knowledgeable and lucky to get the exact right photo of a bird for identification purposes. And if the light or the angle is wrong the bird in the photo may not look like the bird in your bush at all, or your bird may appear to ressemble some other bird in another photo for the same reasons. Colour drawings on the other hand can be made to show the distinguishing characteristics and the right colours, the artist can pose the bird in the most useful way.

So this book is definitely good in that respect. It shows range maps, has good descriptions and even includes a bird or two that my old book did not have. I looked for the Harpy Eagle (I saw this bird in Belize, which in my opinion is part of North America, but so far I have not found a bird book that concurs with me) and it was not there, but the White-tailed Eagle and the Steller's Sea-Eagle were, even though they are not native to North America. I saw one once in Atlin BC, but at a distance I could not tell which eagle it was. But definitely too big to be either a Bald or Golden Eagle, the only native eagles in those parts.

There's a few name changes: the Oldsquaw Duck is now the Longtailed Duck, the Whistling Swan has been subsumed into the Trumpeter Swan. Not sure I like that, but that's more about taxonomic than editorial decisions.

The one thing I do not like about this book compared to my old one is the greater size and weight. Increased knowledge and information comes at a price, this is a book that will do damage to my shoulder hauling it around on walks. Also, my old book has checkboxes in the index for keeping a life list, I have a 35-year old life list in that book which I do not want to lose.

I will borrow a couple of other bird books from the library to see how they compare. Maybe even the more up-to-date version of my old book.

I've got some other library books waiting in the wings (a stack by my livingroom couch), and at least a dozen on my Holds list on the TPL website. When I am websurfing I keep the TPL website open in one tab of my browser (I love tabs!); if I run across an interesting book being cited I go there to see if the library has it and if it does I put a hold on it. Last year my Holds list peaked out at almost 40 books, but a lot of them were books I had no intention of reading all the way through, I just wanted to look at them.

8 - )

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