Black holes, environmental catastrophe and disease—this month’s selection is not for the faint heartedby Olivia Laing / October 17, 2012 / Leave a comment
This is not a crop of books to make one feel sanguine about the future. From Alzheimer’s disease and climate change to black holes capable of swallowing up entire galaxies, there seems to be an unending phalanx of potential disasters ahead. Fortunately for the anxious reader, these are also books with an infectious faith in the diagnostic and curative powers of narrative itself.
Take The Robber of Memories: A River Journey through Colombia (Granta, £16.99). In 2011, travel writer Michael Jacobs voyaged up the Magdalena, the once beautiful and now grievously polluted setting for Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s famous novel Love in the Time of Cholera, and still a dumping ground for bodies in the nation’s long civil war. A year earlier, Jacobs had encountered Marquez at a Colombian party. The writer was already displaying symptoms of dementia, a disease that had likewise destroyed the memories of both Jacobs’s parents. As he inches towards the river’s source, Jacobs reflects movingly on the importance of remembering and bearing witness, particularly in a nation so acutely affected by violence and war.
Making sense of a disordered and contested past is also a theme of Harvard history professor Jill Lepore’s engrossing The Story of America: Essays on Origins (Princeton University Press, £19.95). “Politics,” she notes beadily, “is a story about the relationship between the past and the future; history is a story about the relationship between the past and the present.” Neither is exactly straightforward to tell, and Lepore’s elegant account of America’s genesis is alert to discrepancies and exaggerations of all kinds. It’s characteristic of her genial style that while examining the sticky history of Captain John Smith (he of Pocahontas fame), she observes that while he probably wasn’t a liar, his pantaloons did on one notable occasion literally burst into flames.
Lepore may be a skilled historian, but she lacks the farsightedness of Caleb Scharf. In Gravity’s Engines: The Other Side of Black Holes (Allen Lane, £20), Scharf provides a virtuosic history of the universe, explaining in simple terms such advanced concepts as event horizons, white dwarfs and general relativity. While his intention is to explain the creative role black holes appear to play in shaping galaxies, he also serves as an appealing tour guide to the eerie, infinite corridors of the cosmos in which we reside.
According to Julian Barnes, the best way to understand this messy and sometimes frightening place…