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Books which are not what they seem

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Books which are not what they seem

Postby Prof. Wagstaff » Mon Dec 10, 2012 8:16 pm

Have you ever picked up what looked to be a fascinating book on a subject of interest only to be completely frustrated by what it turns out to be?

I am currently reading (or more accurately, sloughing through) Voyager: Seeking Newer Worlds In The Third Great Age Of Discovery which I assumed was a history of the Voyager space program, a topic of considerable interest. But I'm 100 pages in and so far, maybe 20 of those pages have actually been about the Voyager spacecraft and/or the Jet Propulsion Lab which designed and launched them. The rest has been a tedious, uninteresting "history of exploration". It's central thesis - that the history of exploration can be neatly divided into three "Great Ages" - is an exercise in reductionism with, from my perspective, little basis in reality. And it's not that I don't generally find historical accounts of great explorers and expeditions fascinating. On the contrary, I recently read this book about Magellan's voyage and found it riveting. But Stephen J. Pyne's version of history reads like the catalog of ships from The Iliad. And his comparisons - like, for example, that the three-stage rockets which boosted Voyager into orbit are like the different stages of outfitting ocean vessels - read like a bad high school essay. And his insistence on couching every technical detail with some kind of political relevance (not that I deny the importance of the Cold War to spaceflight, mind you) is exceedingly irritating.

I can't tell if Pyne actually believes he's making worthwhile observations or was just getting paid by the page. When he does actually discuss the details which lead up to the conception and execution of this bold space mission, it's well-written and exactly the kind of history I was looking for (and thought I would be getting.) But holy shit, GET TO THE POINT ALREADY!

I really haven't decided yet if I'm gonna finish this thing. There's gotta be better books on the subject, right? (Anyone know of any, perchance? Because history of science and spaceflight are truly some of my favorite subjects.) But the real question is, why the misdirection?
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Re: Books which are not what they seem

Postby minicat » Wed Jan 23, 2013 2:42 pm

My recent book like this was Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor by Rob NIxon. His thesis is important, but I wasn't able to make it more than a few chapters in ... I'd rather just read the books he's doing a book report on. To that end, I just picked up Silent Spring.
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Re: Books which are not what they seem

Postby Kenneth Burns » Tue Apr 02, 2013 7:45 am

Prof. Wagstaff wrote:I am currently reading (or more accurately, sloughing through) Voyager: Seeking Newer Worlds In The Third Great Age Of Discovery which I assumed was a history of the Voyager space program, a topic of considerable interest.

I just started reading that, partly on the strength of a favorable New York Times review, and I'm having similar reactions. It's overwritten.
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Re: Books which are not what they seem

Postby Prof. Wagstaff » Tue Apr 02, 2013 9:50 am

Good luck, Kenneth.
I never did finish that book.

I was thinking about this thread recently, as I am in the midst of having a similar experience. Except this time it's positive. I'm currently reading A Crack in the Edge of the World: America and the Great California Earthquake of 1906. I've been a fan of the author, Simon Winchester, for years (he wrote one of my favorite books ever) so it was his name on the cover, more than the subject matter, which drew me to the book. What I expected was a detailed account of the earthquake, mingling stories of people living in San Francisco and thereabouts. Instead, the first half of the book is a tour through the history and personalities of geology, specifically in America. Not what I had expected, yet quite fascinating.
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Re: Books which are not what they seem

Postby Mean Scenester » Tue Apr 02, 2013 10:28 am

Simon Winchester is one of those authors who dutifully researches the fuck out of his subject matter. Bill Bryson is another. I've picked up books by both knowing that, despite the subject matter not being at the top of my list of personal interests, I was in for a good read.
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Re: Books which are not what they seem

Postby Kenneth Burns » Tue Apr 02, 2013 11:12 am

My favorite book about space exploration is Henry S.F. Cooper's "A House in Space," based on his New Yorker series about Skylab. It may be my favorite book, period.
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Re: Books which are not what they seem

Postby Marvell » Tue Apr 02, 2013 11:25 am

Searching for Mr. Goodbar had remarkably little to say about chocolate.
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