Saturday, September 27, 2014

Mr. Fix-It: The Handyman’s Way of Living (and Dying) — Chapter 17

Dad was an engineer. Mom was an English major. I grew up in a household of Book-of-the-Month-Club books. From the year I was born, 1936, right through the 40s, my mother was a subscriber. Each month a book came into our home, most of them the main monthly selections of the Club. Year by year the bookshelves filled with books. The selections were always works of literary merit. I didn’t read them, but they were as much a part of my environment as my toys, the furniture, the wallpaper. In bored moments I often sat on the floor by the bookcase and flipped pages. I’m not quite sure what I was looking for, but I must have absorbed something, because years later I sought out many of those same books and read them—their look and feel still vivid in my mind after the passage of decades. Van Wyck Brooks’ two fine works on the intellectual life of New England, The Flowering of New England and New England: Indian Summer; Hendrick Willem Van Loon’s The Story of Mankind, The Story of Art, and Geography, Harriete Louisa Simpson Arnow’s wonderful books on the geography and history of central Tennessee, Flowering of the Cumberland and Seedtime on the Cumberland; Marjorie Rawlings’ Cross Creek; and Louise Dickinson Rich’s We Took to the Woods. These are just some of the books I remember. They were almost certainly chosen by my mother.

But several books on the shelves were clearly my father’s choices: Lancelot Hogben’s Mathematics for the Million and Science for the Citizen, and Donald Culross Peattie’s An Almanac for Moderns

Hogben wrote for the citizen engineer, the handyman. Again and again I poured over his books, examining the illustrations, and reading—a sentence here, a sentence there. Mathematics for the Million was published in 1937, the year after I was born, and has remained in print through dozens of printings and several editions—no small achievement for a book on mathematics. Science for the Citizen followed in 1938. The titles were not publishing ploys, contrived to make the books appear accessible to the man or woman in the street. Rather, they reflected Hogben’s passionate conviction that science and mathematics belong to the people. The author was an English socialist and pacifist who believed that science and mathematics are grounded in practical affairs and dignify themselves in the service of democracy. The history of science, he wrote, is the history of the constructive achievements of mankind and the democratization of knowledge. An example: The printing press brought knowledge to the masses; without the printing press there would have been little demand for eyeglasses; without eyeglasses neither telescope nor microscope would have been invented; without the telescope and microscope, the finite velocity of light, the parallax of the stars, and the microorganisms that cause disease would never have been known to science. This was the sort of philosophy my father thrived on. He could have cared less about Plato or Aristotle, Aquinas or Kant. Metaphysical abstractions held no interest for him. He was the practical-minded, forward-looking citizen to whom Hogben directed his books, books filled with the sort of engineering optimism I imbibed at my father’s side.

Hogben could only have been English. Youthfully handsome, outspoken, eccentric and absent-minded, son of a parson, educated at Cambridge University. His family imagined that he might become a missionary. Instead, he dedicated himself to science, as an academic biologist of wide-ranging interests. But it was as a popularizer of science and mathematics that he excelled, following in the footsteps of his heroes, John Tyndall and Thomas Huxley, brilliant 19th-century scientists with gifts for popular exposition.

As I prepared these recollections of my father, I looked again at Hogben’s books after more than six decades. I was astonished at how much I had absorbed sitting on the floor by the bookcase. In some ways, these books that my father brought into the house are like a road map of my life. They were certainly a road map to my father’s life. All of the themes and interests that were important to him are here prefigured: A passion for the practical; a suspicion of abstractions that are not grounded in concrete experience; a gape-jawed awe at the power and beauty of mathematics; and a sense of optimism. Hogben’s books expressed the view that science and technology offer the opportunity of building a utopian society in which all people live constructive lives in harmony with nature and each other. Perhaps this notion now seems sadly naive, but it was my father’s philosophy too. Both men—Dad and Hogben—came of age in the years between the two World Wars, global cataclysms in which science and technology were harnessed to the business of killing. Their utopian optimism was put to the test. We learned then by grim experience that knowledge has the power for evil as well as good, and that the elegant certainties of mathematics do not apply to human moral behavior.

Another of my father’s Book Club selections was Donald Culross Peattie’s An Almanac for Moderns, published in 1935, in that same hiatus between the wars and in the depths of the Great Depression. Peattie was not an engineer, but a naturalist. He lived in rural Illinois at the time of writing, and the devastation of the Dust Bowl was not far away. World War I was still fresh in memory, with its shattered landscapes and poisoned air. It was not a time in which it was easy to be optimistic. The lofty moralizing of earlier nature writers like John Burroughs and John Muir no longer resonated with a generation who had seen “the trees blasted by the great guns and the bird’s feeding on men’s eyes.” Peattie, like Loren Eiseley and Lewis Thomas after him, looked skeptically at nature, not expecting sermons in leaf and stone, but rather a chastening existential silence.

Still, Peattie wrested from nature the will to go on, to affirm a point to life, to get up in the morning and earn his keep. W. H. Auden said of Loren Eiseley that he was “a man unusually well trained in the habit of prayer, by which I mean the habit of listening.” Peattie, too, knew how to listen. Listening—as these writers listened—required courage and the will to change, to surrender the simple pieties of the past and embark upon an immense journey into the lonely spaces between the galaxies and the atoms. From his closely observed acre of land in Illinois, Peattie listened and watched as the year passed, and turned his “habit of prayer” into a collection of 365 elegant essays that wrestled with the meaning of it all. The meaning he found had something to do with beauty; something to do with the gorgeous, prodigious throb and thrust of life; something to do with being part of a continuity that is greater than himself. “I say that it touches a man that his blood is sea water and his tears are salt, that the seed of his loins is scarcely different from the same cells in a seaweed, and that the stuff of his bones are coral made,” he wrote. He was immersed up to his neck—to the top of his head—in the “essential and precious something that just divides the lowliest microorganism from the dust,” the inexplicable essence of life. He reveled in it, turning his experience into poetry. Peattie did not look for an incorruptible heaven beyond the stars. Nature itself is the miracle, he wrote, with all its imperfections.

You may know a man by his library. My mother’s library eventually filled the house. My father’s books were few. Hogben and Peattie were among them. Numbers and patterns as a way of life. Optimism in the face of grim calamity. All of nature concealing within her bosom whatever secrets are worth knowing, ready to be teased out with the skills and instruments of the attentive listener. That’s how he lived, and how he died.