Book Review: The Air We Breathe

30 10 2007

LibraryThing arranged to get me an advance reading copy of The Air We Breathe by Andrea Barrett in exchange for a review (either positive or negative). So, here we go.

The Air We Breathe is another “antique science fiction” novel by Andrea Barrett. I’ve just made up the genre of “antique science fiction,” and as far as I know, Andrea Barrett is its only practitioner. Unlike conventional science fiction, which speculates about scientific advances to come, antique science fiction focuses on the scientific advances of the past. Like Ship Fever and The Voyage of the Narwhal, the other two Barrett novels I have read, The Air We Breathe tells the story of the scientific advances of an earlier age and the impact that had on characters’ lives. In this novel, Barrett lovingly dwells on the advances in chemistry, physics, and archaeology in the late-19th and early-20th centuries. However, because the novel is set in a WWI-era sanatorium, what most impacts the characters lives are the scientific advances that haven’t yet happened.

The rough plot arc of the novel makes me think of Paradise Lost. In the beginning of the novel, you’re introduced to characters who have lost nearly everything, both materially (many are poor immigrants) and socially, being exiled to the living death of forced rest & recuperation. In the first part of the novel, I had to continually remind myself that I wasn’t reading about elderly patients in a nursing home. These are vigorous people in their 20s and 30s who are suddenly forced to do nothing. Slowly, the patients at Tamarack State Sanatorium build an idealistic community organized around a love of learning and teaching each other — their own mini-paradise. Then, as with Adam and Eve, out-of-control passions bring the paradise to a sudden and tragic end.

You don’t want to read this book for its plot. Because most of the characters have to do nothing more than sit and breathe the cool air of the Adirondacks, there’s not a lot of action. You also probably don’t want to read the book to try to find nuanced, realistic characters. For the most part, Barrett’s characters neatly fall into one of three categories: Saintly, calm personalities with diverse backgrounds but united by their love of learning; Obsessive, selfish, and destructive characters; and the narrators who “?lived as if we were already dead, as if we’d died when we were diagnosed and nothing we did after that mattered?”

That said, I loved the book. I loved it because it vividly carried my imagination back to 1916. For a few hours, my mind soaked up that other universe. I felt the dread of being in the tomb-like atmosphere of a sanatorium. I felt hopeful as teaching, the arts, and the sciences woke up the patients at Tamarack State and gave them hope. I felt saddened as the delicate, utopian community shattered on its impact with irrational human passions. And finally my mind can’t stop thinking through this fictional story of 1916 to find what it says about human nature that is still true in 2007.

Especially if you love science, this book will take you on a worthwhile intellectual journey. Worth reading.

My Cataloging Project is Done (For Now…)

7 08 2007

Over the weekend, I finished cataloging the books in the house. I took a few shortcuts. Our 1910 Encyclopedia Britannica is just a single entry in the catalog, even though it’s 29 volumes. I took a couple of other multi-volume shortcuts on the reference books. There are also some books, like travel guides, that I didn’t bother to catalog. We also didn’t get all of Alex’s books. I’m not sure I got all of the books without ISBNs.

Even so, here are the fun statistics about our library:

  • I have 773 books in the catalog.
  • For 13 of the books I own, exactly one other person on LibraryThing had that book.
  • I categorized 131 books as “literature,” 65 as “cooking”, and 42 as “poetry.”

You can see all of the book reviews I’ve entered here:

(Most of them are just a sentence or two, primarily to help my memory.)

I got my CueCat

2 08 2007

I got my CueCat today. That’s the barcode scanner I ordered to make it easier to catalog my books. And I’ve learned a few things about myself tonight. First, I get unreasonably excited by cataloging my books. I know all I’m doing is making a list — but it’s still kind of fun. (Even Molly, who sometimes thinks I’m the biggest dork in the world, thought it was fun to swipe book barcodes and see the book show up on the list.)

Second, I learned I’m a really bad estimator. When I started this project, I thought I’d wind up with 400-500 books. I thought I had about “two dozen” cookbooks.

Well, it turns out I have 64 cookbooks. I have over 500 books in my catalog, and I still have a couple more bookcases to go through. I now think I have closer to 700 books in the house. Maybe more.

And today, with the help of my trusty CueCat, I added 340 books to my catalog. Wow.


I’m in Love with LibraryThing

30 07 2007

I discovered LibraryThing over the weekend, and I’m in love.

Anyone who knows me or has visited my house knows I love books. Since 1994, I’ve tried to keep a list of the books I’ve read. I started this habit because I found I was forgetting what I’d read. I’d be in a bookstore and be unsure if I’d read something before. (This was particularly true of all of the sci-fi & fantasy books I read in junior high & high school.) The simple act of writing down the titles what I’d read helped me remember the content of the books.

If you want to read more about my history trying to keep track of what I’ve read, why I love LibraryThing, and the tools I wrote to make it easier to move over to LibraryThing, then keep reading this post.

Read the rest of this entry »