14 Books Ginn Hale Has Read So That You Don’t Have To
Over my long association with Ginn Hale I have seen her perusing many books. And I’ll be honest—hardly any of them looked very interesting. But a few stood out as being so dull-looking that I felt compelled to share it with the world. Ginn, being the darling that she is, swooped in immediately to explain why all these books are amazing.
So here they are (in no particular order.)
#1 Probablistic Robotics by Thrun, Burgard and Fox
NK: This is a heavy blue slab of a book filled with mysterious math symbols, diagrams, graphs and sentences like, “The kidnapped robot problem can be addressed by injecting additional hypotheses into the mixture.”
She claims to have read it all.
GH: I have read it all. The take away from this one is that while digital systems are great at parsing binary information—basically yes/no questions—they require vastly more complex means of problem solving to function in the sort of uncertainty that dominates the real world.
What’s particularly interesting about the book is comparing the exacting, but often ponderous systems of binary logic presented on the pages to the “fuzzy” fast coding that seems to underlie the biological organisms all around us.
NK: Of all the perfunctory titles on this list, Japanese Agent… has got to be my favorite.
GH: This one is the amazing story of a Japanese youth who during the Second World War escaped conscription by volunteering to travel as a spy through Mongolia, Northern China, Tibet and India. He quickly proved to be a worthless spy but a wonderful and highly empathetic traveler. His memoir is a harrowing, hilarious, bittersweet chronicle of the human stories that go on in the face of empires rising and falling.
NK: …honestly I’m not sure why even a writer would read a dictionary all the way through—except maybe as a kind of punishment.
GH: What? No! Reading a dictionary is like opening up a set of nesting dolls of near infinite qualities and varieties. The pages present words describing all manner of ideas, objects, geography, people, and historic incidences. More than that, the definitions and juxtapositions of words themselves can range from fascinating to funny.
Consider the vast change in technology evoked in the small distance between ‘carrier pigeon’ and the electromagnetic ‘carrier waves’ that now transmit sound and images. Does ‘Nunnery’ look down on ‘Nuptial’ from its higher position on the page? And who, after reading the third definition of a ‘Toe’ as, “Something resembling a toe…” can keep from laughing a little at the absurdity.
NK: This is one of two volumes on this list that I have also read. Probably my favorite poem in this collection is, “Only One Eye,” by Lillian E. Curtis, though some days I’m more partial to James MacIntyre’s “Ode on the Mammoth Cheese.”
GH:Very Bad Poetry is a gem. Even on the worst of days it doesn’t fail to bring a smile. The sample of agonized rhymes is one of my favorites.
Gooing babies, helpless pygmies,
Who shall solve your Fate’s enigmas?
NK: A book about ants…working. (There are graphs.)
GH: More books should have graphs. Imagine how quickly and simply a chart could sum up the progress of, say, the battle of Helmsdeep. This book certainly does not have too many graphs.
Ants at work deals with the ways that seemingly simple individuals can interact to produce vastly more complex systems, which no individual is required to understand or control. I can’t help but think that some of the problems tackled in Probablistic Robotics might eventually be solved by adopting the less exact but more resilient systems employed by social insects.
NK: This book has a beaver on the cover, but is not about beavers.
GH: This slim volume that takes Dawkins’ Selfish Gene argument even farther. It discusses how genotypes (which are all the sections of DNA that produce heritable traits aka genes) produce different phenotypes (the physical expression of those genes) that not only effect the organism they occur within, but can “extend” their reach to other organisms. Which is a fancy way of saying that our genes often make us appear attractive, fit, powerful or familiar, not because doing so ‘improves’ our species but because that leverages the genes into a better position for being passed on to the next generation.
There’s some fascinating stuff in here, particularly addressing the “power struggles” between the DNA of an organism and the RNA of the mitochondria that it carries within its cells. And pondering cases of gene swapping wherein it might better serve an organism’s genes to render it vulnerable to other organisms (think bacteria) capable of overwhelming it, snatching up those genes and reproducing them in an entirely different body.
#7 The Behavior Guide to African Mammals (Including Hoofed Mammals, Carnivores, and Primates) by Richard Despard Estes
NK: Contains line drawings, sillouettes, maps and tantalizing information such as the fact that Grevy’s Zebras, “maintain large dung middens on their territorial boundaries.”
GH: This is an old favorite and my first introduction to the now famous ratel aka honey badger. In one biologists description a ratel he was following, “rounded on the car and bit the tires”.
It’s packed with fascinating animal behavior as well as little insights into the lives of the biologists conducting their studies in the field. (Like how much time they have to spend looking at and drawing anal sacs.)
NK: Many full-color photos! (Not all of bees, but mostly.)
GH: Bees. Of. The. World!
What more does a person need inspire them to pick this up and start learning about this diverse family of insects? Drawings of anal sacs? Well, I’m sorry to disappoint but bees don’t have them.
They do however secrete wax and see ultraviolet light. Some are social, living in regimented colonies while others are solitary. Some make their homes in seashells, others dig deep into the ground or tunnel into wood. Not all of them sting or produce honey—some perfume themselves with the scents of orchids. Many have striped bodies, some have striped eyes. All of them are wonderful.
NK: If you, like Roy from Shanghai Noon have decided to “learn the names of these green trees,” this is the book for you. Plus it has a plastic cover and can be used as a very effective coaster.
GH: I don’t know this Roy, but I like the way he thinks. If you’re going to spend a lot of time in forests, it’s only polite to learn the names of the inhabitants.
Owning a field guide is like owning a copy of Burke’s Peerage, you to flip through the pages and from time to time realize that you’ve just chanced upon a rare specimen, be it of a maple or a marquis.
NK: Honestly, I am not making this up. This is a real book.
GH: This is a real AWESOME book. It’s got it all. Yes, it covers the ecology of those seductive swamps and beautiful bogs but also explores fabulous fens, marvelous marshes, and a wonderland of wetlands.
NK: This is actually a really interesting book. It contains recipes such as “Fish Drowned in Grape Juice,” which acts as both title and first cooking instruction. And ends with, “This fish, like all fish, is served with sibagh, because without sibagh no fish can be appreciated.”
GH: I don’t cook but I sometimes write about people who do and I have to agree this is a really interesting read that evokes a different time and place effortlessly.
NK: The footnotes section of this book is a whopping 200 pages long.
GH: There comes a time in every author’s life when she thinks, “How did they manage to police Shanghai in the late Twenties and early Thirties?” This book answers that question and brings the complexity of a collapsing empire, ascending gangster warlords, communist ideals, foreign invasion, and “The Rat” brand cigarettes to life.
#12 Renaissance Swordsmanship: The Illustrated Use of Rapiers and Cut-and-Thrust Swords by John Clements
NK: You might think that this book has photos of dudes fighting. It does not. It has line drawings of what look like artist dummies fighting.
GH: Artist dummies too have their passions and battles! The “how to” aspect of this book is fine but it’s not as fascinating as how the information reflects the idea and ideals of dueling.
NK: At last! A book with interesting drawings! Apparently the Washington State Pavilion featured a mammoth skeleton, a 20-foot wheat pyramid and many giant trees.
GH: The 1893 fair was amazing! This book alone cannot do it justice but it does help a great deal in visualizing the space and magnitude of the entire thing. The excerpts from visitors’ diaries, newspaper articles and memoirs impart a real sense of just how astounding it felt to attend this immense, electrically-lit exposition.
# 14 The Materials and Techniques of Medieval Painting by Daniel Thompson with a forward by Bernard Berenson
NK: Leafing through this book one can find out which pigments are made out of bugs. That’s my main takeaway.
GH: This is a book within a book. First there are the descriptions of Medieval art materials, often presented with excerpts from sources, (Cennino, in particular). All of which offers a feel of the age and its values. (Poisoning by lead, mercury or arsenic wasn’t merely a danger but almost an inevitability for many of the unknown and unnamed laborers and apprentices.)
The recipes themselves represent strange mixes of mythology and early chemistry. Dragonsblood (actually the sap of an east Indian shrub) was still thought to be the coagulated mixture of blood spilled in the titanic battles between dragons and elephants. There’s even an account of how the “everlasting fighting” between the two combatants plays out—with lots and lots of bleeding on both sides, obviously.
But at the same time, artists were beginning to notice that some pigments they produced had odd, unexpected reactions when mixed—brilliant gold orpiment (which is an arsenic sulfide) blackened cool green verdigris (a copper sulfate) as well as lead white. The artist studios were slowly and subtly becoming chemistry laboratories.
And then there’s the second, slightly subtler book, which arises form the voice of the Art Historian author and captures a 1950’s scholarly tone that is both pompous and charming.
After describing the colorful myths surrounding dragonsblood the author sniffs, “I am sometimes not at all sure that we do not pay too dear for our scientific knowledge.” At various times he becomes obviously pained by the way that the aging of oil and varnishes have made medieval paintings appear more brown and warm than the artist intended: “…blues, violets and cool greys are twisted out of character…” he protests. He also mentions his academic enemies and well as his friends at various points and even brings up Monet at one point.
A close reading of the book and the forward—“…the history of art should be the history of the humanization of the completely bipedized anthropoid.” (Sure it should, buddy.)—actually reveals almost as much about the aesthetics of the Fifties as it does about those of medieval era.