The Rule of Four

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My review of The Founding Fish by John McPhee

Have you ever wondered why someone doesn’t write a really interesting book about shoemakers or Idaho or health inspectors? When I worked at the bookstore I used to get questions like this all the time. Usually, I was forced to stare blankly for a moment before performing a futile search on the computer. But every once in while, someone would ask, “Are there any really good books about the geology of North America?” And my eyes would light up and I would say, “Yes!” The same was true if they asked for books about merchant marines, Alaska, or canoes. John McPhee has the ability – which I prize as a reader – to write engagingly about any subject, and Founding Fish is no exception. In this case, the subject is the American Shad. The fish is prized by anglers and gourmands and pops in and out of American history. But this is not “the cultural history of American Shad” (are we tired of these “cultural history of…” books yet?”) Instead he weaves history with science as well as plenty of personal observation. The myriad digressions are like seams of precious metal. McPhee’s world is populated with fascinating characters – ichthyologists, shad dart makers, and a seine fisherman from the Bay of Fundy. If you have a taste for non-fiction and would like a book that is diverting and pleasurable (rather than “hard-hitting” and topical) try reading John McPhee.Spotted on the el: The Rule of Four by Ian Caldwell and Dustin ThomasonNew list: The Economist best of the year.

Big Brother or the Wave of the Future

There’s been much discussion lately, some of it bordering on hysterical, about radio-frequency identification devices or RFIDs. The idea is that the barcode will be replaced by a tiny radio transmitter that will allow computers to monitor inventory in real time as it sits on the shelves. It would also make things more efficient at the cash register. Since hundreds of the transmitters can be “scanned” at once, the checkout process can be completed almost instantaneously. RFIDs are meant to streamline the retail process and prevent theft. Walmart has already begun requiring its suppliers to include them in certain products, and privacy advocates have been registering their concern. If an all-seeing computer inside the Walmart can track the tennis racket that you’re carrying around, what’s to stop them, or anyone, from tracking that tennis racket home with you? I don’t know why anyone would want to track a tennis racket to your home, but still, the idea of all your belongings being embedded with trackable transmitters is a bit unsettling. Privacy concerns aside, anyone responsible for a large and complicated inventory has to look at RFIDs as the holy grail of inventory management. And that includes librarians. Librarians have, especially in recent years, been vigilant about monitoring privacy issues, but in the case of RFIDs, it appears as though the convenience outweighs the risks. On Thursday the San Francisco Library Commission approved the use of RFIDs, and the deciding factors seem to be ease of use and lessening the risk of injuries to library workers. According to this San Francisco Chronicle article, “San Francisco librarian Susan Hildreth has said the technology will make it easier for library staff to check books out to library patrons. She said the chips would also cut the cost of repetitive stress injuries, which have totaled $265,000 at the library in the past three years.” (An open letter from Hildreth was published in the Chronicle on Thursday to allay the fears of San Francisco’s library patrons.)The BiographerYesterday I met Ron Chernow, whose biography of Alexander Hamilton is receiving praise from all corners these days. As we discussed the promising sales of the new book, Chernow expressed concern about the many headline-grabbing political books that threaten to drown out his new biography. According to Chernow, the folks at Penguin, navigating the crowded release calendar, deliberated over the “street date” and took special care to avoid overlapping with Bob Woodward’s Plan of Attack. Before there was any release date to worry about, Chernow spent years researching the book and sifting through the voluminous papers of the prolific writer. He even uncovered some previously undiscovered writing that Hamilton had done as a stringer for newspapers in New York. I asked Chernow what he’s reading at the moment, and he said, almost sheepishly, that these days he feels obligated to keep up with books about Hamilton’s era because he is always asked about this or that new book at his many speaking engagements. Among his favorites from the recent crop are An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America by Henry Wiencek and “Negro President” : Jefferson and the Slave Power by Garry Wills.It Begins AgainIt was inevitable. It looks like The Rule of Four by Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason may succeed The Da Vinci Code as the next pseudo-religious, conspiracy theory, mega-blockbuster bestseller.

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