I’m preparing my Keynote (Mac version of Powerpoint) presentation for my Wednesday book event at SFSU library, “Book Without Boundaries.” While thinking of how to organize it, I realize I’ve written more than one book.
There’s the book, “Venus on Mars.” Then there’s the book inside the book, Lulu’s secret journal, suppressed for generations until her grand-niece Venus inherits it. The journal is frustratingly incomplete, urging everyone who reads it to add their own pages – which actually makes it an infinite number of books.
The book outside the book is what I think of as the “geek” layer – the scientific and historic context surrounding the fictional story inside. This is the part accessed by the QR codes scattered throughout the book. I learned so much while researching and writing the book, it just didn’t seem fair to keep it all to myself. It’s a nonfiction layer superimposed over the fictional story – each one a brief but illustrated treatise.
This realization makes me feel a little bit like Steve Jobs when he introduced the iPhone in 2007 (the only MacWorld keynote I ever attended). We have three new products, he said: a phone, a music player and a web browser – only they’re all included in this one device. Everybody jumped up and ran to get one at the Apple store.
I only wish for comparable results!
One hundred years ago today, an unassuming junior astronomer at Lowell Observatory made a discovery that forever changed our understanding of the universe – yet hardly anyone recognizes the name Vesto Melvin Slipher. Who?
“We have hired a new observer, Mr. V.M., imported from Indiana,” Miss Lulu writes in her journal.
More people moving about day and night, passing each other in the hallways, always ready to interpret the comings and goings of others as eagerly as we observe and interpret the events we see on Mars.
Miss Lulu’s first mention of V.M. Slipher is as a slight annoyance, a vexing reason she must now be more discreet in finding and spending intimate moments with her boss Percival Lowell.
But over time Miss Lulu comes to admire Slipher’s quiet work. Ultimately, her own evolving notions about the universe are inspired by his early work with the spectrograph and his discovery of “redshift” – the color of objects moving away from each other shifting toward the red end of the color spectrum. Until then, no one had observed this kind of dramatic movement through the heavens. No one had theorized the universe was actually expanding.
Miss Lulu writes in her journal:
I have come to believe that we live in an energetic universe. As humans, in particular the busy ones, rarely sit still for any extended period of time and often travel from one place to another to get on with their lives, neither do our celestial acquaintances, who turn and fidget constantly as they proceed with their own journeys through the universe.
Both Slipher and Miss Lulu had cause to take care in how they announced their findings – any deviation from Lowell’s established talking points (life on Mars and, later in his life, the obsessive search for what eventually became Pluto) could be met by swift dismissal. But even after Lowell died and Slipher became Observatory director, he was hesitant to promote his own cause (lessons learned well during his tenure as Lowell’s assistant).
Slipher eventually did present his findings at an astronomer’s conference – that’s how Edwin Hubble found out about them. (You can read more about this in Marcia Bartusiak’s excellent book, The Day We Found the Universe.)
Hubble took Slipher’s data and ran with it, announcing soon after his “Theory of an Expanding Universe,” which eventually led us backwards to envision The Big Bang. (Unlike Slipher, Hubble knew a little about PR and was not shy about promoting himself and his ideas – it turned out well for Hubble – he got a space telescope named after him.)
At Lowell Observatory, there’s a elegant domed building named after Slipher, and the spectrograph he used is in a glass display case inside, yet most of the portraits peering down from ornate frames are of Lowell, not Slipher. The first time I visited the Observatory, there was little mention of Slipher’s work. When I returned this summer, I was thrilled to see a new sign posted on the road leading up Mars Hill: Home of the Expanding Universe.
Slipher came to Lowell Observatory as a “temp” hire, but stayed for more than 50 years and his impact is still felt among astronomers and cosmologists.
I’m glad the Slipher – I mean Lowell – Observatory is observing this centennial, and that Slipher is finally getting this long overdue recognition.
Now if someone could just discover where all those stars, planets and galaxies speeding away from us are actually headed????? The universe wants to know…
I’m staying for a few days in a historic inn: no TVs in the rooms, but books everywhere. Old books stacked on tables in the lobby, upright books lining shelves along the stairway, books nested in a basket by my bedside. I have yet to open any of them, but did take time this morning to look at some of the titles. Nothing notable, not even classics, which suggests the books have been placed here as decor, as part of the inn’s charming ambience, and not necessarily to be read.
In his 1964 essay “The Book as Object,” an incredibly prescient Michel Butor suggests that the book (back then there was only print) may have outlived its usefulness, deserving “no more than an indulgent smile” as we pass by the bookshelf where it rests. The problem, he suggests, lies in the very construction of the book itself, in its physical characteristics – lines, columns, pages, margins, typography, fonts. He assumes these characteristics to be fixed and unvariable, and in 1964 this was true. In the Admiral Benbow Inn, this is still true – I’m guessing some of the books around here haven’t moved from their places in years.
But what if, Butor muses, “in another dimension of space,” books may achieve “mobility” with regard to the text? He describes them as “reference points” embedded into the linear text, allowing the reader of a book to “explore it without having to endure it.” (This was about this time the term “hypertext” was coined and Butor’s musings were on their way to becoming accepted practice.)
The way I found my way to Butor’s essay proves we have arrived.
My friend Jim Mahoney recently sent me an email saying, here’s something you may be interested in reading, “about how movies on dvd are somewhat book-like, which brought you to mind as you are making books that are somewhat movie-like.”
I followed the link and read an article “Observations on Film Art” by Kristin Thomas and David Bordwell, which was certainly worth a read, but I was most taken by a specific reference made to “experimental novelist Michel Butor” and his notion that the book should be “an object to be manipulated at will” and that such manipulation “harbored the possibilities of innovative storytelling.”
Or course I Googled Butor, couldn’t find the text I wanted online, but did locate the book containing it by title. Next, in the SFSU library holdings online, I found the volume. I requested it using the new “book retrieval system” – a quick drive down Holloway Avenue and the well-worn book was in my hands.
The important aspect of this entire process was that until the librarian handed me Butor’s book, nothing remotely resembling a book was involved, and I didn’t even have to get out of my easy chair.