02 January 2006

The Christmas season begins to wind down now as Epiphany looms this Ninth Day of Christmas 2006. Today is still a holiday--largely by virtue of being a monday, a day favored by corporations for holidays here in the twenty-first century. The old Christmas spirit is gone, it seems, or at least expiring fast, and I still haven't read "A Christmas Carol" as do every Christmas season at some point.

Isaac Asimov would be 86 today, or at any rate this would be the day he celebrated as his 86th birthday. I wouldn't know this except that I got a copy of his two-volume autobiography for Christmas, and have been reading it off and on since it arrived. Which may explain why I haven't got back to Dickens yet. Or not. Apparently the actual date of his birth cannot be established, but at any rate it was no later than 2 January, and may have been as much as three months earlier. Close enough for jazz I guess.

Asimov was one of three people who influenced me deeply while I was growing up. There were many more of course, but these three had something in common that links them in my mind--each had a monthly column I looked forward to and read eagerly. Each of them I discovered first as a writer of a book; in each case I learned that the book was made up of articles that had appeared elsewhere; and in each case I ran down the column and from then on read assiduously.

The first of the three was Willy Ley, I think--at least I'm sure his was the first of the books I stumbled across. I believe the book was called The Lungfish and the Unicorn and it came from the county library. (Later on we acquired an updated copy called Exotic Zoology which I still have, but the lungfish title was more memorable.) The book told the stories of a variety of bizarre creatures--real, like the lungfish, quasi-mythical like the unicorn, and those that were invented outright, like the Upas Tree. It was amazing. The history of the unicorn, for example, was like nothing I had ever read before, and the story of the lungfish even more so. Other creatures I recall (many no doubt from later articles) include the tuatura (a living fossil from the time before the dinosaurs), the pangolin (a mammal that resembles a living pine cone), the man-eating tree of Madagascar (a hoax), and the mysterious creature depicted on the gates of Babylon.

Even when the subject was familiar, Ley took the narrative places that I hadn't been before, and often the subject was not familiar--far from it.

His column was called by the rather condescending title "For Your Information" and I didn't expect much when I saw it. I had read too many science columns even then, and I knew they could be counted on to mix misinformation, triteness, and artificial excitement in about equal parts. But Ley's columns were different--they were (and I don't know why this surprised me, but it did) like his books. He would digress to tell us the story of Georg Rumpf or Hildegard of Bingen; he would explore some forgotten back alley of forgotten information; and even when he had a piece called something like "News from Atlantis" by heaven it would actually contain something new. His column appeared in Galaxy, and for years reading it was a high point of the month for me.

My second discovery of these three was Martin Gardner. I don't remember the book, but I remember vividly digging through old boxes of Scientific Americans to read his back columns. I think the title was "Mathematical Games" and every month he came up with some kind of brain teaser, paradox, bizarre game, or--well, even a mere trick of numbers, something to challenge the mind and exercise the logical faculty. It didn't hurt that he was the author of The Annotated Alice and (like myself, Rex Stout, and for that matter John Lennon) a great Lewis Carroll fan. I remember many happy hours as a kid building prime sieves, self-sorting cards, hexaflexagons, and klein bottles (okay, maybe not the last) by following the directions in his articles.

Third and last was Isaac Asimov. I think the book I discovered him in as a science writer (I'd read him before as a writer of fiction) might have been View from a Height, though I don't know for sure. He had a regular column (I don't remember its name) in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and one of the reasons I didn't stumble onto that right away is that it was not one of the magazines my father brought home regularly. Dear old Dad (we called him Bryce) didn't believe in subscriptions, you see--he used to claim that he had subscribed to only three periodicals in his life, and all of them had folded before his first subscription ran out, so he was reluctant to try the experiment again. But Scientific American he bought from the newsstand regularly, and Galaxy almost as regularly, but I had to talk him into bringing home issues of Fantasy and Science Fiction. Asimov's articles were always entertaining, and he had a way of bringing home familiar truths with unfamiliar metaphors or parallels that fascinated me. He never gave me the sense that Ley and Gardner did of heading out into strange and unexplored territories, but he frequently filled in gaps in my knowledge in a solid way, and made it easier for me to understand the hard stuff I ran into elsewhere.

I've known since I wandered off into this path today I would have to end by recommending a book by each, and so I guess I will. For Willy Ley I'll go with Dawn of Zoology, a kind of history of the discipline. For Martin Gardner, The Ambidextrous Universe, a study of symmetry. And for Isaac Asimov, well it's a tough one, but why don't I go with his autobiography. It's what started me on this piece, after all.

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