In Tell Me What You Read, a new feature on this blog, I interview well-kenned folk in public life about how their reading has shaped their lives, in the past and now.
This week, Martin Fowler, software developer, incessant traveller and author.
Tell me which authors, or what reading, you can see now were influential in your life and career?
During my last couple of years at school, a history teacher recommended Arthur Koestler’s The Sleepwalkers to me. It’s a history of cosmology, how people understand the relationship between our earth, the planets, and the stars. It begins with the Greeks, who figured a great deal out, goes into how that knowledge was lost in the Dark Ages, and then focuses on how it was rebuilt again, finishing with Isaac Newton. The heart of the book is the biographies of Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo.
The great theme of the book is that human knowledge does not grow in some ordered and steady manner. Kepler blundered around with various half-baked ideas all the time, in the process running into his vital discoveries as a side-effect. Galileo got into arguments with people and his approach was to humiliate them in debates, which made both him, and the knowledge he’d uncovered, very unpopular. Koestler puts most of the blame for the division between religion and science on Galileo. I took from the book that science and understanding is a very human process, subject to the same human foibles as any other endeavour, and not something that progresses in a straight line. Professionally there are a lot of books that have had a big influence on me, but that’s only of interest to other software developers.
If you need to snuggle down into a book, or have some sofa reading time, which authors do you go for instinctively?
I tend to have only one book on the go at once, so I don’t have different reads for different situations. I also rarely read fiction, so the choice of author is much less important to me than the topic area. Some authors, however, have written enough good books that I’m likely to get a new one. (Since I mostly read history, however, good authors aren’t able to be prolific.) Standing out in my mind at the moment are Doris Kearns Goodwin, William Manchester, and Jean Edward Smith.
I tend to pick up on books where they sound like they have a reasonable coverage of something I don’t know much about. And as I grow older I learn about more things I’m ignorant of. I used to do this in bookshops, but the last few years I’ve moved to entirely electronic books as they are so much easier to carry around on my travels. That’s a pity as I so loved browsing in a good bookshop – I wonder if I’ll have the inducement to visit Powells (my vote for Best Bookshop in the Whole Wide World) when I visit Portland next month. Now I worry that my book-buying habits are overly dependent on reviews in The Economist.
What was your last huge reading disappointment? (why and how, rather than who and what)
I haven’t had a huge disappointment stand out at me for a while, but there are smaller ones. A regular one for me is a common problem with non-fiction books. In order to provide all the evidence to support their argument, they have to put in a lot of material to wade through. I wish people would adopt a style by which they keep their core narrative brief, and push any skippable material into a clearly marked area. (I say this with a degree of narcissism, since this is a style I use, calling it a ‘Duplex Book’.) That wouldn’t work in fiction, of course, but I think that non-fiction writers forget that narrative doesn’t have to cover the whole story, and short books are often better than longer ones.
And finally, what was your last happy reading surprise?
Happy reading surprises happen for me when a book gives me more understanding than I was expecting, often because it brings in more topics than I thought it would give me. The last one of those was in Doris Kearns Goodwin’s The Bully Pulpit. I got the expected good double biography of Theodore Roosevelt and William Taft. The bonus was some really interesting thoughts about how one can succeed with reforming a corrupt political system. (Not for the first time Goodwin seems to be writing as much for the present as anything else.)
If you’d like to suggest someone whose reading you’d like to know more about, tweet me at @KateRLTB, or email me at kate dot brussels at yahoo dot com.
Next week: Susan Vollenweider, history podcaster, Kansas City Star columnist, novelist