Regular port-swillers may be wondering what became of my effort to swot up the history of Confederate raiding along the Maine coast?  Well, the answer is that I found myself forced to abandon the enterprise, owing to the terrible writing that I mentioned in my prior post on the topic.  The final straw was a consistent misspelling of Fort Sumter, with an extraneous “p” inserted into its midst.  (This on top of a summary of Grant’s Virginia campaign of 1864 that started at the Wilderness and jumped directly to the trenches ’round Petersburg, bypassing such minor scraps as Spotsylvania Court House, the North Anna and Cold Harbor.)  I reasoned that, given how substantively obscure and arcane the book is, the author had better be on his very best stylistic behavior if he expects me to read it.  And if the author isn’t going to care about something like this, why should I?

I hate giving up, but life is just too short.

Now, children, gather round and observe how silly Uncle Robbo’s thought processes work:

In order to get the taste of bad history out of my mouth, I decided to read some good history.  To this end, my hand fell on my copy of the complete works of Tacitus, which I proceeded to read right the way through, covering his Annals, his Histories, his Agricola, his treatise on the tribes of Germany and his dialogue on Oratory. If anybody engages me in a conversation on the four emperors of 69 A.D. at my next drinks party, I’ll be able to dazzle ’em.

Having finished up on Tacitus over the weekend, I was faced with the question of where to go next.  Perhaps it’s because of the name “Annals” and because I had just been reading of the Ancient World, that I was suddenly seized with the idea of revisiting James McPhee’s Annals of the Former World.  Having finished the first chapter of the book, for the next fifteen minutes or so I will now be able to give a basic geological description of the Basin and Range Province of the western United States, that rapidly expanding and thinning region that will eventually be the pathway by which the Pacific Ocean breaks in and turns California into an island.  Here’s a neat trick:  At several points in the story, McPhee describes stops at various highway cuttings along I-80 – Golconda Mountain in Nevada, the Palisades in New Jersey, etc.  Now, with the wonder of Google Earth, one can actually find the spots oneself and, with the street-view function, get a picture of what he’s talking about.

I don’t know why I find the topic of the history of Earth’s geology so fascinating.  (Certain smarty-pants might say that I seem to find every subject fascinating.  This isn’t completely true: I certainly have no interest in math, for example.)  Part of it is the shiver induced by contemplating the gargantuan time-scales involved.  Part of it is being able to look at a topographical map and see first-hand the evidence of the various forces in action.  As an exercise in perspective,  it all makes one think a bit, it does.  Plus, all the descriptions of plate tectonics, glacial activity, faults, calderas and the like just simply raise a boyish coo-el response in me.

Yes, it all may sound pretty shallow, sometimes coming perilously close to Cliff Clavin depth, but then I’ve never claimed to be an intellectual.   And anyway, I would argue that there’s a certain kind of mental pointillism to my approach to casual reading, especially in areas like history (including natural history).  Enough flitting about from topic to topic and one begins to see larger pictures and patterns emerge.  And that is probably what I enjoy the most.