I just finished reading Turing's Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe by George Dyson. I was going to write a review on it, but – sad to relate – I really couldn’t rouse the enthusiasm…
One of the reason’s I got Turing's Cathedral in the first place (apart from the fact that I love learning about the history of computing) is that I really enjoyed the biography Einstein: His Life and Universe by Walter Isaacson. (I mistakenly recollected the Einstein book as also being a work of George Dyson’s).
You can read the reviews of Turing's Cathedral on Amazon. I pretty much agree with all of them – both “for” and “against”. This isn’t a book about Alan Turing, although he does get a few good mentions. This is more of a description of the pioneering development of computing in America during the decade after World War II. The central character is the Hungarian-American mathematician and polymath John von Neumann, but we also get introduced to a “cast of thousands”. The book is replete with interesting details – but it’s also jam-packed with boring details. The bottom line is that (a) I’m glad I read it and (b) I won’t be reading it again (grin).
By comparison, if you are interested in learning more about the life and works of Albert Einstein, then I most heartily recommend Walter Isaacson’s biography of the great man. The book is almost completely without equations (E = mc2 might creep in there), but by the end you really have a “feel” for what a staggering achievement Einstein’s work was and how incredibly difficult it was to get there.
But that’s not what I wanted to talk about… I also just finished re-reading Shakespeare – The World as Stage by Bill Bryson. I’m much more used to seeing Bryson’s humorous accounts of his life and travels around England, Europe, Australia, and America, so I must admit that I was a tad dubious when I first saw that he’d written a book on Shakespeare.
Now, I can drop Shakespearian quotes into the conversation as readily as the next man, and I’ve slogged my way through a fair number of his plays, but – truth to tell – I would be more than happy if I was never exposed to another one of his works during the rest of my stay on this plane of existence (grin).
When I was at high school, the thought that I would one day read a book about Shakespeare for my own pleasure would have had me rolling on the floor laughing. Bill Bryson’s skill is that he can write a book about the Bard that is incredibly informative … and still has me rolling on the floor laughing.
Now, it’s important to note that this is not a biography of Shakespeare per se. As we soon discover in Bill’s book, what we really and truly know about Shakespeare as a person would fit on the back of a postcard. Even the spelling of Shakespeare’s name is problematical. As Bryson says:
We are not sure how best to spell his name – but then neither, it appears, was he, for the name was never spelled the same way twice in the signatures that survive.
The curious thing is that the one spelling Shakespeare didn’t actually use himself is the one that is now universally attached to his name.
Bryson also points out that one of the reason’s Shakespeare remained so well-known (when so many of his peers have been lost in the mists of time) is that, seven years after his death, two of his friends published a compendium of his works that is now known as the First Folio
. Now, you might think that the First Folio
would be the definitive word (pun intended), but as Bryson says:
In fact, however, the First Folio was a decidedly erratic piece of work. Even to an inexpert eye its typographical curiosities are striking.
The problem was that there was no “master” copy of any of the plays. There was instead a bunch of different copies for each play, where each copy reflected a different state of development as the play was acted out and revisions were made on the fly. So what Shakespeare’s friends had to do was to go through all of the versions they had available to them and create a synthesis of what they thought was best.
The results sometimes left something to be desired. One of many examples offered by Bryson is as follows:
A crucial line of dialog in King Lear is abbreviated by the character name “Cor.,” but it is impossible to know whether “Cor.” Refers to Cornwall or Cordelia. Either one works, but each gives a different shadow to the play. The issue has troubled directors ever since.
Having said all of this, the fact that we know so little about Shakespeare in no way detracts from the fact that this is a very interesting, informative, and amusing book. As one review on Amazon says:
What Bryson does is provide an excellent background piece on what little we do know of "the English Language's Greatest Writer" by exploring where he came from, what life was like generally in his time and how the theater and actor/writers worked as they entertained the masses in London and the countryside.
I couldn’t have said it better myself. The bottom line is that this is a really good book that I would recommend highly. Even if you have no interest whatsoever in reading Shakespeare’s plays, or any of his myriad other writings, I am fully confident that you would really enjoy this work on the man himself.
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