My mind wanders

These books spent most of the spring on the
These books spent most of the spring on the “for sale-table” before they moved into my bookcase.

I have traveled far this summer, but I still haven’t left my little home town. This summer started with me discovering a small treasure at the public library. There is a table on the first floor where they exhibit old books, the books they are selling because no one is reading them anymore. It’s a bit sad walking passed this table because it’s a part of my childhood that has expired.

Anne-Cath Vestly authored some of the most iconic children’s books that most people my age grew up with. She is most known for the Eight children-series and Twigson. The latter was my favourite and my daughter loved it as well when they made several films based on the books. I think the last one premiered in 2011. I also noticed some classic authors like Victor Hugo and Alexandre Dumas on that table, as well as the witty Douglas Adams and the Norwegian science fiction author Jon Bing.

Jon Bing was a law professor at the Norwegian Research Center for Computers and Law. He wrote four children’s science fiction books in the early 80’s, and I found three of them on this table. I had seen them there for a while, but never taken the time to stop at this table, but I finally bought them in June. I started my journey by reading the first book in the chronicles of the star ship Alexandria. I also have the third and fourth book, but want to save those for later. I am going to buy the second book from an online vintage book shop later.

I read this series when it was published in the 80’s and I loved the idea Jon Bing presented. Alexandria is a star ship, but also a library. It took so long time to travel between planets that the librarians were in suspended animation while they were traveling. They spent as long time on each planet they needed to document this culture and its accomplishments, and if they needed help the librarians on Alexandria shared their knowledge.

The long voyage between planets was refreshingly realistic. Science fiction generally describes a technology that is not likely to be available to us for centuries, maybe for a thousand years. Just to compare with the present situation, several media outlets shared a story a few days ago that NASA had discovered a planet they think is a lot like Earth, 1 400 light years from us. Let’s compare this to Proxima Centauri, which is our closest star (except for our sun of course). Proxima Centauri is 4,2 light years away and the probe that recently photographed Pluto was traveling at 50 000 km/h. This is the fastest we can do, but it would have taken us 80 000 years to reach the nearest star. When we accomplish faster than light speed we can reach “Earth 2” in 1 400 years, and if we travel ten times the speed of light we can be there in 140 years. We clearly need to rely on generation ships and extended life spans, and that’s the idea Jon Bing used for his stories.

I discovered Bill Bryson in the late 1990’s when I read The Mother Tongue. I didn’t think a book about language history could be entertaining, but Bill Bryson’s books always are. In A Walk in the Woods he’s writing about his attempt to hike the Appalachian Trail. This is one of the world’s longest hiking trails with its 2180 miles along this ridge between Georgia and Maine. I haven’t been there myself, but it is certainly tempting after reading Bryson’s book. It took a lot of effort, though, and Bryson was slightly shocked when he realised afterwards that he had only covered 870 miles. That was still a great accomplishment for an inexperienced, fourty-four year old man.

Bryson has as usual spiced his book with a lot of fun, yet relevant historical anecdotes, and the history of the Appalachian has produced a lot of it. Most of it is amusing, but there is also some tragedy here as well. Animals and plants have been wiped out, sometimes because of ignorance, but also as a result of greed. I don’t know a lot about this area, but I have a feeling that the Appalachian is often portrayed negatively. There is an incredible diversity of plants and animals in these woods, however.

There is a lot of forest in the USA compared to most other developed countries, but sometimes it may appear that getting government protection isn’t necessarily a blessing. At the very least this blessing is very well disguised. The US federal authorities own 240 acres, and the Forest Service are responsible for 191 of these. Much of this is, according to Bill Bryon, classified as multiple use, which means it can be used for mining, oil and gas extraction, ski resorts, residential real estate, traffic by snowmobiles and other types of off road vehicles. This is hardly helping and in order to accomplish this they needed roads. The Forest Service is resonsible for a network of not less than 378 000 miles of roads. One wonders how they have time to save the plant and wildlife, and it’s probably not much better 17 years after this book was published.

It was fun reading this book and rediscovering Bryson so long after my first encounter. I’m only three years older than Bryson was when he trudged around in the woods. Maybe I ought to embark on an adventure of my own? Robert Redford played Bill Bryson in a film this year. After watching the trailer I have a feeling you’d do better reading the book. Bill Bryson has included a lot of facts and funny historial anecdotes that are probably not in the film:

The third book I read this summer was Wilderness Tips by the amazing Canadian writer Margaret Atwood. This was a different kind of journey. It’s partly a journey in Canadian nature, but most of all a journey through the urban lives of some women living in Toronto between the 1960’s and 1990’s. The book consists of ten short stories in which we get to know women who look back on their lives and the choices they’ve made, particularly related to the choice of partner.

Another feminist author, such as Fay Weldon, would probably have made this a more obvious attack on the man, because she has had a tendency to portray the man as the evil destroyer of women. What Margaret Atwood is doing isn’t necessarily much different. Many of the men in these stories define and reduce the women, but the picture Atwood paints doesn’t seem to be as one-sided as with angry feminists. There are many interesting characters in this book and that makes Margaret Atwood’s descriptions a lot more exciting.

The title of the book might reveal an ambition to be a survival guide for women in urban Tornto, and possibly give them an alternative, but it might offer men something too. There are some very general themes here. One of them is the large gap in most people’s lives between the dreams of youth and the reality we wake up to as middle aged. The stories also show  the different roles men and women have, and the fact that many men will try to force a woman into a role she hasn’t chosen herself. In other words, we are talking about a major power struggle in society, and not always the intended relationship between two equal partners. Margaret Atwood may have come to the same conclusion as Fay Weldon, that women live in a patriarchal society and that it’s difficult to fight against social norms. I don’t know anything about Atwood, but after reading this book I have a feeling that she represents a more positive feminism. I think she ackowledges that the picture is more complicated.

The terracotta army in Xiam is featured in the book The Middle Kingdom. The army consists of 8000 unique statues. It was discovered by a farmer that was threatened to dig a community well in 1974.
The terracotta army in Xiam is featured in the book The Middle Kingdom. The army consists of 8000 unique statues. It was discovered by a farmer that was threatened to dig a community well in 1974.
Wikimedia Commons

I have just embarked on a new journey. I have read about a third of Torbjørn Færøvik’s book about Chinese history. Midtens rike (The Middle Kingdom) is a fantastic journey through 4000 years of Chinese history. I am glad I have most of the book left because this is the kind of book you never want to end. It’s very educational of course, but it’s also highly entertaining. History always is. The book also makes me a little sad. After writing this Færøvik wrote Maos rike – en lidelseshistorie (Mao’s realm – a history of sufferings). The 4000 years of history prior to Mao’s revolution is frequently referred to as something positive, but the truth is that there was a lot of suffering there as well.

Whatever Chinese philosophy says about the path to happiness, it’s pretty clear that Chinese rulers have never contributed to this happines.The modern experiments with revolution and communism haven’t been especially successful for the workers of today either.

It’s strange thinking we could have all been Mongols. Djengis Khan and later his son, Ögedei, almost conquered the world. When Ögedei died his army had come as far as Vienna, but for some reason the army withdrew after his death and made Beijing the capitol of the Mongol Empire. Eventually the Chinese got their country back as well and then another puzzling thing happened. China built a large fleet and they could have easily become a colonian power a hundred years before the Europeans. That would have made European history very different, but it probably wouldn’t have made any difference to Africa and the Americas. China could have ruled the whole world, but instead they isolated themselves. I guess they didn’t know what an opportunity they missed.

I am going back to the library when I have finished this book. I think I’m going to travel again.

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