Edward Tufte Shows Us How to Properly Share Data That Combines Text, Numbers, and Images


Beautiful Evidence – Edward Tufte (2006)

            Sometimes the book lords look down upon us lowly humans and grace us with tomes we would otherwise not read or know about.  Such was the day I found this amazing work by professor, author, and sculptor, Edward Tufte.  As one of my co-workers cleaned out her office, she stacked a bunch of books aside for anyone who wanted them.  I grabbed three that caught my eye, and immediately began devouring Edward Tufte’s masterpiece.

            The introduction to this work explains Tufte’s focus, the intersection of science and art, specifically as it relates to the dissemination or presentation of raw data.  One of the thoughts in his Introduction really hit home for me, “Making an evidence presentation is a moral act as well as an intellectual activity.”  This goes for the consumers of these presentations as well.  One must be ready, when faced with a presentation of evidence, to think and judge not only what data they discuss but also how they present it.  This analytical thinking is crucial to the proper dissemination of knowledge in our data-packed world.

            Tufte begins his exploration of this subject by focusing on what he calls “Mapped Pictures: Images as Evidence and Explanation.”  He, much like I do, deplores the out-of-context images used by periodicals when writing about scientific subjects. An example of a well-mapped image is the type used in visual catalogues of flora and fauna, where, for example, the fish in question is portrayed in both profile and overhead views, which provides much more data than a single image.  Those images may also contain data about the subject, such as the length of the fish, the coloring of the fish, the species’ Latin name, etc.  Many of these animal catalogues fail to provide much data, apart from the image of the animal itself.  This is a disservice, both to the scientists that catalogued the animals, and to the reader wishing to encounter useful and correct information about them.

            Tufte provides beautiful examples of many types of mapped picture, from images detailing which stars make up the constellations in the sky, to diagrams showing the horrendous conditions that Africans were placed into by their captors who sought to pack as many onto these ships as possible.  Such an image shows not only the extent of the horror, but specific details of the horror, allowing the reader to grasp a far bigger idea than just the image itself.

            The author analyzes other methods of information exchange.  From sparklines (a graphic showing a change in value over time, such as a line graph representing the temperature in a given city over a month) to word and arrow diagrams (such as a family tree, or an evolutionary line), each is discussed at length.  Mr. Tufte seeks to show the best possible ways to convey information, keeping in mind each method’s weaknesses and strengths.

            In the chapter on the confluence of words, numbers, and images, Tufte’s first example is from the genius of Leonardo da Vinci.  In his countless notebooks, where he wrote and drew about his constant explorations, vivid drawings live right next to explanatory text and data in number form.   The ability to combine all three into a work so profound shows the reasoning and ability of da Vinci’s deep skill.  As Tufte proclaims, it is a shame that more scientists have not taken up the model provided by Leonardo.

            Another aspect of publishing that upsets Tufte, for it derails the hard work of the scientists, is what happens when publishers create new editions of classic books.  For some reason, the editors feel they need to re-arrange the layouts of the books, shifting all the text into one section, and placing the images in another.  When the purpose of the book is to educate, using words and images concurrently, such as in Galileo’s “Siderius Nuncius” (The Starry Messenger), too many publishers fail to see the importance of both text and images living side by side.  Moving images to an appendix reduces the capability of the reader to grasp what the author intends.  The worst example of this is in the editions of Isaac Newton’s “Opticks.”  Tufte shows how, from the initial pressing in London, the pertinent images were placed in a separate section from the text they belong to.  It was not until the first German edition (1898) that the images and text were fully integrated.  In 1952, the first proper printing in English occurred.  Sadly soon after four more badly edited editions would see the light of day.  As Tufte states, it is a shame that “…it took 258 years to combine word and image in the original English.”

            The latter half of this book explores the fundamental principles of analytical design, and provides some amazing examples of quality work.  The best part of the second half of the book is where Edward Tufte patiently explains the many ways that data is corrupted in evidence presentations, with the most vitriol aimed at the ubiquitous and hated Power Point software.  The damage that PP has done to professional information exchange is hard to calculate, but Mr. Tufte does a great job of explaining it.  The saddest fact I read was how, when the space shuttle Columbia accident occurred, an independent body analyzed NASA’s information exchanges, focusing on how warnings about the shuttle were ignored or avoided altogether.  The analysis showed that nearly 90% of all data shared at NASA was in the form of PP slides.  HORRENDOUS.  Tufte explains how these slides, containing minimal information, and allowing for minimal understanding, corrupt the very processes intended to inform and educate, leading to tragic errors and human suffering.

            As it should be, this book is a beautiful production.  Edward Tufte uses all of his skills and knowledge to construct a perfect blending of image, numbers, and text.  He sets a great example for anyone writing in the sciences, and anyone seeking to share information properly.  For a visually oriented person book lover like myself, this was an amazing discovery.  The book angels were looking out.  I highly recommend this book and hope it influences many to think deeper about how to portray their data, and how to engage the mind of the reader.

(This book can be purchased from the Author here: https://www.edwardtufte.com/tufte/books_be )


Italo Calvino Uses Words to Help Us Travel Through Deep Time


Cosmicomics – Italo Calvino (1965)


            I have read so many science fiction books and stories.  Many of their authors use specific scientific data or details to build stories around.  A few actually try to create stories that help the reader understand the scientific concepts discussed in the works.  Even fewer of those manage to create gripping, inventive stories.  Italo Calvino managed all of this and more.  What an amazing collection of short stories!

            I have been fortunate to discover many classic authors as part of my reading on this Book Journey.  From OG sci-fi writer Henry Kuttner, to modern author Cory Doctorow, I treasure finding their work and feeding my brain with their stories.  The one book I have read which most closely resembles Cosmicomics, however, is Clifton Fadiman’s Fantasia Mathematica, a collection of short stories from the 1950’s dealing with purely mathematical subjects.

            Italo Calvino takes the same approach with cosmology, specifically an exploration of the basic concepts used to describe the development of our Universe, from the Big Bang to the farthest reaches of deep time. His main narrator, inscrutably named Qfwfq, regales the reader with stories of his past, describing in beautiful allusions and metaphors, what the universe was like in the very first instances of existence.  In one story, he describes how the Moon used to be so close to the Earth that at certain points in the year, people would climb long ladders to reach the Moon, and harvest essential nutrition from it.  This is based on the knowledge that our Moon, Luna, is slowly moving away from the Earth.  In a million years, the Moon will be far smaller in our sky, and will not completely cover the Sun during eclipses.  In the far past, the Moon was much, much bigger than the Sun in our sky.

            In another great story, Italo’s narrator describes what it was like for him to exist as a creature who once lived in water, but is now on land, and all the accompanying weirdness!  One tale describes what the inner thoughts of fundamental particles must be like, while another shares the story of three entities forever falling through space and time.  Each tale is self-contained, but the whole collection truly helps expand the mind.  I found much wisdom in these stories.  The ancient poets created stories such as these to use as learning tools, handing them down orally to the next generation.  Mr. Calvino wanted to do the same with the often-misunderstood knowledge of Deep Time brought forth by Relativity and 20th century cosmology.

            Ancient scribes did likewise. These old stories were often misinterpreted or misunderstood by people of later generations.  Instead of seeking intellectual and informational wisdom in them, people started to see them as “divine” messages, or as dogmatic truth.  The very same thing could happen to Italo Calvino’s stories, should someone read them in two or three centuries, well after the average human forgets or is no longer taught basic scientific truths.  We seem to be headed in that direction now, sadly, and this blog, RXTT’s Book Journey, is my small attempt to forestall the stupidization of humanity.

            I must commend a Mr. William Weaver, who translated these stories into English around 1968.  The world owes so much to good translators.  It is almost as important a job as actually writing the books themselves!  Translation is how we can share ideas across cultures, continents, and centuries.

            I highly recommend this book to anyone with an interest in science fiction, mind expansion, originality, and creativity in storytelling.  It feels like something of a miracle that stories like this are available for us to read.  We are very fortunate indeed!

(This book can be downloaded and read here: https://www.are.na/block/11318370 )


A Great Story for Younger Readers from Grace Mirchandani


Mitzi Clark & the Keepers of SHUT – Grace Mirchandani (2021)


            One of the best outcomes from writing this book review blog has been the steady emails from authors and publishers requesting I read and review their book.  As a life-long reader, this is a dream come true.  Often, the books sent to me do not fit neatly with the types of books I have focused on here at RXTT’s Book Journey.  I must admit that I do not read much fiction these days.  Sometimes the requests involve a book I just do not have interest in reading.  Other times the subject matter is too far from my interests.  I respect authors and publishers, so I always make sure to communicate with them, whether or not I do read and review their book.  Sometimes I read the book, and write up a full review, only to email it to the author for them to use as they see fit, even though I do not publish the review on this blog.  Occasionally however, I am sucked in either by the language, or by the first few pages, leading to a thoroughly pleasant reading experience.  This is what occurred as I started to read Grace Mirchandani’s "middle grade" novel, Mitzi Clark & the Keepers of SHUT.

            I must start by stating that I would have LOVED this book if I had discovered it around age 10-13.  The language in books aimed at a younger audience (10-13) is often stilted, basic, or just plain turgid.  This is not the case with Mirchandani’s work.  Like the best Encyclopedia Brown stories, or the great Nancy Drew mysteries (both of which I adored as a kid), this story draws you in quickly.  Before I knew it, I had devoured ten chapters and found myself fully entrenched in the world Mirchandani created.

            Mirchandani does not “write down” to her audience.  She sets the stage and the players with ease.  The details she provides add to the characterization and setting, without slowing the narrative.  We are introduced to Mitzi Clark, our protagonist, her family and friends.  Odd occurrences and small details in what should be a normal day stir up Mitzi’s curiosity.  She discovers a buried item on her parent’s property, which leads her to recruit her friends to what Mitzi thinks will be a fun scavenger hunt, something to liven up the boredom of the summer day. What they find only increases the mystery, and leads to a very satisfying story.

            As usual, I do not like to give away plot details from the fiction I read.  Those are better left for the reader to discover.  I will say that Mirchandani writes clear, descriptive prose and dialogue.  The kids talk like kids, and the parents talk like parents.  This is harder to accomplish than it may seem.  Like the best stories, The Keepers of Shut keeps the reader engaged, invested, and turning the pages.  This is the first of a series of "middle grade" novels involving Mitzi Clark and her friends.  The second volume, Mitzi Clark & The Covenant Cube, continues the tale. 

            I highly recommend this novel to all young readers, or anyone who wishes to read a story to a young person.  It is not a story heavy with terror or grief, although there are tense and suspenseful parts, and the protagonists do face dangers.  Grace Mirchandani has a great facility with storytelling, and I am sure she had as much fun writing this book as I had reading it.  I hope for great success for this series.  It deserves a wide readership.

(This book can be purchased here: https://www.amazon.com/Mitzi-Clark-Keepers-Grace-Mirchandani/dp/B09M2XQC2N )


Charles-François Dupuis shared the truth with us over 200 years ago


The Origin of All Religious Worship - Charles-François Dupuis (1795)


            One of the very best things about books is that they can transport a reader anywhere and to any time.  Most people love old fiction works specifically for this reason.  I adore older non-fiction books, especially ones that deal with deep exploration of a given subject.  I especially enjoy finding and reading the old books used as references for the more modern works I read.  I have read widely in comparative religion and mythology over the past decade.  There are few seminal works, and Dupuis’ “The Origin of All Religious Worship” is one such masterwork.  It has taken me months to digest it all.

            People remember the French Revolution alongside the American one as a battle to usurp monarchy and instill democracy.  While this is technically correct, what they were fighting against was the power that the European monarchies and the Roman Catholic Church had consolidated in the 1500-1700’s.  For centuries, the super-rich aristocracy and the super-rich Papacy joined teams to control nations and to plunder their wealth for themselves. The scientific method along with obsessive rationality led French leaders to denounce the church, the evils they commit under the guise of “religion,” and everything they teach.  In order to have evidence against the church, to fight the centuries of lies and obfuscation, geniuses like Dupuis sought to study just why the church acts as it does, and where they got their theological ideas.  Before the modern study of comparative religion and mythology, Dupuis set out to explore the historical past of religious worship.  What follows in this book is a detailed excoriation detailing why everything taught by all priests from all religions is sadistic and willful untruth seeking to blind the eyes of the people.  It is awesome.

            Since truly ancient times, the only real concern of humanity has been to study the heavens.  Once the ancient humans understood that the seasons were cyclical, that around the same time each year the days would get longer, signaling the return of spring and summer, they began to understand the world around them and their place in it.  There was a large, overarching pattern to the world and humans lived in harmony with it.  One hundred thousand years ago, there was no thought of “rational” versus “spiritual,” or of “natural” versus “supernatural.”  These are all recent inventions.  The world of ancient humans was equal parts what they saw and experienced, what they dreamed, and what they imagined. 

Dupuis goes back as far as recorded history lets him, considering he lived in the late 1700’s.  While there existed civilizations before the ancient Egyptians, their culture amalgamated and absorbed the wisdom of all the previous millennia.  Ancient man would describe what they saw in the heavens through allusion, metaphor, and anthropomorphism.  They saw patterns in the stars, which, to their eye, never changed.  These became the constellations.  Initially meant purely as a visual code to describe the locations of the stars, the constellations helped mark the passage of the year.  The Sun would rise in the sky in front of a different constellation every month for a year, and then repeat itself.  During parts of the year, the daylight hours grew compared to the nighttime hours, and at the opposite end of the year, the nighttime hours grew while the daylight shrank.  At two specific points each year, the ancient sages noted that the hours of day and night were equal.  These are now referred to as the Spring and Autumnal Equinoxes.

The Spring equinox seemed a perfect time for ancient humanity to designate as the beginning of the yearly cycle.  It marks the day that the warmth and life-giving properties of the Sun start to increase in influence over the Earth (at least for the people in the Northern Hemisphere.  Throughout much of human history, most of our species has lived above the equator.  This includes the ancient cultures of Egypt, India, China, and Mesopotamia.  It is because of this that astrology and such things are north-biased.  The stars that are visible from the southern hemisphere are different from those that make up what most humans call the Zodiac and were one of the reasons ancient sea-faring humans understood the Earth is a sphere.)  Fall and Winter were times where the Sun’s living force diminished.  In Spring and Summer the Sun’s energies were in full power. 

Our recent ancestors did not know of the procession of the stars, something that occurs because our Earth is not only rotating, but also wobbling in space.  Our ancient forebears knew better.  Before around 14,000 years ago, the Spring equinox Sun would rise in the constellation of Taurus, or the Bull, and the Egyptians would sacrifice the apis Bull on that date, signaling the new year.   For the past few thousands of years, the Spring Sun rises in Aries, or the Ram.  On the Spring Equinox, Christians celebrate the death and resurrection of Christ, a stand-in for the Sun in its yearly journey.  Ancient Hebrews would sacrifice lambs, and the Christ is symbolized by the ‘Lamb” for this very reason.  In a few thousand years, the Spring Sun will rise in Aquarius and humanity’s gods will be altered to match.  Each human culture shared this information through their myths and legends.  Ancient stories of Heracles/Hercules were poetic representations of the Sun’s path through the constellations each year.   Each of his Labors correspond to a different constellation.  Dupuis describes this in depth, even explaining how the ancient poets included stars adjacent to the constellation in the epics, disguised but understandable to those with astronomical knowledge. 

Other of our collective human myths are analyzed by Dupuis, each one shown to be a poetic and allusion-filled description of the path of our Sun as it rises in front of a different constellation each month.  From the ancient Vedas of East Asia, to the Osiris myths of Egypt, to the Dionysian myths of the Mediterranean, to the Zoroastrian founding myths, all are shown to be, at their core, astronomical in nature.  He shows how every religion’s main stories come from an attempt to explain the workings of the Heavens, with each god, all the way up to Jesus, being a stand-in for our beneficent and all-powerful Sun, the true life-giver of our world.

It is this idea that is the basis for the main thrust of this work.  Charles-François Dupuis had grand goals when he set out to write this book.  He wanted to provide clear and irrefutable evidence that the many man-made religions and cults that exist in our history took as their basis either a willful or an ignorant misunderstanding of what the ancient poets wrote in the legends.  The genius of our ancient sages lay in the ability to describe the world around them in a way that could be transmitted and repeated by oral means.  These stories eventually became codified by scribes writing in clay or papyrus. 

Dupuis points out one thing that corrupts ancient wisdom.  As long as there have been humans, there have been some among us who seek to increase their wealth and/or power by using our collective knowledge to control and train the rest of us.  These are the sacerdotal classes; whether shamans, rabbis, magi, or priests, and their sole reason for existence is to create the illusion that they are the only ones capable to providing a lowly human with the divine truths.  Before priests, all humans were equally informed and aware of these universal truths.  The Sun provides warmth and life.  The Earth completes a full cycle every year.  Winter is followed by spring is followed by summer, etc.  We are all part of the whole.  The sun is divine.  We, like all life, contain a piece of the divine within us, and when we die, that energy will dissolve back into the universe.  This used to be basic wisdom, sacred wisdom, showing the interconnectedness of everything in creation.  The ancients did not differentiate between good things and bad things.  Anything and everything could be either, at any time, depending on how and who was utilizing it.  Our living spark comes from the Sun and returns to the Sun after death.

Before priests and the sacerdotal classes could use the old wisdom to control the people something else had to happen.  This is something that is hard to pin down, but Dupuis has done a masterful job of it.  The ancient oral wisdom, allegories meant to provide information about the heavens and the yearly cycles began then to be interpreted in non-allegorical ways.  Instead of understanding that the heroes of myth, Osiris, Heracles, were stand-ins for the mighty and all-powerful Sun, “wise men” began to postulate that they were real, actual people, humans who had lived and been so inspired as to become like gods themselves.  A second and critical jump was the dogmatic assertion that, since the Sun/God was all good, there are things in the universe that are all-bad.  They created polar enemies, Ormuzd and Ahriman, Jehovah and Satan, to foster the lie that the universe is a constant battle between that which is good, and that which is evil.  Of course, the priests/rabbis/cult leaders/shamans/gurus were the only ones among us all to know the “true path” to divinity, and to avoid eternal damnation.  It is the oldest grift in the world, to demand that someone behave as you ask in life, while promising riches and peace in death, promises they know they cannot deliver.  In this manner, all form of religion manages to leech the wealth and riches of the populace, continuing to this very day.  Most religions seem to think the living Earth is a pit of despair, abounding in horrors, and that the only true life is the “eternal” life that they promise after death.  This is a sick and twisted view, directly opposite of the wisdom our ancient ancestors tried to impart.

One of the beautiful things about this book is how Dupuis shows respect and admiration for the ancient sage poets that initially composed the solar myths we have all worshipped and fed off of for millennia. Their ability to describe, in poetic form, the passage of our Sun around the zodiac, is just one of the many bits of knowledge the ancients wished to pass down.  Many secret societies teach how to read these old myths, how to understand the scientific and natural wisdom the ancients hoped to pass on.  This was something of the reason why the Templars, Freemasons, and other such societies are viewed as a threat by the church. Who knows how much more the ancients knew?  Modern humans, Homo Sapiens Sapiens, have been around for somewhat over 100,000 years.  The genus Homo Sapiens itself, has been around for over 1,000,000 years.  The ancients seemed to understand this, many of them describing the great circumnavigations, whether labeled ages or Vedas that the world lives through, each covering tens of thousands of our years.  This was not idle fiction.  They wrote about it to share it with us, thousands of years later, the cyclical nature of existence.  It is Dupuis contention that these legends and myths have everything to offer us today, if only they could be divorced from the religions formed to use the ancient wisdom to take advantage of us, keeping them rich, fat, and comfortable, while they preach abstinence, austerity, and forgiveness.

This work was completed around the time when modern humans started to ignore myth and legend to instead focus on industrial and material matters.  The American Revolution had helped overthrow the ancient and false idea of the Divine Right of kings, and the French revolution tried to free the nation from the king and the powers of the Roman Catholic Church.  The Church has engaged in mass murder and genocide in France many times, seeking to exterminate any enclaves of what they termed “heretics.”  These were the initial freethinkers, dangerous to the status quo of a massive church, wealthier and more powerful than any single nation on Earth.  Dupuis stood for all of us when he wrote this work.  The Church has killed writers and philosophers for far less.

I am so glad I found this book.  It came at the right time, which is one of the magical things about books.  Sometimes, the exact book you need to read will come into your life.  Twenty years ago I would not have managed to complete this book, much less grok the immensity of its scope.  Dupuis truly is one of the greats, a hero to freethinkers and a bright guidepost to anyone seeking understanding of our deep mythical past.

(This book can be downloaded as a PDF here: http://iapsop.com/ssoc/1872__dupuis___origin_of_all_religious_worship.pdf )


My first visit to Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast will not be the last


Titus Groan: Vol. 1 of Gormenghast – Mervyn Peake (1946)


            After almost 400 pages, and two years in the life of the title character, I have completed my first foray into the weird, wild, and oppressive world of Gormenghast.  This nearly 80-year old epic begins with the birth of Titus Groan, the heir to the current Earl of Gormenghast, a man whose family line has ruled this walled city-state for millennia.

            What let me know I was in for an unusual story was the initial section of this novel, as Mervyn Peake takes several pages to describe the walled city of Gormenghast, introducing us to the real main character of this tale, the city itself.  Mountains on one side and a forest lake on the other surround the ancient sprawling castle, if it can be rightly called a castle.  Inside the walls of the massive city, its denizens spend their every waking hour in the pursuit of their labors, dictated purely by ritual and birth.  Those born to kitchen workers will be kitchen workers.  Those born to the unfortunate people that live outside the castle, the mud dwellers, are destined to remain outsiders.  The individual duties and positions within the castle being determined not by human decisions but by the countless precedents set by previous Gormenghast Earls and their families.  Every single action is either part of a daily ritual, or mirrors some ancient rite, the reasons for it obscured by time and generations.  No one asks questions.  No one seeks to change his or her position in this world.

            Nowhere in this work does Mervyn Peake specify how many people live within the confines of Gormenghast.  It could be tens of thousands, or just a few hundred.  Either way, the vast expanse of this sprawling city-state lays mostly deserted, with rooms, towers, dungeons, and hallways remaining unused for decades at a time, until some event or dictated ritual requires it.  The people we are introduced to come mostly from the retinue of the Earl himself, Lord Sepulchrave (the characters all have such evocative names!).  There is the Head Cook, Mr. Swelter, a fat, slovenly man that runs a small army of servants and kitchen workers whose task is to prepare meals for the citizens as well as the various cyclical feasts and formal events in the castle.  There is Lord Sepulchrave himself, who spends most of his time away from his family, absorbed in books found within an ancient, massive library, of which only the Earl seems to frequent.  There is the Earl’s wife, Countess Gertrude, a very large woman whose sole interests lay in the cats and birds of Gormenghast.  There is the daughter and eldest child of the Earl, Fuschia Groan, a young woman with little purpose in life, and her nanny, Mrs. Slagg, an old, tiny woman who has essentially raised the Earl’s daughter, and will be tasked with the care of the infant Titus. 

Another critical character is introduced, a young man by the name of Steerpike who, after manipulating his way out of what would have been life-long servitude in the Gormenghast kitchens, begins to worm himself into the world of the top servants and the rulers of the castle.  This Steerpike will drive the plot forward as his ever more grand plans start to take shape.

Most novels introduce the characters and dive right into plot.  Not these Gormenghast books.  I venture that around 70% of the novel consists of detailed, meaningful descriptions of the castle buildings, walls, towers, plazas, hallways, rooms, and the surrounding countryside.  Initially this distracted me, as I am so used to the standard plot formats of 20th century fantasy fiction.  However, once my mind adapted to Mervyn Peake’s prose, it all made much more narrative sense.  The castle is eternal, or may as well be, having seen the rise and fall of dozens and dozens of generations, each one living and dying within the city walls, each one just a small blip in the lengthy life of Gormenghast castle itself. 

The lives of the Gormenghast residents mirror the lives of every heir to any throne in human history.  Their entire existence dictated by ritual, and formal decrees, forcing them to live by codes of honor, with no individuality allowed for it would disturb propriety.  If they are fortunate they end up handing the throne down to their children, who hand it to their children, etc.  There is always someone trying to take what is yours.  There is always some conniving relative attempting to either discredit or outright murder someone in order for his or her progeny to take the throne.  How many members of the British Royal family, for example, count as their only confidants and friends those who serve them?  This is the way of royalty, of entrenched ritual for ritual’s sake.  It is everything I despise in human governance.  Mervyn Peake seems to despise it as well, for the manner in which he details the people of Gormenghast is far less respectful than the way he describes the castle itself.  The castle has dignity, wisdom, and must be respected, whereas those who live within its walls are buffoons, dullards, and inbred.

The book ends with the title character, Titus Groan, reaching his 2nd birthday, and the formal celebrations that will mark him as the new Earl of Gormenghast.  Those most sensitive and perceptive can sense a great change coming.  Change is the ultimate evil in Gormenghast.  Change effects everyone, seen as unnecessary and unwanted.  The next book in this trilogy is titled Gormenghast.  I fully expect to immerse myself once more within the dark, sullen masonry and the weird, desperate characters that make it their home.  I already feel as if I will walk the halls and rooms of Gormenghast for the rest of my life.


Rudy Rucker Shares His Life Story


Nested Scrolls – Rudy Rucker (2011)

            I feel like I just had a long, thoughtful conversation with one of my favorite authors.  Not only was it engrossing and entertaining, but it made me appreciate the man himself more than ever.  Rudy Rucker has long been someone whose books shape my mind.  He easily describes the most complex of ideas all the while making me crack up.  I find him to be one of the few authors, similar to Mark Twain or Kurt Vonnegut, who makes the reader laugh as much as he makes them think, sometimes in the same sentence!  This is how my mind works, and reading Rucker’s life story, I can see so many similarities to myself.  Life can be quite tough for people who choose to explore and think about topics normally avoided by the public, especially those who create something for others to absorb, whether it be literature, paintings, or music.

            Rudy Rucker begins his tale with a description of the brain hemorrhage he experienced in the summer of 2008, aged 62, and his brush with mortality. One of the realizations he describes really hit home, as it is a truth that I have come to understand.  Rucker states, “The richest and most interesting parts of my life are the sensations that come in from the outside.  Our thoughts and ideas are merely reflections of the beauty and grandeur of the world around us, if we only take the time to actually look and listen, without judgement.  We all proceed through our lives as if we are the protagonist in a grandiose and important tale that matters to all.  Our self-importance seems to dictate the world around us.  However, the truth is that we are but reflectors of the world at large, and our self-importance blinds us to how fortunate we are to just breathe, eat, sleep, and love, existing in the amazing and infinite world that surrounds each of us.  This experience drove Rudy Rucker to write his autobiography, but without any of the self-promotional aspects of such writing.

            Reading about Rudy’s childhood and family was a joy.  Rucker’s writing style is so deceptively casual that his story flows smoothly, and I found myself as engrossed in his life as if it was one of his works of fiction.  Many of his childhood experiences mirror my own, and many of the questions he asked about the world around him I asked in my youth.  Rudy Rucker had to wait until he was much older to find people whose curiosity and genius matched his own.  It is a lonely thing to grow up understanding that most around you either do not ask, or simply do not care to know, about difficult ideas and concepts.  Expanding one’s mind, something that comes ridiculously easy to most toddlers and children, is beaten out of us by life, society, parents that do not care, and other such brutalities.  It creates a nation of adults who do not seek to understand, or to explore, but who want safety and certainty above all else.  Certainty is the absolute bane of wisdom.  Throughout Nested Scrolls, Rucker describes the many times he dealt with such inanity, from school to church to workplaces.  A freethinker will always threaten the status quo.  These moments truly resonated with me.

            Apart from learning about Rudy Rucker’s life and experiences, I enjoyed the sections in which he describes his state of mind as he wrote his various literary works.  Writers write.  It is their way of existing.  I have always enjoyed reading about the creative process of the people I admire.  I was reminded that while Rudy Rucker has written some of the most mind-expanding and hilarious science fiction literature I have ever read, he also wrote one of the most beautiful books, a historical fiction novel detailing the life and times of Flemish painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder titled As Above, So Below.  It is a triumph.

            One of the themes I found in Nested Scrolls is that of the “fringe” individual, and how to best exist as one.  Rudy Rucker studied and taught mathematics, but was seen as too weird and “out there” to belong with the mathematicians.  He studied computer science, but his metaphysical ideas about computing and the mind were too much for his fellow computer scientists.  Rucker wrote many amazing books, yet was pigeonholed as a science fiction author.  Far too many writers demean science fiction as if it was trash writing, not worthy of the high and mighty term “Literature.”  Not only that, many established science fiction authors isolate and demean writers like Rucker whose work is too transgressive, funny, or caustic for what they have determined is actual, hard science fiction.  The ego on these people!  If only they would see how blind they are, and that they have chosen to blind themselves with their intellectual bigotry. 

I relate to this aspect of Rudy Rucker’s life so much.   The Art Crowd found me too intellectual, too into sports, too into science, and too aware of the lies Art tells itself.  The jock crowd found me to artsy-fartsy, too mocking of the sacred ideas of sport competition, even though I love sports greatly.  The punk/underground music types found me too square, too “normal,” to truly accept me as part of that scene.  The “norms” found me too weird and uncaring about bullshit such as cars, money, or the latest useless status symbol.  It has been this way my whole life, and I feel it is that way for anyone whose mind and interests go too far beyond one or two self-defining characteristics.  The Public wants everyone to be easily defined, the faster the better, but people like Rucker and myself understand that the world does not work that way.  In fact, everything is far too complex for such simple-minded labels.  Much of Rudy Rucker’s work explores this idea.  As he states, and it is something I have myself claimed, there is no such thing as a “normal” person.  If you bother to scratch just below the surface, you will find that every single human you have ever met is a deeply weird individual creation.  The worst thing you could do for yourself is to force your life into the very narrow definitions that the people around you expect you to be.  They are the ignorant ones.  They are the ones whose minds are atrophied and scared of difference. 

Often Rudy Rucker describes how much of a grind it is to promote your work, to seek publishers, and to expand your readership.  Rucker has never had a “best seller” yet his works sell well and he is always able to publish his material.  His books are too weird for Hollywood, and none of them have yet been made into a feature film.  He taught at various Universities to make a living, but it took him over 35 years to get tenure.  All the while, he shared his life with his lovely wife and their three children, and as he describes their lives, I can see how much their love and stability aided him in his dream of writing science fiction.  Perhaps he is the most fortunate of all, experiencing a full life, while living out his childhood dreams.  Too many people consider you a failure if you do not become “the BEST,” or “the RICHEST,” or “the MOST FAMOUS!”  These are all meaningless labels.  Rudy Rucker grew up, married, started a family, taught countless students, created dozens of original works of literature, shared his ideas with readers worldwide, and even took up oil painting at a late age!  He is a success by any true measure, and I am so glad to have read his autobiography.  Rudy Rucker may not know me, but I count him as my lifelong friend.  Thanks for sharing the Gnarl, Rudy!

(This book may be read here: https://www.rudyrucker.com/nestedscrolls/ )