Forced to Choose
Writer to the stars, whose books include Coming of Age in
the Milky Way, The Mind's Sky and (on our list) The Whole Shebang
It happened to be a history book—A Child's History of the
World, by the schoolmaster V. M. Hillyer—that kindled my
lifelong fascination with astronomy, and for some reason I've since
been influenced at least as much by literature in general as by
Hillyer's account began, reasonably enough, by describing the
formation of the earth, and I was astonished to learn from it that
the earth hadn't always been here but had come into existence at a
specific time, as the result of astronomical processes. Hence there
is no real division between here and out there.
Pondering this point, I started reading all the astronomy books I
could get my hands on, particularly the works of Patrick Moore, the
eminent British amateur astronomer, and, later, Kepler, Galileo,
Newton, Einstein, Bohr and Wheeler. These authors taught me more
than astronomy; in a sense they helped connect me with the wider
culture, showed me how to think like a worthy human being.
Yet most of the lessons came from the wider world of books. From Lao
Tzu and Chuang Tzu I learned the value of the unknown and the
overlooked (as in Reginald Blyth's remark, "The back of the
picture, the unheard melodies, the dull and the stale, and cheap and
vulgar are all of infinite value") and was made skeptical of
those philosophers who claim to have explained everything. From
Virgil and Dostoyevsky and other Russians I learned how far writing
can go—that its limits are like the horizon, made not of space
but of perspective.
Looking over the battered old books, I can feel lessons rising from
them like the breath of slumbering beasts. From Epictetus, courage;
from Homer, strength; from Petrarch, constancy; exuberance from
Whitman, Blake and Su Tung-P'o; wit from Shakespeare and Voltaire;
grace from Proust; imagination from the early Kant, rigor from the
later Kant. Humanity from all. I wish I'd learned all these lessons
better, but at least I learned to keep reading. To me the books on
the library shelves are alive; they rustle like the living trees
from which they—and us, in a sense—originated, calling
to us like the old forests, forever full of promise.
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