One of my beach reads this vacation is The House of Wisdom—How Arabic Science Saved Ancient Knowledge and Gave Us the Renaissance. Its discussions on trigonometry and the mathematics involved in astronomy require several re-reads before I totally understand. Very much a case of operator error (me!) and not a failure of clarity by the author. And a little more science-bent than historical survey than I was hoping, but a good brain book nonetheless.
The House of Wisdom is also proving to be a good writing craft guide. Unintentionally, I assume, of the author. Perhaps it’s because the book is non-fiction, or because some of the subject matter is above me, I am noticing the writing and the author’s voice and narrative choices more than I usually do when I am reading for fun.
Voice, in particular, is stunning in this book. Every craft book I’ve read of voice seems to be written by the loud bore at the party. The sort of extrovert who isn’t refueling by social interaction but instead desperately sucking the room dry of attention. Voice, in craft teaching, seems to demand we all be brassy and clanging and laughing at our own jokes.
The author—Jim Al-Khalili—is kind to the people and places and knowledges he discusses. He indulges in snark, in gossip, in his own opinion smoothly. He’s clear, concise and thoughtful. He warns ahead of time when he’s going to go deep into math or astronomical equations. He adds notes and explanations to diagrams and tables. There’s a lilt to the way he writes. Within a page or two I knew he wouldn’t be a bore or a task master.
The next aspect that caught my attention was “knowing who your reader is,”. With this, Al-Khalili both excels and stumbles. He excels, as I mentioned above, in guiding a reader through difficult terrain. An over-kindness to casual readers like me, and perhaps an annoying speedbump to his fellow physicists and polymaths.
The stumbles are similar speedbumps. He goes out of his way not to diminish prior Greek and Euro-centric scientific works. He goes out of his way not to diminish the later works of euro Renaissance and Enlightenment scientific works. He credits other scientists and breakthrough in the world, throughout time, in particular India and China. But not to the extent that he works to keep white people from getting butthurt over other people doing science too.
Which made me think of the ongoing bs with racism in the RWA, in particular the disregard towards writers of color. I get “liking what you like,” (to a point, I’ll say more later), but I can’t understand actively working to prevent other stories. No one ever bitches because ice cream stores have dozens of flavors available. Newly popular mocha latte doesn’t ruin anyone’s chocolate chip childhood. And, fuck if they don’t taste good together.
Think of the writing advice: read outside your genre. Think of how narrow-minded an author or blogger/reviewer or reader has to be to not even read widely within their own genre. How repetitive their words, stories, descriptions, worlds must be. Think of all the great stories missed because a poc or lgbt or non-binary did the action scene, the love scene, the discovery scene, the hacking scene.
The House of Wisdom on the surface is not an outside my genre thing for me. Central Asia, history and episodes of human accomplishment (in this case the Islamic Golden Age) are right up my alley. But if someone had handed me the book, and said, “Here’s a book with tons of trig and lots of talk about how to calculate the orbits of celestial bodies,” I probably would have muttered something about my already too large to-be-read pile.
But, luckily, I read this book. And got lots of good things: 1. What I wanted, an historical discussion on the Islamic Golden Age. 2. A lot of math and science I wasn’t expecting—new knowledge, new vocabulary, and new ways of describing the skies, the heavens, the earth. Perhaps a character can cleverly escape a jam now that I know how to measure distance via calculating angles of sunlight off a mountain. 3. Unexpected writing craft lessons.
Read outside your genre!