October 16, 2014 by libroshombre
Many popular assumptions about being a librarian couldn’t be more wrong. Take the most prevalent myth, that librarians spend their days lolling around with pleasant books in calm tranquility. Tain’t so, I assure you. In fact it’s more like the opposite: surrounded by wealth and unable to spend it. A fitter analogy would be a person with an inordinate sweet tooth working in a fabulous candy shop that is too busy to allow time to indulge.
We do get in some window-shopping, however, and several bookshelves at my house were filled with books I craved to read but couldn’t squeeze in. Now that I’m retired those shelves have proven my happy hunting ground. The latest delights from that source are “Defining the Wind,” a biography of Sir Francis Beaufort, creator of the Beaufort scale for estimating wind strength, and “The Secret Life of Houdini” by William Kalush and Larry Sloman.
Beaufort biographer Scott Huler is enthusiastic and informative. For instance, I learned that “fret” is an obsolete term for “gust” that seems particularly appropriate for those of us who live with large trees nearby. He also appreciates good writing and the intellectual side-paths research often exposes. My interest in Beaufort and his scale grew when we moved from town to the heights of Parks Ridge, where the prevailing winds are more apparent.
Huler’s interest in the English language is compelling. Once he discovered the Beaufort Scale in his desktop Webster’s Dictionary, Huler’s affection for Beaufort’s scale writing became adoration. In fact, he calls it “the 110 best words ever written,” and many agree. Huler, originally a copywriter, said, “The Beaufort Scale is the quintessence of that verbal economy, the ultimate expression of concise, clear, and absolutely powerful writing … In fact, the Beaufort Scale description of the wind doesn’t merely reach that highest perfectible level of clarity … it surpasses it and becomes poetry.”
Later he adds, “These words do work. These words have a job – to make you understand how the wind is blowing, exactly how the wind is blowing, in comparison with other winds. They express perfectly a fundamental thing about language: Language is technology. It is a tool to accomplish a task.” But Beaufort did it stylistically, too. His scale’s Force Five, “Small trees in leaf begin to sway,” is written in iambic pentameter, the “da-DUM, da-DUM, Da-DUM” rhythm of a heartbeat favored by Shakespeare.
Biographies are perennial favorites at libraries, despite the fact that no book can ever hope to fully convey a life. “Biographies are but the clothes and buttons of the man,” as Mark Twain put it. Still, even poorly-written biographies sell. “Why do we read biography?” British biographer Claire Tomalin wrote. “Because we are human beings, programmed to be curious about other human beings, and to experience something of their lives. This has always been so – look at the Bible, crammed with biographies, very popular reading.”
The Houdini biography is certainly a compelling example. The famed escape artist’s life is fascinating enough even without learning of his work in espionage through aninternational informal society of magicians. There’s John Wilkie, for example, the head of the U.S. secret service in the early 1900s, who hired a number of magicians and sleight-of-hand specialists for covert work. World War I loomed in those pre-FBI and CIA days, and Wilkie established foreign and national spy networks. He also recruited and worked closely with Houdini, who gathered information about foreign police organizations, jails, and so-forth during his extensive pre-WWI European tours. Houdini also provided reports to William Melville, Scotland Yard’s Special Branch chief, who also ran an agent known as Sidney Reilly.
The library owns a copy of “Reilly: Ace of Spies” the wonderful, albeit fictionalized, account of his life from the BBC, along with thousands of true-life biographies in every format, from large print to e-books. As Louis L’Amour wrote, “For one who reads, there is no limit to the number of lives that may be lived, for fiction, biography, and history offer an inexhaustible number of lives in many parts of the world, in all periods of time.”