Beautifully written nonfiction

I don’t read a lot of nonfiction, comparatively, but I read some. Animal behavior and psychology and economics and just, you know, whatever. Sometimes a nonfiction work will spark ideas and world building immediately – for example, I read this one book, GEISHA, by Liza Dalby before I wrote HOUSE OF SHADOWS, which, may I remind you, is due out in July. I bet you’ll see the influence when you read that one.

Others I suddenly find useful long after I read them, or else some of the stuff I learned from them settles to the back of my mind and hopefully adds depth to worldbuilding later.

Generally the nonfiction books I read is competently written, or, you know, I wouldn’t read it. Some have flawless, precise English which is a pleasure to read, in a quiet way. But I have to say, it’s certainly nice to find something where the language itself goes well beyond competent to clever, entertaining, or even poetic.

I have two great examples here in front of me, both kind of dealing with physics (well, aspects of physics, sort of), and as it happens one of ’em was written thirty-odd years ago and the other more than sixty, and I do kind of wonder if the standards for writing have fallen so far that you just don’t get entertaining writing from engineers these days. But probably that’s too cynical, because I guess generally nonfiction authors are shooting for prose that is competent and clear, but not necessarily for prose that is clever or beautiful.

Anyway! Check this out:

“A bulldog without a hide and a half is no more a bulldog than a hinny is a mule in the stockman’s eye, but the scowl was originally unintentional and a by-product of a functional goal.”

“The forehand assembly of a dog is as busy as a centipede crossing the floor.”

“The laws of leverage come galloping into this picture like tax collectors.”

“The vaudeville performer balancing spinning plates atop long poles, which rest on chin or forehead, and a cantilever or suspension bridge may seem a far cry from the front assembly of a dog; even so the dog might be termed ‘brother to a bridge’. His front assembly must be dynamically balanced for it to function with the highest degree of efficiency, even as the bridge and the juggler’s tricks.”

“The broken-down pastern finds the carpal assembly awry and askew and not supporting the weight carried by the leg, but putting this burden on the muscles whose tendons act over the pisiform and down to contact the digits.”

All this is from McDowell Lyon’s book THE DOG IN ACTION, first published in 1950. This is still the best and most complete book available that deals with canine structure and movement. It also has the cleverest and most enjoyable turns of phrase. Lyon also scatters anecdotes all through his book in order to lighten up what might (I concede) possibly be considered by some to be a dry subject. I just wrote a review of it for the Cavalier Bulletin, so I’ve been re-reading bits.

I admit, after reading . . . um . . . five books on canine structure and movement, I get pretty snide when I see an animal with poor structure in the show ring, and even more snide when I hear someone insist that good fronts don’t matter to a toy dog. Oh, yes, they do. Go read McDowell Lyon and quit breeding dogs that are going to be crippled by the time they’re middle-aged. Jeez.

Public service message here: Even the most knowledgeable and committed pet buyers — and I am a big fan of educated, committed puppy buyers — focus too much on health as it relates to actual disease (say, sebacious adenitis, for example) (which is not a Cavalier issue, btw, but you’d be wise to ask about it if you were buying a poodle or akita) and too little on structural breakdown. Both are important, but if anything unsound structure is more common and more likely to eventually hit you in the vet bills than actual disease. Lotta totally unsound mixed breeds out there, too, just in case you think getting a mixed breed animal will magically protect you from those vet bills. The best way to make sure you get a sound dog from a shelter? Ask somebody like me to go with you to look at the animals.

Okay, sorry, kind of got sidetracked for a minute there. Now back to the actual subject!

How about this:

“With fashionable subjects like physics or astronomy, the correspondence between model and reality is so exact that some people tend to regard Nature as a sort of Divine Mathematician. However attractive this doctrine may be to earthly mathematicians, there are some phenomena where it is wise to use mathematical analogies with great caution. The way of an eagle in the air; the way of a serpent upon a rock; the way of a ship in the midst of the sea and the way of a man with a maid are difficult to predict analytically. One does sometimes wonder how mathematicians ever manage to get married.”

“It is a pity, therefore, that the whole idea of energy has been confused in many people’s minds by the way in which the word is used to refer to a condition in human beings: in this case one which might be described as an officious tendency to rush about doing things and pestering other people. This use of the word has really only a tenuous connection with the precise, objective, physical quantity with which we are now concerned.”

“For instance, instead of messing about with thoroughly bogus ‘factors of safety’, one can nowadays simply try to design a structure to accommodate a crack of pre-determined length without breaking . . . Where human life is concerned, it is clearly desirable that a ‘safe’ crack should be long enough to be visible to a bored and rather stupid inspector working in bad light on a Friday afternoon.”

“As we have seen, unless one is as clever as Nature is, the whole business of making tension structures is set about with difficulties, complications, and treacherous traps for the unwary.”

“Out of all the different kinds of structures which might be made, the masonry building is, as we shall see, the only one in which a blind reliance on traditional proportions will not automatically lead to disaster. This is why, historically, masonry buildings were by far the largest and most imposing of the works of man. The desire to build cloud-capp’d towers and solemn temples goes far back into history and indeed into pre-history.”

“Of course it is a bad thing for walls to crack, and it should not be allowed to happen in well-regulated buildings, but it does not necessarily follow that the wall is going to fall down immediately. What is likely to occur in real life is simply that the crack will gape a bit but the wall will continue to stand up, resting on the parts which are still in contact. All this savours somewhat of living dangerously, and one of these days the line of thrust may stray outside the surface of the wall, when, as a little thought will show, since no tension forces are available, one or more of the joints will hinge about its outside edge and the wall will tip up and fall down. It really will.”

“Feathers not only enable birds to get away with more local scrapes and abrasions than other animals, but the body of the bird is protected from more serious damage by its thick resilient armor. The Japanese feather armor which one sees in museums was not, as one might suppose, the picturesque nonsense of a primitive people who did not know any better. It was an effective protection against weapons like swords.”

Feather armor? Wouldn’t that a wonderful detail to slip into a story some day?

Anyway, all that about cracks and walls tipping over might possibly lead you to suspect that this book was an important resource for me when I was writing Book II of the Griffin Mage trilogy. You would be right!

This is all from a book called STRUCTURES: OR WHY THINGS DON’T FALL DOWN by JE Gordon, a materials scientist who, one gathers from some of his anecdotes, was active in his field at least during WWII, and maybe even WWI. I could just quote his book all day, but perhaps mercifully will make myself stop now.

Want to know why yew bows only work in cool climates? Gordon will tell you why. Why did so many boilers explode? Gordon is pretty scathing on that subject. But along with a bit of math and loads of anecdotes about accidents — things breaking up or falling down, despite the title – there are many snatches of poetry in this book, and, of course, there is clever wordplay simply everywhere.

At the moment, these are my two picks for Nonfiction Books You Wouldn’t Think Would Be Entertaining But You Would Be So Wrong. Anybody else got a candidate for this category? Because I could use some entertaining nonfiction right about now.

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5 thoughts on “Beautifully written nonfiction”

  1. Michael S. Schiffer

    I don’t know if it qualifies as beautifully written, but I’d recommend at least taking a look at “Ignition! An Informal History of Liquid Rocket Propellants” by John D. Clark. It’s a look back at the development of rocket fuel from early days to the Apollo era, by someone intimately involved in the process. (Not *quite* intimately enough to get blown up, but not for lack of opportunity.)

    It contains the immortal line “And if you, gentle reader, have never seen a nervous rocket mechanic, complete with monkey suit, being buzzed by nine thousand demented bats and trying to beat them off with a shovel, there is something missing from your experience.”

    (The hardcopy is ridiculously expensive used. But “mad science” site has it as a PDF: )

  2. [fx] Puts Gordon book in Amazon cart.

    Thanks for the recommendation, it sounds like the sort of non-fiction I like.

  3. It’s wonderful. I’ve been re-reading little bits all week. You can open it anywhere and find something great.

  4. Ignition! is the original source of that great quote about chlorine trifluoide and running shoes.

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