My favourite book is Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. It is a phenomenal piece of work that spans the period of time from the reign of the artful emperor Augustus across 15 centuries until the final fall of the last remaining fragment of the state he founded. It was a book that could probably not have been written any time before the eighteenth century when it was published. Gibbon was able to refer to huge numbers of source materials which were being printed for the first time as the technology and the economy developed together. He had some 6,000 books in his library. Prior to Gibbon’s time only a king could have afforded that many volumes.
Decline and Fall is a rich and immersive experience clocking in at close to a million words. There is nothing else like it. But just as nobody could write a book like it before, nobody is going to write one like it again. The world has moved on and huge tomes are just not on anyone’s agenda any more. Books are now no longer the only, or even the main, source of information. We can now all go onto Google and find out pretty much anything we want to.
When the environment changes things have to adapt and evolve with it, and this applies to books and their authors as much as anything. I don’t think I have read a book that acknowledges the new information age as comprehensively as David Bradley’s Deceived Wisdom. Factual books have to face one inescapable fact. All the facts are already at everyone’s fingertips.
Deceived Wisdom gets round it by basically turning itself into a taster menu. The theme is those things that you think are true but which turn out not to be when you investigate them. For instance, have you been told that the Great Wall of China can be seen from space? It can’t. It is only 5 metres wide. As Dave points out – if you could see something that small you’d be able to see to the buggy the astronauts took to the Moon from Earth.
You get a quick run through of the state of play on a particular issue, then you get a link to a website that you can if you wish continue researching on. If, like me, you are reading it on an e-reader you can go straight there. Read it on a Kindle and you can use the X-ray function for more background as well.
So Dave is acting not just as a writer but also as a sort of curator. You can read what he says and take it further if you want to. The articles are generally short so you won’t waste too much time if a particular topic doesn’t take your fancy. This is just as well because if you already know something, the revelation falls a bit flat. But there are hundreds of topics so you are bound to find something, and probably quite a lot, that tickles your fancy.
Dave blogs about science at http://www.sciencebase.com/