Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Reader's Diary #267- Lucy Jago: The Northern Lights (up to Part 3)

Recently Allison blogged about novels that sagged in the middle a bit, you know, the halfway mark being much like Wednesday, that sort of a deal. While The Northern Lights is not a novel, I'm sure plenty would feel that it suffers from the same fate.

But oddly, the story writes its own excuse. As Birkeland, the central character, realizes that he needs a lot of funds to study and experiment with the northern lights, he gets increasingly more sidetracked. To earn the necessary dough, he proves his knack for innovation by turning to inventions. First he works on an electric cannon and then a way to pull nitrogen out of the air (which he uses in making saltpetre for use as fertilizer). The effect of these undertakings, in terms of the story itself, would probably bore many readers. After all, the title suggests that the book is about the northern lights, and those get nary a mention for the bulk of the second part.

The slow pace towards the middle seemed to have have been an issue for the publishers. That, at least, is the only reason I can think of for some of the details they chose to highlight on the dustjacket. "He was cheated out of the Nobel Prize by a rival" for instance. In actuality, the whole incident was but a blip in the actual book (only two pages or so), far less intriguing then they seemed to suggest. Birkeland apparently had never even known that he'd been considered!
It's unfortunate that the publishers tried to milk such insignificant points. I think many readers will feel cheated. But, as I've said, the story writes its own defence: If you, the reader, find yourself getting bored and frustrated with the lack of focus on the northern lights, it's the perfect analogy for how Birkeland himself must have felt. The lights were his obsession and he was stuck making fertilizer! To be fair to the publishers, while I do find Birkeland's resourcefulness quite interesting, perhaps using that angle to sell a book wouldn't have done the trick. It certainly would be a difficult book to approach from a retail point of view.

One thing is particular that has been standing out for me is the celebrities of Birkeland's time. Scientists such as Marie Curie, Albert Einstein, Louis Pasteur and Ernest Rutherford are still known today. It worries me that my great, great grandkids might think our only contribution was Paris Hilton. Ah , who cares? I'll be long gone.

3 comments:

Barbara Bruederlin said...

I am fascinated by stories of inventions, so for me I think this would add to the book's appeal.

Lovely label - sad, but true.

Allison said...

My reading habits have been all over the map lately, but this book does sound interesting.

Paris who?

(if we ignore, perhaps 'it' shall vanish)

John Mutford said...

Barbara, Birkeland was just a nonstop machine actually, just churning out one idea after the other without stopping even for his marriage.

Allison, I'm singing that song from a Simpson's Halloween special years ago where the advertising icons come to life, "Just don't look, just don't look." If only it was that easy.