Thursday, February 04, 2010

Reader's Diary #574- Scott Huler: Defining the Wind

As a child, I was fortunate enough to have a family that still sat down for meals together. It was nice. We'd squabble, pass the potatoes, squabble, talk about our respective days, squabble, and laugh. Depending on how early mom had supper on the table we'd get a good half an hour to an hour of quality family time. However, before long our near Latter Days Saints moment would be interrupted by by dad's mad scramble to turn on the radio that was perched on the ledge of the china cabinet. It was time for the Fisherman's Broadcast. It began with a tell-tale bombastic string number (up there with the original Hockey Night in Canada theme song in many Newfoundlanders' memories) and about halfway through the program a foghorn would announce the marine weather forecast. The rest of us carried on talking, but conversation with my dad at those moments consisted of a few grunts, a few shhhs, and a few blank stares. My dad spent a lot of time on the water. This was his life.

I was reminded of that program, specifically the marine weather report part, when reading Scott Huler's Defining the Wind (especially in his mention of an English radio program known as The Shipping Forecast). It was a nice memory, but it also served as a great reminder that for some folks, the weather means much more than an occasional minor inconvenience.

One of those folks, Francis Beaufort, is the subject of Huler's book and clearly the author's obsession. Apparently Huler was flipping through a dictionary one day when he came upon something called the Beaufort Scale. A descriptive scale of wind speeds, to Huler it was poetry. For the life of me, I cannot see poetry in this scale. I see a practicality in the scale, I see conciseness in the scale, and with Huler's help I was even able to see rhythmic meter in the scale. But Huler saw poetry and became obsessed, not only with the scale, but the man it was named after.

It's that obsession that both drives the book and makes Huler himself a central character. Early on in his research, Huler discovers that Beaufort didn't really have much of a hand in the scale's creation. An admiral who was in love with observation and detail, Beaufort was simply attracted to the work of others who had devised descriptive wind scales. He compiled their work, helped standardize it, and certainly promoted its use but really shouldn't be credited with its creation. In my opinion, the most practical application of the scale, didn't even appear in Beaufort's lifetime. It wasn't until a German sailor named P. Petersen developed an add-on, the state of the sea scale, that the scale became really useful out at sea, for people who still use the scale today. But despite uncovering these truths about Beaufort, Huler continued to proceed with his book, continued to cast Beaufort as the ideal observer, the representative eighteenth century man, a man who saw potential scientists in everyone as long as they had a sharp eye and a knack for innovation.

Fine, so Huler refuses to give up on his hero. That's not the problem. The real issue comes from his insistence on making Beaufort great by association. In his research on Beaufort, Huler finds it remarkable that he stumbles upon the lives of Charles Darwin, Daniel Defoe, James Cook and others. He also goes into needless detail about sailing, windmills, kites, hurricanes scales, British radio shows, and so on. If you've ever been quoted about the wind, there's a chance you're in this book. At one point Huler writes,
There was something about describing the wind that sparked expressive language and I think the answer is that the wind is invisible. You can’t describe it because you can’t see it. You can only describe what it does to things you can see - sails, the sea, trees, roof tiles. To describe clouds, trees, or anything else, you focus in on that specific thing, ignoring everything else. To describe the wind, you do the opposite: you look at everything else. It’s mind expanding.
I read another review that almost convincingly tries to use this statement to justify Huler's many meanderings. To understand Beaufort, he argues, you must also look at everything else.

Except Beaufort wasn't the wind, he wasn't invisible. That approach is stupid. Huler's book comes off as someone who set out to write a book on the inventor of the Beaufort Scale, realized very quickly that it wasn't Beaufort (besides, Beaufort's already been the subject of a couple of biographies), but decided to fill a couple hundred pages anyway. Let's say I had a silver spoon in my drawer that had been passed down to me as having once belonged to Napolean Bonaparte. Fascinating. So I go to write a book about it but with minimal research discover that the spoon was really just a stainless steel spoon purchased by my grandfather at Eatons 50 years ago. I scrap the book idea, right? Wrong. I get the truth out of the way in the first chapter, then proceed to write a bit about Napolean, a bit about how stainless steel is made, Eatons catalogues, my grandfather and maybe forks while I'm at it. All the while, I'm still convinced this spoon remains the single most fascinating piece of cutlery in the history of the world. What an unnecessary piece of writing.

The only thing that kept me going was the marvel of Huler's bizarre insistence. I wanted desperately to discover the psychology of the author. Alas, I never came up with anything more than someone refusing to admit he's wasted his time and now ours. Pride? Is that it?


Chrisbookarama said...

Um, it has a pretty cover though.

Can't wait to read that book on spoons you're going to write.

Barbara Bruederlin said...

Sometimes it's really hard to let go of an idea that you love, even if it proves to be meaningless. Please tell me that you will stop me whenever you catch me doing that.

Your childhood dinners sound like ours, only we would be threatened with death if we dared talk during the news.

totally arad said...

we had a big family and could never have a table big enough for everyone

John Mutford said...

Chris: Actually it's not the same cover as the one I read. Mine is a picture of the dictionary page showing the Beaufort Scale.

Oh, and you may be waiting a long time for that book.

Barbara: Hey if it wasn't for people not able to let go, the whole nostalgia industry would be obsolete. And oh how I'd miss it.

Hey, had the death threat been followed through, your family would have made the news. Is that meta-news?

Totally Arad: Oh I'm sure someone could have sat in someone's lap if they really tried.

Allison said...

Reminds me of this quote from Carlin, "The other night I ate at a real nice family restaurant. Every table had an argument going."

That's where all the best conversations took place, and still do, whenever I get back East.

John Mutford said...

Allison: The Newfoundlander in me still finds it amusing when someone considers Ontario East. Though I guess when you're in BC (or Yellowknife for that matter), yes, Ontario is east.

Sandra said...

I expected more of a sea story but perhaps I was judging by that lovely cover. I started laughing when I got to "If you've ever been quoted about the wind, there's a chance you're in this book." An amusing but unfortunate review. Sorry you didn't enjoy it but kudos to you for giving it a chance and finishing the thing. One can never tell when a book may redeem itself. I bet you'll never think of the wind the same way again though.
Thanks for the nostalgia; for us it was the weather and the Farm Market Report-absolute silence reigned.