Monday, May 12, 2008

Tom Vanderbilt

Tom Vanderbilt writes about design, technology, science, and culture for Wired, Slate, the New York Times, and many other publications.

His books include Survival City: Adventures Among the Ruins of Atomic America and Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us), due out in August.

Last week, I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
I generally have two categories of books, with various books appearing in each at all times. There’s the “desk” category, which are books that are more work related, and the “nightstand” table, which holds books intended for pleasure, personal edification, outright entertainment, etc. (there’s probably a third category: “Books I’ve Not Yet Read,” which is somehow the most powerful category of all).

So the “desk” category is currently rounded out with a number of titles that basically represent nursing a hangover of completing my own recent book on traffic — the tonic being continuing to read about...traffic! So I’ve got galleys of Peter Norton’s Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City, a compelling history tracing how the automobile changed the American city, and how traffic engineering as a discipline emerged, and gradually changed to accommodate cars, moving away from a position that initially viewed cars as a threat to city life (that’s why you no longer hear much about ‘speed governors’ on cars, for example, but it was once quite an issue). I’m also dipping around in Diandra Leslie-Pelecky’s The Physics of NASCAR. I don’t follow the sport whatsoever, but I am interested in things like motion transfer in collisions, and the like, which the author covers in an accessible manner. Having recently finished Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational and Tim Harford’s Logic of Life, I’m now onto the somewhat related book Nudge, by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, which I find interesting for its treatment of a problem I kept coming across regarding traffic safety and laws: How can you get people to do what’s in their own self-interest, but yet which they for some reason don’t decide to do?

In the “nightstand” category, I’ve currently got a copy of Richard Price’s Lush Life, which I bought on impulse the other day, in part because it was signed — and isn’t this one of these strange artifacts, Price’s scrawl in marker on the title page, the trace of his hand touching mine, that make things like ‘Kindle’ seem so clinical? With The Wire ended, I was definitely feeling a hole in my gritty social realist sprawling urban crime drama soul, and Price fills it powerfully. There often comes a moment in reading a police procedural, or existential detective thriller, where I feel something just isn’t quite authentic; like the writer wasn’t trying hard enough. Some reference is too pat, some passage too flaccid, some moment forced. Even in Patricia Highsmith, who I absolutely love, there are times when I feel like she might as well be writing from Mars (ok, maybe via Switzerland) for how wrong or distant something feels (e.g., some word used for some everyday thing was archaic even then). But Lush Life is just seeming spot-on to me, with no suspension of disbelief required. I also just finished Dan Fesperman’s The Amateur Spy, another “genre” work that I quite enjoyed. I’m admittedly pre-disposed to the genre; they say every foreign correspondent aspires to write genre thrillers, so maybe everyone who once aspired to be a foreign correspondent (but somehow failed) consoles himself by reading genre thrillers. I’m also reluctant to close the recent Library of America collection of Kerouac, which I was nudged to buy after seeing the Kerouac show at the New York Public Library. Like everyone, I once read On the Road the way some people read LSAT prep books, as some kind of essential prep course to my vagabond future. I’m now of the age where I don’t hit the road without making hotel reservations first, and I wondered what it would feel like to read it again. Fevered, overwrought, perhaps one too many “sad American nights,” yes, but then I’ll come across some weird line like “Old brown Chicago with the strange semi-Eastern, semi-Western types gong to work and spitting” that just brings a small joy. The journals too contain all kinds of flinty specks of gold, like the moment he’s stuck in a North Dakota blizzard and experiences a remarkable camaraderie: “Men work against each other only when it is safe to abandon men—only when and where”; or his line about Portland: “Portland, like filling stations and hipsters and Portland-sized cities, is the same as any other same-sized city in U.S.A. Or like any other gas stations & hipters all over.”

Lastly, I keep flipping through Trevor Paglen’s I Could Tell You But Then You Would Have to Destroyed By Me, a collection of curious commemorative patches from various “black” defense programs in the U.S. They are rich in myth and almost Gnostic symbolism, and there’s just something strange and delightful in the fact that supposedly covert programs went to the trouble to build this aesthetic esprit de corps. Paglen’s tone is curatorial and subtly bemused: Of Northrop’s “Night Stalker II” patch, he notes, “the numeral II suggests a ‘Night Stalker I,’ which remains equally obscure.”
Learn more about Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us) at the Knopf website, and learn more about Tom Vanderbilt's work.

--Marshal Zeringue