Thursday, 30 April 2009

32 - 'The Universe' by Richard Osborne

I am poorly. Nothing to do with pigs, I hasten to add, just normal flu which is taking its time to clear up. This, along with the burst of reading energy set free by the completion of 'Ulysses', should explain why I've been reading and posting so much over the last few days. Anyway, I was just on my way to the doctor's, and, having finished 'Remembering Babylon' yesterday, I found myself in the predicament of having to choose my next book and only having seconds to do it in. Usually, I stand and stare at the pile of unread books on the shelves, weighing up the alternatives, fiction or non-fiction, quality or trash, English or German, contemporary or classical, until my wife comes in and quietly wheels me in the direction of the living room sofa to recover. I don't like making quick decisions when it comes to my reading.

So, I did what I usually do in these cases; I picked up the shortest unread book in my collection, figuring that even if it turned out to be a mistake, I wouldn't regret it for long. Which leads me to Mr. Osborne's very brief summary of the development of human knowledge regarding the universe. Packing this into 120-odd pages would seem a bit of a tall order, but, when I picked it up in the university bookshop, I thought that for one Australian dollar (approximately 71 US cents, 48 pence and 68 Yen for those who get confused by Kangaroo money), you couldn't really go wrong. Well, no.

Osborne, a lecturer in Philosophy, attempts to summarise what scientists, the church and assorted nutbags knew, know and could ever know about the universe and tries to put it in language everyone can understand. Unfortunately, in doing so, he comes across as a bit of an idiot who thinks that by awkwardly throwing in references to popular culture throughout his extended essay he will be admired by his readership; unlikely, unless he is writing for a convention of pub bores. Yes, Homer Simpson may have said (or have been prompted to say) something witty about science once upon a time, but that doesn't justify using it in a book if it isn't properly integrated.

It doesn't help his cause when his already slightly-annoying style is undermined by several obvious spelling mistakes, and, in one case, by the bizarre inclusion of what appears to be the draft form of the preceding paragraph. Obviously, in trying to offer cheap access to the mysteries of the universe, the idea of editing was the first to fall by the wayside. You'd think that in such a short book, it wouldn't have been too hard to pick up at least a couple of the typos.

None of this would matter too much if the style and content were entertaining, but there are also serious flaws here. A lot of the information is repetitive and badly phrased, and the book seems to whizz past without really telling you much at all. In addition, Osborne's style of someone who obviously knows more than you but is dumbing it down for the less intelligent is not designed to ingratiate him with the reader. Several times in passing, the writer mentions Bill Bryson's 'A Short History of Nearly Everything', and you get the feeling that he is subconciously putting himself into the same category as the famed travel writer. Unfortunately, he is not even in the same galaxy.

I don't know too much about the universe now that I didn't a few hours ago, but I do have some lessons learned from reading this book:

1) Having read a bad example of the genre, I now appreciate how good Bryson's book really was in being able to write as one of the common people trying to make sense of things, rather than patronisingly educating people from on high.

2) You get what you pay for. I miss my dollar.

3) Never hurry the choice of a book. With apologies to Forrest Gump, life is not a box of chocolates; it's a bookcase full of books which may, or may not, be worth reading.

Now, I have about another twenty minutes before my wife gets back from child-care with my daughter, so I may just be able to start to think about what to read next. If you need me, I'll be standing on the other side of the study, staring vacantly at a big pile of books...