Author Topic: Gravity's Rainbow or How Far Can You Throw?

A Study In Physics

   Words. There's thousands of them. Some are great standalone classics, you know, the kind of words you want to say out loud. Others, well, they only really come alive when surrounded by other words in what most people call a sentence. Sometimes, when someone has somehow managed to find enough sentences to put together, a book will appear. Some of these books promptly disappear forever, some seem to live for only a brief moment before falling back into obscurity, then there are those books that, once they come alive, become part of our shared cultural history and actually change the way people see the world around them. I guess you can call these 'classics'. Now, some of these lets call them 'classics' are slender little delights, easy to absorb in a single sitting or train journey. Others take a couple of sessions and only require a few hours. Then there are the heavyweights, the monoliths, the giants of literature, the mountains that certain readers attempt to scale, albeit with varying degrees of success, and which leave those who bail early with a lingering sense of failure and a half-baked, fist-shaking promise to return one day and finish the job.
   Now, I'm not here to bang on about which of these leviathans I've completed, nor am interested in hearing about which ones anyone else has managed to finish. What really interests me is how far can one throw these heavy boss books, which has led me to conduct a rather singular experiment in physics. For this experiment I chose five of the biggest piles of sentences I had in my bookcase and took them up to the roof terrace of my Amsterdam apartment building overlooking the Amstel river. Admittedly, I had been huffing swifties, which probably takes some of the scientific sheen off my experiment, but I was filled with what can only be described as a wave of wonderment as I thought about the importance of the task ahead. Someone once said science is only as foldable as the table it came with, which I don't agree with but I am not a scientist so I'm probably unqualified to make such comments here (or anywhere else). Anyway, I piled the five books on top of one another like some kind of wordy Jenga and set about testing out my theory.
   First up was War & Peace (587,287 words). I took it in my right hand and with a smooth underarm movement launched it up and out into the clean Amsterdam air. It rotated a few times, like when a bad guy in a Bond film falls off a ledge, and descended with ferocious pace towards the pavement, its yellowing pages fluttering like a schoolgirl's heart, landing near a woman who was walking her dog.
   Next up was Vassily Grossman's Life & Fate (310,000 words). This rotated less upon its gently arcing path towards the ground than Old Tolstoy did but immediately blew apart upon impact, wafting emancipated pages full of sentences across the straat.
   Third in the pile was Infinite Jest (577,608 words). This, when tossed skyward, stubbornly refused to adhere to the strict norms of gravity and began a steady and terrifying airdrift back towards the building, where it plopped unceremoniously onto my neighbour's plant-strewn balcony, landing backpage up in a potted fern.
   Fourth came the much-copied and oft-quoted Ulysses (265,222 words), which for some reason I always found slightly depressing despite its playfullness, like that old TV show set in Ireland with all the painfully unfunny priests. James Joyce's masterwork descended beautifully yet awkwardly, like a collapsing Soyuz rocket, and narrowly missed a couple of girls in denim jackets and flares who were attempting to open a bottle of wine with heel of one of their shoes. They looked up the street casually, with indifference, before returning to the liberation of their alcohol from its smooth, glassy prison.
   Finally, and by no means least I was left with undoubtedly my favourite bunch of sentences of all time, the unrivalled and unravelling work of genius that is Gravity's Rainbow (305,000 words). Taking this epic literary creation in my hand I was aware of the irony of the situation. A book about gravity succumbing to gravity was probably something that Thomas Pynchon would appreciate, or not, and as nobody has ever seen him or heard him it would be impossible to say how he would react. I'm not a religious man, not really anyway, but it was with a strange sense of holiness that I hurled this beautiful creation out into the void and observed it fall in total silence, with all the quiet dignity of a preacher awaiting his certain resurrection. It fell directly into the basket of a passing bike, causing the human in control of the aforementioned bike to swerve wildly, narrowly escaping an impact with the two girls in denim jackets, who had now opened the wine and were taking turns at swigging it straight from the bottle.
   A cloud covered the sun, and it suddenly occured to me that I had just wasted at least half an hour of my time and five perfectly good books in my pursuit of scientific truth and in that sense I felt like a young, sportswear wearing Robert Oppenheimer. Unlike poor Bobby O, however, I had failed to learn anything whatsoever. And the point of all this? There isn't one, other than to say that although all books succumb to the forces of gravity, some succumb more easily than others. Or do they?


Depending on gravity
« Reply #1 on: June 05, 2020 »
It’s not important to me if the experiment was fictional or factual, or indeed, metaphor in action: what mattered is that it was inspiring. But which books to select? Peer review wasn’t the goal here. My first thought was to choose those purportedly at the top of my reading list. This seemed an elegant proof of my enthusiasm for actually reading them, the titles naturally ranked by how far away they landed. In the end I opted for eminently disposable test subjects (with one exception).

My laboratory was the meadow in front of my house, where rabbits dash and lambs gambol in season.

There was a breeze. Wind speed wasn’t likely to be a decisive factor.

First up was Game of Thrones, which I’ve never been particularly interested in reading but bought anyway. The TV series was entertaining. That turned out to be enough. Up in the loft I have a copy of Tuf Voyaging, ordered in a fit of nostalgia from the author himself and autographed by default.

I like Tuf, so the series tie-in with the [spoiler alert] ill-fated Sean Bean on the front would have to do.

Next was The Odyssey of Enlightenment, shipped by mistake. Promising “Rare interviews with enlightened teachers of our time”, I'll admit I hadn’t given it a chance in my disappointment at the switch at the warehouse.

My plan was to see what page the books landed on, which should prove less challenging than divining entrails. I had high hopes for this collection of dialogues.

Conspiracy Theories is one of those things that looks more fun than what’s between the covers. I’d barely cracked it.

My Life, which promised to be an exhaustive appreciation of the life and times of Leon Trotsky, contained a post-it note which hadn’t moved in quite some time, so that was a good candidate as well.

A biography of Marcel Proust was as close as this experiment would be coming to highbrow literature. It’s very worn, just not by me. Would it land on a madeleine, I wondered?

The Rough Guide Phrasebook to Spanish hasn’t ventured far past Barcelona, and is unlikely to go deeper into Spain now, my bucket list being full. Besides, it doesn’t have any useful phrases, such as “Keep two metres away, por favor” and “Do you have have any masks which make me look like a cabbage?” This was chosen from a genuine spirit of enquiry into the aerodynamic profile of small, slightly chunky books.

Finally came Dark Age Ahead by the towering Jane Jacobs. I genuinely didn’t want any harm to come to this, and so wrapped it in a ziplock bag and taped down the flap to help it really fly. This was the only hardcover, and of a good size to make me proud.

Without ceremony I flung each in turn from the patio. My goal was the next fence down.

I didn’t even get close!

At 16 paces, Game of Thrones prepared me for future disappointments. I was genuinely shocked at the lack of loft, though probably shouldn’t have been given the 800 pages, each trying to grab airtime. It proved as graceful as a flustered dragon pigeon, landing photogenically upright thanks in part to a large standing footprint.

The Odyssey of Enlightenment gave up at 12 paces. I’ll come back to this.

I wasn’t expecting much from the ungainly Conspiracy Theories, which nevertheless did manage a pace more than Odyssey. This was a letdown chiefly because it failed to come to rest conveniently spreadeagled at a nice juicy conspiracy. A random parting yielded Jonestown. Apparently more than just Kool-Aid was involved. “Too many dead people” says one heading. The CIA and the Soviets get a mention.

Grading on a curve, My Life placed respectably at 21 paces.

George Painter’s bio of Proust suffered the only casualty of the bunch, the cover taking leave not far from the patio, but the rest made it to 15 paces. Again I had to resort to a random passage chosen by hand: “It was during this visit that Proust met the mysterious young girl whom he also saw from time to time in Paris, and a year later thought of marrying. Not even her name is known, although she may be alive to this day.” Given the copyright of 1959, I’d venture she’s lost to time.

Given that the Spanish phrasebook only made it 10 paces, it might have been a victim of the wind after all. Should I have chosen my feathery Penguin Classics copy of the glory of Sanskrit verse instead, helped it catch a current and soar?

“Love, light and life” it says on the back cover, so I was prepared to accept it as the source for those reminders to Live Laugh Love, until House Beautiful set me straight.

Dark Age Ahead was far and away the winner, at 35 paces – by my estimate 75% of the distance to the fence. The bag kept it in good shape should I wish to dip in for light reading.

The Odyssey of Enlightenment being the only book to obediently land in an opened state, I therefore conclude:

These events transpired in the morning. No word of a lie, as I took a walk in the meadows in the early evening, a most perfect rainbow appeared. If there is a god, he would have made sure I had my camera.