The dusty plains of Troy…

In this week’s “Packet,” I want to think with you about a couple of books. I have just finished listening to the Macmillan audiobooks of Robert Fitzgerald’s translations of The Iliad and The Odyssey. Dan Stevens reads both, and though his is not exactly a “household name,” you would quickly recognize him as Matthew Crawley from the early episodes of Downtown Abbey.

Over the summer, I make the round-trip drive from our cabin in the Upper Peninsula to home in Dexter about once a month. The trip gives me six or seven hours of relatively low-traffic time on I-75, ideal for audiobooks.

After almost 3000 years, the broad outlines of the classic stories are familiar, but these are poems, and they were made for listening. The familiar “rosy-fingered dawn” and “wine-dark sea” that become painfully repetitive to a reader provide happy touchpoints to the listener. The long pedigrees of the warriors break the narrative on the page, but for the listener those details give the characters history and personality. They are like flashbacks in a film, providing some detail before an important scene. In fact, as I listened, I found the experience was cinematic. As I listened, I could gaze northward to see the dusty plain of Troy with the black-hulled ships pulled out on the beach to the far left, and off in the distance toward the right were the towers of Priam’s Troy.

Take the time, make the time, to listen to this timeless story. Then, of course, you will start to think about it.

Objectively speaking, in the Iliad, Homer relates a critical episode occurring late in a prolonged, unhappy war in the Middle East. To the critical reader, the whole plot seems based on unstable foundations. The gods are deeply involved when a coalition of Greek city-states agree to follow Agamemnon, an arrogant, power-hungry leader, into a prolonged exhaustive conflict that’s further botched when Agamemnon’s insensitive behavior alienates his most important military leader, Achilles. Moreover, Achilles turns out to have an ego and temper to rival Douglas MacArthur.

Well, I thought, it was a wonderful experience to listen to the poem. Then, I embarked upon Jean Edward Smith’s biography, Bush. Smith focuses largely on the presidency of George W. Bush and particularly his decision to go to war in Iraq. God was deeply involved in that irrational and highly personal decision. It resulted in a prolonged unhappy war in the Middle East when a coalition of Western states agreed to follow Bush, an arrogant and not particularly introspective leader, into a prolonged exhaustive conflict. And the conflict was further botched when Bush’s behavior alienated his most important military leaders (many with egos and tempers), all of whom advised an early exit.

I’m becoming increasing convinced that we humans have no new stories; all we have are the old ones with new characters.

Two Books well worth the time

For any readers who expected a long essay on Chile, this is not it. Instead, as a sort of preamble to Chile, I want to tell you about the two books that served as much of my “airplane reading.”

I found both books, Genentech, The Beginings of Biotech by Sally Smith Hughes and Science Lessons, What the Business of Biotech Taught Me About Management by Gordon Binder and Philip Bashe, as part of my homework for my own non-fiction book on the rise and fall of Scios and Natrecor. They are both university press publications, from the University of Chicago Press and Harvard Business Press, respectively. That, of course, explains why they weren’t on the tables at the front of your local bookstore when you came in to browse.

Does anyone else still do that? My favorite Ann Arbor bookstore is  Nicola’s Books, and I drop in whenever I’m in the neighborhood. Anyway, back to the topic at hand.

The title pretty well explains the subject of Genentech. Hughes does not spare scientific detail, but she writes about it deftly, blending into the narrative. Readers with even the most basic understanding of genetics will hardly notice that they have gotten a short lesson on recombinant technology along with a great story. Some of you may know that Gordon Binder is a former CEO of Amgen; he focuses primarily on the financial growth of the company. Again, the story is so well told that it carries the weight of venture capital financing, cash burn, and initial public offering strategies without a whimper.

With both of these books, I found myself re-experiencing the excitement of my first undergraduate biology course. The Watson-Crick model of DNA was still new science. The whole world of biology had taken on new shape and meaning, and the individuals who started these companies blended science and business in a totally new way.

I loved David McCullough’s The Wright Brothers; these two books capture the same spirit of innovation in a discipline that has been part of our (at least, my) professional life.

Here’s another highly recommended example of outstanding non-fiction writing: Peter Moore’s  The Weather Experiment: The Pioneers Who Sought to See the Future.    

Why is this post on The Weekly Packet devoted to recommending three obscure non-fiction books? (The Wright Brothers is a best-seller; I’m not counting it.)  First, I can’t imagine writing about politics. Second, it’s still too cold to fish. Third, I wanted to slip in just a teeny plug for the nesiritide book because I just finished a second draft.

Stay tuned.