Worst story ever told: You call that a summer vacation?
It started last Wednesday morning. It ended very late Saturday night, after a hurtling, eight-hour train ride down the northeast coast.
Short though it was, it featured one relevant achievement. We read The Worst Book Ever Written, or at least its earlier parts.
We refer to Carlo Rovelli's latest submission, The Order of Time. A bit of background may be relevant at this point:
Rovelli's earlier book, Seven Brief Lessons in Physics, became a run-away best seller in 2015. At that time, we skillfully refused to take the bait.
Three years later, Rovelli was back. When a review appeared in the Washington Post's Outlook section—and with our summer vacation approaching—we decided we were willing to do what plainly had to be done.
The review was penned by Joseph Perschel, "a freelance writer and critic." As for Rovelli, he's the type of writer who, by the rules of the game, triggers mandated statements like this:
PERSCHEL (6/24/18): No one writes about the cosmos like theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli. He may not be as well known in the United States as the late Stephen Hawking, Neil deGrasse Tyson or Alan Lightman. But in his books, “Seven Brief Lessons on Physics” and “Reality Is Not What It Seems,” Rovelli explains physics with reverence and exuberance, in ways that even a book reviewer without a PhD can understand.So simple that even a reviewer can understand it! By well-established rules of the game, reviewers must claim that they "understand" the prose of these easy-to-understand types.
Editors rush such claims into print. As he continues, the reviewer will claim, or perhaps will seem to imply, that the author's latest book is easy-to-understand too:
PERCHEL (continuing directly): In his newest work, “The Order of Time,” Rovelli shares his enthusiasm as he discusses scientifically and philosophically the “greatest remaining mystery”: the nature of time. This book, like his previous works, is translated by Erica Segre and Simon Carnell, and their poetic interpretation of his words, I surmise, derives strongly from the original Italian.It isn't just easy-to-understand; it's poetic too! By the rules of the game, the reviewer will present this as an added bonus feature, not as a possible source of distraction and/or misdirection or even as a possible sign of flimflam.
Let's be fair to Perschel! In paragraph 2, he describes the three parts of Rovelli's book, none of which the reader will understand. But in paragraph 3, he adopts a minor modesty pose, advancing the familiar procedures of reviews of this type:
PERSCHEL: Some ideas in “The Order of Time” are a bit confusing and require a re-reading, but Rovelli includes only one equation in his new book, and he even apologizes for its appearance...Some ideas in The Order of Time are a bit confusing! This is Perschel's way of saying that neither you, nor anyone you've ever met, will have the slightest idea what's being said in any part of this book, the least understandable and worst book ever sold in stores.
Not wanting to let our vacation end, we've decided to focus this week on what we did on that vacation. At several points, we boasted to a young relative that we were reading the worst book ever written. Since she was reading a book required for incoming seventh graders at her middle school, she was thereby reassured that her own book wasn't the worst.
Presumably, Rovelli's new book will also be a best-seller. Successfully approached, it gives befuddled readers a chance to apply an unusual critical question:
We call it the "At What Page" question. At what page does it become absurd to pretend that anyone has the slightest idea what is being said?
In this case, we've decided to name page 12 as the place where hope ends. For the record, Rovelli's Part 1 begins at the bottom of page 9, and a full page in his small book contains maybe 240 words.
We also thumbed Yuval Noah Harris's 2015 best-seller, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. Early on, Harari says the rise of human language primarily enabled us the people to engage in two highly adaptive activities—"gossip" and the invention of group "fictions."
As students of modern journalism, we had to admit that Harari seemed to be on the right track! That said, we'll discuss our summer vacation all week, with reference to this recent front-page report in the New York Times.
(Headline: ‘Shaken’ Rosenstein Felt Used by White House in Comey Firing.)
The report in question seized control of cable news on Friday, June 29. How does this connect to Rovelli? In due time, everything will be clear.
Tomorrow: Near the top of page 12!
Next week: Return of the gaps