I like reading books that show an active mind on the page. I'm not talking about novels of ideas, but books which show an informed, applied intelligence, not artfully arranged combinations of cliches. And though I love detail work, this is separate from getting the details precisely right. It's the difference between enjoying a director and enjoying the set design.
Needless to say, it's why I find so much current fiction not worth my time.
The magazine Cycle World has a circulation of over three hundred thousand. Perhaps ten times as many people read it. It's a motorcycle magazine. It also has perhaps the best technology writer in the business, Kevin Cameron. This is what he serves those subliterate motorheads and gear freaks.
Cameron recounts an evening he spent with the late New Zealand designer John Britten:
We had dinner together early in Speed Week. As Britten speaks, his words fall behind his thinking. He speaks faster to catch up, but the race is soon lost. Words trip on fresh thoughts. He stops speaking, looking slightly distressed. He pauses with great intensity, then begins again.I especially don't read much science fiction anymore. No point.
I asked him if he were an avid, lifelong motorcyclist.
"No, I'm really not. Actually, my background is in fine arts -- decorative glassware, in fact."
The arts? Decorative glassware? Racing motorcycles? Where is the connection? I remembered a conversation we had had a year ago at the Speedway. I had remarked to Britten then that his V-1000 crankcase had an organic shape; not a thing of ribs and gussets, it resembles instead the stresses acting on it, the flow of cylinder head bolt tension downward, into the case, to loop around the main-bearing saddles, holding the engine together against combustion and inertia forces. It looks most like a tree trunk.
"Yes!" he had said then with sudden heat. "I propose that idea to people in the industry, to journalists, but get back nothing but polite nods. Things have shapes for real reasons. A tree..."
Our dinner conversation began to eclipse the food. Britten talked about his conviction that engineering, the science, the arts are all connected tightly together. What is it, he asks, that causes an aesthetic to exist in every area of human endeavor? Physicists admire an elegant experiment, mathematicians seek beautiful proofs, engineers seek simplicity. We seek a rightness that is beyond the merely adequate. And in literature, writers seek a parallel rightness that is beyond bare-bones data transmission. What is this rightness, he asks, but a kind of innate sensibility about things? Even the most abstract branches of mathematics, sooner or later, are found to describe something real. Aesthetics, similarly, only appear abstract, but are actually about real things.
He believes that our aesthetic sense is derived from things in common experience -- such as trees and other living things -- and so is not limited to one field or another. Such a sense of values ought to relate to everything -- a woman's shirtwaist dress, a rocket motor exhaust skirt, a Greek oil amphora of 20 centuries ago. Consider structures: The Italian engineer Pier Luigi Nervi designed breathtakingly curved shells of ferroconcrete, but declined the praise of art critics, saying, "I have no aesthetic -- only mathematics." The simplest form, requiring the least description, is so often the best.