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Fall 2009

On My Bookshelf: Professor John Willett

john_willett.jpgCurrently reading:
I'm reading a novel called The Crooked Cross. It's a new novel by an English author that no-one has heard of: Michael Dean.

Its initial attraction:
I'm reading it for mysterious and wonderful reasons - the kind of thing that convinces you there really are unseen forces binding the universe together. Forty years ago, when I was an undergraduate studying physics at Oxford, I had a roommate. We were young, and had the usual unattainable dreams. My dream was to become a great songwriter and poet, and be the next Bob Dylan (studying physics and math was just a fallback position). My roommate - Mike Dean - wanted to be an author, and write the next War and Peace. Ignoring his studies, he worked through the night for the next two years on the novel, but never finished it. Then, after graduation in 1970, we fell out of touch for four decades. I went on to fail as a musician, and ended up falling back on my knowledge of physics and math. I taught in Hong Kong, and finally moved to the U.S. for graduate work in statistics. Ultimately, I took the job here at Harvard. I had no idea what happened to Mike until about a month ago! I got an e-mail from him, out of the blue - he had come across my name accidentally in the Oxford Presscatalog, where my last book with Judy Singer was listed. So, he googled me, to check that I was the same guy he had shared rooms with at Oxford. We exchanged e-mails, and he told me that he had finally finished his novel, after 40 years, and that it was being published in May 2009. How could I not read it?

First impressions:
It's intriguing, set in Munich in 1933, during Hitler's rise to power - the "crooked cross" of the title, of course, is the Nazi swastika. The book's premise is that, if Hitler had been prosecuted in 1931 for the murder of Geli Raubal (the teenage daughter of his housekeeper at the time) - a murder of which he was suspected -- rather than being protected by highly-placed members of the National Socialist party, modern history would have been different. It's an amazingly well-researched piece of work. Well done, Mike - still crazy after all these years!

Last great read:
I've read so many books that it's hard to pick out just one, for you. My favorite books have changed so much over time, too. In the '60s, I really loved Joseph Heller's Catch-22 and Robert Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land, like everyone else. Most recently, I have enjoyed Steve Berry's The Last Templar, and Brian Greene's The Elegant Universe and the Fabric of the Cosmos. But, over the last 40 years, I have read everything from John Fowles' The Magus to Paul Davis' books About Time and Cosmic Jackpot. I am quite compulsive -- once I have discovered an author, I tend to read everything they have written that I can lay my hands on. So, these days, I tend to go on Amazon and buy their entire corpus, stack it up on my bedside table and plod through them. I got through all of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Jonathan Kellerman, Patricia Cornwell, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and many others, like that. My daughter suggested that I read The Time Traveler's Wife, and I really liked it.

Book you have read over and over:
I am really fascinated by the two great novels of Thornton Wilder -- The Bridge of San Luis Rey and, even better, his last novel, The Eighth Day. I have read them repeatedly, seeking the truth. Both novels have the same theme, a question that Wilder asks, repeatedly, in The Eighth Day: "Is there a pattern in the arras?" Why, and what exactly was it that brought these particular people - some of them innocent, some evil -- together to die on that particular morning, on that particular suspension bridge in Peru, when it collapsed? Was it simply chance, or was there really some pattern to it? The theme is taken up in The Eighth Day, where you get to follow the entire lives of the family of a man who is rescued by mysterious strangers on his way to be executed for a crime he didn't commit. He is never heard from again, but his conviction and rescue completely alter the lives of his children, his wife and friends. It's a fascinating story, and plays directly into my own suspicions about life. Is it real, or is it Memorex? Why is the universe so amenable to being modeled mathematically? Perhaps the universe is itself a mathematical model - a huge differential equation or algorithm? Perhaps we are all simply avatars in some gigantic version of Second Life, running on an alien computer outside of space and time? I cannot believe that everything is random - it would be such a waste! Strange to hear this coming from a statistician, I guess?

Favorite spot to curl up with a good book:
In bed!

Best recommendations by others:
When I was an undergraduate at college, in the '60s, I became convinced that my education had been too narrow. I am the product of a now-defunct educational system that existed in England for 20 years after the Second World War. You got selected at the end of elementary school, based on your score on the national "Eleven-Plus" exams, and they focused you on just one thing, from age 11 through 18. I was selected to study physics and mathematics. But, after high school, I went up to Oxford and met all these other folk who knew about the really important things in life. They talked about literature, current affairs, poetry, history, and all that stuff. I couldn't. Nobody wanted to talk about physics and mathematics, over beer in the Buttery, with a working-class kid from a "northern grammar school." So, I set about re-educating myself, in a truly misguided fashion. I covered one entire wall of my room with large sheets of white paper. When anyone came into my room, I would ask them to recommend one thing for me to read, and write it on the wall. Within months, I had a bibliography of hundreds of items on the wall -- from The Thoughts of Chairman Mao to Spike Milligan's Puckoon -- that I couldn't possibly wade through. So, to cut through the morass, I decided to read any book on the wall that was thicker than one and half inches. I went to the university bookstore, Blackwell's, with a ruler to measure the width of their spines. As a result, over the next three years, I waded through Middlemarch by George Eliott, William Shirer's Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, Henri Troyat's biography of Tolstoy, Thompson's Making of the English Working Class, the first couple of things by Solzhenitsyn (The First Circle and Cancer Ward, I think, because One Day In The Life of Ivan Denisovich did not meet my thickness criterion), and so on. I still have them all, around here someplace. I never did manage to finish either Finnegan's Wake or War and Peace, although I did start both several times. I still have a fascination for James Joyce, and may get back to Finnegan's Wake before I die. It was during my "read anything thicker than an inch and a half" period that I first read Catch-22 and Stranger in a Strange Land, both of which became future favorites.

Noneducation genre of choice:
I will read pretty much anything, but I particularly like novels about the origins of religion, myths, and lost kingdoms, time travel, and the "big picture." I also enjoy looking at good cookbooks, especially those with colored photos of food and cooking techniques. I really recommend Julia Child's The Way to Cook, to anyone who wants to make it in the kitchen.

Next up:
I have been trying to plough through Roger Penrose's The Road to Reality for some time
without much success, and I may take a shot at finishing it. It's a kind of Mount Everest for me. My daughter is pressing me to read Martel's Life of Pi. Actually, though, now that I have answered these questions, I fell like reading The Eighth Day or perhaps The Magus, again. Now, those are two books that everyone should read!

photo by Tanit Sakakini