'Literature of fact' the best new genre

Published 12:00 am Friday, August 15, 2008

By Karen Young
For the Salisbury Post
Are you tired of repetitious political exposes? Alarmed enough to swear off books on the state of the planet? Are you weary of mysteries, spies, serial killers and old lady novels? It seems publishers are even resorting to dog stories to keep us reading.
Recently in Time magazine, David Maraniss quoted John McPhee as classifying the genre I love, “The Literature of Fact.”
I am looking for authors like David McCullough and Doris Kearns Goodwin, fine writers who tell wonderful true stories that move along and don’t tell me more than I want to know, unlike academics trying to impress their peers.
Two recent books fill the bill of fact literature. The authors have written cogent page turners, but without hype. The first is “Three Cups of Tea” by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin. This is a true story of Mortenson, a young, avid mountain climber who got lost during a failed attempt to get to the top of K2, the second highest peak in the world. This small part of the story alone is worth the read.Mortenson wanders exhausted and dehydrated into a remote northern Pakistani village and is rescued by the very poor people who share what they have to bring him to recovery. During this recovery time he bonds with the people and discovers that the only school is a flat rock where the 80 children gather during the warm season to learn a little reading and math. To repay his friends he pledges to build a school for their village.
Mortenson is a registered nurse who readily finds work upon his return to California. He launches a comically inept and naive campaign to raise money for the school, living frugally, sleeping in his car or bunking with friends while storing his worldly goods in a rented storage locker. Out of his clumsy efforts he keeps his promise to build the first school. This effort continues to grow to 74 schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
None of his support comes from any government money. Each project is at the request of village leaders who pledge to do the labor. All schools educate girls as well as boys. This effort began in 1993, well before 9/11 focused us on that part of the world. His story is heartwarming, enlightening and fun, filled with adventures, frustrations and even a little romance.
“The Man Who Loved China” is my favorite book of the summer. Written by the master storyteller, Simon Winchester, who recently did so well with “The Professor and the Madman,” this is the story of Joseph Needham, an eccentric scientist and Cambridge don.
Born in 1900, he was a world famous biochemist by his early 30s. His father raised him on the maxim, “No knowledge is wasted.” He was a prodigy, multilingual, a nudist, a vocal socialist with a scientist wife and a scientist Chinese mistress. With the help of his mistress, Needham taught himself to speak, read and write Chinese in his spare time while teaching, doing research in biochemistry and publishing.
Winchester covers Needham’s first 40 years in a mere succinct 60 pages. In 1943 with World War II still going on, the British government flew Needham over “the hump” from India to offer support to those institutions of learning remaining in free China, the others having been destroyed by the Japanese. He was able to secure needed supplies, books and journals for scholars and to send home to Cambridge rare books, along with his volumes of notes.
For three years he roamed China, less as a diplomat and more as a student of Chinese science whose linguistic ability and wide range of interests permitted him contacts and discoveries unique to a Westerner.
In the unusually helpful appendix to the book are listed hundreds of inventions and scientific discoveries originating in China. Examples include the invention of the ball bearing in the second century BC and thyroid treatment of the first century BC. He came upon two undocumented references to very early attempts at a propeller driven airplane. (He was told the inventor was executed.) He learned more about the Chinese than the even Chinese knew themselves. His travel adventures and difficulties alone are a great read. His findings are astounding and his scholarship impeccable.
After the war the British government, at the recommendation of Julian Huxley, recruited Needham as a scientific representative to the new United Nations. After 18 months, the remainder of his life was spent writing his masterpiece, the 17 volume “Science and Civilization in China.”
Throughout “The Man Who Loved China” is raised the “Needham Question.” Why didn’t China move forward from its early achievements in the way the West ultimately did?
These two books gave me more understanding of the Far East than all my previous education and readings. The entertainment industry and journalism seem to miss the boat on fascinating true stories that make us quite proud of the human race.