Books which Ruined My Life

(For which I'm Grateful)

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I find, as I re-enter childhood after retirement, that several books or films have completely shaped my life. I didn't necessarily realize it at the time, of course (though sometimes I did). I cannot overstate my gratitude to these works.

Wahl & Krahn (1968)

Wahl, Jan. Illus. by Fernando Krahn. The Furious Flycycle. NY: Dell, 1968.

"The Professor's laboratory was cluttered with gorgeous machines. Magnets. Leather pulleys. Rotating fans. Drill presses. Lathes. Generators. A dynamo. Melvin felt immediately at home, wishing he never had to leave.

"At the end of the laboratory stood an electric player piano with lighted-up windows, featuring pictures of yellow ducks and white geese swimming on a pure blue pond. The piano was playing in ragtime."

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Shute (1960)

Shute [Norway], Nevil. Trustee from the Toolroom. NY: William Morrow & Co., 1960.

When I was perhaps 12 years old I read:

"Here he made models, and here he wrote about them weekly for the Miniature Mechanic, a magazine with a considerable circulation in the lower ranks of industry and with a growing popularity amongst eccentric doctors, stockbrokers, and bank managers who just liked engineering but didn't know much about it. All his life he had made models, little steam engines, little petrol engines, little speedboats, little locomotives, little Diesels. He was a considerable horologist; in his time he had made many clocks with motions of antiquarian interest and had written full directions for constructing them, always in the Miniature Mechanic. He had made little beam engines which would have delighted James Watt and still delighted those who are fascinated by such things; he had made little jet engines which would have delighted Frank Whittle. He had made pumps and boilers and carillons that played a tune, all in the minature scale. He was a quick worker and a ready writer upon technical matters and he delighted in making little things that worked. He had now ordered his life that he need do nothing else."

While certainly my accomplishments in the intervening decades have been less than the fictional Keith Stewart, I have now very nearly ordered my life in the same way.

Bach (1974) & Underhill (1981)

Bach, Richard. "Found at Pharisee" / "School for Perfection." A Gift of Wings. NY: Delacorte Press, 1974.

Underhill, Roy. The Woodwright's Shop. Chapel Hill, NC: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1981.

The insidious idea in Bach's two stories isn't the suggestion that perfection is possible, or even that it should be a goal. Rather, it's the notion that one might attain this goal by completely re-living the history of a technology.

Or as Underhill says, "to start with a tree and an axe and make one thing after another until you have a house and everything in it."

For tree substitute ore. For an axe, fire. For a house, industrial revolution. And everything in it.

Those are worthy goals.

Hofstadter (1979)

Hofstadter, Douglas. Gödel, Escher, Bach: an eternal golden braid. NY: Basic Books, 1979.

This book taught me the methods of formal systems and the deep intertwingling of the arts and sciences. It was in part the reason why my undergraduate degree was a double major in Literature and Computer Programming, and why my dissertation was halfway between the two. It was also the first exposure I had to type as an object in its own right.

Rimmer & Kegler (2010)

Kegler, Richard. Making Faces: Metal Type in the 21st Century. Buffalo, NY: P22 Type Foundry, 2011.

This film is a study of the work of the late Canadian type-maker Jim Rimmer.

As I watched a pre-release of this film at the 2016 American Typecasting Fellowship Conference, I thought to myself "Well, [expletive]. There goes my old life. I must now change, and attempt to accomplish everything that this man has accomplished."

I've been working hard at this ever since, but still have a long, long way to go. I'm not sure that anyone will ever quite match Rimmer's accomplishments.

Official trailer on youtube:

P22 site:

I didn't know when I was ten that the Furious Flycycle would lead to something over fifty tons of cast iron in support of Fine Typography, but in retrospect it has been inevitable. Ragtime is still my favorite music.


To this list I might add, for fun, two films: