Monday, July 23, 2007

J. S. Haldane, books, and Simon & Schuster


Aged 76, in the last months of his life, John Scott Haldane conducted heat experiments at oil refineries in what are now Iran and Iraq. He paused in Istanbul on his return to mail off his findings by letter to his physiological colleagues, all part of a strenuous travel itinerary. A family album shows him turning up across various sites all over Greece, Germany and central Europe as well as the Middle East. On disembarking back in England he attended experiments with exploding cars in Liverpool's Mersey Tunnel, giving his recommendations on its ventilation.
It's endearing that this photograph, taken on the Acropolis in Athens, shows him still reading. His correspondence with his daughter, the novelist Naomi Mitchison, sees him discussing the latest novels, yet almost certainly this book was one of philosophy. Beyond all other things he was a philosopher. His life and its manifold achievements were focused on providing practical examples of how nothing could be seen outside of its interaction with its environment, a vision of a self-regulating universe that ultimately held God as a binding logic. Haldane never travelled without some book of philosophy on the go.
Which is a roundabout way of expressing my satisfaction that his life is now bound into such a handsome volume, which I hoe expresses some of the philosophy exemplified by his own well-rounded life. I'm pleased with my telling of his story in Suffer & Survive, but that's just my personal satisfaction for the sense of a job well done and enjoyed. Others can judge it in the market place. What pleases me is the very look of the book. When I first mentioned to one of Haldane's grandchildren that Simon & Schuster were the publisher he laughed, presuming they would turn take the shock-horror elements of the life story and be somewhat brash with them. Haldane's is such a gruelling story of self-experimentation that the story could have been sensationalized, but S&S have been sensitive to the story throughout - and were bold in seeing the worth of the story from the very beginning.
Some time ago they trimmed the number of new titles on their list in order to be able to give those they published their fullest support, and it seems to be working well. I was pleased with Macmillan's publishing of my first novel On Bended Knees back in 1992, but since Picador dropped the ball on the paperback of that book the following year I've had a justifiably jaundiced eye about the whole publication process. I've felt the need to throw the jobs of publicist, advocate, sales rep, editor etc into the bag on top of being the author, never quite trusting things to be right. With two weeks to go to publication, I've finally relaxed. I'll give the book whatever support I can, but with Simon & Schuster, I do feel the book, and Haldane's life, is in good and caring hands.

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