New: Book Report: Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada

Good writing can help your work's longevity. But it doesn't fix everything. Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada is a well-written book. It's from 1872. Charles King was a good writer. But... it was 1872.

Back then, there weren't way too many color photos of Yosemite cheaply availableto the public. So if you were writing about the Sierra Nevada mountains, you felt obliged to describe them, you know, verbally. Sure, a picture is worth a thousand words, but back then, pictures were expensive... so it was cost-effective for a writer to write a thousand words. So the present-day reader finds himself slogging through piles of verbal description, muttering "Yeah, you like the mountains, it's okay we understand."

Also, back then racism was pretty normal. It's tough to read what King wrote about some people of his day. He wasn't mean-spirited. But he was wrong. He didn't like Chinese cooking. I thought back to Chinese immigration in Texas, German immigration to Texas, and how El Paso food turned out so bad compared to that of San Francisco. But it was a near thing. What if more Californians had listened to Charles King?

But if you can get past that, there are some good parts.

There was no foothold above us. Looking down over the course we had come, it seemed, and I really believe it was, an impossible descent; for one can climb upward with safety where he cannot go downward. To turn back was to give up in defeat; and we sat at least half an hour, suggesting all possible routes to the summit, accepting none, and feeling disheartened.

Now I don't feel so bad about falling down while stumbling down some trails I'd had no trouble climbing up.

On history of architecture versus geology:

In the much discussed origin of this order of building [Gothic], I never remember to have seen, though it can hardly have escaped mention, any suggestion of the possibility of the Gothic having been inspired by granite forms. Yet, as I sat on Mount Tyndall, the whole mountains shaped themselves like the ruins of cathedrals,--sharp roof-ridges, pinnacled and statued; buttresses more spired and ornamented than Milan's; receding doorways with pointed arches carved into blank façacdes of granite, doors never to be opened, innumerable jutting points with here and there a single cruciform peak, its frozen roof and granite spires so strikingly Gothic I cannot doubt that the Alps furnished the models for early cathedrals of that order.

He visited the top of Yosemite falls in October, as did I, and his experience was similar:

In this strange, vacant, stone corridor, this pathway for the great Yosemite torrent, this sounding-gallery of thunderous tumult, it was a strange sensation to stand, looking in vain for a drop of water, listening vainly, too, for the faintest whisper of sound, and I found myself constantly expecting some sign of the returning flood.

I bought this book because I was in Yosemite and found out that my mobile phone's data connection wouldn't work there. This book spared me some hours of boredom. It has its good parts. And if some parts haven't aged so well... It's a good thing for a reader of any time to remember to keep his wits about him as he reads.

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Posted 2009-12-31