How to Get Me …

… to quit reading a book.

You could argue that it’s not that hard. In one of my many guilt-ridden dimensions, the guilt grows out of not getting through as many books as I’d like to. Last one completed (a couple weeks ago): “To Conquer the Air,” by James Tobin (the Wright Brothers’ saga). As soon as I’d finished Tobin, picked up a book called “They All Laughed at Christopher Columbus,” published in 2002 by Elizabeth Weil, a writer I’ve respected (used to see her stuff in Fast Company magazine, and in one of my former incarnations, as an editor at Wired News, I tried to get her to write some stuff for us, but she said she was too busy).

“They All Laughed” is the story of a failed space start-up called Rotary Rocket. The company tried to build a reusable launch vehicle to go to orbit and back. It turns out it’s not as easy as it looks, and the effort just barely got off the ground, in a literal sense, while burning tens of millions of dollars. On forums like Amazon’s reader reviews, “They All Laughed” got a mixed reception. Insiders from the new private-space launch community felt she’d caricatured their efforts, to some extent. But worse, in their eyes, she’d just gotten important facts wrong. I thought the comments sounded like sour grapes. So I bought a used copy online for about five bucks.

I got to page 47 (of 230, including two “acknowledgements” pages). I may get farther, but I’ve found reading the book to be disspiriting. It’s just deflating to see something so ambitious and promising so full of simple factual errors. I actually outlined a few of the simple space-related ones on Amazon. But what makes me feel like quitting is the appearance of errors on workaday details such as the names of roads. We’re told that there’s an exit off Interstate 5 for Mercy Springs Road — no, actually, it’s Mercey Springs Road; or that the town of Mojave, very colorfully described as permeated by “a mood of repressed violence,” is on Highway 57; well, no, it’s actually Highway 58. And why should I take the author’s word about the town’s moods or the characters’ quirks or how a rocket works or anything else if she can’t get this elementary stuff straight?

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