A few weeks after the book tour for The Invention of Air started to wind down, I got an email from an old friend who had spent some time with Bill Clinton at Davos. It was a quick note to report that Clinton had apparently spontaneously brought up my book in conversation, and had said some nice things about it.
That was very cool to hear, obviously, but hearing it immediately introduced a whole new set of questions: how had he heard about the book? What exactly did he like about it? And was this news that I should post to the blog? What were the ethical standards for posting about someone’s private conversation with a public figure about your book? (I opted to wait until I had more material to report.)
A week or two later a fellow author whom I had met during the tour wrote in to say that he’d attended a speech that Clinton gave in New York where he’d talked about the book a little. But apparently he had slightly mangled the title, calling it Into Thin Air, the name of John Krakauer’s excellent, but not-at-all-about-Joseph-Priestley bestseller from a few years back.
All this was extremely flattering, of course, but the name slip was slightly alarming. Was he using the wrong name at other occasions? Could we send out some signal to his people that Into Thin Air was a book about people dying on Mount Everest, not Enlightenment science? I imagined his audiences racing out to the bookstore to pick up that Priestley biography, sitting down to read, and after a few chapters saying: “You know, it’s a great book, but I wonder when he’s going to stop with all the mountain climbing.”
And then Ron Hogan blogged from the American Association of Publishers conference that Clinton had spoken at some length about the book at his keynote there. And he’d referred to it as Into Thin Air yet again. This news was even more exciting, given the context of the speech, but surreal at the same time. It seemed uncannily like one of those slightly off-kilter celebrity dreams you (okay, I) have every now and then: “I had this crazy dream that Bill Clinton really liked my book and kept talking in public about it, but every time he did, he called it by the wrong name…”
A few days later, my editor tracked down the transcript of the AAP speech. I think maybe it has been cleaned up slightly, because it doesn’t refer directly to the title of the book at all – he just refers to “Steven Johnson’s book about Joseph Priestley.” At any rate, I forgot all about the title slipup when I actually read through the text. It’s a great speech, and seems to have been delivered extemporaneously. (I’ve always thought that Clinton’s off-the-cuff skills actually exceeded Obama’s formidable skills with the teleprompter.) He talks about a thousand things, and has a very nice shout-out to Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, which he describes as his “favorite” Gladwell book. (How cool is Malcolm that he has Bill Clinton sitting around thinking, “Hmmm, do I like this one better than Blink?”) And then, near the very end, he turns to Invention of Air.
I love so much about what he said, but the coolest thing by far was seeing how close and connecting a reader he was of my book. That was just immensely satisfying as an author. There’s more to say about his remarks, but I think it’s best to just quote the relevant passages (starting with two paragraphs from earlier in the speech for context) and leave it at that.
We need perspective and linear argument. That's why I think books are important…
I spend all my time in the "how" business now. I predict to you that there will be a big demand in the future for books that deal not with how to become a millionaire in 36 days or two and a half hours. Not those. Serious "how" books. Books that answer the "how" question. How do you turn your good intentions into positive changes in other people's lives so that our common life is better for our children and grandchildren? The "how" question…
All of you can answer a "how" question. I read Steven Johnson's fascinating book about Joseph Priestley and all the things going on in 18th-century science, and I realized while Priestley apparently wrongly gets credit for being the discoverer of oxygen, most school children do not know that he had the first experiment that showed us our symbiotic relationships on Planet Earth between animals and plants. And they breathe in what we breathe out and vice-versa.
He found it out by accident. He was seeing how long animals could live in a vacuum glass that he covered them with, and he tried not to kill them. But when they collapsed, he'd take them out.
He put the cover over a little plant and he expected that the animal would die more quickly, but in fact it lived longer because the plant was emitting more oxygen and therefore it wasn't used up as quick.
And that explains why we probably should change our thinking about what to do about the carbon dioxide component of global warming. Almost all the debate today on carbon -- and I've been part of it -- is on the dilemma we face because the only known big storage site in the world where carbon won't come back and surface is in that vast stone cave off the North Sea where the Norwegians are pumping CO2.
It's a dangerous operation but very well done. It's physically dangerous for the workers. There's enough space there with enough weight on rock that's hard enough, not permeable, to hold all of Europe's CO2 for a century. It's amazing.
But it's just Europe. China and the U.S. are now the world's biggest emitters. They'd have to have elaborate pipelines going all over everywhere to take it there. We've been trying to find some sites. There's one in Pennsylvania that might work, believe it or not. Not that big. There's one in Western Australia. And there's one or two more, including one in the Atlantic nearer to the Netherlands but smaller than the one in Norway.
Increasingly, people are saying, "Why don't we recreate Priestley's experiment on a vast scale?"
One person proposes to build huge glass towers next to coal-fired plants and fill them with algae and just hook up the CO2 emissions and plow them into the plant; let the algae absorb the CO2, in sunlight conditions -- they have to be in sun, I don't want to get into weeds.
There's one place where people are growing bio material in the dark, but it's messy. You have to do it in the sunlight, and when the algae breathes, you release the oxygen in the air.
Obviously there are problems with scale here. And we may have a planet covered in algae unless we prepare to use it in biofuels or otherwise some constructive way.
The point I'm making is, you wouldn't even think about that if you never read a book; if you had no sense of history; if you were under the illusion that because you were on the Internet everything about you was new and everything was special and all that mattered was what you blurted out in the moment that was on your mind…