中午，收到"經濟新潮出版公司"社長博華的贈書。7月某日，博華來訪，很巧當時我有三位高朋在座。Henry Petroski《工程、設計與人性》（To Engineer Is Human）平裝本很單薄，中文版卻將它印得有模有樣....有點驚訝："第3章： 寓教於樂；寓教於生活" 附錄是整首詩：〈副主祭的傑作〉。約16年前我公司的網站轉引了一長段....
8月初，我說：Henry Petroski 的書，都值得一讀。
張華兄："我比較有興趣的事(sic)前一句，Minnesota is a human moment.不知梁兄如何翻譯？"梁先生:
這篇短篇題作Human moments in world war III
Henry Petroski 的書都值得一讀。
杜克大學的土木工程學教授與歷史教授。他素有「科技的桂冠詩人」美譽，專長為失效分析（failure analysis）、科技史、工程設計、日常用品的微物史。2004~2012年，他受邀擔任美國核廢料技術審查委員會的委員。他長期為《科學美國人》撰寫專欄，著作等身，獲獎無數，《工程、設計與人性》（To Engineer Is Human）是他的第一本書，被視為經典之作。
《利器》（The Evolution of Useful Things），時報，1997
《書架：閱讀的起點》（The Book on The Bookshelf），藍鯨，2000
《打造世界的工程師》（Remaking the World）。新新聞，2001
《小處著手：追求完美的設計》（Small Things Considered），時報，2004.
- Aug 03 Sun 2014 10:06
Consider the Toothpick
Illustration by Stephen Savage
From time to time, society itself is called upon to intervene when someone it admires goes astray. Whether it is rehab for Lindsay Lohan or a decisive thumbs down to Michael Jordan’s ancillary baseball career, we must periodically take our brightest stars aside and read them the riot act. No, we do not want any more songs like “Dandelions Don’t Tell No Lies.” No, we do not want any more movies like “Battleship Earth.” No, we will not be requiring your services as talk-show hosts, the Messrs. Chase and Sajak.
In a loftier milieu, such intervention may now be required in the case of the redoubtable Henry Petroski. A professor of civic engineering and history at Duke University, Petroski has made quite a name for himself by publishing a series of delightful books in which he explores the history of such indispensable yet taken-for-granted devices as the pencil, the flashlight, the doorknob and the kitchen sink. These exhaustively researched, disarmingly affectionate books celebrate the genius of the quotidian, the elegance of the functional, the romance of the ubiquitous.
But now, with the publication of “The Toothpick: Technology and Culture” (Knopf, $27.95), Petroski is literally tossing in the kitchen sink he has previously only written about. Originally projected as a single chapter in an earlier book, in which the “engagingly simple device ... would serve to illustrate some basic principles of engineering” and “help reveal the inevitable interrelationships between technology and culture,” “The Toothpick” swelled into a 443-page tome that (unlike the object it concerns) fills a need that does not exist, sealing up a void whose vacuity was a source of distress to no one. It is not so much a book as a threat: If you liked “The Toothpick,” wait till you get a load of “The Grommet.” If “The Pencil” was Petroski’s Sudetenland and “The Evolution of Useful Things” his Anschluss, then “The Toothpick” can only be characterized as his invasion of Poland. And just as France and England were compelled to belatedly intervene back then, literate, sane people must now step into the breach. This thing about things has gone far enough, Mr. Petroski. Knock it off.
The very existence of “The Toothpick” is a testimony to the perils of inhabiting a permissive society, for just as the unchastised teenage shoplifter, mistaking society’s indulgence for applause, will evolve into a bloodthirsty hired killer, it is inevitable that the author of “The Pencil” will one day morph into the author of “The Toothpick.” Quite rightly, he assumes that society is simply not paying attention anymore.
“The Toothpick” is animated by the dubious proposition that the venerable mouth-cleaning device in and of itself is worthy of our consideration. Yet, as Petroski himself admits: “With a toothpick, what we see is what we’ve got — inside a toothpick is the same wood that we see on the outside.” Despite amusing anecdotes about the preposterously gauche Roman emperor Nero turning up at a feast with a silver toothpick dangling from his lips, and the novelist Sherwood Anderson fatally puncturing his liver with a toothpick buried inside an olive, none of this makes the toothpick itself any more riveting: John Wilkes Booth is interesting, not his pistol.
Asserting that “picking one’s teeth is believed to be the oldest human habit,” Petroski suggests that the toothpick may be two million years old. Be that as it may, the toothpick cannot hold a candle to the much younger fork or spoon, and finishes far out of the money behind such ingenious inventions as the laptop computer and the iPod. The toothpick is perhaps slightly more interesting than the staple, the washer and the index card, somewhat less fascinating than the screw or the bolt, but infinitely less exciting than the hydrogen bomb, the semiconductor chip or the microbe. The toothpick lacks the anthropological panache of the toupee, the bustle or the collateralized mortgage obligation, the flash and brio of the cuirass or the monstrance, the epochal influence of the stirrup, the shoelace, the ace of spades and the espresso machine, and it most assuredly cannot lay claim to the esoteric charm of the baritone saxophone and the tea cozy, much less the enduring mystery of the French maid’s flouncy apron. Petroski has mistakenly assumed that merely because he could assemble a huge amount of information about the rise and fall of the toothpick industry, such data was worth compiling in a 443-page book. Did you know that boxes of early machine-made toothpicks were labeled with “a caveat about imitators” to prevent consumers from falling prey to 19th-century gray-market toothpicks? Or that a remarkable Norwegian transplanted to Duluth once patented a toothpick dispenser “mounted on the back of a stylized metal turtle”?
Reviewers of “The Toothpick” will automatically lump Petroski’s work in with “Salt,” “Cod,” “How Soccer Explains the World,” “A History of the World in Six Glasses” and other volumes that view society through an odd prism. These books argue that without cod, salt, booze or the penalty kick, we would not be where we are today. This is true, though the same could be said about tuna, cocaine, beavers, coriander, the infield-fly rule and the “going out of business” sale. These books settle arguments no one is having. It’s like writing a book called “How Annoying Roommates Changed the World.” Yes, annoying roommates — Robespierre, Marlon Brando, Al Gore — have changed the world. So what?
Moreover, comparing “The Toothpick” to these other works is inappropriate. Books of the “How Longitude or Beer or the Irish or Something Changed Civilization” sort are mostly the work of journalists. No strangers to harmless hyperbole, these writers desperately want to close the deal but are aware that unless they keep hawking their wares, the reader may nod off. So they never stop with the balloons and the firecrackers, never stop pushing the merchandise. That’s why their books are fun to read.
“The Toothpick,” by contrast, is the work of a maddeningly sober pedant who is anything but a crowd pleaser. “It would appear that in America the use of toothpicks has become largely a matter of class,” he writes in a passage that expertly captures his infatuation with the obvious and the insignificant. “Unlike in the late 19th century, when the urbane crutch-and-toothpick brigade proudly chewed its toothpicks on the steps of fine hotels and restaurants, now it is more the rural and less educated who openly chew theirs in the parking lots, if not at the counter itself, of big-box stores and fast-food establishments.”
Where books like “Guns, Germs and Steel” or “Rats, Lice and History” examine overlooked trends or inventions and demonstrate the decisive role they have played, “The Toothpick” is basically a paean to our irrepressible friend, the toothpick. Petroski assumes that once they have overcome their initially blasé attitude, people will be mesmerized by the tale of how an inexpensive oral-particle-removing device came out of nowhere to take the world by storm. He has forgotten the hoary dictum: Never send a toothpick to do a pencil’s job.
It’s possible that “The Toothpick” is inspired satire, a deliciously subtle send-up of a genre Petroski helped to popularize. A more plausible explanation is that the author was so emboldened by the public’s giddy response to his earlier work that he decided to go for broke. If this is the case, then we, the reading public, bear the greatest responsibility for this misfortune.
There is no telling where he will strike next. But an ominous hint of his intentions is contained in the preface, where he writes: “I have never been a regular user of toothpicks, though there has always been a box or two of the little wooden things about the house. Occasionally they have come in handy for applying a dab of glue or oil to a small part, cleaning dust out of a tight crevice, plugging up an empty nail hole or two, serving as shims, testing the doneness of a batch of brownies and the like.”
If Petroski is already fulfilling one clever historian’s prophecy that as academics retreat from the world writ large, they will teach us more and more about less and less, it is safe to suppose that his next books will include such titles as these: “The Dab: A Closer Look,” “The Shim That Time Forgot: A Short History of Those Little Wooden Things” and “Dust and the West.”
All of which would be merely a warm-up for “The Doneness of Brownies.”
Joe Queenan writes for Barron’s, The Guardian, Men’s Health and The Weekly Standard.
Henry Petroski 的書評