The bay, genius, Nader, more bay

Books of the Region

April 28, 2002|By James H. Bready | By James H. Bready,Special to the Sun

The great globe entire interests Jon Gower, from Wales and Cambridge University, and now a young journalist for British TV. One day, he read in The Times of London that "Off the coast of Maryland, a crab-fishing community that has its roots in Wales and Cornwall, and has endured since 1607, is fighting for survival." Another day, he won a sizable cash prize.

Thereupon, Gower took off for "the biggest bay in the U.S.A." and its Smith Island. He spent much of a year there, watching and reading, questioning and writing. Much had already been printed about the place, but Gower's An Island Called Smith (Gomer Press, 141 pages, 7.95 pounds, softbound) stands out -- the best word account yet.

Gower sopped up 900 acres' worth of birds, weather, names, language, graveyards, ghost stories, empty houses, abandoned vehicles; of one paved road, three villages, vanished farming and the one (closed) school; of 95 cars and trucks, 310 boats, fewer than 500 people.

Gower listened to Jennings Evans, "the island's remembrancer"; Carl Tyler, Chris Parkes and Elmer and 13-year-old Craig Evans, watermen; Betty (no last name given), Louise Clayton, Joan Corbin, crabpickers; the Rev. Ashley Maxwell, Methodist pastor, from Barbados; Waverley Evans, craftsman; Gail Wolczyk (of Evans ancestry), genealogist; Alan Smith, progger. He read Capt. John Smith, the Rev. Joshua Thomas, John Barth and especially "that wonderful contemporary chronicler of the Chesapeake, the [Baltimore Sun] journalist Tom Horton."

A progger combs beaches, dumps, wreckage. Gower has drawn on many islands and estuaries for his data collection, and his fresh words here offer a big memorial stele's worth of Smith. Is, then, Smith Island doomed? So far, 12 of the Bay's 35 colonial islands have eroded clean off the map; land and marsh. Smith (named for Henry, not Capt. John) is sinking, even as the waters rise. The Army Corps of Engineers has buttressed parts of it. And yet -- "Perhaps science cannot halt the slide of Smith into the sea, and perhaps the State's will to save it simply isn't there."

Just as you or I collect Oriole boxscores or restaurant menus or old empty bottles, Jack Cohen collects geniuses. Across 40-some years, he has sought, examined and rated these cerebral supernovas, alight or burned out. About 450 now appear in The Book of All-Time Genius (Borderlands, 285 pages, $29.95).

Celebrity as such doesn't count. He grades (1 to 5) for precocity, youth achievement, academic honors, adult intellect, old-age intellect, versatility, creativity and national and world impact. Thus literature, in descending order: Goethe, Shakespeare, Samuel Johnson, Pietro Mestastasio (1698- 1782) and Noah Webster. In music: Mozart, Thomas Greene Bethune (1849-1908), Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Liszt.

Cohen cites earlier compilers; he also favors television and astrology. From the 40,000 candidates in his own collection, he goes on to award honorable mentions; to list women, African-Americans and whole families (Imhotep, Bach, Klumpke) of genius; and to recite the mnemonic or arithmetic feats of prodigies near and far (reciting pi to 3,025 places, to 5,050 places, etc.).

No index; you'll have to read far in All-Time Genius to learn the name of the first student to blitz the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, earning four years' worth of straight A's.

The whole world has changed since 1965's Unsafe at Any Speed, yet the author of that anti-Corvair book is much the same. Ralph Nader may have gone from the spotlight (1965-1975) to the shadows (1980s) and back (those almost 3 million votes in 2000 for him as President), but he is consistent in his challenges to the government-corporate establishment and his earnest championing of democracy, consumers and the environment.

He will remain a factor in American life, Nancy Bowen of Towson suggests in her biography, Ralph Nader: Man With a Mission (21st Century Books, 144 pages, $24.90), as long as the times still produce young people whose goal is to make the world a better place, as distinct from those who seek endless money and endless fun.

Nader, aimed at these young adults, was written before al-Qaida's latest attack; its subject may have no quick solution for Israeli-Arab intransigence. But harking back can make a point -- for instance, to the 1950s when a scholarship student from Winsted, Conn., kept suggesting that DDT was why there were so many dead birds on campus lawns, but the Daily Princetonian wouldn't even print it as a letter to the editor.

Richard B. Carter's novel, Naturally Bad Manners (AmErica House, 247 pages, $21.95, softbound) calls itself "a comedy"; it culminates in a police-procedural standoff between decent campus folk and an international set of meanies; much of the book is cerebral conversation among faculty members at an upstate-New York college called Chaldes. Any hope for a novel of ideas, comic or otherwise, disappears finally in a welter of romance, alcohol and religions including Obeah (in the Caribbean).

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