I heard and met a remarkable man tonight at our neighborhood treasure - Third Place Books. Mark Helprin is one of the best regarded authors in the US now - novel "Winter's Tale" in 1995 and short-story collection "The Pacific and Other Stories" this month. His background is a remarkable mix including growing up Brooklyn, attending Harvard and serving in the British Merchange Marine and as a private in combat in the Israeli Defense Forces.
I mention him here because he can't introduce another sure-to-be-bestseller novel without at least one hostile question about his policy and political positions.
Mark led off by opening the topic. He started this book tour in Wash., DC on election day! He told us how we can look for clues about the polls. And in the description he let it slip out that he had worked on several presidential campaigns including Bob Dole's! Shock! A Republican!
He didn't read from his new book, but spoke about several interesting topics, including reading a recipe! He started off with what I call an Oracle technical support story, but better. Oracle support is known for providing answers that are factual but absolutely useless. This brief tale was that plus being funny and almost interesting. Just forming one letter there is a huge number of possible combinations and permutations of strokes, their curvature and width. And that's just one letter. Mark's writing averages five letters per word - statistics thanks to Bill Gates. The combinations in one average word: 52 for the first letter, either upper or lower case, times 26 for the second, times 26 for the third, fourth and fifth. That's over 23,000,000 possible combinations for just one word. By this time my wife and I are cracking up. I can't remember his number of words per page. But just think the huge to the tenth possible combinations of letters forming words on one page. With something for punctuation his number was a million to the 400 power combinations on one page. With an eager face he is saying just think of the galaxies of possibilities of meaning in all those combinations.
By this time, through our laughter, we are wondering why only about a quarter of the people are laughing. Because the whole drill is absurd. The calculation is for combinations of letters, but 99.9% - or more - of those combinations don't form words. And even when you string real words together you don't get sentences. And any sentence I write won't be found in one of Mark's best sellers. But it was a great way to start the evening! I bought one of his books just so I could tell him how much we enjoyed his scientific analysis. And, yes, the first audience question referred to a cheap shot in a NY Times book review.Posted by Ron Hebron at November 08, 2004 10:30 PM | Email This