This may seem like an odd title so let me explain. Being a scientist, I have had to read a lot of technical, non-fiction books during my formal education and professional career. So when it came to reading for pleasure, I almost exclusively read fiction. I felt I needed to escape from all of the facts and explore in the world of make believe. I became friends with fictional characters and followed their escapades in their print world; Dirk Pitt, Kay Scarpetta, Myron Bolitar, Alex Cross, Jack Ryan, just to name a few. So when I first began to venture into the world of non-fiction, I gravitated towards books written about things being built. I’ve always enjoyed building models and learning the intricacies of how things work so it should not come as a surprise that books about building the real thing would also interest me.
As I thought about delving into this topic, I decided to list out the books I have read about things being built to see if it was worth pursuing. When I began to list them out, I was amazed at how many I had read over the last 10 years—15! And then it hit me; not only had I read a number of these books, I had actually visited almost all of the subjects of each book. And being a left-brain, logical thinker, as I was making this list, I numbered them in the order in which I had read them. So get your hardhat on for what I hope will be a fun, whirlwind site tour of these building books and my visits to their protagonist.
On one of my early business trips to San Francisco, my family accompanied me and naturally visiting the iconic Golden Gate Bridge was high on my list of things to do.
Having only seen photos of the bridge, I was not prepared for its massive scale. Even staring at a cross section of the cable used to support the bridge, I was amazed at how a legion of wires (27,572!) no more than one fifth of an inch (0.196”) in diameter spun together formed each of the two cables that provided the strength to suspend the massive weight of the bridge 220 feet above the water.
The scientist in me wanted to explore the engineering marvel of building such a bridge. Later that afternoon as we were enjoying a cup of coffee at a local bookstore, my eyes ventured across the cover of a book, Spanning The Gate, that pictured a worker standing on two of the wires on the unfinished bridge. I snapped it up, found a spot to sit, and began reading it even before I paid for it.
Just flipping through the book, I could see that it was loaded with actual photos of the construction process. However, I forced myself not to just stare at the pictures before I read the story behind them. With the childlike anticipation of treasures to come, I began to read.
I must say I was disappointed in the beginning because the first several chapters were about the history of that region and the politics of getting approval to build the bridge as well as the debate over what type of bridge to build. With the “Are we there yet” anxiousness of a child, I wanted to get to what for me, was the real story, the building of the bridge itself so I could explore the pictures as I read the story. I couldn’t wait to learn about the engineering challenges that had to be overcome and the pictures that proved someone’s brilliance.
Today, as I think back about reading this book, it is funny that this was my initial impression of the first book I read about building something. In conversation with my oldest son who is an architect, he confirmed that sadly many structures never get off the drafting table because the politics are too much to surmount. In reading more books of this genre, I have since confirmed that sometimes overcoming the politics of building a public structure can be more daunting than the laws of physics that must be accommodated. And in some cases, dodging a major bullet is what it takes to even get started.
So learning this behind the scenes storyline was an important discovery in my appreciation of these types of books—the critical human side of these inanimate object stories. I now have as a constant reminder of the engineering and political difficulties of building the Golden Gate Bridge: one of my favorite photos of this story and another building story I have since explored.
Having thoroughly enjoyed the Golden Gate story, I sought out other similar books. Returning to a memory from my childhood, I decided I wanted to learn about the building of the Blue Ridge Parkway (BRP), a national park that I had been on for many vacations growing up. I knew formidable challenges had to be overcome to cut the road into the sides of mountains or tunnel through them and this should make for a very interesting story. On one of my visits to the BRP, I found a new book that I thought would satisfy my quest to learn more about its building.
Again I was surprised at the amount of human story that was interwoven into its telling although it should not be unexpected since its building involved the political interests of three different states—Virginia, North Carolina, and Tennessee—as well as the federal government and the Work Projects Administration (WPA). But its reading opened for me a whole new aspect of the BRP that prompted me to want to drive its entire length to witness firsthand the spirit of its creative builders from my little red sports car and to witness the fruits of their labor with my own eyes.
These two books more than anything, laid the foundation for me to pursue many more similar stories.