An award-winning science writer and author of the acclaimed biography The Man Who Knew Infinity, MIT’s Robert Kanigel has spent his career exploring the evolution of society through a series of unique lenses that reveal what we have gained from modernity — and what we have lost. Whether detailing the life of the world’s first efficiency expert (in The One Best Way) or the history of imitation leather (in Faux Real), Kanigel provides mirrors with which to see ourselves.
“I’ve long been preoccupied with the pace of modern life and what it does to us,” says Kanigel, a professor of science writing in the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences and director of the graduate program in science writing. In his forthcoming book, On an Irish Island, Kanigel examines life in a tiny Irish fishing community to look at what qualities and experiences we have traded in for today’s fast-paced, technological existence.
A hard way of life, rich in human connection
The Great Blasket Island, a small, rocky outcrop visible from Ireland’s Dingle Peninsula, had its heyday in the early 20th century, when the island’s fishing village still had about 150 residents and a series of linguists and writers — most notably J.M. Synge, author of Playboy of the Western World — came to the island to study Irish language and culture in its native form.
At that time, the island had no plumbing, no priests, no shops and no electricity. Most residents were illiterate, and all human communication — from simple gossip to news of an approaching storm — took place in person. The islanders entertained themselves with music, dancing and storytelling.
“The visiting scholars fell in love with the life there,” Kanigel says. “They found something they didn’t expect — a simple life deeply appealing to them. This was like an antidote to modern life.” The scholars recorded native stories and poems, wrote of their own experiences and encouraged the locals to record theirs, with the result that a rich body of literature emerged very quickly from one tiny Irish enclave.
But Kanigel does not attempt to recreate the lives of the Irish-speaking fishermen. “A lot has been written about The Great Blasket,” he says. “This book is as much about us — what it’s like to be confronted with a completely different way of life — as about them.”
On an Irish Island centers on George Thomson, a London-born, Cambridge-educated classicist who first traveled to the island at the age of 19 to learn the language. Thomson was charmed by the communal spirit of the place, where singing and dancing were common entertainments, and lives were profoundly interconnected.
Interwoven with Thomson’s story are tales of other visitors, including Robin Flower, a medievalist and poet who worked at the British Museum; Carl Marstrander, a Norwegian linguist; and Marie-Louise Sjoestedt, a French linguist. Kanigel also writes of the Blasket natives of the era (roughly 1905-1950), several of whom became authors themselves — notably Peig Sayers, Maurice O’Sullivan and Thomas O’Crohan, author of the Irish classic The Islandman.
An ‘ensemble biography’
Of his forthcoming book, Kanigel says, "It's a kind of ensemble biography … about a clash of culture, with heroes and heroines among both the islanders and the visitors. It’s about love and language, and a culture rich in folklore, poetry and verbal play."
“Today, the world is moving very fast,” Kanigel continues. “There’s been a replacement of physical things with evanescent things — images on the screen. The kinds of relationships we have are changing. Here was a culture where everything was face to face.”
Yet, even as Kanigel’s story is unfolding, the population of the Great Blasket Island is dwindling. Life may be richly shared there, but it takes rough work to make a living, and young people begin to make their lives elsewhere; most of them emigrate to America. In the book, none of the scholars chooses to settle on the island, and ultimately, the islanders make the same choices our ancestors made — in favor of modernity.
“Nobody’s going back to live the way these people lived. It was a brutally hard life. But I don’t think that means we 21st-century people can’t stop running around for a minute to think back,” Kanigel says. “This is not a prescriptive book. But if my readers came away stopping to think about these issues and reflect back on their own lives, I’d be pleased.”
By 1953, the Great Blasket Island was abandoned, and today most of the houses on the island lie in ruin. A way of life has passed, but On an Irish Island gives us another chance to contemplate its virtues. Of the islanders, Kanigel says, “After they left, they would say: ‘I had to leave, but ah, I was happy there.’”
The book is set to be published by Knopf in the spring of 2012.