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BOOKS TO GO

A new slant on an old icon

November 02, 2003|Christopher Reynolds | Times Staff Writer

Tilt: A Skewed History of the Tower of Pisa; Nicholas Shrady; Simon & Shuster: 166 pp., $21.95

*

Not long after construction began on a new bell tower in the Italian city of Pisa more than 800 years ago, the project began to lean a little. And then a little more. Then came construction delays, regime changes, earthquakes, good and bad preservation plans, world wars and cautionary collapses elsewhere, including the tumbling of the bell tower of Venice's Piazza San Marco in 1902.

Yet Pisa's tower hasn't fallen, and an entire local tourism industry has risen around it.

The 196-foot tower still leans -- with a hefty amount of late-20th century engineering to hold it in place -- and author Nicholas Shrady has given us a look at the forces, from gravity to economics, that make it what it is. Almost as notably, Shrady's publishers have decided to play around a little with form and content.

After who knows how much negotiation with printers in China, this book emerges with its covers and pages deliberately cut at a rakish angle. This will make it a standout in bookstores, where it looks something like a Corvette among Hummers, and a challenge for anyone's shelves at home.

The irony here is that if the text of "Tilt" were a building, it would be a modest box full of plain, rectangular rooms joined by unremarkable halls. Shrady conscientiously takes on matters of architecture, engineering and tangled Italian social history, but except for the occasional burst of informed opinion, his work too often reads like a long encyclopedia entry.

Not that the history isn't interesting. For instance: Though there are many theories and plenty of other details available from the era of the tower's construction, nobody is certain who the architect was. By the time construction of the tower began in 1173, Pisans had already put up an impressive cathedral and begun work on a nearby baptistery, drawing on shiploads of captured loot -- and some Islamic architectural influences -- from Muslim-ruled Sicily.

By the time construction was suspended in 1178, the tower was just three stories high, but already its tilt was evident. After nearly a century idle, the project grew to seven stories, and its tilt, as measured by the first commission assigned to secure it, was 1 degree out of plumb. For eight centuries, nobody managed to secure it, and the specialist assigned the job by Mussolini in the 1930s nearly brought the whole enterprise to the ground.

For centuries, Shrady writes, "it was widely believed that the Tower of Pisa stood askew as a result of shabby medieval workmanship, or that the laborers deliberately undermined the construction to protest their meager wages. Rubbish: the workmanship displayed in the campanile is irreproachable and astonishingly refined for the age." Instead, he writes, the problem is the shifting alluvial terrain upon which the tower was built and the relatively flimsy foundation designed by its architect.

Finally in 1990, with the tower 5.5 degrees out of plumb, the Italian government closed it and convened another commission -- the 17th -- to fix it without erasing the tilt that had become central to the area's character.

Nine years later, after exhaustive research and a scare or two, workers had added underground cables and extracted tons of soil on one side of the tower, slightly reducing its angle of irregularity and improving its long-term prospects. In 2001, authorities declared the tower restored and said it would last as is for 300 years.

*

1,000 Places to See Before You Die: A Traveler's Life List; Patricia Schultz; Workman: 974 pp., $18.95 paper

*

Now here's a conversation starter. You may not agree with all of her choices (the 1,000 places include about 240 hotels), but author Patricia Schultz and her researchers have pulled together a provocative inventory of destina- tions. The list, illustrated with hundreds of small black-and-white photos, is dominated by the Americas and Europe, but then so are the traveling choices of the American tourist.

Among the book's strengths is detail: With each entry comes the listing of a local hotel and restaurant, along with price information, telephone contacts and, in most cases, Web sites. Without specifying where she has and hasn't been on this list, the author reports that this project took her seven years. We should be grateful; I can't think of a better source to consult if your vacation negotiations are starting from absolute scratch.

*

One Planet: See It for Yourself; Lonely Planet Images; Lonely Planet: 288 pp., $29.99 paper

*

The Lonely Planet people have been publishing more than guidebooks for years, from calendars to coffee-table volumes on rickshaw history, but this is a new move. It's a coffee-table photo book, its content drawn from dozens of photographers whose work is in the LP archives. And it has been edited playfully and wonderfully.

That editor, Roz Hopkins, has built the book around the idea of parallels, contrasts and coincidence, placing far-flung images with common elements on facing pages. As impressive as National Geographic's photo collections can be, this is livelier.

Here are clotheslines of urban Shanghai juxtaposed with clotheslines of rural Australia, a swimmer in Indonesia next to a Hawaiian turtle, Chinese checkers players next to Hungarian chess players. Great stuff.

Books to Go appears once a month.

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