Reading, writing, and aestheticism

30 January 2014 by Tom Webb, posted in Uncategorized

Last week my daughter turned one, and - as well as celebrating all the fun of her first year - I found myself reflecting on the growing list of ‘things I used to do’, in those dimly remembered days before the arrival of Webbs 2.0 and 2.1. There are the obvious activities - eating (and drinking) out, sport, long walks and lie ins. There are things that have come alarmingly close to making the list. ‘Doing my job properly’ springs to mind (though I think I have that under control again now…). Any parent will bore you with a similar list. But a growing concern this last year has been the fact that ‘reading for pleasure’ has receded from everyday activity to rare treat.

I still read, of course, struggling like all academics to ‘keep up’ with the literature (what a laughable idea!) and to acquire some basic understanding of various topics relevant to assorted projects (and side-projects). At the moment, for instance, I am at varying distances through books on palaeobiology, oceanography, moral philosophy, and statistical graphics (and therein, some might claim, lies my problem - focus, man! - but I digress…) However, here’s a stark fact: I didn’t read a novel in 2013 (unprecedented in my literate life) and the stack next to my bed continues to yellow and gather dust. And while the shamefully low frequency of my contributions here has almost relegated ‘writing a blog’ to the list, I probably still write more posts than I read.

All this means that when I do get the chance to read something just for fun, it’d better be good. And by ‘good’ I mean the writing should offer, before anything else, what William Giraldi, in a lovely NYT review of Wendy Lesser’s Why I Read, calls ‘an ecstasy of aestheticism’. There, I’ve said it: I absolutely prize style over content. Which is why, if I get time, I will pick up the Review section from Saturday's Guardian before any science or tech supplement, to read long pieces by the likes of Will Self, Hilary Mantel, Geoff Dyer or Lionel Shriver. Now that's a pretty diverse quartet, but I know I'll get a good read out of any of them, regardless of the actual subject of their piece.

What this means, I’ve come to realise, is that I read very little that could (even loosely) be described as ‘science writing’. This despite the copious output of the many producers of absolutely brilliant science writing. More people are describing more science more clearly than ever before; but the focus (quite rightly) of these pieces is almost always on content (What cool stuff has been found? What’s the fascinating human story behind the discovery?) and much less on that elusive ecstasy of aestheticism. There is a huge public appetite for informative, readable science writing, and it seems perfectly appropriate that most science writing serves to sate this. But - given time constraints - I’m usually content to rely on 140 character chunks for pure information; for longer reads, I’m looking for brilliant writing first, with scientific content a distant second. I’m in search of the stylists of science writing. Who out there shuns the homogenising algorithms of ‘readability scores’, breaks all the rules of SciComm 101, and dares to stretch the reader with an esoteric vocabulary and the kind of (intricicate, recursive (sometimes (seemingly) infinitely so)) sentence structure that made the lamented David Foster Wallace’s essays such a challenging, pleasurable read?

I touched on some of these issues in a very early Mola mola post on Sciencey Fiction  and although that was focused (as you may have guessed) on fiction - largely novels, in fact - it does identify some writers who I think have nicely seasoned their fine writing with science. More recently, I was given a copy of Richard Hamblyn’s The Art of Science and within a paragraph of the introduction I felt I was in good hands. But it’s a long book, and sits, still, in that yellowing, dusty pile…

So then, let’s cut to the chase. Which writers - in any format - ought I at least try to squeeze in to my few spare weekly minutes to lend my recreational reading more of a sciencey flavour?

5 Responses to “Reading, writing, and aestheticism”

  1. Christopher Buddle Reply | Permalink

    Tom: good post - it's truly a 'grand challenge' to find time to read, and I appreciate that 'stack of books' problem (mine, under the bed, is truly immense…, and 20 minutes before bed just isn't putting much of a dent in it!!).

    I just bought two books, both with science flavour, and both excellent (so far, neither are finished, yet). "The Snoring Bird" (by Bernd Heinrich) and "Field Notes on Science and Nature". The latter is an edited volume - perfect for a quick chapter while on a train or plane. And, I always turn to some of Steinbeck's more 'biology' related writing for *really* impressive writing.

    Good luck with your quest for more time to read!

  2. Malcolm Campbell Reply | Permalink

    Enjoyable post, Tom!

    Like Chris (above), I have an incredible backlog of "enjoyment" reading sitting on the bedside bookshelf, and in a variety of reading accounts - kindle, kobo and the like.

    It feels like I've always got half a dozen or so books on the go. Many fulfil the criteria you are looking for - daring stylists with a smattering of science. Thomas Pynchon, David Mitchell and Ian McEwan are perhaps my favourite three authors that surpass this bar. They don't write about science for science sake, but it finds its way into their beautiful prose to some extent - sometimes for the entire novel (McEwan), and sometimes just with a character or two (Mitchell). My favourite all time book in this regard is Pynchon's "Mason & Dixon". Great read.

    Aside from these novelists, I agree with Chris that some scientists memoirs are really excellent (Heinrich is good in this regard). My favourites in terms of style and substance are probably Sagan and Feynman.

    This said, I find myself returning to Darwin's "Voyage of the Beagle" again and again. It's not that it's the most amazing writing from a stylistic perspective, but rather just imagining what he is seeing, what questions those sights posed in his young mind, and the geo-political backdrop that was transpiring as he wrote it. I sometimes have the first two volumes of Eduardo Galeano's "Memoria del fuego" trilogy nearby to read appropriate passages to provide that backdrop. By inserting your own choices of passages into Darwin's text, it's like creating a new read every time!

    Anyway, I hope that this provides some food for thought! I look forward to learning what you finally settled on!

  3. Tom Webb Reply | Permalink

    Thanks both, some really nice suggestions there. I feel I really ought to have read more Steinbeck, and I've not tried Pynchon, so onto the list they go! On the other novelists, I can't get on with McEwan but I'm a huge David Mitchell fan. Michael Chabon is another who's not afraid to have scientists as characters. And rather like you reading Darwin, Malcolm, I really love Gilbert White's notes from Selbourne, again just for a sense of time and place. Anyway, appreciate the comments!

  4. Bill Skaggs Reply | Permalink

    This distinction doesn't quite make sense to me -- I don't see how you can divorce style from content. You can take the most "brilliant" writing in the world, and if it doesn't have anything to say, it's going to bore me. For me, the best style is the style that gets the information across with the minimum of pain.

    Best regards, Bill

    • Tom Webb Reply | Permalink

      Thanks Bill, but that's exactly my point - I spend my working life absorbing information, and in that context I completely agree that the best style communicates that information with no fuss. But away from work, I have much less interest in content, and will gladly read a great writer writing stylishly about nothing much. Some of my favourite novels have no real plot to mention I'm not suggesting I'm in any way normal, but there we go!

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