Reading, writing, and aestheticism
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?