Friday 18 June 2010

While you're at it

I recently re-read Peter Doherty's A Beginner's Guide to Winning the Nobel Prize. While I still find the book over-long and over-written (although there is some terrific stuff in there about the business of being a research scientist) the thing that really struck me was how good the list of recommended reading is.

When I get to the end of a book that has piqued my interest, by an author who I've come to trust, I want them to tell me what they found helpful and interesting when they were doing their research. Not just a bibliography, but recommendations of where I should go next.

Reading Doherty's book put me on to James Gleick's bio of Feynman, James Watson's simultaneously wonderful and infuriating The Double Helix and a terrific book about the 1918-19 flu epidemic by John M Barry that I plan to re-read as soon as I get some breathing space. It also reminded me that Brenda Maddox's biography of Rosalind Franklin is still languishing on my to-read list.

Fifty pages into Adam Gopnik's Angels and Ages: A short book about Darwin, Lincoln and modern life I flipped to the bibliography. And was delighted.

In one of the Darwin chapters of the book, Gopnik writes about the pressures Darwin was under as he finally sat down to write* On the Origin of Species

All the pleasures and pressures of the past decade acted on him: the pleasure of explanation in simple terms, the pressure of not being understood; the pleasure of having accumulated abundant examples, the pressure of succumbing to overabundant illustration; the pleasure of having a clear argument to make, the pressure of having to make it clear; the pleasure of pushing at last to make a summary of an argument, the crucial pressure of having Alfred Wallace, polite and deferential but, after all, also in possession of the same theory, waiting.

Of course, this is the same situation that faced Gopnik (and any other writer who's got to that stage where they sit down, photocopies and books amassed around them, and try to face down the blank screen). His 'bibliographic note' summarises this beautifully: 'The Darwin literature is merely immeasurable; the Lincoln literature is infinite. When you are already up to your armpits in it, you realise you have hardly dipped a toe.'

Gopnik provides two pages each of recommended reading on Darwin and Lincoln - not a list of books, but a brief summary of his research journey, of what he read, and what he learnt, and what he believes we will find useful and engaging. It's not just a bibliography, it's a deeply personalised recommendation, and I love it.

*From another great book about Darwin that I read earlier this year - Charles and Emma: The Darwins' Leap of Faith, a fictionalised biography by Deborah Heiligman for teenage readers, which focuses on the Darwin's marriage and the pressures Charles felt about the conflict between his development of a theory of natural selection and Emma's Christian faith - I learnt that Darwin wrote in a big chair in his study, on a board placed across the chair's arms, a picture I find entrancing.

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