Monday 13 December 2010

Adam Gopnik - Angels and Ages

It's that time of the year when publications put out their Best of 2010s. Because a lot of my energy in 2010 has gone into feeding Goodreads, I thought I'd share some of the highlights of my reading year as recorded originally on the site. Today, Adam Gopnik's Angels and Ages: A short book about Darwin, Lincoln and modern life


'Extraordinary' is a rather hyped-up word to apply to this meditative, intelligent book - or booklet; while not exactly short, it's a focused view onto two lives that have been expansively and exhaustively documented.

Gopnik notes that it is of course coincidence that Lincoln and Darwin were born on the same day, and sketches out the differences in their social contexts. The connection he draws between them is that both found a way of communicating that allowed them to bring into the world ideas that changed the way Western society thinks, behaves, and views its history.

Lincoln is not a figure who particularly interests me, so while I enjoyed those chapters, it was the Darwin chapters that made the book for me. Gopnik explicates the way Darwin wrote and structured arguments - his long, slow, detailed amassing of eventually undeniable detail, and his quiet, occasionally humorously understated conclusions.

I thoroughly recommend the book if you're up to a thoughtful read - it's not a snappy, quirky book, but one which rewards being taken slowly. Gopnik also includes a bibliography which is worth the price of admission in itself - here's what I wrote on my blog:

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. 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.

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