Effect Measure

Science reporting and personal bad habits

One of my healthier, but alas more expensive habits, is that I walk a mile or so several times a week to my neighborhood shopping area and visit one or another bookstore. I live in a college town, so my neighborhood shopping area has some of the best bookstores anywhere. Not just a university bookstore (which, like many, is part of the Barnes and Noble College Division and not independent), but also what I consider the best independent bookstore anywhere. Since the Reveres try not to reveal any of our locations, I don’t get to give it a plug except to say it has the name of a prestigious university although it has no connection to it. So where is this leading?

Unfortunately for my almost empty bank account, yesterday it led me to $140 dollars worth of books, and that was after a $40 discount for being a “frequent buyer.” It’ll probably be even a bigger bill if I get hit with an overdraft charge (and I’m not counting the $180 books on quantum mechanics I bought on Saturday’s stroll). But it also got me a dozen great books, including a bunch of detective novels for Mrs. R., Lucy Honig’s new novel Waiting for Rescue which reportedly takes place in a School of Public Health and has characters modeled on people I know (I don’t think I’m one of them, although it turns out I know the author; I’ll read with trepidation, but also pleasure as Lucy writes beautifully and is a winner of a Drue-Heinz prize, one of the most prestigious such for fiction writers). And it also got me a book on philosophical problems of probability theory, a collection of the original source papers in quantum mechanics, a history of the toilet (The Big Necessity), Rebecca Goldstein’s book on Spinoza and modernity (I have a newfound interest in the subject of modernity, although Spinoza is pretty interesting, too) and finally Natalie Angier’s new collection of The Best American Science Writing, 2009. More about that book in a moment.

This is not only a confession of a very serious and expensive habit, but an admission of the obvious. How could a person, especially a very busy person who is not a speed reader, have time to read just the books I bought this weekend, much less the 7000 – 8000 companions they will have on my shelves (after of course the requisite time spent piled on the coffee table until Mrs. R. makes me clear them off and then the further time on the floor of my study because there aren’t enough shelves)? How could I possibly have read all those books?

I haven’t and can’t. I’ve read a lot of them (but still only a small fraction) and I’ve read at least a couple of pages of all of them. But I have them handy in case I “need” them. Many years ago I went to a huge overstock sale of a university publisher and the prices were really, really good. For about $15 I got a five volume hardcover set of the collected writings of Benjamin Thompson (aka Count Rumford). I had no reason to get it except it was a bargain and he was a scientist and I’m interested in the history of science. But I never had time or reason to delve into it. So the Collected Works just sat there. Finally my son, who spent some time working his way through graduate school as a book seller, convinced me to let him sell them. We did and made a few bucks on it (thing like that sell surprisingly well on the internet). Then, about a year later, I suddenly had a need to find some stuff that Count Rumford had written. I was out of luck. I’d sold my set of Collected Works. Damn! It just reinforced my delusion that I have to keep accumulating books “in case” I need them.

So now I have these books I bought this weekend and I started reading Natalie Angier’s collection. For those who are regulars here you’ll remember it was a long essay of Natalie Angier’s in The American Scholar that I quoted yesterday in our weekly Freethinker Sermonette. Nathalie Angier is one of this country’s finest science writers, so I was interested in what she thought was worthy of the best of the best category in her own profession. I have yet to read any of them, but I did read her 9 page Introductory Essay and that, dear reader, is where this is (finally) going (first another digression: I am halfway through Nicholson Baker’s wonderful new novel, The Anthologist, which is all about someone trying — and failing — to write an introductory essay to an anthology of poetry. I don’t like poetry much and this novel is really about poetry as much as about the anthologist protagonist, but it’s a great book). OK. Back to the point.

I’m sitting here thinking I have to write a post on a science blog and instead I procrastinate and read Natalie Angier’s Introduction where she begins by saying that the most common question she gets from the public is the one that starts, “I’ve been studying science and I’ve decided I want to be you and write about it for a popular audience. Please give me some advice on how to get started.” (I’m not quoting exactly, but that’s the gist). And her first response (and again, I’m paraphrasing) — a response in the introduction to an anthology of great science writing — is: “What? Are you out of your fucking mind? Look around you. Journalism is going down the crapper with the speed of light!.” And of course Ms. Angier is right and she goes through some of the depressing details of what has happened to the profession of newspaper and broadcast science journalism in the last 5 years (NB: she won her Pulitzer in 1991 for beat reporting; it’s just the regular science beat reporters that have been hit the hardest). But then she stops short and reflects what a great and privileged profession it is to be in — if you can earn a living at it. And she follows with a brief summary of the delights to be found within the anthology. I am looking forward to these 24 examples of great science writing, and my new book on the history of the toilet will provide some historical context for the likely setting (sitting?). Forgive me. It’s a male thing.

But it also got me to thinking about science writing and science journalism. I am a frequently interviewed scientist in my other life (the one that’s not real because it’s lived in the world rather than in hyperspace) and through my writing here I have become acquainted with the work of some truly superb science journalists. They’re still around and still doing an amazing job. But it’s an elite group on two counts. One, the quality of their work. On this count they were an elite before this current era of journalism collapse. The second is that they are still earning a living writing about science for newspapers. Even some of the best aren’t able to do that any more.

And yet there is still a gigantic amount of wonderful science writing. Ms. Angier is a senior personage by virtue of career and age but she’s not that old. I was starting college when she was born. And in those days there wasn’t much science journalism at all. In high school I read Scientific American and the articles were authored by the scientists themselves (with lots of editorial help, of course). Most “science journalism,” such as it existed at all, appeared in magazines like Popular Science or Popular Mechanics. I don’t know the history of the newspaper “science beat” but where I came from, in the midwest, there wasn’t any I was aware of. Big science stories came from a wire service or were written by general reporters doing stories about the space program. These were pre-molecular biology days and there wasn’t much medicine to write about (now there’s too much). So it turns out that Ms. Angier’s professional career coincided with a Golden Age of newspaper science journalism. It grew, it flourished and now it’s going and will soon be gone. It was a brief historical era, like the Golden Age of Radio. I grew up with radio and always thought it was a long period. But in actuality it was perhaps 15 years, at most. When radio changed with the advent of TV, it didn’t return in the same form. That form was gone. The internet is doing the same thing to newspapers. That’s modernity. To use a characterization of modern life due to CCNY lit critic Marshall Berman, “All that is solid melts into air.” (And if you know where that phrase comes from, you’re under arrest). Out of 24 contributors to the Angier anthology I noted only employed by a newspaper (Dennis Overbye, a science correspondent for the New York Times). Some were professional scientists who also write (beautifully, I note with rue and envy), most are free-lance journalists or a few staff writers for magazines like the New Yorker or Wired.

Now Angier’s anthology (and others like it) represents the creme de la creme of science writing, allegedly a dwindling profession under seige. But there is probably more science writing today than ever in history. It’s just not being written by newspaper journalists on the science beat. An impressive amount is being written on science blogs, and for the last three years the “best of the science blogs” has been collected by Bora Zivkovic, my scibling at Blog Around the Clock, published in book form in Open Laboratory 2006, 2007 and 2008 (we are proud to say we are represented in the last two volumes). Last year there were over 800 submissions/nominations, of which only 50 were selected. Most were not written by journalists but by practicing scientists or enthusiasts who don’t make their living as science writers.

The disadvantage is that most of us can’t write like Natalie Angier. But there are an awful lot of us and we know our specialty areas and we don’t have to worry about earning our living at it. We all do it for different reasons (and I’ll tell you what mine is as soon as I figure it out), but almost all of us love science and can write about it more knowledgeably than any but the most specialized and talented journalists.

Finally, and to bring this atrocity of free association full circle, I also observe that about half of the contributors to the Angier anthology of best science writing are from writers who earn their living writing books about science (as indeed does Natalie Angier). And as long as their are pathological book accumulators like me around willing to risk bankruptcy (and their marriages) buying books about science, they are still in business.

Comments

  1. #1 mominohio
    September 21, 2009

    Revere – poetry can be very rewarding if you treat it like math or plumbing (look at it, take it apart, put it back together, watch it leak, try again). Might be worth another try sometime. Nice blog, though – thanks for a nice start to Monday morning.

  2. #2 mark
    September 21, 2009

    Revere – I share your love of books, and have too many, a large fraction of which I have not yet read (“saving for retirement”). The tendency to accumulate books I get from my Dad, who shared the following with me many years ago:

    On Books and Reading

    Nothing makes a man more reverent than a library. A few books may give a sense of comfort. What shall I do with all my books? Read them!

    But if you cannot read them, at any rate handle them and, as it were, fondle them, peer into them. Let them fall open where they will. Read on from the first sentence that arrests the eye. Then turn to another. Make a voyage of discovery taking soundings of uncharted seas.

    Set them back on their shelves with your own hands. Arrange them on your own plan, so that if you do not know what is in them you at least know where they are. If they cannot be your friends, let them at any rate be your acquaintances. If they cannot enter the circle of your life, do not deny them at least a nod of recognition.

    – Winston Spencer Churchill

  3. #3 revere
    September 21, 2009

    mark: Ahh. Balm for the spirit. It made me feel less quilty about my not reading of all my books. Thank you. Your dad was wise.

  4. #4 Mike McCants
    September 21, 2009

    I enjoyed reading your account of this passion.

  5. #5 SusanC
    September 21, 2009

    People who collect more books than they can read – there are more of us/them than you think. Which is good – I like my bookstores to stay in business. I also have a suspicion that they are disproportionately represented among your readership here…

  6. #6 newore
    September 21, 2009

    ahh, I just got to the essay after a trip to powell’s here in Portland. One strategy I use is to stop in half way through a walk (round trip 7-10 miles) with a 20 pound load already on your back. I left 3-4 titles on the shelf today! Noted and located, of course, in preparation for the next iteration.

    I have a strange affliction: Science, computers, AND poetry.

    I’ll have something to keep me company in the house during social shut-down of pandemic, I guess…

  7. #7 newo
    September 21, 2009

    that is to say: I only took away four books and a magazine ;) excuse was to find some Italian language dictionaries in preparation for an upcoming jaunt.

  8. #8 wazza
    September 21, 2009

    It’s probably just that I’m in university and an indifferent studier, but I can generally get through four or five normal-sized books a week. Hopefully, if my bookshelves become a library, I’ll have read at least most of them; I know the big bookshelf I have at my parents’ place is filled with the books I read during my teenage years but didn’t want to bring with me due to space constraints, and my sister’s copy of Pale Blue Dot got worn out with all the reading it had to endure…

  9. #9 Don in VA
    September 21, 2009

    I too love books – all kinds, and am fortunate enough to live very near a permanent book fair. I’ve recently added audio books to my collection as a way to pass the time while driving anywhere over an hours distance. I don’t know that I’ll ever find something to help me gain more than a basic understanding of quantum mechanics, but I always look.

  10. #10 ben
    September 21, 2009

    one guess: it’s the coop!

  11. #11 revere
    September 21, 2009

    ben: Nope.

  12. #12 Rosie Redfield
    September 21, 2009

    The Big Necessity is great, though I wouldn’t describe it as a history of the toilet

  13. #13 morhout
    September 22, 2009

    The Big Necessity was an eye-opener. Even though, as a previous commenter mentioned, it’s not really about the history of the toilet (the cover text is a bit misleading), it really drives home the importance of human waste management, and the shocking lack of attention to it, even in (so-called) developed countries.
    The author has a blog at http://rosegeorge.com/site/category/blog/ .

  14. #14 slovenia
    September 22, 2009

    Ah, synchronicity. (I too love books. My daughter has dibs on my library when I finally shuffle off this mortal coil.) I’m currently reading a short story collection by the wonderful Aleksandar Hemon. Smack in the middle of one story the folks at Picador inserted 50-some pages of Nicholson Baker’s The Anthologist, starting, of course, mid-chapter. I discovered the mess this morning just before I booted up the computer. If you should be tempted to buy Love and Obstacles by Hemon (and you should), check to see if page 52 is followed by page 57 of Baker. Read on, bookfolk, read on!

  15. #15 Don in VA
    September 22, 2009

    My guess is that your bookstore is named after one of the Seven Sisters.

  16. #16 revere
    September 22, 2009

    Don: Nope.

  17. #17 Don in VA
    September 22, 2009

    A final guess if you will: your bookstore shares its name with the University from which you earned your MPH.

  18. #18 revere
    September 22, 2009

    Don; Nope.

  19. #19 Julie, RN
    September 22, 2009

    May I recommend a book? :^) Biblioholism: The Literary Addiction by Tom Raabe. It covers the symptoms of our disease and how to cope with it. Very funny read with a lot of truth in it.

    Interior design styles include English Country, French Provincial, etc. My house is done in Early Library. When someone comes to here for the first time and says, “have you read all of these books?”, I know this person isn’t a reader. Seeing someone’s reaction to wall-to-wall bookcases is a handy way to separate the wheat from the chaff, so to speak.

    Fun post…thanks!

  20. #20 spikemom
    September 22, 2009

    I too love books, and my tables and shelves overflow with those I haven’t yet read, as well as many that I’d like to read again. One beneficial aspect of flu prepping is that I’ve always felt I would have plenty on hand to read if we had to shelter in place for any amount of time; even a pandemic might have its silver lining.
    Gotta be the Harvard Bookstore!

  21. #21 revere
    September 22, 2009

    spikemom: If I said you were right, then I’d be telling where this Revere is. So I won’t. But that particular independent bookstore certainly fits the description.

  22. #22 SusanC
    September 23, 2009

    eh, that’s one of my favorite, whenever I’m over that part of the US of A…

  23. #23 Grahame
    September 23, 2009

    You book folk might well peruse _The Anatomy Of Bibliomania_
    by Holbrook Jackson. Jackson did a lot of study of Robert Burton of _The Anatomy Of Melancholy_ an extemely famed book, and well deserved fame it is. Jackson adopted Burton’s style, sort-of; some readers will find this cloying, others delightsome. It is a rare book, usually in 2 volumes, but there was a briefer edition done several years ago and that one was not expensive.

    As for Burton, Dr. Johnson said, as reported by Boswell, that Burton’s _Anatomy_ was the only book which could cause him to rise early in order to read it (with delectation).

    Being a seriously besotted bookman myself, I believe that Powell’s in Portland is the best US indy book shop. I bankrupt myself with Powells, and they have the knack of making distant customers feel as they are right there. They remember one, remember ones tastes and wants, and most importantly, they either have ones wants, or soon enough come into them. Powell’s have incredible systems, and they send one(by free subscription)detailed lists of books coming into their stocks the former day.These wonderful computer databases also recall ones wants and sooner-or-later one receives an email informing that another of ones wants wants has arrived in Portland.

    In my long-ago youth, Blackwell’s in Oxford was the book mecca. Alas, it is no longer its former glory, unless one is a third world country seeking carload shipments of books. In their former glory, one would receive a blue air letter from Julian Blackell discussing ones recent order, including an apology for “this stereotyped letter”. Blackwell’s was famed for extending seemingly unlimited (as to term) credit. After a very long neglect to remit, one received an engraved calling card: “The courtesy of a contribution will be accepted with gratitude by Blackwell’s”. Much later came a letter expressing concern, and much later still one received this:

    “Dear Sir:
    We note with dismay that your account is in arears to the amount n pounds, If we do not have your cheque by return of post, we shall, with regret, place this matter in other hands”.

    At the bottom, in small type, is a footnote:

    “How then, Socrates, are we to recognise the truly just and generous man?”

    Socrates is made to reply:

    “It is he who, being reminded of an obligation, is able gracefully to thank his creditor for prompting him to do his duty.”

    And the the symbol for section[ยง]and a number, and “Socratic Fragment, assumed apocryphal.”

    Top that!

    ~Grahame

    [Idiosyncracies of placemment of full stops is intentional and defensible.]

  24. #24 old time radio
    September 25, 2009

    Enjoyed your article and I share you love for books. As my age increases and eye sight sadly decreases I’ve had to set more books down and have opted to listen to recordings from the golden age of radio (and my childhood past time as well). One source I’ve found particularly useful is OTRCAT.com. Keep up the good work.

  25. #25 Theo Bromine
    September 25, 2009

    My entire family is afflicted with bibliophilia (a term which I prefer to biblioholism or bibliomania). Over the summer, we were able to identify about 400 books – about 10% of the library – as candidates for re-homing (some were sold at our garage sale, some given to friends, the rest donated to a library for their fundraising booksale). I recall 30 years ago I was doing a lot more re-reading, of both fiction and non-fiction, often for lack of finding anything I particularly wanted to read. Quite the opposite these days – there is an overwhelming proliferation of interesting and well-written books, and I am constantly struggling against the reading of (and commenting on) blogs eating into my book reading time.

  26. #26 perceval
    September 26, 2009

    My name is Perceval, and I am a fellow book addict. When I was in the US, I devoted a whole day to worshipping at the altar of Powell’s and am now the proud owner of a mug and several fantastic second-hand books. I will add a few of the books I read about here to my amazon wish list, especially the ones relating to our joint – affliction, shall we say.

    (Talking about bibliomania, have you SEEN Neil Gaiman’s book shelves???? Seriously. I have filed them under book-prOn.)

  27. #27 Leah Daziens
    September 27, 2009

    I grew up loving books and loving to be surrounded by books. I became a teacher because I wanted every child to develop a love of reading and the learning that goes along with it. I now have a private practice working w/ struggling learners, and it is such a thrill when a young person transitions from the label of “struggling student” to become a “reader”.

    It is still shocking to me when I enter a home that is devoid of books; not because the occupants can’t afford books, but because they “don’t like to read”. Educated, professional “grown-ups” who don’t like to read — yikes! Or, reading in a magazine that I should arrange my books by …
    COLOR??? Can you imagine coming home to find that someone had arranged your book collection by COLOR??? Not a color coded system, mind you — just by the color of the spine, so it looks pretty.

    On a serious note for those readers who have extra time, remember that volunteers are always needed to tutor children as well as adults. If you don’t have time, FirstBook.org, gives new books to children in need. Or, programs that provide books to prisoners, like Books Behind Bars, which was briefly shut down and then reinstated after public outcry. They take donations of used books – http://www.thequestinstitute.org/