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.