In a pleasant change from the ordinary, Slate has been posting a lot of good stuff lately. Today they have this review of a new book by Janet Browne entitled Darwin’s Origin of Species: A Biography. The review is by Jonathan Weiner:
In 2009, On the Origin of Species will be 150 years old. On Feb. 12, 2009, its author would have turned 200.* Dozens of new books will be published to mark this double anniversary, and at last, Darwin the writer will receive the attention he deserves. Darwin the scientist is beyond famous. Darwin the scribbler is comparatively obscure. But I think he should be a hero for everyone who tries and tries again to put words on paper.
I first read Darwin’s Origin back in 1990, before a trip to the Galapagos. At the time, the pleasure of reading the book–as opposed to reading about the book–felt almost like a private discovery. Darwin was not celebrated for his prose. The only Darwin fans I knew were biologists. A British literary critic, Gillian Beer, had examined his influence on Victorian novelists in her book Darwin’s Plots. An American literary critic, Stanley Edgar Hyman, had praised Darwin as an imaginative writer in his own right (along with Marx, Fraser, and Freud) in a book called The Tangled Bank. But there was much more to say, and it seemed to me that no one ever said it.
I had a similar reaction. I found The Origin difficult to put down, which is not something I say lightly about works of nineteenth century science. Not only is Darwin’s prose excellent, but the sheer relentless logic with which he presents his case can only leave the rest of us weeping with envy. His ability to anticipate the objections and questions of his readers is something more science writers should aspire to emulate.
The remainder of the review goes on to discuss how Darwin perfectly exemplifies many of the major themes that arise in the lives of great writers. Well worth a few minutes of your itme.