Stranger Fruit

SETting off on a long journey

GOUSTR Razib is reading Stephen Jay Gould’s monumental The Structure of Evolutionary Theory. I have to admit that I bought it when it appeared nearly six years ago and, as yet, have not managed to get beyond the first ninety-odd pages. What I liked about Gould when I was an undergraduate over twenty years ago now just seems annoying. What worked in small doses turns into a nightmare when presented in a five pound package. In short, Gould clearly needed an editor. That said, Razib has inspired me to try again. Who knows, I might even finish it this time.

So, have any readers started (or finished!) SET? Any comments?

Comments

  1. #1 Coturnix
    January 28, 2008

    It took me two months of disciplined reading to finish it. It does get easier as you go further into the text, though. And yes, he needed an editor Big Time.

  2. #2 Cameron
    January 28, 2008

    It’s been propping up a lamp in my living room for the last 5 years. I just re-read Kerelny’s Dawkin’s vs. Gould, 2nd Edition; does that count?

  3. #3 razib
    January 28, 2008

    In short, Gould clearly needed an editor.

    well…his death was the problem there, right? it would have been chopped down a lot. too bad an afterlife doesn’t exist and he didn’t come back to haunt his publishing house ;-)

  4. #4 John Lynch
    January 29, 2008

    You got the feeling that – since this was the “big book” that he had been working on for aeons – he didn’t want an editor. I’m not sure Harvard can be blamed!

  5. #5 Monado in Savannah, GA
    January 29, 2008

    I find it useful, with large indigestible books, to keep a pencil nearby and tick off each section as I read it. It helps me to find my place, avoid re-reading, and keep going. It works best with reference books (dictionaries, bibles, etc.) Good luck!

  6. #6 Laelaps
    January 29, 2008

    I need to make another running start at this one. I think Gould wanted to write something akin to what so many of the 17th and 18th century naturalists he discussed so often would have wrote, so I doubt it would have been edited down. What I did manage to get through I liked (I liked the illustration of the coral branch as the changing/growing ideas within evolutionary theory), but it seemed that I had to wade through a lot of prose to get at points that could have been made a little more concisely. If everyone else is reading this one, I guess I’ll join the book club, too.

  7. #7 Matt Penfold
    January 29, 2008

    At the time the book came out I can remember reading that Gould had specifically rejected having an editor for the book.

    I also have yet to get passed the first 90 pages. I know some of the ideas are tough, but do they really need to be wrapped up in what is sometimes very obtuse language ?

  8. #8 Sven DiMilo
    January 29, 2008

    Gould had become so egotistically self-aggrandizing by that point that he actually had no-editing deals with his publishers. I well remember loving The Panda’s Thumb so much that I subscribed to Natural History magazine for years pretty much just to read his column. Then I started finding his writing slightly annoying (if I had a nickel for every time he used the words “maximally” and “canonical”…), then positively grating, and by and by he just pissed me off. Good luck with your reading project…it’s pretty far down on my list (below Finnegan’s Wake…)

  9. #9 Matt Penfold
    January 29, 2008

    I am glad I am not alone in finding his writing style became worse over time. Another thing I found in trying to read Structure was that he would use obscure words that I could not find in any dictionary I own. Now if those words were scientific terms I could understand it, but they were not. I am not sure what he was trying to prove. I already knew he was an intelligent and well read man, but then one aspect of being intelligent is being able to articulate your ideas clearly.

  10. #10 Colugo
    January 29, 2008

    This is how an attendee of a talk by Stephen Jay Gould summarized it for me:

    “You’re stupid, I’m smart … baseball.”

  11. #11 Jim51
    January 29, 2008

    I read it a few years back soon after it came out. As I recall it was 1400 pages. I think he could have gotten it done in half that.
    I think other commenters here are correct, he didn’t have any editing. It felt to me like he dictated it into a recorder over many weeks during his commute time.
    Jim51

  12. #12 Heathen Dan
    January 29, 2008

    I seem to be in the minority in preferring his later writing style. Maybe it’s because the first book by Gould I read was Leonardo’s Mountain of Clams, which is already very wordy. Since I came late to Gould’s books, I only got to read his later works.

    Late last year I finally got one of his earlier works, The Panda’s Thumb. I read it, liked it, but noticed the lack of Gould’s effusive prose which I have come to expect.

    I hope to get Gould’s magnum opus. It promises to be a slogging read, but I’m sure it’s going to be a treat.

  13. #13 Sven DiMilo
    January 29, 2008

    While we’re Gould-bashing, I’ll note that for many years he and Alan Dershowitz taught a course at Harvard called “Thinking About Thinking.” Most of the undergrads referred to it instead as “Egos About Egos.”

  14. #14 mark
    January 31, 2008

    I forget how many pages I got through before I decided it was not to be read straight through, but rather, a book to go right to a particular section as the need arises.

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