December 9, 2008

Mini-review: "The Canon," by Natalie Angier

(CCLaP publishes mini-reviews of both books and movies on a regular basis, none lasting more than a few hundred words. A full list of CCLaP's book-based mini-reviews can be found on its main book page, and movies on the main movie page.)

The Canon, by Natalie Angier
The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science (book; 2007)
By Natalie Angier
Houghton Mifflin / ISBN: 978-0-618-24295-5

The more I learn about the history of science, the more I realize why it has such a precarious, semi-mystical reputation with so much of the general public by now; because when the modern "scientific process" was first formed in the 1600s, the first few generations of "scientists" were starting almost from scratch, meaning that the average member of the public could go out and replicate the experiments these people were doing, and understand for themselves what science is and why it's so important. (Indeed, it was this activity that got us both the terms "gentleman scientist" and "dilettante," descriptions you hardly ever hear applied to members of the general public anymore.) But as we all know by now, the collective body of scientific knowledge we now have actually grows exponentially, not in a linear fashion; and that means, for example, that 400 years after the subject was invented, most working scientists anymore are forced to devote their entire adult lives to studying and understanding everything that came before them in their field's history, leaving their current work looking in the eyes of most laypeople like incomprehensible gibberish. How nice would it be, then, to have a simple yet smart guide to just the basics of science all over again, the building blocks of each field first discovered back during the Renaissance and Enlightenment by the exact proto-scientists just mentioned, the same material covered in school during childhood but in this case written expressly for grown-ups.

Well, that's exactly what The Canon is supposed to be, the newest book by Pulitzer winner and New York Times columnist Natalie Angier, in which she approached a whole series of scientists and asked them, "What are the four or five most basic things about your profession that you wish the general public all knew?" But unfortunately I wasn't able to actually get through much of The Canon, because it's sadly written in a style that I simply can't stand, the "quirky narrative magazine feature journalism" style -- you know, where every interview has to start with a description of what the person is wearing, and some funny metaquote from the beginning of the interview about the ground rules of the interview ("The first thing," Prince said to me as we sat down at the cafe, "is no questions about the baby"), and is just filled with inane psychoanalysis and personal observations by the quirky journalist in question, all of it infused with what's supposed to be a jokey sense of humor but is more often snide little passive-aggressive statements of jealousy concerning the people being interviewed.

I can't freaking stand this style of journalism; and unfortunately the entirety of The Canon is written in this style, meaning I could barely make it through chapter one before quickly giving up altogether. And that's why, like I always do in these cases, I'm recusing myself from giving the book a formal 10-point score, because I simply didn't read enough of it to give it a fair rating. Sigh. Dear journalism industry: Please stop teaching generation after generation of young impressionable students to write this way, and certainly please stop handing them Pulitzer f-cking Prizes when they do. Give me sober, give me reflective, give me genuinely funny -- hell, give me unedited transcripts; but enough already with the quirky narrative magazine feature style of presenting interviews. Seriously, enough.

Out of 10: N/A

Filed by Jason Pettus at 6:50 PM, December 9, 2008. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Nonfiction | Reviews |