Why Read Angier’s The Canon?

by F.

I’m reading Natalie Angier’s The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science and I love it. Love it. Love it. Love it. Love it in the way I love Anthony Burgess’ best work. The wordplay, the allusions, the style is not to be missed. And in addition to the manner, the matter is pretty good, too.

I think this book is widely misunderstood. Part of that is the publisher’s fault. Is this a basic science book? Sort of. I mean, she covers the basics, sort of like Bill Bryson did. But Angier is a writer’s writer. She’s the John Coltrane of science scribes.

How so? Well, the typical pop science book is “clear.” That means short sentences. Simple stories about scientists solving problems or research subjects with freaky conditions. Oliver Sacks’ metier in particular seems to have attracted others—freaky condition of the week, viz., “Frank (not his real name) has a rare neurological condition related to Capgras Syndrome. While he can recognize his wife and loved ones, he can’t smell ketchup. This horrible disability has rendered him unable to hold a job, have a lasting relationship, or enjoy fries. This is Frank’s story.”

This gets old, and here’s where Angier shines. Yet some are blinded by the brillance. A typical Amazon reviewer says:

Trouble is, author Natalie Angier is just too passionate for her own good. She obviously knows her stuff, but her prose is just too artful, too flowery, too straight from a creative writing class, never meeting a metaphor it doesn’t saddle up and ride like the wind. Describing the beauty of a mountain range, she instructs her readers to “gaze out over the vast cashmere accordion of earthscape, the repeating pleats swelling and dipping silently in the far horizon without even deigning to disdain you.”

Wrong.

She’s not trying to write yet another basic book. She wants to riff on science. Factually, she never strays from the true path; stylistically, though, she adds so many grace notes the average reader will lose the melody. Is that bad? Not for certain kind of reader. I mean, there are folks who think Shakespeare’s Sonnets are “too hard” and opt for Billy Collins or Poe or something like that. Fine, if that’s what you like. But the level of craft in a couplet of one of the weirder Sonnets exhibits more skill than Collins’ whole ouvre. Squared.

Dig:

As youth flowers into maturity, the barrier between nerd and herd grows taller and thicker and begins to sprout thorns. Soon it seems nearly unbreachable. When my hairstylist told me he was planning to visit Puerto Rico, where I’d been the previous summer, and I recommended that he visit the Arecibo radio telescope on the northwestern side of the island, he looked at me as though I’d suggested he stop by a manufacturer of laundry detergent. “Why on earth would I want to do that?” he asked.

“Because it’s one of the biggest telescopes in the world, it’s open to the public, and it’s beautiful and fascinating and looks like a giant mirrored candy dish from the 1960s lodged in the side of a cliff?” I said.

“Huh,” he said, taking a rather large snip of hair from my bangs.

“Because it has a great science museum to go with it, and you’ll learn a lot about the cosmos?”

“I’m not one of those techie types, you know,” he said. Snip snip snip snip snip.

“Because it was featured in the movie Contact, with Jodie Foster?” I groped frantically.

The steel piranhas could not be stilled. “I’ve never been a big Jodie Foster fan,” he said. “But I’ll take it under advisement.”

“Hi, honey!” my husband said when I got home. “Where did you put your hair?”

That’s what The Canon is like—chimes, rhymes, puns, and allusions galore are just a little of what’s in store. If you want your pop science basic, go for Bryson; if you want something that reaches the heights of prose expression in English, buy Angier’s book. It’s got the lowest cliche-to-word ratio of anything I’ve read this decade.

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