Monday, July 21, 2008

#32 Books To Know and Love--Natalie Angier

She's a Pulitzer-Prize-winning science writer for the NYT, but I discovered her quite randomly in the low Dewey 500's science shelf at the nearby Library. Right off and put simply, I'd check out ANY of her books just to read her sentences. No matter what she's writing about. Best non-fiction prose I've ever read. To get a little technical and critiquy, her sentences are alive with wit and wisdom. Almost poetic: their tonal and ideational rhythms are rarely off-key. And almost every "period" is graced with a metaphor, allusion, or pun--love it. Too much embellishment? "Give me surfeit of it..." said the Prince. No, because like Brian Fagan she's got some pretty solid content undergirding her style. Here are two examples from her latest, The Canon: a Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science (2007). (I'll save Woman: an Intimate Geography, 1999, for later.)
  • From her chapter on Chemistry: "Some chemical reactions occur easily and spontaneously while others won't bother unless you light a fire under their orbutts, or bury their starter parts underground and forget about them for half a billion years. If you combine sodium and chlorine, poof, they'll react instantaneously, heatedly: Sodom meets Gomorrah, and we're left with a pillar of salt."
  • Molecular Biology: "You can't sterilize your mouth, or your hands or face, no matter how many bottles of Purell sanitizing gel you go through in a week. You are covered with bacteria. Maybe a half a billion blanket your skin, like a drifting tulle ... a teeming microtropolis of several thousand different strains. Billions more happily fill the moist orifices of your body...When you breathe, you breathe the happenstance vortices of airborne bacteria...When you walk, you walk through and upon a Christo confabulation in Central Park but less saffrony...We galumph through all this life heedlessly, like giants in a Gary Larson cartoon, attending to it only when we seek to kill it--kill the plaque. the strep, the bearers of your tuba-toned bronchitis."
Woy, Woy! Read it. Then pick up an illustrated copy of my favorite non-fiction book of all time, Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything (2005), and you'll know it all.

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