The Lying Stones of Marrakech
In the fall of 1973, I received a call from Alan Ternes, editor of Natural History magazine. He asked me if I would like to write columns on a monthly basis, and he told me that folks actually get paid for such activities. (Until that day, I had published only in technical journals.) The idea intrigued me, and I said that I'd try three or four. Now, 290 monthly essays later (with never a deadline missed), I look only a little way forward to the last item of this extended series--to be written, as number 300 exactly, for the millennial issue of January 2001. One really should follow the honorable principle of quitting while still ahead, a rare form of dignity chosen by such admirable men as Michael Jordan and Joe DiMaggio, my personal hero and mentor from childhood. (Joe died, as I put this book together, full of years and in maximal style and grace, after setting one last record--for number of times in receiving last rites and then rallying.) Our millennial transition may represent an arbitrary imposition of human decisions upon nature's true cycles, but what grander symbol for calling a halt and moving on could possibly cross the path of a man's lifetime? This ninth volume of essays will therefore be the penultimate book in a series that shall close by honoring the same decimal preference lying behind our millennial transition.
If this series has finally found a distinctive voice, I have learned this mode of speech in the most gradual, accumulating, and largely unconscious manner--against my deepest personal beliefs in punctuational change and the uniquely directive power (despite an entirely accidental origin) of human reason in evolution. I suppose I had read a bit of Montaigne in English 101, and I surely could spell the word, but I had no inkling about the definitions and traditions of the essay as a literary genre when Alan Ternes called me cold on that fine autumn day.
I began the series with quite conventional notions about writing science for general consumption. I believed, as almost all scientists do (by passively imbibing a professional ethos, not by active thought or decision), that nature speaks directly to unprejudiced observers, and that accessible writing for nonscientists therefore required clarity, suppression of professional jargon, and an ability to convey the excitement of fascinating facts and interesting theories. If I supposed that I might bring something distinctive to previous efforts in this vein, I managed to formulate only two vague personal precepts: first, I would try to portray all subjects at the same conceptual depth that I would utilize in professional articles (that is, no dumbing down of ideas to accompany necessary clarification of language); second, I would use my humanistic and historical interests as a "user friendly" bridge to bring readers into the accessible world of science.
Over the years, however, this mere device (the humanistic "bridge") became an explicit centrality, a feature that I permitted myself to accept (and regard as a source of comfort and pride rather than an idiosyncrasy to downplay or even to hide) only when I finally realized that I had been writing essays, not mere columns, all along--and that nearly five hundred years of tradition had established and validated (indeed, had explicitly defined) the essay as a genre dedicated to personal musing and experience, used as a gracious entrée, or at least an intriguing hook, for discussion of general and universal issues. (Scientists are subtly trained to define the personal as a maximally dangerous snare of subjectivity and therefore to eschew the first person singular in favor of the passive voice in all technical writing. Some scientific editors will automatically blue-pencil the dreaded I at every raising of its ugly head. Therefore, "popular science writing" and "the literary essay" rank as an ultimately disparate, if not hostile, pairing of immiscible oil and water in our usual view--a convention that I now dream about fracturing as a preeminent goal for my literary and scientific life.)
Excerpted from The Lying Stones of Marrakech by Stephen Jay Gould Copyright© 2000 by Stephen Jay Gould. Excerpted by permission of Harmony, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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