Recommended Reading: The Poetic Species: A Conversation with Edward O. Wilson and Robert Hass

photo (69)This slim volume — beautifully designed, by the way — is the record of a conversation between two careful thinkers: Edward O. Wilson (better known as E. O. Wilson, perhaps), a biologist famous for his work on ants and his sometimes controversial theories about evolution, and Robert Hass, a highly acclaimed poet, essayist and environmentalist who is a former Poet Laureate.The event — think a long-form TED dialogue — took place in late 2012, was co-sponsored by Poets House and the American Museum of Natural History.

As Lee Briccetti writes in the Foreword to The Poetic Species*, “Poetry is not purely associative. Science is not purely analytic. All skilled human production depends on subtle networks of cognitive capacities and the ability to transition between them” (23). Professor Wilson and Professor Hass came together to talk about the ways that science and the humanities inform each other, and how thinkers in both disciplines might come together to protect the natural world.

The first part of the discussion traces Professor Wilson’s theory of the perpetual conflict embedded in human nature (and yes, the question of “human nature” is, as it’s often maddeningly put in the academy, “vexed”): a tendency toward altruism with regard to members of one’s social group (and concomitant hostility toward outside groups), and the impulse to act selfishly at the individual level. Professor Hass notes, “the dance of the tension between these two things must constitute something of what we mean by consciousness, by the experience of having choice and free will and moral life. A productive oscillation between a social self and a private, individual self, in each person and in the species” (40-41). He goes on to suggest that this kind of oscillation appears in art, between form and departure from form, between what makes us comfortable and what challenges us and makes us uncomfortable.

Professor Wilson, too, emphasizes the connection between biology and art: “I’ve suggested many times that the humanities, and especially the creative arts, are the natural history of Homo sapiens” (48). In his view, “The creative arts are the sharing of our inner desires and humanity’s struggle. The humanities are our way of understanding and managing the conflict between the two levels that created Homo sapiens” (53). Put another way, in Robert Hass’s words: “At a very simple level, poetry can give us someone to talk to. To read is, in that way, to have your inner life acknowledged by somebody else’s” (78).

(As you can probably tell, I’d love to quote great swaths of the dialogue in this review, but then I’d run the risk of quoting the whole book; every page offers something worth contemplating. I’d love to see more collaborations of this kind in print, and I’d happily read another conversation between E.O. Wilson and Robert Hass. While The Poetic Species takes the initial format of Professor Hass interviewing Professor Wilson about his work, and works from that point, I’d like to read another conversation in which Professor Wilson questions Professor Hass about the natural elements in his poetry (which is deeply rooted in the environment of northern California). Given Professor Wilson’s admission, in his own list of suggested reading, that he does not read literature for its own sake, perhaps this is wishful thinking.)

The last third of The Poetic Speciesis an impassioned plea for conservation of wildernesses, a plea to take the initiative to save places and species that are in danger of disappearing. Wilson says, “I’m spending more and more of the time I have left on national parks” (67). Both men encourage education of young people in both biology and the humanities to promote environmental stewardship; Wilson suggests that education should go beyond facts and terms — “it’s somehow got to be made into a story” (76). Common Core creators, take note.

Reflecting on elegant solutions in math and sciences, Hass says, “Beauty sends out ripples, like a pebble tossed in a pond, and the ripples as they spread seem to evoke among other things a stirring of curiousity. The aesthetic effect of a Vermeer painting is a bit like that. Some paradox of stillness and motion. Desire appeased and awakened” (79). That’s how science and poetry work — we solve one problem, come to one possible solution, and another question presents itself — like endless webs that spin outward and outward to gather us all in.

The Poetic Species is a fascinating foray into the ways we’re connected to each other and the natural world — highly recommended reading.

*My thanks to the publisher for sending me an advance review copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Scary Read: Rabid: A Cultural History of the World’s Most Diabolical Virus, by Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy

RabidA tip o’ the hat to my friend Kate, who pointed me to a podcast about the most fascinating story in this already-fascinating book a couple months ago.

Rabid, by veterinarian Monica Murphy and her husband, Wired editor Bill Wasik, examines rabies from a cultural standpoint — but you probably got that much from the title. I went in with the my knowledge of rabies confined to that one episode of The Office, something about twenty shots in your stomach, and a settled dislike for raccoons.

Now on the other side, I’ve got a better handle on the whole subject. The rabies vaccine is only four shots in one’s arm, for one thing. And rabies is the most deadly virus identified, with 100% human mortality (as far as we know) if the disease goes untreated. And 55,000 people die from rabies every year. I guess it’s only a joke if you live in Scranton.

The best chapters in Rabid deal with Pasteur, who invented the rabies vaccine, and with human survivors of rabies, Jeanna Giese in particular (whose case is the subject of that podcast), and how an island community like Bali deals with a sudden outbreak of the disease.

Less mesmerizing are the book’s forays into literary subjects the authors associate with rabies (the bit about the Iliad is particularly unfortunate); the authors are much better equipped to deal with the scientific and veterinary aspects of the disease’s history. Based on the last three chapters alone, Rabid is worth a look. And you’ll definitely look twice the next time you see a raccoon. Or a skunk. Or a stray dog.

Recommended Reading: The People in the Trees, by Hanya Yanagihara

Hanya Yanigahara’s The People in the Trees is the most disturbing novel I’ve read in years, and simultaneously one of the most beautiful.

The People in the Trees

Seeing the look on my face when I was most of the way through the novel, my husband asked, “Are you reading horror?”

“No,” I said, “but it’s pretty frightening.”

“Well, the title is creepy.”

And so it went.

The epigraph to The People in the Trees comes from The Tempest (4.1), when Prospero inveighs against what he sees as Caliban’s fundamental intractability, his resistance to civilization (that is, both civilization itself and being civilized, none too humanely, by Prospero). It’s an apt choice for Ms. Yanagihara’s narrative of science, immortality, destruction, ethics, and exploration itself.

The novel is composed of the memoirs of Norton Perina, framed by a preface and epilogue penned by his colleague and friend, Ronald Kubodera, who provides insight and explication with academic footnotes throughout the text. Perina, a doctor, is part of a small group that discovers a “lost” tribe on the fictional island of Ivu’ivu, with disastrous consequences for the islanders and, ultimately, for Perina himself. (By the way, I suggest that you do not read the jacket copy before you begin reading the novel itself — spoilers abound.)

Perina’s voice is compelling — both suave and vicious, aware of his personal shortcomings and willfully blind to his greatest moral failings. Kubodera, though trying to protect his mentor and justify his life’s work (and his own), consistently undercuts Perina’s attempt to appear as if he is withholding nothing, giving the reader the unvarnished truth. And maybe, in some sick way, Perina thinks he is delivering his own truth.

The horrors the novel presents are juxtaposed with the lush (there’s no other word) descriptions of the fantastical plants and creatures of Ms. Yanagihara’s invention. Even the few words of the U’ivuan language that Perina shares are musical and perfectly suited to the environment of the story.

As a child, I remember learning in school that the rainforest ought to be protected so that it would remain available for future study. When I read this novel, it occurred to me, after all these years, that perhaps we should be protecting it, and all the other wild places of the world,  from study. After all, wouldn’t Caliban have been better off without Prospero?


Recommended Reading: Life Class and Toby’s Room, by Pat Barker

One of the many gifts my father has given me is sharing his lifelong interest in World War I, that brutal period in history that often disappears into its sequel’s shadow. The war was terrifying in its intensity, its stagnation, its sheer totality. And it also produced some of the finest poetry of the twentieth century before an entire generation of young poets, novelists, painters — an entire generation of young men — was wiped out.

[Which is not to say that that women didn’t suffer didn’t the war, or that there were no incredibly talented women writers and artists of the period; see my earlier post on Anna Akhmatova.]

Some other time I’ll write a post on my recommended reading on the war, but for now, let’s talk Pat Barker.

If you haven’t read Ms. Barker’s Regeneration trilogy (Regeneration, The Eye in the Door, The Ghost Road), drop everything and make a run for your neighborhood bookstore. The trilogy is complex and marvelous, focusing especially on the war’s psychological effects on soldiers. Particularly masterful is the way Barker blends fact and fiction; her characters interact with historical figures like Owen, Sassoon, and Graves. Readers with STEM proclivities will appreciate her fine understanding of scientific and medical concepts.

As you might imagine, I was delighted to run across Ms. Barker’s lastest book, Toby’s Room (2012), in our local library a few weeks ago. It wasn’t until I read the jacket copy after I finished the novel that I realized that Toby’s Room is a sequel of sorts to Life Class (2007), which I promptly found and read next. I say ‘a sequel of sorts’ because the timelines in the two books overlap, as do the characters, though the focus shifts among them. I would describe the two novels as companion pieces.

Both are concerned with trauma—emotional and physical, resulting from war and from domestic life—and its relationship to art. Once again, Ms. Barker’s characters blend seamlessly into a landscape populated by very real figures. Of particular interest is the work of Henry Tonks, which I won’t say much more about in order not to spoil the plot of the books.