Saturday, November 24, 2007

Quickie Comment - The Canon

Author: Natalie Angier
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin
ISBN: 10: 0618242953; 13: 978-0618242955

I've finally finished plowing my way through The Canon. I purchased it a couple of weeks ago because I wanted to get a nice lay person’s overview of the current state of scientific research. Angier more or less provided that, but there were many points at which cutting through her dense verbiage to get to the substance of her material was akin to hacking through Amazonian jungle with a butter knife. Throughout the book, Angier seemed to pay more attention to being clever than to being clear.

To be fair, several sections of the book were very well done. Her chapters on thinking scientifically, probability and statistics, and evolutionary biology were engaging. If these are the only chapters you read, you will come away satisfied. When Angier forgoes verbal gymnastics and actually explains complex concepts in accessible ways, as she does most consistently in these sections, she excels. Unfortunately, throughout much of the rest of the book, she frequently forgoes accessible explanation in favor of witty wordplay. By the time I got to the final two chapters on geology and astronomy, my eyes were glazing over and my attention was fading quickly. I was tired of her cute metaphors. I was tired of her rude jabs at religion, jabs that neither enhanced nor advanced her arguments. And I was tired of the verbosity by which she relentlessly insisted on using a dozen multi-syllabic terms to express things that could have been stated in a half dozen short, plain words.

Natalie Angier is an intelligent science journalist who has a way with words. Unfortunately, as she demonstrates in The Canon, verbal skills and communicative skills are not necessarily equivalent or interchangeable. If you want to read an accessible book that covers much of the same ground as The Canon, do yourself a favor and buy Bill Bryson’s, A Short History of Nearly Everything instead of Angier’s book. Bryson’s book is nearly twice as long as Angier's, but you’ll only spend half as much time reading it. Bryson demonstrates, in a welcome contrast with Angier, that directness and clarity are always the trump cards in the communications game.

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