Saturday, October 20, 2012

Has popular science writing become too wordy?

It’s probably a bit unfair to ask that question, but I can’t help it. These days, I feel like most of the recent science books I read dilute interesting information into too many pages. Well, it could be that the majority of readers prefer long books. It may be true, but it’s definitely not my case. [To be precise, what I mean by “recent” is what has been published in the past ten to fifteen years.] 

Thinking of what I read in the not-so-distant past, I find for instance: “The elegant universe” by Brian Greene (1999), 448 pages; “The stuff of thought” by Steven Pinker (2007), 499 pages; “A guinea pig’s history of biology” by Jim Endersby (2007), 499 pages. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not questioning here the quality of the books. Greene’s book is an informative introduction to string theory, Pinker’s is a clever journey into linguistics, and Endersby’s is a highly original work on the history of model organisms. I really enjoyed reading Endersby and Pinker; I didn’t enjoy Greene that much, but it might be the topic. But quality notwithstanding, could they have been shorter without losing of their substance? 

I do not doubt, of course, that certain topics necessitate long developments. It could be that most science books are long because they need to be. A less kind interpretation is that they are long because the author/editor/publisher wants them to be so. In a very interesting blog article, the author Sam Harris thus suggests that most books are long because authors and publishers can’t make a living on short books (and he’s talking about all non fiction books, not only the science ones). It is a pity, since it imposes a length format which may not necessarily be the best for the content of the book. Harris writes, in the aforementioned blog post:

“If your book is 600 pages long, you are demanding more of my time than I feel free to give. And if I could accomplish the same change in my view of the world by reading a 60-page version of your argument, why didn’t you just publish a book this length instead?”

That’s a good point. We may regret that short essays are not so popular anymore in the publishing industry.  Interestingly, Harris suggests that e-publishing might fill this gap and allow authors to publish shorter pieces, which is exactly what he is doing himself. 

But let’s go back to popular science books in particular. I have to admit that it’s still possible to find short books out there. Dava Sobel’s “The Planets” is 270 pages longand actually the font is large and there are not so many words per page, so it truly is a short book, and a lovely one! Even more impressive, Carl Zimmer recently published “A planet of viruses”, which is only 122 pages long! (I haven’t read it so far but I plan to.) Despite these two examples, short science books are by no means overrepresented in the bookstores these days.

Let me say it again, just for the record: some topics need a long development, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But most topics can be either treated at length, or abridged, depending on what the aim of the book is. I’ll take the example of Greene’s book on string theory. I wanted to read about that topic not because I wanted to understand the theory (I’m positive I can’t), but because I thought it was important to have an idea about the current state of that field. But why does it have to be a 450-pages book whose pages are packed with words written in tiny letters? It’s a complex topic, yes. But so is Einstein’s theory of gravitation, and still it did not prevent Bertrand Russell from writing a remarkable “ABC of relativity” that is only 155 pages long. In Russell’s book, every page is loaded with meaningful sentences, and it is sometimes so dense that you have to reread it several times before you get it right (at least I have to). But that’s the miracle of books: you can read a page as many times as you want! This brings me to what I think is a recent and regrettable tendency in popular science writing: To make sure you get the argument right, the author repeats it several times throughout a chapter.

Another problem I have with modern science writing is some authors’ belief that everything is best explained by a metaphor. Metaphors are priceless tools for writers. They can enormously help our understanding. At least, a good metaphor does. But a good metaphor is hard to find, while bad ones are thriving. This was an issue I had with Brian Greene’s “The elegant universe”. I found most of his metaphors obscure, confusing rather than enlightening me. I think that sometimes authors should not insist on offering us a metaphor unless it’s a perfect one. 

Finally, there is a tendency in modern science writing that I cannot honestly regret, since it is a natural evolution of the genre. It is the effort to immerse us into the life of the scientific protagonists. What I mean by this is that modern authors want to give us more than cold facts; they want us to see, feel and even sometimes smell the laboratory environment of past as well as modern scientists. It’s a more socially-embedded description, and it can bring vivid images to the reader’s mind. The drawback, as I see it, is a decreasing interest for pure ideas. 

It could be argued that this is not a new tendency at all. Actually, if we take again Bertrand Russell as an example, his writings on scientists and philosophers are full with little anecdotes and mentions of their social environment. But it’s usually one sentence here or there. The problem is when an author writes several paragraphs about how Newton’s writing cabinet looked like (but that’s just a made-up example). Often it’s part historical investigations, part fictional inventions… This effort to immerse us in the historical and social context is probably positive, but it certainly lengthens the writing.

I’m currently reading “Naming nature” by Carol Kaesuk Yoon (a “short” 341 pages). I haven’t finished it yet, so I won’t say anything about the general interest of the bookalthough I could say that so far it’s quite engaging and interesting. But I think that Yoon’s book contains some good illustrations of this “immersion” tendency I just described. The book is about taxonomy, and unsurprisingly one of the first chapters deals with Carl Linnaeus. Yoon writes about him, p.46:  

“He was a man thoroughly sensual, reveling in the beauty and wonder, the glory and misery of the world, a man fond of extreme points of view, with a taste for melodrama. Highly attuned to the world he sensed, Linnaeus perceived life through sparkling, intelligent eyes, a dramatically hooked nose, unremarkable ears, and long, fleshy fingers. He lived with a sensory openness and attention that was sometimes so overwhelming that he seemed virtually a slave to it.”

Well, this is nicely written. But I can’t help wondering whether we lose that much content by simply writing that Linnaeus was very sensitive and not handsome.

To conclude, it’s not so much that I regret long books (OK, a little bit), but rather that I regret there’s not many more short ones!


  1. 100% agree. The most engaging popular science book I know is R. McNeill Alexander's "Dynamics of Dinosaurs and Other Extinct Giants" (1989), which is 167 small pages.

    1. Hello Mike,
      Thanks for mentioning Alexander. I didn't know him but what he writes seems quite original!

  2. I agree with you. That's why I actually quit reading popular science books.
    I didn't know about the publishers' pressure. I always thought they do it so that more people can understand it.

    1. Hello,
      I don't think that the publisher's economic model is always responsible for the books' length, but this probably is a factor. I suppose each book has its own history...

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