“It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the archbishop had come to see me.” So runs the first sentence of Earthly Powers, Anthony Burgess’s memoir of the fictional novelist Kenneth Toomey. “I have lost none of my old cunning in the contrivance of what is known as an arresting opening,” he writes a few lines later — noting that, whereas every supposed fact in the first sentence is true, the context is one of pure artifice, designed to portray an image of the writer as he would wish to be seen, not necessarily as he really is. Toomey is clearly a writer of some skill (as is Burgess, his inventor and rapporteur), so we, the poor readers, are at his mercy. We can do no other than take what he claims as truth at face value, whether it is true or not. Such is the caveat emptor of the memoir in general.
This week, Nature publishes book reviews of two memoirs by very real people. On page 162, Robert Crease reviews My Brief History by theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, and notes that it is more akin to a PR exercise than a warts-and-all confession: “It does not take the reader behind any scenes … It is a concise, gleaming portrait, not unlike those issued by the public relations department of an institution.” Eugenie Scott on page 163, by contrast, finds An Appetite for Wonder, the first volume of memoirs by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, “a very honest book”, in which we get a taste of the upbringing and early experiences of the author of The Selfish Gene and The God Delusion. From which we are entitled to get a flavour, at least, of how Dawkins got to be the man he is today — in other words, what makes him tick.
But do we? Get a flavour of what makes someone tick from their own, self-selected, self-redacted reminiscence? Memoirs are more vehicles of entertainment than any reflection of reality. When one reads The Double Helix, James Watson’s knockabout account of the discovery of the structure of DNA, one should take any facts presented therein strictly as having been heavily filtered by the unashamedly biased reminiscence of just one of the protagonists, not as a scholarly account. And there’s nothing wrong with that. The Double Helix works beautifully as entertainment.
There is another layer of selection. Those memoirs that get published as books are not so much about scientists (say) as celebrities. Readers of My Brief History will want to know about Hawking’s triumph over his disability more than how he came to this or that conclusion about black holes. More people are likely to have encountered Dawkins as the doctrinaire neo-atheist of The God Delusion than as the peerless commentator on the machinery of evolution in The Selfish Gene — and vastly more than as the author of scientific papers on animal behaviour.
To understand what working scientists free from the constraints of celebrity actually do all day, one might turn to the blogosphere and follow (to mention just two of thousands) Jenny Rohn’s ‘Mind the gap’ (http://occamstypewriter.org/mindthegap) and, perhaps more pertinently, the notes of the anonymously eponymous Female Science Professor (http://science-professor.blogspot.co.uk).
Even then, such writings demonstrate the self-selection of those scientists (a tiny proportion) who feel that they have something to say. For everyone else, life is something that is lived undocumented, unshared and in real time. Perhaps the only really ‘true’ experiences are those that one has lived oneself. To which one can only ask whether one is talking to oneself, or whether the Universe has gone solipsistic all of a sudden. Then again, to quote that koan from Jewish Buddhist wisdom — if there is no self, whose arthritis is this?
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