Posted By on May 19, 2008

“A Good Book To Read While The Agarose Gels”

.: When it comes to reading novels, I’m biased towards contemporary authors. I admit this is partially due to laziness: it’s easier to identify with characters and settings when they’re imagined by an author who has all the same access to information as I do. I’m more hesitant to read a two- or three-century-old novel, because I’ll have to invest so much into familiarizing myself with the atmosphere and culture of the period. Thus, of the classic books, I read only the timeless stories which hit upon themes still relevant today (Pride and Prejudice, for example).

.: However, every now and then I’ll indulge in one of those old books that supposedly makes you a better person for having read it. Most recently I’ve cracked open Arrowsmith by Sinclair Lewis. It’s a story a medical doctor who longs to settle down and devote his life to pure research, and it was written in 1925 (!). That means the story takes place before polio was cured, penicillin was isolated, and DNA was recognized as the transforming principle. And yet it’s been a thrill to see how differently all the familiar concepts and ideas were worded back then. Lewis is a smartass of Wodehousian supremacy, and his characters are frequently uttering sublime passages that I find myself copying in my moleskine. Take this delicious spiel by the serious investigative bacteriologist Max Gottlieb, addressed to the titular protagonist:

“To be a scientist–it is not just a different job, so that a man should choose between being a scientist and being an explorer or a bond-salesman or a physician or a king or a farmer. It is a tangle of ver-y obscure emotions, like mysticism, or wanting to write poetry; it makes its victims all different from the good normal man. The normal man, he does not care much what he does except that he should eat and sleep and make love. But the scientist is intensely religious–he is so religious that he will not accept quarter-truths, because they are an insult to his faith.

“He wants that everything should be subject to inexorable laws. He is equal opposed to capitalists who t’ink their silly money-grabbing is a system, and to liberals who t’ink man is not a fighting animal; he takes both the American booster and the European aristocrat, and he ignores all their blithering. Ignores it! All of it! He hates the preachers who talk their fables, but he iss not too kindly to anthropologists and historians who can only make guesses, yet they have the nerf to call themselves scientists! Oh, yes, he is a man that all nice good-natured people should naturally hate!

“He speaks no meaner of the ridiculous faith-healers and chiropractors than he does of the doctors that want to snatch our science before it is tested and rush around hoping they heal people, and spoiling all the clues with their footsteps; and worse than the men like hogs, worse than the imbeciles who have not even heard of science, he hates pseudo-scientists, guess scientists–like these pscyho-analysts; and worse than those comic dream-scientists he hates the men that are allowed in a clean kingdom like biology but know only one text-book and how to lecture to nincompoops all so popular! He is the only real revolutionary, the authentic scientist, because he alone knows how liddle he knows.

“He must be heartless. He lives in a cold, clear light. Yet dis is a funny t’ing: really, in private, he is not cold nor heartless–so much less cold than the Professional Optimists. The world has always been ruled by the Philanthropists: by the doctors that want to use therapeutic methods they do not understand, by the soldiers that want something to defend their country against, by the preachers that yearn to make everybody listen to them, by the kind manufacturers that love their workers, by eloquent statesmen and soft-hearted authors–and see once what a fine mess they haf made of the world! Maybe now it is time for the scientist, who works and searches and never goes around howling he loves everybody!

“But once again always remember that not all men who work as scien are scientists. So few! The rest–secretaries, press-agents, camp-followers! To be a scientist is like being a Goethe: it is born in you. Sometimes I t’ink you have a liddle of it born in you. If you haf, there is only one t’ing–no, there is two t’ings you must do: work twice as hard as you can, and keep people from using you. I will try to protect you from Success. It is all I can do. So. . . . I should wish, Martin, that you will be very happy here. May Koch bless you!”

.: Certainly there are points I would quibble with, but the core idea is still around today. Seeing a passage like this in a book almost one hundred years old has done a lot to unbias me against the classics. Better yet, while researching this book I discovered one of the unlisted co-authors is Paul de Kruif, whose 1926 book Microbe Hunters was and still is regarded by many to be a classic of science writing. I’ll have to hunt down a copy when I’m done with this.

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One Response to “Arrowsmith”

  1. […] Note: this isn’t the first time that Mr. Lewis’s words have graced this blog. […]

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