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Scientists' Nightstand: Eric Kandel

Greg Ross

Psychiatrist and neuroscientist Eric Kandel is professor of biochemistry and biophysics at Columbia University. In 2000 he shared a Nobel Prize with Arvid Carlsson and Paul Greengard for research on the physiological basis of memory storage in neurons. His most recent book is In Search of Memory: The Emergence of a New Science of Mind (W. W. Norton, 2006), which chronicles his life and research.

Could you tell us a bit about yourself? Eric KandelClick to Enlarge Image

I am a Kavli Professor and University Professor at Columbia and senior investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. I do research on the biological basis of memory. If you read In Search of Memory, it will tell you all you will ever want to know.

What books are you currently reading (or have you just finished reading) for your work or for pleasure? Why did you choose them, and what do you think of them?

Because I have just finished my own autobiography, I have recently been reading a number of biographies and autobiographies: For example, I read Elie Wiesel's memoir, All Rivers Run to the Sea (Knopf, 1995)—the first volume of his autobiography—and I'm about to start And the Sea Is Never Full (Knopf, 1999), the second volume. I find the Wiesel autobiography quite remarkable. I earlier had read Wiesel's Night (Hill and Wang, 1960), which is a classic, especially now in its new translation by Marion Wiesel.

I much liked Ruth Sime's Lise Meitner: A Life in Physics (University of California Press, 1996). On the other hand, I read a very well-advertised book by Barbara Goldsmith, Obsessive Genius: The Inner World of Marie Curie (W. W. Norton, 2005), and I found it to be rather uninteresting and uninspired. It's clear that Curie was a highly gifted, superb experimental physicist. She also was a very complex woman. But somehow the inner workings of her mind never emerged in this book. I have skimmed Kay Jamison's book Exuberance: The Passion for Life (Knopf, 2004), which describes the importance of enthusiasm in various areas of creative life—science, writing, painting, music. This I found to be fascinating in part but a bit repetitious, as the same idea returns time and time again.

I am currently reading an excellent biography of Willem de Kooning by Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan (De Kooning : An American Master, Knopf, 2004). This extraordinary book gives a fine insight into the creativity of de Kooning and his willingness to tolerate poverty and terrible working conditions in order to allow expression of his inner creativity to bring new dimensions to painting. I read lots of things on art: For instance, I've recently read large sections of the marvelous catalog of the Paris exhibit on Klimt, Kokoschka, Schiele and Moser.

When and where do you usually read (specific location, time of day, etc.)?

I do a fair bit of reading while I travel by plane or train, and I do some reading on weekends, at home, when I have the time, and I usually read for a half hour in bed, although a good part of that time goes to the New York Review of Books and the Times Literary Supplement when these arrive. I don't have a particular spot; I read in a chair, in bed or the plane.

Who are your favorite writers (fiction, nonfiction or poetry)? Why?

In fiction my favorite 20th century writers are, working backward, Saul Bellow, Imre Kertész, Philip Roth, William Faulkner, Robert Musil, Thomas Mann, Marcel Proust and James Joyce.

Among nonfiction writers I like Elie Wiesel and Ian Kershaw (who wrote a fantastic biography of Hitler [Hitler, Longman, 1991]), and I like the essays of Fritz Stern, Lewis Thomas, Gerald Weissman and George Steiner. I don't read very much poetry these days, but the 20th-century poets I like are Dylan Thomas, W. H. Auden, T. S. Eliot, Rainer Maria Rilke and Stefan George.

What are the three best books you've ever read? Explain.

I really don't think I can give you an answer to that. Certainly of the books that have moved me recently—I would have to say Night, especially the new translation by Marion Wiesel, and Fatelessness (again, the new translation) [by Kertész, Vintage International, 2004]. Books about the Holocaust and surviving the Holocaust move me a great deal. Although I was never in a concentration camp, that history haunts me.

What book has influenced you most? Explain how.

Two books that had a big influence on me are scientific autobiographies: The Way of an Investigator, by Walter B. Cannon (1945), and The Statue Within, by François Jacob (Basic Books, 1988). I like Jacob's writing a great deal, and in general his insightful and poetic way of expressing scientific ideas I find extremely attractive.

Name three books you want to read but haven't gotten to yet.

There's a book I have called A War Like No Other, by Victor Hanson (Random House, 2005), on the Peloponnesian War, which I'm very eager to read but for a number of reasons have not read.

What book recommendations do you have for young readers?

Depending how old they are, that would vary. I think the essays by Lewis Thomas and Gerald Weissman are very inspiring for young people. I think Edward Wilson's Naturalist (Shearwater Books, 1994) and Jim Watson's The Double Helix (Atheneum, 1968) are fantastic books. Horace Freeland Judson's The Eighth Day of Creation (Simon and Schuster, 1979) is a fantastic introduction to biology, but it's really not for a very young reader. But for a person who would enjoy Judson, I would also recommend that they might try my book, In Search of Memory.

What science book recommendations do you have for nonscientists?

I think the best books that are out there for nonscientists are The Double Helix, The Eighth Day of Creation and The Statue Within.

Name one book in your discipline that you would recommend to scientists outside your field. Explain your choice.

I think our textbook Principles of Neural Science (edited by Kandel, James H. Schwartz and Thomas M. Jessell, McGraw-Hill, 2000) is a very good introduction to the brain and has been used by many people. I think Molecular Biology of the Cell, 4th edition (by Bruce Alberts, Alexander Johnson, Julian Lewis, Martin Raff, Keith Roberts and Peter Walter, Garland Science, 2002), is an exemplary book, and almost any of Jacob's writings are excellent for people outside the field.

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