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Scientists' Nightstand: David Quammen

Greg Ross

David Quammen's science writing has appeared in National Geographic, Harper's, Rolling Stone and the New York Times Book Review. His latest book is The Reluctant Mr. Darwin (W. W. Norton, $22.95).David QuammenClick to Enlarge Image

Could you tell us a bit about yourself?

I'm a nonfiction writer, specializing in science, who began my professional life as a novelist.  Nowadays I would classify myself as a science journalist. Public disclaimer: I have no training whatsoever in science, but then again I have no training in journalism. I write mostly about field biology, evolutionary biology, theoretical ecology and conservation—these are my journalistic beat, and my education in them has been on-the-job, haphazard and autodidactive. I split my time between magazine work (for Harper's, National Geographic and other magazines) and books, of which my best-known is The Song of the Dodo (Scribner, 1996). For 15 years, until 1995, I wrote a column on natural science for Outside magazine. I've received the National Magazine Award three times, for essays and other work in Outside and National Geographic, and the John Burroughs Medal for natural history writing. I live in Montana, where the air is cold and dry, and travel on assignment whenever possible to jungles and swamps.

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?

For pleasure I'm presently reading Stephen Greenblatt's Will in the World (W. W. Norton, 2004), subtitled How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare. Although it's written by an academic Shakespearean, it's not just erudite; it's also lively and well crafted. Before that, I'd just finished Trollope's The Eustace Diamonds (1871), for sheer entertainment and escape to a different century; Matt Ridley's terrific little biography of Francis Crick, just published (Francis Crick: Discoverer of the Genetic Code, Atlas, 2006); Sean Carroll's The Making of the Fittest (W. W. Norton, 2006), about DNA and evolution; and Daniel Pauly and Jay Maclean's depressing, necessary study of depleted marine ecosystems of the Northern Atlantic, In a Perfect Ocean (Island Press, 2003). For work, I've been rereading Darwin's The Descent of Man (1871) and The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872), for a book review of the two recent Darwin editions edited by Edward O. Wilson and James Watson, and the dubious Victorian classic How I Found Livingstone, by Henry Stanley (1902).

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

I read work-related books in the early morning, before starting to write, and non-work reading over a martini in the evening, and at bedtime for the 20 minutes before my eyelids grind shut like an electric garage door. I read on planes and in hotel rooms and, with a headlamp, in tents. If I go to the dentist's office, I take a book.

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

William Faulkner has been the central and defining author in my literary and intellectual life. Robert Penn Warren was also a huge influence, partly through his novels and poetry, partly through his generous personal mentoring and friendship. I much enjoy Ernst Mayr's historical writings on biology and Bertrand Russell's on philosophy, though my friends in those professions caution me that I shouldn't trust the invidious opinions of either. It's okay, though, they could write. Correct for parallax and enjoy. Back to fiction writers: My favorites include Joan Didion, Don DeLillo, Tim O'Brien, Robert Stone, John Le Carré, Ward Just and Ford Maddox Ford.

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

The most stunningly intense and wondrous reading experience I've ever had was my first pass (of roughly 11) through Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! (1936). One step down from that come fabulous books such as The Brothers Karamazov (1880) and Anna Karenina (1877) (but I couldn't read either in Russian, so what do I know?), other Faulkner novels and Thomas Mann.

What book has influenced you most? Explain how.

Again, Absalom, Absalom! It taught me to think carefully about how a book can be structured. I couldn't have written The Song of the Dodo if I hadn't read and reread Faulkner. Two other books, from the scientific realm, have had huge effects on my thinking and the trajectories of my work: The Theory of Island Biogeography, by Robert MacArthur and Edward O. Wilson (Princeton University Press, 1967), and The Ecology of Invasions by Animals and Plants, by Charles Elton (Methuen; 1958). The early essays of Stephen Jay Gould and the early books of John McPhee also influenced me much at the point I became interested in nonfiction writing. Their later work, such as McPhee's geology books and Gould's The Structure of Evolutionary Theory (Harvard University Press, 2002) (which I read cover to cover only because I was paid to, for a book review), less so.

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

Man and Nature, by George Perkins Marsh, originally published in 1864; The Rise of the West, by William McNeil (University of Chicago Press, 1963); Dreams of a Final Theory, by Steven Weinberg (Pantheon Books, 1992).

What book recommendations do you have for young readers?

Read Ernst Mayr's The Growth of Biological Thought (Belknap Press, 1982) and Arthur Koestler's The Sleepwalkers (Macmillan, 1968) and Edmund Wilson's (not to be confused with E. O. Wilson) To the Finland Station (1940), which isn't a science book but will richly feed the brain. Read Ed Abbey and Henry Thoreau. Read Darwin's The Voyage of the Beagle (1839) and Alfred Russel Wallace's The Malay Archipelago (1869) and Watson's The Double Helix (Atheneum, 1968) and Ed (now I do mean E. O.) Wilson's Biophilia (Harvard University Press, 1984). Acquire some high-quality field guides—to insects, to reptiles, to birds, to mammals, to wildflowers, to whatever—and make them your tools for discovering the natural world as it exists beyond books.

What science book recommendations do you have for nonscientists?

Read Matt Ridley and Richard Dawkins and Richard Fortey and Sean Carroll and James Gleick and Janet Browne and Jonathan Weiner. Additional note: Weiner's Time, Love, Memory (Knopf, 1999) is an extraordinarily fine book, better even than The Beak of the Finch (Knopf, 1994), which is very good.

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

What is my discipline? Science journalism of the biological sort, I suppose. I think that it would be good if scientists in other fields might give themselves the trouble, and the pleasure, of reading a book called The Origin of Species.

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