Forced to Choose
Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Sex on the Brain
When I was in the sixth grade, I pulled a copy of George Orwell's
Animal Farm off my parents' bookshelf. Being a
literal-minded 11-year-old, I thought it was about animals on a
farm, of course. When Boxer the Horse died, I sat on my bed, sobbing
about the poor worn-down beast. I had no idea that he was a symbol
of the Russian peasantry or that, in fact, Animal Farm had
nothing to do with barnyard drama at all. I learned that I had been
conned some years later, in high school when we were assigned to
read Orwell's satire of Communist ideals. In retrospect, I had to
laugh. I had cried all over a symbolic horse? But it wasn't until I
started college and read Nathaniel West's Day of the Locust
that I recognized the real problem: I had not grown out of being a
linear thinker. My dilemma with West's acclaimed tale of a decadent
Hollywood was a question posed by the instructor: "What is the
meaning of the horse in the bottom of the swimming pool?" I
couldn't believe it. Another symbolic horse. To this day, I have
never figured out any meaningful answer beyond, "Apparently,
the (poor) horse drowned." I date my hostility toward heavy
literary symbolism to the body-in-the-pool experience. Did those two
books turn me in the more literal direction of science writing? I'm
not that linear. But they did teach me that I was always going to
appreciate the direct more than the indirect, the real over the
symbolic. The year after the Day of the Locust, I switched
my major to journalism. As a science writer, I've developed a new
affection for fiction, because writing about science demands so much
grace in storytelling. There's much to learn in the purely beautiful
turn of phrase. I once tried to model a story about a rare genetic
disorder partly upon the brilliant writing in Timothy Findley's
novel, Not Wanted on the Voyage. It's both a joy and
humbling experience to follow this direction in science books, to
read Dennis Overbye's Lonely Hearts of the Cosmos, E. O.
Wilson's Journey to the Ants or to reread the elegant
essays in Natalie Angier's Beauty of the Beastly. These are
books in which even the tiniest life is tangible, stars blaze with
literal heat, and horses, if they appear at all, graze peacefully in
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