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Forced to Choose

et al., Roald Hoffmann


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 the pasture.

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