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Scientists' Nightstand: James Gleick

Frank Diller

James Gleick, a native New Yorker, graduated from Harvard College in 1976. He served in several capacities at the New York Times before taking a leave of absence to research a book, which became Chaos: Making a New Science (Viking Penguin, 1987). Returning to the Times as a science reporter, he focused for two years on esoteric areas of mathematics and physics. After the death of the physicist Richard Feynman, he left the Times again to begin work on a biography, Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman (Pantheon, 1992). Chaos and Genius were finalists for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award in the United States and have been widely translated abroad.

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In 1989-90 Gleick was the McGraw Distinguished Lecturer at Princeton University. He collaborated with the photographer Eliot Porter on Nature's Chaos (Viking Penguin, 1990) and with developers at Autodesk on Chaos: The Software. In 1993, when the Internet was a glimmer on the horizon, he founded The Pipeline, a New York City service that pioneered the first full-featured graphical user interface for Internet access from Windows and Macintosh computers.

For some years Gleick wrote a column called "Fast Forward," focusing on technology and the future, for the New York Times Magazine. His views on the changing technologies of information animated his next books: Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything, an exploration of our increasingly strained and fractured relationship with time; and What Just Happened, a collection of his essays chronicling the emergence of cyberspace.

Gleick was the editor of Best American Science Writing 2000 and is active on the council of the Authors Guild. His writing has appeared in the New Yorker, the Atlantic, and other magazines. He lives with his wife, the journalist and author Cynthia Crossen, and their dog, Astro, in the Hudson Valley of New York. His new book is Isaac Newton. Learn more about his work at

What books are you currently reading (or have you just finished reading) for your work or for pleasure?
I just finished (for pleasure) a new novel by "Stanley Bing" (pseudonym) called You Look Nice Today: a strange and quite hilarious view of that essential yet seemingly antiliterary phenomenon, the modern corporation. Then I moved on to State of the Art, science fiction by the brilliant Iain M. Banks, who creates a different kind of universe. I was on an airplane, in point of fact, and this affects one's choice of reading.

When and where do you usually read (specific location, time of day, etc.)?
Bed, night, sometimes morning. Various couches, any random time of afternoon.

Who are your favorite writers (fiction, nonfiction or poetry)? Why?
I'll try to answer this with the caveat that I have no permanent/final favorite writers, just an always rotating list. I strongly favor fiction in my own nonwork reading. As of today (but these have some staying power), I'll list John Updike, Ursula K. Le Guin and Jane Smiley. Why? Because they're beautiful writers at the level of phrases and sentences, and because there seems to be no limit to their ability to imagine worlds and universes and times like ours and altogether different from ours and yet partaking of ours.

Or something like that.

A certain attitude or perspective of Le Guin's was inside my head as I was writing Isaac Newton. I'm not going to try to explain that further.

What are the three best books you've ever read? Explain.
This is even more impossible than the favorite-writers question. "Best" books? I suppose at the moment I should say that the Principia is, almost by definition, one of the "best" books I've ever read—although then I'd have to say that, while I have read it, I haven't exactly "read" it. Still, as I've said, I like fiction. Sometimes I think Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita is the best book I've ever read (I just reread it after 25 years). Jack Maggs, by Peter Carey. The Information, by Martin Amis. Sorry, this is getting listy.

I'll offer my favorites of the three authors above: Gertrude and Claudius (Updike), The Dispossessed (Le Guin), The Greenlanders (Smiley).

Having listed them, maybe now I should try to figure out what they have in common. Nothing to do with science, although The Dispossessed is in a sense a biography of a physicist. But there is something. Maybe it's something about connecting the past, the present, and the future—by means of imagination, and fully persuasively.

What book has influenced you most? Explain how.
Can't do it. No one book. Books are so different, really, one from the other. At a certain time I was amazed and, sure, influenced by Douglas Hofstadter's Gödel, Escher, Bach. But my books aren't anything like that. I'm constantly being influenced by what I read, but not in the sense that I find models that I can imitate or emulate. I don't know what books, if any, mine are like.

Name three books you want to read but haven't gotten to yet.
More Nabokov: Pnin.
Big Trouble, by my late friend J. Anthony Lukas.
Norman Rush's new novel, Mortals.

What book recommendations do you have for young readers?
A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L'Engle (maybe this belongs above, in the list of books that have influenced me).

What science book recommendations do you have for nonscientists?
I have ambivalent feelings about the categorizing upon which this question depends. In some sense, my books are supposed to be "science books" for "nonscientists"—but I don't like to think this way. Is a nonscientist anyone who doesn't practice science for a living?

Science is not a small part of knowledge, as far as I'm concerned; almost everything that matters has to do with science in some way.

Name one book in your discipline that you would you recommend for scientists outside your field. Explain your choice.
I have to punt this one, too, because I don't have a discipline or a field.

Sorry, I seem to have been evasive in this whole exercise, but I think that's a result of trying to be honest.

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