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Scientists' Nightstand: Derek Bickerton

Greg Ross

Linguist Derek Bickerton is professor emeritus at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. His most recent book is Adam's Tongue: How Humans Made Language, How Language Made Humans (Hill and Wang, 2009).

Could you tell us a bit about yourself?Derek%20BickertonClick to Enlarge Image

Having come to academia quite late in life, I taught and researched in linguistics for 24 years at the University of Hawaii, my main interests lying first in Creole languages and later in language evolution. My books on the former include Dynamics of a Creole System (Cambridge University Press, 1975), Roots of Language (Karoma, 1981) and Bastard Tongues (Hill and Wang, 2008); my books on the latter include Language and Species (University of Chicago Press, 1990), Language and Human Behavior (University of Washington Press, 1995) and Adam's Tongue. I live on the northwest shore of the island of Oahu. Officially I've been "retired" for 13 years, which means I don't have to do anything I don't want to do. I don't belong to any party or belief (not even atheism) or have any orthodox opinions on any subject, so far as I know, but I do have a literal garden that I cultivate assiduously, with lots of tropical and subtropical fruits and flowers.

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?

Right now I'm reading All Aunt Hagar's Children, by Edward Jones (Amistad, 2006), because I'm recovering from bronchitis—my wife bought it at a garage sale and I'm running out of new stuff to read. It's short stories; some of them I couldn't see the point of, but some feel quite real. I recently finished something that was much more up my street, Charles Mann's 1491 (Knopf, 2005)—I thought I knew something about pre-Columbian America, but whoa ... ! Normally for recreation I read thrillers (preferably crime stories without detective content). For work, anything on language and mind and the evolution of these.

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

I usually read during breakfast and lunch and in bed at night for a half hour or so.

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

I don't really have favorite prose writers, just favorite books, because I don't know a prose writer who hasn't turned in some turkeys. Poetry: John Donne and the Metaphysicals, Ben Jonson, John Dryden, John Wilmot, Gerard Manley Hopkins (nice juxtaposition), Thomas Hardy, Charles Baudelaire, Arthur Rimbaud.

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

Two novels: (1) James Joyce's Ulysses (1922), without question the world's greatest-ever novel, (2) Under the Volcano (1947), Malcolm Lowry's only readable book, brilliant despite its flaws and about the kind of lawless world in which I've spent much time and where I feel more at home than in my present respectable existence. One nonfiction: George Borrow's The Bible in Spain (1843), which, despite its title, is about that same world (in its mid-19th-century incarnation), which Borrow saw with amazing candor and sympathy. (After all, didn't Jesus work among publicans and sinners?)

What book has influenced you most? Explain how.

It's hard to pick out just one. Darwin's Origin of Species (1859), obviously. The two novels mentioned above, which for a long time gave me the hopeless ambition of emulating them. Niche Construction: The Neglected Process in Evolution, by F. John Odling-Smee, Kevin N. Laland and Marcus W. Feldman (Princeton University Press, 2003), is the one that's most influenced me recently. It was great to find that Richard Dawkins's gene-centrism wasn't the last word on evolution. And it made me think more than anything I've read in years.

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

I want to thoroughly read E. O. Wilson's classic book on ants (The Ants, Springer-Verlag, 1990), which I've only glanced at so far. I want to read the most complete biography of Andrew Jackson, whatever that is. And I'd like to find a really good book on New Caledonian crows, though I don't think there is one yet. For one re-read, Ben Jonson's The Alchemist (1610)—one of the funniest plays ever written.

What book recommendations do you have for young readers?

You mean specific books, or in general? I'm old enough to think you haven't had a proper childhood if you haven't read The Wind in the Willows (by Kenneth Grahame, 1908) and Treasure Island (by Robert Louis Stevenson, 1883). Practically anything by Stevenson is a good read. Older children, especially those shy of "literature," should read Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon (1930); if that doesn't turn them on, they're unsalvageable. In general terms, I'd encourage the young to read as widely and indiscriminately as possible and after that to follow their noses.

What science book recommendations do you have for nonscientists?

Probably any book of essays by Stephen Jay Gould. He's not all that reliable, but he's fun to read and should encourage people to try the heavier stuff. Same goes for Oliver Sacks—The Man who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales (Summit Books, 1985) would be a great place to start for anyone who's ever wondered about the mysteries of the mind.

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

Linguistics? Almost all linguistics books are unreadable for nonprofessionals. An exception is Steven Pinker's The Language Instinct (William Morrow, 1994), which is both fun to read and covers the field pretty fully without too many technicalities. Along similar lines, if with narrower scope, may I modestly recommend my own Bastard Tongues?

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