When Books Aren’t Books

I write today as an amateur in critique of a professional, so don’t take any harsh words as gospel; read the work in question, form ones own opinion. There are certain and topics that are taxing for any writer who writes professionally, few would contest that statement unless keen to make some grandiose claim. Who hasn’t held up some literary familiar and declared that their words might make an history of drying paint lively? By that same token one should accept that there are particular subjects that in the mind of one reader or another will be given worth in the face of poor writing for no other reason than a private affection for the subject. Suffice that there are great writers and difficult topics, as much as there are terrible writers and endearing subjects.

Carl Zimmer is a great writer. The bacterium Escherichia coli is a difficult yet endearing subject topic. Microcosm, Zimmer’s subtitled E. coli and the New Science of Life, is a wretched book. It’s terrible and doesn’t even attempt to break from the failings of a previous work, Parasite Rex, that I wont review here.

I really love a good hard-science book, popular science not so much, and then more because the parts of greatest interest are often forced into the background and called dull. E. coli has a special place in my heart, a pedestal if you will, so maybe I’m a little harsh when I think it hasn’t been done justice. One has to understand that without E. coli, there would be no modern genetics, no DNA, no effective treatment for diabetics, no Round-up-Ready crops. Zimmer touches on this but really doesn’t do enough to drive it home in my opinion. There’s a reason he doesn’t, but more about that later. If one claims that more is known about E. coli than any other group of living things that’s an understatement. The depth and breadth of knowledge, the practical applications, the gestalt of E. coli is enormously well rounded. It’s mentioned in the book but far less is made of it that I would have liked. Now, clearly, I’m not the indented audience. This is a book for a high-school freshman who needs to write a report for biology, a book for someone who wants to give a speech for public speaking class and needs a topic that’ll impress the teacher.

If one were to pick up the book, expressly for the purpose of reading a chapter or two and putting out a quick review, or gleaning an anecdote, Microcosm would justly get a glowing endorsement. Even I would sing the books praises, if I hadn’t read the whole thing. How could this be the case? How could a book about a subject near and dear, written by an eloquent and deliberate author be fabulous in piecemeal and foul as a whole?

Zimmer is better suited to articles. The whole thing, start to finish, could be chopped up and scattered across a few dozen periodicals to great effect. Every chapter is less a part of a coherent whole and more a variation of a theme, each one flows well in it’s way but lends a strange syncopated rhythm to the book in which it resides. What one one looks for in a cohesive work is not a collection of articles each with their own clear beginning middle and end. The editor of the dust jacket copy seems all too aware of the books failing and boldly denies it by claiming the work tells “the story of the one species on Earth that science knows best…”. Except the book doesn’t tell the story, it tells disjointed parts of it. As if being pressed between the same covers gives the chapters some sort of narrative quality.

My recommendation read a chapter at a time with a few months between each. It’s better that way I imagine, and it might not be so off-putting then. This is a good choice to buy used for a few cents and pass on to a friend or library book-sale later on. But hey, at least the endnotes are nice signposts to follow. Pick up a copy from AbeBooks or Amazon if you will but for goodness sake don’t read it as you would a book. Take it as a magazine.

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