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.

Book Review: Bacteria The Benign, the Bad, and the Beautiful

Not exactly a microscopy text but inspiration for breaking out the immersion oil certainly. -K

Written by Trudy M. Wassenaar, Bacteria: The Benign, the Bad, and the Beautiful something of a rarity in the continuum of microbiological texts; a work for public consumption. To understand the book, and more importantly enjoy it, one doesn’t need a scientific background or any sort of prior knowledge. It’s not even necessary for the reader to have a prior interest in bacteria, the book will surely engender one.

Pleasantly illustrated throughout, the book progresses in a natural way from one topic to the next. Topics as diverse as bacterial toxins, marine microbiology, and antibiotic resistance are all covered. So much more is covered as well, from technical subjects such as Type Three Secretion Systems and taxonomy to crowd pleasers like bacteria in art or the bacterial record holders. One is sure to be impressed by the shear volume of information packed into under 200 pages.

Written by a professional it is gratifyingly accurate and free of tedious in-line citations which the casual reader is sure to appreciate. Instead all relevant references are provided in the rear of the text. Most readers will quickly note occasionally unwieldy sentences. No doubt an artifact of either translation or the authors native language they do not render difficult the reading.

Available from all the usual places, I recommend the purchase. Seeing as it is published by Wiley anyone with a membership in the Royal Microscopical Society can make good use of the discount Wiley provides to members.

A Book Review

One of the most significant problems in amateur microscopy today is the books; what is available to the microscopist is either quite advanced and targeted to the current or future professional, or lamentably rudimentary and intended for the casual youngster. I’m of the opinion that a sufficiently motivated child or an interested adult would profit greatly from a more advanced text than is usually offered… In any case here’s a modern book I quite like. -K

Guide to Microlife is a conveniently sized book by Kenneth G. Rainis and Bruce J. Russell. It’s not particularly imposing either within or without and I would wager dollars to donuts that most microscope owners, fancying themselves serious, would put it back after leafing through it at the booksellers.  It is lovely to leaf through however, and I expect a fair number would keep it in mind and suggest it to any of the children in their life who show an interest in microscopy that extends beyond sight and exclamation. I count that a mistake. Not because it would be of no use to a child, I expect it would be much used in no time at all, but because it’s accessible style leads it to be easily put aside by adults who would benefit enormously from it.

It’s not surprising that an adult might at first put this book aside as too simplistic. It was written to be simple, direct, and I’ll hazard unassuming, so as not to intimidate the budding explorer. In the beginning acknowledgements credit is given to a few folks at Wards Sci. (a local company I quite love!) specifically for their advice in making the book more accessible. That the very accessibility which makes the work so welcoming should turn off some who would otherwise benefit enormously is only one of the draw backs of the work. The other is its price; $40.00 (US) for a book of under 300 pages which is intended for the precocious child might seem a bit excessive. It’s certainly worth the price but I will confess to purchasing my copy second hand for far less.

It is my opinion that the only thing, second to a limited literature, keeping microscopy from gaining a far more significant following, or catching the enthusiasm of one peering through a lens, is the lack of a means of easily identifying the wonders seen. This book is a credit to the literature and invaluable as an aid to identification. Admittedly, as a book on microscopic life it’s far from comprehensive and as a guide to identification it can be, at times, quite general, but for less than a hundred dollars one would be hard pressed to find a book that could identify half as much a quarter as well.

In the book proper “microlife” is broken down into four general and obvious groups; monerans, microfungi, protists, and microanimals. If the last group is rather broad it can be excused, and very well I might add, for no other reason than utility. When looking through ones microscope one may encounter all manner of things, living, or otherwise; once it is established as living, a certain number of specimens become far more likely than other and of those micro-animals may be more varied than the other groupings. Having such a limited selection of groups, together with such quality illustrations and photomicrographs (I feel I might be remiss in mentioning just how good the images in the book are) one can easily establish if not the specific subject seen, then at least enough to determine where to look for more specificity. This is where I think the value of the book comes through, in identification.

Sure it has a few suggestions for experiments of the most rudimentary sort, more than enough ‘science fair bait’ as it were, but to know, or at least have an idea of the life one sees through the lens is no small thing. If more of the so called serious amateurs owned this book I’m sure one would see far less forum and message board posts begging for identification of common organisms. If in this book the areas in which different organisms are commonly found are given childish micro-habitat designations such as “Bed and Breakfast” it must absolutely be accepted for no other reason than its utility.

The chances are if one is in possession of this book, and one sees an unknown living thing upon a microscope slide, it will be identified. Perhaps it will not be narrowed down to genus and species in the course of the slim volumes 287 pages, but enough will be shown to point the way to a comprehensive tome. It is a fantastic book, profusely and wonderfully illustrated, anyone with a microscope and an interest extending beyond the petrographic, metallurgic, or narrow field which holds a particular interest would do well to own this book.

It’s a profusely illustrated book with some of the more descriptive and utilitarian micrographs and microphotographs which I have seen. In looking through the work one gets a genuine sense of the interest the authors hold for their subject. It is more than its utility, more than its simplicity, a welcoming book which encourages, above all else. For my own part, as one who has pursued microscopy for some time, I will say that the book is excellent and true to its intent; inspirational without being useless and simple without being juvenile, it provides a starting point for identification or an almanac of where to locate desired subjects. It really is a quality work and for all it’s basic content I can not say enough on it’s virtue for the advanced yet un-specialized student.

Below find appropriate links to it on AbeBooks and Amazon:



Microbe Hunters

In preparation for an impending move I’ve been packing up shelves upon shelves of books. I came across one particular book I hadn’t thought of in ages; the first book I ever stayed up all night to read. I couldn’t resist and read it again, after nearly two decades it’s as riveting as ever.

In 1926 an American microbiologist cum author named Paul Henry de Kruif published his second book, a jaunty little tome called Microbe Hunters. Composed of vignettes, each providing not only an account of a microbe hunters works but an insight into their methods. The book was an unprecedented success seeing wide circulation and numerous editions in just its first year. The book remains in print to this day. In many ways this odd little history was the first of its kind; a genera scientific study, a dry technical topic covered in the fast paced style of the popular press. One might justifiably look upon de Kruif as a genuine trailblazer, paving the way for later authors like Richard Preston who would introduce a journalists integrity and an artists eye to the genera.

For all of the books popular success, Microbe Hunters suffers from more than a few rough edges. A microbiologist who breaks into writing is sure to produce a unique and passionate perspective, which is just what comes through from de Kruif. The book feels as though written with an eagerness to engage his audience that often supersedes the conventions now standard in works of non-fiction. While a modern writer might labor to ensure he does not project himself into the roles of the men and women they depict, de Kruif it seems felt no such restraint. He unhesitatingly puts words into the mouths of men as varied as Leeuwenhoek, Spallanzani, Koch, and Pasteur. He depicts Metchnikoff (however justly) as an enduringly suicidal savant, and paints David Bruce with the same brush the writers of Cracked.com are wont to use for Teddy Roosevelt. The section of the book detailing malarial research presented the work of Grassi and Ross in such a light that Ross successfully sued de Kruif to have that portion stripped from the British publication of the book! As prolific a writer as Ross however, may have simply been protecting the marketability of his own works rather than objecting to inaccuracies.

For all of the flaws in Microbe Hunters, the casual prejudices of its time, the inaccuracies and omissions, it has a certain undeniable charm as comes through in the constant descriptions of the beards and mustachios of the various men represented. Frederick Loeffler is described as “…that microbe hunter whose mustache was so militaristic the he had to keep pulling it down to see through his microscope…”. But the book still has the power to engage the interest of the reader today and has no doubt inspired countless workers to take up the microscope. De Kruif covers the subject with the enthusiasm of a child and the affection of a parent. He truly wrote an excellent book. If occasionally he wavered it is not unforgivable. Other dense accounts and windy biographies exist for those who would seek them. His book was written for a public unfamiliar with things we now teach children in school, for people with intelligence but without knowledge. In closing permit me to remind any readers who have judged Microbe Hunters harshly in the past, that tucked away in a little paragraph in the section covering Metchnikoff, de Kruif tells his reader: “…the stumbling strides of microbe hunters are not made by any perfect logic, and that is why I may write a grotesque, but not a perfect story of their deeds.”

Microbe Hunters by Paul Henry de Kruif is available for purchase at Amazon, Ebay, Abe Books, and on the shelves at your local book sellers or library.