No two people ever see a book quite the same way (as many folks noticed during my long, dull #AYearOfBooks post series). If you want a great illustration, consider this:
- Last week I grumbled a little about readers who have found Charles Darwin’s Barnacle and David Bowie’ Spider too “political”
- The very next day Simon Leather posted a review in which he professed particular liking for the more “political” parts
- And just a couple days after that, I came across Michael Ruse’s review for the Quarterly Journal of Biology – and it would seem that he didn’t even notice the “political” parts.
I know, you’re not supposed to read your reviews.* I can’t help it, and there are rewards. Sometimes a review will teach you something you didn’t realize about your own book (like Dan Garisto’s review in the Literary Review of Canada did). Other times, a review will confirm that something you tried to do, worked. Michael Ruse’s review is like that – in a somewhat amusing way.
There’s a theme running through Ruse’s review, and it’s this: apparently, I can be funny. “You would not think that a book about scientific names could be so much fun”, Ruse offers, but Charles Darwin’s Barnacle “puts to rest once and for all snide comments about Canadians’ lack of a sense of humor… I have never read a book that is so much fun….The folks north of the 49th parallel are a riot.”
Ruse doesn’t seem to take much more from the book that his amusement, but I’m totally OK with that. I’ll explain why in a moment, but first, I’d be remiss in not sticking up for my homeland. What’s this bit about Canadians not being funny? Dan Levy, Leslie Nielsen, Tommy Chong, Eugene Levy, Catherine O’Hara, Mary Walsh, Mike Myers, Jim Carrey**, Stephen Leacock, Dave Foley, Martin Short, John Candy, Seth Rogen, Dan Aykroyd, Stuart McLean, Samantha Bee, Dave Broadfoot, Shaun Majumder, The Barenaked Ladies, Frank Schuster and Johnny Wayne (no, you haven’t heard of them; yes, I’m dating myself), Scott Thompson, and Nancy White would like a collective word with Dr. Ruse.***
So how can I be peeved that some folks dislike to the serious content of Charles Darwin’s Barnacle, but simultaneously pleased that Ruse’s main (only) take is that it’s funny? This may seem inconsistent, but I don’t think it is, really. The reason: humour, often, has a serious purpose. At least in my SciComm practice, being funny isn’t just for amusement. It’s a way to get serious content in front of people who might not otherwise consider it, or who might navigate away if they started into it. (This is also why I’ve always believed that good teaching is about 10% stand-up comedy.) Anybody can write serious content. The trick is to make it engaging, and Ruse’s belief that I managed that in Charles Darwin’s Barnacle is more important to me than whether he noticed a particular pitch for inclusiveness in science (for example).
In the same vein, among my favourite reader comments on my writing guide, The Scientist’s Guide to Writing, are those that suggest that it’s enjoyable – yes, even funny – to read. I know: a funny writing guide? Who writes one of those? Who needs one? Well, I’m pleased that I did; and it’s possible that you do.
Anyway, I’m no Dan Levy, but if I can be mildly amusing while writing about scientific names and the history of natural history, I’m calling that a win.
© Stephen Heard February 16, 2021
*^I mean book reviews, stage reviews, that sort of thing. Pre-publication peer reviews are a different kettle of fish. Unpleasant but entirely predictable karmic things happen to authors who don’t read their peer reviews. It may seem cleverly efficient to just send your unaltered manuscript to the next journal on your list, but it’s amazing how often that just brings you back into contact with the same – but now, angry – reviewer.
**^Jim Carrey is very funny. Jim Carrey’s ideas about vaccines are not funny at all; instead, they’re idiotic and dangerous. Which is totally irrelevant to this post, but bears repeating as often as possible.
***^See, Canadians are funny. Also insecure.