Love a writer — read him carefully and closely — and you’ll pick up on his pet words, the ones he reaches for repeatedly, like a baseball player with a trusted bat.
Nabokov famously had “mauve.” Elizabeth Hardwick had “motive.” Edward St. Aubyn has “gasp.” The statistician Ben Blatt has called these “cinnamon words” (after Ray Bradbury’s fondness for the names of spices), and they’re often hilariously telling, revealing the essence of a writer, something idiosyncratic in his perception of the world and himself. Is it any wonder that Dickens, that cash-strapped father of 10, was so crazy about “pinch” as noun, verb — even name?
For the science writer David Quammen that word is — sublimely — “noodle.” The verb pops up all over his work — and could any word suit him better? He is our greatest living chronicler of the natural world yet was never formally trained in the sciences. He started out as a novelist, a protégé of Robert Penn Warren, and stumbled into nonfiction, his boyhood passion for rooting around in forests now taking him to the canopies of the Amazon and the cliff lines of Komodo island. (The root of “amateur,” remember, is Latin for “lover.”)
As he follows scientists into thickets, real and rhetorical, he keeps an eye not only on the rigor demanded by science, but on the wonder and play and curiosity — the noodling — of serious creativity. These are the very qualities that infuse and leaven his own work, making unlikely page-turners out of burly books on zoonotic diseases and biogeography.
Nonfiction ought to be “artful, imaginative, accurate,” Quammen has written. “This combination of adjectives is not contradictory.”
His new book, “The Tangled Tree,” is the biography of an idea — a heretical, groundbreaking idea — and its many midwives, chief among them Carl Woese, “the most important biologist of the 20th century you’ve never heard of.”
In 1977, Woese and his colleagues at the University of Illinois announced their discovery of a “third domain” of life — single-cell microbes they called archaea — genetically distinct from what were thought to be the only two lineages of life: prokaryotes, which include bacteria, and eukaryotes, which include plants and animals. (It’s O.K., I might have missed the memo, too.)…
Read the whole review here.