January 8, 2012 | 3
Here are the best things I’ve read all week. The pieces are not necessarily news and could be decades old, and they’re probably longform writing but not always. Maybe there is one link, maybe there are forty. But they all were thought-provoking enough that they hopped around in my brain long past the read. Enjoy.
1) A rare interview with John McPhee (‘John McPhee, The Art of Nonfiction No. 3′) from the Spring 2010 issue of the Paris Review is about so much more than how he writes, though it is about that — from getting ideas to structuring to getting words on paper. It also gives a fine sense of the man who is an inspiration to many of us nonfiction (or, as he prefers, ‘factual writing’) writers.
The thing about writers is that, with very few exceptions, they grow slowly—very slowly. A John Updike comes along, he’s an anomaly. That’s no model, that’s a phenomenon. I sent stuff to The New Yorker when I was in college and then for ten years thereafter before they accepted something. I used to paper my wall with their rejection slips. And they were not making a mistake. Writers develop slowly. That’s what I want to say to you: don’t look at my career through the wrong end of a telescope. This is terribly important to me as a teacher of writers, of kids who want to write.
2) How do you want to live the final months, weeks, days, hours of your life? Many of us, healthy, would say, “with my friends and family,” but this rarely happens in practice: too many of us will die fighting for even one more second of life. But, as physician Ken Murray points out in an article at Zócalo Public Square, doctors themselves, who should be best informed to choose how they will die, rarely go out fighting. And in ‘How Doctors Die,’ Murray tries to answers the question: “How has it come to this—that doctors administer so much care that they wouldn’t want for themselves?”
It’s not a frequent topic of discussion, but doctors die, too. And they don’t die like the rest of us. What’s unusual about them is not how much treatment they get compared to most Americans, but how little. For all the time they spend fending off the deaths of others, they tend to be fairly serene when faced with death themselves. They know exactly what is going to happen, they know the choices, and they generally have access to any sort of medical care they could want. But they go gently.
If you enjoy this article and find it thought-provoking, definitely check out ‘Letting Go’ from the August 2010 issue of the New Yorker by Atul Gawande, which is one of the best things I’ve ever read.
3) For 14 years now, the scientists behind the All Taxa Biodiversity Inventory have been working to catalogue all the species in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which is contained within North Carolina and Tennessee. And an article published in November in Knoxville, Tennessee’s Metropulse by Jesse Fox Mayshark (’17,000 Species in the Great Smoky Mountains. And Counting.’) recounts the project and whether it has a future.
The old-fashioned ambition of the project presents some serious challenges, though. There are, first of all, the unforgiving terms of the mission: Count everything. The name says All, not Some or Most. There is the problem that the natural world does not stand still. Every count is a snapshot of this year, this organism, this place. One of the hopes for the ATBI is that it will make it easier to understand the effects of forces like climate change, air pollution, and invasive species. But those forces are already at work, which means that things already counted have to be monitored and revisited even as the search for new species goes on.
The project has come a long way, as Mayshark explains, but it faces the same problem as much of taxonomy and species collecting: funding.
The funding that got the ATBI started has largely fallen off, and people to do the hands-on research are increasingly difficult to come by. It turns out that for all its scope, the kind of work the project demands is not, in a lot of ways, the kind of work that modern science most values and rewards.
“What happens when the hopeful, impossible task runs up against pragmatic reality?” Bartels says. “That’s the question.”
While Mayshark doesn’t address them head-on, the article raises all sorts of questions about what scientists, the public, and funding institutions value about science. And the sort of nitty-gritty work that should be — and perhaps must be — done.
Check back next week for more gems.