Wednesday, July 03, 2013

(Im)personal

One thing I like about Barry Cunliffe's popular-science writing is that he does not open his prefaces, introductions, or first chapters with a personal anecdote. He does not, in other words condescend to the reader (and, not incidentally, amplify his own importance) with some forced or touching incident of doubtful relevance to the matter at hand.

That's not to say Cunliffe effaces his personality. Rather, he expresses it through his enthusiasm for his subject. Britain Begins and now Europe Between the Oceans leave me with an impression of Cunliffe's lively intelligence as well as awe and fascination with the range and depth of European geography, archaeology, and history.

Cunliffe's books led me to a book by another author on a related subject that opens with a long anecdote whose point is debatable. The anecdote would make a charming inclusion in a memoir of My Summers in Wales, but its relevance to the subject — population genetics — is questionable.

That's the preface. In the main body of the book, the text abounds with clearlys and significantlys and to summarizes, sure signs that the author lacks confidence in his ability to tell a story so feels he must keep repeating it.

I learned early in my career as a copy editor that even the most cack-handed word-butcher can produce elegant, affecting prose when writing personal memoir. Good writers can make the leap, bringing the freshness and natural flow of memoir to their exploration of other subjects. Cunliffe can; his inferior follower cannot, so I wish he'd stuck to the first until he could master the second. (Of course, with the advent of the god-awful coinage journaling, personal writing may have turned to crap, too.)

A few tips for would-be science writers who feel they must relate to the reader: Don't talk about your long-ago summers. Stay away from crusty but beloved aunts or grandfathers. And never, ever mention idylls, Welsh or otherwise.

© Peter Rozovsky 2013

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