Book Review: Letters to a Young Scientist by Edward O. Wilson

Shelf Awareness for Readers is doing a dedicated poetry issue in which another review of mine will be published – a wonderful debut (and prize-winning) collection by Brynn Saito called The Palace of Contemplating Departure.   As a result, there will be more poetry reviews this month, which is welcome news for a prosaic world!

There’s also plenty of general fiction and non-fiction due out in April for an embarrassment of riches for the month.  I’m glad I am not the one to decide which reviews to run.

So I will post my review for Edward O. Wilson’s new Letters to a Young Scientist here.

Letters to a Young Scientist by Edward O. Wilson, (Liveright, a division of W.W. Norton & Co.,$21.95 hardcover, 9780871403773, April 15, 2013)

Two-time Pulitzer-prize winning biologist and bestselling author Edward O. Wilson’s wonderful Letters to a Young Scientist draws on sixty years of research and teaching for this warm, spirited defense of science.

Wilson intersperses personal anecdotes with advice and hard science across a range of subjects.  His explanation of the scientific method is a triumph of elegance.  It forms the backbone of one of the book’s best chapters.  He praises the genius of religion and the humanities but adds that science builds on their understanding of humanity’s place in the universe by formulating the laws that explain its working.

Bursting with insight and contagious awe for the natural world, Wilson compares the practice of science to both entrepreneurship and storytelling:  it relies on quick, easy experiments to assess potential ventures alongside the creative ability to plot research towards an imagined conclusion.   Value both skills, he advises.   Recalling his boyhood fascination with insects, he encourages his readers to follow their passion and to never stop learning.

The book takes its title and approach from Letters to a Young Poet, Rilke’s famous collection of responses to a young poet seeking his advice.  Wilson’s book is ostensibly addressed to his students though it also seems meant for general readers.  Using letters as the organizing device seems somewhat manufactured as a result, the only dissonant note in this otherwise perfect little book:  a celebration of science, a sense of the important discoveries yet to be made, a generous belief in the contribution any aspiring scientist can offer, and a gift to the reader.

Discover:   A wonderful and readable celebration of science and an elegant introduction to its core concepts, by one of the most distinguished biologists of our time.

(And here is Brain Pickings‘ post on the book.)

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Word Play: A Metaphor is Like A Simile

Somewhere on the WordPress site, as I was setting up this blog, I came across this quote:

“A metaphor is like a simile.” — Anonymous

Really?  it is?  how clever!  Who came up with that one? I wondered, and went on my merry way.  But the question wouldn’t leave me alone.

I went back to find the WordPress page with the quote on it, but of course, it had disappeared.  Worse, I couldn’t remember if the quote was exactly as I wrote it above, or if it was the other way around, as in “A simile is like a metaphor” — Anonymous

Darn it.  Which was it?  Google may be trying to take over the world, but it has its conveniences.  I started with “A Metaphor is Like a Simile” and Google found a couple of authors of this quote for me:

There’s the Boston writer and comedian Steven Wright, where the quote shows up on his “Quotable Quotes” Goodreads page, and is attributed to him.

Then I found a lyrical associative one-page-ish playlet called A Metaphor is Like A Simile, with one Aaron Galbraith listed as its author.  It apparently debuted on March 26, 1999 and was performed by Aaron Galbraith and James Horak. It’s posted in its apparent entirety on a website called, which, to quote from its mission statement, is “a historical site dedicated to preserving for posterity the goings-on of No Shame Theatre in all its forms.” It was performed in Iowa City, IA though NoShame can be found in many cities around the country.  One day when my brain feels more energetic, I’ll try to analyze the script, but tonight is not that night.  I liked it, though.

Still, I had not answered the question of original authorship of the quote in question.  So I typed “A Simile Is Like A Metaphor” and got pretty much the same results.  I think that’s an example of irony.

A metaphor is more certain.  It is the thing to which it is being compared.  Actually, it equates one thing with another unlike thing, to create a new, third and larger thing, one  that is more persuasive than the sum of its parts.  A simile is more tentative.  Something isn’t something else; it is like something else; it’s an approximation of something else.

I’m going to have to go along with Messrs. Wright and Galbraith and conclude that “A metaphor is like a simile” is the more clever phrasing.  The ordering of the approximation best reflects the essence of each term this way.

I’ll put further research into attribution on my to-do list.

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Mumbai New York Scranton: A Memoir by Tamara Shopsin

My review of this wonderful memoir by Tamara Shopsin (for foodies, of the famous Shopsin restaurant clan) ran two weeks ago (March 19) in Shelf Awareness for Readers (about two-thirds of the way down; the first review under “Memoir”).

I enjoyed it very much:  it is a terrific and engaging memoir full of love, life, humor and worry — a love letter to a city and a family, by a young woman living in Brooklyn whose abundant creativity (she is an illustrator whose witty drawings appear in national venues like the New York Times Book Review) is put to good use writing this memoir of her travels in India with Jason, her husband, and what happens when they return to New York.  She has a storied New York City family history that makes transplants like me look electroplated even after twenty years, while winning the hip urban creativity contest hands down.  She’s so disarming and unpretentious on the page that it is impossible not to love her, and her book.

And she achieves a wonderful writerly balancing act:  in-the-moment immediacy and urgency combined with the control to lead you through the narrative and wanting more.

I’d like some Shopsin eggs now.  Pancakes would be fine, too.

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