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March 19, 2009

Review of Adam Gopnik's "Angels and Ages"

Gopnik%20edited.jpgI've always been a HUGE fan of Adam Gopnik's non-fiction writing in his books and for The New Yorker. He has such an interesting way of looking at the world that I'll buy virtually anything he publishes sight unseen.

Imagine my disappointment, then, at finding his newest book about Darwin and Lincoln to be tough sledding.

Angels and Ages (Random House / $24.95) is a 211-page riff on a fascinating historical coincidence: Both the 16th U.S. President and the scientist who pioneered the concept of evolution were born on Feb. 12, 1809. And both men profoundly changed the world.

Eagle-eyed readers will note it's shout-out to Baltimorean Daniel Mark Epstein's 2008 book, The Lincolns: Portrait of a Marriage, and it's "loving and funny" inventory of the contents of the couple's Springfield house.

Gopnik greatly admires Lincoln, whom he describes as surpassingly pragmatic and shrewd. "His rhetorical genius," Gopnik writes, "lay in making cold calculation look like passionate idealism." But Gopnik adores Darwin, and for me the liveliest passages in the book were when the author describes his introduction to The Origin of the Species, which Gopnik read as a teenager at the behest of his mother, and on the beach.

"It's a Victorian hallucinogen," Gopnik writes, "where the whole world suddenly comes alive

and begins moving, so that the likeness between seagulls and sandpipers on the beach where you are reading suddenly becomes spookily animated, part of a single restless whole, with the birds' giant lizard ancestors looming like ghosts above them. What looks like the fixed, unchanging solitude of the beach and ocean suddenly becomes alive to, vulnerable to, an endless chain of change and movement. It's a book that makes the whole world vibrate."

That's fine writing, and it made me want to immediately run out and buy the Origin,which until now, I have inexplicably never perused.

Though it contains biographical elements, Angels and Ages is closer to a philosophy of rhetoric. Gopnik demonstrates that Lincoln's speeches and Darwin's scientific writings are a new type of argument that reflect a sea change in society's values. Before Darwin and Lincoln, romantic idealism predominated. By the time both died, logical reasoning held sway. Both thinkers persuaded others to accept such radical new notions as emancipation and natural selection by building an irresistible argument through the careful accumulation of small facts.

The problems with Angels and Ages are twofold:

Gopnik at times assumes that the reader has not only a familiarity with Darwin and Lincoln, but with Darwin scholarship and the details of Lincoln's cabinet. He expects us to be conversant not just with Carl Sandburg, John Stuart Mill and Stephen Crane -- who at least are taught in high schools -- but also with Alfred Kazin and "the now insufficiently appreciated Van Wyck Brooks" who probably are not. (Brooks and Kazin were American literary critics.)

Were Gopnik to fully explain every reference, the book would be four times as long as it is. But the consequence is that our vastly learned author sets a pace so brisk that relatively few readers will be able to keep up.

The second problem is related to the first. Gopnik sometimes packs a sentence with so many heavy ideas that it exceeds the weight and size limits on most commercial airlines. If a reader has to unpack each thought and strew its component parts about the airport floor, carefully scrutinize each element for its purpose and utility, and then reassemble it all into a more compact package, that reader is likely to cancel his trip.

Here's a question for the rest of you: I can't get enough of good writing, and Lincoln, Darwin and Gopnik (in his lighter, leaner mode) provide plenty of examples of the art form. I'd love it if you'd send in your favorite paragraph by one of these three authors, with a sentence explaining why it moves you. 

 

 

Posted by Mary McCauley at 6:00 AM | | Comments (0)
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About the blogger
Dave Rosenthal came to The Baltimore Sun as a business reporter in 1987 and now is the Maryland Editor. He reads a wide range of books (but never as many as he'd like), usually alternating between non-fiction and fiction. Some all-time favorites: A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole; Wind, Sand and Stars by Antoine de Saint-Exupery; and anything by Calvin Trillin or John McPhee. He belongs to a book club with a Jewish theme.
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