Against Textbooks – Science as Literature


one of the most influential works of literary criticism and cultural history of the last quarter century


Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, arguably the most important book written in English in the nineteenth century, transformed the way we looked at the world. It is usually assumed that this is because the idea of evolution was so staggeringly powerful. Prize-winning author George Levine suggests that much of its influence was due, in fact, to its artistry; to the way it was written.

The books above (click the images for more info) treat Darwin, who was just one especially well known scientist. It’s certainly possible to imagine reading other classics in the history of science as literature. Works by various authors (Galileo, Claude Bernard, Louis Pasteur, Lavoisier, Herschel, the Curies, Helmholtz, Mach, etc.) immediately come to mind. Though hardly anybody in the sciences bothers to teach these books at all, much less teach them as literature, as extravagant forays of language and the imagination. Today, textbooks – those books written to hide author, narrator, unique personality and sensibility, individual thinking and writing processes, and any trace of literary style; books to be quickly digested upon the first reading and then promptly sold back to the bookstore – textbooks are now king.

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