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Reading for fun

Stepping out of Web of Science

I have a homemade sign hanging up in my office that proclaims “sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast” accompanied by a picture of a tipped over teacup, the only thing from Lewis Carroll’s books I was confident enough to draw. I like this quote because it reminds me that scientists aren’t supposed to look at things in mundane ways; we need to be brave and see things differently; we need to tackle the impossible.

And yet, despite my office’s appearance of appreciating non-scientific literature, it had been quite a while since I read anything that didn’t appear in a journal or the news. It takes too much time! my brain says. I am too tired to become emotionally invested in a book.

After my thesis proposal, entitled “the detection and implications of climate change on fisheries,” I decided to read something that didn’t have the words fisheries, climate change, ecology, optimization, or analysis in it. I picked up an Agatha Christie book — The Clocks — because I remembered reading Murder on the Orient Express and delighting in the prim logic of protagonist Hercule Poirot. Again, the queen of mystery’s ability to pull me through the book in one quick sitting as I searched for clues made for an enjoyable read. Beyond that, however, I realized how much I appreciated reading good writing. She chose words that were so aptly descriptive. She penned sentences that seem so simple, but have so much information. The phrase “it is clear that the books owned the shop rather than the other way around” uses no flowery, showy language, yet it contains such an evocative picture of a book shop. There seemed to be a huge amount of information condensed into short, beautiful sentences that were both elucidating and pleasurable to read. As I closed the book, all I could think was — I want to keep reading, I want more!

And with that, a part of my brain which had loved and obsessed over words and language woke up from a very long nap.

In high school, I slaved over single sentences, trying to twist the words into saying exactly what I wanted to say. I remember staring at a single word for what felt like hours while writing a college application. More than that, I remember how joyful it felt to wrestle a sentence into saying precisely and concisely what I wanted it to say. It was a mixture of completing a puzzle and painting at the same time. There was a way to make it right and beautiful. I loved knowing one word that could tell a story that would have taken seven or eight lesser words.

Despite all these fond memories I had of my bookish childhood, I hadn’t danced and drowned in words since high school. As a graduate student, writing clearly is one of the most important parts of my job. Why then, can’t I choose the same perfect words to convey my exact meaning?

Part of the reason is because writing science is so difficult. I spend most of my time trying to figure out if the words vaguely capture the complicated concepts they are meant to. When I wordsmith, my focus has been on getting the science correct, which is a monumental task in its own right. Words cannot be chosen just by look and feel if they have additional — scientific — meanings and connotations attached. But while the meaning of those few technical words must be precise and perfect, the rest of it is not. My writing has regressed to a sprinkling of jargon amidst the prose of a fifth grader (and a lot of references to papers I read).

So, the challenge I want to undertake is to regain my delight in language and apply it to my scientific writing. I want to take a sentence like “with climate change impacting habitat and performance of organisms, the movement of species and populations is of great interest to scientists and society” and make it more information rich, and interesting but no less true.

Any suggestions? If you have them, send them over. In the meantime, I’ll be reading my next “fun” book by Neil Gaiman.