- The Anthologist as Critic as Missionary
John Carey is the Merton Professor of English at Oxford and a literary historian with expertise spread over different historical periods ranging from the Renaissance to the Russian novelists, as well as a frequent commentator in the press whose eloquent book reviews have flowed for decades. A no-nonsense critic, he invites readers to cultivate the virtues of clarity and taste and good sense rather than perpetuate a miasma of jargon and theoretical unintelligibility. Over the years he has written books about Donne, Dickens, and Thackeray, and has assembled his own essays and anthologies of reportage. He has now edited the Faber Book of Science comprising more than a hundred excerpts, among which readers will find favorite passages ranging from da Vinci to Dyson, from Galileo to Gould. Carey’s guiding principle for inclusion lies in deciding whether he himself would want to reread a piece of scientific writing, and in the explanatory power of science qua science: for Carey, the most important form of knowledge in our time. He has compiled this book on the missionary rationale of wishing, he writes, “to make science intelligible to non-scientists” (p. xiii).
By making science “intelligible” Carey intends the translation of its ideas and discursive practices—not its contexts, philosophical assumptions, or specialized (nonverbal) sign systems. He thinks that scientific writing is “a new kind of late twentieth-century literature, [End Page 233] which demands to be recognized as a separate genre, distinct from the old literary forms, and conveying pleasures and triumphs quite distinct from theirs” (p. xiv). The key is distinctiveness: the “new” genre’s “separateness,” rather more than its “pleasures” or “triumphs”—although Carey finds this huge new corpus of writing as brilliant and imaginative as anything in the classical canon and thinks it will endure.
By “new” Carey also means now: our generation, post-sputnik, post-seventies, cyborgian, an internetted maze of microchips and virtual reality. He would not deny the rhetorical force of, for example, Swift’s scientific satire in Gulliver’s Travels or Pope’s in The Rape of the Lock, but something much more important has occurred, he believes: “popular science” has at last come of age. It has matured in our generation; it has finally (in the messianic rather than in any eschatological sense) created its own “genre” as a “separate” literary kind, complete with its own versions of self-fulfillment and enjoyment, and deserving to be classified apart from the other genres. The belief amounts to a coup by (not merely a concession to) the Moderns, rarely acknowledged by someone of the party of the Ancients, as most literary historians are—and this is the point where missionary zeal enters.
Historians of science and technology will grumble. Yet there is something in this notion of a separate genre for popular science, and in Carey’s conversionary zeal among literary historians who did not grow up on the WWW with the cultural bias that science and technology are inherently important to the imaginative discourse of novels, plays, and even poetry. It is surprising to find this zeal in someone like Carey, who has made such notable contributions to seventeenth- and nineteenth-century English criticism. His most attractive stance, however, is as science’s page, vassal, and champion, his explicit goal to expose ignorance. The pose is both satiric and nostalgic and can exist, I think, not because Carey admires science’s epistemological profile or has faith in its redemptive powers in a world racked by poverty and political confusion, but because science is unassailably the best route to certainty. For Carey, popular science has “arrived” and has now produced a new genre of writing containing “achievements of a remarkable and unprecedented kind” (p. xiv).
Carey’s announcement embeds an eclectic history of science and technology. “The misty precursors of true science—alchemy, astrology—have . . . been left out [of the anthology], partly because they can now be classified as history not science, and partly because they tend to encourage in the reader an amused and superior...