I mentioned my reading list in the last post – so this time round I'll let you in on what excites me about one of the books I'm reading at the moment. (I tend to have several on the go at once, so I can dip into whatever matches with what I'm thinking about at the time.) This time it's (drumroll) Charles Darwin's autobiography. Darwin wrote this towards the end of his life, and the edition I'm reading was edited by his grand-daughter, Nora Barlow.
I can hear some of you already, thinking 'why???'. Well, there are a number of reasons. One is that I'm giving a public lecture on Charles Darwin later this year, & need to know as much as I can about him before I start writing in. Another is that I find Darwin a really interesting person, & reading his autobiography is fleshing him out for me. And that relates to yet another reason: reading about scientists – not just what they did but also about how they lived their lives and how others perceived them – makes them 'real' for me. And I think that's really important: that we need to recognise that scientists are 'just' other people, except that they're engaged in doing science for a living.
And reading the Autobiography does that for me. I've already read his Beagle journal, about his trip round the world on HMS Beagle. And that paints a very vivid picture of Darwin as a young man, hugely curious about what he was seeing, working already on fitting his experiences into a particular world-view – and thoroughly enjoying himself (except when he was seasick). But in many ways the Autobiography is a more personal picture, and because he was much older when it was written, you get to see yet another side to the man.
Who would have guessed, for instance, that he read 'popular' novels? Commenting that he no longer reads poetry, although he used to get a great deal of pleasure from doing so, the elderly Darwin remarks: On the other hand, novels which are works of the imagination, though not of a very high order, have been for years a wonderful relief and pleasure to me, and I often bless all novelists. A surprising number have been read aloud to me, and I like all if moderately good, and if they do not end unhappily – against which a law ought to be passed. A novel, according to my taste, does not come into the first class unless it contains some person whom one can thoroughly love, and if it be a pretty woman all the better.
Like all of us, Darwin liked a bit of light reading, and enjoyed a happy ending!
N. Barlow (ed.) 1958) The Autobiography of Charles Darwin. pub. Norton.