Friday, February 1, 2013

The Violinist's Thumb

The Violinist's Thumb: and Other Lost Tales of Love, War, and Genius, as Written by Our Genetic Code, by Sam Kean

Aren't fashions in titles funny?  Title trends come and go, and right now very long subtitles seem to be the thing.  The shorter and/or more cryptic the main title is, the better, and then the subtitle should be long and elaborate, with a touch of humor.  It reminds me of A Little Pretty Pocketbook. 

This title has been on my library wishlist since it came out; I really enjoyed Kean's previous book about chemistry, The Disappearing Spoon, and I like lay books about science in general (especially chemistry!).  The Violinist's Thumb is a detailed look at DNA--the history around its discovery, how it works, what we know and do not yet understand about it.  It's got lots of interesting anecdotes, funny turns of phrase, and more than you ever needed to know about A, T, G and C.

But.

I was enjoying the book and zipping through it, when a footnote up and punched me in the eye.  This particular footnote was the first thing in the whole book that talked about something I actually know about.  It's a longish paragraph on some history and theology of the LDS Church.  It's just a side note; Kean didn't have to put it in at all, and he probably thought of it as a little interesting perk.  The trouble is, it gets most of the information wrong.  The number of errors in this one paragraph is just stunning.  You wouldn't think it was possible.  (I don't mean that he is being mocking and that I'm annoyed about it.  I mean that he gets easily-verifiable dates and facts wrong.)

I know it's a small point.  People routinely get this information wrong.  He wasn't thinking of it as important and didn't bother to check.  But I'm not sure how to trust the rest of the book to be accurate, either.  It really took away a lot of my enthusiasm for the book and I did not finish it. 

I did like the stories, especially the bit about Sister Miriam Michael Stimson.  And DNA is fascinating stuff.  I just wonder now whether the neat story about Sister Miriam Michael was accurate...

4 comments:

Julie M. Smith said...

Funny how we had such similar reactions:

http://outofthebestbooks.blogspot.com/2012/07/the-violinists-thumb-by-sam-kean.html

Jean said...

Wow Julie, I hadn't realized you'd read it too! That is funny. I'm glad to see that you got a review copy--maybe the author saw what you said. I poked around the Internet a bit to see if anyone else had pointed this out and was rather disappointed to find nothing. Perhaps my google-fu was faulty, since your review didn't pop up--I bet I searched on LDS and not Mormon.

I read the footnote at almost the same time as I got into a discussion about sloppy research on Jenny's Books. See what you think about what she said--I read that book too but didn't catch what Jenny did.

Nancy Leek said...

Rats! I hate it when that happens. I was thinking of reading the book, but now I don't know. I wouldn't be able to trust anything he said.

Amy said...

Not a Mormon, but I *totally* sympathize with your frustration. I would also be wondering what else in the book was not to be trusted.