Q & A With Daniel Duzdevich
1) What are you currently reading?
The Book of My Lives by Aleksandar Hemon. He’s exceptionally well-respected as a writer, and critics describe him as one or another form of brilliant. But even this reputation didn’t prepare me for hearing him speak in person a few months ago. Hemon’s is a monumental intellect: he grasps subtlety and casts it back with clarity. Most of his work, and this collection of short pieces in particular, has to do with his exile from Sarajevo and new life in Chicago. He understands the rhyme of cities and the rhyme of life (and I’ve always thought these two to be similar).
2) Is there anything you’re particularly looking forward to the publication of?
Zadie Smith is apparently setting her next novel in 1970s New York. Few people can paint a true city convincingly, but she has already done it for London, so I’m excitedly expectant. Plus, the New York of that decade was particularly complex socially and politically. Today’s Williamsburg and SoHo would have been settings in tales unbelievable. Her research will have to be meticulous, and if she can bring that place to life for a young, modern audience, then I’ll be very impressed.
3) Are there standard titles or writers you like to recommend, either within or outside of your field?
There have only been a handful of science writers talented enough to draw in a broad audience without sacrificing scientific rigor. Olivia Judson, of course, who wrote the foreword, is one of my personal favorites. She’s an evolutionary biologist and science journalist with a very distinctive and engaging style. E.O. Wilson marshals the English language like no other biologist. He’s even won a couple of Pulitzers—an amazing accomplishment for a scientist. Neil deGrasse Tyson’s awe at the universe is contagious. He runs the planetarium here in the New York, and he’s the star of the new Cosmos series. (Anything by Carl Sagan, creator of the original Cosmos, is also definitely worth reading.) There was a period after the molecular biology revolution of the 1960s when many of the major actors—great scientists who won Nobel Prizes for discovering the basic mechanisms of life—took to writing, and they were good at it! Our generation of biologists has not kept up with the written work of James Watson, Francis Crick, Francois Jacob, Christian De Duve, and Max Perutz. I recommend these authors because they cover a very short and recent time that will be seen as a definitive historical moment for humanity: the age when we discovered the stuff of life. In later years, Lynn Margulis and Lewis Thomas elegantly drew together the implications of the new biology, and I would recommend them to anyone not too interested in the history.
4) Do you have a personal favorite book of all time? If so, can you share it and tell us why?
I can’t answer that question. But I can cheat. My favorite science book of all time is Richard Feynman’s Six Easy Pieces. Read it. You may come out the back cover a scientist yourself, like I did. Among New York books, E.B. White’s Here is New York, and Colson Whitehead’s The Colossus of New York are re-read yearly, at least. They capture something complete about the city, which no one else has done. Some have mastered one or another facet—like Paul Auster or E.L. Doctorow—but these books caress a totality in a city that is limitless. And although it’s an “obvious” choice for general fiction, 1984 seems to always remain important to me. My family struggled through totalitarian communist regimes of varying sorts, and in a post-Manning and post-Snowden era, it is essential reading. Not for content, but for a sort of political morality that only Orwell has ever captured effectively.
5) What’s next? Any upcoming book projects in the works that you can tell us about?
In the short-term I would like to explore the essay format to write about the scientific process, evolutionary biology, and language for a scientifically literate audience. I’ve also been developing a theme for my next book: I’m interested in whether or not biology exhibits universal concepts, in the same way as physics, for example. Of course this leads to questions about the nature of universality in science, which is a vague and dauntingly loaded thing, so I’ll leave it at that.