Carl Zimmer is one of the most astute, nimble, and lyrical science writers alive. In books like The Tangled Bank, Parasite Rex, and Soul Made Flesh, he explores the history and frontiers of discovery with such grace and verve that he makes writing about evolution and neuroscience seem like the most exciting and rewarding vocation on the planet. Meanwhile, his smart features in the New York Times and Discover, and his award-winning blog, The Loom, keep lay readers and scientists up to date on the state of research.
Like Steven Johnson, Malcolm Gladwell, Rebecca Skloot, and Jonah Lehrer, Zimmer is one of our great tribal explainers, making even knotty phenomena like natural selection comprehensible to readers who have little formal science education.
Zimmer’s new collection of essays, Brain Cuttings: Fifteen Journeys Through the Mind, is a kind of experiment itself. No trees were harmed in its production; it’s a handsomely designed electronic book, offering tales from the lab that cast light on the supremely complex three-pound network in our skulls. Zimmer digs deep into the neuroscience of sexual desire, fear, and “zoning out”; gauges the speed of thought; and peers inside the brain of a man whose mind’s eye has been struck blind — all in a lucid, breezily readable 115 e-pages. It’s a guided tour of the organ that makes us human by one of the most trustworthy guides through Darwin’s kingdom.
Like the most skillful writers in any genre, Zimmer has an uncanny knack for metaphors that make even arcane concepts go down easy (in addition to the writerly instinct that RadioLab host Jad Abumrad calls “a nose for the poetically spooky.”) Describing software programmed to simulate the brain’s ability to recognize faces, he writes:
If you open the hood on one of these programs, you will not find any processor behaving like a grandmother cell, responding only to a single face and being solely responsible for recognizing it. Instead, it is the pattern of all the processors taken together that corresponds uniquely to each face. This sort of network behaves like a crowd of people in a football stadium creating huge pictures by holding up colored squares. A single person may hold up the same color when producing different pictures; the unique picture emerges only through the collective behavior of the crowd.
Available as a download from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Mobipocket, Brain Cuttings has arrived in a burgeoning market at the same moment that Amazon has announced its new Kindle Singles format, which will enable authors to publish manuscripts in the 10,000 to 30,000 word range. That’s shorter than traditional tomes on paper, but a potential sweet spot for investigative journalism, episodic prose, science fiction, memoir, dramatic works, unconventional tourguides, Festschrifts, and anything else authors can dream up. In a recent piece for Atlantic.com, Zimmer described the process of creating Brain Cuttings, which was not yet as easy as point-and-click:
Yes, we now live in an age where you can upload a Microsoft Word file directly to an eBook seller. But then you’re the author of a Microsoft Word file. Who wants to be that? I also realized that keeping track of all the directions eBook publishing is going right now would be too much for one person. It is a baffling, disorganized world full of arcane rules and lousy software. I talked to [book designer Charles] Nix and his partner George Scott, who together run the eponymous firm Scott and Nix. They had just published an eBook novel, and wanted to learn more.
Hopefully, with more noble experiments like Brain Cuttings, the process will become even smoother. It’s a creative and exciting time to be a professional writer, albeit a financially unnerving one.
I’ve long admired Zimmer’s work, but this interview marks our first substantive conversation. I talked with the 44-year-old author, who lives in Connecticut, about his surprisingly non-science-centric education, the roles of text and multimedia in storytelling, and the potential of e-books and social networks like Facebook and Twitter to open up new markets for writers.
Silberman: How did you get started as a science writer?
Zimmer: I wasn’t aware that I would like writing about science until I had a job doing it. In college, I wrote fiction. I had a couple of fantastic classes with writers at Yale, and after graduating, I worked as a carpenter. At some point, I decided to try to get a job at a magazine. This was at a time when you could send letters to magazines and actually get a reply. So I heard back from Discover, which had an opening for a copy editor’s assistant if I could pass a test.
I passed the test, but I turned out not to be a very good copy editor. Fortunately, by then, I was doing fact checking and other editorial stuff, and they said, “Why don’t you lay off the copy editing? We’ll have you do other things.” The more I did basic editorial work at Discover, the more I enjoyed it, and the more I realized it fit with all the things I really loved. When I talk to classes now, 20-year-olds ask me for advice about becoming science writers, and I look at them blankly and say, “At your age, I didn’t even think as far as you have about getting into this line of work. Take everything I say with a grain of salt.”
Silberman: Has your literary education helped you do better science journalism?
Zimmer: When you’re in a class on Faulkner or Melville, you’re thinking a lot about how books are put together. When you read “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” you see how memorable characters and ideas can be built up in just a couple of dozen pages. That’s a challenge for people doing science writing — particularly for scientists, actually. Some people think that all they have to do is to find out everything they can on some subject, and then dump it all on the page in a disorganized downpour. Now that I’m teaching writing, I point out to my students that a good article is assembled very, very carefully, so that even someone who doesn’t know much about a subject can drill down into some pretty esoteric stuff. Good articles lure the reader in — complex concepts are brought in one-by-one, and not too fast. I first appreciated these aspects of writing by reading fiction.
Silberman: What planted the seed of Brain Cuttings?
Zimmer: I started out very skeptical about e-books. Ten years ago, I was living in New York, and you’d have people in meetings making these grand statements about how e-books were going to take over publishing in the next few months. There were all these crazy business models based on the idea that e-book sales would double every year starting in 2000. Obviously the dotcom crash, and then 9/11, put the kibosh on that. But the technology wasn’t there yet. There wasn’t enough of a readership and the delivery system was bad. At the time I thought, “Yeah right. This is Pets.com — it’s just silly.”
Ten years later, I had a different attitude. I saw people eating up books with their Kindles and iPads. I looked at the numbers and realized that there’s a real ecosystem taking root. I saw other writers saying, “If I don’t have to deal with paper and glue and binding, I’ll just write something and sell it.” There’s a lot of writing that we all do that could be read by more people.
I wrote this article on the Singularity for Playboy, which made me really happy. But then a funny thing happened: I didn’t get a single piece of email about it. Once an article is in a magazine, it’s on the newsstand for a couple of weeks, and then it’s thrown in the trash. I want people to keep reading these things, and putting them in an e-book offers readers another opportunity. [The article appears in Brain Cuttings as “Too Clever” – S.S.]
Silberman: When people get excited about e-books, they often talk about the potential of embedding music and videos into text, as if mere text is just so pre-21st Century. Brain Cuttings, however, is straight text.
Zimmer: I’m a huge fan of finding interesting ways to incorporate video, interactive maps, and all that stuff into our storytelling. I love it. But just because video is good doesn’t mean that text is bad. Text is still good. The Kindle’s success is proof of that. The problem is that computer monitors are a bad technology for reading. After a few hundred words, it’s as if something happens in your cortex, and you peter out. But when you’ve got a device that uses electronic ink or an iPad — which allows you to sit comfortably, untethered to a laptop or a monitor — text is good. People who feel that the future of media is getting away from text are just fooling themselves.
The cover of Brain Cuttings is an engraving from Vesalius’ De Humani Corporis Fabrica [“On the fabric of the human body”]. I’m obsessed with Vesalius because he wrote the first science bestseller in the age of movable type. It sold like 4000 copies in a matter of months of being published in 1543. It had two elements: Vesalius explaining how human anatomy really works — as opposed to what people believed for hundreds of years because they read Galen instead of looking at the human body for themselves — and woodblocks based on Vesalius’s knowledge of the human body from doing huge numbers of autopsies.
Vesalius took the manuscript, along with 200 woodblocks carved by artists in Venice, packed them up on mules, and sent them over the Alps to Basel, Switzerland, where his favorite printer lived. The trip took five weeks. Vesalius had all these explicit instructions so that the text wrapped around the art in beautiful proportions, and there were lots of little illuminations throughout the book based on his sketches. You can imagine some publisher today saying: “OK, we got a manuscript from this Vesalius guy, so now so we’re gonna make an e-book out of it by getting a bunch of pictures of people with their heads cut open and throwing them in.” But that’s like carelessly-chosen DVD extras or something — it’s not good book thinking. E-books shouldn’t be treated as dumping grounds.
There will eventually be a lot of opportunities for incorporating multimedia into e-books as the display technology improves. A few years ago, my mind was blown when I discovered that you could copy a few lines of code and have video clips in your blog. There were all these scientists with all this video that they were recording for research, and it occurred to me that these clips were the moving illustrations I always wished I’d had.
I used to write a lot about biomechanics, but fell away from it when all that you had at your disposal to explain things was words and static pictures. To really get across the difference between walking and running, or gliding and flying, I’d think, “Oh man, imagine if a magazine could show video!” But then, with the advent of blogs, if I was writing something about bats, I could get bat videos from researchers and work them into the story, putting them where they really belong, so that if someone is reading and finding it hard to understand something, the video helps make it clear.
Silberman: I read a chapter of your new book last night on my iPhone, sitting in a restaurant in San Francisco, waiting for Ed Yong, Betsy Mason, and a bunch of other science writers to join me for dinner. Are the new ways that people are reading your words changing the ways you write?
Zimmer: Sure. With blogging, it doesn’t make sense to be formal, because you can publish so quickly and update instantly. If you write something and make a mistake, you don’t have to have wait for the editors of the newspaper to publish a correction. You can go in yourself and say, “One of my commenters pointed out that I made a mistake, so I fixed the post, and thanks to her.” That’s a very intimate style of writing.
This is a fascinating question for me, and I think about it a lot. A few years ago, I was working on an exhibit about evolution that went into a lot of natural history museums, writing the explanatory texts that hung on the wall. Someone said, “Look, you’ve got 50 words to explain natural selection. And you have to be able to do it in a way that stops a ten-year-old who is running through the room. That’s your challenge.”
Silberman: Indeed. One of the interesting things about the recent news about Kindle Singles is that so many of the headlines are snarky variations of “Amazon Tells Writers to Keep It Short.” Sure, the average Kindle Single may be shorter than a typical book, but after spending the past decade in Incredible Shrinking Magazine land, 10,000 to 30,000 words seems positively luxurious to me — a potential renaissance of long-form writing.
Zimmer: E-books are a lot like blogs, and blogs are basically software — you can do whatever you want with them. You can write one-sentence punditry or a long interview with Oliver Sacks. To e-book vendors like Amazon, it doesn’t matter if you give them a 10-page manuscript or a 10,000-page manuscript. I’ll be curious to find out what the longest e-book anybody submits to Amazon is, but it doesn’t matter, because it’s just digital storage, and storage is trivial.
If you’re a traditional publisher, however, there are things that work and things that don’t in a purely business sense. I’ve talked to editors about writing ideas I have and they’ll say, “Well, that’s interesting, but not quite enough to sustain a whole book.” Within the old business model, they were absolutely right. But when you’re doing an e-book, that stuff is irrelevant. The empty niches left by the book industry, the magazine industry, and newspaper industry are exactly what Amazon is zeroing in on.
It used to be that when you wrote a book and wanted to spread the word about it, you would work with a publicist to come up with a list of people who would receive bound galleys. You had to be very careful about that list, because each galley cost money, so you couldn’t say, “Oh, here’s my list of 200 people who should get advance reading copies.” The publisher would say “What? We can’t afford that many bound galleys!” Now you just send people emails and say, “Hey, I’ve got this book, and I think you might be interested. Want a copy?”
Another big development is the rise of social networks. I’m constantly in your head, because I’m following your tweets throughout the day.
Silberman: I’m so sorry, Carl.
Zimmer [laughing]: No, I can always unfollow you if I get tired of them, but I think your tweets are great. It’s not uncommon for journalists like us to have several thousand followers. Then all of those people are themselves hubs in their own social networks. If they see something they like, they pass it on, effectively becoming journalists themselves, because they’re saying, “Here’s some information and I think it’s valuable.” So if you take e-books, plus social networks, you have ways of reaching people outside of the traditional ways of making people aware of books.
It used to be that you would send your review copies to a few newspapers and just pray that they picked your book. But there’s a whole other system in place now. I don’t know what the effect is going to be, and that’s one reason I did Brain Cuttings — as an experiment. People may find that this is a really powerful way to make a living as writers by using social networks to propagate information about e-books. I’m curious to see how it develops.
Silberman: What are you working on now?
Zimmer: Along with the usual articles for the Times, National Geographic, and Discover, my next book is already at the publishers. It’s called A Planet of Viruses, and it will be coming out next spring from University of Chicago Press. It started out as an educational project funded by NIH. They had me write essays about viruses as part of a program for high school kids. It’s about how important viruses are to the working of the whole planet.
Silberman: I’m looking forward to it.