Wonder Undiminished – Dawkins the Memoirist

I am not often moved to review books but in the case of An Appetite for Wonder I have made an exception. I shared the below on Amazon, for the edification of the buying public, and am reposting it here since my blog is my Collected Writings, and why the hell shouldn’t I? Plus I can use italics here.

“I am a great admirer of Dawkins, although I read his atheist and humanist works before dipping my toe in The Selfish Gene pool. As such, I was predisposed to be charmed by An Appetite For Wonder, and in many ways it didn’t disappoint. The early part of the book, with its loving descriptions of talented ancestors and stories of African childhood, had me gently chuckling, particularly the anecdote about the lions and the ‘vroom vroom’.

As Dawkins began to describe his schooling, I found myself puzzled. The prose seemed ever so slightly stilted, lacking the elegant styling and perfect expression of thought I was expecting. Perhaps this is the inevitable product of memories incompletely recalled? Perhaps Dawkins the writer-scientist has too much integrity to flesh out a reminiscence with words or details for which he has no evidence? And on one or two occasions I found myself noticing repetition of thought – perhaps some things are of such significance to the writer that he deliberately repeated them, or perhaps an indulgent editor let them pass.

The harshness of Dawkins’ self-criticism took me aback – on just one spread he writes, of his schoolboy self: ‘What was the point of such boasting? I shall never know…'; ‘That attitude was so stupid it’s pretty self-evident that I didn’t deserve to do well in class anyway…'; ‘I was evidently very confused…'; ‘It ludicrously occurred to me…'; ‘Among many other things I got wrong here…’ Why so hard on himself? He was just a boy at the time. Then again, as he points out, there is no physical part of Dawkins now that was also in the boy Dawkins, so in some ways he is writing of an Other to which he is linked only by the quasi-miraculous chance of memory.

Dawkins’ humanism comes through strongly when he writes of his regret at the bullying he was witness to, and he is scrupulously even-handed when recalling the virtues and vices of all the characters he speaks of – even the paedophiles. There was no point in the book at which I thought Dawkins was being boastful or arrogant, even though in describing The Selfish Gene and the genesis of meme theory he is speaking of his role as the author of life-changing ideas. He is entitled to sing his own praises if he wants to. But it doesn’t feel as though he does.

An Appetite for Wonder takes flight in the last chapter, when Dawkins lights on a structure that allows him to praise Charles Darwin while ostensibly writing of himself, and I closed the book feeling that I had been in the presence of an author who is really rather ambivalent about autobiography. I can well imagine that he would rather treat of any subject other than his own history. He writes (beautifully) of ‘the contingent frailty of the event chain that led to our existence’, and I could easily be persuaded that it is not what happened in his (or anyone’s) life that matters to him, but why. So many of the smaller, more personal details are missing from the book that I don’t feel I know much more about Dawkins the man than I did before; possibly a straight biography could be better written by another. For example, I longed to know how his success was received by his parents. By his own admission they made sacrifices to give him the kind of education he had – were they pleased with the result?

A final observation is that I was slightly surprised to find that this is only the first of a projected two-part work – I might have expected the publisher to advertise the ‘Part One’ nature of the book a little more obviously. Then again, it is subtly hinted at in the subtitle – ‘The Making of a Scientist’ – so presumably in Part Two we will join Dawkins the fully formed scientist on his journey to becoming the influential public figure he is today.”

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