What an astronomer’s memoir can say about writing

Poor PlutoIt’s pretty rare for me to take a book review to task, especially if A) it’s not my book being reviewed; and B) it’s in The New York Times Book Review. I mean, seriously, it’s The New York Times. In my experience, they tend to know what they’re talking about.

But this past weekend, I saw a review that I really disagreed with — and in the interest of full disclosure, I haven’t even read the book yet (though it’s on my list). Instead, I was surprised that the reviewer didn’t quite seem to grok the kind of book he was reviewing.

Mike Brown is the astronomer who discovered a potential 10th planet orbiting the Sun. In the resulting fracas from this discovery, the International Astronomical Union decided that, instead of admitting a whole heap of tiny planets out there beyond Pluto’s orbit, they would instead demote these planets to “dwarf planet” status. The new discovery, Eris, is larger than Pluto, if farther out. And so Pluto was demoted to “dwarf planet” status as well.

So Mike Brown wrote a memoir of his experience in discovering Eris and the role this played in Pluto’s controversial demotion, and I’m looking forward to reading it. But the Times review, by M.G. Lord, said Brown’s memoir was too…memoirish, if I’m reading it right. Lord decried Brown’s decision to put other aspects of his life into the book, such as the birth and early years of his daughter.

Dude. Seriously? It’s a memoir. For one, the memoirist can write about whatever the heck he likes.

Two, here’s a guy who’s looking at thousands of tiny changes in photographic plates of stars, hunting for planets, then waking up at 2 a.m. for bottle feedings. I love that kind of context.

Third, the fact that Brown, for example, kept a chart of his daughter’s feedings to determine how long it took between bottles, versus how long it took between breastfeedings, simply because he wanted to know if there was a major difference? (There wasn’t much.)  This is the kind of detail that tells you so much about the author’s character — his literary character. A memoir, if anything, relies on character to tell the story more than anything else. And it’s these things, like feeding charts, that let us know what kind of guy Mike Brown is.

I think the reviewer might have wanted a more straightforward story about Eris’ discovery and Pluto’s demotion. But while Brown played a major role in the former, and was the catalyst for the latter, he wasn’t the only player in town. And he wasn’t writing a historical account anyway. He wrote a memoir. And, surprisingly, the Times review seemed, to me, not to get that most salient of facts about the book.

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Filed under Books, Space, Writing

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