Fine Lines by Stephen H. Blackwell and Kurt Johnson knocked me out of the water for a couple of reasons, good and bad. On the positive side, I was blown out of the water by its fresh, unique multi-discipliary exploration of Vladimir Nabokov’s work as a scientist and a writer. I do not know of any other book like it. It is a fascinating amalgam of science, art and scholarship.
On the negative side, I nearly drowned trying to wade through the Introduction which was, to be perfectly honest, far over my head. It felt like the writers deliberately threw readers in the deep end, with unnecessarily specialized language. Maybe they should do a lay and a professional introduction. Since reading it, I have been trying to internalize vagile, which means far-ranging, able to move about freely, using it in a sentence several times. Here’s one, vagile is not in autocorrect and is repeatedly changed to agile. Here’s another. Reading about Evergreen students who travel from one Sanders rally to another across the country, I wonder how they can be so vagile during the school year.
However, I struggled my way through it. I was dog paddling at best, often underwater, but it’s only 23 pages. I did get through it, understanding the major ideas of the introduction. The TL:DR version is Nabokov was a great scientific thinker whose speculations fifty years ago have recently been confirmed through DNA analysis and that the scientific community has come to many of the same conclusions about evolutionary taxonomy that Nabokov was batting around decades ago. His contributions to science have been overlooked and dismissed, perhaps because he left the profession to write. Also, he liked index cards. My advice to readers who are not experts is to read the rest of the book first and then read the introduction, or if you’re feeling frisky, just skip the introduction. YOLO!
Much of the book is a collection of black and white and color drawings of butterflies drawn by Nabakov. Some of them are sketches of many different butterflies genitalia. Some of them are very beautiful drawings of their wings. The totality of them is a revelation of a disciplined, methodical and incisive mind. I would be tempted to make some joke about his obsession with butterfly genitalia providing insight to his exploration of desire in his books or make a joke about a new window into Humbert Humbert, but I know enough about biology to know that studying genitalia is vital to differentiating species which was his focus.
The book ends with ten essays. I read them one at a time, going to another book before coming back, giving me time to reflect and clear my mind. For me, this and the beautiful illustrations were the best part of the book. I particularly liked A Few Notes on Nabakov’s Childhood Entomology by Victor Fet that included a fast and furious history of the lepidopterists of the aristocracy and royalty, the nuts with nets. He writes about books and events that would have influenced the child scientific prodigy. This essay is a fascinating collection of bits and pieces of history and people. I also enjoyed Victoria Alexander’s Changee, Nature’s Practical Jokes, and the ‘Non-Utilitarian Delights’ of Butterfly Mimicry. “The chance that mimics choice, the flaw that looks like a flower” as Nabokov described how nature seems to do more than it needs to do merely for survival. While some of the science is quite technical, her writing is clear and also lyrical.
As difficult and challenging as much of Fine Lines has been to read. I am stunned by the bold vision to bring together this exploration of literature and science, the creative and the objective, imagination and observation. It is well worth the effort. I do not recommend this to everyone. If you’re a scientist, in particular a biologist, you won’t have to struggle. You can just enjoy the exciting experiment that it is. If, like me, you’re an amateur, someone who reads popular science books for fun, but not with the expertise for straight academic science, this is going to be a struggle, but it’s a beautiful struggle. I know it is odd to rate a book so highly when it has been such a struggle, but my 5 star rating is something rare – reserved for what is unique and new, the fresh and the rare, not the easiest or most pleasurable, but the most special. That is what Fine Lines is.
I was provided an Advanced Readers galley by the publisher through NetGalley.