Is “The Double Helix” really the seventh greatest English-language nonfiction book of the 20th century?

That’s where it ranks in the Modern Library poll, just behind T.S. Eliot’s Selected Essays and just before Nabokov’s Speak, Memory.  The 60th anniversary of the publication of the Watson-Crick hypothesis has just passed, and Simon & Schuster have published an annotated/illustrated version of Watson’s account of the discover of the genetic code.

How do you judge a work of nonfiction?  I thoroughly enjoyed the book when I read it a couple of weeks ago (the annotations and illustrations really helped).  The events Watson describes were, of course, hugely important for our understanding of how life works.  And the approach Watson takes–showing how science really works, with people worrying about their grants and competing scientists, chasing girls and complaining about the lack of heat in their flats–is refreshing and eye-opening.

On the other hand, the writing, while perfectly competent, isn’t out of the ordinary.  And Watson doesn’t make much of an effort to give the reader any context about the nature of the problem he and Crick were trying to solve, why it was so important, and why it was so amenable to solution at just that point in history.  Turns out that The Double Helix wasn’t the best science book I read that week–The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks worked better for me both as a personal narrative and as an explanation of science.

The Modern Library list seems reasonable, although arbitrary.  It seems clear that they considered the significance of a book to its time (The Silent Spring), its contribution to human thought (A Theory of Justice), as well as its literary quality (A Room of One’s Own).  As usual, there were lots of books on the list that I haven’t read, and a few that I’ve never heard of.  I was pleased to see Samuel Johnson by Walter Jackson Bate come in at number 50.  Bate’s course on Johnson and his contemporaries was one of the best I took in college, and I recall a standing-room-only audience for his lecture on the death of Johnson, which was apparently legendary at Harvard.  I also can’t quarrel with The Education of Henry Adams as number 1.  It made a huge impression on me in college, and I recall that the last paper I wrote there was a comparison of Adams’s third-person narrative style with that of Norman Mailer.  (It’s interesting that Mailer doesn’t appear on either the fiction or the nonfiction list.  History has not treated him kindly, so far.)

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