When done well, the personal essay is without doubt my favourite literary form. I particularly enjoy when an essayist latches on to some small, seemingly trivial example to illustrate a recurring theme of great importance to them. This is especially true if their chosen example provides an original take on a familiar topic, but also turns out to be interesting in its own right. I like it when writers find their own nuggets.
His unbroken run of 300 monthly essays, which appeared between 1974 and 2001 in Natural History magazine, and which were reprinted in several best-selling books, were masterpieces in the genre. In his best essays, Gould would often start with some small, seemingly obscure detail, then lead the reader through various twists and turns until the chosen detail became an illustration of a far wider scientific generality. En route, he would destroy myths, restore scorned historical figures to their rightful places in the scientific pantheon, wax lyrical about baseball, and occasionally slip in favourite Gouldian words such as canonical, maximal, contingency, ontogeny and exaptation. On reaching the end of a Gould essay, you would often feel (as Thomas Henry Huxley did after reading On the Origin of Species) how stupid of me not to have thought of that! You rarely, if ever, came away from a Gould essay without feeling just that little bit cleverer than before.
A couple of weeks ago, the Guardian published a wonderful essay by Rebecca Solnit. I very much enjoy Solnit’s writing, but I particularly liked what she did in this piece. I found myself returning to it several times, not least to try to work out why I enjoyed it so much.
Solnit’s original nugget comes in the form of a violin made in Milan in 1721 by the instrument-maker Carlo Giuseppe Testore. The instrument is now owned, and has been very much used over the last 50 years, by the founder and artistic director of San Francisco’s Kronos Quartet. Solnit imparts some lovely details about the history and process of violin-making, from the types and densities of wood required, to a fascinating piece of trivia about why stallions’ tail-hair is preferable to mares’ in the stringing of violin bows. Stuff like this—stuff you didn’t even realise could be interesting—is the making of an essay. But Solnit also uses the violin as an excuse to return to recurring themes in her writing: climate change, sustainability, and colonialism.
Solnit explores how rising global temperatures are affecting the way trees grow, and how this will make it more difficult to manufacture quality violins. The point here is not ‘how shall we make quality violins in future?’ That’s just an interesting technical challenge. The point is, climate change has untold (in both senses of the word) implications: it’s even going to affect something as esoteric as violin-manufacture.
Solnit also explains how the best violins could not have come about without access to global resources provided by colonialism. She also cites the continuing use of a 300-year-old violin as a small example of long-term sustainability, contrasting this with our modern association of cultural enrichment with ‘material stuff’:
The sheer thrift of an instrument lasting so long said to me that maybe you could have magnificent culture with material modesty, that the world before all our fossil fuel extraction and burning could be plenty elegant, and maybe that the world we need to make in response to climate change can feel like one of abundance, not austerity.
To Solnit, violins, being made of wood, are also examples of (admittedly tiny) carbon sinks. Again, the point is not about violins per se, but to remind us of the important role trees have to play in sequestering carbon from our atmosphere.
Another lesson in climate change, sustainability, and colonialism, this time illuminated by a 300-year-old musical instrument, accompanied by some unexpectedly interesting trivia about violins…
As nuggets go, pure gold!