Halfway through The Violinist’s Thumb (July 2012) by Sam Kean, I was tempted to stop and write my review. Most nonfiction is not my forte, although delving into the intricacies of DNA affecting our biological make-up, history, culture, and daily life does sound interesting. Consider the intriguing sub-title: and Other Lost Tales of Love, War, and Genius, as Written by our Genetic Code. Like his first scientific tome, The Disappearing Spoon, Kean’s second offering to mainstream literature promises to be just as quirky and enlighteningly educational. Here is the definitive opus about DNA’s causality in history for any willing student.
The first lesson is the many miles of DNA in one cell. This fact, alone, had me staring at my hand in amazement for an hour. The second is learning to read genetic code comprised of the letters A, C, G, and T, with infinite variations and permutations. Their location and links on our double-helix genetic strands determine who and what we are. Kean spends many pages expounding upon this to the point where, while this knowledge may be useful, the didactic detail is a bit overwhelming. Yet, I found it spellbinding.
Kean is a facile writer with a chattily conversational writing style. However, in some parts, The Violinist’s Thumb reads like a post-graduate textbook; some parts I just skimmed. It is evident that he thoroughly enjoys his topic and is eager to share his knowledge with anyone who would listen, er, read. But in his enlightenment, Kean looses sight of the average reader who is just looking for a bit more knowledge about DNA and RNA, instead of the equivalent of a PhD in biochemistry. Despite this, Kean sprinkles his text with many, often humorous, anecdotes about famous and not so famous people. Fascinating are his rifts on Albert Einstein, the large brain of biologist Baron Cuvier, the violinist Niccolo Paganini with the genetically flexible thumb, JFK’s Addison’s disease, Darwin, and how DNA affected many historical and cultural events, including the rise and fall of the Neanderthal. He even embedded a DNA-related acrostic into the text, which I have yet to solve.
There is a distinct niche for nonfiction like this, but only for the more esoterically intellectuals among us. I may be very bright, but this book nearly overtaxed my cranial capacities. This is certainly not a book one avidly reads in one sitting, like a fast-paced novel. I could only take its factual intensity in two or three page reading spurts, taking two months to finish it. In many respects, though, it was well worth the effort. I recommend Kean’s tome to the average adult reader; if nothing else, for the sheer thrill of learning about DNA from a skilled and well-informed author. With the knowledge I gleaned, I am confident that if I ever meet a biochemist or geneticist in the grocery store checkout line, I’ll be well-prepared.
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