On Reading-Part IX: The art of exposition
One of the few scientific treatises to be known , if not unfortunately read, by all. There is far too much unnecessary controversy about Darwin but you can hardly find a better example of clear and careful expository prose writing. On the Origin of Species is exact without being overly technical, intelligent without relying on jargon. All the while being interesting and enjoyable to read. And it should be read. It’s careful analysis brought the scientific method to the wider world while its many detailed observations can still delight with their beauty and charm.
Ulysses S. Grant was a great General, an under appreciated President, and if that were not enough he practically invented the modern American prose style. He wrote it to counter and correct the extravagant post-war Southern propaganda machine and “Lost Cause” mythology. Their arguments were often florid, their content sentimental. They fit stylistically with much pre-war American prose. This style was based on the rhetoric of classical oration, the erudition of the transcendentalist lecture and the exaggerated tropes of evangelical evangelism. Grant’s Memoirs brought to a wide popular audience a new post-war writing style: the clear, direct and unemotional prose of science and empiricism.
I fear many avoid reading Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams thinking it to be a dry and dusty technical treatise, but nothing could be further from the truth. Freud is yet another example of the late nineteenth century desire to bring scientific clarity to expository prose. His Interpretation of Dreams is, like Darwin, a model of clarity and detail. It is an amazing work of creative vision married to careful detailed observation and reads with all the excitement of a detective story. He brings us step-by-step through his original approach to dream interpretation, every step supported with fascinating anecdotes, stories and examples.