My great books #2: On Growth and Form
Note: I’m counting down my ten favorite works of nonfiction, in order of the publication dates of their first editions, and with an emphasis on books that deserve a wider readership. You can find the earlier installments here.
In my first semester in college, I won something called the Detur Prize, which honored undergraduates who had achieved high grades with an enticing award: a copy of a book of their choice. When you’re eighteen years old and just starting to figure out who you are, a decision like this becomes a statement of intention: I felt obliged to pick a title that said something about what I hoped to accomplish. A quick glance at the spines of the books selected by my fellow students confirmed that I wasn’t alone in this—the most popular choices seemed to be The Yale Shakespeare and The Wealth of Nations, both of which were revealing in themselves. After a lot of thought, I settled on a book that surprised some of my friends: On Growth and Form by D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson. And though it took me the better part of the next decade to actually finish reading it, I knew from the start that it was the right choice, and I haven’t wavered in that certainty since. Thompson’s masterpiece is the best evidence yet presented that science and the humanities form a continuous whole, and that the patterns that you find in one sphere can shed light on the other, but only if channeled through the mind of an author qualified to draw those connections. And Thompson, who uniquely combined the strengths of a scientist, a classicist, and a mathematician, stands as one of the last truly comprehensive intelligences that the world ever produced.
As its title implies, On Growth and Form covers a dazzling array of topics: Thompson offers up original research and insights on turtle shells, narwhal’s horns, horse’s teeth, soap bubbles, and honeycombs. He explains how a cell finds its shape, how leaves are arranged on a branch, how an insect wing is structured, how birds and fish move, and how human beings grow. And he does it with style. The Nobel laureate Peter Medawar once wrote:
I think that Growth and Form is beyond comparison the finest work of literature in all the annals of science that have been recorded in the English tongue. There is a combination here of elegance of style with perfect, absolutely unfailing clarity that has never to my knowledge been surpassed… Growth and Form will remain forever worth reading as a text in the exacting discipline of putting conceptions accurately into words.
And my lifetime of reading Thompson—or, more accurately, reading in Thompson—only confirms that verdict. If Thomas Young, in the words of his biographer Andrew Robinson, was the last man who knew everything, Thompson is the most recent figure who could mount a convincing challenge. That kind of universality is no longer feasible. But On Growth and Form stands as a permanent monument to the idea that such unification was not only possible, but essential. That’s why I chose it two decades ago. And it’s why it still fills me with awe today.