Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

My ten creative books #1: On Growth and Form

with 2 comments

On Growth and Form

Note: For the next two weeks, I’ll be counting down ten books that have influenced the way that I think about the creative process, in order of the publication of their first editions. It’s a very personal list that reflects my own tastes and idiosyncrasies, and I’m always looking for new recommendations.

In my first semester in college, I won something called the Detur Prize, which presented undergraduates who had earned good 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 quickly becomes a declaration of intent: 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 my feelings still haven’t changed. Thompson’s weighty masterpiece is the best evidence yet presented that science and the humanities form a continuous whole, with the patterns in one sphere shedding 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 of our truly comprehensive intelligences.

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.

Written by nevalalee

July 30, 2018 at 9:00 am

2 Responses

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  1. Great choice. May I also suggest Gregory Bateson’s MInd And Nature, a book which has followed me through my life and is also exactly about the link between science, evolution, and creativity.

    Jack Shalom

    July 30, 2018 at 9:35 am

  2. Ok makes me want to buy it right now. Thank you for generously sharing!! Looking forward to seeing the others…

    Samantha Rajaram

    July 30, 2018 at 10:16 am


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