Book review: Herding Hemingway's cats

I think if I needed to pick a single word to describe Kat Arney's first (and fabulous) book on how genes work, it would be irreverent. And I mean that in the best possible way.

Full disclosure, I know Kat and have brewed beer with her. To be fair, this is so far a one-off event. Though, generally going to the pub hasn't been.

Irreverent is the way most things I like are described as part of their review. Irreverent movies are generally going to be sharp-edged satire, irreverent books turn the genre on its head. Being irreverent is, in my opinion, the best thing to be. Given that I study irreverent people (in the etymological sense), I think it the best way to approach most things.

As well, I think the only way to be irreverent is to have deep knowledge and understanding of the thing you're dissecting and eviscerating with humour, words, ideas or even science. This is demonstrated in abundance, her knowledge coming from either her own scientific career or from trying to make quite difficult and changing science clear to the public in her science communication career.

Anyway, to the point. Herding Hemingway's Cats makes the reader confront all the unknowns about genetics, all the weird stuff, all the contradictory stuff and all the 'what the fuck' stuff. You come out on the other end knowing probably more about how we think genes might work but I think, more importantly, how to better understand hyperbolic news headlines and science papers alike. After all, I'm unlikely to become a geneticist at this stage in my life but I might get cancer. The book is like a vaccination against ridiculous claims about genes for this and genes for that.

All this stuff is complicated. It's interconnected. It's fucking messy is what it is. But that doesn't mean we should stop thinking about it, researching it and overturning what we thought about it last year, let alone last decade.

But peppered throughout the book is the relentless optimism of these scientists. You can feel the excitement, the adventure of doing science. That it is bloody weird but isn't just that the interesting bit? I think the range of scientists Kat interviews are amazing, the skeptics, the brash characters who don't mind staring at the academic elephant in the conference room and going "what's this thing with the bloody trunk and floppy weird ears then?"

If I were to recommend this book to people, these would be my top three types of people:

  • people who think there's a gene for everything and think they have it
  • people who think scientists are boring and don't go to the pub
  • someone who likes mysteries and a good detective story

But really, everyone should read it because it's a fantastic book. It breaks down difficult concepts and builds brilliant analogies from lego to baking. I look forward to the future of genetics, though I may read everything with a bit of a skeptic's eye, at least for the next ten years or so.