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Nabokov's Blues

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An unexpected gift leads me down a path I never imagined I would tread, deep into the world of lepidoptery and into a better understanding of the scientific work of a man whose literature I hold in the highest regard.

Several months ago, I received a gift: a copy of Nabokov's Blues by Kurt Johnson and Steve Coates. This was no arbitrary gift; the book was exactly what I needed exactly when I needed it. I am deeply grateful for the friendship of someone who both knew me well enough to recognize my anxiety and cared enough to do something about it. I love all of my books but this one I will treasure particularly.

Vladimir Nabokov was an author of global acclaim, well-known in academia for his translation of Pushkin's Eugene Onegin and throughout the rest of the literary world for his novels such as Ada, Bend Sinister, and especially Lolita. What is less well-known is that Nabokov was also a published scientist, a self-trained lepidopterist who made several important contributions to our understanding of a classification of butterflies known as Blues. Nabokov's Blues begins with a discussion of lepidoptery, Nabokov's work, and then picks up on the scientific journey to continue Nabokov's work after it had been largely overlooked for nearly fifty years.

Though extremely interested in science in general, I have little interest in biology, preferring instead to study more mathematical or experimental sciences. Nabokov made numerous references to lepidopterists, butterflies, and moths throughout his fiction but I understood very little about these references or what was behind them. From his autobiographical Speak, Memory, I knew that he personally also contributed to the field.

Driven by my interest in Nabokov's work and especially appreciation of my friend's gesture, I could not wait to start reading the book and actually began despite an extremely heavy work schedule, being in the final stages of editing on my own book, Brute Force, and the fact that I was also reading Brian Boyd's Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years. Once I got inside, I found a well-written and compelling story that was a pleasure to read.

Part I, “The Aurelian” (a title borrowed from one of Nabokov's stories), is a brief biography of Nabokov focused on his work as a scientist and a discussion of his lepidoptery. Part II, “The Searchers”, is where the story of other lepidopterists picks up. Work in the field leads us finally to South America, where much of Nabokov's work on Blues would be most applicable -- where specimens could be found, perhaps new species, challenging a belief long-held by many lepidopterists that there simply weren't many unknown butterflies to be found there. The part concludes with a discussion of the biodiversity crisis and the concern over the possibility of the disappearance of species of Blues faster than anyone can possibly find and study them.

Part III, “Nabokov's Blues”, begins with a discussion of the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature, which specifies how species are to be named. Shortly after this discussion, we learn of competing efforts to study Blues from South America, one international group specifically building on the work that Nabokov started by making numerous trips into the field, collecting dozens of specimens and another, apparently independent lepidopterist racing to publish a new classification system ahead of the international team's work from its Nabokov Project. Finally, the book concludes with a discussion of Nabokov's rightful place in science and the work that remains to be done in the field.

The book is a wonderful read, sure to be time well-invested for anyone with interests in both literature and science. Others with more focused interests in one or the other might find themselves motivated by this book to broaden their interests and to see specifically where art and science overlap. For me, it was an eye-opening and rewarding journey into a branch of science that I never thought I would explore, prompted by a thoughtful gift from a dear friend.

Спасибо большое тебе.

Created by cmcurtin
Last modified 2005-05-31 01:04 PM
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