Barbara Goldsmith on Marie Curie

Obsessive Genius: The Inner World of Marie CurieObsessive Genius: The Inner World of Marie Curie by Barbara Goldsmith

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

It was the Fourth of July, and I needed a book to read; what more appropriate material than the biography of a Polish expatriate living and working in France?

All explanations of why I read it aside, I think this book is a great example of the top-down non-fiction book. It is a straightforward retelling of Marie Curie’s life, and–as long as you only view it as such–it works. Unfortunately there isn’t much more to the book, and it suffers some attributes common to the top-down style of writing, chiefly that the story sounds great in short (one of the greatest scientists of the late eighteenth/early nineteenth centuries fights to overcome poor funding and gender bias in the academy to make some of the greatest contributions to modern physics!), but the end result feels sort of mailed in, as though Goldsmith only chose to write about Curie because it was easier than writing about Mary Wollstonecraft or Abigail Adams. As such, Curie comes off as two dimensional martyr for historical currents that happen to interest Goldsmith (She was a genius whose contributions helped change the world–but look at the price she paid!). I wondered what stories there were at the margins of the book, which interesting little bits Goldsmith had cut in order to meet a word limit.

Bottom line: if you’ve got a boring paper to write, this is a great source. If you want to understand a great mind, a time and place, a different world, this might be a good starting point.

*A bottom up book would be something that starts from a small question or observation (or at least purports to start from something small) and then stumbles across Big Themes, rather than starting with the Themes and looking for examples that support it. A good example of a bottom-up book would be Born to Run or Moneyball.

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