I've been sitting on this Book Club entry for too long. I actually finished reading this book before the new year, but I hadn't gotten around to writting about it until now, almost three weeks into 2007. Oh well. The good news is I discovered an accessible, unsecured wireless network I can use from my couch, so I'm posting this from home.
The Flamingo's Smile is the fourth book by S.J. Gould that consists entirely of essays originally written for Natural History Magazine. They've been collated and then edited a little for consistency and references. The basic layout is the same as Ever Since Darwin and The Panda's Thumb: several sections, each containing a few essays built around a topic theme. There are more essays describing weird and wonderful organisms and adaptations, a great deal of history-of-science, and two sections of essays focused on science and society, particularly regarding "scientific racism" and other perversions of reasoning.
Gould is perhaps the finest non-fiction writer I have read. I really like the way Jared Diamond, Richard Dawkins, Carl Sagan, and many other writers craft their works, but Gould pulls together such wonderfully diverse facts and opinions into every essay, then assembles all these disparate essays into a coherent book. He is a joy to read, and once again I am saddened by his death.
The essays work their way through scientific history since the mid-1800's, along the way stopping to sniff the flowers beside E.E. Just's grave, Lord Kelvin's radioactive decay, and Gould's own work with land snails in the Bahamas. The one essay devoted to his own work, titled "Opus 100", is the 100th essay Gould wrote for Natural History. He starts by stating the two rules he followed rigidly for the previous 99 essays: "I never lie to you, and I strive mightily not to bore you". Then he states he's going to risk the second by indulging in his favourite topic. It's actually a very interesting and entertaining essay.
Carlo pointed out that these Book Club entries are not meant to be reviews, they are meant to be starting points for discussions. So rather than ramble on through this book, pointing out Gouldian one-liners (they are abundant), I'll just wrap up by saying Gould's breadth of topics and ability to consistently write with excitement apparently were not damaged by writing more than 100 essays over more than a decade. Go read this book.