What's Wrong with Jay McInerny is what's wrong with the rest of America — but it's not what you think

I’m in the midst of reading Richard Powers’s new novel, GENEROSITY: AN ENHANCEMENT. I’m a big fan of Powers’s work, and despite some not so great (and in my mind kind of ill-conceived) reviews, I’m liking it a lot so far. Jay McInerny reviewed the book in the Times Book Review this week, and I was surprised by his statement in the “upfront” section.

Here, I’m quoting from that:

Jay McInerney begins his review of Richard Powers’s new novel, “Generosity, with the admission that he has shied away from Powers in the past.

“I knew I was supposed to read him,” he explained in a recent e-mail message, “but it sounded like the kind of improving enterprise that I resist strenuously, like going to the gym or eating lots of fiber.”That was largely because Powers’s fiction so often deals with the world of science, while McInerney describes himself as “a typical humanist, someone whose math SAT scores were quite a bit lower than his English ones.” At Williams College, he says, he took the “rocks for jocks” geology class specifically “to avoid the more daunting, mathematically oriented branches of science.”

So reviewing Powers, and catching up on his oeuvre, was something of a crash course for McInerney. He was pleasantly surprised. “I just assume, unfairly or not,” he said, “that all scientists wear pocket protectors and orthopedically correct shoes. I find it interesting, if somewhat counterintuitive, that in ‘Generosity’ the scientists seem more stylish and witty than the humanists.”

Little does he know. Most of the scientists I know are either way more fashionable than I am (which is totally not) or way more interesting.

I don’t know that there’s really an honest divide between humanist and scientist — although given that in the world of the university (a strange phrase, I know) there is a real and unnecessary divide between the humanities and the sciences. So I guess we can accept it as an accurate statement of the status quo.

I freely admit that I took what I usually refer to as Biology for English Majors when I was an undergraduate, largely to avoid that same math — I took logic to fulfill my math requirement.) Perhaps it’s because my father was something of an autodidact engineer, and I have some of his genes, and because I just find science and the things that scientists do incredibly fascinating, I find it sort of disheartening that McInerny was dismissive to the point of evasion.

Not McInerny’s fault, and I’m not blaming him, it’s just that it’s a fairly prominent example of how the left has failed science. (For more on this, see also Rivka Galchen’s piece in the current Harpers on hurricanes, which I read mostly in the drug store last night because I choked on the $7.00 cover price.)

That failure is an ugly bookend to the right’s failing of science. The left’s sins seem to be of omission (I’m not good at math, so I won’t take it); the right’s of commission (I’m not good at math, but what people are coming up with in math is scaring me, so math must be bad and we must stomp it out like the plague it is).

Maybe it’s because I work in a company that does a lot of science, a company that, like those in its industry, is looking at the shrinking pool of candidates for its jobs and pretty much freaking out, because there are other countries who are graduating scientists, engineers and mathematicians at almost factory rates.

Which is to say that I am aware (professionally) of the sort of cultural antipathy toward science and math, and, as a parent, I am also aware of various individual misapprehensions about science.

So, Jay, go read Rivka. Even if I was a bit disappointed in her novel (she seemed to me to be doing Powers, but not quite so powerfully), it’s still worth reading, and she is a great essayist, and a scientist herself. Then, go find some scientists or engineers who are doing really interesting, cutting edge work &mdash or even dull work but could do more interesting work — and then meet them for dinner or drinks, and in a couple of hours, you’ll have enough material for novels for the rest of your life.

Tell me what you think. Seriously.