Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Literati: So you thought you were special

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Reading Hannah Holmes's work is enlightening and entertaining — even when it's at its most depressing. And that is how the South Portlander's latest book, Quirk, starts. The intro smacks you with it: There is no "divine spark" that makes humans more special than other animals. Mice, which are as much a subject of the book as people, can be bred to have any of the behavior variations that we call "personality." Holmes goes for the jugular: "Personality isn't personal. It's biological," she writes. There is no "nature-versus-nurture" debate — 90 percent of what we think makes each of us unique is, in fact, embedded in our genes.

When you're done crawling under your rock, though, if you've managed to bring her book with you, it's a real treat to learn exactly how similar we are to cuddly, furry mammals — and cold, slimy reptiles — after all. But Holmes disputes the idea that we're being somehow demoted. Rather, she argues, animals are being promoted to the level of wonder we people have previously reserved for ourselves. (It's not just animals, either — Holmes is presently working on an article about the personality of bacteria.)

It turns out that's the only way we've managed to survive — and it may be the only way anything survives. "Every living thing contends with an unstable environment," the energetic, affable Holmes says over coffee. "The world is too chaotic for one personality type to be adequate for every situation, every challenge."

As a result, you're in luck: "for the most obnoxious person you can think of, there is a role in this world," she says cheerfully. For Holmes, these discoveries, laid out in her clear, smooth, amusingly self-aware prose, are "liberating," because they give us more to appreciate about the world as a whole. "We love what we love and there's no arguing it," she says, noting that no matter who we love, we have to get along with the wider group to stay alive in a world of threats, limited resources, and changing surroundings.

And at the end of the day, what we really have to do is behave as if personality is just like the color of our eyes, hair, or skin — something we're each born with, that we didn't choose and can't really change. So we're better off quitting sniping, and just getting along.

Hannah Holmes | reads from Quirk | February 23 @ 7 pm | Nonesuch Books, 50 Market St, South Portland | February 26 @ 2 pm | Bull Moose, 456 Payne Rd, Scarborough | March 2 @ noon | Portland Public Library, 5 Monument Square, Portland | March 8 @ 7 pm | RiverRun Bookstore, 20 Congress St, Portsmouth NH | March 10 @ 7 pm | Longfellow Books, Monument Way, Portland |