Coates, Steven L. 1955-
COATES, Steven L. 1955-
PERSONAL: Born 1955.
ADDRESSES: Agent—c/o Author Mail, Steerforth Press, 25 Lebanon St., Hanover, NH 03755.
CAREER: Editor and journalist. Worked for New York Times and other publications.
(With Kurt Johnson) Nabokov's Blues: The Scientific Odyssey of a Literary Genius, Zoland Books (Cambridge, MA), 1999.
SIDELIGHTS: Journalist Steven L. Coates joined with Kurt Johnson to produce his first book, Nabokov's Blues: The Scientific Odyssey of a Literary Genius. Author Vladimir Nabokov is well known as a literary powerhouse, a man of letters whose place in the ranks of the greatest writers in the English language—notably, not Nabokov's first language—was assured with the novel Lolita. What is less known about the acclaimed writer is that he pursued an ongoing passion for lepidoptery—the study of butterflies—and made a number of notable scientific contributions to the field as a professional entomologist and researcher. In Nabokov's Blues, Coates and Johnson, the latter a lepidopterist and expert in butterfly taxonomy, trace "Nabokov's career as a lepidopterist and as a writer, and [assess] the value of his contribution to entomology as a butterfly taxonomist," observed Gaden S. Robinson in the Times Literary Supplement. "Lepidoptery in Johnson and Coates's brilliant and lucid book unfolds as history involving extraordinarily interesting people," including Nabokov and his colleagues who "completed and vindicated Nabokov's taxonomy of a small butterfly called the Karner Blue" through genuinely heroic, and physically arduous, fieldwork, remarked Guy Davenport in New Criterion.
Though he had neither a degree nor formal scientific training in entomology or lepidoptery, Nabokov was the author of twenty-two scientific papers on entomology and related subjects. He was employed for six years as an entomologist at Harvard University's Museum of Comparative Zoology. His tenure involved "six years of microscopy … counting scales on butterfly wings and sorting out species according to the shape of their genitalia," noted Davenport. But he was also a collector of specimens, particularly the Karner Blue that accounts for the "Blues" in Nabokov's Blues. In his scientific studies, Nabokov named seven new genera of butterfly and restricted two other existing genera. "It was a routine piece of taxonomic housekeeping done competently enough from the very limited material available to him," Robinson commented. Nabokov also contributed to an elevation of the perception of lepidoptery and entomology. "By featuring entomologists as protagonists in his works of fiction, Nabokov also brought respect and dignity to a profession too long associated with mild amusement, if not ridicule," observed May Berenbaum in Science. "His literary gravitas carried over to entomology."
In the course of the book, Coates and Johnson serve as advocates for scientific processes important to the entire field of biology. "Johnson and Coates do an outstanding job of laying out the importance of alphataxonomy (the classification and description of species), and it seems safe to say that never before has this desperately under-financed and utterly essential subdiscipline of biology been so engagingly depicted," Berenbaum remarked. "Their conservation message, tied to taxonomy (or what is now called 'biodiversity inventory'), is also eloquent and compelling."
"Although circumstances led him toward lasting fame as a writer of elegant and allusive fiction, Nabokov never completely broke from his scientific self; entomological facts, names, images, and metaphors burst from his writings," Berenbaum commented. Nabokov's Blues "is bound to charm and edify anyone who loves Nabokov, natural history, and especially butterflies," remarked Washington Post reviewer Donald Smith. "Since Leonardo da Vinci, few thinkers with serious scientific pretensions can be said to have also created great art or vice versa," Smith continued. "Johnson and Coates make good arguments that Nabokov belongs among that elite."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Booklist, December 1, 1999, Donna Seaman, review of Nabokov's Blues: The Scientific Odyssey of a Literary Genius, p. 676.
New Criterion, September, 2000, Guy Davenport, review of Nabokov's Blues, p. 74.
New York Times Book Review, February 20, 2000, Richard Conniff, "Vlad the Impaler," p. 18.
Publishers Weekly, September 6, 1999, review of Nabokov's Blues, p. 89.
Science, October 6, 2000, May Berenbaum, review of Nabokov's Blues, p. 57.
Times Literary Supplement, March 22, 2002, Gaden S. Robinson, "The Nabokov Project."
Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), December 19, 1999, John Beer, "A New Book Illuminates Writer Vladimir Nabokov's Place in the Realm of Science," p. 3.
Washington Post Book World, January 9, 2000, Donald Smith, "The Ardent Collector," p. 7.
Whole Earth, fall, 2000, review of Nabokov's Blues, p. 37.*