Some of the worst, most atrocious examples of writing can be found in the social sciences. I think a large part of the reason is that social scientists try too hard to make their writing sound “scientific.”
Every once in a while, however, you run into some great writers who also happen to be great social scientists. Case in point, Luc Sante’s Low Life, the story of New York’s Lower East Side, circa 1840-1920. Sante may not be a social scientist in the strict sense of the word, but damn! his insights and how he brings to life the culture of the streets that continues to influence our contemporary popular culture, is a rare and wonderful fusion of art and science. Check this little gem of a paragraph…
The Naked Night
The night is the corridor of history, not the history of famous people, or great events, but that of the marginal, the ignored, the suppressed, the unacknowledged; the history of vice, error, of confusion, of fear, of want; the history of intoxication, of vainglory, of delusion, of dissipation, of delirium. It strips off the city’s veneer of progress and modernity and civilization and reveals the wilderness. In New York City it is an accultured wilderness that contains all the accumulated crime of past nights… and it is not an illusion. It is the daytime that is the chimera, that pretends New York is anyplace, maybe with bigger buildings, but just as workaday, with a population that goes about its business and then goes to sleep, a great machine humming away for the benefit of the world. Night reveals this to be a pantomime. In the streets at night, everything kept hidden comes forth, everyone is subject to the rules of chance, everyone is potentially both murderer and victim, everyone is afraid, just as anyone who sets his or her mind to it can inspire fear in others. At night, everyone is naked.
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My name is Eddie and I’m in recovery from civilization…