As we start the New Year, it is good to go and get a dose of the basics. (It is good anytime, but somehow the start of 2013 seems like a good excuse.)

I just finished reading The Lives of a Cell by Lewis Thomas. This is collection of essays that originally appeared in the New England Journal of Medicine. The essays are short and cover a variety of subjects, from language to human nature to ecology, which is to say that they are not strictly about medicine.

In one of the last essays (entitled Living Language) there is a reference to the work of a French zoologist named Pierre-Paul Grasse. In presenting a word that this fellow had made up (“stigmergy”) in order to explain the nest-building behavior of termites, Thomas summarizes Gasse’s idea in the following way. “It is the product of work itself that provides both the stimulus and instructions for further work.”

Writers should read widely. And it is when I find nuggets like this that I realize one of the values of such advise. A guy in France thinking about termites in 1967 reminds and refocuses me as I write fiction, poetry, and memoir in 2013.