There were 180-odd posts in my contest to win an e-book by recommending a single work of nonfiction that I would most like to read. And I am so impressed by my readers: nearly every book is one that I have already read or want to read, and the choices bespeak the curiosity and keen intelligence of the crowd here. (A few of the ones I’ve read: Deutch’s Beginning of Infinity, Quammen’s Dodo, Thomas Paine, Grayling’s Among the Dead Cities, Krauss’s Universe from Nothing, Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory, and at least a dozen more). But many I’ve neither read nor heard of.
Its hard to narrow this down, but here are the seven that intrigued me the most, with the poster’s name:
John Keegan’s astonishing Face of Battle. Far far too much history has been written in terms of “win” or “lose”, the movement of armies and the description of battles in terms of units (“The Royal Blankshires advanced into the enemy fire”), but Keegan moves the emphasis from units to the men themselves. Why did soldiers stand and fight when to lose is frequently so unpleasant, indeed final? What were the mechanisms of winning battles? Why and how was the battle decided? He takes 3 battles – all from UK history – Agincourt, Waterloo and the first day on the Somme and analyses them from the point of the participants themselves. Stunningly original book that, as one reviewer said, tells us “as much about the nature of man as war”.
Oh, and now I realize I’m supposed to suggest a book. The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, by Stephen Greenblatt. A rapture about a 2500 year old man nobody knows anything about, his lost radical poem and how an intrepid and clever Italian book seeker found it in the mid-1400s.
But I wouldn’t read it in any form except the one I’m using: a real hardcover book.
Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes. It has it all: linguistics, ethnography, adventure, excitement — and a Christian missionary who discovers that his faith can’t stand the harsh, unforgiving reality of nature and the plain fact that his assumptions about the world and God simply don’t hold beyond the confines of his own community.
I also recommend Hermione Lee’s 1997 biography of Virginia Woolf, entitled, appropriately, Virginia Woolf. It’s about Virgina Woolf; no other justification is necessary.
Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death.
One of the most insightful books ever on the nature of the human condition and our desires. It explains why we strive to build and maintain religions and other social projects, and why now traditional hero projects such as religion are falling by the wayside.
Besides spawning terror management theory, an empirically verified theory of motivation that explains why religious people and the rest of us act the way we do (which was well explained in the recent award winning film “the flight from death”, available for free on Hulu), it has larger implications and is one of the few truly great interdisciplinary works I have read.
Bill Clinton put it in his list of his top 20 favorite books.
Defending Science – within reason. By Susan Haack. Her take on the philosophy of science is unique and practical. Chapter 10, Point of Honor: On Science and Religion, is one of the best I’ve read outlining the differences between scientific black boxes and both the faith and theology of religion, as well as the failure of reconciliation with either.
Fermat’s Enigma by Simon Singh
This leisurely tour of the 250 years of mathematics that went into proving Fermat’s Last Theorem, and its portraits of the mathematicians who contributed to this achievement, is highly accessible without sacrificing mathematical accuracy.
I’ve saved the name and description of every book I’ve not yet read, and this will keep me busy during the times I’m not reading for my own book. Thanks to all! We’ll do this again some time—but with fiction. (The best short fiction ever written, by the way, is Joyce’s The Dead; the best longer fiction is Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina.)
Now, on to the winner. For cleverness I like Veronica’s recommendation of the Woolf biography, but the entry that made me want to really read the book is. . . .
Jeff, come on down! I am fascinated with Fermat’s last theorem and its solution, and so want to read Fermat’s Enigma very much. Send me your email address and I’ll forward it to the person who can get you the e-book.