We have a winner! Spring reading contest.

So many books, so little time!  I’ve finally finished plowing through the long list of nonfiction books entered in our spring reading contest.  As you may recall, the contest opened April 16 and closed at 5 p.m. on April 23.  The rules were these:

Please recommend one nonfiction book that you think everyone should read, and explain in no more than three sentences why we should read it. The book need not be about science, though those entries are welcome too.  The only books excluded from this contest are mine and Darwin’s Origin, which has been done to death.

Entries will be judged on both the suggested book and the sales pitch.

I should have realized that this would be a tough one to judge.  It was hard not to favor books I’d already read and liked, but this was counterbalanced by my desire to read some juicy new books that were well pitched.  On the other hand, I just couldn’t get behind books that I’d read but not liked, even if the pitch was good.

I’m not of the new everyone-is-a-winner school, but really, we all won this one by compiling such a great reading list.  I for one now have a big backlog of books I want to read.

Thanks to all who entered.  Perhaps a diligent soul will compile these all into one list? If you do, send it to me and I’ll put it up.

I’ve divided my favorite entries into three sections.  The first two get the “order of merit” for “books that Jerry has read and liked” and “books that Jerry now wants to read” respectively. Finally, we have the list of finalists, from which I chose one winner.  Be aware that to keep the lists manageable, I’ve not singled out every suggested book that I’ve liked.  And how well you touted or described a book was definitely a factor in getting on the lists.  Finally, when an author was recommended for more than one book, I’ve highlighted just one.

Group 1.  Order of Merit for books that Jerry has read, liked, and recommends (recommender in parentheses)

Letters from the Earth by Mark Twain (Dale)

The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman (Steve Knoll)

The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins (Ray Moscow)

Darwin’s Dangerous Idea by Daniel Bennett (James)

A Bright and Shining Lie by Neil Sheehan (Matt Penfold)

Your Inner Fish by Neil Shubin (Mike From Ottawa)

The Demon Haunted World by Carl Sagan (Sajanas, among numerous others)

Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why it Matters by Donald R. Prothero. (Lauri Törmä)

Philosophers Without Gods, edited by Louise Antony (Ophelia Benson)

On Liberty by John Stuart Mill (Grendels Dad)

The Years of Lyndon Johnson: Master of the Senate by Robert A. Caro (JJE).  This is the third volume of Caro’s biography. I highly recommend this and the first two volumes.

God: the Failed Hypothesis by Victor Stenger (Rev. El). I’ve also read and liked Stenger’s latest, The New Atheism.

Oranges by John McPhee (Jeff Chamberlain).  Let me put in a plug here for nearly everything that McPhee has written. I particularly like his earlier collections of essays.

Group 2.  Order of Merit for Books that Jerry wants to (and will) read based on the recommendations.

The Map that Changed the World by Simon Winchester (Quidam)

Names on the Land: a Historical Account of Place-naming in the U.S. by George R. Stewart (JoeB)

The Men Who Stare at Goats by John Ronson (Kel)

Remembering Satan by Lawrence Wright (Joe Fogey)

The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science by Richard Holmes (sgo)

Storms of my Grandchildren by James Hansen (Michael Heath)

Big Bang by Simon Singh (Jordan)

The Coming Plague by Laurie Garrett (Damien)

Bright-Sided by Barbara Ehrenreich (Lynn Wilhelm).  I’m reading this now based on Lynn’s suggestion, and am enjoying it immensely.

A drum roll now for:

Group 3: The Finalists! (I indicate whether or not I’ve read the book)

The Song of the Dodo by David Quammen (Dennis).  Not read

The Language Instinct by Steven Pinker (Arthur Nielsen). Read

Last Chance to See by Douglas Adams and Mark Carwardine (John TR).  Not read

How We Die by Sherwin B. Nuland.  (David Ratnasbapathy).  Not read

Why We Love: the Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love by Helen Fisher (Doc Bill).  Not read

The Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T. E. Lawrence (vincent).  Read

Young Men and Fire by Normal Maclean (Onychomys).  Not read

Three Cups of Tea:  One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace One School at a Time by (TreeRooster) by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin  Not read

The Hot Zone by Richard Preston (Peter Beattie). Not read.

And now. . . the winner.  Actually, there are two runners-up too: winner gets a hardback, runners-up a paperback, all signed as you wish.  If you are one of these three, please email me (my address is easily available on the Web) and let me know where to send your prize.  Remember that the pitch played a big role in making the final list. I’ve added the Amazon links should you wish to buy.

Winner: John TR for Last Chance to See by Douglas Adams and Mark Carwardine

The pitch: Most know of Adams through the Hitchhiker’s series and his wit and humour carry over brilliantly in narrating the journey to observe the world’s most endangered creatures. From the hilarious story of trying to buy condoms in China to the awe of patiently searching for white rhinos in Africa, Adams remains endearing and never condescending while educating the reader about such pressing environmental issues. This is the uproarious and enlightening story of an Englishman so far displaced from his clean and proper life.

Last Chance to See gets excellent reviews at GoodReads and LibraryThing. As many of you know, this book was turned into a BBC television show with Stephen Fry and Mark Carwardine.  The show’s website is here.

First runner-up: Doc Bill for Why We Love: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love by Helen Fisher

The pitch:  In this enjoyable and well-documented read, Helen Fisher strips away the “mystery” of love and replaces it with my favorite subject, chemistry. Mind-brain dualists (calling Dr. Egnor!) may howl at the moon that emotion is “mere chemistry,” but the fascinating interplay of chemicals in the brain as we grow and age explains why we do what we do when our logic says “no” though our glands say “Yes!”If you love evolution, you’ll love reading about the evolution of love and go ape over this book as I did.

Second runner up: Onychomys for Young Men and Fire by Norman Maclean

The pitch: I’m going to suggest Norman Maclean’s “Young Men and Fire”. It’s about Mann Gulch, Montana, where in August of 1949, 16 smokejumpers parachuted in to fight a small fire. The wind shifted, the fire exploded, and two hours after they landed, 13 of them were dead. This would be a compelling story of courage and tragedy if told by a hack writer, but in Maclean’s (who wrote “A River Runs Through It”, and who was undoubtedly my state’s greatest author) hands, it becomes something special. I cry every time I read it.

I haven’t read any of these, so I can’t vouch for their quality, but the pitches certainly made me want to read them (also, I’d read and liked Maclean’s A River Runs Through It, a terrific book that is not widely known). If you’ve read these, do post your take on them—or on any of the other books mentioned.

And thanks again to all. Happy reading!


  1. Chris
    Posted May 2, 2010 at 6:35 am | Permalink

    Excellent choice, highlighting the power that humour can leverage in science. In anything, really. Adams could see so far into any rational subject, and often introduced very original and profound viewpoints. This is really the “My Family & Other Animals” for my generation – in the UK at least.

    You should include zoologist Mark Carwardine as co-author, though.

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted May 2, 2010 at 6:38 am | Permalink

      You’re right and I have. Thanks!

    • Ian
      Posted May 4, 2010 at 9:28 am | Permalink

      ‘My family and other animals’, now there’s a book that made me cry, made my jaws ache as well.

  2. efrique
    Posted May 2, 2010 at 9:05 am | Permalink

    > Darwin’s Dangerous Idea by Daniel Bennett (James)

    That would be “Dennett”, right?

  3. Alun
    Posted May 2, 2010 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

    I don’t know if it’s available outside the UK, but the BBC has an archive of the radio series available online too:


  4. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted May 2, 2010 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

    emotion is “mere chemistry,”

    And hydrocarbons are mere elementary particles. Electrons are mere strings on branes. And strings and branes are mere physical laws.

    Physical laws are mere symmetries from conservation laws. And conservation laws are likely mere observational effects. And observational effects are mere products of processes such as evolution.

    I observe that arguing the egnorant way take us both full circle and nowhere fast. Emotions are emergent from chemistry; that doesn’t mean they _are_ chemistry.

  5. Posted May 2, 2010 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

    Great choice – I’ve been telling everyone they should read that book for years. It’s a fantastic read, and wonderfully written.

  6. Posted May 2, 2010 at 4:37 pm | Permalink

    Remembering Satan is engrossing, and horrifying. It illustrates how vital it is for people to understand that memory is fallible. Cf Fred Crews, passim.

  7. Doc Bill
    Posted May 2, 2010 at 5:27 pm | Permalink

    First Runner Up!

    I’m so excited! I’ve got the vapors, really I do.

    By all means read Helen’s book, Why We Love. There are also some interviews on NPR somewhere.

    Meanwhile, I will comfort myself with my very own copy of Why Evolution is True which I bought with my hardly earned cash. I’m sure if I mailed it to Jerry, return postage guaranteed, he’d sign it.

    He’s that kind of guy.

  8. santitafarella
    Posted May 2, 2010 at 7:35 pm | Permalink

    The “books atheists like” contest was certainly valuable.

    Might you consider the same thing with films?


  9. Posted May 3, 2010 at 6:44 am | Permalink

    Just a slight correction: AFAIR, Last Chance to See (the book) was based on the radio series – which in itself was a little surprising, given the title and the premise, but then Adams was a radio man through and through. As Alun pointed out, there’s a BBC archive of it; sadly it seems not to be out on CD.

    The Fry/Carwardine TV series was an attempt to revisit the species featured in the original, and see if they were still endangered. It’s out on DVD, and also as a book. Well worth reading/viewing, preferably after the original, for comparison.

  10. Peter Beattie
    Posted May 3, 2010 at 6:58 am | Permalink

    Although I admit to being slightly crestfallen for not making the winner’s podium with The Hot Zone, which will be hard to beat for sheer suspense, I must say that out of the excellent finalists David Quammen’s The Song of the Dodo is perhaps the most substantial and a tremendously well-written book. Most highly recommended!

    • Brian Dolezal
      Posted May 3, 2010 at 7:17 am | Permalink

      I will second that The Song of the Dodo is “a tremendously well-written book,” and is one that had a profoud effect on my upbringing. When asked for a book recommendation, Quammen is my go-to guy. Stunning.

  11. Posted May 3, 2010 at 9:45 pm | Permalink

    Last Chance To See was a great read, a worthy winning selection!

  12. JBlilie
    Posted May 4, 2010 at 8:17 am | Permalink

    I’ve read quite a few of these and agree that they are excellent.

    On Young Men and Fire, yes, it is excellent. But … in my opinion not nearly as good as A River Runs Through It. This, I believe, is because MacLean had all his youth to tell in ARRTI while he has only a few hours to cover (at book-length) with YMAF. He, of necessity, becomes a little bit repetitious in the latter.

    I agree with Three Cups of Tea: An excellent story and great cause. Greg Mortenson if more likely improve relations between Afghanistan (and Pakistan) and “the West” than anything governments are doing. His second book, Stones Into Schools is, if anything, even better. That book gets me choked up, as I read about how hard he and his stafff work to help impoverished women and girls in Central Asia. Please give to The Central Asia Institute.

    I also second The Map That Changed the World. I really enjoy Winchester’s writing. Great story about the first geologic map (of the UK). Get a (complete) used hardback: It has a fairly large reproduction of the map in question. I also enjoyed Winchester’s book about Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded.

    I am surprised and pleased to see Seven Pillars of Wisdom on the list. It is truly a classic. I do, however, recommend skipping the first approximately 100 pages: Up until Lawrence actually lands in Jeddah to begin his great work. The first bit is some miss-able youthful philosophizing and navel-gazing. In the same vein, I strongly recommend Wilfred Thesiger’s Arabian Sands. A few decades more recent than Lawrence; but equally adventurous (sans war) travels in Arabia. Very well written: Classic British adventure travel writing.

    I was equally surprised and pleased to see Stewart’s Names On the Land! This is a true classic and you will find it fascinating and educational and engaging. Unless it’s been reprinted, it will be hard to find. Also from Stewart: I strongly recommend Man, An Autobiography. This is the story of humanity from our beginnings in Africa in the deep prehistory, through the 20th century, from a scientific viewpoint. Concise and very interesting. Pretty accurate given what was known at the time of its writing.

    I heartily agree with the recommendation for Oranges by McPhee. A triumph of concise non-fiction story telling. I’ve never seen anyone but me ever recommend it. I can tell I fit in well with your readers! (I too like more or less everything by McPhee, my favorites still being his geology series.)

    I also want to recommend H.G. Wells’ books The Outline of History (two hardcover volumes, east to find used) and A Brief History of the World, which is an even briefer version of TOOH. Wells tells the story of human history through the 1930s with great élan and conciseness. Wells also, like very few of contemporaries, actively tries to not be Europe-focused and Chauvinist.

    I’m getting very long here. May I simply list the following and state that they are all in the same class with the books noted above?:

    Seven Years in Tibet (Harrer)
    No Picnic on Mt. Kenya (Benuzzi)
    Into Thin Air (Krakauer)
    Jupiter’s Travels (Simon)
    One-Man Caravan (Fulton)
    The Log of the Sea of Cortez (Steinbeck)
    Full Tilt (Murphy)
    News from Tartary (Fleming)
    A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush (Newby)
    Love and War in the Appenines (Newby)
    Sailing Alone Around the World (Slocum)
    Two Years Before the Mast (Dana)
    My Life with the Eskimo (Stefansson)
    Motoring with Mohammad (Hanson)
    Desert Solitaire (Abbey)
    Byline (Hemmingway)
    Canoeing with the Cree (Sevareid)
    Touching the Void (Simpson)

    Guns, Germs, and Steel (Diamond)
    The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (Shirer)
    The Guns of August (Tuchman) already mentioned. All her books are great.
    Under the Banner of Heaven (Krakauer)
    The Conquest of Mexico (Prescott)
    Black Elk Speaks (Neihardt)
    Hitler’s Willing Executioners (Goldhagen)
    The River War (Churchill)
    The Second World War (Churchill) huge, but worth the effort
    The Peloponnesian War (Thucydides)
    The Anabasis (Xenophon)
    The Annals (Tacitus)
    The Gallic War (Caesar)
    Wildlife in America (Matthiessen)
    The Right Stuff (Wolfe)
    A World Lit Only by Fire (Manchester)
    Engineering in the Ancient World (Landels)
    Cod (Kurlansky)
    The Survival of the Bark Canoe (McPhee)

    Other Non-fiction:
    The God Delusion (Dawkins)
    Unweaving the Rainbow (Dawkins)
    The Ancestor’s Tale (Dawkins)
    The Selfish Gene (Dawkins)
    Breaking the Spell (Dennett)
    A River Runs Through It (Maclean)
    A Sand County Almanac (Leopold)
    The Varieties of Scientific Experience (Sagan)
    Seabiscuit (Hillenbrand)
    The Botany of Desire (Pollan)
    Parasite Rex (Zimmer)
    Why We Get Sick (Nesse, et al)
    The Third Chimpanzee (Diamond)
    Your Inner Fish (Shubin)
    Genome (Ridley)
    The Origins of Virtue (Ridley)

  13. JBlilie
    Posted May 4, 2010 at 8:31 am | Permalink

    (I just can’t stop):

    The Exploration of the Colorado River and Its Canyons (Powell)
    Beyond the 100th Meridian (Stegner)
    The Sound of Mountain Water Stegner
    The Forever War Dexter Filkins (Iraq War)

  14. Posted May 4, 2010 at 11:13 am | Permalink

    Jerry, you are one well-read MF!

    On Last Chance to See, this video has been called the funniest ever by somebody (Stewart or Colbert?). BTW, the link to the telly show is missing from the post.

  15. Posted May 7, 2010 at 11:01 am | Permalink

    Very cool, Jerry. This smacks strongly of a new tradition for holiday gift-giving I started with my friends and associates last year: I agree to read a book of their choosing, they agree to read a book of my choosing. One friend is a neuroscience student who is extremely well-read, so it was very hard to find something good for her, but with enough fishing I was able to find that she had not read Last Chance to See, so that was my pick for her. (And her pick for me was “Becoming a Tiger” by Susan McCarthy.)

    I’ll note that while I have volunteered to read any Christian apologist or creationist stuff selected for me, I haven’t had to, because none of the people wanting me to read such things were willing to read a book about evolution or atheism. Telling, I think.

  16. KM
    Posted July 1, 2010 at 1:17 pm | Permalink

    If I’m not mistaken, there is a hauntingly beautiful song about the same fire as is covered in “Young Men and Fire” by Norman Maclean. It’s called Cold Missouri Waters and is on the album Cry Cry Cry by Richard Shindell, Lucy Kaplansky, and Dar Williams. I highly, highly recommend it. Beautiful. Now I’ll have to try the book!

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