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!