Winner: nonfiction contest

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”.

Naomi Fein

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.

Will Valverde

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.

Veronica Abbass

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.

Matthew Snook

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.


  1. Toni Clark
    Posted March 19, 2012 at 9:00 am | Permalink

    Great list. Will you post them all? I loved The Swerve, my favorite book read in 2011 (and I read 100). Lucretius believed in evolution via natural selection. A few years ahead of his time, eh? And Greenblatt’s a good writer. The story is fascinating.

  2. Bonzodog
    Posted March 19, 2012 at 9:13 am | Permalink

    Worthy winner. Simon Singh is one of the best science writers around (although I thought Big Bang was disappointing) …. and the victor is a weird libel case brought by British Chiropracters who sued when he made statement that some of claims were unscientific and bogus. (Can’t just have the Guardian!)

    As an aside the fact that the notorious British libel laws were used to attempt to stifle him was scary in the extreme.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted March 19, 2012 at 10:51 pm | Permalink

      Yay for Simon Singh! Actually, from the article, he hasn’t won the case yet, he’s just won the point that he can claim ‘fair comment’ when he said chiropractic was ‘bogus’ as a treatment for asthma, earache etc. Otherwise he would have had to prove fact (and how do you ‘prove’ a treatment, no matter how ridiculous, doesn’t work?).

      As it happens, I’ve just started reading his book, called Fermat’s Last Theorem in the version I’ve got, but doubtless the same book.

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted March 19, 2012 at 11:25 pm | Permalink

        Oops! Am I out of date! A little Googling confirmed that was last year, and the British Chiropractic Association promptly dropped their libel action. But not before they reaped a whirlwind of formal complaints. (I suppose everyone here knows that and they’re shaking their heads sadly at my ignorance. Mea culpa.)

        • Diane G.
          Posted March 20, 2012 at 1:18 am | Permalink

          I, too, last heard of this imbroglio when the outcome was still up in the air. Thanks for the link.

        • Dominic
          Posted March 20, 2012 at 3:56 am | Permalink

          I think I shall call you ‘Missing Y’!

  3. TJR
    Posted March 19, 2012 at 9:32 am | Permalink

    Good choice. Simon Singh’s book on Fermat is very readable, and indeed I bought it for my mum for Xmas a few years ago as being a good explanation of what mathematicians (which I’m not quite) do.

  4. Will Valverde
    Posted March 19, 2012 at 10:09 am | Permalink

    Ooh, much as I wanted to win, I do remember really liking the Singh book — maybe it’s time to give it another read. In any case, it’s an honor just to be nominated….

    • Bonzodog
      Posted March 20, 2012 at 5:29 am | Permalink

      Same here !

  5. eknick
    Posted March 19, 2012 at 10:44 am | Permalink

    I see I am late to the party, but a book I found very interesting was Einstein’s Luck by John Waller.

    It is a book about the myths that have arisen about famous scientists and their discoveries, and includes chapters on Darwin (Ch 9) and Huxley (Ch 10) that biologists (I’m not one) might find interesting.

    The book shows (I’ve seen this before) that Sir Arthur Eddington, the astronomer who supposedly “proved” that Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity was correct based on the deflection of starlight during an eclipse, actually had very poor, inconclusive measurements and “cooked the books” to make the results agree with GTR’s predictions (this was around 1919 as I recall). Eddington was a fan of Einstein’s, and was said to be one of the very few people at that time who understood GTR. This is not to say that GTR is wrong; rather that Eddington’s “proof” was premature and bogus. Hence “Einstein’s Luck”.

    The book is interesting, I found it to be a facinating read, showing how the classic view of scientists and their discoveries are often painted over by myths.

    • अहंनास्मि (Ahannāsmi)
      Posted March 19, 2012 at 11:52 am | Permalink

      Actually, I think, the myth of Eddington having “cooked the books” has been debunked soundly. Here is a cited summary from Wikipedia:

      The quality of the 1919 results was indeed poor compared to later observations, but was sufficient to persuade contemporary astronomers. The rejection of the results from the Brazil expedition was due to a defect in the telescopes used which, again, was completely accepted and well-understood by contemporary astronomers.

  6. Posted March 19, 2012 at 12:55 pm | Permalink

    More to say about “The Swerve” (which I’m still reading): in elegant but precise language, Greenblatt tells the story of how classic literature and knowledge disappeared. In my knee-jerk lib education way, I always assumed it had to do with the so-called “barbarians,” and the end of the Roman Empire. And bookworms, et al. Although I was never quite clear on this. I mean, if people loved reading and storytelling, how could it just disappear?
    Greenblatt is clear: the books themselves and the knowledge within them were destroyed, and deliberately, by Christianity.Fairly recently I’d learned — or thought I’d learned — that the Dark Ages weren’t really entirely dark, that stuff was going on underneath the Dark Cloud — stuff that would put forth delicate tendrils during the Renaissance. And be taken up, among others, by my hero heretic Galileo. (Although those tendrils were nursed primarily by Arabs.)
    Not so. Greenblatt specifically condemns Christianity for its deadly campaign against Epicurus and his followers (atomists and thrillingly contemporary in their thinking and observations), among whom was Lucretius, author of On the Nature of Things. Most striking is Greenblatt’s description of self-flagellation, the worship of pain and Jesus’s suffering as a cynically developed antidote to Epicurean philosophy.
    This is such a powerful, lovely book.

    • JBlilie
      Posted March 19, 2012 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

      “my hero Galileo” Mine too. He discerned an incredible amount with minimal tools and was the first to opening insist on evidence in opposition to authority and a priori arguments.

      • Posted March 20, 2012 at 7:28 am | Permalink


        On the original post when I suggested Hermione Lee’s biography of Virginia Woolf, you asked,”In a few sentences, please, why should I care about Virginia Woolf? (I’m quite serious.)”

        Virginia Woolf was a feminist, an atheist and her book _A Room of One’s Own_ was and is an inspiration to women. In _Moments of Being_ Woolf says

        “Behind the cotton wool is hidden a pattern; that we—I mean all human beings—are connected with this; that the whole world is a work of art; that we are parts of the work of art. Hamlet or a Beethoven quartet is the truth about this vast mass that we call the world. But there is no Shakespeare, there is no Beethoven; certainly and emphatically there is no God; we are the words; we are the music; we are the thing itself.”

  7. Dan L.
    Posted March 19, 2012 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

    I was thinking of recommending _Don’t Sleep There Are Snakes_ but I was late to the party. _The Swerve_ was also quite good, got it for Christmas and finished it on the 27th or 28th of December. Makes me want to check out Greenblatt’s Shakespeare stuff.

  8. JBlilie
    Posted March 19, 2012 at 1:52 pm | Permalink

    I also forgot to mention:

    The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddharta Mukherjee


    The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

    A couple of the best NF reads I’ve had in years.

  9. Saikat Biswas
    Posted March 19, 2012 at 2:31 pm | Permalink

    My picks are

    1. ‘Number: The Language of Science’ by Tobias Dantzig (an enduring classic)

    2. ‘Elliptic Tales: Curves, Counting and Number Theory’ by Avner Ash and Robert Gross. It gives you a layman’s introduction to the Birch and Swinnerton-Dyer Conjecture, one of the most famous unsolved problems in mathematics, whose solution is worth a million dollars.

  10. Posted March 19, 2012 at 3:15 pm | Permalink

    The problem with some of these books is that they take a multifaceted and complicated scientific and technological developments, and attribute the whole thing to one critical person, one crucial year, and one idea.

    I wish I could believe that.

    Any day now I expect a popularization to be published about how the invention of the mechanical pencil with a retractable lead was the one absolutely crucial technological development, without which we would not have the modern world.

    • Diane G.
      Posted March 20, 2012 at 1:23 am | Permalink

      I hear ya.

  11. Dermot C
    Posted March 19, 2012 at 3:16 pm | Permalink

    Congratulations to Jeff. The Dead means a lot to me; my brother read out the last paragraph at my pa’s funeral. Beautiful.

  12. joe piecuch
    Posted March 19, 2012 at 5:21 pm | Permalink

    i’m not particularly inclined to argue with your opinion of ‘the dead’; i think i probably agree with you. i wonder whether you’ve ever read frank o’connor’s ‘guests of the nation’ and ‘the weeping children’? i suspect that if you had, your assessment of joyce’s story might be less assured.

  13. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted March 19, 2012 at 6:46 pm | Permalink


    Marcus Du Sautoy took over Dawkins’ professorship role. His writing shares the same soaring clarity as Dawkins. Du Sautoy has the mathematics angle, so I belatedly urge anyone who liked Dawkins or wonders what would happen if math got “the Dawkins treatment” to get a copy of “The Music of the Primes” or “Symmetry” AKA “Finding Moonshine”.

    Sorry if the old blog had this author – consider it another vote.

    • bric
      Posted March 20, 2012 at 2:22 am | Permalink

      The BBC is repeating ‘The story of mathematics’ at the moment ( )
      I saw Prof. du Sautoy in Blackwell’s recently but was too awe-struck to do the fan thing

      • ThyroidPlanet
        Posted March 20, 2012 at 7:12 am | Permalink

        I will have to wait until I visit the United Kingdom to see it on BBC’s iPlayer.

  14. Richard Thomas
    Posted March 19, 2012 at 10:08 pm | Permalink

    I didn’t read “Don’’t Sleep There Are Snakes” because I’m a herpetologist, but because I had heard of Daniel Everett and his linguistic ideas. The book was so good, that after reading it on my Kindle, I bought the hard copy. However (herpetologist speaking), Everett’s encounter with the anaconda is certainly exaggerated. Susan Haack’s “Defending Science – Within Reason” is also a favorite, and “The Swerve” turns out to be quite enjoyable on the Kindle, Naomi. However, my recommendation would be Stephen Inwood’s “the Man Who Knew Too Much, The Strange and Inventive Life of Robert Hooke.”

  15. Bonzodog
    Posted March 20, 2012 at 5:31 am | Permalink

    Missed out my ancient and battered copy of Lehninger’s Biochemistry …..!

    Serious non-fiction!

  16. Posted March 20, 2012 at 7:30 am | Permalink


    Thank you for the honourable mention; I look forward to the fiction contest.

  17. Posted March 20, 2012 at 8:23 am | Permalink

    Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes is going straight onto my wishlist. I am slowly learning to embrace nonfiction but I eagerly await the fiction list.

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