Five Books site reorganizes, becomes more user-friendly

If you’re a bibliophile, you’ll already know about the Five Books site of The Browser, where you can read really nice interviews with luminaries and learn which five books they most recommend for popular reading in their field.

The site has just been reorganized, so you can scan all the interviews by general topic (“World literature,” “poetry,” “natural history,” and so on), by the person being interviewed, or by the recommended books themselves.  It’s even better than a bookstore, because you get recommendations, a precis of each book, and a look inside the heads of a diverse collection of scholars and enthusiasts.

In the latest contribution, science writer Seth Mnookin gives an interview in which he recommends his five “best books” about vaccines.  It’s a fascinating read, and I’m particularly pleased that he recommended a long-forgotten book that was one of my childhood favorites: Paul de Kruif’s Microbe Hunters, a history of microbiology told through the biographies of its colorful founders.

de Kruif, (1890-1971), a Dutch microbiologist with a novelistic bent, collaborated with Sinclair Lewis on my favorite novel about science, Arrowsmith. de Kruif’s name isn’t on the title page, but he helped Lewis plot the novel and get the science right. (The book won a Pulitzer Prize,but Lewis refused it.) Can I get a Darwin for Arrowsmith? (More on Jerry DeWitt tomorrow.)

Microbe Hunters is a tad breathy and puple-ish, but conveys the excitement of discovery better than almost any popular science book I know. Reviewer M. Crasnier-Mednansky notes:

As the lively stories for van Leeuwenhoek (1632-1723), Spallanzani (1729-1799), Pasteur (1822-1895), Koch (1843-1910), Roux (1853-1893), Behring (1854-1917), Metchnikoss (1845-1916), Theobald Smith (1869-1934), Bruce (1855-1931), Ross (1857-1932), Grassi (1854-1925), Walter Reed (1851-1902), and Paul Ehrlich (1854-1915) unfold, the reader is overwhelmed.

Indeed. My old copy is smudged and dog-eared from repeated readings. The book was enormously influential in turning many young people to science, and those include me.


de Kruif on the cover of his autobiography


  1. phhht
    Posted June 29, 2013 at 1:56 pm | Permalink


  2. Diana MacPherson
    Posted June 29, 2013 at 2:08 pm | Permalink

    I think this site is going to be very dangerous in that it will result in a lengthening of my already long reading list.

  3. Gordon Hill
    Posted June 29, 2013 at 2:44 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the update. I had become lazy in my visitations.

    • Gordon Hill
      Posted June 29, 2013 at 2:46 pm | Permalink

      Some think stacking books on a nightstand next to your head will induce an overnight transfer through osmosis.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted June 29, 2013 at 2:54 pm | Permalink

        It doesn’t work. The books just sometimes fall during the night & terrify you!

  4. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted June 29, 2013 at 3:23 pm | Permalink

    The very best organized web site I know is They sell mostly computer stuff and consumer electronics, but the way you can repeatedly narrow your search with their filter software is terrific. I wish more web sites of all kinds were equally organized and transversable.

  5. Posted June 29, 2013 at 4:10 pm | Permalink

    Bibliophile should be redirected to mean something else. The word sounds religious. Like a cross between Bible and pedophile. I promise I won’t make a joke about Catholic priests 😀

  6. John Taylor
    Posted June 29, 2013 at 5:42 pm | Permalink

    These are a couple good interviews:

    • Posted June 30, 2013 at 3:54 am | Permalink

      “I actually canvassed a lot of my colleagues, who are all evolutionary biologists, to get their ideas about what books to recommend.”

      Good idea. In all the reviews on that site I wonder how many others thought to check their own opinion.

      “Most of them said they don’t read popular books on evolution, which I found kind of appalling. You can always learn stuff …”

      Good point. There are two angles.

      As an expert consumer you may think you know more than such a book can offer, and so expect to learn nothing new, but in these times of specialisation it can help to broaden your view.

      And as a guardian of science and the public understanding of science, a role that perhaps not enough scientists take up in their private lives, who better to critique popular science books than a scientist. “That’s part of our function as scientists, to communicate what we do.”

  7. Diane G.
    Posted June 29, 2013 at 11:40 pm | Permalink


  8. Indrani Roy
    Posted June 29, 2013 at 11:41 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for leading me to ‘Five Book Sites”.

  9. Charles Sullivan
    Posted June 29, 2013 at 11:45 pm | Permalink

    Looks like a fascinating site. I do hate when philosophy and religion are grouped together though.

  10. Ysaye
    Posted July 1, 2013 at 8:54 am | Permalink

    Just wanted to point out that, in Dutch, if you refer to someone using his/her last name only, and it consists of 2 (or more) words, it is correct to capitalize the first word.

    So it’s “Paul de Kruif” (the first name is included), but “De Kruif” (first name omitted).

    P.S. Not trying to be pedantic. I noticed this before in your piece about Frans de Waal, and forgot to respond then.

    • Diane G.
      Posted July 2, 2013 at 12:35 am | Permalink

      Thanks, I never knew that! And there are a lot of Dutch names in my neck o’ the woods. (SW Michigan)

      • Ysaye
        Posted July 2, 2013 at 6:15 am | Permalink

        Apparently so 🙂 I just noticed that De Kruif was born in Zeeland, Michigan. Which is funny because when I hear Zeeland I think of the dutch province.
        Btw this also means that he’s American, not dutch, but I still think “de” should be capitalized. 😉

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