Books I: NYT list of 2013’s best books neglects science; my list does too.

Here, from last Sunday’s New York Times, is the list of their selection of “The 10 bet books of 2013”: 5 fiction and 5 nonfiction. Clicking the title link will take you to the NYT review of that book.


By Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
Alfred A. Knopf, $26.95.

By turns tender and trenchant, Adichie’s third novel takes on the comedy and tragedy of American race relations from the perspective of a young Nigerian immigrant. From the office politics of a hair-braiding salon to the burden of memory, there’s nothing too humble or daunting for this fearless writer, who is so attuned to the various worlds and shifting selves we inhabit — in life and online, in love, as agents and victims of history and the heroes of our own stories.

By Rachel Kushner.
Scribner, $26.99.

Radical politics, avant-garde art and motorcycle racing all spring to life in Kushner’s radiant novel of the 1970s, in which a young woman moves to New York to become an artist, only to wind up involved in the revolutionary protest movement that shook Italy in those years. The novel, Kushner’s second, deploys mordant observations and chiseled sentences to explore how individuals are swept along by implacable social forces.

By Donna Tartt.
Little, Brown & Company, $30.

Tartt’s intoxicating third novel, after “The Secret History” and “The Little Friend,” follows the travails of Theo Decker, who emerges from a terrorist bombing motherless but in possession of a prized Dutch painting. Like the best of Dickens, the novel is packed with incident and populated with vivid characters. At its heart is the unwavering belief that come what may, art can save us by lifting us above ourselves.

By Kate Atkinson.
A Reagan Arthur Book/Little, Brown & Company, $27.99.

Demonstrating the agile style and theatrical bravado of her much-admired Jackson Brodie mystery novels, Atkinson takes on nothing less than the evils of mid-20th-century history and the nature of death as she moves back and forth in time, fitting together versions of a life story for a heroine who keeps dying, then being resurrected — and sent off in different, but entirely plausible, directions.

By George Saunders.
Random House, $26.

Saunders’s wickedly entertaining stories veer from the deadpan to the flat-out demented: Prisoners are force-fed mood-altering drugs; ordinary saps cling to delusions of grandeur; third-world women, held aloft on surgical wire, become the latest in bourgeois lawn ornaments. Beneath the comedy, though, Saunders writes with profound empathy, and this impressive collection advances his abiding interest in questions of class, power and justice.


The Financial Crisis, the Response, and the Work Ahead
By Alan S. Blinder.
The Penguin Press, $29.95.

Blinder’s terrific book on the financial meltdown of 2008 argues that it happened because of a “perfect storm,” in which many unfortunate events occurred simultaneously, producing a far worse outcome than would have resulted from just a single cause. Blinder criticizes both the Bush and Obama administrations, especially for letting Lehman Brothers fail, but he also praises them for taking steps to save the country from falling into a serious depression. Their response to the near disaster, Blinder says, was far better than the public realizes.

Bush and Cheney in the White House
By Peter Baker.
Doubleday, $35.

Baker succeeds in telling the story of the several crises of the Bush administration with fairness and balance, which is to say that he is sympathetic to his subjects, acknowledging their accomplishments but excusing none of their errors. Baker, the chief White House correspondent for The Times, is fascinated by the mystery of the Bush-­Cheney relationship, and even more so by the mystery of George W. Bush himself. Did Bush lead, or was he led by others? In the end, Baker concludes, the “decider” really did decide.

Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital
By Sheri Fink.
Crown, $27.

In harrowing detail, Fink describes the hellish days at a hospital during and after Hurricane Katrina, when desperate medical professionals were suspected of administering lethal injections to critically ill patients. Masterfully and compassionately reported and as gripping as a thriller, the book poses reverberating questions about end-of-life care, race discrimination in medicine and how individuals and institutions break down during disasters.

How Europe Went to War in 1914
By Christopher Clark.
Harper, $29.99.

Clark manages in a single volume to provide a comprehensive, highly readable survey of the events leading up to World War I. He avoids singling out any one nation or leader as the guilty party. “The outbreak of war,” he writes, “is not an Agatha Christie drama at the end of which we will discover the culprit standing over a corpse.” The participants were, in his term, “sleepwalkers,” not fanatics or murderers, and the war itself was a tragedy, not a crime.

By Sonali Deraniyagala.
Alfred A. Knopf, $24.

On the day after Christmas in 2004, Deraniyagala called her husband to the window of their hotel room in Sri Lanka. “I want to show you something odd,” she said. The ocean looked foamy and closer than usual. Within moments, it was upon them. Deraniyagala lost her husband, her parents and two young sons to the Indian Ocean tsunami. Her survival was miraculous, and so too is this memoir — unsentimental, raggedly intimate, full of fury.

For some reason I don’t have much desire to read any of these. There are so many other books that I haven’t yet read, and the older I get, the less appealing I find fiction.

But note the absence of science books from the list. What’s worse is the Times’s list of “100 notable books of 2013.” There is but a single science-related book, and that one’s about medicine (and written by a Times reporter!):

THE CANCER CHRONICLES: Unlocking Medicine’s Deepest MysteryBy George Johnson. (Knopf, $27.95.) Johnson’s fascinating look at cancer reveals certain profound truths about life itself.

It’s a sad state of affairs when the only science that interests people much is medicine, and when lots of interesting science books have been published in 2013 (try here, here, and here, for instance).

Because I’ve spent almost all my spare time reading about religion and theology, I’ve had precious little time for pleasure reading this year. And I can’t think of a single work of fiction on my 2013 list. Thank Ceiling Cat, those days are largely over and I can go back to reading whatever I want.

I suppose my favorite book of the year remains Robert Caro’s latest volume in his biography of Lyndon Johnson, The Passage of Power. the meticulously researched and wonderfully told tale of how Lyndon Johnson, a figure of fun as Kennedy’s Vice President, took over after JFK was shot and, becoming once again the power broker he was as Senate majority leader, strong-armed the Congress into passing the 1964 Civil Rights Act.  This multivolume set, which Caro continues to write, still strikes me as the best political biography ever produced save The Last Lion, William Manchester’s unfinished biography of Winston Churchill. (Manchester died before he finished it.)

As for “fun” books, my favorite was Fallen Giants, an unsung but absolutely wonderful history of Himalayan mountaineering by two university professors who are also mountaineers. Nothing I have read compares to it in comprehensiveness, and a bonus is that the book is superbly written. If you love mountains, this one’s a must. Trust me. Thanks to Andrew Berry for sending this as a Coynezaa gift. (Coynezaa by the way, is my personally invented holiday that comprises the six days between Christmas and my birthday. Like Chanukah, I’m supposed to get a present every day, but I never do.  😦  I think everyone should invent one holiday per year—aside from one’s birthday—that celebrates them.)

For “intellectual” books, Herman Philipse’s God in the Age of Science?: A Critique of Religious Reason would be hard to beat.  It’s dense, but is the best dismantling of modern arguments for theism that I’ve seen. At its end, religion has been laid low, even the “sophisticated sort,” and one is left in awe of Philipse’s analytical abilities.

Now it’s your turn. (You didn’t think you’d just come over hear and passively absorb stuff, did you?)  Name the best book you’ve read all year and explain why it was so good.


  1. jerrold12
    Posted December 24, 2013 at 6:32 am | Permalink

    The Accidental Species: Misunderstandings of Human Evolution by Henry Gee has got to be at the top of the list.

    • cromercrox
      Posted December 24, 2013 at 11:12 am | Permalink

      Oh noes! A book by one of those dreaded accommodationists! BURN IT! BURN THE HERETIC!!

      • Dave
        Posted December 24, 2013 at 1:00 pm | Permalink

        OK, I know it’s difficult this time of year but, take deeps breaths and repeat, “Bad Xians, bad Xians, I will not be like the Xians” There, feel better?

    • Ian Liberman
      Posted December 24, 2013 at 3:23 pm | Permalink

      I have to agree with Jerrold12, The Accidental Species: Misunderstandings of Human Evolution by Henry Gee was at the top of my list. Fascinating look at Evolution from interesting perspectives not found in most writings. Sean Carroll`s book on the Higgs was also fabulous called The Particle at the End of the Universe Amazing writer and scientist. I see no evidence having read most articles and books by Henry Gee that he is an accommodationist. He clarified his remarks about Science and atheism.

      • jerrold12
        Posted December 25, 2013 at 7:21 am | Permalink


        Thanks for the support. Whether or not Gee is an accommodationist is totally irrelevant to the quality and value of his book. I would hope that readers of this site can separate debate about the author’s more abstract views on religion, atheism and science from the actual product he has written.

        A good part of my job as a Tour Guide and Education Volunteer at AMNH is explaining evolution to visitors. In fact, my current two hour Highlights tour focuses on the story of 3 1/2 billion years of the evolution of life on earth as shown through our exhibits. To accomplish this effectively and concisely requires grasping each particular audience’s thinking about evolution and then adjusting my presentation and interaction with them so as to deepen their knowledge of the subject and leave them permanently (hopefully) in greater understanding and enjoyment of the world they live in. In aid of that, I begin and end the tour with the famous last sentence of the Origin.

        Gee’s book deals in a practical way with the practical difficulties I face regularly in my work. It has already yielded many insights into my task and I expect to consult it regularly in the future just as I do Dr. Coyne’s WEIT along with the evolution textbooks of Carl Zimmer and Douglas J. Futuyma and the books of Cameron M. Smith, Neil Shubin, Donald R. Prothero, Douglas H. Erwin, James W.Valentine, Daniel J. Fairbanks, Thomas R. Holtz, Jr., Ian Tattersall, Michael J. Benton, David E. Fastovsky, David B. Weishampel, Stephen L. Brusatte and many, many others.

        Incidentally, Dr. Brusatte’s The Paleobiology of Dinosaurs, although published in 2012, deserves recognition as the most scientifically up-to-date, clearly written and stimulating exposition available of just how the wee beasties probably lived. (Full disclosure: he used to be a colleague at AMNH before he landed in his present quarters in Edinburgh.)

        • gravelinspector-Aidan
          Posted December 25, 2013 at 8:57 am | Permalink

          just how thw wee beasties probably lived

          Most people think of sauropods and the like when they think of dinosaurs, but even given the biases of preservation, the actual fossil record already shows that the majority of dinosaur species were small. “d*g^H^H^H cat sized or smaller,” for values of “cat” excluding the “big cats.”
          A decade or so ago, one of my old lecturers, Gordon Walkden at Aberdeen reported discovering a slab of Middle Jurassic (i.e. before the avian dinosaur’s evolutionary radiation) rock with something like 120 individual footprints on it in dozens of trails. Gordon needed the assistance of several “big strong boys” from the student class he was taking on a field trip to get it back to the tranny, because it was about a metre square. But 120-odd prints on a square metre meens typical sizes were only a few cm across.

          • merilee
            Posted December 25, 2013 at 11:22 am | Permalink

            Tranny?? Does not mean transvestite, I presume…

            • pacopicopiedra
              Posted December 25, 2013 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

              Reminds me of a road trip I once took with some friends and the driver said, “I gotta stop in the next town to fill up with tranny fluid; I’m running low.”

              Transmission fluid, of course.

              • jerrold12
                Posted December 25, 2013 at 3:03 pm | Permalink

                From the context, gravelInspector-Aidan was using it to mean “transport”. In this case, presumably something like a truck.

              • Merilee
                Posted December 25, 2013 at 3:38 pm | Permalink

                That’s what I figured:-)

            • gravelinspector-Aidan
              Posted December 25, 2013 at 5:30 pm | Permalink

              Ford “Transit” van : cheap, reaasonably reliable, box on heels that could take seats for 8 and luggage space for those 8. Good for quite rough dirt roads. Very popular for field-work and student societies, so the university ran a fleet of 20 or 30 of them.
              I’m sorry – I used the words “Ford Transit” and “reliable” in the same sentence. My hitch-hiking thumb is now stabbing my eye out in disagreement.

            • gravelinspector-Aidan
              Posted December 25, 2013 at 5:31 pm | Permalink

              You’ve been watching too many Lou Reed programmes !

              • Merilee
                Posted December 25, 2013 at 6:09 pm | Permalink


  2. Posted December 24, 2013 at 6:34 am | Permalink

    The best book of 2013 is the one I’m reading right now: The Demon-Haunted World, by Carl Sagan. I’m trying to get the pro-science arguments clearly set on my mind, because I have a one-year old son and I need to be prepared to explain him why science is so important and so fragile right now.

    • Mark Joseph
      Posted December 24, 2013 at 8:15 pm | Permalink

      That is probably my favorite non-fiction book of all time!

  3. George
    Posted December 24, 2013 at 6:43 am | Permalink

    Not sure if it is accurate to call George Johnson an NYT reporter. He was an editor for The Week in Review from 1986-94. Now, he is an occasional contributor but not a regular. But he clearly is in the NYT family – for lack of a better term.

    In any case, I would not call “The Cancer Chronicles” a book about medicine. It is a look at cancer as an evolutionary process. I would be curious to hear Jerry’s thoughts on it.

  4. John Harshman
    Posted December 24, 2013 at 7:09 am | Permalink

    The Last Lion was finished recently, though not, obviously, by Manchester. The author, Paul Reid, had available Manchester’s notes and some text, and did a good job on the rest.

    But you can’t put it on a list of the years best books, since “recently” in this case means 2012.

    • George
      Posted December 24, 2013 at 7:51 am | Permalink

      Have to disagree – I found Reid’s work lacking. I am a big Manchester fan – A World Lit Only by Fire is a favorite. I read his first two volumes on Churchill not to learn more about the man – there are better sources for that. But I like Manchester’s writing. Reid does not measure up.

      • John Harshman
        Posted December 24, 2013 at 2:51 pm | Permalink

        Agreed. Reid isn’t as good a writer as Manchester. So he did a good job, not a great job.

  5. John Harshman
    Posted December 24, 2013 at 7:15 am | Permalink

    The book I remember best is a biography I’ve just finished: Peter the Great by Robert Massie. What a bizarre and interesting character! Massie, like Manchester, knows when to present an illuminating detail.

    • Posted December 24, 2013 at 12:01 pm | Permalink

      “Castles of Steel” is another good book by Massie, about WWI naval strategy and tactics. Of books I’ve read this year, “A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century” by Barbara W. Tuchman is very good, but of course it was written decades ago.

      • John Harshman
        Posted December 24, 2013 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

        Also by Massie: Dreadnought, plus a bunch of biographies of Russian Tsars and Tsarinas.

  6. Stephen
    Posted December 24, 2013 at 7:23 am | Permalink

    Well I started reading this blog only this year and it has already cost me a couple of $$ in books! From the biography of Darwin by Janet Browne (I’ve read the first half of Charles Darwin voyaging) and 2 books by Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw. Also got Steve Pinker’ How the mind works and On the origin of species (Harvard). 2 of my favorites science books I’ve read are The red queen by Matt Ridley and Your inner fish by Neil Shubin. I find it difficult to explain why I enjoyed reading this or that science book. I’m not a scientist and when I read Matt Ridley or Shubin I go : “Of course! It makes so much sens. Why do people keep thinking evolution is just a theory” but when I try to explain it I’m lightyears from being as convincing in my arguments as they are. Same thing when I read about quantum physics. I’m dazzled but cant communicate my excitement without looking like some esoteric freak. lol

    • Posted December 24, 2013 at 7:43 am | Permalink

      I really enjoyed Janet Brown’s 2 vol. biography of Darwin. For some reason I read the 2nd volume (The Power of Place) 1st. Oh, well….
      For quantum phys/cosmology. I recommend books by Stephen Hawking. It is amazing how simple, clear writing makes it (almost) all seem so clear, as in the combined The Illustrated A Brief History of Time/The Universe in a Nutshell.

    • Suri
      Posted December 24, 2013 at 1:05 pm | Permalink

      Ridley’s Nature Via Nurture is also very good.

      • Merilee
        Posted December 24, 2013 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

        Yes to Nature via Nuture!

  7. Posted December 24, 2013 at 7:25 am | Permalink

    I’ve been working my way through the complete works of H.P. Lovecraft, and they’re a lot of fun. The early ones aren’t exactly masterpieces, but they set a lot of stages that he later builds upon in his bigger works.

    You can get the collection in all sorts of electronic versions for free, including here:



    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted December 24, 2013 at 8:00 am | Permalink

      Oooo I’ll have to download those – thanks!

    • kennyrb
      Posted December 24, 2013 at 8:57 am | Permalink

      Merry Christmas to me and Diana!

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted December 25, 2013 at 9:04 am | Permalink

      Lovecraft has been on my “to read” list for a while – hampered by my self-imposed (and self-broken) moritorium on buying books before I’ve cleared the “Un-read” bookshelf. Unfortunately, I mugged myself with Amazon a couple of weeks ago and I’m now back to square one. Or centimetre 95, or something.
      I’m not expecting anything great from Lovecraft, but since my first series of fiction books after LoTR was Howard’s Conan books, I figure that Lovecraft is probably going to be interesting in parts.

      • Posted December 26, 2013 at 11:52 am | Permalink

        I’m about halfway through the complete works. He definitely grows as a writer, but the early stuff is still entertaining. Nothing yet quite qualifies for greatness, but a lot of it is damned good…and his imagery is unique and fascinating. He might be the most visual author I’ve read, and the visions he paints are breathtaking.

        As a geologist, you’ll likely get even more out of it than the average reader. When he’s describing statuary or figurines or building facades or the like, he’ll list the different minerals or gems or types of granite or the like that the objects are made of, and I have to keep going to the dictionary and / or Web to figure out what they are. The materials often have some sort of significance within the context of the story — if nothing else then as visual motifs akin to a cowboy’s hat color — so you don’t want to just let your eyes glaze over during those parts.

        And, again, I’d recommend starting at the beginning and not skipping the early works. In them he builds the worlds in which he sets his later, bigger works.



    • Mark Joseph
      Posted December 25, 2013 at 8:04 pm | Permalink

      OK, then, I guess this is the right place to post this:

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted December 26, 2013 at 9:52 am | Permalink

        Ha ha!

      • Posted December 26, 2013 at 11:54 am | Permalink

        If Cthulhu is somebody’s idea of a sexy lady…well, to each his own and all that, but I really don’t want to get to know said person any better…or at all…ever….


  8. Posted December 24, 2013 at 7:27 am | Permalink

    Hard to choose just one!
    Best fiction was The Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman. He is my author of choice for what I guess can be called comedic, escapist science fantasy.
    I mostly read non-fiction these days, and the best by far this year was Darwin’s Armada by Iain McCalman. This book is four brilliantly interwoven biographies of Darwin and his 3 closest associates: Joseph Hooker, Thomas Huxley, and Alfred Wallace. It manages to pack in new details about Darwin’s life that I did not know about, and mixes his story with the others in a way that ties their shared history together most wonderfully.

  9. Barry Lyons
    Posted December 24, 2013 at 7:43 am | Permalink

    “Lying” and “Free Will” by Sam Harris. I also finally got around to “Breaking the Spell” by Daniel Dennett. Here’s an odd one: “A Piece of My Mind: Reflections at Sixty” by Edmund Wilson (Jerry, don’t miss Wilson’s opening essay on religion).

    As for fiction, “The Anthologist” by Nicholson Baker, “Solar” by Ian McEwan, and I’m nearly finished with a re-read of “Sophie’s Choice”.

  10. George
    Posted December 24, 2013 at 7:57 am | Permalink

    Two good books on the start of WWI –
    The War That Ended Peace – Margaret MacMillan
    Catastrophe 1914 – Max Hastings

    The world we live in today was formed in 1914. There is much to be learned from that time. MacMillan focuses on the men (and they are all men – many related) who brought about this disaster. A strong argument for feminism (my thinking). Hastings focuses on the military aspect. Very illuminating – and depressing.

  11. sgo
    Posted December 24, 2013 at 8:09 am | Permalink

    The one that comes to mind is The Unwinding by George Packer (which I think was on the NY Times list, and won a National Book Award this year). Through the stories of several people he tells the story of the last 30-40 years in the US, about how the middle class is disappearing, and people having trouble to make ends meet. The title should say enough. It’s a very gripping book. Even if some of the people’s troubles in the book are because of themselves, there’s always this external factor looming that makes things worse for them.

    One of the criticisms on the book I read is that Packer doesn’t offer “solutions”. I don’t think that was the aim of the book at all.

    Anyway, highly recommended reading.

    Special mention also to What Is Life? by Addy Pross. Read about it here, bought the book, and thought it was very interesting. Am wondering if professor ceiling cat had time to read it (since it was mentioned on this website).

    As for fiction, I also find myself reading more and more non-fiction, but there’s still a lot of fiction I want to read. This year’s highlights that I can think of now: Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain, about a company on their victory tour in the US after some hard fighting in Iraq. It’s been called the Iraq’s war Catch 22 and I can see why. I also enjoyed “Bring Up the Bodies” by Hilary Mantel, the follow-up to Wolf Hall, about Henry VIII’s Thomas Cromwell. Such great writing, I am looking forward to the promised 3rd installment.

    • Merilee
      Posted December 24, 2013 at 8:24 am | Permalink

      Ditto on Bring Up the Bodies.

      • BilBy
        Posted December 24, 2013 at 8:53 am | Permalink

        Of the lists above, only The Sleepwalkers appeals as one to look out for.

    • Kurtis Rader
      Posted December 24, 2013 at 9:03 am | Permalink

      I did read George Packer’s “The Assassins’ Gate: America in Iraq” last year and recommend it. It’s why “The Unwinding” is in my backlog (i.e., wish list).

      • merilee
        Posted December 24, 2013 at 11:17 am | Permalink

        Packer is usually great – love his New Yorker articles, and have looked forward to Assasin’s Gate for a while – but I must say I was disappointed in The Unwinding. I think it worked better as a series of articles…

        As for fiction, I read both Americanah and Flamethrowers, and while both were well-written, this year I preferred Mantel’s Bringing up the Bodies and The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng, and Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue.

        Other excellent Non-Fiction: The Forest Unseen by David George Haskell would probably appeal to the naturalists among us. Haskell is a bio prof in Tennessee and describes about a meter in diameter “mandela” in the forest near him which he visits maybe three times a week throughout an entire year. He gets up close and personal with all the flora and fauna which emerge during the different seasons. I wanted to start the book over the moment I finished it. It won a National Book Award (or something like that). Also Richard Fortey (of Trilobyte! fame) wrote the wonderful Horseshoe Crabs and Velvet Worms, and Neil Shubin’s wonderful Your
        Inner Fish.

  12. Diana MacPherson
    Posted December 24, 2013 at 8:13 am | Permalink

    Many months of my 2013 were consumed reading Steven Pinker’s book, The Better Angels of Our Nature which of course I loved. I remember telling friends more than once that, “I can’t start another book; I’m still working on my Pinker book” when they’d recommend books for me to read. I’ve forced myself to read only one book at a time as I’ve found that if I don’t do this, I end up reading many but finishing none.

    I just finished reading The Self Illusion by Bruce Hood and I enjoyed it quite a but though I don’t know what went on with the proof reader because there are glaring typos & grammar mistakes sprinkled throughout it.

    I believe I started off 2013 reading Hitch’s Mortality and I thought it was magnificently written. My dad had esophageal cancer at the time of me reading it and it gave me a lot of insight. Luckily for my dad, it was the less dangerous cancer that occurs below the esophagus and he caught it at stage 2. He had a great thoracic surgeon and recovered without needing radiation or chemo, but at the time we thought he was in dire straits. A warning: if you have chronic indigestion, get it sorted. This is what caused my dad’s cancer and apparently this cause is quite common.

    I am currently almost finished reading The Origins of Virtue by Matt Ridley and I’m enjoying it quite a bit as well. Very easy to read.

    I’ve read a bit of Feathered Dinosaurs: The Origins of Birds and really like it too. I’ve bought my dad a couple of dinosaur bird books for Xmas (with the hope of borrowing them in the future :))

    Finally, for fun I’ve kept up with The Walking Dead comics and for fun and entertainment in between books, I will read these. The comics are much darker than the series & I’ve lost sleep over some of the nastier things that befall the characters.

    • Simon Hayward
      Posted December 24, 2013 at 9:04 am | Permalink

      Would agree on both Pinker and Hitchens – although at a certain level I hated the Hitchens book because I already knew I wasn’t going to like the end. But that is rather the point.

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted December 25, 2013 at 9:08 am | Permalink

      Pinker’s Angels is on my “to read” too. The strategy of reading oone thing at a time sounds a good idea. I wish that I could stick with it, having at least three on the go at the moment (Dawkin’s auto ; a cladistics text book, and A Daschiell hammet compendium), only two of which I brought with me.

  13. Jeffrey
    Posted December 24, 2013 at 8:22 am | Permalink

    Best book I read all year was the Bible – I laughed until I cried. Tops the list with the Quran as the best fiction ever.

    Posted December 24, 2013 at 8:24 am | Permalink

    An absolute must among the best nonfiction books of the year is Carl Zimmer’s Paradise Rex. This is a fascinating book about the millions of “thingies” that live on and in us. There are far more of them than of our own body cells. They sometimes affect our behaviour; they live in our belly button, they live in our eyelashes and come out at night to eat and have sex; they live in our gut. Some are helpful and necessary to use others can be harmful.

    Judy Ringelestein

    • Diane Langworthy
      Posted December 24, 2013 at 8:53 am | Permalink

      This is on my list. Fascinating.

      • Xray
        Posted December 24, 2013 at 11:59 am | Permalink

        I dunno. I’m afraid it will give me the willies.

    • Mark Joseph
      Posted December 24, 2013 at 8:20 pm | Permalink

      I hate to be even more pedantic and annoying than I usually am, but if I’m not mistaken, the title of this book (which I really want to read, by the way) is “Parasite Rex”.

      • Posted December 25, 2013 at 8:48 am | Permalink

        Thanks for the kind words for Parasite Rex. Just a quick note of correction–it actually came out in 2000. But I hope any year is a good year to read it!

        • Mark Joseph
          Posted December 25, 2013 at 9:37 am | Permalink

          Yes, not only does the book look interesting, but I’ve also heard delicious arguments against creationism/intelligent design based on the fact that there are so many parasites in the world.

  15. Diane Langworthy
    Posted December 24, 2013 at 8:24 am | Permalink

    The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown. Compelling story of individuals on the University of Washington rowing team, history of the sport and boat-building, depression-era life, German hx. Was wonderfully engrossing to the very end, even knowing the outcome.

  16. lezurk
    Posted December 24, 2013 at 8:44 am | Permalink

    I read a lot of fiction, especially science fiction. It is a nice break from the serious stuff – re-reading “The Jesus Puzzle” right now – and good fiction really enhances your reading skills and enthusiasm. The best book I read this year was “Abaddon’s Gate” by James S.A. Corey and third in a series. It is very good story telling, and the characters you really care about, rather than despite their flaws and shortcomings, but because of them as it makes them much more human and sympathetic.

    • Mark Joseph
      Posted December 24, 2013 at 8:22 pm | Permalink

      Hello lezurk:

      I read a *lot* of science fiction, too, but don’t mention it too often on this website; I will, however, mention it in my own post below. I read the first book in the James S.A. Corey trilogy, and liked it quite a bit–may I presume that you found the next two books just as good?

      • lezurk
        Posted December 25, 2013 at 9:44 am | Permalink

        Yes, I enjoyed both of them.

  17. Simon Hayward
    Posted December 24, 2013 at 8:55 am | Permalink

    Some old, some new.
    I liked Grayling’s “The God Argument”, not so much for it’s logical destruction of the theist argument – this summarized thoughts but didn’t really say anything new. Rather I loved the second half of the book building a positive case for humanism.

    Not new, (but I read it this year) Kevin Phillips “American Theocracy” provides some interesting and scary insights. Has to be read in the context of the time it was written (published 2007) and in that context it’s predictions of a coming economic collapse and its cause seem prescient – particularly given that they come from a severely disillusioned republican.

    Also not new – but reading Paine’s “The Age of Reason” underlined that there are no new arguments against a theological perspective (see comment on Grayling above). If you have not read it I would strongly recommend this one.

    On a lighter note “A Street Cat Named Bob” finally got published in the US – my mother had recommended it last year. A quick and touching story – and personally interesting because it is set in and around areas of London that I have lived in. And has a cat as the standout star.

    Currently about half way through “The Shadow of the Sword” Tom Holland – which is entertaining as a history of the middle east and the background to and growth of islam.

    So, back to the NPR broadcast of nine lessons and carols – even atheists like me have to keep up christmas traditions.

  18. jeffery
    Posted December 24, 2013 at 8:56 am | Permalink

    It takes a REALLY good fiction book to get me interested at all; I can’t remember the last time I read one (except for some old science-fiction anthologies)- there’s enough “fiction” in this world already, and what’s really going on is much more fascinating!

  19. Kurtis Rader
    Posted December 24, 2013 at 8:58 am | Permalink


    “Paddle Your Own Canoe: One Mans Fundamentals for Delicious Living” by Nick Offerman

    Has some great no-holds barred observations about religion. By the time you’re done reading this you’ll wish he was a neighbor. Listen to the audiobook version as it is read by the author. Trust me. Even if you dislike audiobooks on general principal you should listen to rather than read this book.

    “An Atheist in the FOXhole: A Liberals Eight-Year Odyssey into the Heart of the Right-Wing Media” by Joe Muto

    A fascinating glimpse inside FOX News.


    “The Android’s Dream” by John Scalzi.

    Classic Scalzi with plenty of pithy dialog. The audiobook version is narrated by Will Wheaton who does a marvelous job. One of only two fiction books I gave a five star rating this past year.

    • Mark Joseph
      Posted December 24, 2013 at 8:23 pm | Permalink

      What was the other one? Inquiring minds want to know!

      • Kurtis Rader
        Posted December 24, 2013 at 8:46 pm | Permalink

        The other work of fiction I read/listened to in the past year I deemed
        worthy of five stars is

        “Consider Phlebas” by Iain M. Banks (which I listened to based on a
        recommendation by PZ Myers of the author if my memory serves)

        • Mark Joseph
          Posted December 24, 2013 at 8:49 pm | Permalink

          Yes, I enjoyed that one, as well as three other novels of Iain M. Banks. His death at a young age was most unfortunate.

        • HaggisForBrains
          Posted December 25, 2013 at 3:32 am | Permalink

          I can recommend “Surface Detail” by Iain M Banks, particularly for its take on Hell. Banks was a great loss.

          Have a Cool Yule, everybody!

        • gravelinspector-Aidan
          Posted December 25, 2013 at 9:14 am | Permalink

          Oh, I remember having that one shoved into my hands as a substitute for a quarter ounce of hashish during a drought in the early 90s. it didn’t impress me, though I’ve had enough other people recommend it (and Banks in either incarnation) that it’s going to get a second chance. One day.

  20. thomcan
    Posted December 24, 2013 at 9:02 am | Permalink

    Well, it isn’t a book (yet). There is a book that is being translated into English, and I think it will be published in 2014. I took a MOOC at Coursera: ”A Brief History of Humankind” by Prof Yuval Noah Harari at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

    Fantastic videos. Fantastic content ranging from about 2.5 million years ago to the future (well, that’s not history, but it was a great lecture.) One of the key concepts that has really sunk into my head is that humans had a Cognitive Revolution 70,000 years ago. Today we are anatomically identical to Sapiens from 100,000 or more years ago, but we are far different in our cognitive powers. And a key difference that separates us from those Sapiens and all other species is the “fictive” nature of our language — the ability to structure and believe in “imagined realities.”

    For readers of this website, the lectures on the nature of religions (imagined realities) and their role in unifying and constraining the progress of humankind might be the most interesting. The “age of ignorance” was the time when men decided that religious texts did not tell us all we had to know about the world. Those men and the scientists who continue to try to discover the facts of what it is that we do not yet know are the key contributors to humankind for the last 500 years.

    • Suri
      Posted December 24, 2013 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

      I’m a coursera fan too.

  21. Richard Bond
    Posted December 24, 2013 at 9:11 am | Permalink

    Easily the best new book that I have read this year is “Life’s Ratchet” by Peter M Hoffman. It was actually published in 2012, so that I am not sure that it counts, but I feel impelled to mention it. It comprises a beautiful explanation of how life exploits thermodynamics: a wonderful antidote to creationist rubbish about the second law. I find the synthesis between biology and physics especially satisfying, and it is not even difficult.

  22. colnago80
    Posted December 24, 2013 at 9:35 am | Permalink

    Re The Sleepwalkers by Christopher Clark

    I haven’t read this one but I wonder how it compares with Barbara Tuchman’s Pulitzer Prize winning volume, The Guns of August.

  23. Uncle Ebeneezer
    Posted December 24, 2013 at 9:49 am | Permalink

    I will probably check out The Goldfinch. The summary doesn’t make it sound like a page-turner, but that’s the way it was with The Secret History and Little Friend, both of which actually WERE major, page-turners for me. She has an amazing style and way of creating suspense in a very literary way.

    In non-fiction, I plan to check out Dennett’s new book and hopefully this one- The Beast: Riding The Rails & Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trail:

    One day a few years ago, 300 migrants were kidnapped between the remote desert towns of Altar, Mexico, and Sasabe, Arizona. A local priest got 120 released, many with broken ankles and other marks of abuse, but the rest vanished. Óscar Martínez, a young writer from El Salvador, was in Altar soon after the abduction, and his account of the migrant disappearances is only one of the harrowing stories he garnered from two years spent traveling up and down the migrant trail from Central America and across the US border. More than a quarter of a million Central Americans make this increasingly dangerous journey each year, and each year as many as 20,000 of them are

    Martínez writes in powerful, unforgettable prose about clinging to the tops of freight trains; finding respite, work and hardship in shelters and brothels; and riding shotgun with the
    border patrol. Illustrated with stunning full-color photographs, The Beast is the first book to shed light on the harsh new reality of the migrant trail in the age of the narcotraficantes.

    • merilee
      Posted December 24, 2013 at 11:18 am | Permalink

      Just bought The Goldfinch and look fwd to it.

  24. Posted December 24, 2013 at 10:02 am | Permalink

    I cannot read. Fast, that is. I am the World’s Slowest Reader … … Who Loves to Read.

    Thus about two decades ago I just gave up others’ ( incl university assignments’ ) recommendations and simply chose since there were so, so many non – fiction authors who are women — and who are, and will for always remain, unread by very, very many, if not most people — that until I die, these would be the authors through whose works I will struggle. I determined then (and one, since) to make exceptions for eight men’s versifications: anything composed by my three sons, those of Dr Coyne’s blog (THE one, since), U Texas Professor of Journalism Robert Jensen, anything written by Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins.

    It can take me upwards of six to nine months’ time to finish one 600 – to 700 – page work. Accordingly, two, finished, that I absolutely gave away as gifts are i) the massively intense Dr Rosalind Miles’ “the Women’s History of the World,” 2001 ( which has a cutesy, designed – to – pull – in – book – buyers, initial, entitling phrase forced upon her by her publisher of “Who Cooked the Last Supper? The Women’s History of the World” and ii) Katharine Meyer Graham’s Personal History, a marvelous chronicling of her time at the Washington Post — which time ‘of hers’ did not even get to commence … … at what had been her daddy’s Post until after her own spouse, Philip, the one to whom Daddy Meyer had bequeathed his media holdings … … instead of to Ms Katharine, … … committed suicide.

    A third work which — similarly to the two above — a history teacher, if she or he had had the kiddos read ( some of ) this book on Tuesday — would herself or himself be fired by the outraged Board spurred on by the also – outraged parents by that week’s Friday — is Ann Fessler’s 2006 “The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades Before Roe v Wade.” I wept and wept and wept — throughout. What religion, instilling guilt and delivering shaming can do to entire lives, the mamas and the children they had always wanted to keep, forevermore.

    Who doesn’t know such a girl OR such a woman — even one far passed her majority age of 18 years old — during the late 1940s, all of the 1950s and nearly all through the flower – power years of the 1960s ?

    Ms Rachel, on her Maddow program, very recently showed a clip of an interview of a state of Ohio assemblyman trying to outlaw all abortion in that state, who when asked “Why do you suppose a woman wants an abortion?” actually stated back to the interviewer, “O, I don’t know: I’m not a woman. So I’ve never thought about that.”

    Flip / Reverse.

    ps, fwiw: A particular cause of mine is here in the local community my trying to assist with furthering adult literacy.

  25. Occam
    Posted December 24, 2013 at 10:18 am | Permalink

    My books of the year:

    1 — Arbeit und Struktur, by Wolfgang Herrndorf. No English translation yet.
    Wolfgang Herrndorf was an artist and writer who started a an online diary after being diagnosed with an incurable brain tumor, a glioblastoma, in February 2010. Until his suicide on August 26 of this year, he documented the intersection of work, illness, and life. The title, Work and Structure, speaks volumes. His online diary is now also available in print.

    This is the kind of book I’d be proud to write if I had the talent, skill, courage, force, and enough time left.

    2 — Le mystére français, by Hervé Le Bras and Emmanuel Todd.
    Le Bras, one of the leading French demographers and quantitative geographers, and Todd, an iconoclastic social historian, reanalysed the social geography of France, highlighting the acceleration of change versus perennial constants, comparing them to their first, pioneering findings from 1980 (L’invention de la France).

    A classy, data-based debunking of socio-political myths.

  26. Posted December 24, 2013 at 10:52 am | Permalink

    On the Canal, by my great uncle, Ore J. Marion.

    Absolutely takes you to Guadalcanal. Harrowing. Tough to imagine (without such a book) training for a year, then getting dropped off and having your supply ships cut off. No maps. No radio. Very little food and fresh water. And a bunch of well-supplied soldiers somewhere on the island trying to kill you. And then having this nightmare go on for four months as you starve, waste away, and go nuts… absolutely astonishing what these folks went through.

  27. Robert Seidel
    Posted December 24, 2013 at 11:35 am | Permalink

    The one that most stuck with me was “Diary of an Adventure”, by Alfred Wegener – the tale of a Greenland crossing in 1912/1913, which they did mainly for the reason that it was there. Four men, 1200 miles of uncartographed icy desert, and an abundance of narrow escapes. No english translation either, alas.

  28. Uncle Ebeneezer
    Posted December 24, 2013 at 11:38 am | Permalink

    Also too, can’t wait to read Cancer Chronicles. George is really one of the most poetic science writers out there (see: A Fire In The Mind for the best example, imo). My only concern is triggers, since my mom passed away 18 months ago from cancer and I know my dad went through much of the same territory as George did as a supportive spouse dealing with cancer decimating the women he loved.

  29. Dave
    Posted December 24, 2013 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

    “… the older I get, the less appealing I find fiction” Yes, I’ve gone the same way. I recently choked down my first novel in a couple of years and even that was “historical fiction.”

    • Marella
      Posted December 24, 2013 at 10:54 pm | Permalink

      That’s because most of it is just crap. Good fiction is practically impossible to locate.

      • Mark Joseph
        Posted December 24, 2013 at 11:29 pm | Permalink

        While there is unquestionably a lot of crap fiction, and possibly one might even be able to support the claim that more than 50%, hence “most” fiction is crap, I still think that you’ve painted with too broad a brush. First, though, what is good fiction? Is it a page-turning plot? Deft characterization? Work that elucidates some philosophical point? Work that Says Something About the Human Condition? Work done in (or avoiding) a certain literary style? Does it have to be original? Some of the above? All of the above?

        I prefer to look at it like this: how does the work stack up against other works in its own (sub)genre? There are good dystopian novels, and bad ones. Good literary experiments and bad ones. Heck, there are probably good westerns and bad ones (I don’t know, as I don’t read westerns). It seems pointless to me to compare works from different genres; not only is it comparing apples to oranges (especially in the case of fiction vs. non-fiction), but it is overlaid with the very real possibility that someone just doesn’t like a particular genre, and so will tend to denigrate works drawn from it.

        For example, probably nobody thinks that Fahrenheit 451 is a better book that Don Quixote. But, among dystopian novels, Fahrenheit 451 is among the best, if not the very best, of the bunch. Are there any other fictional works portraying what life in an anti-intellectual dystopia might be like, while simultaneously being a paean to books? I kind of doubt it.

        I think that if some concern for genre is not taken into consideration, we might end up having a futile and completely ridiculous argument about which is better: Origin of Species or Principia Mathematica. Or, which is a better tool, a hammer or a fork? Depends on if you are putting together a shelf, or eating your dinner…

        • Jeffrey
          Posted December 24, 2013 at 11:40 pm | Permalink

          “Never say anything is good or bad. Just say you like it, then nobody can prove you wrong.”

        • Dave
          Posted December 25, 2013 at 1:49 pm | Permalink

          Usually, if I’m reading fiction, I just want “a good read.” I’ll settle for spell binding. Reading fiction is supposed to be relaxing, time off from academics, serious thought, mundane concerns, or maybe even from thinking at all. That’s my criterion: is it a plain old good read. See Jeffrey for the wine tasting analogy.

          • Dave
            Posted December 25, 2013 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

            Oh, I forgot whiskey; there has to be whiskey. Or wine.

          • Diane G.
            Posted December 25, 2013 at 4:09 pm | Permalink

            Hear, hear!

  30. Diane G.
    Posted December 24, 2013 at 1:15 pm | Permalink


    • Merilee
      Posted December 24, 2013 at 1:21 pm | Permalink

      Love good fiction as much as evet.

  31. Merilee
    Posted December 24, 2013 at 1:21 pm | Permalink

    make that ever…

  32. gravityfly
    Posted December 24, 2013 at 1:33 pm | Permalink

    “Last Ape Standing” by Chip Walter – fascinating and up to date overview of human origins.

    Tom Holland’s “In The Shadow of the Sword” – a riveting analysis of the problems with traditional Islamic historiography.

  33. Edward Hessler
    Posted December 24, 2013 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

    “Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory and the Conquest of Everest” by Wade Davis, not a this year book, though, places Everest and this monumental attempt in rich historic context. It is beautifully written and carefully researched. Wade has made me think differently and more carefully about this region of the Himalayan spine. If you like big mountains this is worth tucking into your backpack.

  34. Posted December 24, 2013 at 5:18 pm | Permalink

    Nuto Revelli’s “La Strada del Davai” has finally appeared in English translation as “Mussolini’s Death March.” It is a wonderful oral history of the Italian participation in WWII on the Russian Front and its aftermath from the viewpoint of Italian POW’s. Highly recommended.

  35. mfdempsey1946
    Posted December 24, 2013 at 8:32 pm | Permalink

    Superb books that I read in 2013, whether or not they first appeared in 2013:

    “Bring Up The Bodies” (Hillary Mantel). Part two of her trilogy about Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell, from Cromwell’s perspective. Magnificent fiction and non-fiction.

    “Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War In Vietnam” (Nick Turse). For those who remember the first revelations of the My Lai massacre and the conviction of Lt. William Calley for this alleged “few bad apples” atrocity, this book will be profoundly shocking, for it details how, in fact, hundreds of My Lais took place in Vietnam and how thoroughly this fact has been covered up and remains so.

    “Dirty Wars: The World Is A Battlefield” (Jeremy Scahill). A dismayingly thorough excavation of the Bush-Obama worldwide dronekill campaign that shows no sigh of ending.

    Also: two Christopher Hitchens pamphlets: “The Monarchy” (the one in England, eviscerated in true Hitch style) and “The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice” (long sought, finally read, should put paid, but doubtless won’t, put paid to this grossly sentimentalized reputation).

    Plus…some new Shakespeare and revisited Jane Austen (“Pride and Prejudice”).

  36. Mark Joseph
    Posted December 24, 2013 at 9:16 pm | Permalink

    Many thanks to Professor Ceiling Cat for opening up such a thread–I can’t resist book lists–mine or others’–nor do I even try to! In fact, I’ve already added a few titles to my “to read” list just from the comments so far!

    The ones I liked the best that I read this year (*none* of them published this year!):

    Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi-Ali
    Your Inner Fish by Neil Shubin
    Letter to a Christian Nation by Sam Harris
    Spiders: Learning to Love Them by Lynne Kelly
    Spider Silk by Leslie Brunetta and Catherine L. Craig
    The Age of American Unreason by Susan Jacoby
    Gods or Godless? by John Loftus and Randal Rauser. I found the recommendation on this website. If it had been a fight, it would have been stopped in the fourth round.

    Science fiction:
    Old Man’s War by John Scalzi (all four novels)
    Eye in the Sky by Philip K. Dick. A superb example of the “what if god was real and people could see it every day?” genre.
    A Door into Ocean by Joan Slonczewski (who holds a Ph. D. in biology). This book was memorably (and accurately) described by one reviewer at as “This is a book about lesbian Quaker anarchist communist pacifist mermaids from the Moon, and what happens when they’re invaded by the Holy Roman Empire.” Wonderful study of communitarianism vs. individualism, environmentalism vs. exploitation, and non-violent resistance to power, without being preachy or dull.

    Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels are probably considered trifling by many, but Equal Rites and Mort, about equality for women, and death, respectively, are amazingly perceptive studies couched in laugh out loud storytelling.
    Only Begotten Daughter by James Morrow will appeal to any atheists and anti-religious types that might hang out on this website. Morrow is probably the best anti-religious writer of fantasy out there.

    Finally, sort of science fictiony, and sort of fantasy, and totally blow-you-away if and only if you like this sort of thing, I can’t really recommend Minister Faust’s The Coyote Kings of the Space Age Bachelor Pad highly enough. Read the back cover; if that appeals to you, you’ll absolutely love the book.

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted December 25, 2013 at 9:25 am | Permalink

      I deeply hope that Pterry (Terry Pratchett, to the inhabitants of Roundworld) is spending at least some of his declining years on the biography of what really went on in the CEGB’s nuclear arm during his tenure there as Press Officer. He’s been hinting about it for decades, and since the dead can’t be sued, he knows that he’s got a publication window looming.

  37. Marella
    Posted December 24, 2013 at 10:45 pm | Permalink

    My favourite book for 2013 was one of these, can’t decide which. All were very illuminating and well written.

    “Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human” by Richard Wrangham. “In the Shadow of the Sword” Tom Holland. “The Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians Invented a Story of Martyrdom”. Candida Moss

  38. Posted December 25, 2013 at 4:27 am | Permalink

    I just discovered Hilary Mantel this year (because of a Coursera class). Wow! Can she ever write. I don’t think she published anything this year, but she did in 2012. I, too, don’t care much for fiction now that I am older, but I make an exception for her writing (she does mostly historical fiction). She writes as if she has a bonfire burning under her bum. 🙂

    • Merilee
      Posted December 25, 2013 at 8:13 am | Permalink

      Check out Mantel’s earlier A Change of Clmate ( takes place in southern Africa) and A Place of Greater Safety about the French Revolution. I’ve been reading the wonderful Mantel for over twenty years.

  39. gravelinspector-Aidan
    Posted December 25, 2013 at 9:26 am | Permalink

    Arrgh! Too many interesting-sounding books, not enough time (or book-shelf space)!

  40. krzysztof1
    Posted December 25, 2013 at 2:00 pm | Permalink

    I enjoyed Matthew McCormick’s _Atheism and the Case against Christ very much. It is clearly and forcefully argued.

  41. Diana MacPherson
    Posted December 26, 2013 at 10:12 am | Permalink

    My to-read list just grew by quite a bit after some of these recommendations! I love these posts because I find so many good books to read this way.

    I don’t know if someone recommended this book on here but I got it for my dad for Xmas and it looks amazing: Pterosaurs: Natural History, Evolution, Anatomy by Mark P. Witton. I also got my dad The Lost World of Fossil Lake by Lance Grande after Jerry posted about the book. I had already purchased the PDF but I thought it would make a better hard over book and it is quite lovely.

  42. sajee1
    Posted December 26, 2013 at 3:18 pm | Permalink

    How about this list?

    • merilee
      Posted December 26, 2013 at 10:20 pm | Permalink

      Great list! Ordered the numbers one, the animals one, and the Brockman collection. Got a few of the others on my shelves. Have seen the Brian Cox one in video.

  43. Steve
    Posted January 3, 2014 at 7:19 pm | Permalink

    A few days ago I finished “The Universe Within” (Shubin). Turns out it was my favorite in 2013, winning out over “Identical” (Turow). I enjoyed Shubin’s storytelling and the weaving of science history and discoveries related to the author’s thesis, and the fascinating biogeochemical connections across multiple scales.

  44. Howard Neufeld
    Posted January 7, 2014 at 6:29 pm | Permalink

    Jerry asked us to submit our “best” books for 2013. Although fictional books were not high on most people’s lists, one was my favorite, and, I’m surprised that no one has mentioned it: Elizabeth Gilbert’s novel The Signature of All Things”, published in 2013.

    This is a masterful tale of fortunes made, of class and sex distinctions, and most importantly, of the emergence of evolutionary theory. It begins with the education of Alma Whittaker, and her father became the richest man in Philsdelphia. Alma’s mother is Dutch, a point that becomes important later on but which I won’t reveal so as not to spoil the plot. But what makes the book significant for this posting is Gilbert’s depiction of Alma as a brilliant botanist of the mid to late 19th century in the US, who becomes the world’s authority on mosses, pubishing several taxonomic references on them. Too outlandish? Remember, it was Beatrix Potter who discovered that lichens were a symbiotic organism of fungus and alga!

    Gilbert brings in the subject of evolution midway through the book as Alma begins to question how all those moss species came to be, and Gilbert provides plot details that allow her as author, to argue both sides (divine creation) vs evolution. To her credit, Gilbert has Alma wisely choose materialistic evolution over divine influences. And while I won’t give the plot entirely away, she also brings in Alred Russel Wallace, who Alma meets in her old age.

    The richness of the prose, the plotting (which aside from a view minor contrivinces is masterful) and the attention to historical detail, as well as the botanical illustrations throughout (although given that Alma is a moss person, it is curious that there is not one illustration of a moss), make this an enjoyable read and one of the best novels I’ve read in a long time.

    There are two very minor historical missteps: Gilbert says that Darwin himself planned the presentation of his paper at the Linnean Society in July 1858, when in fact, it was Hooker and Lyell who did that. And Darwin had not written thousands of pages by 1844, but rather just over 200.

    If you’re looking for scientifically oriented historical fiction, this is the book to read!

    • Kurtis Rader
      Posted January 7, 2014 at 6:51 pm | Permalink

      FWIW you convinced me to add “The Signature of All Things” to my wish list. When I saw she had also written “Eat, Pray, Love” (which I haven’t read but the movie left me disinclined to read it) I hesitated but ultimately your glowing review tipped the balance. Hopefully I won’t have to hunt you down and demand reimbursement 🙂

      • Howard Neufeld
        Posted January 7, 2014 at 6:56 pm | Permalink

        Gosh, I hope not! Considering that both the NY Times and the Manchester Guardian liked the book too, I think I’m in good company there. Hope you enjoy it too!

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