New York Times’s “Most Notable Books of 2015”: woefully bereft of science books

November 28, 2015 • 1:30 pm

Among the New York Times‘s “100 Notable Books of 2015,” half are nonfiction. Among those fifty, I find only  a single one that’s even close to being entirely about science, and it’s really about collecting animals:

THE FLY TRAPBy Fredrik Sjoberg. Translated by Thomas Teal. (Pantheon, $24.95.) An amateur entomologist from Sweden offers a distinctive tour of the world of hoverfly collecting.

The one below has been counted as a science book in some places, though it’s again about medicine and history, as well as the social ramifications of autism (i.e., vaccination):

NEUROTRIBES: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of NeurodiversityBy Steve ­Silberman. (Avery/Penguin Random House, $29.95.) Silberman’s is a broader view of autism, beautifully presented.

There are a few NYT-recommended books on medicine and the history of science, and medicine, like these:

THE INVENTION OF NATURE: Alexander Von Humboldt’s New WorldBy Andrea Wulf. (Knopf, $30.) Wulf offers a highly readable account of the German scientist’s monumental journey in the Americas.

DO NO HARM: Stories of Life, Death and Brain SurgeryBy Henry Marsh. (Thomas Dunne/St. Martin’s, $25.99.) A neurosurgeon’s frank and absorbing account combines biography, descriptions of operations and considerations of policy.

And there’s this very nice book, which is a memoir that combines personal tragedy and wild-animal training; I highly recommend it:

H IS FOR HAWKBy Helen Macdonald. (Grove, $26.) A breathtaking account of the raising and training of a young ­goshawk illuminates two complex natures: the ­author’s and the bird’s.

Still, given that there have been the usual spate of good science books last year (see, for instance the Royal Society’s shortlist for the Winton Book Prize), it’s a bit distressing that there’s only 1 (or 1.5) science books out of 50: 2-3%.  To me, that bespeaks an attitude on the part of the Time’s book editors that science books aren’t really that important.

16 thoughts on “New York Times’s “Most Notable Books of 2015”: woefully bereft of science books

  1. I read The Invention of Nature and was disappointed. Only about half the book is about Humboldt’s life, and the rest is about Humboldt’s influence on other luminaries like Darwin and John Muir. Humboldt was a singular individual, but I thought the narrative was repetitious.

    1. I was about to comment that I loved that book! I also thought it was good to include parts about how Humboldt influenced others.

  2. I am reading an outstanding book right now–Origins by Jim Baggott. It is right up there with FvF. 🙂 The book takes the reader from the big bang to human consciousness without dumbing down the science and with no speculative hype. Amazing. It answers many questions I have wondered about.

    It is not on the NYT list, but I highly recommend.

  3. The impression that I get is that the people who draw up these lists, and review books, don’t have a scientific background, or any real interest in science, so don’t even consider scientific books for inclusion. It may be a generalization, but I fear that people in the arts world do tend to live in a bubble!

    1. It is the Two Cultures problem that CP Snow was talking about. It seems to me that the “people in the arts” (the Humanities) seem to be avoiding the Sciences, maybe because they are intimidated by the technical jargon or the math, or perhaps they are “circling the wagon” and only considering work from their side of the divide.

      1. Yes, I’d forgotten about C P Snow – all the rage in my student days. Sadly, they actually tend to view science as “the enemy” in many cases, and a malevolent influence upon society from which “inspired” artists must protect us!

  4. Carl Sagan expressed sentiments similar to yours. As I recall, he resigned from some book selection committee in protest.

  5. I really enjoyed Steven Weinberg’s book on the history of science, though In pretty sure that’s the only book from 2015 I’ve read this year. Science-wise I also read Andreas Wagner’s The Arrival of the Fittest and Matthew Crawford’s The World Beyond Your Head, but I think they came out last year.

  6. While the range of non-fiction books make me sad, I just read Steve ­Silbermans “Neurotribes”, and can recommend it warmly.

    The book has a short foreword by Oliver Sacks, reads easily (a real page turner), and is informative and deeply fascinating on so many levels. Definitely one of the better books I have read this year.

  7. I’m surprised the Royal Society hasn’t short-listed The Vital Question, by Nick Lane. That’s definitely one of the best science books I’ve read this year.

  8. I looked over the list at the NY Times (as imperfect as they are, I still like them), and found that this year, I have read very little on it, but more importantly, very few seem to have made it to my like-to-read list over the year. I think I read none of the fiction list, and only a few on the non-fiction list (H is for Hawk, The Invention of Nature).

    I was also wondering: the US doesn’t have a science book prize like the UK does, does it? That definitely is a miss. Perhaps Science/AAAS comes up with a list at the end of the year, but that isn’t anything like a prize.

    Finally: I have Matthew’s book, and Nick Lane’s (both mentioned in the comments) here, but have not read them yet. Two books that probably should have been on the list (judging from the reviews and what people said).

  9. The dearth of science-themed books on NY Times’ non-fiction list is indeed disappointing, but I’ll need to pick up Submission by Michel Houellebecq of their fiction list. Sounds like a must read for every free thinker!

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