No “science” in NYT’s summer reading list; and my recommendations

June 3, 2018 • 1:15 pm

The New York Times, despite its excellent reporting on The Trump Situation, is still neglecting science. Here’s its new list of 73 books to read for the summer (click on the screenshot):

And are the categories:

True Crime
Movies & TV
The Great Outdoors (mostly about gardening and landscaping)

There are no science books! What—is science so hard that it’s not something to read at the beach, or even in the summer?? Is it the literary equivalent of rosé wine? Well, let me remedy that defect with at least one science book (click on screenshots to access), and I’ll throw in one nonfiction book and one fiction book for your summer delectation.

Readers, please recommend one book for the summer (it needn’t be science), and tell us why it’s worth reading.

My choices:

This is Carl Zimmer’s new book on heredity, which got a starred review from Publisher’s Weekly, Kirkus, and Booklist: a trifecta. It’s also the #1 bestseller in biology, and Jennifer Raff gave it a superb review in the NY Times as well (yes, Carl does write for them). It’s long, but well worth your time:

If you haven’t sampled the joys of Mencken, this is the place to start. It’s a selection of his short pieces, and though many might infuriate or distress you (the man was opinionated), you’ll love the bits on atheism (and I like the two pieces on free will). But it covers everything: politics, music, the Scopes trial, books, the art of criticism—and much more. Highly recommended, especially if you think that stridency is a characteristic of the “new” atheism.

I came upon Katherine Mansfield purely by accident: I picked up a “great short stories” book in the free book box outside Powell’s, and read “Bliss” on the train downtown. I was entranced: here was a fantastic, almost dreamlike short story, with a unique voice I’d never heard before. Since then I’ve been going through her collected short stories (appropriate, since she was from New Zealand and I’m an Honorary Kiwi), and many of them are wonderful. Right now you can get her complete works on Kindle for only 99 cents—a great deal—or buy the book at the bottom.

If, like me, you have to read from a paper book, this is the one for you: it has all her stories, is 688 pages long, and costs only $3.99! Like “Bliss,” I rate “The Garden Party” as one of the world’s great short stories. (Both are free online, but I don’t like online reading, either.)

Mansfield died at only 34 of tuberculosis; imagine what she could have produced had she lived a normal lifespan!

95 thoughts on “No “science” in NYT’s summer reading list; and my recommendations

  1. I found the Kindle edition of Mansfield’s complete works on sale today on Amazon. Marked down from 99c to 55c. What a deal.

    1. At the prompting of a long-vanished friend (I mean lost touch with), I read many of those all of 40 years ago!

  2. In July of 1920, Mencken wrote in the Baltimore Sun;
    “As democracy is perfected, the office of the President represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. On some great and glorious day, the plain folks of the land will reach their hearts desire at last, and the White House will be occupied by a downright fool and a complete narcissistic moron”.

    1. Yes, Mencken was right on. Democracy can be two-faced. However an interesting counter example is The French president Mitterand. As soon he was elected in 1981 he submitted the question about the death penalty to the Parliament, which voted against it, while the popular vote was for 62 percent in favor.

    2. Is that literal? We all know that predicting is difficult, especially the future (ascribed to at least half a dozen) but Mr Mencken appears to have been spot on. Even the narcissistic detail. Hat off for Mr Mencken.

    1. The first 8 million years of whale history. The author is one of the leading scientists in the search of whale ancestry.

  3. And no history either. What? – is history too hard for summer too? It is my favourite thing to read, so here’s a recommendation:

    ‘The War That Ended Peace’ by Margaret MacMillan. (She wrote ‘Paris 1919’.) The frontispiece describes it as “Taut, suspenseful, and impossible to put down.” Yup, I agree with that. Also: “Destined to become a classic in the tradition of Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August”.

    Right now I am reading Anne Applebaum. Great writing. Interesting, though difficult, stuff.

    I don’t know how, despite a reader here explaining it to me, to italicize book titles in WordPress. I tried, but couldn’t figure it out.

    1. If history is needed I can always throw in a few current reads.

      American Spring, Walter R. Borneman, copyright 2014, focusing on Lexington, Concord and Bunker Hill.

      Lord of the Sky, Dan Hampton, copyright 2014, fighter Pilots and Air Combat, from the Red Baron to the F-16.

    2. I believe that the late Peter Mayle recommended Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire for summer hammock reading. I believe it helped s make one look more intelligent whilst snoring, mouth open, in the shade of a tree, with a volume gently rising and falling in concert with one’s rosé-relaxed breathing.

    3. I didn’t find “The War that Ended Peace” as good as “Paris 1919”. a few years ago I went on a WW1 reading kick and I think a better book is “The Sleepwalkers” by Christopher Clark. (If you want a contrarian view, there’s Niall Ferguson’s “The Pity of War”.)

      1. Yes, I agree that ‘Paris 1919’ was better. But I still enjoyed the Ended Peace book. I have read ‘The Pity of War’. Ferguson is always good for that “contrarian view”; that’s what makes him interesting. I will look for ‘Sleepwalkers’. Thanks for the info.

        1. Not to be confused with Arthur Koestler’s book of the same title, which seems to be a weird history of science with a bit of hagiography of Kepler thrown in.

  4. Well, if you want to read a book on science that will hurt your brain look no further than Sean Carroll,s The Big Picture.

  5. Also despite Larry Krauss’s personal issues, his book The Greatest Story Ever Told–So Far is excellent for people like me who had only one course in physics!!

  6. I started reading World in Dissaray but felt it too depressing even though it’s a great book. So I’m currently reading the first in the Bobiverse series, We Are Legion (We Are Bob). I am loving it! I think it’s the combo of the geek references, the familiarity of the IT and software dev references and all the hard science. Plus the humor. I intend to read the whole series which is 2 more books.

  7. I highly recommend “What is Real? The Unfinished Quest for the Meaning of Quantum Physics” by Adam Becker. It covers the history behind the battles between the various quantum physics interpretations that challenge the Copenhagen Interpretation.

    1. I agree. Another great book on contemporary physics is “The Order of Time” by Carlo Rovelli.

      The entire oeuvre of the indefinable essayist Geoff Dyer can be recommended for whatever season or reason.

  8. To Professor Coyne and readers,
    I recommend The Human Advantage by neuroscientist Suzana Herculano-Houzel.

  9. Thanks for suggesting Mansfield. Just what I needed.

    I suggest Phillip Blom’s A wicked company. You may be surprised how much the concerns of philosophers of the siècle des lumières correspond to those we discuss here — atheism, science and determinism. And how the French Revolution missed out on so many of them.

  10. Not a scientist but would sure recommend Leonardo Da Vinci by Walter Isaacson. It is a book to keep in a collection as well.

    1. To sound a contrary note here, I am a big Isaacson fan; but I did not really care that much for his Leonardo da Vinci.

      I assumed I would and was a bit taken aback. It just didn’t grab me.

  11. I would suggest Bernd Heinrich’s “A Naturalist at Large: The Best Essays of Bernd Heinrich”. Actually, I would recommend just about every book by Heinrich for general science readers and for the readers here, excepting maybe his text book “Insect Thermoregulation”.

    As the title suggests, this is a collection of the great naturalist, ranging from mid-1970’s up to now, on his usual favorite topics, bees and ravens, but also has essays on the American chestnut, Sexton Beetles, phoebes, and yellow flag iris. What I love about this book, about all of his work, is how he writes as if we, the reader, are standing shoulder to shoulder with him in the field as he works through his thoughts and tries to find a solution to a scientific curiosity he has encountered. He simplifies without making the reader feel simple. The only beef I have with the book is that it needs more of his wonderful artwork. He really is a talented nature artist, as if being a great scientist and writer were not enough. And if you don’t get THIS book, you could always get his classic “Summer World”, ‘it’s the season after all.

  12. Currently enjoying a Joni Mitchell bio, Restless Daughter, Pinkah’s Enlightenment Now, And Richard Flanagan’s latest novel, First Person.

  13. My pick :

    Fantasyland by Kurt Andersen

    A few reasons I note:

    – page turner
    – very well-written
    – easy read
    – pokes at your weak spots/challenges you
    – etc…

    1. – Mencken features in it (since he’s up there^^^)
      – science is in it, but not like a science book.
      – covers 500 years

  14. Just finished Atlas of a Lost World: Travels in Ice Age America by Craig Childs. It’s an archaeological musing on how the first humans came to America (by land and sea), what they did when they came here, where they spread and why. It talks of their many technologies, and what America looked like at the end of the Pleistocene epoch in which they came here. It also goes into depth of their interactions with megafauna, especially Mammoths. There are many anecdotal elements since Childs is a world adventurer and writes about his experiences; he is also a deeply curious and assiduous observer of the natural world. He’s not a scientist, but utilizes a lot of scientific research and speaks to many scientists to flesh out his story. To boot, he is an excellent and engaging writer; he has a unique and clear voice and a good handle on the English language. And lastly, at 236 pages, it’s an excellent Summer read.

    1. I am in the middle of reading Child’s ‘House of Rain’. I’ve read several of his other books, and they have all been wonderful. I haven’t seen this one, so I’ll have to look for it.

      I had the pleasure of seeing him give a lecture last year, in Springdale UT (at the entrance of Zion NP). He’s not just a good storyteller in print – he’s also a great story teller in person.

      1. Thanks for this added information. It doesn’t surprise me that he’s a great story teller. A lot of his passages read like oral stories- it’s what makes them so engaging.

  15. Taking Sides with the Sun: Landscape Photographer Herbert W. Gleason (2017 Nodin Press). (Found in a Little Library which are increasingly common in front of homes in St. Paul, MN).

    In the first quarter of the last century Congregational minister Herbert Gleason abandoned his career going on to become one of the most distinguished and least known landscape photographers of his time. He took photographs for the National Park Service and also developed more than a 100 slide presentations on parks, botanical and environmental subjects which he presented throughout the country. He was first and foremost, a documenter of Henry David Thoreau (known as Gleason’s Thoreau Country images).

    Schwie traces Gleason’s early life, his short ministry (starting in Minnesota)and I know two of the churches where he preached) preached) and describes his work in dry plate technology. Gleason spent time with John Muir, Stephen Mather (head of the National Park Service) and others. While the book is about Gleason, his wife Eulie is hardly in the background. She was every bit as talented as he was.

    There are many quotes from Thoreau throughout. The title is from a letter Thoreau wrote on 9 December 1854 to H. Blade, “I never yet knew the sun to be knocked down and rolled through a mud-puddle; he comes out honor bright from behind every storm. Let us take sides with the sun, seeing we have so much leisure.” (Letter 9 December 1854)

    I, of course, had never heard of Herbert Gleason.

  16. Two books I haven’t read yet, as they haven’t been released, are “Unnatural Evolution” by Katrina van Grouw and “Wally Funk’s Race For Space” by Sue Nelson. I’ve heard good things about both but van Grouw’s book doesn’t come out until the end of July and Nelson’s not until October (ok, so not a summer read) so put them on your wish list with that certain online behemoth or ask at your local, if you are lucky enough to still have a local…

  17. Read a long excerpt from Fantasyland in either Harper’s or The Atlantic. Really like both Andersen brothers.

  18. I can’t put Carl Zimmer’s book down. I started yesterday and as thick as it is, I have made a big dent in it.
    I recommend John Banville’s Time Pieces.
    I love his reflections on his past growing up near Dublin.
    I recommend The Particle at the End of the Universe, although for me a struggle in parts because I am not a physicist.

  19. I have some science recommendations.

    Why Time Flies by Alan Burdick. An interesting exploration of how living organisms sense and perceive time.

    The Consciousness Instinct by Michael S Gazzaniga. Some mind-bending ideas on the nature of consciousness by someone who knows plenty about it.

    Mass by Jim Baggott. The mysterious nature of mass. Trigger alert: some heavy going if you are not well versed in physics, but worth the effort.

    What a Plant Knows by Daniel Chamovitz. Some fascinating facts about how plants sense and respond to their surroundings.

  20. I’ve been reading the late Philip Roth’s novel The Plot Against America and would highly recommend it.
    Roth’s fictional 1940 Charles Lindbergh administration is disturbingly similar to the actual 2016 Trump administration.

  21. A book I just finished: Catherine Nixey’s The Darkening Age. It’s about the triumph of Christianity in the Roman Empire after Constantine. Not a pleasant story, of course, but a great read.

  22. For science, I recommend Judea Pearl and Dana Makenzie’s just released “The Book of Why” describing the recent 20-year history of putting cause and effect on a firm mathematical footing. I couldn’t put it down.

    Non-science: First-book author Emily Koch’s first-person perspective “If I Die Before I Wake” about a “locked-in” individual solving his own murder.

  23. Going back a year or two, two science-related books I remember enjoying on summer hols were “Galileo’s Finger” (2003) by Peter Atkins, and “The Invention of Nature” (2015), all about Humboldt, by Andrea Wulf. They are both still worth re-reading.

    A few years ago I took “The Maze Maker” (1967) by Michael Ayrton to Crete, where a lot of it is set (it is a re-imagining of the Daedalus myths, by a man who was himself a highly skilled inventor and sculptor). I came across it many years ago and it has haunted me ever since. I wouldn’t presume to recommend it to anyone else; but for me, for a summer in Crete, it was perfect.

  24. Thank you all for the recommended popular science books.
    In turn I’d like to recommend the books by our host, Richard Dawkins and Nick Lane. There are many others (such as Richard Wrangham, Frans de Waal or even Stephen Oppenheimer), but these gave me the the greatest pleasure.

  25. Mansfield’s one of the many gaping lacunae in my Anglophone reading. I’ma take up your recommendation and give her a read this summer. Thx.

  26. Is it the literary equivalent of rosé wine?

    If it were, wouldn’t it be marketed as going with everything — fish, fowl, or even red meat? Or was that just Mateus? (Or was that just a promotion pushed by management at the restaurant where I tended bar during law school? Never been much of a rosé drinker myself; it’s for the “undecideds.” 🙂 )

    1. Rosé is back in a big way the last two years. Aldi has an “award winning” cheapo scoring higher than stuff three times the price. IMO a lot to do with people wanting booze & food that isn’t too ‘muscular’ on the breathe or the teeth. As forgettable as a typical beach read. [confirmed consumer of red wine, beer & cheese that can crawl across the plate].

      1. It’s still around. I remember when I was young ordering a bottle with my future wife in a fancy restaurant. The sommelier dutifully brought it (probably stifling a laugh) and I sent it back because it wasn’t cold enough. Fast forward a few decades. At an anniversay dinner I spotted it on a wine list and ordered it for fun. It is in a different bottle now, and I couldn’t finish a glass, but it is still pink and fizzy.

    2. So there are great rosés out there. Pink Champagne springs to mind.

      I recommend a good Bandol rosé (Tempier or Gros Noré).

      I have always been underwhelmed by the famous Tavel from Provence. But I have found plenty of other Provençal rosés that were excellent and much cheaper.

  27. Highly recommended, especially if you think that stridency is a characteristic of the “new” atheism.

    Mencken’s also an antidote to those who would caution against disdaining the rabble-rousing populism of Donald Trump.

  28. Well we’re in full-on winter here Down Under. After over a year of living in Melbourne, I’ve finally got around to reading “Picnic at Hanging Garden”. Delightfully written.

    1. “… Hanging Garden”? Surely “…hanging rock” by Joan Lindsay? Good story – there’s a missing final chapter that Lindsay removed before publication. Removes the mystery, but I never read that chapter – works fine as is.

        1. Is that the original of the movie Picnic at Hanging Rock?

          I went to see it with my girlfriend in 1977, thinking it was probably a Western but there was nothing else on. From the look of the audience they probably thought it was a Western too.

          Two things amazed me: First, that the Aussies could make such a subtle, intellectual movie (the musical score included the hauntingly beautiful, but very leisurely theme from Beethoven’s 5th piano concerto FFS!); and second, that the Saturday night audience who looked as if their usual fare was Terminator, sat quietly through it apparently absorbed in the story.


          1. Yup, that’s the one. In addition to the 1975 movie, there’s a TV miniseries that’s just come out.

    1. Yes, I enjoyed that one and learned a good deal. It does not just run through the fundamental attributes of mammals, but considers when, how and even why they arose in our evolutionary ancestors.

  29. I recommend “Just Mercy” by Bryan Robinson, an African-American lawyer.

    Also Eric Lax’ 2000 biography of Woody Allen.

  30. For some science and some biography combined, I recommend “Lab Girl,” by Hope Jahren, who turns out to be a most engaging writer. Though it might not sound like it, it is frequently a page turner. 🙂 Not for foreboding suspense but because her life’s been quite the story, one that frequently takes most unexpected turns.

    (I rather dislike the title, though.)

      1. Crazy–I responded to your suggestion below before noticing this post of yours. I guess this means we’d better read each others’ recommendations. 😀

  31. Fiction: “The Group,” by Mary McCarthy
    Non-fiction: “The Sleepwalkers,” by Christopher Clark

    Speaking of Mencken, I’ve found some great reads looking through his book reviews in “The American Mercury,” which can now be read free online. He was editor from 1924-1933.

  32. “The Great Outdoors (mostly about gardening and landscaping)”

    In other words, not about the great Outdoors at all.

    Not even any sci-fi, either.

    This is why I never read ‘best-seller’ lists.

    I don’t have any recommendations for new books, most of the ones I read are decades old, and/or will probably have been read already by everyone here.

    But in case anyone hasn’t already read them, I can happily recommend the five books in Douglas Adams’ ‘Hitch-hiker’ trilogy, and any of Terry Pratchett’s many ‘Discworld’ novels, more particularly the earlier ones. Although Hitch-hiker was (technically) sci-fi and Discworld was (technically) fantasy they were remarkably similar in many respects. Both DNA and Sir Pterry shared an ingenious turn of phrase, an irreverent sense of humour, and an ability to lampoon human failings in the actions of fictional beings.


  33. ‘The Dying Grass,’ by William T. Vollmann. A novel of Melvillean mind and scope that represents a psychomachia between two alienated cultural souls that, due to the greed and racism of the one and (perhaps) the fatal, stoical trust of the other, cannot co-exist: the west-empiring U.S. and the driven-to-near-extinction Nez Perce nation. Historically, heroically tragic and ineffably sad.

    The characterizations of Gen. O.O. Howard and Chief Joseph are tactiley real, like the three-dimensionality of a grand-scale Old Master painting.

    I lived in the book for several months: a few pages one day, none for a week, then binge-reading for hours and hours. Finally, I finished it and wished Vollmann’s (masterpiece?) were longer than its 1200 pp.

    Now the book lives in me.

  34. Right now I´m reading The Order of Time by Carlo Rovelli. But I would recomend you a book about free will Rovelli mentioned in his (if you haven´t read it yet): How Physics Makes us Free (2016) by J. T. Ismael.
    This is the next book I will read. A book for winter. I´m on the southern hemisphere.

  35. @Jorge – thanks for the reading suggestion

    Over at I found THIS REVIEW from two years ago of Jenann Ismael’s “How Physics Makes Us Free” Everything seems fairly standard in the review. i.e. QM doesn’t bestow free will & we are material beings with no soul substance beyond physics, but then I noticed this bit:

    “Ismael shows how it is possible for complex systems to emerge in a deterministic setting that regulates the effect of the environment on their behavior, and suggests that the way in which human beings do that gives them a special kind of freedom. The key is to see that a human being is not simply responding in a fixed way to an external stimulus, but making decisions. And every time a human being makes a decision, she brings to bear on her behavior a set of beliefs, memories and goals that have been built up over a lifetime of experience and that are uniquely her own.

    Going on only the above [I haven’t read the book] I honestly don’t see how this would “…Make Us Free” as per the book title. I found out elsewhere that she’s a compatibilist.

    1. Surely she is a compatibilist. There is not another respectable option about free will, besides believing there is not free will. I´m in favor of the later. However, I´m honest to accept I haven´t understood compatibilism so I always giving it a try.
      Rovelli mention the book while he clarifies the difference between what Time is from a purely physical view (an external view) and what Time is for us (from within the world). Then in a footnote he says:
      “A contemporary philosopher who has shed light on these aspects of the perspectival nature of the world is J. T. Ismael The Situated Self (…) Ismael has also written an excellent book on free will: How Physics make us free…”
      After this I´m planning to read a book Jerry has recommended some time ago Creating Freedom by Raoul Martinez. And then I´m done with free will.

  36. The NY Times, like other publications such as the NY Review of Books, The Nation, The Atlantic, Harper’s and the New Republic,disdains science, natural history and the environment, even though it has some excellent science writers (Natalie Angier stands out as did Nicholas Wade). This is no worse than the American public at large. Rather than give specific books (any given author may have some better or worse books), I prefer to list my favorite authors, most of whose work is outstanding and sometimes genius, but a few books are listed:

    Carl Safina, biologist and writer of nonfiction about ocean life (Song of the Blue Ocean, etc.)Right up at the top of writers about nature and biology, along with Peter

    Redmond O’Hanlon: brilliant and scientifically informed travel writer about real but hilarious hair raising experiences in the Amazon and Borneo (“In Trouble Again” recommended).

    Theodore Roosevelt: “Through the Brazilian Wilderness”: diary of his trip with Brazilian general Rondon on an unnamed river, on which two books were based, is a real thriller and
    superb description of wilderness, human nature, near-fatal accidents, all the ingredients you need and want in a true travel story (the river is now called the Rio Roosevelt, and Rondonia is the western Brazilian state named after the general).

    Napoleon Chagnon: “Noble Savages”,, the
    account of how cultural anthropologists tried to destroy his career and reputation; a MUST READ.

    Lorenzo da Ponte: Mozart’s and the world’s greatest opera librettist wrote his memoirs
    about his tribulations that drove him to sail to the New World; one day in a bookstore near Columbia University he became friendly with writer Clement C. Moore and ended up as professor Italian and humanities at Columbia.
    One of the most fascinating stories ever….
    read Rodney Bolt’s “The Librettist of Venice” as well as da Ponte’s autobiography.

    W.W.Story: “Roba di Roma”. This American sculptor and son of a Supreme Court justice in the mid 19th century wrote about his
    long residence in Rome, Roman life, politics,
    people and culture. One of the greatest reads and examples of English writing in existence.
    This is the book I will grab as I run out of my house if it ever burns down or floods. A treasure and unequalled in content and style.

  37. I’m trying to get around to order an (English version of) the work of Han Fei, to continue in my Chinese philosophy classics collection.

    I have a few items from garage sales that I’m still getting trhough. Reading _A Generation of Materialism, 1870-1900_. Not very good.

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