Short take: “Books Do Furnish a Life” by Richard Dawkins

October 19, 2021 • 12:30 pm

If you look at the Amazon website for Richard Dawkins’s new book (click on screenshot below), you immediately discover two things. First, the Kindle edition has a subtitle different from the paper copies: the Kindle one is called Books do Furnish a Life: An Electrifying Celebration of Science Writing. Often publishers change book titles or subtitles when the volume crosses the pond, but I’ve never heard of changes among Kindle versus paper editions. (Could the “electrifying” refer to the Kindle’s batteries?)

Second, the book is pretty pricey, even for Amazon: the hardcover is $29.56 and the paperback $28.95. If you’re going to buy it, it makes sense to spring the extra 61 cents and buy the hardcover.  Granted, it’s a big book (464 or 480 pages depending on which one you get), but it’s still expensive.

The question then becomes, is it worth it?  I didn’t buy mine, as I have no more room for books on my shelves, and so had the U of C library order it—a nice feature of our library if the book is one they think is of general interest. And if you don’t have to pay, I can say without reservation that you should read this book.  It’s different from all but one of Richard’s previous books in that it’s mostly a collection of short pieces that are forewords or introductions to other people’s books, along with his notes on what he wrote.

You might think that you don’t want to read a bunch of forewords, but there’s more than that (I’ll describe it in a second), and even if it were only forewords, you’d still want to read it. That’s because Richard doesn’t just introduce other people’s books, but transforms his introductions into standalone thought pieces that are little works of art and thought in themselves. And, of course, Dawkins’s prose is as graceful as always. No other popular science writer has such a literary style, and it’s a style I find immensely appeaing.  Steve Pinker’s own style of writing is just as engaging, but in a different way.

So yes, do read this book. Whether you want to pay thirty bucks for it, or wait for a cheaper used copy, must be your decision. But read it. More below.

The book comprises six parts, each beginning with a transcribed conversation between Richard and a scientist or writer, and each conversation is followed by about a dozen introductions, forewords, or, in some cases, standalone essays that were published elsewhere. The format:

I. Tools of two trades: Writing science (Opening conversation with Neil deGrasse Tyson

II. Worlds beyond science: Celebrating nature (Conversation with Adam Hart-Davis)

III. Inside the survival machine: Exploring humanity (Conversation with Steven Pinker)

IV. The miner’s canary: Supporting scepticism (Conversation with Christopher Hitchens)

V. Counsel for the prosecution: Interrogating faith (Conversation with Lawrence Krauss)

VI. Tending the flame: Evangelizing evolution (Conversation with Matt Ridley).   I was pleased to see that the last essay in this section, and the final one in the book, is “The only kind of truth that works” Richard’s generous and gracious review of Why Evolution is True published in the London Review of Books

He finishes with an epilogue: “To be read at my funeral”. It’s not grim, but rather the famous opening to Unweaving the Rainbow that starts with “We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones.” Surely you’ve read it, but if you haven’t you must do so immediately.  I know of no piece like it, and it may make you tear up.

Now, the forewords and their explications will introduce you to many people now gone but were friends of Richard’s: people like John Maynard-Smith, Peter Medawar, Lewis Wolpert, and Bill Hamilton, and there are plenty of anecdotes to liven the narrative. It’s definitely worth reading Richard’s selections from these people, whose book or papers are forgotten by many students today. Some of the books are old ones that are now obscure, and thus you get a lot of suggestions for future reading.

As I don’t have the book before me, I won’t go over specific pieces except to say that they’re all worth reading because they all are food for thought. All but two are laudatory, the two being a critique of Ed Wilson’s views on group selection (“The descent of Edward Wilson”) and a book by Lynn Margulis and Dorian Sagan that Dawkins absolutely rips to shreds—all with British grace, of course. But even the critique of Wilson’s ideas is a standalone disquisition on the levels of selection, and why the gene, as a “replicator” makes genic selection—Dawkins’s big contribution to evolutionary thinking—more efficient than selection on any other level. I’ll add that his piece on speciation, “Branching out”, is one of the best things written on a topic that few have tackled in popular writing.

Note that the book encompasses science in general, evolution in particular, and also deals extensively with skepticism and atheism. The last bits are strongly anti-theistic, which I find refreshing in these accommodationist days.

I’lll warrant that if you’re reading this website, you’ve almost surely read and loved at least one of Richard’s books (my favorite is The Blind Watchmaker, as I place The Selfish Gene in a different category; Richard’s favorite is The Extended Phenotype. Add this new one to your list.

This is not even a real review because I don’t evaluate the contents with examples and quotations, but my purpose in writing this is to tell you not to neglect this book: it contains some of Richard’s finest writing, much of which you probably missed, and you can read it in pieces. It’s the perfect bedside book—unless, like me, reading it makes you feel so inferior that it’s hard to sleep!

59 thoughts on “Short take: “Books Do Furnish a Life” by Richard Dawkins

  1. My guess is the paperback listed on Amzn’s site is an advance reading copy sold by an affiliated seller – there appears to be one copy available. Some people collect ARCs, so if one is a Dawkins completist (American editions) this might be a score.

    1. There’s always one (or a small number) available on Amazon of anything you’re thinking of buying – as a nudge for you to make a hasty purchasing decision – unless I’m unique!

  2. I bought the Kindle version for the same reason Jerry. I love reading about your views on different books whenever they appear on your blog.

    I am planning to start ‘Rationality’ by Pinker next. Will you be putting your views about Pinner’s book in words ? Looking forward to finishing Richard’s book this weekend.

  3. I’ve read the Kindle edition (nothing about electrifying or whatnot on the cover in the Kindle version) and as always loved every bit. So I can unreservedly second PCC(E)’s recommendation for this. I also have Pinker’s new book but only read a small bit before I got distracted by something, and I haven’t returned to it or much of any other book.

    1. The Kindle (or other digital) editions of books are great for highlighting particular passages etc. in titles that you: 1) don’t have shelf space for, or, 2) think it unlikely that you’ll be rereading.

      Although, on reflection, actually it is probably easier to find words, phrases, and highlighted sections in e-books. And they’re certainly less bulky to carry around.

          1. I’m scared to count how many I have on my kindle and books do furnish ALL the rooms of my house, except for the laundry room (which a recent visiting college friend pointed out.😬)

    2. I have come to prefer my Kindle (purchased 2015) to hardcopy books. With the exception of the few photography books I own (my wife might dispute the “few”!).

  4. It may well be that my attention span has been sapped by the massive availability of ‘stuff’ but I do find that a good Foreword or Introduction can often be enough for the key points. These can often be read in the Amazon ‘Look Inside’ which helps avoid the more tedious books..

  5. I’ve only read The Selfish Gene from Dawkins. Is there any particular order in which I should read the rest of his books?

        1. And I’ll enter a plea for The Ancestor’s Tale, which is probably the book I have enjoyed the most of Richard Dawkin’s output. I was brought up in a family with a lay understanding of evolution, but that didn’t even scratch the surface of all its implications and reading The Selfish Gene was the first time I began to grasp them. But The Ancestor’s Tale brought me to the point where I understood just what common descent really meant for all of us (and by us I mean every living and extinct species ever!)

  6. Thanks for the recommendation – will get the Kindle version soon, although I might wait for the e-book version’s price to more accurately reflect the actual cost of production.

    As I’ve previously mentioned below the line here, some Kindle versions of books I have worked on have – unjustifiably, in my view – been priced at over £100. They were books aimed primarily at academic libraries and the students who needed to acquire them and I feel that the practice amounts to price gouging. Perhaps I am too cynical in failing to believe that the inflated price benefited the author of the work. (Side note: “benefited” is one of the rare examples of British English using a single letter where US English uses a double one , i.e. “benefitted”.)

    For those prepared to sign up for Amazon’s Audible trial – DON’T FORGET TO CANCEL! – it appears to be free in that format, at least in the UK.

  7. I am reading the book currently. While I am certainly enjoying it, I am not super-impressed like I was reading some of Dawkins’ other works. I do believe it is worth the money I paid for the book, for sure.

  8. I received it a while ago as I did a pre-order and it’s on my “to read” shelf, but after reading this review and the thumb’s-up of other readers, I put it (mentally) on my “next” list.

    Right now, I’m reading Barker’s “Regeneration Trilogy”…almost finished with The Eye in the Door, and I’ll have to read the last book before moving on. I just mentioned this because you have consistently recommended Pat Barker’s trilogy, and I’m very happy I finally got around to reading it. It’s simply brilliant and I’ve never read anything quite like it.

      1. Almost all of my book recommendations come from you, Jerry, or your readers in the comments. (Almost all the rest from NPR.)

        I often grumble to my wife, something along the lines of, dammit, WEIT is making me buy more books and lengthen my pile of unread ones! 😀

  9. I have always enjoyed reading Dawkin’s books – I still have four of them on my shelves – and on the strength of this review, will probably drop a Christmas present hint about this one. But I must say I’m a little weary of his arrogant brand of atheism (I’m an atheist myself). I agree with what the English novelist and broadcaster Melvyn Bragg wrote about our militant non-believer, if I may quote at a little length:

    “He [Dawkins] is unfairly dismissive of ancient religions, totally fails to contextualise them, shows no historical respect and merely scorns them from our present pinnacle of knowledge (which will surely pass in its time). For instance, writing of the Australian Aboriginal tribes … [he says] ‘the very same peoples who are so savvy about the natural world and how to survive in it simultaneously clutter their minds with beliefs that are palpably false, and for which the word “useless” is a generous understatement’ … What now seems to Richard Dawkins, dismissively, as useless ‘clutter’ was an elaborate fabric based on dreams, intuitions, experiences and hopes – all of them literally stabs in the dark that lay about them. But dark was what they had. And they made an intricate web of explanation out of it. So it was with many civilisations who struggled to make sense of a world in times that were without a twig of scientific knowledge. Some of their metaphors were sustaining, ingenious, admirable…We may, if we want to feel superior, merely scoff at them now. It is not difficult, given our current constellations of information, to dismantle those ancient systems. It is, though, grossly unfair and a lack of intellectual energy and respect to fail to attempt to understand them. Nor would a little sympathy have come amiss.”

    1. If you read the book I just recommended, Richard in fact talks about the origin of religion, saying just the things that Bragg accuses him of NOT saying. But the origins of religion are different from how it’s practiced today, in an age when we know so much more, and surely you realize that it’s MODERN religion that Dawkins goes after in “The God Delusion.” Who cares if it will go away in time if we can stop the damage it’s doing now. And believe me–it’s doing damage.

      1. I take your point that it is modern religion that Dawkins mostly targets – although he did say those things about the ancient Aboriginals. This raises a wider debate. Is it religion that is doing the damage in the modern world? I would contend rather that it’s the capitalist system. My old mother used to say in relation to “the troubles” in Northern Ireland that religion had a lot to answer for. But of course the roots of that conflict were social and economic, not religious. I’m a socialist. I try to win people to my political beliefs, but I would never try to win them to my atheism. We can have that discussion after the revolution.

  10. I tried the sample from Google. The first dialogue with Neil DeGrasse Tyson is very good, especially Tyson.

    But in the next piece Dawkins goes on to make one of his trademark ignorant remarks about the science of ancient Greece and it immediately turned me off. He calls it “that Earth, Wind and Fire stuff”

    Does he really thinks that something like dissecting birds eggs at various points in time in order to carefully document the stages of embryonic development is “Earth, Wind and Fire stuff”? Or making a decent calculation for the diameter of the Earth? Or marking the fins of dolphins to establish their lifespan? Or Archimedes principles? Or the optics of Euclid? Remember, none of these people had the benefit of centuries of science behind them.

    But if not then he must not know about these things and is happy to comment on things he hasn’t actually looked into.

    I recall Dawkins claiming that Aristotle would have thought of a rabbit as an instance of an ideal Platonic rabbit, which is a nonsense’ thing to say about Aristotle (who was the author of the “Third Man” argument ,*against* Platonism)

    So that annoyed me sufficiently that I won’t be buying the book.

    1. If anyone thinks my use of “ignorant” is rude, I am using it in its literal sense. We are all ignorant about many things.

    2. And I am not saying don’t buy the book. Buy the book for the good stuff. Despite this blind spot (that many people seem to have) he is one of the best science writers ever.

      It just happens that I am particularly irritated by the amount of inaccurate stuff you hear about ancient Greeks.

    3. Incidentally, if anyone is going to respond to this by referring to something some ancient Greek person has allegedly said, please supply a primary cite of that person actually saying it, not someone else claiming they said it.

    4. On reading again I take back the hasty word “trademark”. I can only really think of a couple of times Dawkins has misrepresented ancient science like this. I was conflating him with others who have done it.

      I still say it is an ignorant view.

    5. So, Dawkins did not characterise Aristotle correctly. He made an error. And that is sufficient to not read the book.
      I found a grammatical error in your reply, so any further replies to this shall be ignored on that basis.
      Oh, I see – you wanted to tell us you have read Aristotle.
      Well, good for you.
      (I’m switching to decaf – getting too grumpy with the real bean. Luckily, decaf is merely a poor shadow of the real thing…)

      1. Yes, someone talking nonsense’ about a subject that they know nothing about does put me off hearing their views on science, strange to tell.

        Put it this way. You see a man unsuccessfully attempting to loosen a screw with a chisel, despite a perfectly good screwdriver sitting next to him, are you going to read his book of expert handyman hints?

        Same principle. Dawkins airily dismisses a whole era of the history of science despite knowing exactly nothing about it then probably I won’t learn much from him about rational thinking.

          1. So you think that someone dismissing an entire era -an era that included Archimedes, Euclid, Eratosthenes and Aristotle – with a facile sneer is the way to think rationally and graciously?

            Just wow.

              1. Hi Jerry,
                No insults in my post – and some (attempted) humour.
                But I will not egg him on anymore.
                Also – I think I have a slot left on my bookshelf for just one more Dawkins book – ah yes, it will fit nicely – the missing link!
                (I know e-books are the way to go, but for the books I like, they just gotta be papyrus…) 🙂

  11. I agree that Books do Furnish a Life is an excellent read for the very reasons you write above. In just a few days a new book entitled Flights of Fancy will be on the market. I have mine preordered. Two books in one year! In addition to all the other books written by Dawkins mentioned above, I also like Ancestors Tale. I can’t think of another that demonstrates our common ancestory with all other living things, quite as well. Likewise, when ever anyone asks me for a good books to read about evolution, I always include Why Evolution Is True, and Neil Shubin’s books — especially Your Inner Fish.

    1. Loved “Your Inner Fish”. Also books by David Quammen. Just finished his “The Dodo’s Tale” and recently “The Tangled Tree?”

  12. Richard’s favorite is The Extended Phenotype.

    I found this book, of all of his books, to be the most difficult. It is the most technical and the most academic of the lot in my opinion. Brilliant thesis, brilliantly presented; but not in his usual style that is accessible to the layman.

    In my opinion, his “Origin” moment is The Selfish Gene for its clear and forceful exposition of the gene-centered view of evolution by natural selection.

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