The subtitle to the Yuval Noah Harari’s book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind immediately sets up the discord that often bubbles over in the reviews:
Human beings (members of the genus Homo) have existed for about 2.4m years. Homo sapiens, our own wildly egregious species of great apes, has only existed for 6% of that time – about 150,000 years. So a book whose main title is Sapiens shouldn’t be subtitled “A Brief History of Humankind”.
Siddhartha Mukherjee burst on the literary scene with his first book Emperor of the Maladies, winning a Pulitzer prize and spawning a PBS TV series by the esteemed Ken Burns. In 2016 Mukerjee returns with The Gene: An Intimate History, another fact-packed but personal approach to a topic that looms large in modern day vernacular:
Six years after his non-fiction debut, Mukherjee is back with what he’s calling a prequel, rather than a sequel to his first book, The Gene: An Intimate History. Like Emperor, it’s a genre-defying tour de force. “It is memoir, it is family history, it is science, it is medicine,” said Mukherjee
In The Secret War, Max Hastings the prolific military historian and journalist, normally at home describing the physical battles and hardware of war, takes on the task of profiling the intelligence community during World War II:
Max Hastings’s 25th book is a lively, entertaining, but uneven yomp through espionage and code-breaking in the 1940s, which aims to cut through the clouds of mythology and establish just what contribution the cloak-and-dagger boys made to the outcome of the war.
Some books settle with you, they sit somewhere more deeply and profoundly within you than others. The Age Of Wonder by Richard Holmes is one such book. As a rule on WhatBook I won’t add my own personal opinion to posts and let the reviewers provide you with the guidance, but it felt necessary here to callout the impact this book had on me.
Holmes is a distinguished biographer reknowned for his comprehensive books on Coleridge and Shelley and an expert on the Romantic era. With The Age Of Wonder he is sticking with this time period but switching from a focus on the Arts to the Sciences, looking at the great scientists and discoveries that emerged, and bringing that same love of the period and the deep understanding of the people involved:
Richard Holmes is one of England’s most admired biographers, his particular area of expertise being the romantic era in England and France. His previous books include exceptionally lively biographies of the poets Shelley and Coleridge and two volumes of shorter essays and profiles: “Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer” and “Sidetracks: Explorations of a Romantic Biographer.” In “The Age of Wonder” he shifts his focus from literary genius to scientific genius, as he traces the course of English science from roughly 1768, when Capt. Cook began his voyage round the world, to 1831, when young Charles Darwin joined the Beagle on her expedition to the Galapagos Islands.
I know a book is worthy of consideration when I see the reviewers raising their game in an effort to describe it. Thunder and Lightning by Lauren Redniss falls squarely in to that bucket. A book that is clearly beguiling and difficult to categorize.
Part encyclopedia and part almanac, the book is a tapestry of narrative threads highlighting various weather-related curiosities, from Eskimo dream mythology to the science of lightning to the economics of hurricanes to Benjamin Franklin’s inclination for “air baths.”
I’m a fan of biographies, but what I am not always a fan of are the 800-1000+ pages that go with it. It is clearly hard to condense someone’s life in to a book, but what is most impressive is when an individual of prominence is both captured but also analyzed through a lens, a certain approach that allows for novel insight. If brevity comes as part of the deal the all the better. You won’t get all of the key dates and places, or walk the chronological path of their life, but you may get some insight in to how that person thought, what motivated them, and how that played in to their actions. The splendid Benjamin Franklin biography by Edmund Morgan falls squarely in to that category.
Jefferson, like Franklin, is a prime candidate for this more nuanced approach to the biography due to the sheer volume of writing that already exists about the man. In Most Blessed Of The Patriarchs by Annette Gordon-Reed and Peter S. Onuf “they add a fresh and layered analysis, one centered more on his interior life than his deeds for posterity”, an attempt to dig in to and understand the contradictions of his character.
Much of this book is set not in New York or Washington or Philadelphia, the places from which Jefferson entered the American pantheon, but in Monticello, the place that most reflected him. It is “Monticello’s ambiguous moral geography” — and Jefferson’s own — that the authors set out to explore in a sort of scholarly Lewis and Clark journey through the mind and philosophy of the most enigmatic of the founders.
New York Times