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
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 will be interested in any book that Maria Popova writes about. The Brainpickings project she masterfully cultivates every week is one of the only mailing lists where I truly look forward to receiving the latest installment in my inbox. There is true love and passion in her work. So when I received a one-off email from Brainpickings, calling out this book and her upcoming review in the New York Times, I immediately took notice. From the email, Popova is effervescent in her praise of the author Janna Levin’s writing, and the enduring power of the story she is documenting:
This particular book is one of the finest I’ve ever read – the kind that will be read and cherished a century from now. Dr. Levin is a splendid writer of extraordinary intellectual elegance – partway between Galileo and Goethe, she fuses her scientific scrupulousness with remarkable poetic potency.