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Reading Lists Revisited

June 18, 2007

We have visited reading lists here before, from “The 10 Worst Books” to “The Top 1,000.” In December, Discover magazine weighed in with “The All-time Essential Reading List” — the 25 greatest science books ever written.

The honorable mentions alone would make you well-read, and you might prefer them to a portion of the “Essential” list, which includes works from the 16th and 17th centuries, plus one from 330 B.C.

But the editors give good reasons for including these works of early science in a list for the modern reader; for example, “Principia Mathematica” by Isaac Newton (1687; the library has two translations) and “Dialogue concerning the Two Chief World Systems” by Galileo Galilei (1632; copy on order). They are readable, intelligent, and in the case of Galileo’s, witty.

Copernicus, Vesalius, Aristotle. The 19th Century produced numbers one and two on the list: Darwin’s “Voyage of the Beagle” (1845) and “The Origin of Species” (1859). The honorable mentions include Freud’s “The Interpretation of Dreams” (1900) and William James’s “The Varieties of Religious Experience” (1902). All are in the library’s collection.

Then we get into the 20th Century, more familiar territory for most of us. “The Selfish Gene” by Richard Dawkins is an excellent book. I haven’t read “One Two Three … Infinity” by George Gamow (1947), but I did read his “Mr. Tompkins explores the atom” and “Mr. Tompkins in Wonderland.”

As a young man, I enjoyed “The Double Helix” by James Watson (1968) and “What is life?” by Schrodinger (1944). These helped solidify my love of science. And we’ve all been affected by Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” whether we read the book or not.

The first thing I read by Stephen J. Gould may have been “The Mismeasure of Man” (1981). And I think I’ve read nearly everything by Oliver Sacks; the essential list contains “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales.”

“The Journals of Lewis and Clark” (1814) … haven’t read these. Kinsey’s “Sexual Behavior in the Human Male” (1948) … haven’t needed to.

I was happy to see “The Feynman Lectures” on the list. They must be among the most accessible discussions of general physics written, imbued with Richard Feynman’s humor and style. Dian Fossey’s “Gorillas in the Mist” made the list. It is a fascinating story of the gorillas as well as the human who studied them.

Among the honorable mentions is Lewis Thomas’s “The Lives of a Cell” (1974), which was another book that impressed me as a young man. Later, Kuhn’s “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” (1962) also impressed me, although I didn’t fully understand it. The same is true for Hawking’s “A Brief History of Time.”

Other honorable mentions you can find in the library include “Guns, Germs, and Steel” (1997) by Jared Diamond, “The Elegant Universe” (1999) by Brian Greene, and “The Making of the Atomic Bomb” (1986) by Richard Rhodes.

I find it encouraging to see good science books appear on the big bestseller lists and to see them check out of our library.

Now, a few announcements. The library will be an Art Walk venue this weekend, offering the double feature of Roberta Smith’s show plus a display of “Book Arts” for Art Walk. Participating artists … please get us your work today or tomorrow.

And thanks to the parents who helped their children understand last week’s summer reading clue but did not help them solve it. We watched children come close; eventually, we had three winners.

This week’s clue: “Look for the fluke in the ocean.”


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