Science & Nature
Derek Jarman, the British artist and director, found out he was HIV positive in the late 1980s, bought a house by the sea with a view of a nuclear power station, and planted a garden. This journal, spanning 1989 and 1990, documents the planting of the garden and his gradual descent into serious illness, and it is a rarely perfect reading experience, full of flowers, memories, sex and death. Reading Jarman's book is comparable to the writings of David Wojnarowicz and Herve Guibert, but he's more restrained, more influenced by a somber, English romanticism, like E.M. Forster or D.H. Lawrence.
This book is about Wyoming, a state of geothermal mystery and the only place in the world in whose landscape every geological age is represented. With poetry and precision, McPhee distills complex science for a literary audience. Over the course of the book, plate tectonics are likened to the formation and reformation of the complexes in the psyche, and Wyoming is presented as a most complicated individual, if an arbitrarily defined state can be called such (but what is an individual if not an arbitrarily defined state?). The foreshadowing of fracking is particularly wrenching. There's history and politics and a love story, too. In them we understand how the "lonesome cowboy" is shaped by the mountains around him, and how a writer and perhaps we ourselves could be likewise entranced by nothing, really, other than just land.
As a broke millennial, my favorite way to acquire a new plant is to casually admire the greenery in a park/cafe/neighbor's yard and slip a stem or two up my sleeve. Most plant books have no information about how to propagate from clippings; this one does, while helping to manage your expectations (some leaves are supposed to fall off!) and reminding you what's important (the plant's happiness, not yours).
Like many a film star, Isabella Rossellini occasionally retires from the spotlight to live a quiet life in the countryside. My Chickens and I documents her first year with her first flock. A perfect gift for the tired film student who daydreams about running a farm upstate, and pairs perfectly with Lydia Davis’s Cows.
One of the purest books in the store.
Do you find yourself thinking sometimes that the American west is a beautiful and seemingly impossible place? Have you noticed the apocalyptic weather that corner of the country is ever-more frequently aflicted by? Do you often feel a swell of trembling emotion when you think about the folly of manifest destiny and how the West is almost certainly set to run out of water in not too long? Are you afflicted by daydreams of drained valleys, diverted rivers, posioned lakes, and drowned canyons? Do you understand already that it's humans that belong to the natural world, and not the other way around? Then read Cadillac Desert and come get drinks with me, because it's just about all I can talk about.
If you don't already want to quit your job, move out west, and post up in a lookout tower high above the forest to contemplate solitude and the wilderness (our place in it, the hubris and idiocy with which we change it), this book will make you want to do that. Be careful.
This book is a hilarious and impassioned reminder that the laboratory, really the whole project of scientific inquiry, is a matter not of dry, clinical analysis, but a form of play. Feynman is a disarming guide through the cosmos, and a comic poet of the wonders of terrestrial life.
Part compendium of sci-fi plot summaries, part digest of theories about the nature of time—ancient to contemporary—this book will spark your curiosity about dozens of different subjects (Schrödinger's cat? Special relativity? Predestination?) as well as make you question some of the defining features of your lived experience. Is time a "river" that carries us along, or is it something we possess, to save or squander at our discretion? How can it "flow" or "pass" when it is itself a fundamental condition of motion? From H.G. Wells's seminal novella through its early pedantic critics to its many derivatives, from Borges through Philip K. Dick to Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, the variations on the theme of time travel multiply before our eyes in Gleick's petri dish of literary history and quantum physics.
Levi’s writing is as surprising and necessary as a chemical reaction, possessing the simultaneous harmony and disruptive force of a natural phenomenon. Nothing in this autobiographical book is superfluous, everything has meaning and purpose— yet each word burns with the energy that binds matter together. Devastatingly graceful, the life of a giant of Italian literature.
I'd never even heard of the Office of Chief Medical Examiner of the City of New York until someone put this book in my hand. Judy Melinek's memoir of her two-year fellowship there is a mix of hair-raising war stories, detailed descriptions of autopsies, and intimate reflections (Melinek was pregnant during part of her fellowship). Learn about rare transfusion-related complications and bizarre ballistic trajectories (such as the fantastic "bullet embolus") and discover how rewarding an often brutal profession can be
Frank takes lots of seemingly unrelated topics and facts and weaves a beautiful but lumpy and misshapen rug out of them, and then spills ice cream on it. Actually, this book, purportedly about a giant squid, is a lot more about ice cream than I thought it would be.
Preparing the Ghost uses the figure of the Rev. Moses Harvey, the first man to photograph the giant squid, as the core of an essay which tentacles madly outwards, addressing, amongst other things: the giant squid itself, the madness and obsession of men, the author's grandfather, a love of ice cream, Newfoundland culture in the late 1800's, the power of myth, other sea creatures, whether Harvey's wife loved to eat potatoes, how to transport squid tentacles, whether dog's will eat squid tentacles (they will), and so forth. The freneticism and narrative hum of its structure creates a jittery energy and fictive sense of wonder.
From a world-class scientist and true humanist, the physics of time for the literary minded.
I have read this book by legal scholar Jedediah Purdy every year since it came out in 2015. My copy is now lousy with notes and underlinings, because each re-reading, and every year which draws us deeper into the sense of environmental apocalypse, only strengthens its relevance. Purdy traces the idea of 'nature' in America, from its first days up to the present, the Anthropocene, when it is no longer possible - if indeed it ever was - to divorce nature from human influence. He asks what our environemntal politics might look like in the coming years, and whether those politics will be democratic, or just as apocalyptic-feeling as they might right now seem.
The Structure of Scientific Revolutions is one of those books that fundamentally changes the way you perceive the world around you. Kuhn speaks of language as inherently flawed and in many ways, a barrier to perceiving change, hindering us when we try to document new discoveries. Kuhn's exploration of paradigm shifts will affect the way you look at historical documentation and our comprehension of language.
A book for anybody who has had mixed feelings about their visit to Las Vegas, and for anybody who views their upcoming trip to that insane and incredible city with trepidation and alarm. Also for fans of excellent writing about the West, nuclear disaster, and all varieties of American apocalypse.
This book travels across the course of American landscape history, through Manifest Destiny to the foundation of the national park’s system and up to the nuclear crisis. This book felt so vital, to important to the present moment, has stayed with me ever since.
If, like me, you are constantly informing your inferiors and enemies that you could eat them for breakfast, this field guide will prove to be invaluable.
My Beloved Brontosaurus: On the Road with Old Bones, New Science, and Our Favorite Dinosaurs (Paperback)
Not sure if I've ever brought this up in conversation at the bookstore, but I am kind of into dinosaurs? I came into this obsession as an adult and have since been frequently devastated by new (to me) learnings that upended the previously-held dinosaur beliefs I formed lazily as a child—beliefs which were not merely "wrong" but, I now know, recklessly ignorant—none more so than the news that my childhood favorite, the brontosaurus, is not only currently extinct but in fact never existed at all. Everything you, everyone you love, and all paleontologists previously thought to be a Brontosaurus is actually an Apatosaurus; if you want to live a life of scientific integrity you have to run a Find & Replace in your mind palace and replace all the Brontosauruses with Apatosauruses. I have a lot of feelings about that. This book really helped me work through them.
Felled by a mysterious debilitating illness, the naturalist Elizabeth Tova Bailey can not even raise her head. She only has enough strength to observe the activity of a wild snail placed on her bedside table by a loving carer. Watching the deliberate slow activity of her resilient terrestrial companion becomes both her meditation and her life source as her world narrows to the universe of illness. Written over the course of her recovery, this profound and lyrical book is as delicate and beautiful as a Faberge egg.
I did not think I would be into a book about a woman training a goshawk, I really didn't. But this is truly one of the best nature books you will ever read, truly moving, beautifully written, and by no means for bird-fans only. The best exploration of the idea of 'wildness' you're likely to ever encounter.
Extraordinary fun. Part snark (lots of snark) and some science. Roach scrutinizes the absurd with such acerbic enthusiasm that I know I'd wither in her presence. But gosh, she's a delightful read! Anyhow, these ghost people have it coming. They are the most ridiculous of her subjects, even if you count yourself among them (and I do).
I realized I never read Dillard's transcendentalist theodicy all the way through (despite calling it one of my favorites), and that I needed a dose of nature writing since moving to New York. What I learned this time was how right I was in loving my goldfish, how susceptible I am to the poet's side of agnosticism, and—even though there's got to be more of a complex ecosystem in this city than just "acres of rats"—how I still need to somehow make enough money to get to the country with some free time on my hands.
Environmental journalists often bemoan the problem of making readers care about climate change - which often moves imperceptibly if all too quickly. Not Elizabeth Kolbert. She unspools the history of the Earth in episodic essays, which come together like a novel, its creatures—the ill-fated Panamanian golden frog, the doomed auk, the persecuted rhino—the characters, such that we care deeply, deeply about their fates.
This is one of the most captivating books I've read in a long, long time. I was as spellbound by the patience and thoroughness J.A. Baker brings to observing these fascinating birds as I was by his capacity for literary expression. A beautiful, beautiful book.
— David W.