Books I’m Reading 2018

The Mismeasure of Man by Stephen Jay Gould (1980) – Gould’s first long-form book, it’s a look at the history of “biological determinism” (i.e. scientific racism, the mis-use of science in the service of preconceived biases, downright bad science, etc.). It’s an important book that anticipated the “correlation between race and IQ” controversy stirred up by 1994’s The Bell Curve (indeed, the latter book prompted a re-issue of TMoM with considerable new material by Gould). It’s an important book, no doubt, but I found it a bit of a plod.

The Panda’s Thumb by Stephen Jay Gould (1980) – The second collection of pop-science essays by the late paleontologist.

Babylon 5 Book #1: Voices by John Vornholt (1995) – Okay, a guilty pleasure. I was a big fan of the 90s TV series Babylon 5, and while it can seem pretty dated nowadays, it was a pioneering show that dared to tell a long-form story (each season can be considered a book, with each episode a chapter) that paid homage to (without coming across as a ripoff of) many, many classic sci-fi books, movies and TV shows that came before. Anyway, several supplemental novels and novelizations were published, and I finally managed to scrape them all together. This first one by Vornholt is a  a clunker, with workmanlike prose, some cringingly sexist language, and unforgiveable scientific errors (Vornholt depicts the Martian atmosphere as too hot to survive in, when even amateur astronomers have known for decades that the danger on Mars’ surface is extreme cold and near-vacuum). For B5 completists only.

Ever Since Darwin by Stephen Jay Gould (1977) – The first collection of pop-science essays by the late paleontologist who contributed the concept of “punctuated equilibrium” to evolutionary science, and championed the (in my opinion, dangerous and erroneous) idea of “nonoverlapping magisteria” (i.e. that science and religion pursue different aims, and therefore need not be in conflict). In any case, Gould was a master at short-form science commentary, and his hundreds of essays on science history and scientific/cultural controversy are still highly readable and (in some cases) disappointingly still relevant.

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (1985) – Atwood’s dystopian classic (about a future fragmented America where fertile women are rare, and a fundamentalist regime enslaves them as “handmaids.” Beautifully written and still enragingly pertinent. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ll know it’s been faithfully adapted as a TV series on Hulu. The first season coincides with the end of the book, but a second season is on the way, extrapolating from the end of the source material with input from Atwood herself. Read this.

The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William L. Shirer (1960) – One of the earliest popular histories of World War II by a journalist who was stationed in Germany during Hitler’s reign and through much of the war itself. Later historians have criticized Shirer in various ways, but I think this is a very good book to read if you want an idea of how the German people turned over power to the Nazis, how and why the Allied Powers missed numerous opportunities to rein in Hitler, and how Hitler’s insatiable ambition and limited strategic capacity led to Germany’s catastrophic downfall. Sometimes Shirer gets bogged down in too much detail; sometimes he engages in gratuitous descriptions of the primary characters (e.g. calling Goebbels “corpulent” but never mentioning that Churchill was overweight); and perhaps it was part of Shirer’s generation, but in several instances he seems preoccupied with the sexual orientation of various Nazi players (e.g. calling homosexuals “perverts” and the like). At over 1100 pages plus references, it’s a bug-crusher, but well-worth your time if you’re interested in WWII and how it was viewed during its near aftermath.

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