Every year for the last several years I’ve collated and extracted the science books from all the various “best books of the year” lists in different mainstream media and various other outlets. I’ve done the same this year for books published in 2011! I can tell it’s been popular among my readers from the hit stats I see for this blog and from the number of keyword searches on “best science books” or whatnot I see in my analytics program.
Way back in 2009, I started taking all the lists I could find and tallying up all the “votes” to see which books were mentioned the most times. An interesting exercise, to say the least! While the “winner” wasn’t in any sense the best book of the year, it was certainly very revealing to see what books were getting all the attention and at least some sense of how well-received all the various books were compared to each other. Since what I tried in 2009 was so popular, I decided to do the same thing for 2010, 2011 and this year, 2012.
As with previous years, some of the lists have been from general/non-science media sources, in which case I’ve just extracted the science-related books. From science publications, I’ve included pretty well all of the mentioned titles.
For 2012, I looked at 69 different best of lists, spreading them among 46 of my blog posts. For 2011: 82 & 50; 2010: 60 & 33 and 2009: 46 & 32. The impressive number of lists I’m able to see every year is mostly mostly thanks to the amazing work gathering Year’s Best Book lists over at the Largehearted Boy blog. Thanks!
I’m listing 22 books this year compared to 25 last year and 21 and 16 the first two years. Like last year, it takes four mentions in a best of list for a book to make into this top books of the year post.
Some notes/caveats, mostly similar to previous years:
- These aren’t in any way the “best” books of 2012, only the most popular books on year’s best lists. For the most part, all the books mentioned will likely be at least decent since they’ve attracted a fair bit of critical attention. But, they are also almost certainly the books whose publishers had the biggest promotional budgets and sent out the most review copies. Susan Cain’s Quiet was clearly one of the buzz books of 2012 and was very widely read and reviewed. It had a strong cross-over quality similar to the Henrietta Lacks bio from a few years ago. Like that book, it was the only sciencey book on a number of the lists I saw.
- There are probably one or two straggler “best of” lists that haven’t come out yet and I’m sure there are a bunch that I missed. Since I saw so many lists, I feel pretty confident that the list is fairly representative of reviewer sentiment. And, you know, this ain’t exactly rocket science so my tallying may be imperfect in other ways.
- Finally, in some of the longer mainstreams lists that I did see, I can’t guarantee I consistently pulled in the same “edge cases” in to my science-y lists. There were numerous books mentioned twice or three times so one or two of those might have squeaked onto this list. Of course, I can’t guarantee complete accuracy in any of the steps of the whole process. Sadly there is no small army of research assistants helping me compile these lists.
- British, American and Canadian publication dates can mean that a 2012 British & Canadian book is a 2013 American book and vice versa. It happens.
- There were 325 different books mentioned among the various lists. My list is in a Google Docs spreadsheet here. If you have any questions about the spreadsheet, just let me know.
In the list below, the number in the brackets is the number of different lists the book appeared on.
Enjoy — and good reading!
- Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talkingby Susan Cain (20)
- The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail but Some Don’t by Nate Silver (14)
- Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic by David Quammen (13)
- The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg (9)
- The Social Conquest of Earth by Edward O. Wilson (9)
- Hallucinations by Oliver Sacks (8)
- Turing’s Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe by George Dyson (7)
- On a Farther Shore: The Life and Legacy of Rachel Carson, Author of Silent Spring by William Souder (6)
- Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story by Jim Holt (6)
- Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness by Susannah Cahalan (6)
- The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation by Jon Gernter (6)
- Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History by Florence Williams (5)
- Bad Pharma: How Drug Companies Mislead Doctors and Harm Patients by Ben Goldacre (5)
- The Particle at the End of the Universe: How the Hunt for the Higgs Boson Leads Us to the Edge of a New World by Sean M. Carroll (5)
- Connectome: How the Brain’s Wiring Makes Us Who We Are by Sebastian Seung (4)
- The Revenge of Geography: What the Map Tells Us About Coming Conflicts and the Battle Against Fate by Robert D. Kaplan (4)
- God’s Hotel: A Doctor, a Hospital, and a Pilgrimage to the Heart of Medicine by Victoria Sweet (4)
- Straphanger: Saving Our Cities and Ourselves from the Automobile by Taras Grescoe (4)
- The Universe Within: From Quantum to Cosmos by Neil Turok (4)
- Makers: The New Industrial Revolution by Chris Anderson (4)
- Wait: The Art and Science of Delay by Frank Partnoy (4)
- Before the Lights Go Out: Conquering the Energy Crisis Before It Conquers Us by Maggie Koerth-Baker (4)
And two honourary mentions:
- Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed
- Trinity: A Graphic History of the First Atomic Bomb by Jonathan Fetter-Vorm
I’m including the Strayed book because although it seems to be mostly a story of personal discovery, there seems to be some element of nature writing in the book. When I first saw it I didn’t thing there was enough to qualify for listing. Without reading the book itself, I’m still pretty sure that’s the case. But it received so many mentions in all the various lists I saw and was so widely praised, I thought I should mention it.
As for Trinity, it’s a science graphic novel which was a personal favourite last year. It did receive a few mentions but not enough to to qualify. Hence, an honourary mention. It’s my blog after all! And I hope to catch up a bit on my reviewing and get some thoughts up about the book here on the blog in the near future.
BTW, I really do appreciate the comments I’ve gotten both online and off about the usefulness of this bizarre project/obsession. It can be a bit of a slog sometimes as well as taking up a good bit of my available blogging energy during the late fall and sporadically during the winter, so the comments help keep me motivated.