Best Science Books 2011: The top books of the year!!!!!

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 media media 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.

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 the most reviewed and acclaimed book was. Since that post was very well received, I decided to do the same thing for 2010 books and once again this year for 2011 books.

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.

This year I've looked at 82 different lists, spread among 50 different posts. The last two years I looked at 60 & 33 different lists over 46 & 32 different posts, so I had significantly better coverage this year. That was mostly thanks to the amazing work gathering Year's Best Book lists over at the Largehearted Boy blog. Thanks!

Given the number of lists I'm covering this year I was tempted to up the number of mentions needed to make the list from 4 to 5 but I've decided to keep it at 4 since it lets me slip in some Canadian content. As a result, I'm listing 25 books this year compared to 21 last year and 16 the year before.

Some notes/caveats, mostly similar to previous years:

  • These aren't in any way the "best" books of 2011, 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. Realistically speaking, of course, Walter Isaacson's Steve Jobs probably falls into that category. The attention paid to it and the buzz around Jobs probably gave it a bit of an extra push amongst reviewers than many of the others. Like Skloot's Henrietta Lacks book last year, it also had quite a bit of crossover appeal and was the only even remotely scitech book on quite a few lists. If it was the best reviewed, it was probably also the widest read.
  • 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.
  • 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 2010 British & Canadian book is a 2011 American book and vice versa. It happens.
  • This compilation is being published a couple of months later than last year and that's mostly because the whole RWA/Elsevier Boycott/FRPAA thing sucked up most of my blogging energy over the last couple of months.
  • There were 266 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.

Enjoy -- and good reading!

  1. Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson (25)
  2. The Information: A History, A Theory, A Floodby James Gleick (15)
  3. The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declinedby Steven Pinker (13)
  4. Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a Presidentby Candice Millard (11)
  5. Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything by Joshua Foer (11)
  6. Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman (11)
  7. The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry by Jon Ronson (8)
  8. Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brainby David Eagleman (8)
  9. The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmosby Brian Greene (8)
  10. In The Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives by Steven Levy (7)
  11. The Magic of Reality: How We Know What's Really True by Richard Dawkins and Dave McKean (7)
  12. A History of the World in 100 Objects by Neil MacGregor (6)
  13. Knocking on Heaven's Door: How Physics and Scientific Thinking Illuminate the Universe and the Modern World by Lisa Randall (6)
  14. The Quest: Energy, Security, and the Remaking of the Modern World by Daniel Yergin (6)
  15. The Beginning of Infinity: Explanations That Transform the World by David Deutch (6)
  16. Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love and Fallout by Lauren Redniss (6)
  17. The Big Thirst: The Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water by Charles Fishman (5)
  18. Physics of the Future: How Science Will Shape Human Destiny and Our Daily Lives by the Year 2100 by Michio Kaku (5)
  19. Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier by Edward Glaeser (5)
  20. The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary: A True Story of Resilience and Recovery by Andrew Westoll (4)
  21. Fire Season: Field Notes from a Wilderness Lookout. by Philip Connors by Philip Connors (4)
  22. Moby-Duck: The True Story of 28,800 Bath Toys Lost at Sea and of the Beachcombers, Oceanographers, Environmentalists, and Fools, Including the Author,Who Went in Search of Them by Donovan Hohn (4)
  23. Here on Earth: A Natural History of the Planet by Tim Flannery (4)
  24. Reinventing Discovery: The New Era of Networked Science by Michael Nielsen (4)
  25. Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the Worldby Jane McGonigal (4)

My thoughts? First of all, there's a fair bit of actual science among the books, not just more edge cases or books about historical or social aspects of science. That's a nice trend to see continuing. Second, not a whole lot of women on the list, unfortunately, with four being the same number as last year on a slightly longer list. I also like to see a few good technology books, like the Isaacson, Levy, Hohn, MacGregor and McGonigal.

And it there was one overwhelming theme or trend it's books on the environment and sustainability. There's a great big bunch of them coming from several different angles and that's nice to see.

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.


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