What I like, not what I should like

That long list of books is making the rounds again (Jennifer, Chad, Jessica, John, and Bora have already jumped in), yet I can't bring myself to join in the fun.

The list reminds me of something one of my high school English teacher once told my class. He was very concerned that we be "cultured" (no, not that way) and steeped in the classics, having us cut our teeth on Shakespeare and Dostoyevsky before hopefully starting up subscriptions to The New Yorker someday. I didn't particularly care; his culture was not my culture, then or now. Indeed, glancing over the selections putting the book list up here would only be a waste of space. What I've decided to do instead is to list 100 books that I consider important, that I have deeply enjoyed or changed the way I think about the world. Here they are, in no particular order;

1; Misquoting Jesus - Bart Ehrman

2; Wonderful Life - Stephen Jay Gould

3; The Varieties of Scientific Experience - Carl Sagan

4; The Life of a Fossil Hunter - C.H. Sternberg

5; The Meaning of Fossils - Martin Rudwick

6; Time's Arrow, Time's Cycle - Stephen Jay Gould

7; Recent Vertebrate Carcasses and Their Paleobiological Implications - Johannes Weigelt

8; The Boilerplate Rhino - David Quammen

9; Evolution - Jean Baptiste de Panafieu

10; The Earth on Show - Ralph O'Connor

11; A Primate's Memoir - Robert Sapolsky

12; In the Shadow of Man - Jane Goodall

13; Archetypes and Ancestors - Adrian Desmond

14; Birdsong - Don Stap

15; Trying Leviathan - D. Graham Burnett

16; Going Postal - Terry Pratchett

17; Stuffed Animals and Pickled Heads - Stephen Asma

18; Summer for the Gods - Edward Larson

19; A Sand County Almanac - Aldo Leopold

20; Extinction - David Raup

21; The Platypus and the Mermaid - Harriet Ritvo

22; The First Human - Ann Gibbons

23; The Relic - Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child

24; Jurassic Park - Michael Crichton

25; The Bonehunter's Revenge - David Rains Wallace

26; Elephant Memories - Cynthia Moss

27; No Way Home - David Wilcove

28; The Last Continent - Terry Pratchett

29; Cry of the Kalahari - Mark and Delia Owens

30; The Jesuit and the Skull - Amir Aczel

31; Last Chance to See - Douglas Adams and Mark Carwardine

32; The End of the Wild - Stephen Meyer

33; The Dinosaur Heresies - Robert Bakker

34; The Secret Life of Lobsters - Trevor Corson

35; The Demon-Haunted World - Carl Sagan

36; Mr. Wilson's Cabinet of Wonder - Lawrence Weschler

37; Almost Human - Shirley Strum

38; The Origin of Birds - Gerhard Heilmann

39; The Lying Stones of Dr. Johann Adam Bartholemew Beringer - Daniel Woolf and John Melvine

40; The Meaning of Evolution - G.G. Simpson

41; An Agenda for Antiquity - Ronald Rainger

42; Dinosaur! - David Norman

43; On the Origin of Phyla - James Valentine

44; Leviathan - Eric Dolan

45; Big Cats and Their Fossil Relatives - Mauricio Anton and Alan Turner

46; Man's Place in Nature - T.H. Huxley

47; Antecedents of Man - W.E. le Gros Clark

48; The Complete Dinosaur - edited by James Farlow and M.K. Brett-Surman

49; Seashell on the Mountaintop - Alan Cutler

50; Bones for Barnum Brown - R.T. Bird

51; Baboon Metaphysics - Dorothy Cheney and Robert Seyfarth

52; Small Gods - Terry Pratchett

53; God's Own Scientists - Christopher Toumey

54; Hen's Teeth and Horse's Toes - Stephen Jay Gould

55; Chimpanzee Politics - Frans de Waal

56; The Secret Life of Sharks - Peter Klimley

57; The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy - Douglas Adams

58; Monsters of the Sea - Richard Ellis

59; Quest for the African Dinosaurs - Louis Jacobs

60; The Horned Dinosaurs - Peter Dodson

61; Hunting Dinosaurs - Louie Psihoyos

62; The First Fossil Hunters - Adrienne Mayor

63; The Dragon Seekers - Christopher McGowan

64; American Monster - Paul Semonin

65; Georges Cuvier, Fossil Bones, and Geological Catastrophes - Martin Rudwick

66; A History of the Warfare of Science With Theology in Christendom - A.D. White

67; The Hot-Blooded Dinosaurs - Adrian Desmond

68; Theories of Human Evolution - Peter Bowler

69; Curiosities of Natural History - Francis Buckland

70; Dinosaur Systematics - Edited by Kenneth Carpenter and Philip Currie

71; The Hunters or the Hunted? - C.K. Brain

72; The World of Kong - WETA Workshop

73; Dinosaur in a Haystack - Stephen Jay Gould

74; The Velvet Claw - David MacDonald

75; Eyelids of Morning - A. Graham

76; Relentless Enemies - Dereck and Beverly Joubert

77; Monster of God - David Quammen

78; Megaherbivores - R. Norman Owen-Smith

79; Osteology of the Reptiles - A.S. Romer

80; The Serengeti Lion - George Schaller

81; Carnivorous Nights - Margaret Mittelbach, Michael Crewdso, and Alexis Rockman

81; Time Traveler - Michael Novacek

83; The Dechronization of Sam Magruder - G.G. Simpson

84; Victorian Popularizers of Science - Bernard Lightman

85; A Whale for the Killing - Farley Mowat

86; Glorified Dinosaurs - Luis Chiappe

87; Cruisin' the Fossil Freeway - Kirk Johnson and Ray Troll

88; Dangerous Beauty - Mark Ross

89; Lucy - Donald Johanson and Maitland Edey

90; The Simian Tongue - Gregory Radick

91; Rex Appeal - Peter Larson and Kristin Donnan

92; Cephalopod Behaviour - Roger Hanlon and John Messenger

93; Mort - Terry Pratchett

94; Science and Religion - John Hedley Brooke

95; The Hunt for the Dawn Monkey - Christopher Beard

96; Interesting Times - Terry Pratchett

97;Scientists Confront Creationism - Edited by Laurie Godfrey

98; Huxley - Adrian Desmond

99; Eight Little Piggies - Stephen Jay Gould

100; The Descent of Man - Charles Darwin

That's it. Not the most diversified list, perhaps, but I have too many questions to do much other than follow my curiosity.


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Just 14 from this list, though several others are on the booshelves as references, not as something I'd read from cover to cover.

Well I've only read 27 of this list (compared to 54 of the other), but based on that smaller sample, this is a much, much better list - of the 27, there is only 1 I consider downright bad (Jurassic Park ) and only 1 I consider unimportant (any one of the Terry Prachett books; they have enough in common I see no reason beyond pure entertainment to read them all) . Not only does it seem to be a higher quality list, it is also much more consistent.

Well Brian, not to criticize or anything, but outside Adams and Pratchett, you don't seem to read much literature, do you? Hey, it cal also be fun and enriching...

By Christophe Thill (not verified) on 24 Jul 2008 #permalink

Christophe; No, I don't read much literature, but I don't feel obligated to do so. If something interests me, I'll read it, but right now I'm happy following my curiosities. There are a few works like Candide that I eventually want to get to but in general fiction doesn't interest me much. If something interests me I'll pick it up but I see no reason to make apologies for my book choice. I'm not saying that literature is worthless or can't be fun, it's just not that interesting to me. There are enough weird and wonderful things about nature that literature holds little draw for me at this point.

llewelly; The main reason Jurassic Park is on the list is because it was my first "grown up" book. I read it in fifth grade and a few times since then, although I've liked it less with each additional reading. Still, I consider it "important" in that it really fed my desire to read during that time. I wouldn't consider the Pratchett novels particularly important, either, but I do like they quite a bit.

Bora; I have a bad habit of reading technical references like novels. It's rough going, but I've often found it to be rewarding. Still, I might better hold on to my sanity if I took another approach.

Yay! You made it to 100!

I'm surprised though that you don't consider many fiction books to have been very important to you or changed the way you see the world. . . I've been on a nonfiction kick for a while, reading nonfiction:fiction at least 3:1, but rarely does nonfiction have a major impact on my psyche the way fiction does. It certainly didn't when I was young. It's interesting that it's different for you!

If I have time I'll try to do this meme, too. My list and yours won't overlap at all!

Yeah, my experience was somewhat unusual. I always loved reading non-fiction, it was my escape to other worlds where there were ancient monsters, but when I got to high school I stopped reading. I hardly read anything, even the assigned work, which included Shakespeare, Dickens, Twain, Melville, etc. They just didn't speak to me; there was too much neat stuff out there in the real world to worry about fictional characters! My bad behavior was rewarded by the fact that I caught on fast; I paid attention in class, took copious notes, and ended up testing out of basic college writing courses because I aced the AP tests.

I could tell a story about each book, what it meant to me, but nonfiction has been more important because it has been a way for me to discover things about the world even when I couldn't see them myself. Take something as "bland" as The Complete Dinosaur, for instance. I always liked dinosaurs but I didn't really have much of a scientific interest. I knew a few things but I certainly couldn't speak about them with any confidence but that book made me take a more rigorous approach to understanding paleontology.

Others have been more important in a philosophical sense, like A Sand County Almanac or The Demon-Haunted World, and still others were more enthralling than any fictional tale. Robert Sapolsky's narrative of his research on baboons in a destabilized Africa in A Primate's Memoir is just as compelling, if not moreso, than any fictional yarn (and it made me appreciate how cool baboons are!)

Some of the books I listed are dry and technical, yes, but others due provide excellent narratives to the point where I hesitate to draw the distinction between them and "true literature." I'm truly addicted to them, and at the moment the only way I'm going to know the things I want to know is held in the pages of such books. Perhaps, as time passes, I'll find more fictional material to my taste but as I have already commented I'm just too curious to give up non-fiction.

Great post and one that has meme of sorts written all over it. If I can summon up the energy and get my connection back I'll post my 100 over the weekend some time.

Well, I've read 10 of the books on your list and 36 of the books on the other list. I'm mostly a fiction reader, so that's not so surprising. On your list, I would say that Misquoting Jesus, Demon-haunted World, and Hitchhiker's Guide would be the most influential for me. I can't pick among the Terry Pratchett books. Too many good ones!

By Elisabeth (not verified) on 25 Jul 2008 #permalink

I was glad to see Sapolsky's A primate's memoir. His other books, Monkeyluv and Why Zebras don't get ulcers are also fantastic. I added about 5 books to my amazon wishlist from your list. Thanks for the tips.

I have a bad habit of reading technical references like novels.

When I go looking for some info in a technical references I've read cover to cover, I will usually find it in half or 1/3 the time it takes in a technical reference I've used a lot but not read cover to cover.

If I had read Jurassic Park in 5th grade I might well have loved it. But I read it in my early twenties, and at that age the preposterousness and the woodenness of the characters was impossible to ignore.

Just want to reply to the semi-derogatory reference to the New Yorker. It does cover general science sometimes (a couple times a month, I reckon), and its science reporting is the best of any non-dedicated-science magazine out there, in my opinion. Definitely worth checking out. I'm a scientist and the New Yorker is my favorite magazine by far.