Nonfiction

I don't read so much nonfiction, so perhaps my taste here isn't so indicative of a really good book. But I liked these.

  1. Diane Ackermann. Her `Natural History of the Senses' is delicious. Her passage on vanilla can make me smell it, even just in memory.
  2. V. I. Arnol'd. Huygens and Barrow, Newton and Hooke. This book is a technical history of the calculus, written by one of the most intelligent mathematicians alive today. His analysis of Newton's work is astounding. I really, really want to read Chandrasekar's interpretation of Newton's Principia now; I'm part-way through.
  3. Petr Beckmann. `A Brief History of Pi' was wonderful, and so I picked up `The Health Hazards of Not Going Nuclear'. How I wish more people could read this book! It's funny (though sad in pointing out the fact that people prefer alternatives that are actually worse, through fear). His newsletter Access to Energy is also excellent.
  4. David Bercuson, Robert Bothwell, and J. L. Granatstein for the Petrified Campus. I refused to buy this in the bookstore when I got the impression that the book was all about how incompetent Canadian professors are (compete for a position in today's job market and you'll see how wrong that is). And in fact that's not what the book really says, as I found out when I picked the book up in the public library and actually read it instead of forming impressions on the basis of advertising material. This book is important, true in very many ways, and actually offers a prescription for improving Canadian universities (perhaps not one that will be palatable to every reader, but you can't please everyone). They say that too much junk (junk science, junk social science, junk humanities, junk in general) is getting published. true . They say that Canadian professors are substantially lower paid than American ones. true . They say that Canada doesn't have even one truly world class university. well... They say that tenure should be abolished. I could actually live with that. But I don't see it anywhere that the authors have put their money where their mouth is and gone the Helfand route, refusing tenure... They say that everybody gets tenure nowadays, nobody gets refused, which is flat wrong at this university anyway; moreover when you count the limited-term and part-time people in you see that tenure is really the exception. Also, the book's preoccupation with the dead issue of political correctness is a bit of a waste of space. But the book says some important things, and says them well.
  5. S. Chandrasekar Newton's Principia for the Common Reader. A book on the work of a monumental genius, by a more approachable genius. The Common Reader? It is to laugh! But there is no question that this book works.
  6. L. Sprague de Camp for his book ``The Ancient Engineers''. Is this a history book? Yes, but...it's certainly not a normal one. Sprague de Camp is an excellent fantasy/science fiction writer, and here he has written a history of technology from perhaps a unique perspective. I strongly recommend this book (and indeed anything de Camp writes).
  7. Daniel C. Dennet for `Consciousness Explained'. A better title, suggested to me by the man who sold me the book, might be `Consciousness Explained Away'. Nonetheless an extremely interesting book. But who is it who's reading it, anyway?
  8. Udo Erasmus' `Essential Fats and Oils'. My godfather Robert Madill gave this to me on graduation (with my Ph.D.) and made me promise to read it. I thought (quietly and to myself) `Groan, another fad diet book'. About six months later, I remembered my promise (besides there wasn't anything else to read) and picked up the book and opened it at random. I happened to be looking at a table of dosages for vitamins. I thought to myself, `Aha, let's see what he says about toxicity---I know that in particular Vitamin A has a toxic dose'. The table had three columns: recommended daily dose, therapeutic dose, and toxic dose (point for Udo Erasmus, thought I). Sure enough, the entry for Vitamin A was what I remembered. I then looked at the rest of the table. Curiously, I noticed about a third of the entries were question marks. I thought to myself, what crank ever admits he doesn't know something? Saying that you don't know something (when you don't) is one of the hallmarks of a good scientist. So I started to read the book more carefully. It is extremely carefully written, showing a true scientific attitude; he critically analyzes the existing literature and uses refereed journal publications; he carefully states his conclusions when he can, and candidly says he doesn't know when he doesn't. An excellent model of a scientific book for the public. His caveats about diet should be taken very seriously indeed; and I do not eat margarine now (and try to avoid hydrogenated vegetable oils and chicken fat), and I eat much more fish than I used; I take flax oil when I can (and my daughter likes it on her cereal as I do). This reminds me, I should go get some more tomorrow.
  9. Will Ferguson for his brilliant and brilliantly funny book "Why I Hate Canadians". I could feel gas being let out of my balloon by this book...
  10. Richard P. Feynman for QED, the strange theory of light and matter, but mostly for his delightful books "Surely you're joking, Mr. Feynman" and "What do you care what other people think?".
  11. Stephen Jay Gould's `The Mismeasure of Man'. Required reading for people who want to debunk the social `scientists' who think race or sex has anything to do with ability. I've just finished "Full House", and it, too, is excellent, though somewhat disturbing.
  12. Paul R. Gross and Norman Levitt, `Higher Superstition'. This is an important book, much more so than other books on difficulties in Academia (such as the Closing of the American Mind, and the Bell Curve).
  13. Alex Haley and Malcolm X for The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Alex Haley's name is on the cover too, but not having read any other Haley books I haven't got a clue how much is Malcolm X and how much is Alex Haley. I have the impression that it is mostly Malcolm X. There is a clear feeling, as in Feynman's books, and as in Rex Stout's books, of being in the presence of a genius. The subtext of this powerful and brilliant work is tragedy: how many other black geniuses in America have been wasted? Malcolm X wasn't (completely) wasted---he made an indelible mark on American culture; but compared to what he could have been, as is clearly evident from the impact of his voice through these pages, perhaps he was mostly wasted.
  14. Douglas Hofstadter for Goedel, Escher, Bach: the eternal golden braid. I bought several copies of this book and gave them to relatives and friends. Marvellous!
  15. Morris Kline for "Mathematics in Western Culture" and "Mathematics and the Physical World". I borrowed my friend Randy Watson's copies. Twenty-one years ago. They're still on my shelf; I'm going to return them, honest (now if I can only find which city Dr. K. Randall Watson, cardiologist, St. Michaels gold medallist, is living, maybe I'll have a chance to return them... that reminds me, I still have Rick Rodman's copy of Lord Jim---I promised to return it as soon as I finished it---I'm now half-way, and it's been twenty years...).
  16. Peter Medawar for The Limits of Science, The Threat and the Glory, and Advice to a Young Scientist. Extremely valuable, that last.
  17. Desmond Morris for The Illustrated Naked Ape.
  18. Ilya Prigogine and Isabelle Stengers, for Order out of Chaos. This is a very thought-provoking book.
  19. N. A. M. Rodger for The Wooden World---a wonderful look at the Royal Navy in the time of King George.
  20. Ian Stewart and Martin Golubitsky, ``Fearful Symmetry''.
  21. Clifford Stoll `Silicon Snake Oil'. He hits so many nails on the head, he should have been a carpenter.
  22. Hugh Thurston for Early Astronomy. Professor Thurston taught me 2nd year calculus, many years ago now. His book is as entertaining as his lectures were.
  23. Albert E. Waugh for `Sundials', their theory and construction. This delightful book tells you everything you could possibly want to know about building sundials. Peaceful contemplation of a sundial on a bright sunny day in a garden---who could ask for anything more? It's another great Dover book.
  24. Richard Westfall's `The Life of Isaac Newton'. Fascinating details.
  25. Naomi Wolf. `The Beauty Myth' taught me something about sexuality and beauty: in some sense I was cheated out of discovering for myself what was beautiful to me (I know now, and it isn't the standard image projected by cold anorexic models). Her `Fire with Fire' was also uncomfortable to read but again I think I learned something. I think I may have contributed to the breakup of a friend's marriage by recommending `The Beauty Myth', though... ``Promiscuities'' is very interesting, and makes an important point about coming-of-age rituals. Her observation that for boys in her peer group the ritual was buying illegal drugs, though---that was pretty weird. But well-written food for thought in any case. My friend J. B. Ehrman is extremely incensed with her misrepresentation (in an interview) of the Judaic sanction for abortion in certain circumstances; probably he would be as incensed with the (brief) discussion of it in this book as well.
  26. Richard Worzel for 'The Next Twenty Years of Your Life', which is very easy to read, and I think very important.