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.
- Diane Ackermann. Her `Natural History of the Senses' is delicious. Her
passage on vanilla can make me smell it, even just in memory.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
- 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).
- 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?
- 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.
- 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...
- 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?".
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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!
- 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...).
- Peter Medawar for The Limits of Science, The Threat
and the Glory, and
Advice to a Young Scientist. Extremely valuable, that last.
- Desmond Morris for The Illustrated Naked Ape.
- Ilya Prigogine and Isabelle Stengers, for Order out of Chaos.
This is a very thought-provoking book.
- N. A. M. Rodger for The Wooden World---a wonderful
look at the Royal Navy in the time of King George.
- Ian Stewart and Martin Golubitsky, ``Fearful Symmetry''.
- Clifford Stoll `Silicon Snake Oil'. He hits so many nails on
the head, he should have been a carpenter.
- 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.
- 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.
- Richard Westfall's `The Life of Isaac Newton'. Fascinating details.
- 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.
- Richard Worzel for 'The Next Twenty Years of Your Life',
which is very easy to read, and I think very important.