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Favorite Books, Part Two

Karl Giberson

Writer’s Log: Stardate 12-1-11

1)    The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes.  Far broader than its title suggests, this magisterial 800-page book is a profound and sobering look at the seminal event of the 20th century.  One chapter contains heartbreaking letters from little Japanese kids who saw their parents mysteriously incinerated from radiation. I read this book on my vacation, sitting beside Indian Lake in Nowheresville, New Brunswick. I liked the book so much that, when I saw a bunch of copies in a bargain bin with cookbooks and manuals on dog grooming, I bought them all to get them out of that untoward neighborhood. The Making of the Atomic Bomb did not belong in a bargain bin with such literary riff-raff.

2)    The Sleepwalkers by Arthur Koestler.  One of the great literary figures of the 20th century, Koestler produced a history of science that is literally a page-turner.  With a novelist’s narrative flair, Koestler makes Galileo and Kepler into rich human characters.  This book made me fall in love with the history of science.

3)    Longitude by Dava Sobel. This short book about an intriguing episode in the history of our quest to master navigation at sea will surprise you. Sobel is truly a great writer and worth reading for her prose alone. I read this on a hammock in the Bahamas, but I think it would work anywhere.

4)    God’s Funeral by A. N. Wilson. This is a sobering look at the Victorian crisis of faith. Wilson offers an informed and passionate account of the general sadness of many European intellectuals as they realized that the faith that had carried their civilization for so many centuries was slowly passing.  God’s Funeral is a great counter to those who suggest that losing one’s faith is “freeing.”  Don Yerxa and I had the pleasure of interviewing Wilson over lunch for the magazine Books & Culture. He was a dainty eater.

5)    Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follet.  Follet is a thriller writer with medieval history as a hobby.  This 1000-page book tells a faithful, although fictional, story about the construction of a medieval cathedral. The premise of the book seemed boring so, when my friend was pushing it on me, I told him I would read the book’s first sentence and then decide if I wanted to read the rest.  The first sentence was: “The small boys came early to the hanging,” as I mentioned in an earlier blog. And it gets steadily better, never betraying the fact that it is teaching the reader a lot about the medieval period.

6)    The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis. I read all seven of these standing up, holding a “Caution” sign on rural roads in New Brunswick.  I was a college student with a summer job on a crew that paved roads with no traffic. I probably would have liked the books better if I had read them at the lake, but even standing up they were pretty good.

This list seems too short, though. Tim Ferris’s Coming of Age in the Milky Way should be on it, as should Robert Wright’s Non-Zero. Desmond and Moore’s biography, Darwin: The Tormented Evolutionist, is really good.  I should also confess that I love John Grisham, Tom Clancy and Robert Ludlum.  The Bourne Identity had me staying up all night and reading at stop lights. I read Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities when I should have been preparing for Mechanics class.

I avoid reading books that are not well-written, which is why none of the books on my list are by “academics,” who generally can’t write. (It’s also why I rarely assign a textbook as reading in my classes.) I also don’t like reading books written a long time ago when English usage was different.  This makes me something of a philistine, of course, because it means I don’t like Shakespeare, Milton, Chaucer and the other important-but-hard-to-read dead white guys.  Don’t tell my colleagues in the English department I said this.

Once upon a time someone told me that my book Saving Darwin was one of their all-time favorites.  I think that is the highest compliment I have ever been paid.  The editor of Religion Dispatches--the publication that declared me one of the "Top Ten Peacemakers in the Science-Religion Wars," also just told Randall and I that she found The Anointed to "un-put-down-able."  I have never seen that word before, but it seems complimentary.