So here we are: the end of the year and the need for a bookish summing-up. In choosing my favourites, I’m all too aware that you can’t go online without tripping over a listicle.
Whence this love for the bullet point and the curated selection? Writing in The New Yorker, Maria Konnikova, science writer and author of the excellent Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes (reviewed here), neatly pinned down the reasons for our list lust, among them the spatial organisation of information and the finite format. These, she notes, ease consumption so it’s a “bit like sipping green juice instead of munching on a bunch of kale”.
Reducing a year’s worth of science reading and review editing to something resembling a liquid lunch has been no easy task. Revisiting these sometimes demanding, periodically astonishing but always stimulating books, I’ve been reminded of the serendipitous joys of sifting through hundreds of such brilliant condensations of thought by celebrity scientists and dark horses alike.
Here’s my top 20 for 2014. The order is irrelevant: each of these stars offered a unique spectrum of delights.
The Meaning of Human Existence, E.O. Wilson. Liveright. A titan of biology probes human nature — not least, through the tension between individual drive and collective cooperation. (Reviewed here.)
The Sixth Extinction, Elizabeth Kolbert. Henry Holt. The environmental writer analyses the context and process of today’s human-driven haemorrhage of biodiversity. (Reviewed here.)
H Is for Hawk, Helen Macdonald. Bloomsbury. A naturalist, poet and academic anatomises grief and explores a raptor’s mind in a masterful interweaving of nature-writing, memoir and literary biography. (Reviewed here.)
The Glass Cage, Nicholas Carr. W. W. Norton. A clear-eyed, open-minded critic of the digisphere explores whether we are becoming denatured by automation. (Reviewed here.)
Starlight Detectives, Alan Hirshfeld. Bellevue Literary Press. A science historian deftly tracks the transformation of astronomy from 1850 to 1930. (Reviewed here.)
Virtual Unreality, Charles Seife. Viking. The accomplished science journalist on why we need to approach digital information, that “superbug of the mind”, with scepticism. (Reviewed here.)
The Lagoon, Armand Marie Leroi. Bloomsbury. The distinguished evolutionary biologist delivers a superb, in-depth exploration of Aristotle as the first scientist. (Reviewed here; podcast with Leroi here.)
Oxygen, Donald Canfield. Princeton University Press. An ecologist’s ambitious, engrossing primer on the key atmospheric element, ranging from the ‘great oxidation event’ to photosynthesis. (Reviewed here.)
Invisible, Philip Ball. Bodley Head. The prolific ex-Nature science writer probes our urge for the unseen, from paranormal beliefs to the invisibility shields of optical physics. (Reviewed here.)
Arrival of the Fittest, Andreas Wagner. Oneworld. An evolutionary biologist marshals mathematics and computational biology to pin down the workings of natural selection in life’s genetic ‘library’. (Reviewed here.)
The Wives of Los Alamos, TaraShea Nesbit. Bloomsbury. A debut novelist offers a boldly lyrical telling of the warped American dream endured by the women caught up in the Manhattan Project. (Reviewed here.)
The Fourth Revolution, Luciano Floridi. Oxford University Press. A remarkable study of digital dependency by an information ethicist, laying out implications for identity, the environment and more. (Reviewed here.)
Earth’s Deep History, Martin Rudwick. University of Chicago Press. A science historian’s magisterial journey through the history of how Earth’s immense age was discovered. (Reviewed here.)
Lives in Ruins, Marilyn Johnson. Harper. The dogged, often underfunded work of archaeologists dug into with gusto by an investigative journalist. (Reviewed here.)
The Social Roots of Risk, Kathleen Tierney. Stanford University Press. A sociologist’s lucid analysis of how social and economic norms create catastrophes out of natural and financial upsets. (Reviewed here.)
One Plus One Equals One, John Archibald. Oxford University Press. A biochemist’s fascinating journey through the discoveries that laid bare the mergings, parasitism and more of symbiosis and the rise of complex life. (Reviewed here.)
Off the Map, Alastair Bonnett. Aurum Press. A social geographer’s framing of dislocated spaces such as the Aral ‘Sea’ as precious slivers of terra incognita in an overmapped world. (Reviewed here.)
The Body Keeps the Score, Bessel van der Kolk. Viking Adult. A psychiatrist and specialist in PTSD — a condition he sees as “encoded in the viscera”— explores nuanced treatments to reset the body for recovery. (Reviewed here.)
On Immunity, Eula Biss. Graywolf. Marshalling memoir, history, science and myth, the essayist offers a quietly impassioned call for childhood immunisation as communal act. (Reviewed here.)
The Lost Elements, Marco Fontani, Mariagrazia Costa and Mary Virginia Orna. Oxford University Press. A raft of fascinating stories on lab life and the wannabes of the periodic table, well told by a trio of chemists. (Reviewed here.)