Holiday reading 2020

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Rita Levi-Montalcini enjoys a rest and a good read. Artwork by Aparna Baxi.

It’s that time of year again! Whether you’re staying at home, venturing down the road, or even going abroad – you’re going to need something to read, and we have a bumper selection of (mostly science-themed) books to recommend!


Health Divides: Where You Live Can Kill You by Clare Bambra. A devastatingly topical read, given the relentless progress of the coronavirus through America. Bambra’s book is a patient and methodical indictment of the societal structures that create gross health inequalities between citizens of the same towns, regions, and countries (for example, life expectancy decreases by one year with every station along the Jubilee line from Westminster in London – when you ride the Tube, you are literally travelling along a health gradient). The first quarter of the book is devoted to steadily cataloguing all these disparities in health quality in Western nations in occasionally numbing detail, but good framing and navigation prevents the reader from losing their way. With all that establishing data out of the way, Bambra then delves into an exploration of the various economic and political systems that produce those same health inequalities. As you might expect, the USA and UK don’t come out of it looking very good.

I Contain Multitudes by Ed Yong. A tour of the microbiome. It starts off slightly pop-sciencey and prompting am early concern that it’ll be too lowbrow, but after a while it really hits its stride and becomes an expansive but never exhausting overview of a very broad topic. Impressively, the book manages to both stick to its main message (our microbiome makes us what we are, and we’ve historically underestimated its complexity and importance), while still exploring various far-flung and exotic niches of the topic. Highly commendable for citing the primary literature throughout, which gives it a scholarly heft often lacking from a lot of science books, and emphasises its connection to the cutting edge of research.

The Science of Fate by Hannah Critchlow. A tour of the brain. A fluent and fun read that makes good use of a reportage style – we get to follow neuroscientist Hannah on her mission to understand the human brain, visiting various colleagues and discussing their findings. It’s like having a smart and charismatic friend that you get to tag along with as she travels through Cambridge and elsewhere to discuss aspects of brain science with a broad panel of experts and collaborators. Critchlow is noticeably at her most fluent and compelling when dealing with areas close to her own expertise, schizophrenia being a prime example. The book is commendable for including actionable lists of recommendations for the reader.

The Last Word by Quentin Crisp. Another great British raconteur in the tradition of Jeffrey Bernard, but without the alcoholic excesses, Crisp’s third and final autobiography (finally published in 2017) gives a sense of what a fascinating conversation partner he was. An interesting detail for contemporary audiences is that it was recorded just before his death in 1999, at a time when he had come to terms with the fact that he was not, as he had always thought, a gay man but was in fact a transgender woman – something that no doubt explains his often prickly relationship with the gay community despite being an icon of it. As a philosopher of modern life, Crisp (the “Englishman in New York” referenced by Sting) had few peers, and his active avoidance of a career in the conventional sense (as a young man, he principally worked as a nude model for art classes) gave him time to think – the chapter detailing his predictions for the 21st century is spellbinding in its prescience concerning online culture, noise, sex, and gender fluidity.

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert. It makes a compelling, and very readable, case that the Anthropocene is very very real and causing a die-off of biological diversity that rivals the scale of any of the geological extinctions. For such a bleak topic though it manages to come across as realistic and not defeatist. 

Empire of Cotton by Sven Beckert. It’s long, probably too long, and guilty of sometimes making its case too slowly – but that’s perhaps not a bad trait in a holiday book. Beckert’s interesting and compelling thesis is that cotton constituted the first truly multinational industry, with production taking place in a different country to processing, and sales taking place somewhere else. His theory that the cotton trade bookmarks the transitions from war capitalism to industrial capitalism to global capitalism is well sketched and usefully summarised at the end. Beckert also commendably doesn’t shy away from the shameful legacy of colonialism, and takes time to highlight the distasteful role of slavery and its rapacious expansion in the USA. The book follows the cotton story all the way to the present day, and indeed the advent of multinational corporations is a concluding footnote that would have been interesting to expand.

The Alchemy of Air: A Jewish Genius, a Doomed Tycoon, and the Scientific Discovery that Fed the World but Fueled the Rise of Hitler by Thomas Hager. The story of modern fertiliser is far more fecund that one could possibly imagine. Bird guano at the end of the 1800s and into the early 1900s was one of the most prized materials. There were islands off the coast of South America that had greater value than gold mines, simply because they were covered in bird shit. Not only was it great fertiliser, but it was also explosive. Ammonium nitrate was the key to feeding your troops and blowing up your enemies. However, it was of very limited supply. The value of extracting and fixing nitrogen from the sky was clear – the air around us is primarily nitrogen – but the science didn’t exist. This story is the tortured tale of a drive to develop weapons of war. A tale that accidentally made it possible to sustain the global population as we now know it, something that would never be possible without artificial fertilisers. 

Anxious by Joseph LeDoux. It’s not sure if it wants to be a textbook or a regular book, and is occasionally numbing in its length and detail. For all that, it contains very shrewd insights into fear, anxiety, and consciousness, and a possibly unintentional portrayal of philosophers getting in the way of scientists to some extent. LeDoux’s insistence that animal work – and he himself is a neurobiologist who works with rodents – is fraught with hazard in research on emotions is an insight to memorise and reiterate. An abridged version would undoubtedly have been preferable, but if you’re willing to invest the time then it’s got much to offer.

The Fly Trap by Fredrik Sjoeberg. The definition of a beach read. It’s a short book and a weird and wonderful page-turner. Ostensibly the autobiography of a Swedish entomologist who specialises in hoverflies, the book veers off into all kinds of tangents, but at its core it nails the ‘collector’ mentality that lies at the heart of many great scientists. 

SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard. A possibly definitive description of Rome from its pre-Republic days all the way to the rise of Christianity. If you’ve read Thomas Harris’ Cicero trilogy and want to get some authoritative historical context either side of that narrative, this is great.

Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth and Happiness by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein. Heavily cited in Daniel Kahneman’s classic “Thinking, Fast and Slow”, it’s an enjoyable introduction to the doctrine of libertarian paternalism. Their explanation of behavioural concepts is not as dazzling or thought-provoking as Kahneman’s, but their suggestions for practical application of those same insights is stimulating – and often easy to see around us.

Heredity: She has her Mother’s Laugh by Carl Zimmer. A fantastic read. Full of little gems taken from fields ranging from psychology to molecular biology to horticulture, all delicately and effortlessly woven together to leave you wide-eyed in wonder and full of new knowledge that felt almost casually learnt. Almost as if all of your closest and wisest friends decided to have you over for a bottle of wine and the following morning, as the haze of the hangover lifted, you realised that that night was fodder for years of conversations. 

Bad Science by Ben Goldacre. Published back in 2008, but worth revisiting in light of the current prominence of “fake news” and the coronavirus-associated infodemic. His thesis – that there is essentially an unconscious anti-science conspiracy in the media profession, dominated as it is by humanities graduates – is controversial, but a rallying call nonetheless. By considering various aspects of bad science (the MMR vaccine controversy, dietary supplements, homeopathy, and more) Goldacre highlights a number of more general points that can often be problematic in the scientific primary literature.


The island of Dr Moreau by H G Wells. “Horror” is an overused word these days. Most times, when people talk about horror what they really mean is “scary”. You can make a case that anything that undermines your sense of how the natural world works causes horror on some level, which is why all the films about the undead (ghosts, vampires, zombies) end up in the horror section of movie lists. But not many of them really instil a true sense of horror – that queasy sense of repulsion that comes from confronting some thing, some idea, some creature that violates your comfortable sense of normality. Frankenstein is a true work of horror. And so is The Island of Dr Moreau.

Austerlitz by W. G. Sebald. One of those books that once read, stays with you forever..and will compel you to press it on all your friends. Sebald’s masterwork is undoubtedly up there with Dostoyevsky’s “Crime and Punishment” for its depiction of the mental inner life of its protagonist, and probably unrivalled in its evocation of the subjective experience of time. Haunting, moving, profound, lyrical, insightful – it is all of these things and more, a reminder that great literature can be as illuminating an exploration of the human condition as any experiment. Takes a little while to get going but once it does, you won’t be able to put it down.

Bowie: Stardust, Rayguns, & Moonage Daydreams by Michael Allred, Steve Horton, Laura Allred. A graphic novel that covers Bowie’s rise to stardom, his annus mirabilis of 1972, and concludes with his retirement of the Ziggy Stardust alter ego in 1973. One of those wonderful books that captures that sense of unfettered creativity, that sense of possibility, that sense of pushing the boundaries that should be a feature of all creative occupations. It’s also an insightful and informative documentation of the birth of the British glam rock scene with fascinating details on its main characters.


Acknowledgement: This posting co-authored with Mark Palfreyman,

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