The NY Times has published a list of the 100 most notable books of the year. I’m feeling inadequate because, while I read a lot of books, not one of them happened to be on this particular list. I’m thinking that I’d better rush out and get one that is on the list, How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read, by Pierre Bayard, because that looks like it might be awfully handy at this point.
Of course, I’ve got an excuse. Most of the books I’ve read are science books, and as Chad notes, not one science book made the cut. I guess science was just un-notable and uninteresting this year. Or perhaps the NYT auto-blurb generator choked and died when confronted by difficult texts that didn’t involve depressed exotic people talking, talking, talking endlessly about their powerful love.
Ray S says
There are a lot of books on that list I’ve never heard of, but for a nerd, i’m not surprised so much. What does surprise me is the absence of bestsellers from Dawkins and Hitchens.
I haven’t read most of those books but I can enthusiastically recommend Alex Ross’ The Rest is Noise.He’s listened to just about everything, he’s thought clearly and intelligently about his subject–composition in the 20th century, which covers an awful lot–and he’s even a graceful, witty writer. Sound files to illustrate his chapters are at
(I’ve exchanged emails with Ross but that’s the extent of our connection.)
Ryan F Stello says
Or people struggling light-heartedly with oppressive religiosity.
Or seemingly arguing for it.
Bill Dauphin says
PZ, I’m one up on you… but I’m not sure I should be bragging, in this august company, that I’ve read Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.
Interestingly, I’ve either listened to author interviews or read reviews for about half of those books… which may be relevant to How To Talk About Books You Haven’t Read.
One of the fiction books I’m enthusiastically looking forward to reading — and which might be relevant to themes commonly discussed here — is The Abstinence Teacher. I wonder if any Pharyngulists who’ve read it would care to comment?
Blake Stacey says
How interesting. They include medicine — How Doctors Think and The Invisible Cure — but that’s as close as they get to science. However, they did manage to find a slot for James L. Kugel’s How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now, blurbed as follows:
I’d be tempted to scoff at that, but the full review (by David Plotz) has some interesting things to say:
And, in addition:
another book that looks interesting:
THE STILLBORN GOD: Religion, Politics, and the Modern West. By Mark Lilla. (Knopf, $26.) With nuance and complexity, Lilla examines how we managed to separate, in a fashion, church and state.
Well, the only one I’ve read is Harry Potter, too. Haven’t even heard of some of the authors.
I can heartily recommend Richard Rhodes’s “Aresenals of Folly’ which exposes the wily Reagan and his dastardly advisors.
David Wilford says
If you think of the New York Times as actually being a status-quotidian newspaper, everything pops into focus. Instead of being a liberal paper, it’s a middle-of-the-road publication which does have it’s moments and is actually fair and balanced, mostly. But it’s certainly not pushing the envelope when it comes to notable books.
Bill Dauphin says
I habitually listen to podcasts of Fresh Air and the NPR/WBUR show On Point, both of which regularly feature author interviews and book reviews… with the result that I know of lots of authors I haven’t actually read. Whether that’s of any value is questionable: Usually it just induces a feeling of mild despair over the sheer number of books I’d like to read but will never get around to.
Didn’t Philip Roth write something this year? Why isn’t that on the list? Was there too little gelato in it, too little flippant Sex and the City style banter, or both?
Steve LaBonne says
I have to second rootlesscosmos’s Alex Ross plug. If you’re at all into 20th-century “classical” music it’s a must-read. Though my tastes are rather different from his (I love Carter and get little pleasure from Adams), Ross is one of the best music critics around and writes perhaps the most graceful prose of any of them.
Steve in MI says
The NYT adheres to the spirit of the old saying “Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people”. According to their list, most all of the “notable” books are character-fixated. Apparently, event-driven non-fiction is too much for their reviewers; and concept-based work is just out of the question.
(Darn it, my [/cynicism] tag is broken.)
A quick perusal seems to show that, apart from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (which fits neatly into the genre of “staggeringly popular”, never mind the rest), there’s a complete absence of speculative fiction on this list. I sometimes forget that genre fiction, even very good genre fiction, lives in a ghetto. If it’s really good, then, well, it was never genre in the first place.
Character motivated fiction can be very good… like “Baudolino”, for example. It’s just that, here in the age of American ChickLit, we get character motivated fiction without, you know, characters.
I’ve read three.
Harry Potter’s one, and if you’d like it then you have probably already read it (the converse does not necessarily hold).
Two is The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon, and I recommend it. It’s well-written and funny and just as inventive as science fiction is supposed to be. Imagine a Yiddish Raymond Chandler improvising on a theme by Philip Dick.
The third is Steven Bach’s Leni, a biography of an amoral genius and egomaniac who was making movies and rubbing shoulders with Hitler at a time when she was supposed to be puttering about the house in a Dierndel. It’s not exactly inspiring, but it is fascinating.
Hank Fox says
I notice “God is Not Great” by Christopher Hitchens is not on the list. The New York Times book reviewers made a huge mistake in forgetting that one.
Also, I’m proud to say I too have read Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. And I’ll fight anybody who doesn’t like it. :D
Tom Levenson says
Re 14, et al. Junot Diaz’s “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” has a thread of sci-fi running through it, in the fascinations of both its narrator and its title character. It’s a meta novel, and in my view fabulous (Junot’s a colleague, so take that fwiw). Just because the subject is exotic (that is, unfamiliar to you and me) and love matters (along with much else) does not in and of themselves make a book unworthy of one’s time.
(Yes — the list should have had more science, and certainly in terms of influence on the debate at least one of the Harris/Dawkins/Hitchens library should have made the notable cut. But that fact does not erase the noteworthiness of at least some of the work that passed through the Gray Lady of 43rd St.’s filter.)
Tom Levenson says
arrgh. “do not..make a book unworthy of one’s time.”
proof read, proof read proof read.
Steve in MI says
Dustin (15) – your comment scored a coffee-spit-take. I *knew* there was something missing… :-)
Greg Peterson says
Gawd, what a depressing list. I read several wonderful books this year, but none of that crap. I hate “literature” that has to be ABOUT something. Has to make some political point. Just as an example, Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” trilogy is a masterly work, just brilliant storytelling. Until he hits certain stretches of metaphysical pontificating in the third volume. Then it goes right off the rails. As a storyteller, Pullman is anyone’s equal. And the story was doing something that propoganda never could–enchanting the universe and demonstrating just how petty and crabbed theism is. “Show, don’t tell” my creative writing teacher used to say. So many of the titles on this list sound like “tell tell tell” to me. I hate being preached at. But maybe there are some good stories amongst the sermons? If so, I’d be grateful if someone would point those out here. Oh, and “Black Swan” deserved a place on the nonfiction list, because a more thought-provoking and entertaining nonfiction book did not come out this year. I admit that “How Doctors Think” was a worthy inclusion, at least.
OK, so I haven’t read any of these book either. I’m currently working on reading all those book you were supposed to have read when you were young, but never quite got too. Laugh as you might, but I started “Black Beauty” last night. Just finished “The Catcher in the Rye” last week. Did “Freakenomics” the same week. There’s so many great books out there that are tried and true I haven’t read yet that I just can’t keep up with the newest stuff.
In 2007, Natalie Angier’s The Canon, Carson’s Silent Spring and Dawkin’s The Selfish Gene made it onto my miniscule science book shelf.
I’m not sure if this one counts (it came out almost exactly a year ago).
But I really enjoyed Thomas Homer-Dixon’s The Upside of Down:
The Upside of Down takes the reader on a mind-stretching tour of societies’ management, or mismanagement, of disasters over time. From the demise of ancient Rome to contemporary climate change, this spellbinding book analyzes what happens when multiple crises compound to cause what the author calls “synchronous failure.” But, crisis doesn’t have to mean total global calamity. Through catagenesis, or creative, bold reform in the wake of breakdown, it is possible to reinvent our future.
Seriously, how does ‘The God Delusion’ not make the cut?
Hank Fox says
Just checking Amazon for the publishing date of Dawkins’ “The God Delusion,” (it was 2006), I noticed the following publications in rebuttal:
“The Argument Against Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion” by The Intelligent Community
“God is No Delusion: A Refutation of Richard Dawkins” by Thomas Crean
“Beyond the God Delusion: How Radical Theology Harmonizes Science and Religion” by Richard Grigg
“Atheism is False: Richard Dawkins and the Improbability of God Delusion” by Reuben Stone David
“The God Delusion Revisited” by Mike King
“The Dawkins Delusion?: Atheist Fundamentalism and the Denial of the Divine” by Alister E. McGrath
The busy little bees are all abuzz.
I went looking at the website of The Intelligent Community, the authors of that first publication, and it seems to contain some admirable rhetoric about creating a better society, but it’s interesting that they thought they needed to attack the “logical errors” in Dawkins’ book as a first effort. I suspect that somewhere behind their facade of hopeful social sentiment is a stoutly, defensively Christian mindset. One of their stated goals is “the creation of an online university for homeschool students.”
I fancy I smell faint whiffs of “Let’s all get together and make the world a better place! Oh, but let’s do it MY way!”
After you read “The Edge of Evolution,” what more could you possibly want?
I am so far behind in my reading that I just got around to Benvenuto Cellini’s autobiography, covering the years 1500 to 1562, translated by John A. Symonds.
There’s not much redeeming moral value in Cellini’s life – he was generous to his relatives and friends, supporting quite a few of them financially throughout his life. Otherwise, he was boastful, argumentative, and managed to kill quite a few people he regarded as enemies over the years, barely avoiding being murdered himself. Oh, and he made a lot of fabulous jewelry and knickknacks for a series of Popes and Kings.
Are we talking about Mary Malone’s speech at the end? Man, that was anvilicious.
Ryan F Stello says
I finally got around to getting more information on “The Stillborn God”.
The NYT review has this blurb:
..which seemed to me to be a lead-in to arguing against it, but the Amazon description points out:
…so I second Randy @ #6, it does look interesting.
It came out last year.
It doesn’t say they’re the most notable books, It just says they’re notable. But even then it doesn’t seem to explain why these are more notable than others.
Dawkins book wasn’t on last year’s list, either.
I haven’t read any of them either! Perhaps that’s not so surprising, since the only way I could have read most of those books is if I had ordered expensive hardcover editions from abroad. I’m planning to read the Chabon book, though.
OK, so who has the list of the 100 most notable science books this year?
Cmon, get busy and fix this problem people. Stop relying on the NYT for any useful information – they have none.
From the non fiction list:
SCHULZ AND PEANUTS: A Biography.Actual “Peanuts” cartoons movingly illustrate this portrait of the strip’s creator, presented here as a profoundly lonely and unhappy man.
SERVICE INCLUDED: Four-Star Secrets of an Eavesdropping Waiter. By Phoebe Damrosch. (Morrow, $24.95.) A memoir about waiting tables at the acclaimed Manhattan restaurant Per Se.
AUUUUUGHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH….Please tell me this list was really lifted from The Onion and is not meant to be taken serioously!
Scott Hatfield, OM says
…difficult texts that didn’t involve depressed exotic people talking, talking, talking endlessly about their powerful love.
Ahem. You. Raging. And squid, squid, squid? Eerily familiar, PZ.
science monkey says
“How to Interpret the Bible”? I’m sorry, don’t we have enough books like that? Besides, I can write more accurate advice on the subject..
Bible reading lesson #1: Make handy a copy of the Berenstain Bears. Read a few paragraphs, then still in fiction-mode, pick up the bible and read some. Then promptly switch back to the bears. Haha. Them bears are soooo kwazy.
Well, I read the Harry Potter book. And I’ve read Richard Rhodes. But I won’t read his book on the nuclear arms race till it’s in paperback. That’s when I’ll probably read The Nine, too, the book about the Supreme Court.
Seems like a weak list. If so many people rushed into print to “refute” Dawkins, you’d think that made his book pretty notable.
Jennifer Ouellette says
It’s a safe predictable list with no real surprises and nothing of much interest to those of us who like a bit more of an edge to their reading material. Also a high percentage of nonfiction books one might consider “ponderous and self-important.” :) So, about what one would expect from the NY Times. I don’t read just science: I also read a lot of fiction (both genre and “literary”) and history and biography, and the odd bit of poetry, and almost NOTHING I read this year was on the list…
Bill Dauphin says
This is one of the books I’m familiar with through interviews and reviews, and I thought it sounded fascinating. You may not take comic strips seriously as art, but there’s no doubt that Peanuts is a notable part of our culture… and it’s not unlikely that the creator of such a cultural touchstone had a life worthy of biography. If you’re even passingly familiar with Peanuts (and how could any American avoid it?), it won’t come as any surprise that Shulz was lonely and unhappy; it’s not hard to imagine that his was a life of potentially interesting psychological complexity.
It’s a list of fiction and poetry. That’s why no science books made the cut…
Oh wait, I see the nonfiction now…
Wicked Lad says
Greg Peterson asks (#21):
Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach is pretty good. It’s no Atonement, but it does a lot more showing than telling. No pontificating that I recall.
Rey Fox says
Hank Fox: I wonder if Ben Stein would consider all those authors responding to The God Delusion to be “insecure”.
“Radical Theology” sounds pretty funny though. Like, I bet the part in the Bible about Jesus multiplying the loaves and fish? He was making a statement about supply-side economics! Radical! Prove me wrong!
Barn Owl says
If modern US medicine isn’t science (at least in part), what is it then?
Jerome Groopman is a prolific writer on biomedical issues, and has a productive clinical research lab as well. Seems odd to dismiss his latest book on medicine and diagnosis (which is excellent, btw) as “not science”. How would one understand the pathogenesis of celiac disease-the first example in How Doctors Think IIRC-without a basic knowledge of physiology, biochemistry, and genetics?
I like the review(s) Blake posts in Post #5. The stripped/trashed house metaphor made me belly laugh when, in the end, the author runs back inside after demolishing it through-out the book. Almost makes me want to buy it and read everything but the last chapter. :)
Peter Ashby says
It is certainly not this year but I have just finished what is perhaps one of the very best science books I have read: Rebecca Stott’s Darwin and the Barnacle. Found it tucked away in the ‘Lifelines’ section of the library, not somewhere I usually peruse, but I am very glad I did. Yes, barnacles can be sexy. You will laugh, you will cry and if you are a biologist like me you will stop in recognition that you too have bought micro scissors from the same instrument makers in London that Darwin did.
I recommend How to Become Ridiculously Well-Read in One Evening edited by E. O. Parrott
alias Ernest Major says
With respect to the absence of books on science, there’s what looks like a biography of Ramanjuan, hidden away under fiction, which is about as close to science as is medicine.
What about Musicphilia, it sounded like a good read to me
The Book Review has selected this list from books reviewed since the Holiday Books issue of Dec. 3, 2006.
This isn’t a list of notable books written in 2007, just those reviewed by this paper. Perhaps someone more familiar with the possibilities would care to comment. Were there more interesting books reviewed that didn’t make the list. Was there some bit of fluff reviewed in a week where a more worthy book was released. Even the NYT can’t read everything these days, can it?
Blake Stacey says
Hey, yeah: The Indian Clerk, by David Leavitt. It’s a fictionalized account of the relationship between Hardy and Ramanujan — might be worth reading. The sex scenes are probably less bizarre than those in Against the Day, though.
This link ceased being free in the last 3 minutes or so.
I am grateful to the list for letting me know that there is a new Richard Russo novel out, which I have since requested through my local library. I don’t know if the new one is any good, but his Nobody’s Fool is one of my all-time favorities. It won’t seem old to me until I have read it at least a half-a-dozen times. (The movie was nowhere near as good as the book.)
As repetitive and unfunny as the strips I’ve seen invariably have been, how do you figure that? I’d always assumed he was kind of the comic strip equivalent of Thomas Kincaid (sp?).
Here’s Amazon’s pick for Top 10 Science Books of 2007
Is it just me or does the entire fiction list look like:
And Harry Potter?
Russell Blackford says
I’ve read one of them – Lilla’s The Stillborn God.
David Marjanović, OM says
Oh yes. Great reading.
David Marjanović, OM says
Oh yes. Great reading.
There was much discussion of the Charles Schulz biography over at Cartoon Brew, with comments made by Schulz’s children. The thread can be found at: http://www.cartoonbrew.com/books/more-on-the-schulz-book
I’m not familiar with the New York Times book review section, but it doesn’t look like all those reviews are written by Times staffers. I wonder what proportion of those reviews are freelance? Maybe one way to direct more science exposure to the general public would be to submit reviews of worthy science books to the Times.
Bill Dauphin says
How do I figure which: that Peanuts is a cultural touchstone or that it’s not unlikely Schulz’s life was one of potentially interesting psychological complexity?
As to the former, I point to not only the endless and nearly ubiquitous reach of the strip, but also the TV specials, including one of the most beloved holiday specials in the history of the medium, A Charlie Brown Christmas, and the vast licensing of the stip’s characters. Heck, what other comic strip has a fleet of blimps named after one of its characters. None of that, of course, necessarily means Peanuts is good, but you have to admit it’s part of our culture.
As to the latter, just look at Charlie Brown himself: You don’t have to be Freud to imagine a guy who spent his entire life making “jokes” about such a wretched loser might have a snake or two loose in his own head. (Aside to efogoto: I read some of the comments at the link you provided, and I’m inclined to take the “My Dad was not either depressed!” reaction of the family with something more than a single grain of salt.)
Look, I haven’t read the book; it may be total crap. All I said was it sounded promising from the reviews… in contrast to Kevin’s implicit suggestion that its presence on the NYT list was prima facie evidence that the list was not to be taken seriously.
One of the magic things about biography is that you don’t have to like what a person did to think his (or her) life story worth reading. Witness the Leni Riefenstahl bio also on this list.
Michael X says
I have the same problem. Growing up in a fundamentalist home, I wasn’t encouraged to read anything but the bible and my school didn’t help me much in that area. So since 18 I’ve been pouring over all the philosophy, history, literature and religious criticism I could find. And since finding this blog years ago, I’ve added copious science books to the shelves. Who has time for new fiction when you’re about 2 decades behind even similarly aged people on all the facts?!