Books to Read Now

Seed Picks

March releases follow physicists to the ends of the Earth; examine our obsession with stuff; and sift through the annals of the search for wisdom, in science, philosophy, and beyond.

The Story of Stuff: How our Obsession with Stuff Is Trashing the Planet, Our Communities, And our Health—and a Vision of Change
By Annie Leonard (Free Press)
In 2009, Leonard’s 20-minute film entitled “The Story of Stuff” blew up across the green blogosphere, making her brief take on “the real costs of extraction, production, distribution, consumption and disposal” an instant cult classic. Here she tells the story in more detail, describing the five stages of our material economy in the context of her travels around the world, from garbage dumps in the Philippines, Guatemala, and Bangladesh to shopping malls in Tokyo, Bangkok, and Las Vegas. Drawing on the theories of ecological economics, Leonard manages to at once promote the upending of consumer-driven capitalism while not romanticizing poverty or eschewing material things. In fact, she says, “I’m pro-Stuff! I want us to value our Stuff more.”

Insectopedia
By Hugh Raffles (Pantheon Books)
In her Zurich apartment, Cornelia Hesse-Honegger paints a tiny golden-green leaf bug—one of thousands of deformed insects she has collected at nuclear waste sites around the world. A profile of Hesse-Honegger, entitled “Chernobyl,” is one of 26 elements in an A-to-Z romp through the science, history, anthropology, economics, and pop culture of insects. Anthropologist Hugh Raffles depicts the sublime experience of watching yellow butterflies carpet a house in Brazil, the first scientific attempt in 1926 to collect insects by airplane, and the macabre history of Nazi propagandists who likened Jews to lice—as parasitic, filthy, and ubiquitous. Though useful as a reference, Raffles’ book is anything but the boilerplate mix of factoids: It sings with scholarship, deft writing, and an authentic fascination with the six-legged creatures that have so long roamed the Earth.

The Shaking Woman
By Siri Hustvedt (Henry Holt)
At a memorial for her father, novelist Siri Hustvedt began to shake. Spasming uncontrollably, she managed to finish her speech. But over the next few years, the shaking woman, as she named this other person who took over her body and left her mind untouched, returned several times while she spoke to crowds on the subject of grief. Hustvedt had no obvious neurological issues. Where did this symptom come from? She embarks on an exploration of the fuzzy area where trauma, emotion, and the body meet, and her peregrinations take readers from the history of hysteria to the grey areas of modern psychological diagnoses. Hustvedt knows her material—her lyrical, learned narrative is a joy to read.

The Art of Choosing
By Sheena Iyengar (Twelve)
When it comes to accessible tracts on the science of decision-making, readers have a lot of, ahem, choices. A significant body of research she herself has conducted buoys Columbia social psychologist Sheena Iyengar’s authoritative contribution. But what truly differentiates her from all the glib, pop-neuroscience raconteurs out there is more than a sense of rigor. The Art of Choosing explores the cultural, social, and biological forces on the complex process of decision-making but is also deeply personal, describing how the author’s blindness and the tenets of her Sikh immigrant parents affected her perspective on choice. The result is a rich consideration of this social construct, with an articulate conclusion: Choice—both in dearth and surfeit—shapes our daily lives and the stories we tell about them.

No Good Deed: A Story of Medicine, Murder Accusations, and the Debate Over How We Die
By Lewis M. Cohen (Harper)
In January of 2001, police in Northampton, Massachusetts, visited the homes of two nurses from nearby Baystate Medical Center. The nurses, Amy Gleason and Kim Hoy, were surprised to discover the purpose of the policemen’s visit: to investigate them for murder. Olga Vasquez, a technical associate at Baystate, had accused them of killing a patient after witnessing the patient’s family and doctors stop dialysis and seeing the nurses administer a higher-than-prescribed dose of morphine. “It’s alright if you go now…You don’t have to hang on any longer,” Vasquez reports hearing Hoy say. In this book, Cohen, a psychiatrist at Baystate, examines Vasquez’s accusation and illuminates the philosophical debate raging in hospitals everywhere as we struggle to understand the role of medical care at life’s end.

Wisdom: From Philosophy to Neuroscience
By Stephen S. Hall (Knopf)
Could there be a “science” of wisdom? Could there even be a simple, scientifically sure definition of this elusive virtue? And if there were, would it be anything more than a description of neural activity? Could it ever help us understand how to make the decisions that will give us the contentment we desire? These are the questions that science journalist Stephen Hall tries to answer in his new book, Wisdom: From Philosophy to Neuroscience, as he traces the history of our attempts to understand wisdom—from ancient philosophy to mid-20th century psychology to its modern incarnation in neuroscience. Wisdom is a fascinating attempt to understand one of our most cherished—but least well-understood—aspirations: to lead a just, good life.

The Edge of Physics: A Journey to Earth’s Extremes to Unlock the Secrets of the Universe
By Anil Ananthaswamy (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
Particle physicists and astronomers have a reputation as wanderers, seeking seclusion on high peaks and in distant deserts. But, as New Scientist editor Anil Ananthaswamy shows in this stirring, scenic narrative, it’s the science itself, rather than its practitioners, that demands excursions to the ends of the Earth. Only in places like a polar ice cap, the upper stratosphere, the subterranean depths, and the arid desert can some of the universe’s faintest messengers—neutrinos, photons, dark matter, and more—be reliably detected. Ananthaswamy journeys to several geographically and scientifically extreme outposts, and returns not only with engaging portraits of the men and women who work there, but also a vibrant glimpse of how cutting-edge research is actually performed. Part history lesson, part travel log, part adventure story, The Edge of Physics is a wonder-steeped page-turner.

God’s Brain
By Lionel Tiger and Michael McGuire (Prometheus Books)
One way out of the never-ending debate on the compatibility of science and religion is to only consider latter in terms of how well it explains the natural world. Not so fast: religion is too diverse, nebulous, and ubiquitous, to be so reduced. In God’s Brain, anthropologist Lionel Tiger and neuroscientist Michael McGuire investigate the scientific roots of religion, and why it is so persistent despite many belief systems’ tenuous connection to reality. The short answer: the social frameworks religions provide are a natural response to the stressful day-to-day business of living in a complex society. The atuthors’ entertainingly loopy writing belies a comprehensive approach to a major fact of the human experience, and their analysis will provoke the religious and the scientific equally: a sure sign that the authors are doing something right.

 

Originally published March 1, 2010

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