Books to Read Now

Seed Picks

September releases on the history of language and writing, displaced citizens of virtual worlds, and the need for global resiliency.

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Release Date: Sept. 17
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Green Metropolis: Why Living Smaller, Living Closer, and Driving Less are the Keys to Sustainability
By David Owen (Riverhead Books)

We may fantasize that country life involves growing our own food, backyard composting, and living in harmony with nature. In reality, Owen argues, it means driving everywhere. City dwellers are in fact the greener citizens, he writes, as they consume and dispose of less waste, and most importantly, drive far fewer miles. Prius drivers beware: Owen is unsparing in his ridicule of automobiles, whether diesel, plug-in hybrid, or hydrogen fueled. While the idea that cities are green is not entirely new, Owen’s counterintuitive insights about transportation and city planning (Does Central Park turn uptown urbanites into gas-guzzlers?) are sure to provoke an energetic discussion about the future of urban growth.

Release Date: Sept. 1
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No Impact Man: The Adventures of a Guilty Liberal Who Attempts to Save the Planet, and the Discoveries He Makes About Himself and Our Way of Life in the Process
By Colin Beavan (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

No impact. There is probably nothing easier to say and harder to accomplish—as Beavan discovered early on in his year-long quest to have zero carbon emissions and zero waste—one memorable shock was forgoing the elevator in his nine-story Manhattan apartment building. The resulting book, which originated as a blog, is an earnest, often hilarious account of 365 days spent wading through conflicting information (Is paper really better? Are disposable diapers actually less resource-intensive?), mulling his own motives (Am I self-evolved or just self-righteous?), and discovering that individual action, while inherently limited, can make for a happy life.

Release Date: Sept.
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Communities of Play: Emergent Cultures in Multiplayer Games and Virtual Worlds
By Celia Pearce and Artemesia (The MIT Press)

It is a rare book that names a videogame avatar as a coauthor, but that is exactly what makes this “cyberethnography” an important read. Pearce embeds herself as “Artemesia” in a virtual world with refugees from a recently shutdown multiplayer online game, and observes and interacts with them as they try to reestablish the social circles and culture of their videogame “homeland.” For skeptics of this relatively new field, Pearce provides an excellent review of the game studies literature, but her findings support themselves as clearly relevant to understanding how cultures are formed and sustained, as well as the productive nature of play.

Out now
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A Better Pencil: Readers, Writers, and the Digital Revolution
By Dennis Baron (Oxford University Press)

As a University of Illinois linguistics professor, Baron created a lesson plan that included an exercise where students are asked to write a simple message in clay (the medium of choice for ancient Sumerians). The students’ resulting frustrations illustrate his book’s core theme: The technology of writing has always determined who is able to write as well as what gets said. Today, as the internet enables nearly anyone to be an effusive writer and publisher, technophobes lament perceived declines in quality of the written word. Through his punchy whirlwind tour of the history of writing, Baron shows that similar fears accompanied the popularization of the pencil and typewriter, suggesting that all are equally unfounded.

Release Date: Sept. 11
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Chasing Molecules: Poisonous Products, Human Health, and the Promise of Green Chemistry
By Elizabeth Grossman (Island Press)

There are 80,000 synthetic chemicals in production today—used to make everything from nail polish to airplane interiors to medical supplies—most of which have never been fully tested for safety. Investigative journalist Grossman (author of High Tech Trash) uncovers the surprising facts on the spotty regulation of synthetic chemical materials and explains how they end up in our bloodstream and proliferate thousands of miles from their source. Rather than simply limiting exposure or enacting piecemeal bans, Grossman puts forward the promise of “green chemistry,” a holistic and cutting-edge approach to replacing toxic chemicals with new ones designed from the bottom-up to be safer and more sustainable.

Originally published September 1, 2009

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