The 10 Best Books I've Read This Year

As was evidenced by the long list of books that I've read this year, I've taken in a lot of material, and picking the 10 best books is a bit of a challenge. What makes a good technical book doesn't make a good popular science book, but overall there were a few that stood out from the rest to become volumes that I'm sure I'll be revisiting over and over again in the future (unlike the works in the "Bottom 10" list from a few days ago). As hard as it might be to rank some of these, here are my favorite 10 books that I read in 2007;

10) The First Fossil Hunters - Adrienne Mayor

The traditional narrative of the origins of paleontology had 19th century European naturalists finding curious bones in the ground, eventually categorizing them and giving birth to a scientific discipline that jumped the Atlantic to start the North American "Bone Wars" and spread throughout the world from there. It would be foolish to assume that no one stumbled across fossils of animals that no longer exist in even earlier times, however, and Mayor's book makes a convincing case that fossils have long been a part of mythology and culture. From Protoceratops giving rise to the Griffin to dwarf mammoths on Sicily spurring the creation of the Cyclops, Mayor reveals that extinct animals have always been a part of our myths and legends, and even scientific study of the remains has not diminished the grand status of many monstrous forms of times past.

9) A Whale for the Killing - Farley Mowat

Mowat's tale of a Fin Whale (Balaenoptera physalus) trapped in a Newfoundland lagoon is a heart-wrenching passionate plea for understanding and responsibility. While some of the background information Mowat provides in the beginning of the book is outdated or a little skewed, it cannot be doubted that whales are intelligent animals that do not deserve to be slowly killed by the local townspeople over a number of days. There is no happy ending to this story, but it is more about the interaction of politicians, local working people, scientists, and conservationists than it is about the whale that put them in opposition to each other.

8) The Bonehunters' Revenge - David Rains Wallace

Every paleontologist knows about the public feud between E.D. Cope and O.C. Marsh in the pages of the Herald in 1890, but the factors that led up to the battle royale (as well as their consequences) are often overlooked. Wallace weaves an intricate narrative involving not only the two rival paleontologists, but also various politicans, newspaper writers, and others that added wood to the fire. While Wallace does seem to favor Cope a little bit more than Marsh, he still provides a good general account that looks at the larger effects of the "Bone Wars" beyond creating a scientific mythology, the fight between the bone sharps perhaps doing more to set science back than to advance it.

7) Misquoting Jesus - Bart Ehrman

There are few books that I take the day off to read, but Ehrman's book is certainly one of them. While the title of the book is a bit of a misnomer (what Jesus says in the Bible is never directly addressed), Ehrman provides an excellent account of various changes that have been made to different editions and translations of the Christian holy book, making it hard to see how anyone could say it is the "unchanging word of God" when so many people have done exactly that. Just like any ancient text, the Bible has been subject to changing politics and policy, and Ehrman's book is a good introduction to looking at the book as it is rather than how some modern-day apologists might wish it to be.

6) The Life of a Fossil Hunter - C.H. Sternberg

As short stories like Sharon Farber's "The Last Thunder Horse West of the Mississippi" so eloquently show, the Bone Wars era of paleontology of North America had something of a Wild West flair to it, paleontologists seemingly being part scientist and part cowboy. C.H. Sterberg's autobiography of his early fossil hunting days, from his beginnings categorizing fossil leaves to his adventures with E.D. Cope, is a wonderful book that says for itself what so many general accounts have tried to sum up. Sternberg's melding of theology with paleontology is sprinkled throughout, clashing mosasaurs and other beasts dotting his imaginary Mesozoic mindscape, but Sternberg's own account of his fossil-finding forays is more interesting and exciting than any fictional adventure story I've ever read.

5) Mr. Wilson's Cabinet of Wonder: Pronged Ants, Horned Humans, Mice on Toast, and Other Marvels of Jurassic Technology - Lawrence Weschler

The only thing that I can say against Weschler's book is that it was too short! A look at a modern day curiosity cabinet where scientific reality and hoaxes are mingled together, Weschler's account of the "Museum of Jurassic Technology" reveals the truth behind a number of seemingly impossible oddities. Still, the author stops to scratch his head in puzzlement as often as the reader does, and the strange exhibits within the museum take on a greater meaning when compared to what we normally think of a reputable reconstructions in more well-known institutions.

4) Birdsong - Don Stap

I'm not sure what initially compelled me to pick up this book (I'm not much of a birder, their derived-dinosaur status aside), but I'm certainly glad I did. From cold mornings in New England to steaming jungles in South America, Stap takes the reader on a tour of birdsong historically, taxonomically, and globally, primarily following the exploits of scientist Donald Kroodsma. The love of birds and birding aside, the book also has some important lessons about the applications of lab studies and their conflict with work done in the field, clashes between what can be learned from each giving the book bringing up some very important scientific questions about how much we can actually learn by taking animals out of their natural environment and putting them in the lab. Even if you're not that interested in birds, this is a hard book to put down.

3) A Sand County Almanac - Aldo Leopold

There is perhaps no greater compliment, in my mind at least, than to truly be called a naturalist, and Aldo Leopold's collection of essays represents a perfect meld of wonder of the natural world with the desire to study it scientifically. With prose that verges on poetry, Leopold recounts his joys and frustrations involving our interaction with the natural world, and if there is a book that can coax a reader out of their chair and into the wilderness it is this volume. Leopold's description of a saw biting through the "years" as it cuts through a tree makes the book worthwhile, but there is much more that will ensure that the reader will return to wear down their copy again and again.

2) The Demon-Haunted World - Carl Sagan

I put off reading this book for way too long, and when I finally closed the book the world was somewhat different. Sure, I didn't believe in UFOs or Bigfoot when I picked up the book, but Sagan's personal approach revealed the astonishing process that is science while debunking one claim after another. While people often assume that skepticism is a virtue of cranky scientists, Sagan reveals a world that is more amazing and wonderful when we peel away all the pseudoscientific flotsam and jetsam we've piled on in order to give meaning to a universe that doesn't need our help to leave us astonished. Simply put, this is a book that everyone should read, Sagan's perspective and powerful prose being sorely missed as arguments over superstition continue today.

1) A Primate's Memoir - Robert Sapolsky

I don't think that this was a surprise to anyone. I wasn't sure what to expect when I picked up Sapolsky's book, but I was blown away by a stunning scientific adventure story. What Sapolsky so closely studied in baboon societies could clearly be seen in the people and different cultures he interacted with (although this is never directly pointed out in the book, which is a good thing), and a book that has the subtitle "A Neuroscientists Unconventional Life Among the Baboons" turns out to be so much more. Mixing humor and a refreshing sense of honesty about personality in his baboon subjects, Sapolsky's book is one that is difficult to put down even for a moment. From his somewhat rocky start on the African savanna to the heart-breaking ending, I don't think I've come across a more moving piece of non-fiction.

So there you have it; my 10 favorite books that I read this year. I've already polished off a few more books since I wrote my long list a few days ago, but they didn't merit being included in the top or bottom 10. Still, at my present rate I'll probably have another long list up this time next year, and who knows what I might happen to take in by then.


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#1 and #2 are classics. I keep hearing that the Weschler book is great - I need to get hold of it and read it soon, I guess.

I read Sapolsky's book a couple of years ago and it still ranks as one of my all time favorites! The Trouble with Testosterone is excellent as well. I haven't read any others by him yet, but I am going to make a point of buying them in the near future. My never-ending "to read" list got longer after reading this post, by the way...thanks for the recommendations!

Have you read Sagan's latest, The Varieties of Scientific Experience? It's also quite good.

By Tegumai Bopsul… (not verified) on 21 Dec 2007 #permalink

I just picked up Primate's Memoir myself, after you gushed about it a few weeks ago. I look forward to delving in.