Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Books I

Since starting this blog I have labored under the delusion that I would write a proper review for each and every book I read. Clearly, that was never going to happen (I like reading far more than writing), so I’ve now decided to follow Cosma Shalizi’s example and write regular mini-reviews.

Einstein: His Life and Universe by Walter Isaacson is a superb biography that incorporates all the materials that were embargoed until 2006. Isaacson does his level best to explain the science in a cogent manner and, while I remain as mystified by relativity and quantum mechanics as ever, that illustrates the near impossibility of explaining modern physics to a popular audience rather than Isaacson’s limitations as an author. A particularly noteworthy aspect of the book is the astounding amount of fact checking that went into its creation as revealed by the Acknowledgements: I don’t think I’ve come across another book as carefully peer-reviewed as this one. (I spotted just one small error that got past the reviewers).
Einstein’s life, it should be said, was full and extremely interesting and thus certainly worthy of a long biography. Isaacson lives up to his subject: he writes well (if not brilliantly), adroitly weaves together the different threads of Einstein’s personality and career, and manages to convey Einstein’s greatness without becoming obsequious. Apart from a couple of inevitable differences in interpretation, the only negative thing I have to say is that Isaacson is unnecessarily repetitive in places. Overall, though, it’s a fascinating life, brilliantly portrayed. (See also: Isaacon’s interview about the book on The Skeptics Guide to the Universe starting at 34:30).

Why Is Sex Fun: The Evolution of Human Sexuality by Jared Diamond is utter junk. I can’t believe the author of Guns, Germs and Steel could produce something this bad. The less said about it the better – don’t read it, ever.

No Country for Old Men by Cormac Mccarthy (fiction). Atmospheric, absorbing, sublime prose, and totally believable. I’m not a huge fan of the ending (or the movie adaptation, for that matter), but it’s still one of the best novels I’ve read in ages.

The Classical World: An Epic History of Greece and Rome by Robin Lane Fox is an enormously ambitious book: it is a survey of almost a thousand years of complicated and interesting history in only 600 pages. Frankly, I’m generally skeptical about epic surveys – telescoped history is often watered-down history. Not so with The Classical World, it is a magnificent, full-blooded, exciting and sympathetic account of Greece and Rome. Few scholars, I suspect, could pull-off anything similar: Lane Fox’s classical knowledge is veritably encyclopedic. A particularly congenial aspect of the book is how Lane Fox’s love for his subject matter shines through; he makes no apologies for his passion. Negatives: a sometimes-ponderous writing style and a surfeit of French words, the themes of ‘luxury’, ‘freedom’ and ‘justice’ seem occasionally procrustean, the book has a slow and somewhat confusing start and Lane Fox can be a bit pompous at times. All that said, the book is a recommended introduction to the classical world.

Contact Wounds: A War Surgeon’s Education is Jonathan Kaplan’s sequel to The Dressing Station (which I read – and loved – a couple of years ago). The book is a memoir of Kaplan’s early life (including a trip to Israel just after the Six Day War) and his medical education both as a student at the University of Cape Town (my alma mater) and his residencies in various parts of the world. The book ends off with events in Kaplan’s life subsequent to the publication of The Dressing Station, most notably, his stints in Angola and Iraq. Kaplan writes exceedingly well and Contact Wounds radiates humanity, remains interesting throughout and documents an amazing life. My only worry about the book is that it reads like a novel, which isn’t bad in itself, but I’m somewhat dubious Kaplan remembers as many details as he pretends to about when he was, say, 14. Nevertheless, Contact Wounds is a riveting, eye-opening read.

I hate to say this, but I was thoroughly unimpressed with Christopher Hitchens’ God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. Hitchens writes beautifully, is widely educated and is a highly skilled polemicist, but, honestly, I found his arguments unconvincing. Given that I already agree with many of his conclusions and given the purpose of the book, this criticism is very harsh: Hitchens has failed to contribute to the ‘new atheist’ debate in a meaningful way. A relatively small failing I think speaks volumes: like a bad undergraduate essay, God Is Not Great is based almost exclusively on secondary-sources, it seems without Jennifer Hecht’s Doubt: A History Hitchens would not have been able to write his book. Bottom-line: watch Hitchens speaking (where he is second to none), but don’t read his book. (See also: Hitchens' interview about the book on Point of Inquiry).

A Guinea Pig’s History of Biology: The Plants and Animals Who Taught Us the Facts of Life by Jim Endersby is a new kind of intellectual history of biology that doesn’t focus on personalities (‘great men’) but on specific model organisms. Each of the 12 chapters focuses on one particular organism (Drosophila, humans, Equus quagga, guinea pigs etc.) and discusses at length how the organism came to be used and what questions biologists used it to answer. A theme running through the book is how difficult it is to transform a wild-type into a model organism: often it took years of patient work that bore no fruit in the short term. George Streisinger, for example, is the unsung hero of evo-devo; it took him nearly a decade to breed zebrafish suitable for scientific work. Another interesting theme of the book is that it took a whole community of researchers, collaborating openly and trusting one another, to produce scientific breakthroughs using a specific organism. Thomas Hunt Morgan and his ‘fly-boys’ (champions of Drosophila) set the precedent: they gave away whole colonies of newly standardized flies to any interested researcher and eventually even produced a newsletter, Drosophila Information Service, to spread useful fly information.
Negatives: Endersby’s last chapter reveals little about its purported subject, OncoMouse, and degenerates into an entirely uninteresting essay about what Endersby thinks about genetic engineering, the philosophy of science and so on. His editor should have spared him. A final, much less serious, criticism: the book sometimes gets bogged down in historical minutia (like what effect Great Britain’s 1845 abolition of the tax on glass had on the cultivation of flowers) but Endersby rarely strays too far from biology.
Overall, A Guinea Pig’s History of Biology is an original, interesting, well-researched and informative history. It comes highly recommended.


  1. Great post Mike. Will look out for some of these when I have the time to read non-econ-oriented texts. Though, it must be said I am reading some fiction at the moment: McCarthy and Safran Foer.

  2. Thanks! Einstein and A Guinea Pig's History are particularly good. I've also been reading McCarthy - The Road is on my reading list.

  3. Thanks for noticing!

    My publisher and I could not believe how much he took from my book -- without anything like proper citations.


  4. No problem Jennifer. It's a pity Hitchens didn't get called out on it properly - this blog post is certainly not going to get particularly widely noticed!

    Anyway, I have Doubt: A History sitting on my bookshelf - I can't wait for teaching to end so I can get to read it! :-)

  5. Agree about McCarthy, I loved No Country - and The Road is simply incredible (the first book to move me to tears :) - dark and horrific and haunting. I disagree with you on the ending being too upbeat/convenient, I thought it was perfect.

  6. Ewan... I donno... the ending seems very gimmicky. Why were these people helping the boy? Every other character in the novel is nasty - why do nice characters appear suddenly just when they're needed? But, anyway. McCarthy is a master, no doubt about that.

  7. Meadon - I find JMH's comments interesting considering Hitchens says on the last page of the 2008 Edition: "Jennifer Michael Hecht (i.e. JMH) put me immensely in her debt when she sent me a copy of her 'Doubt: a History'". I wonder if she is upset that ts wasn't properly 'cited' (because it *is* cited, just not according to Harvard or APA)... I just find it strange since she receives an acknowledgement (and Hitchens says she sent it to him). Strange...

  8. Anon... yeah. She's acknowledged for sure which certainly makes things better. But it's just the sheer extent of Hitchens' reliance on Hecht that's a problem with or without citation.