Thursday, July 30, 2009

Review: Best American Science and Nature Writing 2008

I stumbled across this book at the library and quite enjoyed it.

As the title suggests, it's a collection of nonfiction essays culled from various magazines such as Wired, Discover, the Atlantic, the New Yorker, National Geographic, and so forth. As these sources may indicate, most of the essays are not very hard science, but they aren't fluff pieces either. Instead, they are good examples of writing on interesting and often complicated topics aimed at the layperson.

The essays range from efforts to decipher the lost knot-writing system of the Inca to understanding what an unusually limited language says about the human brain and the minds of the isolated Amazonian tribe that speaks it.

There's an examination of the origins of altruism, an assault on the misguided nature and benefits of multitasking, and a proposal to reintroduce megafauna to North America after indigenous peoples wiped out all the big animals millenia ago.

You've got a warning against the potential perils of biological contamination via untested and completely new nanomaterials, a look at the robots that will dominate the battlefields of the future, and a not so brave new world of online vigilantes hunting down scammers in virtual fashion and humiliating them in very real fashion.

That's just the tip of the iceberg. The collection is very affordable on Amazon and is now on my wishlist. I ordered a used copy of the 2005 edition and plan to pick up more of these volumes in the future.

I would write more, but I already returned my copy to the library (doh!) and can't be as specific. Might want to check the Amazon reviews.


Aaron DaMommio said...

Yeah, one thing about getting books from the library is the difficulty of blogging about them after you've returned them. I actually took some NOTES on 1491 I enjoyed it so much. ;) This book sounds good.

Becky said...

That collection sounds great. I don't read a lot of non-fiction for "pleasure" but sounds like this I would enjoy. Plus it sounds like the book might be mine-able for pieces to teach to first-year composition students, who we're always struggling to get engaged in and curious about the world beyond themselves (go figure).

The language stuff sounds especially awesome. I saw the coolest NatGeo (or somesuch) program on deciphering Mayan hieroglyphics, so this Inca language piece sounds cool. Was Piraha the Amazon language they talking about, do you recall? I remember that getting a lot of press.

Doug said...

Becky--Yep, the language was Piraha. The author interviewed the guy who lived with the Piraha for many years. It's an interesting look both at how the researcher's life has been obsessed with and screwed up by this linguistic quest and how the politics of academic theory versus field work play out. Plus there's a hint at the end that the guy's ex-wife may have an insight into the language--that a big chunk of it is actually made up of musical notes that are sung and hummed rather than spoken--that no one else takes too seriously. I'm definitely stealing the musical language bit.

I'm reading the 2005 collection now. I'd recommend showing students just about any piece by Malcolm Gladwell as a good example of nonfiction writing. You can find a lot of his essays archived at the New Yorker.

Doug said...

Aaron--I took some notes on this book as well, but naturally my notes are tied completely to how I can use these real-world examples in a fictional setting, so they aren't that helpful for going back and determining what the article actually said, just what ideas it sparked in my mind.

Doug said...

As far as new and used copies go, the 2008 and 2007 editions are available new from Amazon for less than $5 and you can get the previous four years used for a penny plus $3.99 shipping each.