Blind Watchmaker, Richard Dawkins (1986)
I’m a huge fan of the simple evolutionary biology book, largely because I don’t understand anything about evolutionary biology, and therefore am constantly amazed at things I never thought of and probably won’t remember.
Dawkins is best-known for The Selfish Gene, his first book, in some sense it is too important to the history of science to bother reading – if you have given genetics any thought at all, you probably know what is in the book, since it is the basis of modern biology. The God Delusion, his most recent book, captures many of the same themes, but do you really need to be convinced about your view of the divine (to sum up, arguments that simple systems come from more complex systems tend to beg the question of where the more complex system comes from; on the other hand, there are no atheists in a foxhole)
Anyway, this one is just right, and most importantly, filled with tons of practical examples of evolution in odd places. The eye, for example, was developed independently at least three times. Astonishing.
Bright Shining Lie, Neil Sheehan (1988)
Vietnam led to some excellent books – The Best and the Brightest and Fire in the Lake come to mind – and this is the best of the crop. Sheehan does a great job of using an extraordinary soldier (John Vann) to stand in for all the dreamers and draftees who found themselves drawn to the war.
Churchill said (describing an earlier war in a very different world) that there is nothing more exhilarating than being shot at without result. John Vann was shot at without result for the better part of a decade, and found happiness in Vietnam like nowhere else. He saw all the deficiencies of South Vietnamese system – indeed, he saw them so well and spoke of them so often that he became close with Sheehan and Halberstam – and could identify all the reasons the northern forces were going to win.
But he couldn’t stay out of the fight, and eventually an unlucky bullet was cast. He died right after defeating a major North Vietnamese invasion, believing the war was won. Three years later Saigon fell.
You can win all of the battles and lose a war, if your enemy is willing to go on longer. It happened to us in Vietnam, and it will happen to us again in Iraq, not because our motives are impure (although they were) or our fighters inadequately trained (although they were), but simply because someday we will have to go home, and on the following day Iraq will be the Iraqis to make work or fail as they will. Let’s hope that in the future our leaders do a bit more reading of history and a bit less repeating its mistakes.
The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs (1961)
The book that stopped Robert Moses, saved Lower Manhattan, and ended any role for the middle class in American cities.
It is an easy read, a simple read, punctuated with some brilliant insights: a skyscraper, for example, is merely a street replaced by an elevator shaft, where all the tools of social control that apply outside – passers-by, friendly neighbors, the occasional cop – vanish as soon as the doors close. It was important, if not imperative, to put an end to the slum clearance boondoggle that developers had latched onto to use eminent domain to allow them to put up cheap and disgusting skyscrapers where medium-density buildings had previously used all the land.
Unfortunately – like Silent Spring a year later – the book was so successful it became a battering ram for an entire series of entrenched interests. No, it is not important to have a hardware store on every corner. No, it is not important to have a network of bodegas and other subscale retailers; for many products, there really is a minimum efficient scale. And by giving neighborhoods dramatically more say in planning decisions, Jacobs created a world where the default answer to new projects is “no.” At the dawn of the 1900s, New York absorbed a million new people, but it also built close to a million new units. That cannot be done with the level of review that was imposed, and the resulting pressure on prices has made it impossible for the middle class to remain in central cities. The stopgap measures Jacobs proposed – rent control, targeting projects for various income levels – only exacerbated the issue.
But there is no freeway across 14th Street, and for that we should be thankful.
The Guns of August, Barbara Tuchman (1962)
World War I doesn’t get the press of the deuce; for a conflict that killed an appalling number of people and set off a chain of events that occupied most of the century, the grievances seem awfully small.
Tuchman’s book deals with only a short period of time, but in some sense it is the entire conflict – Germany feels aggrieved that it is shut out of the colonial race and decides to attack France; among other things, it is bent out of shape that after being defeated in 1871 France has rebounded quite nicely. France expects to be attacked and figures it will be a good excuse to take back Alsace and Lorraine. Russia is tired of being seen as the poor relation of its European allies and is determined to spend plenty of peasants’ blood making good its honor. And then they’re off.
Perhaps the greatest tragedy is that after defeat only a few miles from Paris at the First Battle of the Marne (hint), the Chief of the General Staff Helmuth von Moltke went to the Kaiser and announced that “your Majesty, we have lost the war.” He then had a nervous breakdown. In the event, the Kaiser looked around on that fall day in 1914, thought of his army still in position on French soil, and decided to keep going. He surrendered not far away four years later.
Guns, Germs and Steel, Jared Diamond (1997)
Appearing at an airport bookstore near you, this is anthropology made simple. Big ideas – the importance of a temperate zone for economic development, so insects die off once a year and take their nasty pathogens with them – and small ideas – many animals can be tamed, but very few can be domesticated, each with application to the world around us.
There is some politically incorrect stuff in here – far from being a tranquil place, inland New Guinea before the serious encroachment of the white population has a murder rate that would horrify a favela – but it is presented in the best scientific tradition, as an honest exploration of the world as it is.
The Power Broker, Robert Caro (1974)
Hard to imagine there is anyone worth writing this much about, much less a person who was never elected to public office, never commanded an army, and claimed “Parks Commissioner” as his highest title. Napoleon he was not.
Still, if you know New York, virtually everything about the city – its roads, its bridges, its parks – was built by Robert Moses. Little was done before he got to the scene; just about nothing has been done since. Somehow, by the right combination of flattery, alliances, and sheer industry he was able to remake a city. Inspiring.
The Private Life of Chairman Mao, Li Zhisui (1994)
The first of the major Mao biographies to reveal just how crazy Mao, and indeed all the Chinese leadership in the first few decades of Communism, were.
Very few dictators meet a natural end, but somehow the greatest killer of all time, a man who ruled over a sixth of humanity, went about his merry way, sleeping with all manner of young girls and more than an incidental young man, not bathing or brushing his teeth for years, marshaling and purging his stooges until ALS finally rid us of him.
There are plenty of funny scenes – I particularly enjoy the fact that the commander of the People’s Liberation Army was terrified of water – until you think of the lives lost indulging these guys.
The Making of the President 1960, Theodore White (1961)
The book is so good the Pulitzer Prize committee created a new category so that it could win. If you are remotely interested by politics, you need to read it. It is annoyingly difficult to find, but hopefully the above links to Amazon’s remaining stock of hardcover versions.
One benefit we have, that the Pulitzer committee did not, is that we can see the unbelievable accuracy of White’s off-hand predictions. Nixon really did have the chance to win if he embraced Southern resentment and racism and gave up on the Northeast; indeed, he did just that in 1968, and it is fascinating to think that the Nixon of 1960 had a moral line he simply would not cross in the name of victory. Almost as amazing as discovering that Nixon, already a two-term vice president and the old man in the race, was the same age as Barack Obama is now when he faced off with John Kennedy.
And you can’t help but be creeped out by the couple of references to security breakdowns around Kennedy during the campaign and the breezy assurance that those lapses would never happen once the Secret Service got on the case.
A Short History of Nearly Everything, Bill Bryson (2003)
Bryson could be the best travel writer of all time – I suppose it depends on whether you put Hemingway in the category – and the easy voyage of discovery comes through in his take on science. It’s good to see someone concerned about apocalyptic scenarios such as meteorites and supervolcanoes, and also puzzled that so many nature lovers who have spotted rare or nearly extinct animals in the wild have proceeded to shoot said animal.
The Soul of a New Machine, Tracy Kidder (1981)
If you have ever been in a job and wondered if it was really the way you wanted to live your life, this book, ostensibly about computers, will speak to you. I barely understand how to use a computer, much less how to build one, and the challenges faced by late 1970s Data General seem somewhat silly today. But suffice it to say that folks were working 80-100 hours a week in a fairly unsociable environment in search of a decent payoff and the affirmation of being part of something special, and I definitely understand that.
And the following jumped out at me:
It did not work out as he planned. “I thought I’d get a really dumb job. I found out dumb jobs don’t work. You come home too tired to do anything,” he said. He remembered a seemingly endless succession of meetings out of which only the dullest, most cautious decisions could emerge. He remembered watching himself play with his thumbs beneath the edges of conference tables for hours and hours. Near the end of his time at RCA he got to work on projects that interested him. He saw a few patents registered in his name. He became what he’d pretended to be, a real engineer; but by then, RCA had lost a fortune trying to compete with IBM and was getting out of computers.