Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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June 25, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

BOOK BLOGGING....It's kinda slow around here today, so how about if I put you guys to work for a change? I've been in a fiction phase for the past month and I'm ready to switch back to nonfiction for a while. Got any recommendations? I don't happen to be in the mood for either political books or history at the moment, but anything else is fair game. I want to learn something new about some interesting institution, movement, or field of knowledge. What have you got for me?

Kevin Drum 6:42 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (190)

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Encyclopedia Galactica?

Posted by: dws on June 25, 2008 at 6:56 PM | PERMALINK

Encyclopedia Galactica?

Posted by: dws on June 25, 2008 at 6:56 PM | PERMALINK

Try "The Omnivore's Dilemma" and then "In Defense of Food" - both by Michael Pollan. He writes about what we eat, and what it means to eat what we eat.

Posted by: JM on June 25, 2008 at 6:58 PM | PERMALINK

Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert, a Harvard Psychologist.

It's about how we mis-remember and mis-expect. Quite fascinating.

Posted by: Jill on June 25, 2008 at 7:02 PM | PERMALINK

I've read a couple of good Presidential biographies recently: Walter R. Borneman's Polk: The Man Who Transformed the Presidency and America; and Edward P. Crapol's John Tyler: The Accidental President. The former inspired me to read the latter, actually; Borneman's account of Tyler's role in the anenexation of Texas made me think he was a guy worth learning more about, and Crapol's bio proved that thought correct. If he hadn't supported secession, I think he'd be much more highly regarded now than he is.

Posted by: John on June 25, 2008 at 7:06 PM | PERMALINK

Just finished "Here Comes Everybody" by Clay Shirky and am now reading "Disrupting Class" by Clayton Christensen. Both are good, the second moreso if you like to think about the impact that technology might have on education.

Posted by: Parry on June 25, 2008 at 7:07 PM | PERMALINK

I don't know if this fits your general area of curiosity., but my all time non-fiction book of all time is "Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk" by Legs McNeil. He also has another one, "The Other Hollywood: The Uncensored Oral History of the Porn Film Industry " that is supposed to be pretty good, but I haven't gotten around to reading that yet.

Posted by: rickenharp on June 25, 2008 at 7:07 PM | PERMALINK

I highly recommend: Living Downtown, The History of Residential Hotels in the United States by Paul Groth.

I found it fascinating to understand the variety of housing types in cities, why they developed and why they disappeared.

As the title indicates it is history, but not the standard type of history book.

Posted by: DD on June 25, 2008 at 7:07 PM | PERMALINK

I recently finished "The Selfish Gene (30th anniversary edition)" by Richard Dawkins. Fantastic book, well-written, and still very relevant.

Recently a friend recommended "The brain the changes itself" by Norman Doidge. Here's a link to it:


Haven't read it myself, but it's next on my list (I'm a brain researcher so these books interest me)

Posted by: mitch on June 25, 2008 at 7:08 PM | PERMALINK

My hubby really enjoyed the Palin books as well.

I just finished The Sex Lives of Cannibals by J. Maarten Troost. It is about the two years he spent on the island of Kiribati. (His girlfriend worked for an NGO there.) Funny, sympathetic, and with lots of interesting tidbits thrown in about crappy things the US, Chinese and Australians have done to the Marshall Islands. This one has been out for a while but it is a perfect summer book.

Posted by: Teresa on June 25, 2008 at 7:09 PM | PERMALINK

Probably suggested them before, but how about old letters?

1) Up and down california in 1860-1864: The Journal of William H. Brewer

2) Letters from the Nevada Frontier: Correspondence of Tasker L. Oddie

But I don't think you'd get to go to many of the places discussed in your new electric car.

Posted by: B on June 25, 2008 at 7:11 PM | PERMALINK

"the visual display of quantitative information", edward tufte. learn why that uneasy feeling you got while looking at crappy powerpoint slides was justified.

or the world's shortest biography: "steps to greatness in the life of george w. bush".

Posted by: supersaurus on June 25, 2008 at 7:13 PM | PERMALINK

I second the Pollan books, *and* Stumbling on Happiness. Sheesh, we're all drinking from the same wells these days.

I also enjoyed The World Without Us by Alan Weisman; and Baboon Metaphysics by Cheney and Seyfarth

And I was fascinated by Karen Finlay's Shock Treatment, but that's probably in your political category.

Posted by: sherrold on June 25, 2008 at 7:14 PM | PERMALINK

May I suggest the classic Franz Boas book, Indian Myths and Legends from the North Pacific Coast of America. It leads you directly into the mental world of aboriginals in North America before the arrival of Europeans. There is both great story telling and extremes of routine brutality in these legends.

I would also recommend anything written by the late Bruce Chatwin, one of the most elegant of recent writers in the english language. They are largely in the travel literature mode but that understates their value as literature.

Posted by: Anon on June 25, 2008 at 7:14 PM | PERMALINK

The Michael Pollan books, absolutely. Omnivore's Dilemma is a revelation, and will get you thinking about agricultural policy under an Obama administration.

Then Michael J. Neufeld's Von Braun: Dreamer of Space, Engineer of War. Finally, the definitive biography.

Posted by: paxr55 on June 25, 2008 at 7:15 PM | PERMALINK

I just finished "Evolution for Everyone" by David Sloan Wilson. Interesting book about how natural selection as a way of thinking is broadly applicable, not just to the origin of species.

I'm now reading "Musicophilia" by Oliver Sacks. More weird and wonderful (and tragic) neurological phenomena, this time with music as a common theme.

Posted by: Fred from Pescadero on June 25, 2008 at 7:15 PM | PERMALINK


Try 'One River' by Wade Davis. It's a book loosely about Richard Evans Schultes, the Harvard ethnobotanist. It traces his career of ethnobotanical observations in the Amazon. It is kind of a history of the field of ethnobotany (the study of how people use plants) as Schultes founded the modern practice of the discipline, but written as more of an adventure tale. Incrediblely well written and very engaging. I literally had to force myself to go to bed every night the first time I read it! It bounces back and forth from some of the earlier Amazonian explorers to Schultes and one of his star students who followed in his footsteps a few decades later investigating use of the coca plant (the source of cocaine).

In my favorite section, it chronicles Schultes work to identify a blight resistant rubber tree in South America during WWII. This was necessary because the Japanese captured the rubber plantations in the Pacific and the blight made plantations impossible in South America. That is until Schultes discovered a blight resistant ecotype deep in the sub-montane Amazon of Peru. You'll have to read the book to find out why South America has no rubber plantations today, however! The book also brings up and explores a number of the issues surrounding the expropriation of native botanical resources by the "West" in a historical context.

FYI, Wade Davis was one of Schultes students and writes about him with obvious affection. Davis has also written other books. Of note is 'The Serpent and the Rainbow', the book on which the movie was (very, very) loosely based. It is a very interesting account of his research into the origins of the zombie myths in Haiti. Also worth a read.

Posted by: Michael Foulk on June 25, 2008 at 7:17 PM | PERMALINK

Any fairly recent decent book on neuroscience.
The ones by Antonio Damasio were engaging. "Phantoms in the Brain: Probing the Mysteries of the Human Mind" by V. S. Ramachandran was interesting as well. These are 5 years old, and there may be newer titles that are better.
I'm sure others have some similar recommendations.

Posted by: Bill Arnold on June 25, 2008 at 7:20 PM | PERMALINK

The Control Of Nature, John McPhee

Assembling California, John McPhee

Encounters with the Archdruid, John McPhee

A Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold

The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature, Matt Ridley

Cadillac Desert, Marc Reisner

Roughing It, Mark Twain

Fire Mountains of the West, Stephen L. Harris

Chaos: Making a New Science, James Gleick

Travels With Charley, John Steinbeck

Blue Highways, William Least Heat Moon

Soul Made Flesh: The Discovery of the Brain--and How it Changed the World by Carl Zimmer

God: A Biography, Jack Miles

On Bullshit, Harry Frankfurt

We Die Alone, David Howarth (as adventure, not history)

Canoeing With The Cree, David Sevareid

The Long Walk, Slavomir Rawicz

Posted by: joel_hanes on June 25, 2008 at 7:23 PM | PERMALINK

Pollan is an amazingly dishonest douchebag. Read Myer's takedown of him in The Atlantic:


I'd say: "The Moral Animal." Damasio is great, so is "Stumbling."

Posted by: John McCain: More of the Same on June 25, 2008 at 7:24 PM | PERMALINK

"Terror and Consent," by Phillip Bobbitt. The best book yet written about the war on terror, although I don't agree with much of it. Niall Ferguson's NYTimes review did it an injustice, making it sound like a neocon book, but it's not.


Posted by: hedgie on June 25, 2008 at 7:24 PM | PERMALINK

"Terror and Consent," by Phillip Bobbitt. The best book yet written about the war on terror, although I don't agree with much of it. Niall Ferguson's NYTimes review did it an injustice, making it sound like a neocon book, but it's not.


Posted by: hedgie on June 25, 2008 at 7:24 PM | PERMALINK

I second the Bruce Chatwin recommendations.

If you enjoy that kind of travel writing, anything by Dervla Murphy is also a treat. She is totally fearless, and entirely respectful of the cultures she visits.

This is fiction, but I'm currently reading and enjoying "Spook Country" by William Gibson.

Posted by: thersites on June 25, 2008 at 7:26 PM | PERMALINK

If you're a transit geek at all, I would highly recommend picking up Transit Maps of the World. For one thing, it's just so pretty.

Posted by: Chris O. on June 25, 2008 at 7:28 PM | PERMALINK

an interesting climate change book...will give yet another perspective on nuclear power: "the revenge of gaia" by earth science pioneer, James Lovelock...also a good book on biodiversity by Peter Ward: "the end of evolution"

Posted by: benmerc on June 25, 2008 at 7:29 PM | PERMALINK

"Ecological Imperialism: The biological expansion of Europe 900-1900" by Al Crosby is my all-time fav non-fiction. Extremely readable.

Posted by: genome on June 25, 2008 at 7:29 PM | PERMALINK

Take a look at Ian Kerhaw's Fateful Choices, now in paperback, about key decisions that were made during two crucial years in WW II (Britain's decision to stay in the fight, Hitler's decision to attack the Soviet Union, etc.). It's fascinating (even if Kershaw is uncommonly fond of the comma in his writing).

Posted by: Zeno on June 25, 2008 at 7:31 PM | PERMALINK

I'm nearly finished with IDA: Sword Among Lions. It's a biography on Ida B. Wells. She lead the movement to make lynching a Federal crime. It's 600+, but packed with information on the state of Black America in the late 1890s and early 1900s. The players include: Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois. I found it to be a good read.

Posted by: Robert Bryan on June 25, 2008 at 7:31 PM | PERMALINK

Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare by Stephen Greenblatt will tell you more than you'd ever want to know about Shakespeare and Elizabethan times. It's long, but very well written -- a pleasure to read.

Posted by: David on June 25, 2008 at 7:32 PM | PERMALINK

Adventures on the Wine Route by Kermit Lynch. It's out of print but readily available used on Amazon. It's a memoir of setting up a wine importing business, the travels in rural France during a time when international trade was changing everything. It's a fairly light and enjoyable read, onyl a couple of hundred pages.

Posted by: Tom on June 25, 2008 at 7:33 PM | PERMALINK

"The Black Swan" by Nassim Taleb. It will change your ideas about change.

Posted by: Tom O on June 25, 2008 at 7:33 PM | PERMALINK

I love the Bill Bryson books--and they're really fun on audio, too, since he does his own reading. Favorite: In a Sunburned Country (about Australia) and A Walk in the Woods (about hiking the entire Appalachian Trail... or very nearly).

Posted by: Winslow on June 25, 2008 at 7:37 PM | PERMALINK

The Rest Is Noise: Listening To The Twentieth Century by Alex Ross, which came out a year or so ago has been a big deal to those who are interested in that sort of thing.

Yeah, it's also history, sorry, but I imagine the history of 20th century classical music isn't the sort of thing you normally read, maybe I'm wrong, but it also has lots of musical analysis, generally comprehensible to layman.

Posted by: godoggo on June 25, 2008 at 7:38 PM | PERMALINK

Before the Storm (Perlstein)
Legacy of Ashes: History of the CIA (Weiner)

Posted by: Nisan Chavkin on June 25, 2008 at 7:43 PM | PERMALINK

Similar to what Jill suggested, you may want to give The Drunkard's Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives by Leonard Mlodinow a try. It's about how we misunderstand random chance and therefore misunderstand both success and failure. It's short, clear, and full of entertaining anecdotes. The last two chapters are especially good, and can possibly be read without reading the rest.

Posted by: Llamura on June 25, 2008 at 7:43 PM | PERMALINK

I remember enjoying The Making of the Atomic Bomb, by Richard Rhodes. "Rhodes provides extensive information on the biographical background and scientific accomplishments of the international collaboration of scientists that culminated in the creation of the first atomic bomb. In 1939, several scientists became aware of the theoretical possibility of creating an atomic bomb, a weapon of mass destruction vastly exceeding the potential of existing military arsenals. But it was not until the United States entered World War II, late in 1941, that priority was given to funding and organizing research into the creation of such a weapon in a secret operation referred to as the Manhattan Project."

"Rhodes addresses the difficult moral and ethical dilemmas faced by the scientists of the Manhattan Project, particularly the implications of creating such a weapon of mass destruction. Originally concerned with ‘‘pure’’ scientific research, those who worked on the Manhattan Project were forced to consider the ultimate effect of their research efforts on the future of the human race. "

Posted by: Dean Scourtes on June 25, 2008 at 7:45 PM | PERMALINK

Peter Ackroyd's London: The Biography.

Posted by: Linkmeister on June 25, 2008 at 7:48 PM | PERMALINK

Kevin, I could certainly recommend Weisman's The World Without Us (which I'm currently reading) or Pollan's The Botany of Desire (which I read a few years back and greatly enjoyed, despite my black thumb.)

There is, of course, no such thing as a bad John McPhee book, but I'd say The Control of Nature, The Founding Fish, or Oranges would be the first ones I'd recommend.

That said, my nonfic recommendation for anyone who is a) a layman, and b) an appreciator of great prose should hurry to pick up David Quammen's The Song of the Dodo. It is, I'd have to say, the best science book I've ever read, perhaps because Quammen's not a scientist, but a journalist. He does his homework, and he travels the globe looking at everything from fruit to falcons to komodo dragons, but his gift is being able to describe the abstract issues of evolution and island biogeography in language that is not merely clear but practically ecstatic. Great, great stuff. And his other books are also wonderful.

Posted by: Peter Cashwell on June 25, 2008 at 7:52 PM | PERMALINK

Charles Mann, 1491. Not so much history as (anthrop/arche)ology.

Bill McKibben, Deep Economy.

And I agree with those who recommend Pollan--unless you're a vegetarian. You won't like him if you're a vegetarian.

Posted by: Borden Tarde on June 25, 2008 at 7:52 PM | PERMALINK

Banana, by Dan Koeppel. I'm reading it now; it's all about how the humble banana changed the world. Good stuff. Or how about The Visionary Window, by Amit Goswami? "A Quantum Physicist's Guide to Enlightenment." Good times.

Posted by: Wally on June 25, 2008 at 7:53 PM | PERMALINK

The Pollan books are definitely worth reading.

When You Are Engulfed in Flames by David Sedaris is a grand summer-starter.

Posted by: Victoria on June 25, 2008 at 7:53 PM | PERMALINK

For a different read, try Infrastructure, The Book of Everything for the Industrial Landscape, by Brian Hayes.
Kind of like 'How Things Work', but it's all about the workings of our industrial infrastructure; dams, mines, railroads, bridges, the power grid and the rest. Took him 15 years to write and photograph, it's brilliant, beautiful, heavy, and unputdownable.

Posted by: kamajii on June 25, 2008 at 7:55 PM | PERMALINK

I strongly recommend The dotCrime Manifesto: How to Stop Internet Crime by Phill Hallam-Baker (Addison Wesley, 2008). Its the best book I have written all year. (Hey you think that all the other posts are not written by the authors as well?)

Computer security can be a pretty intimidating subject but it does not need to be. Internet crime is not a technology problem, its a people problem: no people, no crime.

I have been working on the design of the Web and on Web Security in particular since 1992. The reason you should read my book (and recommend it to your readers) is that the lack of accountability that I identify as the principal cause of Internet crime has been a common theme running through all the Bush administration fiascoes and scandals of the past eight years.

I originally wrote the book after a well known security academic asked me to write something for his students to give them the information that information security professionals value but tends to fall outside the academic curriculum "what they need to know to get a job" as he put it.

If nothing else you will find out how technologies such as OpenID 2.0 are going to be changing the blogosphere in the future.

Posted by: PHB on June 25, 2008 at 7:56 PM | PERMALINK

"What Evolution Is" by the late Ernst Mayr.
Written in his late 90s, and denser than it appears. It's sort of a brain-dump intended to be consumable by a lay-person.

Posted by: Bill Arnold on June 25, 2008 at 7:59 PM | PERMALINK

Professing Feminism: Education and Indoctrination in Women's Studies, by Daphne Patai (who teaches in a Women's Studies department.)

And also really fascinating, and starring some bloggers you know and love:

Until Proven Innocent: Political Correctness and the Shameful Injustices of the Duke Lacrosse Rape Case, by KC Johnson, Ph.D, History Professor, Brooklyn College.

Enjoy, these books are both very illuminating.

Posted by: jerry on June 25, 2008 at 8:02 PM | PERMALINK

In response to the neuroscience/psychology posts, I'll second the vote for Dan Gilbert. In this category of terrific, focused psychology books is The Paradox Of Choice by Barry Schwartz, which is about the overload of modern capitalist like, and how too many choices make us, paradoxically, less happy.

For a current, general survey of neuroscience, I recommend a current book, Welcome To Your Brain. It addresses common beliefs about the brain ("You only use 10% of your brain!" "Playing Mozart to babies makes them smarter!" "Drinking kills brain cells!"), debunks them (those three are all false), and replaces them with facts, research, and useful tips. See http://welcometoyourbrain.com.

My true confession is...I am an author of Welcome To Your Brain. I run a research lab, and my co-author edited a leading journal of neuroscience. Now, it may seem picayune to promote myself in a comment thread. But this blog is one of my favorites, and I would be delighted for Kevin and everyone else to take a look.

The Rick Perlstein book mentioned above, Before The Storm, is a riveting history of the Goldwater candidacy and its effect on the conservative movement. The Richard Rhodes book on the making of the atomic bomb is a masterpiece, but long.

Posted by: SW on June 25, 2008 at 8:15 PM | PERMALINK

Terra: Our 100-Million-Year-Old Ecosystem--and the Threats That Now Put It at Risk (Hardcover)by Michael Novacek. Its a good read, a natural history of Earth's biosphere, and a projection into our uncertain future. Novacek is an engaging writer, and adds personal stories about his forays into the jungles and deserts and fossil localities.

Posted by: troglodyte on June 25, 2008 at 8:17 PM | PERMALINK

I'm surprised no ones recommended "Guns, Germs and Steel" by Jared Diamond. It won the Pulitzer. If you're interested in the how's and why's of the rise of western civilization as opposed to others, here's your story. And it's not what you think.

Posted by: Carl on June 25, 2008 at 8:19 PM | PERMALINK

I just finished The Sex Lives of Cannibals by J. Maarten Troost.

Damn Teresa, you beat me to it. I'd also suggest another J. Maarten Troost book..."Getting Stoned with Savages."

Posted by: elmo on June 25, 2008 at 8:19 PM | PERMALINK

In the previous post, change "modern capitalist like" to "modern capitalist LIFE"

Posted by: SW on June 25, 2008 at 8:19 PM | PERMALINK

On biology, anything by Carl Zimmer. I've only read Parasite Rex, but his new book about E.coli is supposed to be good.

I'd second 1491, but you excluded history.

Posted by: OriGuy on June 25, 2008 at 8:20 PM | PERMALINK

Ghost Map by Steven Johnson.

Posted by: Jerome on June 25, 2008 at 8:25 PM | PERMALINK

I know, no history, but I thought "America's Hidden History" by Kenneth Davis was pretty damn good.

Posted by: elmo on June 25, 2008 at 8:25 PM | PERMALINK

Am I the only one reading movie books on the beach? Either of Simon Callow's books on Orson Welles, or Preston Sturges' autobigraphy, which is the funniest book I've ever read. It's like reading a Sturges movie.

Posted by: jgs on June 25, 2008 at 8:26 PM | PERMALINK

The Places in Between by Rory Stewart.

tale of his walk across Afghanistan a few months after the fall of the Taliban. The last leg of a larger scheme he had already accomplished: to traverse the Muslim world on foot by way of Iran, Pakistan, India, and Nepal. Fascinating story.

Posted by: squarestate on June 25, 2008 at 8:27 PM | PERMALINK

Hey, a Shakespeare book I haven't heard of! Thanks, David.

Posted by: Bob M on June 25, 2008 at 8:28 PM | PERMALINK

Fans of Stumbling on Happiness should also like The Accidental Mind, by David Linden, I think. It has more of a focus on the evolution of the brain, and hence of cognition, but covers comparable ground from a slightly different perspective. If that piques your interest, a couple of modern classics, in my opinion, are Kim Sterelny's Thought in a Hostile World: The Evolution of Human Cognition and Terrence Deacon's The Symbolic Species: The Coevolution of language and the brain, the former by a philosopher, the latter by an anthropologist. Very accessible, very insightful.

And on a completely different topic, one of the funniest books I've read, non-fiction or no, is Nigel Barley's The Innocent Anthropologist: Notes From a Mud Hut, about his adventures as a field anthropologist in Cameroon.

Posted by: RSA on June 25, 2008 at 8:28 PM | PERMALINK

Beyond Growth by Herman Daly

A great introduction to environmental economics.

Posted by: Everett on June 25, 2008 at 8:33 PM | PERMALINK

Robert Sapolsky, A Primate's Memoir or The Trouble with Testosterone

Posted by: KC on June 25, 2008 at 8:40 PM | PERMALINK


Great reading, so captivating that the POTUS preferred to read it while the fake terrorist attack was taking place on 9/11.

Posted by: Mark With the Tiny Tiny Pencil on June 25, 2008 at 8:40 PM | PERMALINK

It ain't new, but have you read Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud? It's an interesting look at how and why comic books work as a medium (rather than a genre).

Posted by: Rob S. on June 25, 2008 at 8:48 PM | PERMALINK

Hey Kevin,
Some great books here, can you turn them into a list and stash it on the sidebar for us readers?

Posted by: Kamajii on June 25, 2008 at 8:52 PM | PERMALINK

Movie books? Read Akira Kurosawa's autobiography.

Posted by: Henry on June 25, 2008 at 8:58 PM | PERMALINK

Henry Adams' History of the United States during the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson, and The History of the United States during the Administrations of James Madison. In particular the last second from last paragraph on page 1111 of the former (Library of America Edition). If you don't have that edition it's in chapter XI "The Enforcement of the Embargo" in the Second Administration of Thomas Jefferson.

Posted by: Reference Librarian on June 25, 2008 at 9:12 PM | PERMALINK

I loved Robert Wright's "The Moral Animal". It's well written and mixes (Darwin's) biography, sociology, evolution, Victorian morals, and more I can't remember. Each page sparkles with ideas.

Posted by: leszek on June 25, 2008 at 9:14 PM | PERMALINK

My true confession is...I am an author of Welcome To Your Brain.

Nice. Thanks for the pointer.

Posted by: RSA on June 25, 2008 at 9:15 PM | PERMALINK

"A Short History of Nearly Everything" By Bill Bryson. Wonderful, light hearted, 'mazing book about the embrace of technology from the beginning to now. Basic premise: We don't know much.

Posted by: Loren Korevec on June 25, 2008 at 9:16 PM | PERMALINK

Try: The Code Book, it's a history of cryptography and code breaking, flew right over my head within 50 pages but facinating stuff.

I forget the author's name, but ya'll can use the google right?

Posted by: kellygreen on June 25, 2008 at 9:16 PM | PERMALINK

Anything by John McPhee:

Excellent writing.
Always entertaining and educational.
Short, so you can read some more.

Posted by: alibubba on June 25, 2008 at 9:22 PM | PERMALINK

The Life of John Wesley Hardin, by John Wesley Hardin

Posted by: luther on June 25, 2008 at 9:26 PM | PERMALINK

I second the recommendations of Pollan (If you already read Omnivore's Dilemma, go back and read The Botany of Desire. It's fabulous) and Bryson (Short History of Nearly Everything), but figure you already know about those.

If you are a Beatles fan - and especially if you are a big Beatles fan, you should read Can't Buy Me Love: The Beatles, Britain and America by Jonathan Gould. I didn't think there was a need for yet another book about the Beatles, but this new one is a beautifully written, thoroughly researched look that places then in historical, sociological, musical, cultural contexts all the while offering up brilliant brief analyses of every song they ever released. I've never learned so much about something I thought I knew so much about.

Posted by: Don on June 25, 2008 at 9:27 PM | PERMALINK

The code book is by Simon Singh, who also wrote the big bang which is about the history of the big bang theory. Both are very readable introductions to their subjects for the layperson. Singh is not a crypto-specialist but what I read of the code book is accurate.

You will probably enjoy Singh if you enjoyed Malcom Gladwell's books Blink and the Tipping Point.

Posted by: PHB on June 25, 2008 at 9:28 PM | PERMALINK

The Blank Slate, The Modern Denial of Human Nature by Steven Pinker, is a provocative read for liberals.

The God Particle by Leon Lederman clearly explains particle physics and is a lot of fun to read. The book is much better than its title would indicate.

NonZero by Robert Wright is very good, along with Guns, Germs, and Steel (which I would guess Kevin has already read).

Posted by: Detroit Dan on June 25, 2008 at 9:32 PM | PERMALINK

Some interesting and recent books on Islam:
Bruce Lawrence's The Qur'an: a biography is a great overview.
M.A. Muqtedar Khan's (editor) Islamic Democratic Discourse is the best refutation of the "Islamofascism" idea.
Peter King's West Papua and Indonesia tells the story of one place the Iraq war allows us to ignore.

Posted by: vic on June 25, 2008 at 9:44 PM | PERMALINK

I haven't got around to reading it yet, but The Wild Trees by Richard Preston is on my "to be read" pile. There's a whole mostly unknown ecosystem 300 feet above the ground in the canopy of the California redwood forests. Plants and animals exist up there which never come down to our level. Some botanists and naturalists figured out how to get up there and observe this new world.

Posted by: Jamie on June 25, 2008 at 9:49 PM | PERMALINK

Here goes:

The Post-American World by Fareed Zakaria (although his head is freakishly large for his body)

A World Less Safe by Terrell Arnold

Grand Theft Pentagon: Tales of Corruption and Profiteering in the War on Terror by Jeffrey St. Clair

The Looming Tower by Lawrence Wright

Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush by Robert Parry

I also love The Omnivore’s Dilemma , but don’t forget The Botany of Desire , also by Michael Pollan.

Enjoy, Kevin!

Posted by: The Conservative Deflator on June 25, 2008 at 10:05 PM | PERMALINK

Nudge. It's about the way people make decisions, and what kind of incentives we really respond to.

One example was in trying to get people to use electricity, they found that if you told people the average electricity use in their neighborhood on their utility bill, high-users would start dropping their usage. Unfortunately, low-users would up theirs. So, when they sent out the bill the next time, they put a happy face next to the low users' range, and a sad face next to the high users' range. End result? High users went down, and low users stayed down.


Posted by: anonymiss on June 25, 2008 at 10:06 PM | PERMALINK

"Here comes everybody" by Shirky is worth reading; mostly it crystallizes things that seem obvious once they're on paper, but it also offers some great insights.

"The Clock of the Long Now" by stewart brand is thought provoking and short.

Posted by: annon on June 25, 2008 at 10:08 PM | PERMALINK

Here’s the link to my Amazon reviews (top-1,500 reviewer), with most recent ones at top.

They include Bill Shatner’s new bio (4-star light summer read), The Age of Reagan by Sean Wilentz (5-star), The Great Warming (5-star, about climate change in the Medieval Warm Period, ca 900-1300 CE), and my two favorites of the past couple of months: “Empire of Lies: The Truth About China in the Twenty-First Century,” a definite 5-star that refutes a lot of bullshit from both economic conservatives and neoliberals, and Gandhi & Churchill: The Epic Rivalry that Destroyed an Empire and Forged Our Age, an excellent dual biography.

Posted by: SocraticGadfly on June 25, 2008 at 10:08 PM | PERMALINK

Pinball Theory of Apocalypse by Jonathan Selwood. A quick read and funny book about Los Angeles.

Posted by: DB on June 25, 2008 at 10:15 PM | PERMALINK

There is a book titled: Wood. Written by social historian Harvey Green.

It will make appreciate what a versatile material wood is and how fundamental it was to the growth of civilization. Green is an amateur woodworker and has a love for the subject that shows in his writing.

Posted by: Stuart on June 25, 2008 at 10:17 PM | PERMALINK

As I am a history graduate student, I think it's a pity you're not in the mood for a good history....but maybe try Redmond O'Hanlon's No Mercy, a fascinating and thought-provoking travel account of a journey through the Congo.

Posted by: jackson on June 25, 2008 at 10:17 PM | PERMALINK

read "common cause" by thomas paine

Posted by: tom on June 25, 2008 at 10:17 PM | PERMALINK

read "common cause" by thomas paine

Posted by: tom on June 25, 2008 at 10:17 PM | PERMALINK

Steve Pinker? Bleech. He believes in the metaphysical Evolutionary Psychology, rather than legitimate evolutionary psychology.

Dan Dennett? Gets worse with every book he writes. No new ideas in a decade.

Do NOT read Pat Buchanan's new history of WWI/WWII. Horrible.

Sacks? Musicophilia is a dropoff from previous.

Posted by: SocraticGadfly on June 25, 2008 at 10:19 PM | PERMALINK

Hmm. Well, I'm partial to books on social theory. And community.

Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs is a must read. And I think you've probably never read it.

No politics? History? Well save this one for later then: Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan by Herbert Bix is a bit of a slog but picks up about 3/4 of the way through.

I agree with one of the top commenters about Michael Pollan's Omnivore's Dilemma although the other book isn't quite as good in terms of human origin studies in anthropology. Reads a little like he doesn't quite know the topic.

I absolute loved Suzuki Takao's Words in Context. He's definitely a firm believer in Japanese exceptionalism (and the Nationalist mythology that it is rooted in), but it's a very interesting study of Japanese by a native socio-linguist.

That's it for now. I have a ton of books on design and environmental graphic design that I could recommend if someone is looking for something way out of the realm of this blog.

Posted by: Christopher on June 25, 2008 at 10:19 PM | PERMALINK

I don't know if art history counts as history, as in the "no history" rule, but Mary Beard's little book on _The Parthenon_ is a very elegant little read. I bet that Timon Screech's _The Lens Within the Heart. The Western Scientific Gaze and Popular Imagery in Later Edo Japan_ would grab you, even if you're not particularly interested in Japan. And if you want a funny memoir, the pianist Gary Graffman's _I Really Should be Practicing_ (long out of print) is a very funny recounting of life as a touring pianist in the middle decades of the twentieth century.

Posted by: Ben Weiss on June 25, 2008 at 10:22 PM | PERMALINK

Re "The Code Book", the very unofficial "history" of the U.S. National Security agency "Body of Secrets" by James Bamford might be fascinating, particularly if you liked his earlier "Puzzle Palace".
The Code Book was written from a Brit perspective, which was an interesting POV. I had no clue that the RSA algorithm was secretly invented (and shelved) by the Brits a few years prior to its public invention by R, S and A.

Posted by: Bill Arnold on June 25, 2008 at 10:25 PM | PERMALINK

If you'd like a close look at how manufactuing in China works, try The China Price, which was just released and is fully- up-to-date. (The back cover hypes it to look like a more traditional sweatshop expose, but really it goes into detail about how exactly the manufactuing-business process works.

Posted by: mike s. on June 25, 2008 at 10:52 PM | PERMALINK

I read it years ago, but i still rank it as my favorite nonfiction of all time -- Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas Hofstadter. It travels both deeply and broadly through and around the subject of human cognition, offering numerous delights for the mind.

I'll add yet another plug, too, for the Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma.

Posted by: Corncrib on June 25, 2008 at 10:55 PM | PERMALINK

Ditto on:
Control of Nature, Code Book, Cadillac Desert, Oranges, the Tufte Books.

I thought Waves and Beaches (by Willard Bascom) was fascinating. Beaches (especially Pacific beaches) will never look the same to you.

On Food and Cooking (Harold McGee)

Mindless Eating (by Brain Wansink)

Bicycling Science (useful stuff, widely ignored.)

Posted by: dr2chase on June 25, 2008 at 10:59 PM | PERMALINK

I recently read The First Word: The Search for the Origins of Language, by Christine Kenneally. It surveys the history of the field (and Chomsky's caustic influence on it) and concludes that language is a constellation of talents precursers of which are found in other animals. She finds in use the standard evolutionary tools of incremental advance and using existing structures for new uses.

If you haven't read Plagues and Peoples or Soils and Civilization, they're both wonderful.

Posted by: anandine on June 25, 2008 at 11:01 PM | PERMALINK

Julian Barbour, The End of Time.

Lee Smolin, The Trouble with Physics.

Both are among the most creative thinkers in modern theoretical physics. Barbour, in particular, is interesting. For 20 years, he supported himself by translating Russian physics texts into English so that he could think about the things he wanted to think about instead of being bound up in the publications and grants rat race.

Posted by: Paul Camp on June 25, 2008 at 11:06 PM | PERMALINK

The Canon by Natalie Angier, the NY Times brilliant science reporter. It's a fun survey of the state of various sciences. Lots of word play. Einstein, the terrific biography by Walter Isaacson. I second Rhodes's The Making of the Atomic Bomb. It deservedly took the National Book Award and the Pulitzer. And for sure, McPhee can't be beat. Annals of the Prior World, another Pulitzer winner, includes five (!) of his geology books. Reading it should qualify you for an Associate's degree in geology, at least.

Posted by: E E Gardner on June 25, 2008 at 11:15 PM | PERMALINK

Rising Tide, by John Barry. Quite topical at the moment.Story of the Mississippi floods of the late 20s that Randy Newman turned into a song.

Posted by: AliceBrenda on June 25, 2008 at 11:17 PM | PERMALINK

Duke University Institute for Policy Studies
May 1988

Summer Reading for PPS 264 S-31 Students

"In that great discourse with the living dead which we call reading, our role is not a passive one. Where it is more than reverie or an indifferent appetite sprung of boredom, reading is a mode of action.
We engage the presence, the voice of the book. We allow it entry, though not unguarded, into our inmost. A great poem, a classic novel, press in upon us; they assail and occupy the strong places of our consciousness.
They exercise upon our imagination and desires, upon our ambitions and most covert dreams, a strange, bruising mastery. Men who burn books know what they are doing. The artist is the uncontrollable force: no
Western eye, since Van Gogh, looks on a cypress without observing in it the start of flame."

-- George Steiner


THE YEARS WITH ROSS....James Thurber





IN PATAGONIA..Bruce Chatwin








LIFE OF JOHNSON...ames Boswell

BOSWELL'S LONDON JOURNAL 1762-1763..Frederick Pottle, ed.



HOME BEFORE DARK....Susan Cheever




THE CRACK-UP..F. Scott Fitzgerald(Edmund Wilson, e ed.)


MELBOURNE...David Cecil
THE CIVIL WAR: A NARRATIVE (threevolumes..Shelby Foote

MEMOIRS..Ulysses S. Grant



THE CAPTIVE MIND and any other collections of his essays..Czeslaw Milosz

THE GOEBBELS DIARIES....Hugh Trevor-Roper, ed.



and Jonathan Cobb


I have brought to this list-making exercise the goal of re-igniting in students of public policy sciences, so called, a love of reading and liberal learning for its own sake.

Most of my entries make it on a standard -- mine -- of literary beauty alone. At work here is no other organizing principle to speak of. Order of appearance is meaningless. Some choices are obvious chestnuts. Fine with me. Others are strongly idiosyncratic, but nonetheless well considered entries. I envy those coming to any of these works for the
first time.

God knows, any such list, even merely one of my own June whimsy on a balcony overlooking Wanchai and Hong Kong harbor, could usefully be twelve hundred times as long.

There will be a quiz. Always, there will be a quiz.

Lawrence Walsh
Senior Journalist in Residence
Institute for Policy Studies
Duke University
Spring 1988

Posted by: Lawrence Walsh on June 25, 2008 at 11:25 PM | PERMALINK

Money of the Mind, by James Grant, the story of credit in the US. Great for the simple layperson, humorous, and will give you an eerie sensation as you read about real estate meltdowns in this book published in 1992.

Posted by: garberpog on June 25, 2008 at 11:27 PM | PERMALINK

The Brain that Changes Itself, by Norman Doige

A fascinating book on neuroplasticity written for non-scientists, but not dumbed down. Chapters cover everything from a woman's successful quest to "cure" herself of learning disabilities to the man who discovered how to relieve people of phantom limb syndrome. Overall, it's an interesting, engaging, well-written book.

Posted by: rm on June 25, 2008 at 11:36 PM | PERMALINK


And, if you haven't gotten to him yet, Orhan Pamuk is fantastic! I like SNOW especially.

Posted by: Dick Mulliken on June 25, 2008 at 11:38 PM | PERMALINK

The Brain that Changes Itself, by Norman Doige

A fascinating book about neuroplasticity written for non-scientists, but not dumbed down. Chapters cover everything from a woman who "cured" herself of severe learning disabilities to the man who discovered how to relieve people of phantom limb syndrome. Overall, an interesting, engaging, well-written book.

Posted by: rm on June 25, 2008 at 11:38 PM | PERMALINK

Cadillac Desert EXCELLENT. A tragedy its author died before being able to do a third edition. I've read it cover to cover three times.

Posted by: SocraticGadfly on June 25, 2008 at 11:55 PM | PERMALINK

Oxford History of the United States. Most recently published volume is What hath God wrought covering 1815-1848. Except for the volumes covering post WWII, I'd recommend the entire series.

I also enjoyed Grant's Memories (see it recommended above). 550 pages of war; 50 pages for the rest of his life - arguably the best soldier's account of the Mexican-American War ever.

Posted by: tarylcabot on June 26, 2008 at 12:12 AM | PERMALINK

Schulz and Peanuts by David Michaelis.

Biography of Charles "Sparky" Schulz. 1/3 through it and it's fascinating!

Posted by: Bill Morgan on June 26, 2008 at 12:18 AM | PERMALINK

Good Germs, Bad Germs is awesome, if you have not read it yet. Learn all about microbiology, medicine, etc. An amazingly good read for a technical subject.

How about filling us in on the fiction you've been reading. Seems like you used to do more posts on books and movies-- I miss them.

Posted by: Steve on June 26, 2008 at 12:20 AM | PERMALINK

More summer nonfiction; cool off in the Great White North :

Never Cry Wolf Farley Mowat

The Red God's Call Errington

Great Heart Davidson/Rugge

Crazy White Man Richard Morenus

Posted by: joel hanes on June 26, 2008 at 12:34 AM | PERMALINK

"Power, Sex, Suicide: Mitochondria and the Meaning of Life," by Nick Lane.

You wouldn't think a book about mitochondria would be interesting, but this one really is. And I understand many of the words.

Also, "Good Calories, Bad Calories," by Gary Taubes. Why pretty much everything you've heard about cholesterol and saturated fat is bullshit, written by one of the best science writers around. It reads like a novel, and there are 75 pages of references, so he backs up what he says.

Posted by: Charles on June 26, 2008 at 12:37 AM | PERMALINK

MOre summer nonfiction; cool off in the Great White South:


The Worst Journey In The World by Apsley Cherry-Garrard and Paul Theroux

Posted by: joel hanes on June 26, 2008 at 12:39 AM | PERMALINK

"Team of Rivals"
A book about Lincoln's cabinet and the Civil WAr.
Fantastic, I think it won the Nobel or something.

Posted by: lark on June 26, 2008 at 12:44 AM | PERMALINK

go sailing

Sailing Alone Around The World Slocum

Two Years Before The Mast Dana

A Narrative of the Mutiny, On board HMS BountyM/em> by William Bligh

Posted by: joel hanes on June 26, 2008 at 12:44 AM | PERMALINK

close tag

Posted by: joel hanes on June 26, 2008 at 12:47 AM | PERMALINK

Wow, am I glad to see someone recommend something by Paul Fussell. Way to go Duke.

I heartily recommend anything by Fussell as he is a pitiless, ironic, literate and razor sharp observer of human nature. The book recommended above is about the First WW but he has written a number of books about WWll, in which he fought. They are very personal and good antidotes to the overly sentimental accounts of WWll that seem to be current.

But the book I recommend most highly is Fussell's "Class", a commentary on the class structure in this country. It is a highly personal view, but is thought provoking and hilarious at the same time. And it has the added virtue, as do all good works of non-fiction, that it will have you going to the bookstore, library or internet in search of the sources of his footnotes and quotes so you can learn more. You'll never look at the Bushes or even the Clintons in the same way.

Posted by: Lucienc on June 26, 2008 at 12:49 AM | PERMALINK

Feh on Taubes, Charles. Pollan will tell you that.

Posted by: SocraticGadfly on June 26, 2008 at 12:54 AM | PERMALINK

Basil Street Blues autobiography by Michael Holroyd

Sale of the Century by Chrystia Freeland about the looting of the former Soviet Union's state assets

Naples '44 by British travel writer Norman Lewis about his WWII experiences

Loose Balls, An Oral History of the ABA by Terry Pluto

Posted by: jrw on June 26, 2008 at 12:58 AM | PERMALINK

Tyler Cowen over at Marginal Revolution is highly recommending "How to Eat Ethically in a World of Vanishing Seafood"


Posted by: Daniel on June 26, 2008 at 1:29 AM | PERMALINK

"The Control Revolution: Technological and Economic Origins of the Information Society" - James Beniger

Sounds real dry & is anything but. Good story well written. A historical tale from the early 1800s until now.

"...This book is designed to be the synthetic work on the 'Information Society' and its origins, and by all rights it will be. It is beautifully done and is built to last...Everything about the book is intelligent. (Critical Review )..."

You`ll be glad you read it.

"History can save your ass." - William Gibson

Posted by: daCascadian on June 26, 2008 at 1:30 AM | PERMALINK

Library of America has a 2 volume set called, I believe, Debate on the Constitution, drawn from contemporary sources (including some of the Federalist Papers). Fascinating.

Posted by: Damned at Random on June 26, 2008 at 1:35 AM | PERMALINK

"Phantoms in the Brain" by V.S. Ramachandran and Sandra Blakeslee. It's a book about weird neurological conditions and what they tell us about consciousness, belief and so forth. Ramachandran plays a large role in a recent New Yorker story about itching: http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2008/06/30/080630fa_fact_gawande?currentPage=all

The book is a lot like that article, and I think you'd appreciate Ramachandran's curious-but-skeptical approach. There's no politics in it.

Posted by: Dan K. on June 26, 2008 at 1:39 AM | PERMALINK

The Golden Spruce, John Vaillant. Excellent, and you learn all about he history of logging.

Posted by: Pabodie on June 26, 2008 at 1:49 AM | PERMALINK

Here are four oldies-but-goodies.

1. "The Journals of Lewis & Clark" is the greatest true adventure story ever written.
2. "Fast Food Nation" by Eric Schlosser will transform the way you look at McDonalds, Subway, et al.
3. "The American Way of Death" by Jessica Mitford was written nearly 50 years ago; it is still a classic piece of muckraking and laugh-out-loud funny.
4. "The Power Broker" by Robert A. Caro is at once a great biography and a great piece of investigative reporting.

I'd like to second the earlier suggestion that you compile all the comments on this thread into a reading list.

Posted by: Ron Campbell on June 26, 2008 at 1:59 AM | PERMALINK

Written in the 90s. Both great:

Conferderates in the attic. Tony Horwitz. A road trip into Civil War territory. Well told.

(He just came out with a new book about what happened between columbus and first settlement in the "new world")

Posted by: Susan Kitchens on June 26, 2008 at 2:02 AM | PERMALINK

Oops, Had two books from the 90s. The other one is:
Through the Grapevine Jay Stuller and Glen Martin.

"The real story behind America's eight billion dollar wine industry"

Timely in light of Robert Mondavi's death. Somewhat out of date, but a good read.

Posted by: Susan Kitchens on June 26, 2008 at 2:14 AM | PERMALINK

Mao: The Unknown Story
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Mao: The Unknown Story is an 832-page book written by the husband and wife team, historian Jon Halliday and writer Jung Chang. It was published in 2005 and depicts Mao Zedong, the former paramount leader of China and Chairman of the Communist Party of China, as being responsible for mass murder on a scale similar to, or greater than, that committed under the rule of Adolf Hitler or Joseph Stalin.

The eleven years of research for the book included interviews with hundreds of people who were close to Mao Zedong at some point in his life and reveal the contents of newly opened archives. Additional knowledge comes from Chang's personal experience of living through the chaos of the Cultural Revolution. The book has generated large numbers of sales and been included on best-seller lists, but it is also controversial. Mao: The Unknown Story has received mixed reviews from academics and commentators alike, ranging from great praise[1] to serious criticism.[2]

Posted by: great leap forward on June 26, 2008 at 3:50 AM | PERMALINK

If you haven't read "Up in the Old Hotel", a collection of magazine articles (mostly from the New Yorker of a long time ago) by Joseph Mitchell, you owe it to yourself. Beautifully written, keenly observed, and gives you a real sense of a New York that no longer exists.

Posted by: jkarto on June 26, 2008 at 5:50 AM | PERMALINK

Ditto on the Omnivore's Dilemma, and when you get back to fiction you'll howl at "The Yiddish Policeman's Union" by Michael Chabon. Have you read" Team of Rivals" by Doris Kearns Goodwin about Lincoln and his Cabinet? Lincoln really was the consummate politician and I hope President Obama does half as well.

Posted by: Enver on June 26, 2008 at 6:50 AM | PERMALINK

Ditto on the Omnivore's Dilemma, and when you get back to fiction you'll howl at "The Yiddish Policeman's Union" by Michael Chabon. Have you read" Team of Rivals" by Doris Kearns Goodwin about Lincoln and his Cabinet? Lincoln really was the consummate politician and I hope President Obama does half as well.

Posted by: Enver on June 26, 2008 at 6:50 AM | PERMALINK

"The Boy Who Invented Television" bt Paul Schatzkin.

Marvelous tale about Philo Farnsworth, who conceived the technology that is now TV when he was still a kid. Then built it. Trials and Tribulations along the way. And then his experiments with fusion energy.

Good book.

Would also suggest "Stealing Jesus" by Bruce Bawer. It's a history of how fundamentalism began and then, yes, stole Jesus for its very own. Shows how the Baptists have turned 180 degrees from where they started - which was with the concept of "soul competency." Fascinatin' stuff.

Posted by: Ed D. on June 26, 2008 at 7:05 AM | PERMALINK

The End of Food by Paul Roberts

Posted by: Jeff on June 26, 2008 at 8:36 AM | PERMALINK

Kevin, for little known California history read "A Cast of Hawks" by Milton Gould, published by Coply Press. Covers the duell, and death of a US Senator, by a Cailfornia Supreme Court Justice,the arrest of a Cal Supreme Court Justice by San Francisco vigalanties, the killing of an ex-Cal Sup Court Justice by a US Marshall guarding US Supreme Court Justice Fields, and a lot more that never made it into California history books.

Posted by: crimelord on June 26, 2008 at 8:46 AM | PERMALINK

Late to the thread, but a couple of people might see this:

His Monkey Wife by John Collier
Rogue Male by Geoffrey Household
A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush by Eric Newby
Greenmantle by John Buchan

and I see that The Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry Garrard has had a couple of mentions already.

Posted by: Jeffrey Davis on June 26, 2008 at 9:17 AM | PERMALINK

Yuo might enjoy "Charlatan," a new biography of Dr. John Brinkley, the goat-gland transplant king of Milford Kansas. It's readable and gives a good overview of alternate medicine of the early part of the last century. Yeah, it's history, and there's politics in there as well--Doc ran for governor of Kansas--but it's a just-about-stranger-than-fiction story that qualifies as a guilt-free summer read.

Posted by: dware on June 26, 2008 at 9:27 AM | PERMALINK

Following your instructions I have these two recommendations.

The Golden Spruce as suggested above. It isn't often you read a book that you feel actually changed your life when you reached the last page.

I recently discovered a new author, well, new to me, and found his writing viscerally exciting. His name is Craig Childs. He's a journalist, amateur archeologist and a wanderer of rocky desolate places. I especially recommend Animal Dialogues. The description of his being stalked by a cougar took my breath away and made me feel absolutely in the moment even though I obviously knew he survived. However you can't go wrong with anything he writes.

Posted by: akiba on June 26, 2008 at 9:50 AM | PERMALINK

All I can do is tell you some of the good non-fiction books I've read recently:

1491, which you've probably already read and is a great revisionist history about the civilizations in North and South America before Columbus, and the devastation caused by his visit.

Obama: From Promise to Power, the definitive biography of Barack Obama written by David Mendell, a reporter with the Chicago Tribune. Solid look at his pre-2004 career, although I'm a bit biased because Mendell and I are alum of the same Ohio newspaper.

I was about to start reading "The Race Beat," but I got sidetracked by "The Road" by Cormac McCarthy.

Posted by: AMP on June 26, 2008 at 10:09 AM | PERMALINK

How about The Wild Trees by Richard Preston? Who knew all that stuff goes on in the tops of redwood trees? I guarantee you'll want to go visit NoCal after reading this book.

I also enjoyed Bonk by Mary Roach (about sex research!) and Human Smoke by Nicholson Baker, though that would fall in the history category.

Posted by: edub on June 26, 2008 at 10:11 AM | PERMALINK

How to Read the Bible by James Kugel. Written by a former professor at Harvard who is also an orthodox Jew, the book explores modern biblical scholarship to determine how the Old Testament was actually written and what it meant to those who wrote it, how later readers (in the late biblical and post-biblical periods) impressed their own interpretations on us through their writings, which stories may have a basis in historical fact, etc. The book concludes with a discussion as to how the Bible may be relevant to various types of readers today, such as fundamentalist Christians, liberal Christians, Jews, etc. As one who was raised as a Conservative Jew and is now agnostic, I found it endlessly fascinating.

Posted by: dad23g on June 26, 2008 at 10:21 AM | PERMALINK

"The Decline of Nature" - Environmental History and the Western Worldview
Gilbert LaFreniere - Academica Press

Posted by: bobbywally on June 26, 2008 at 10:22 AM | PERMALINK

It's not new, but Ron Chernow's biography of Alexander Hamilton is wonderfully written, vivid, and provides reason to hope that when politicians put aside personal ambitions and ideology to focus on what is good for the country, remarkable progress can be made.

Posted by: southpaw on June 26, 2008 at 10:28 AM | PERMALINK

I'm currently reading Misquoting Jesus by Bart Ehrman. It's biblical interpretation combined with history. I find it fascinating.

For example, did you know Paul's statement in 1 Corinthians 14 about how women should be silent in Church and tend to their husbands' needs probably wasn't written by Paul? Throughout his letters Paul praises the work of women establishing the early church in 100-200 AD. One woman he refers to in Galatians, Junia, even had her name changed to a man's name, Junius, in later versions of his letters.

There are literally thousands of examples throughout the Old and New Testaments where what was likely the original text has been changed to address some religious or social controversey. In other words, Ehrman documents how the Bible is really a work of man, in most cases very conservative men, and not the Unerring Word of God. The impact hits us even to this day.

Imagine that -- changing the wording of original, sacred documents to suit your aims. Sounds like the Bush Administration's Signing Statements. Where are Karl Rove's ancestors from again?

Posted by: pj in jesusland on June 26, 2008 at 10:28 AM | PERMALINK

AMP, Mendell's Obama bio is very, very good.

And anything by Ramachandran -- think Oliver Sacks as an investigative neuroscientist -- is great.

Posted by: SocraticGadfly on June 26, 2008 at 10:36 AM | PERMALINK

Pure self promotion: http://www.amazon.com/Cash-Carry-Tim-Broderick/dp/1590805682/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1202227173&sr=1-3

Posted by: Tim Broderick on June 26, 2008 at 10:41 AM | PERMALINK

Any book by John McPhee -- but I particularly enjoyed "Encounters with the Arch Druid." In this book, McPhee describes "get togethers" in the field between the former head of the Sierra Club and 1)a geologist that believed that if there was copper under the White House, you would destroy the White House to get it; 2) a head engineer of a major dam project; and 3) the developer of Hilton Head Island's Plantation area. There was no name-calling, no villification. It was an attempt to find understanding and common ground.

Posted by: Bobbi on June 26, 2008 at 10:41 AM | PERMALINK

I just finished Big Bang, The Origin of the Universe, by Simon Singh. Facscinating story, very well written, and should be understandable by those without a scientific background.

Can also recommend Secret Ingredients, the New Yorker Book of Food and Drink, ed. David Remnick. A collection of essays from the New Yorker going all the way back to 1939. Entertaining, and each essay can be finished in 20-30 minutes. Good for the treadmill or when sitting under the dryer at the hairdresser's.

Posted by: pat on June 26, 2008 at 10:49 AM | PERMALINK

I'll second the above recommendation of Gödel, Escher, Bach. Seriously, if you haven't read it yet, you really should do so.

Gödel's incompleteness theorems are probably the most important findings in foundations of mathematics, and Hofstadter explains them to a layperson in a fun and engaging manner.

Posted by: Brock on June 26, 2008 at 11:14 AM | PERMALINK

Try Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me), by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson. Awesome book about cognitive dissonance, very well-written for laypeople.

Posted by: mg_65 on June 26, 2008 at 11:19 AM | PERMALINK

I would highly recommend two books by Sean Carroll, a geneticist at the University of Wisconsin.

From DNA to Diversity

Endless Forms Most Beautiful

Both examine evolution through the eye of genetics and developmental biology and cast light on the emerging field of Evo-Devo (evolutionary developmental biology). They provide a concise and easy-to-read summary of the impact of genomics and embryology on evolution. Fascinating stuff.

Posted by: jeff on June 26, 2008 at 11:19 AM | PERMALINK

I'd like to second the recommendation of The Song of the Dodo by David Quammen, and just add that in addition to being a science book, it's a travel book, and wonderfully entertaining portraits of field biologists - some intrepid, completelly unassuming and accomplished people.
I'd also second the recommedation of the Bryson books. Great on audio book, as the previous poster said- I had to pull over while listening to Sunburned Country (maybe not the exaxt title). I had tears running down my face from laughing, and it was dangerous to drive.

Posted by: pb on June 26, 2008 at 11:29 AM | PERMALINK

Charles Taylor, A Secular Age

Most important philosopher alive makes an intellectual historian's case for post-secularism.

Posted by: goethean on June 26, 2008 at 11:33 AM | PERMALINK

Read Tom Geoghegan's Which Side Are You On?: Trying to Be for Labor When It's Flat on Its Back. It's a wonderful memoir about being a labor lawyer. It's got everything -- wit, gorgeous writing, a deep social conscience, and a compelling argument about why labor is so essential to American liberalism.

I also highly recommend his other books, especially Secret Lives of Citizens and See You in Court.

Posted by: Kathy G. on June 26, 2008 at 11:36 AM | PERMALINK

The Swamp: The Everglades, Florida, and the Politics of Paradise, by Michael Grunwald

It is enough about the natural history of the Everglades, as well as the early history of South Florida, to offset the politics of it, if you are not in the mood for politics. At any rate, there is very little modern politics.

Can't recommend it highly enough.

Posted by: Dawn on June 26, 2008 at 11:50 AM | PERMALINK

Another one that's good is No One Makes You Shop at Wal-mart by Tom Slee. Contrary to its title, it's not about Wal-mart. What it is, is game theory/rational choice theory for beginners, from a leftish point of view that is rightfully skeptical of simplistic Econ 101 thinking.

It shows you how rat choice theory can be used to give you a much more sophisticated handle on things like market failure and collective action problems. Even though I already had a strong background in game theory I still found it helpful; it's a powerful demonstration that economic concepts and rational choice theory have uses for the left and are not the sole property of the right -- though conservatives often act like they are.

Posted by: Kathy G. on June 26, 2008 at 11:55 AM | PERMALINK

Since no one else has mentioned them, two more I've enjoyed and have recommended to friends:

THE EMPEROR OF SCENT by Chandler Burr. The story of a European savant, a "super-smeller," who pioneered the art of perfume reviews. Plus, he may have figured out how the sense of smell actually works, a discovery other scientists ignored. I read this book, copied out the list of perfumes he describes, and went the nearest perfume counter to smell things.

YOUR INNER FISH by Neil Shubin. A very readable intro to human evolutionary anatomy by a working paleontologist. You end up looking at your own arm and seeing the fin, looking at fins, and seeing the arm.

Posted by: Yagur on June 26, 2008 at 11:59 AM | PERMALINK

"Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar...", by Cathcart and Klein. Logic and phillosophy as revealed by jokes. Hilarious book, useful collection of anecdotes and ammunition.

I was pleased to see several recommendations on the history of the Bible (as opposed to the Bible as history). I wish more liberal commentators were aware of how the Bible came to be composed, if only to undercut the arguments of Creationists. Those who are most likely to beat you over the head with the Bible are the least likely to understand how it came to be written.

You might start with Richard Friedman "Who Wrote the Bible?" or Robin Lane Fox "The Unauthorized Version." Also Israel Finkelstein and Neil Silberman, "The Bible Unearthed."

I want to second the following nominations

supersaurus rightly recommends the wonderful work of edard tufte

joel hanes is right about Gleick "Chaos" and Miles "God: A Biography"

dean scourtes on Rhodes "The Making of the Atomic Bomb"

AliceBrenda on Barry, "Rising Tide"

and of course, dad23 on Kugel ""How to Read the Bible" and pj in jesusland on Ehrman, "Misquoting Jesus."

Happy reading, Kevin! There'll be a quiz in September.

Posted by: The Pondonome on June 26, 2008 at 12:20 PM | PERMALINK

It seems like now would be a good time for Kevin to dive deep into Stratton's "Electromagnetic Theory". Good for insomniacs.

Actually about a year and a half ago I really enjoyed Ruth Reichl's book "Garlic and Sapphires" about her adventures as a restaurant critic.

Posted by: optical weenie on June 26, 2008 at 12:23 PM | PERMALINK

I recommmend A VOYAGE LONG AND STRANGE by Tony Horwitz. History of a neglected period in America between the Vikings and the Maylower.Highly recommended.

Posted by: alsek on June 26, 2008 at 12:47 PM | PERMALINK

Well, this thread still seems to be going on, so...
I'll go along with the recommendations for Goedel, Escher, Bach-- I've re-read it seveeral times now, and it's still fresh.

Also, Henry Petroski has written a number of books from an engineer's perspective, which are downright fascinating.

Posted by: fuyura on June 26, 2008 at 12:49 PM | PERMALINK

I recommend A VOYAGE LONG AND STRANGE by Tony Horwitz. A history of a neglected period of time between the arrival of the Vikings and the Mayflower. Highly recommended.

Posted by: alsek on June 26, 2008 at 12:50 PM | PERMALINK

These are great! Here are some of my favs:

The Language Instinct - Steven Pinker
Consciousness Explained - Daniel Dennett
Straw Dogs - John Gray
Collected Fictions - Jorge Luis Borges
A Man Without a Country - Kurt Vonnegut
Louie Louie: The History and Mythology of the World's Most Famous Rock n Roll Song - Dave Marsh
Consilience: THe Unity of Knowledge - Edward O. Wilson
"Exterminate All the Brutes":One Man's Odyssey into the Heart of Darkness - Sven Lindqvist
Breaking the Spell - Daniel Dennett
Battle for God - Karen Armstrong
History of God - Karen Armstrong
Religions Explained - Pascal Boyer
Blink - Malcolm Gladwell
World Without Us - Alan Weisman

Posted by: AZrider on June 26, 2008 at 12:56 PM | PERMALINK

oops. Sent too soon.
Petroski has written about physical things (Toothpick, the Book on the Shelf, The Pencil) which have a lot to say about how constraints of all sorts affect the final thing. Also on design; the latest I've seen (haven't yet read) is Success through failure.
Donald Norman (The design of everyday things) is also a fascinating writer on design.

I'll go along with the math recommendations too. There's an awful lot of good pop math out there these days.

Posted by: fuyura on June 26, 2008 at 12:56 PM | PERMALINK

I recommend a book called "The Man Who Would Be King: The First American in Afghanistan" by Ben McIntyre. This is the story (from diaries) of the travels of Josiah Harlan, a Pennsylvania Quaker, and it is believed that Kipling was inspired by Harlan's travels to write "The Man Who Would be King." Harlan's description of Kabul before the Taliban is eye-opening.

Another is "The Professor and the Madman" about the development of the Oxford English Dictionary and the man who contributed more entries than anyone else - an american imprisoned in Broadmoor Asylum. It's a fascinating story.

Posted by: carolyn on June 26, 2008 at 1:07 PM | PERMALINK

Kevin, I thought of a great one especially for you and Inkblot and Domino--Elizabeth Marshall Thomas's wonderful book about cats, The Tribe of Tiger. Her books about dogs, The Secret Life of Dogs and The Social Life of Dogs are also amazing.

Posted by: mg_65 on June 26, 2008 at 1:09 PM | PERMALINK

The most thought-provoking book I've read in a long time is Before the Dawn by Nicholas Wade. It combines traditional archeological evidence with recent genetic amd linguistic research to give a rather detailed picture of human population movements and ancestry over the past 50,000 years. It sheds an interesting light on the concept of race and just how mutable the human genome actually is.

Posted by: michaelharrison on June 26, 2008 at 1:20 PM | PERMALINK

Since there have been a few posts about the Bible I thought I`d add
Asimov's Guide to the Bible...
; a sanity check by a well known scientist.

"To surrender to ignorance and call it God has always been premature, and it remains premature today." - Isaac Asimov

Posted by: daCascadian on June 26, 2008 at 1:55 PM | PERMALINK

The Drunkard's walk.

Posted by: Phil W. on June 26, 2008 at 2:19 PM | PERMALINK

The Drunkard's walk.

Posted by: Phil W. on June 26, 2008 at 2:19 PM | PERMALINK

The Drunkard's Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives

Posted by: J.G. Manifesto on June 26, 2008 at 2:23 PM | PERMALINK

Try "The Center Cannot Hold" by Elyn Saks, the autobiography of a law professor at USC who also has schizophrenia. It's a well-written, riveting, ultimately triumphant book.

And when you get BACK in the mood to read politics, try:

"The Political Brain" by Drew Weston
"The Argument" by Matt Bai
"The Thumpin" by Naftali Bendavid
"How to Rig an Election" by Allen Raymond

Posted by: MME on June 26, 2008 at 3:21 PM | PERMALINK

Try "The Center Cannot Hold" by Elyn Saks, the autobiography of a law professor at USC who also has schizophrenia. It's a well-written, riveting, ultimately triumphant book.

And when you get BACK in the mood to read politics, try:

"The Political Brain" by Drew Weston
"The Argument" by Matt Bai
"The Thumpin" by Naftali Bendavid
"How to Rig an Election" by Allen Raymond

Posted by: MME on June 26, 2008 at 3:22 PM | PERMALINK


IMHO Pollan is an overrated hack who is revered because America is obsessed with food. I found _The Omnivores' Dilemma_ had little to say that was new to anyone with their eyes and ears open, and was yet another fscking paeon to that god among men, the citizen farmer. Yeah, that's what America needs more of --- books telling us that farmers are the true Americans and screw the other 97% of us.

McPhee has moments of interest, but they are few and far between. He is basically a journalist and suffers from the journalist's pathology of reporting every damn thing he saw and heard, regardless of how boring it may be. I mean, for gods sake, in the middle of _The Control of Nature_, along with fascinating stuff about controlling large rivers we get random crap about the favorite recipes of people living on the Bayou --- WTF? His pieces usually feel like he had a contract for 10,000 words, has filled up 5000 with the good stuff, and doesn't much care about filling up the other 5000 with anything whatsoever.

So what would I recommend that's not just repeating what everyone else has said:

• Philip Ball - Critical Mass. There are now a few books on "social physics" but this is, IMHO, but far the best in explaining just what the social physics project is about, and the cases in which it makes sense and appears to work well.

• Calvin Trillin - About Alice. Short, but quite beautiful. If you aren't in tears (and telling your wife how much you love her) by the end of this, you're a psychopath.

• Mike Davis - Buda's Wagon. A history of car bombs. Davis, in a striking turn of phrase, calls the car bomb "the poor man's air force", and provides a depressing litany of political stupidity, most of which I knew only poorly, and which can be summarized by saying that most of the car-bomb ridden conflict in the world were generated by authorities who damn well deserve the whirlwind the have reaped.

Posted by: Maynard Handley on June 26, 2008 at 3:52 PM | PERMALINK

"The End of Faith" by Sam Harris and "God Is Not Great" by Christopher Hitchens.

Posted by: on June 26, 2008 at 3:53 PM | PERMALINK

About Alice is far overrated. Even more so is Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking.

If you want to read a lovely and profoundly moving short book about the death of a spouse, C.S. Lewis's A Grief Observed is the way to go. Far superior to those other two on every level. And I say that as an all-but-card-carrying atheist!

Posted by: Kathy G. on June 26, 2008 at 4:12 PM | PERMALINK

Very well written, The Colony: The Harrowing True Story of the Exiles of Molokai was excellent. You learn all about the leper civilization in Hawaii and what "they" did to all those people all those years... Turns-out leprosy is a manageable disease - who knew?

Posted by: rusrus on June 26, 2008 at 4:21 PM | PERMALINK

Off Topic --

How is it that some people, mainly liberals, can entertain the notion that the Bible is a work of man and still believe strongly in God?

There's a great discussion in Ehrman's book about the Adoptionist controversey in the early Church and how passages in the Bible were subtly altered to address it. I won't ruin it, but I just find it fascinating to consider what personality traits require absolute adherence to written words that describe incredible events we are asked to accept on faith, even when the source is so questionable.

Funny how we demand much more accountability from auto mechanics, teachers and medical professionals than we do from people who interpret the Bible. Preachers should have a professional licensing board.

Posted by: pj in jesusland on June 26, 2008 at 4:36 PM | PERMALINK

Yeah, Willie Nelson: An Epic Life. It profiles the Texan's Texan who happens to be the most unusual icon in American music. OK, it does have history, but it's low-art honky-tonk, Western Swing, proudly provincial country music history. And it's got some wild, bigger than life characters, all of whom do wonders to rehabilitate the sorry image folks have gotten of Texas and Texans with the latest inhabitant of the White House, who is a Connecticut blue blood.

It's got a lot of Austin history too, explaining how the city's creative class global high tech image is directly linked to Willie Nelson reinventing himself in Austin 35 year ago.

And it's thick, almost 500 pages! It'll take all summer to finish! The New York Times Book Review recommended Willie Nelson: An Epic Life in its summer reading issue.

Willie Nelson himself said, "He's got details in there I'd forgotten, and he's got details in there I wish he'd of forgotten."

I recommend it too, mainly because I'm the author.

Posted by: Joe Nick on June 26, 2008 at 5:34 PM | PERMALINK

The Last Campaign by Thurston Clarke, the story of Bobby Kennedy's 82 day campaign for the presidency. Inspiring and heartbreaking at the same time.

Posted by: TomStewart on June 26, 2008 at 5:57 PM | PERMALINK

Stranger in the Forest: On Foot Across Borneo, by Eric Hansen.

My cousin gave me this book to read last summer, and it would be miles away from politics. It was a good and unexpected read. 4.5/5 on Amazon.

from the flap:

Eric Hansen was the first westerner ever to walk across the island of Borneo. Completely cut off from the outside world for seven months, he traveled nearly 1,500 miles with small bands of nomadic hunters known as Penan. Beneath the rain forest canopy, they trekked through a hauntingly beautiful jungle where snakes and frogs fly, pigs climb trees, giant carnivorous plants eat mice, and mushrooms glow at night.

At once a modern classic of travel literature and a gripping adventure story, Stranger in the Forest provides a rare and intimate look at the vanishing way of life of one of the last surviving groups of rain forest dwellers. Hansen's absorbing, and often chilling, account of his exploits is tempered with the humor and humanity that prompted the Penan to take him into their world and to share their secrets.

Also, Walden - at least the first half - is a perspective-changing book.

Posted by: md on June 26, 2008 at 6:38 PM | PERMALINK

Le Ton Beau de Marot, by Douglas Hofstadter--the guy who wrote Gödel, Escher, Bach. It's about translation, Language, artificial intelligence and what a dick Vladimir Nabokov was.
Wonderful, stimulating, and fun.

Posted by: pbg on June 26, 2008 at 6:42 PM | PERMALINK

Aramis, or the Love of Technology, by Bruno Latour. The most imaginative and masterful investigation of a failed project you will ever read. Summer is the perfect time to contemplate failure.

Posted by: x9 on June 26, 2008 at 7:28 PM | PERMALINK

The United States of Arugula, by David Kamp. It's like Easy Riders, Raging Bulls for foodies. Fun, light summer read.

Posted by: Mnemosyne on June 26, 2008 at 7:46 PM | PERMALINK

Ten Days In The Hills --- Jane Smiley
***** review

Posted by: buddy66 on June 26, 2008 at 8:53 PM | PERMALINK

I just finished reading Three Cups of Tea. In addition to being a good book for looking at an effective grass roots philanthropic endevor, it's very useful to see what was going on in Afganistan and Packistan through the 9-11 period.

Posted by: Gary Godfrey on June 26, 2008 at 9:03 PM | PERMALINK

Try these

Deer Hunting with Jesus: Dispatches from America's Class War by Joe Bageant

I Am a Strange Loop by Douglas Hofstadter

The Age of American Unreason
by Susan Jacoby

Posted by: Nickw on June 27, 2008 at 1:34 AM | PERMALINK

Paul Theroux - Dark Star Safari

Walter Russell Mead, God and Gold: Britain, America and the Making of the Modern World

Posted by: MsNThrope on June 27, 2008 at 8:36 AM | PERMALINK

On biology, anything by Carl Zimmer. I've only read Parasite Rex, but his new book about E.coli is supposed to be good.

Posted by: OriGuy on June 25, 2008 at 8:20 PM | PERMALINK

I agree that Zimmer is a respected, accomplished, science writer. But if you go this way, you might choose to wait until after November to buy his books. Zimmer's dad is running against Frank Lautenberg, and you Dems probably don't want to give money to a guy who might just turn it over to pops and fund an opponenet to a D incumbent. Just saying.

Posted by: Pat on June 27, 2008 at 3:05 PM | PERMALINK

You may not even be reading this comment thread any more, but if you are, I'll recommend the following:

Colin Wilson's THE CRIMINAL HISTORY OF MANKIND. It's out of print, natch, but you can get a copy pretty cheap through the used book sellers registered on Amazon.

Robert Anton Wilson's THE NEW INQUISITION. Same notes as above.

If you're a geek (I have no idea, really) or have geek tendencies, Mark Evanier's new book on Jack Kirby, KIRBY: KING OF COMICS is fabulous. It's worth buying even if you just want to look at the pretty pictures; there's an Alex Ross reworking of a Kirby NEW GODS spread that's breathtaking. But it's well worth reading the words, too.

Posted by: Doc Nebula on June 27, 2008 at 6:27 PM | PERMALINK

News from Tartary: A Journey from Peking to Kashmir (1936) is a travel book by Peter Fleming describing his journey through and political situation of Turkestan.

The book recounts a successful 3500 mile journey from Peking, China to Kashmir, India in 1935.

above cribbed from Wikipedia.


He protests (a tad too often) he is only a hapless bumbling amateur, but drops the mask with such an astute analysis in one chapter, I wondered if this little lark across Asia was a bit of free-lance work for his brother Ian's employers.

Out of print but not hard to come by.

Posted by: rjj on June 27, 2008 at 9:24 PM | PERMALINK

I'm listening to some really good music right now. I suggest you find some really good music, and just surf the Net. There's no leisure reading as good as really good music, when you can find that music.

Posted by: taknavazan on June 28, 2008 at 1:18 AM | PERMALINK

The Geography of Hope by Chris Turner. Turner tours the world investigating already existing, implemented green solutions in an attempt to show that answers to the crisis are within reach. Despair is, he argues, a prescription for apathy and, hence, for disaster.

Posted by: kjm on June 28, 2008 at 7:43 AM | PERMALINK

"Our Inner Ape" by Frans de Waal. A primatologiest, de Waal shows how much we can learn about ourselves from primates: empathy, violence, power, peace, and sex.

Posted by: Stephanie on June 29, 2008 at 10:49 AM | PERMALINK

Thanks very much for taking your time to create this very useful infos .

Posted by: petites annonces on April 21, 2009 at 1:20 PM | PERMALINK

You could try Microsoft Secrets. Intersting book on Microsoft but a little out dated I guess. Author is Cusumano

Posted by: Perfume on April 21, 2009 at 4:27 PM | PERMALINK



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