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I'm reading Mark and Delia Owens's new book, Secrets of the Savanna, for review in August. (I'm going to combine it with a children's book, One Kingdom.) I was struck the other night while I was reading it though that this was really interesting stuff - fascinating stuff - and I'd never read anything about elephants and poachers in Africa before. So I was thinking - how do you discover books about this sort of thing? As an adult you might see it in a table in the front of a bookstore or read a review or something but otherwise, when would you come across a title on this subject if it wasn't something you were already familiar with? In other words, if you weren't the type of reader who sought out natural science or nature titles anyway, how would you ever find them?

How would you know what you were missing?

A few months ago my wonderful editor at Booklist, (Donna Seaman - you should read her book), sent me Underwater to Get Out of the Rain for review. It's a lovely marine biology memoir that takes the reader around the world as the author recounts his career and great love for all thinks underwater. I learned a ton while reading that book and enjoyed myself immensely while doing it. I also just read Writing Naturally by science writer William Sargent - my Booklist review for that one will reflect how impressed I was by his marine bio experiences as well. (Who knew that horseshoe crabs were so critical to medical science?)

I would not have read any of these books if I hadn't been sent them for review or, in the case of Savanna, been able to read about them at length in the publisher catalogs. I wouldn't even know that they existed. I discovered Gerald Durrell by dumb luck in the new & used bookstore I used to work at and I adore him now (do check out My Family and Other Animals when it comes out next month on DVD) but that was really luck and nothing more. Basically I know beans about this whole area of writing and it really annoys me because there were so many opportunities for me to be taught about it, but in high school and college I was forced to select a subject matter in the sciences every year (earth science, 8th grade science, biology, chemistry, physics, and geology again in college) and I learned nothing along the way.

Let me repeat that - I learned nothing from any of those classes.

It was always a rush, there was only one year to memorize the periodic table and practice mixing chemicals for experiments I didn't understand, or try and learn enough calculus to do something in physics, or watch boring films and listen to boring lectures. Consequently I have always hated science - I've avoided the subject matter like the plague. And so I have missed everything good because my exposure to it was only everything bad.

Here's my idea: most colleges require one course, if not two of required science for all students. Why not offer "Survey of Science Literature I & II"? Students could read a sampling from multiple areas of the subject - from natural science, to the big bang theory, to Stephen Jay Gould and even the discovery of DNA. You could read 8-10 books a semester (or even more), listen to lectures about the authors and others involved in the research area and write papers about what you learned, about those who oppose the research, etc. It would be an absolute blast for eclectic learners and when you were done instead of knowing only enough about one subject in order to pass, students would know enough about multiple subjects to be curious about more.

Hell - they might even keep reading on their own. Can you imagine?

It would have been so much fun to learn this way in high school and college - so much more useful. As it is, I've just gotten lucky and have the luxury of time to find the Owens's and others on my own. Hopefully my reviews will send some other readers in the same direction, before its too late and they learn to avoid that whole section of the bookstore entirely as well.

Because as I'm realizing, there are some truly fantastic titles in the world of science, and writers who are well on their way to become my all time favorites.


I am actually totally in love with science and science writing. (Oh, and you could use the Library of Congress call number system to find other books on these and similar topics?) Here are a few of my absolute favorites from the last few years: Jonathan Weiner's "Time, Love, Memory" (on genetics) is absolutely gripping; Richard Fortey's "Earth: An Intimate History" is quite wonderful (and I hated geology when I took it in college, it was a matter of choosing science courses to fill the requirements based strictly on scheduling & I think geology is the branch of science I am least interested in, but what can you do, I was working 30 hrs a week and had to fit the damn course in when I could!); Matt Ridley is always good too; and a WONDERFUL book is Armand-Marie Leroi's "Mutants." I see this is skewing rather life-sciences, but there are good books about physics and math too: Simon Singh's book on Fermat's last theorem was very good, as was the biography of mathematician Paul Erdos (can't remember author's name) called "The Man Who Loved Only Numbers." Andrew Hodges's biography of Alan Turing, "The Enigma," also quite wonderful. So there is an off-the-top-of-my-head list of recs for long-term future reading!

You are officially on my list of "smart people" now. What a terrific idea for a course, a survey course of science literature. Brilliant.

Thanks for all the ideas Jenny - see, we really could create some killer syllabi for my "Science Lit" course!

And thank you Camille for the nice comment. I wish I actually had some way to make this sort of course happen (where I went to school in Fairbanks, AK it would be awesome to have a course on Science Lit of the North - so many possibilities there!). Who knows - maybe someone with academic power will find their way here!

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