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Books Read 2014 – Nonfiction

Terry JonesIt is time again for my most-anticipated post of the year: my reading list! I am annually surprised that this is not picked up by one of the wire services. Oh well, I’m sure there are less appealing examples of self-abuse to be found on the Internet.

Only 42 books finished in 2014. Seems a low number for a guy who is retired and doesn’t play a lot of golf. Even with my low energy levels I should be able to maintain a pace of a book a week. Maybe next this year.

I will deal with fiction in a separate post (see Books Read 2014 – Fiction). This post will cover the paltry six(!) nonfiction titles I got through. I used to read a lot more in science and history than I managed to do this year. One excuse I can give is that I am almost strictly limited to E-books these days and it has been harder for me to come by nonfiction titles. Consequently, much of my nonfiction reading comes from magazines (I subscribe to tree-killing versions of The Atlantic, Discover, Audubon and Birdwatching) and online.

The six:

  • Clay ChristensenThe Birdman of Lauderdale
    For the second year in a row, I was thrilled to read a friend’s book. Last year it was Giff by Joe Gaspard. This year I read a collection of Clay’s birding columns. See my The Birdman of Lauderdale for a two-thumbs-up review.
  • Terry Jones and Alan EreiraTerry Jones’ Barbarians
    Terry Jones–yes, that Terry Jones–argues (with co-author Alan Ereira and buttressed by noted archaeologist and historian Barry Cunliffe) that the Romans weren’t all they cracked themselves up to be and that the so-called Barbarians at their gates weren’t so barbaric after all. A fun read and, for all I can tell, the most important work of history since Monty Python’s “Holy Grail.” This book is a companion to the BBC series of the same name. Watch it for free on YouTube, starting with “The Primitive Celts”.
  • Marion MeadeThe Unruly Life of Woody Allen
    Six works of nonfiction and one of them a biography of Woody Allen. I could have spent my time more productively. But I’ve been a fan of his movies and writing for more than 30 years. Not necessarily of his person. I enjoyed reading about the start to Allen’s career and the accounts of the making of several of his best films. But of course a great deal of this biography covers his scandalous marriage to Mia Farrow’s daughter Soon-Yi and to the allegations that he sexually abused his then seven-year-old daughter Dylan. Meade is not a sympathetic biographer of Allen, but she is as tough on Farrow as she is on him. Not a happy family. Not really a family at all.
  • Bernd HenrichThe Snoring Bird
    The “snoring bird” of Heinrich’s title refers to the rare Indonesian rail found and described by his naturalist father in a 1932 book with the same title as this one (in German, Der Vogel Schnarch). It was Heinrich’s rediscovery of his father’s monograph that inspired this memoir. It is a fascinating story of the relationship between a son and father: both naturalists, but in many ways temperamentally incompatible. I have admired Heinrich for a while, particularly for his writings about ravens (Mind of the Raven and Ravens in Winter), but never more than after reading this account of his early fascination with biology and natural history and the story of his remarkable father.[1]
  • Neil YoungWaging Heavy Peace
    A meandering memoir from one of my favorite singer/songwriters and a true “guitar hero.” I wrote about this book in Musical Thank You #5: Neil Young.
  • Richard DawkinsA Devil’s Chaplain
    A collection of essays, reviews, eulogies and thoughts on “the virus of religion” by the man called “Darwin’s Rottweiler.”Some good stuff here, but it is uneven. The best parts of it, to me, are the two remembrances of the brilliant author Douglas Adams (Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Universe) and the section of five essays dedicated to the memory of Stephen Jay Gould (my favorite writer on the subject of natural history and often supposed to be Dawkins’ “opponent”). Dawkins’ letter explaining why scientists should not be lured into “debates” with ignorant and intellectually dishonest creationists[2] (meant to be cowritten with Gould, whose untimely death scotched the plan) deserves wide dissemination.


  1. Aramidopsis plateniHeinrich’s father, Gerd Heinrich, is responsible for the common English name of Aramidopsis plateni, the Snoring Rail. Click on the image at right to read its Wikipedia entry. [^]
  2. I have created a PDF from this “open letter” and make it available here because I believe it makes an effective and important statement: Unfinished Correspondence with a Darwinian Heavyweight. Also, it refers to Duane Gish, an intellectually-dishonest creationist whom I was unfortunate enough to hear speak when I was in high school. Check that, fortunate enough. Fortunate because it is to this event–where I heard some of the most ridiculous and ignorant pseudoscientific garbage imaginable–that I trace my healthy rejection of creationist nonsense and a deep interest in truth, which has enriched my life immeasurably. Thanks Duane! [^]

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