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Book Stack 2010 – Part 2 of 3

Stack of books read in 2010It’s a two-year tradition now: the stack o’ books. The stack pictured at right represent nearly all of the books I read in 2010.

Part I: Non-fiction

For the second year in a row, non-fiction gets the short-shrift. Just over a quarter of the books I read fall into this category.

In the order I read them …

  • Aldo Leopold – A Sand County Almanac and Sketches From Here and There
    This book has achieved iconic status among tree-hugging, granola-crunching types, and deservedly so. It is a collection of beautiful reflections on nature, with a particular emphasis on the interconnectedness of all life. It should be required reading for all of us.
    There are different editions in print (available, at least; I bought mine in a used book store). Part one of the edition I read, which makes up about half of the book, is titled A Sand County Almanac and consists of essays on life on his land in rural Wisconsin. This is by far the best part of the book in my view. I’ll read these essays again and (I hope) again.
  • Richard Cannings (ed.) – Flights of Imagination
    A nice collection of around 20 or so essays on the subjects of birds and birding. A pair of the essays were excerpted from two favorite books of mine (Kenn Kaufman’s Kingbird Highway and Dan Koeppel’s To See Every Bird on Earth). All were enjoyable. This is a collection I’ll read again.
  • Jonathan Weiner – The Beak of the Finch
    The Beak of the FinchA fascinating look at the research done by the husband and wife team of Peter and Rosemary Grant, who studied “Darwin’s finches” on one of the Galapagos Islands for more than 20 years (from 1974 through at least 1993). They find that we can not only see evidence of natural selection in these birds’ past, we can observe it occurring today from year-to-year. This is a captivating book that manages to almost make the tiny, forbidding desert island of Daphne Major sound enticing.
    This book won the 1995 Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction, and it wins the coveted Bachster Prize in Non-fiction for 2011.
  • Jean-Dominique Bauby – The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
    This memoir was written by the 43-year-old Bauby during the year he lived after suffering a debilitating stroke. During this time, he was completely paralyzed—mouth, arms, and legs—and was able to communicate only by blinking one eye. This condition is known as “locked-in syndrome,” and Bauby likens it to living in a diving bell.
    Locked-in syndrome or something very close to it is the ultimate fate of ALS patients who choose a tracheotomy vent and round-the-clock breathing assistance just before muscular atrophy destroys their ability to breathe on their own (Stephen W. Hawking is an example). Not all who face the choice to vent or not to vent choose to do so. I seem to be traveling down the path toward this choice, and if I get there I expect to choose against. But it is both inspiring and terrifying to take a glimpse into the world of a man living in this state, and it’s a provoker of thoughts to be sure.
  • Antonio Damasio – Decartes’ Error
    The author destroys the idea of a self located somewhere in the brain, a “Cartesian Theater” where we view our bodies with detachment. Instead, he lays out the case for a mind that is a construction of the brain and the rest of the body. It’s complicated neurological stuff, and some of it is as far above my head as the most far-out theoretical physics. But it provided moments of fascinating insight, even when they were difficult to hang onto.
  • Colin Wells – Sailing From Byzantium
    This is a history of the dying Byzantine empire’s influence and impact on its surrounding cultures, and through them, on us today. Wells divides the book into three parts, covering the West, Islam, and the Slavs. I might have preferred a straight chronological account. The book covers a lot of ground, and introduces a host of unfamiliar names. It is packed with information that is almost always interesting, but was a bit plodding.
  • Giles Milton – The Riddle and the Knight
    Traces the travels of the knight who wrote the very influential medieval bestseller The Travels of Sir John Mandeville. Though Christopher Columbus was inspired in his journeys at least in part by The Travels, the work has long been considered to a fraud, and Sir John has never been confidently identified. In this book, Milton argues that the first half of the book (which narrate Mandeville’s travels to the Near East) can be believed, but that the second half (which claim travels to the India, China and beyond) cannot.
    The second half, in Milton’s view, was written as an allegory on the state of Western Christendom in the fourteenth century. I’m not so sure he makes his case.
  • Michael Angold – Byzantium: The Bridge From Antiquity
    Another history of the Byzantine empire, with a focus on the shifting fortunes of the Iconoclast movement and the history of Christendom in the East. Informative, but dry.

See also Book Stack 2010 – Part 1 of 3 – Reading the Detectives and Book Stack 2010 – Part 3 of 3.

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