Holiday Books 2003


(This column was first published in the December 8, 2003 issue of The Buffalo News.)


The number of excellent natural history books is increasing exponentially. These represent only my personal favorites from among this year's many offerings:


For youngsters NorthWord Press has published a delightful series of Take-Along Guides with titles like "Caterpillars, Bugs and Butterflies", "Frogs, Toads and Turtles", "Berries, Nuts and Seeds" and "Rabbits, Squirrels and Chipmunks." These are not field guides like the excellent Peterson First Guides; rather, they are 40-odd page simple introductions, each including several common species that children can look for in the wild. I was introduced to these books at the new Iroquois National Wildlife Reserve store where they and other natural history books are on display.


Easily the finest new coffee table book I have found this year is "Smithsonian Earth", edited by James Luhr and published by DK. With sections on earth history and anatomy, forests, glaciers, deserts, mountains, rivers, oceans, atmosphere and plate tectonics, this is a richly detailed and superbly illustrated earth encyclopedia. I will refer to this fine reference book often.


Any book by David Quammen deserves attention. This year he has written "Monster of God: The Man-Eating Predator in the Jungles of History and the Mind" (Norton). This book is mostly about people interacting with these dangerous animals and we see the animals through their eyes. An unusual exploration.


I loved Bill Bryson's "A Walk in the Woods" about Appalachian Trail hiking but I was at first put off by the title of his latest book, "A Short History of Nearly Everything" (Broadway Books). However, John Sillick encouraged me to read it and this book is now one of my all-time favorites. Like Quammen, Bryson could write interestingly about toenails. In his history he explores and clarifies profound ideas like the age of the earth and the extent and composition of the universe and he does so with great good humor and wonderful stories. In one of my favorite sections, for example, he skewers Ethyl chemist Thomas Midgley, who invented the neurotoxic leaded gasoline and then topped himself by developing those ozone-destroying chloroflurocarbons.


Another great collection of anecdotes: Eugene Linden's "The Octopus and the Orangutan: New Tales of Animal Intrigue, Intelligence and Ingenuity" (Plume). I especially like this book because Linden, like me, is an outsider writing about science. Two chapter titles will give you a sense of his stories: "When Elephants Cheat" and "The Starling that Charmed Mozart".


A scary book for us preservationists is Michael D'Orso's "Plundering Paradise" (HarperCollins) about the stresses on the idyllic and evolutionarily important Galapagos Islands. Much to my surprise I learned from this book that some 20,000 people reside in the islands, that there are resort hotels there and that people have brought crime, crowding, poaching and pollution. (I would, however, still give my eyeteeth to visit.)


Douglas Grantenbein has written "A Season of Fire: Four Months on the Firelines of America's Forests" (Tarcher). Because the author writes critically about firefighters, this book has been damned by many reviewers. Instead I found it insightful, informative, reasoned and fair.


If you know a serious birder who already has a copy of "The Sibley Guide to Birds", still consider giving a copy of "The Sibley Field Guide to the Birds of Eastern North America" (Knopf), because, unlike the first, the second book is one you can carry in the field.


And finally, I recommend the commemorative 50th anniversary, illustrated edition of Rachel Carson's "The Sea around Us" (Oxford). This is the "other book" by the extraordinary scientist-conservationist who wrote "Silent Spring". You will read no finer prose.-- Gerry Rising