Summer Books

 

(This 850th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on July 8, 2007.)

 

Summer is here with a vengeance. As I write, the temperature outside is 90°, an unusual high for Buffalo, whose pleasant Julys and Augusts are forgotten by local naysayers. Having lived in Minneapolis where summer highs regularly reach 100° (and winter lows -40°), I prefer it here. And if Minneapolis is that bad, imagine what it is like as you head south.

 

Wherever you spend the summer: at the pool, at a summer camp or traveling, I urge you to read. Here are a few comments about some that I have found attractive.

 

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Coffee table books enjoy a poor reputation. They suggest purchase simply for decoration, but two new ones that fit this category are well worth your attention. The first is David Lawrence Reade's "The Four Seasons of Letchworth" (Western New York Wares), a collection of spectacular color photographs of this lovely park. And there is more: Reade has written well about the history and values of this state park. There is even a section titled, "In Praise of Turkey Vultures", with photos of them soaring below the observer in the gorge. A bonus: the pages are of such high quality that you can read at poolside, unworried about ruining your book with splashed water.

 

The second coffee table book is a sequel to one I recommended in an earlier column. It is "100 Butterflies and Moths" (Harvard) by Jeffrey Miller, Daniel Janzen and Winifred Hallwachs, a companion to last year's "100 Caterpillars". I must submit a warning about this book, however: don't purchase it as a source for local Lepidoptera; its subtitle is "Portraits from the Tropical Forests of Costa Rica". Despite this, I recommend the book for the sheer beauty of these insects. What is so remarkable is the real role of butterfly and moth colors. As the authors tell us, they "signal to other animals that gastric distress will be the order of the day if eaten." Their distress, our pleasure. And I found the text that makes up the second half of the book even better (and more locally applicable) than the lovely photos.

 

At the other end of the spectrum is "Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations" by David Montgomery (California), a warning about another problem we will soon face. Believe it or not, we are running out of soil. Montgomery quotes one geologist who estimates that "today it takes erosion less than 40 years, on average, to strip an inch of soil off agricultural fields -- more than 20 times the geologic rate." Among the necessary responses, Montgomery tells us, is agroecology, which he defines as agriculture "guided by locally adapted knowledge -- farming with brains rather than by habit or convenience." I can imagine no one making this dire topic more compelling.

 

David Sloan Wilson is a Binghamton University biologist. He has written a book that should be read by everyone interested in the natural world. It is titled "Evolution for Everyone: How Darwin's Theory Can Change the Way We Think About Our Lives" (Random House). It is not just about evolution; rather, it speaks to how scientists identify and address interesting questions and, inevitably, how all pervasive is the appeal of this central scientific concept. I especially recommend this book for those who question evolution. It is the next best thing to attending one of this fine teacher's university courses.

 

Each winter birders are attracted to the Niagara Gorge from around the world to see the unusual number of gull species. Now not just one but two books are available to help with their identification: "Gulls of the Americas" by Steve Howell and Jon Dunn (Houghton Mifflin), and "Gulls of North America, Europe and Asia" by Klaus Olsen and Hans Larsson (Princeton).

 

Finally, a book I urge you to avoid: Daniel Kehlmann's "Measuring the World: A Novel" (Pantheon). A bestseller in Germany now available in translation, it caricatures the lives of the explorer Alexander von Humboldt and the mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss in entertaining but demeaning ways almost entirely unrelated to the personalities and achievements of these two men. Do we need this kind of book at a time when civil discourse and respect for science is already degraded? I think not.-- Gerry Rising