Best Books of 2017 – Nature & Science!
The sub-heading of science- and nature-writing positively filled my reading in 2017. I read a large amount of it across the whole of its spectrum, from data-heavy scientific monographs to emoji-heavy breathless popular guides, and now I encounter the same encouraging frustration I’ve encountered in making many of this year’s lists: difficulty narrowing down the list of excellent books to only ten (or in this case eleven) books. Here are the year’s winners, with the “nature” part admittedly outweighing the “science” part this time around:
10 Spineless by Juli Berwald (Riverhead) – Juli Berwald’s utterly winning combination of personal memoir and natural history of jellyfish balances both aspects perfectly, although the heaps of fascinating information about just exactly what jellyfish are and how they got that way can’t help but be more interesting on the whole. The book has been compared, a touch too often and a touch too readily, to Helen MacDonald’s splendid H is for Hawk, and it certainly shares with that book both enormous readability and a faculty for eliciting wonder.
9 The Outer Beach Robert Finch (WW Norton) – In this terrific book, Finch tours the whole of Cape Cod’s curving outer arm, walking the beaches and probing the towns and salt marshes that line the long curving Atlantic short of the Cape. It’s a strong, pure example of a venerable kind of highly specific nature-writing, the seasons-in-a-bottle loving tribute to a tiny slant of land only a small fraction of the people on Earth have ever heard of, much less visited, but it’s the best example in years.
8 The Evolution of Beauty by Richard Prum (Doubleday) – This fantastic book turns its full attention to the soft underbelly of evolution by natural selection: that in addition to living organisms choosing mates on the strength of advantageous physical adaptations to their environment – an idea nerdy lab-scientists have always embraced with enthusiasm – living organisms also tend to choose their mates based on how those mates look. Indeed, as many irritated fathers-in-law can attest, sometimes they only choose looks. Darwin knew this, and Richard Prum’s book exhaustively – and also playfully – hauls the whole squishy subject back into modern scientific consideration.
7 Wolf Nation by Brenda Peterson (Da Capo) & American Wolf by Nate Blakeslee (Crown) – I found it impossible to separate these two superb books on the American wolf, and I also found it impossible to rank one above the other – hence this double-listing. Both books are great examples of popular natural history, recounting the evolution, biology, social structure, and conservation saga of wolves in America. Peterson’s book has a very inviting breadth, and Blakeslee’s book reads like gripping novel about the wolves of Yellowstone. They’re each great, and the complement each other perfectly.
6 American Eclipse by David Baron (Liveright) – The subject of eclipses came to the forefront of the American awareness in August of this year when a total solar eclipse crossed the country (scientists repeatedly warned people not to look directly at the event with their naked eyes; the President of the United States promptly looked directly at the even with his naked eyes). Baron’s energetically readable book chronicles another such incident of eclipse-mania, the one consuming America in 1878, and the book does such a detailed and fast-paced job of it that even readers who never try popular science will be eagerly turning the pages to find out what happens next.
5 Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History by Bill Schutt (Algonquin Books) – Bill Schutt seems well aware – as indeed, how could he of all people not be? – of the inherent ickiness of his chosen subject, and that makes the straightforward nerdy enthusiasm and thoroughly infectious humor of his approach all the more winning. He begins with the obvious point – gross, but obvious – that the defenseless, abundant newborn of almost any species present an unlimited buffet for older members of that species … and he goes from there. Cannibalism, it turns out, is very nearly as ubiquitous in the animal world as copulation – and it here has an incredibly engaging testament.
4 The Gulf by Jack Davis (Liveright) – This sprawling natural history of the Gulf of Mexico is slow to work its wonders and ends up being all the more impressive for its comprehensive sweep. Jack Davis relates for the reader the long history of human interaction with the Gulf, the complex interaction of cultures and their often very different views of the place, and the tangled state of Gulf environmentalism in the modern era, and he writes all of it with a clear, graceful prose line that encourages readers to share his love of this vast area they probably haven’t pondered much.
3 The Quarry Fox by Leslie Sharp (Overlook Press) – This, too, is a venerable sub-genre of nature-writing: pick a relatively confined area (unlike, say, the Gulf of Mexico) and creep over it lovingly in every inch and nook and dell. Like John Burroughs before her, Leslie Sharp takes the Catskills as her focus, writing with exquisite prose about the wildlife, the weather, the topography, and the history of the place, and the exercise is so successful that it does what the best of such books always do: it suggests its own universality.
2 Quakeland by Kathryn Miles (Dutton) – Earthquakes are like supervolcanos: once you start thinking about them, it’s hard to stop. And once you read this smart, eloquent popular science book by Kathryn Miles, you’ll find yourself thinking about earthquakes a lot. The good news is that your thinking will be much better-informed than it likely was before you read the book: Miles compresses a huge amount of scientific information about the nature and physics of earthquakes into smoothly accessible prose. And the bad news is: unless you’re reading this from an orbiting space station (surely the Stevereads remit extends even so far?), you’re not safe from a major earthquake and you never will be.
1 Photo Ark by Joel Sartore (National Geographic) – The best science/nature book of 2017 is also the simplest: through an amazing combination of patience, professional handling, and black backdrops, photographer Joel Sartore managed to get gorgeous, high-definition intimate photos of dozens of animals – guarded and unguarded, nervous and relaxed, and each one of them stunningly, disarmingly personal. Paging through this book brings the reader face-to-face with some of their most remarkable fellow Earthlings in ways that not even the most detailed documentary can do. It’s a flat-out astonishing performance.