The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future (Columbia) packs a big premise into a thin paperback that throws wicked jabs. Science historians Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway play themselves as a composite in the Second People’s Republic of China. The future historian looks back in detached dismay at events that led to the Great Collapse of 2093, a period of climate-change-triggered upheaval. The scenes are eerily plausible, and no one escapes unscathed. Scientists get tagged for “an excessively stringent standard for accepting claims of any kind” that engenders public indifference or confusion about even imminent threats. But the main punching bags are “free” market (in quotes; read “rigged”) ideologues and political minions like those in our future Congress who pass the “The Sea Level Rise Denial Bill.” Seems absurd, but this imagined law of the land is based on a real 2012 North Carolina statute that reduced an ostensibly science-savvy state to late-night comedy fodder. By the end of this century, nobody’s laughing.
21 October 2015
The simple message of The Secret Lives of Bats (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt): Humankind should praise these seed-spreading, pollinating, insect-pest-munching flying mammals rather than kill them. Unfortunately, we have been more successful at the latter, and in alarming numbers worldwide, as author Merlin Tuttle tells the tale, subtitled My Adventures with the World’s Most Misunderstood Mammals. Tuttle, a bat researcher since boyhood who founded Bat Conservation International, has spent the past 50 years in the field (and the cave) setting the record straight. Spinning engaging stories that star moonshiners, farmers and other bat-curious, Tuttle is a personable and plainspoken guide through a world inaccessible to most.
21 September 2015
Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century isn’t just a good writing guide. It’s one of the best books published in the past year. Wise, funny, practical and, as of this writing, ranked in the top 20 of three Amazon writing-guide categories, it will find an even wider audience after its Penguin-paperback debut this week. Pinker isn’t a scold who ascribes bad writing to laziness or ill will. He explains why otherwise well-intended writers fail. For example, are scientists and other jargon-drenched writers trying to shut the rest of us out? No, he says. In the subtitle of a chapter called “The Curse of Knowledge,” Pinker nails it: “The main cause of incomprehensible prose is the difficulty of imagining what it’s like for someone else not to know something that you know.” He’s also strategic, preparing readers before laying a serious but fascinating grammar lesson on them unlike anything you’ll find in The Elements of Style, in print for 56 years. May Pinker’s words on writing enjoy a similar run.