Monday, December 11, 2006

Anything But Reluctant: On Books and Reading

I have just finished reading David Quammen's The Reluctant Mr. Darwin: An Intimate Portrait of Charles Darwin and the Making of His Theory of Evolution. I can only agree with integrative biologist and museum curator Kevin Padin, who said, "David Quammen has produced the best short biography of Charles Darwin that I have ever read---or can imagine reading." It is concise, witty, provoking, and altogether readable.

It reminds me both of why I am so drawn to Darwin (and it's more than the fact that we share birthdays) and why I have always highly enjoyed Quammen's writing. His Natural Acts column in Outside magazine, back in the 1980s and 90s, was pretty much the sole reason I subscribed to the magazine for some fifteen years, but no longer do. He hasn't written that column for quite some time, focusing on larger books, like the wonderful Song of the Dodo.

The Reluctant Mr. Darwin, then, makes the fifteenth book I've read since starting the MFA program in mid-August (though this last one was solely for pleasure; the semester has ended). Never in my wildest literary dreams---and I'm purposefully refraining from the all-too-easy aside here---did I see myself reading the equivalent of a book a week, especially with the caliber and nonfiction significance of these books.

It was a real spectrum, all within the context, sometimes loosely, of "The Literatures of Science." I cannot easily rank them, but those I enjoyed the most were (in the order they were read):
  • Disturbing the Universe, by Freeman Dyson
  • Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters, by Matt Ridley
  • Having Faith: An Ecologist's Journey to Motherhood, by Sandra Steingraber
  • Our Inner Ape: A Leading Primatologist Explains Why We Are Who We Are, by Frans De Waal
  • Entering the Stone: On Caves and Feeling through the Dark, by Barbara Hurd

The other books, just to keep tabs, were also good in many (but not quite nearly as many as those above) ways:

  • Twilight of the Mammoths: Ice Age Extinctions and the Rewilding of America, by Paul S. Martin
  • Tristes Tropiques, by Claude Levi-Strauss
  • The Survival of the Bark Canoe, by John McPhee
  • Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior, by Temple Grandin and Catherine Johnson
  • Waiting for Aphrodite: Journeys into the Time Before Bones, by Sue Hubbell
  • Ravens in Winter, by Bernd Heinrich
  • Consider the Oyster, by MFK Fisher
  • Why Birds Sing: A Journey into the Mystery of Bird Song, by David Rothenberg
  • Borderland Jaguars, by David E. Brown and Carlos A. López González (this one solely for my 20-page essay, titled "Borderland Dreams: Tracking El Tigre in Southern Arizona and Beyond"

So what book is next? Hard to say. Either I'll dive into another Quammen book, Monster of God: The Man-Eating Predator in the Jungles of History and the Mind perhaps, or more likely I'll pry open W. T. Hornaday's Camp-Fires on Desert and Lava, published in 1914, which is an out-of-print travel log of Hornaday and company's journey into the Pinacate desert of northern Mexico. I just happen to have a copy loaned from a coworker, and if I don't start it now I'll definitely bring it to Mexico after Christmas.

Next semester begins in mid-January, and my craft class is Literature of the Southwest. Texts include:

  • The Power of Place, by Winifred Gallagher
  • Adventures in the Unknown Interior of America, by Alvar Nunez Cabeza De Vaca
  • The Exploration of the Colorado River and its Canyons, by John Wesley Powell
  • Death Comes for the Archbishop, by Willa Cather
  • The Log from the Sea of Cortez, by John Steinbeck
  • The Meadow, by James Galvin
  • Healing Earthquakes: Poems, by Jimmy Santiago Baca
  • Savage Dreams: A Journey into the Landscape Wars of the American West, by Rebecca Solnit
  • Yaqui Deer Songs, Maso Bwikam: A Native American Poetry, by Larry Evers and Felipe Molina
  • Desert Solitaire, by Edward Abbey
  • Desert Notes/River Notes, by Barry Lopez
  • The Devil's Highway: A True Story, by Luis Alberto Urrea
  • Son of the Morning Star, by Evan S. Connell
  • Places Left Unfinished at the Time of Creation, by John Phillip Santos
  • Ceremony, by Leslie Marmon Silko

Egads, that's a pretty long list, but a pretty great list, too, especially when throwing in the alternates: Terry Tempest Williams's Red and D.M. Waldie's Holy Land.

Looks like I better get the Hornaday tome out of the way so I can start in on these...!

1 comment:

jd said...

Thanks for the reading recommendations. Quammen's Darwin book looks very interesting. I've been planning what books to take to Mexico for vacation. I think this one will make the cut. Enjoy your time off school