Books are one of the best gifts (but hey, as an author, I’m biased), because unlike even the greatest pair of socks or the sparkliest diamond necklace, they have the power to change the way the reader sees the world.
And what could be a better present than that? After some disappointment perusing the New York Times Best Books of 2011, here are my totally subjective choices for this year’s best books about being human on planet Earth. I'm sure I've missed some; please leave other titles that you think deserve attention in the comments and I will check them out. And if you are an author with a book coming in 2012, please let me know!
"The Best Science and Nature Writing of 2011," edited by Mary Roach
The "Best of..." series are always filled with excellent writing; how can they not be? The editor of each series (there's one for sports, short stories, travel, etc.) is an experienced writer in the genre, and they compile the essays and articles from publications like The New Yorker and the Atlantic to more obscure websites and publications.
If you loved dinosaurs and woolly mammoths as a kid, you'll probably find this book, which looks at the more recent ice age extinctions (their possible causes, but mostly the animals that perished) totally fascinating. Author Sharon Levy extrapolates into the present to look at species loss today in light of what we know about the past.
"Strange, yet familiar, the awesome assemblages of Pleistocene megamammals disappeared tantalizingly close to us in time — most between 15,000 and 8,000 years ago — and, as Sharon Levy writes in her new book 'Once & Future Giants,' the proximity of this lost world to our own has fueled an ongoing debate about what happened to the titans of the Ice Age."
Full review from Wired Magazine here.
"The Beekeeper's Lament: How One Man and a Half a Billion Honeybees Help Feed America," by Hannah Nordhaus
We've all heard of colony collapse disorder, the disease that has decimated honey bee populations across the United States — but who is actually doing something about it? Beekeeper John Miller, whose personality and drive to keep bees alive is a central part of the story.
"The picture of bee maladies that Nordhaus paints isn't a pretty one. The bees continue to be extremely important to our national food system, and they continue to die in numbers that are far more vast than the normally high death rates beekeepers have always dealt with. Worse, there's no easy answer. At least not one that scientific evidence has been able to pin down yet. If you're looking for a simple solution — if you want somebody to justify your pet explanation, whether pesticides, or GMOs, or totally natural causes that have nothing to do with modern farming practices — then you probably won't like what Nordhaus has to say."
Full review from Boing Boing here.
"Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology," by Alexis Madrigal
This well-researched and densely packed-with-info book looks at the green technologies some of us think of as new (that aren't), and shows readers how much of what we thought we knew about energy is wrong. Learning from our missteps is the key to avoiding them as we move forward into a less destructive energy future.
"If you think green energy is a 21st century breakthrough, think again: In 1900, roughly one-third of automobiles were electric; the first megawatt wind turbine was built in 1941; and today's wave-power startups can trace their roots to the Wave-Power Air-Compressing Company, which claimed "one of the greatest inventions of the age" — in 1895. In "Powering the Dream," Madrigal, The Atlantic's tech editor, delves into alternative energy's past to glean its future."
Full review from Mother Jones Magazine.
"Listed: Dispatches from America's Endangered Species Act," by Joe Roman
Author Joe Roman, a conservation biologist, delves into the question of extinction, and how we aught best prevent it. He writes about a number of extinct and near-extinct animals and their effects on the ecosystems that we live in too.
"His central narrative is the fascinating history of the Endangered Species Act, in the course of which he asks: does the landmark law, passed in 1973, actually work? In other words, does listing a species as endangered prevent it from becoming extinct? And if so, why are the numbers of extinct species going up instead of down? To answer this question, the author introduces us to fish, bison, woodpeckers, whales, wolves, panthers, and a variety of plants in need of protection, turning what might have been an academic book into one inhabited by a wealth of characters. The trees and birds we meet in "Listed" are charming ambassadors for the cause."
Full review from the NRDC's On Earth Magazine here.
"Homegrown and Handmade: A Practical Guide to More Self-Reliant Living," by Deborah Niemann
Plenty of us look at the environmental challenges we face and want to throw up our hands. Author Deborah Niemann suggests that instead, we get those hands to work, creating a cleaner, healthier life for ourselves and our families.
Reader Megy Karydes says, "Author Deborah Niemann has done a nice job showing us city folk that we can do so much to take control of our lives in terms of what we put into (and onto) our bodies. While she took the more dramatic step and moved her family from a Chicago suburb to the country and now relies nearly 100 percent on her farm to sustain her and her family, she isn't preaching that everyone do what she did — rather, she gives simple, easy steps on how we can make little changes in our lives, even if we live in a city condo, to take control and safeguard our health."