Shake-Up-Your-Brain Books

A while back I was the guest editor at audible.com and had occasion to consider recent audiobooks I’ve enjoyed, in particular books that pick your brain up, shake it around, and put it back in your skull with a new viewpoint.

Because of an Interweebs-wide pixel shortage, some of the article got cut. In addition, some books I would have liked to include aren’t available in audio versions. So I decided to revise the article; this is the expansion of the non-fiction section.

Charles C. Mann’s 1491 explores the Americas before the arrival of Columbus. The information he collected about the hemisphere and its people before European diseases destroyed entire cultures is absolutely heartbreaking, and provides a much more complicated picture of that world than we get in history books. One extrapolation: Disease probably wiped out 95% of some civilizations before white people even saw them.

Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire makes the reader look at the relationship between plants and people from the plants’ point of view: who would have thought he could make a good case for plants’ influencing the evolution of people? He followed Botany up with The Omnivore’s Dilemma, a fascinating look at the culture, science, business, and enjoyment of food. (Just one question: What about the flour?)

But I think my favorite recent nonfiction book is Adrienne Mayor’s The First Fossil Hunters. The author, a folklorist, went back to classical texts by Greek and Roman travel writers, the ones many scholars dismissed because of course they must have made all that stuff up, and she approached them with the question: What if they didn’t make it all up?

As I read, my skepticism diminished. The griffin theory seemed entirely plausible, and when she got to the similarity of the range of a particular dinosaur fossil (an ankylosaur, if I remember correctly – I have, of course, lent out my copy just when I need it) and the range of the mythical Chinese dragon, I was convinced. I couldn’t look at that fossil skull, with the spines sticking out the sides, and not think of a Chinese dragon.

Mayor has a new book, The Poison King, coming out soon. I’m looking forward to it.


You can find The Moon and the Sun at Book View Cafe, where Chapter 11 is featured today. The Basement Full of Books section of my website has new signed hardcovers at a Book View Cafe celebration price.

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