Visions of Paradise

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Assorted nonfiction

While fiction occupies about 80% of my reading, and science fiction about 60%, I do read some occasional nonfiction. Here are some of the gems from my collection:

Chinese Civilization and Society, edited by Patricia Buckley Ebrey, is a college textbook intended for a course on Chinese history and culture. It consists of translated Chinese writings, ranging from the Shang Dynasty (ca. 1600 - 1100 B.C.) through the People's Republic. The writings run the gamut of fiction, documents, nonfiction, anecdotes, speeches, and letters. Some are quite dry, but others are very revealing about the nature of Chinese culture and its people. This is highly recommended for any Sinophiles out there.

Bully for Brontosaurus, by Stephen Jay Gould, is one of many collections of his columns from Natural History magazine. I subscribed to the magazine for several years, but was never able to keep up with it (a fate which eventually befalls all my magazine subscriptions!). So while I discontinued the magazine, I still buy Gould's collections periodically. They are quite interesting reading, especially since natural history is one of my favorite sciences.

Chaos, by James Gleick, is devoted to one of the newest branches of mathematics. I found this book fascinating reading, but perhaps it is a bit dry for the non-mathematical reader. I generally enjoy reading math more than I enjoy doing math problems, but then again I have always tended toward the philosophical side of math rather than the application side of it. However, I found this book to be a bit too much of an overview with virtually none of the mathematics behind Chaos Theory. So I followed it with The Turbulent Mirror, by John Briggs & F. David Peat, which was a bit more mathematical in its exposition on Chaos Theory.

Quantum Healing: Exploring the Frontiers of Mind/Body Medicine, by Deepak Chopra. A fellow teacher recommended this book. I have always believed in the strong connection between the mind and the body, so I enjoyed what Dr. Chopra had to say. While other of his books were somewhat far out in New Age space, this book struck a responsive chord with me.

Eyewitness to History, by John Carey, is like Chinese Civilization and Society in being a collection of translated writings from throughout history. The essays tend to be short, averaging about two pages each, so that they are much better at giving the feel of particular civilizations than at actually teaching any facts about them. The book includes such topics as an excerpt from the travels of Marco Polo, memoirs of a prisoner of the Inquisition, a speech by John Wesley, a reminiscence of Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo, an essay by Charles Darwin, the murder of Abe Lincoln as recounted by Walt Whitman, and many more equally diverse. This is highly recommended for lovers of history of any type.

The 100, by Michael H. Hart, contains brief essays on the hundred most important people in history, ranked in descending order of importance. This was fascinating reading as much for Hart's defense of his rankings as for the brief history lessons themselves. This book was an influence on my own book Who Shaped Science Fiction? which ranked the 100 most important influences in English-language SF.

The Crown Crime Companion, edited by Mickey Friedman and Otto Penzler, compiled by the Mystery Writers of America, contains short essays on the top 100 mystery novels of all time, many of which offer some interesting reading insight into the books themselves. In case anybody is interested, the top choices were The Complete Sherlock Holmes (which is cheating to treat it as a single book), The Maltese Falcon, Edgar Allan Poe's Tales of Mystery and Imagination (how is this a novel?), and Daughter of Time, by Josephine Tey (a fabulous historical mystery).

A Traveler in Rome, by H.V. Morton, is my current nonfiction reading, and already is my very favorite travel book. It combines fascinating looks at various famous sites in Rome, the Italian people themselves, and a strong dose of the history which occurred at those sites. Someday I hope to read Morton’s companion book A Traveler in Italy.


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