The great majority of the books I read are nonfiction--mostly history, religion, archaeology, linguistics, and science, with occasional forays into music, sports, and food lit.
For much of ancient history, religious belief and practice were so intertwined with civilization as a whole (whether Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Greek, Indian, Chinese or other) that it doesn't appear that people thought of "religion" as a separate or separable human activity. Eventually, that all changed, at least in some parts of the world. How did it happen that humans began to categorize religion as a particular kind of activity, to the point where the comparative study of religion evolved as its own field of study? Jack Miles offers a thoughtful, elegant, convincing explanation.
This is not a book for beginners, but if you already know something about the life of Muhammad and the emergence of Islam, the freshness of Bowersock's interpretations--and the exceptionally broad scope of his research--will be a revelation. He looks at what was happening in the Arabian peninsula, the Byzantine empire, the Sassanian Persian empire--even in Ethiopia--in the decades just before Muhammad's birth, during his life, and just after his death. By establishing a firmer context for the seventh-century CE rise of Islam, he is able to make persuasive sense out of the ocean of often conflicting data that confronts historians who devote themselves to this controversial subject.
Has Bowersock succeeded in telling us exactly what happened? No, no one can do that. That's not what writing history is about. But I think this book likely brings us a little closer to the truth than we have ever been before.
You want erudite? This book is erudite, although it wears its learning lightly. (Oy--only the second sentence, and already he's dragging out the cliches.) You want funny? Trust me, it doesn't stint on the funny. You want definitive? Of course it's not definitive--take a look at the subtitle. You want good writing? Contributors include Ruth Reichl, Mimi Sheraton, Joan Nathan, Maira Kalman, Ian Frazier, Daphne Merkin, and plenty of others who are comparably gifted.
There are people who won't appreciate this book, but they put mayonnaise on pastrami and ketchup on scrambled eggs.
David Reich of Harvard Medical School is one of the geneticists who led the way in developing new methods for studying very ancient DNA and using those techniques to sequence the genomes of individuals who lived many thousands of years ago. Here he combines the results (many of which came out of his own lab) with findings from archaeology, anthropology, and historical linguistics to tell a substantially revised story of how early humans spread out of Africa and settled the globe. If you're familiar with an older version of the migration-out-of-Africa-to-everywhere-else story, you're in for some stunning surprises.
If I were to tell you this is a book that's largely about ancient Mesopotamia (what is today southern Iraq) and left it at that, you'd probably say, "Uh, that doesn't really sound like my cup of tea" (or Sumerian beer, as it were). But this book happens to ask very big, extremely interesting questions. To wit: What do we mean when we refer to the "origins of civilization" or "early civilizations"? Was "civilization" typically a good thing for all those involved? Admirers of Jared Diamond and Yuval Harari -- prepare to engage with James Scott's restless and brilliantly original mind.
Of course Michael Jordan is pictured on the cover, because -- and I say this with full awareness that I'm at risk of being tried, convicted, and sent to Clichémongers Prison -- this book is the Michael Jordan of anthologies of basketball writing. Take a look at the table of contents: John McPhee, Pete Axthelm, David Halberstam, Frank Deford, Curry Kirkpatrick, Bob Ryan, Charlie Pierce, Darcy Frey, John Edgar Wideman, Pat Conroy. . . . a veritable Dream Team! (Did I really say that?)
This is a graphic novel/biography (I still can't get used to calling nonfiction books "graphic novels") of Ellen Cohen, a (mostly) nice Jewish girl from Baltimore whose family owned a deli and who didn't want to work in a deli but instead transformed herself into one of the most distinctive vocalists in pop music history -- Cass Elliot. She was quite a character, and Penelope Bagieu's portrayal of Ellen/Cass is poignant, generous, inspiring, happy-sad, and altogether delightful.
I'm fascinated by language, but I've never been very adept at learning foreign languages. Dutch linguist/polyglot Dorren is clearly quite good at learning them (he claims to speak six and read an additional nine, and I have no reason to doubt him). In sixty short chapters, he succeeds in telling us one or two (or more) really interesting things about each of sixty of the languages of Europe. All the biggies are here, of course, but think what a star you'll be at parties when you inject something about Galician, Romani, Manx, or Frisian into the conversation! I guarantee that the book's breezy, conversational style will draw you in if you're at all predisposed to the subject matter.
Of the many famous profiles that have appeared in The New Yorker, two of the best known are the two published by the late Joseph Mitchell--22 years apart -- about Joe Gould, a Greenwich Village derelict/madman/man-about-town who claimed to have written a 9-million-word "Oral History of Our Time." Current New Yorker staff writer (and Harvard history professor) Jill Lepore began to suspect that there was a lot more to Gould's story than Mitchell had ever uncovered (or let on), and this riveting little book is the result of her investigations. An amazing piece of detective work that leads to unexpectedly creepy revelations.
I can't say that I've been a great fan of the lately popular "to do before you die" genre. I don't want anyone telling me what I have to do before I die (it's bad enough being told what I have to do today or tomorrow). But I am a long-time fan of Mimi Sheraton, who has been one of America's most knowledgeable and entertaining food writers since around the time that Anthony Bourdain had his first taste of Gerber baby food. This beautifully produced 990-page volume is, to my mind, maybe the coolest browsing book for food lovers ever published (with the possible exception of the Oxford Companion to Food, which costs $40 more).It doesn't matter whether Sheraton is writing about quenelles de brochet (pike dumplings) or about toasted marshmallows -- turn to any page in this book and you'll know within seconds that a consummate professional is your guide.
From 1957 to 1978, midwesterner Janet Groth worked at The New Yorker as a receptionist. "So what?" you might be inclined to say. But when I saw that the third chapter was about Joseph Mitchell, one of my favorite writers, I picked up the book to read that chapter and maybe one or two others. Whaddaya know--I found Groth's writing to be so insightful and charmingly honest that, after reading the warm account of her friendship with Mitchell, I went back and read the first two chapters and then skipped ahead to chapter 4 and kept going.
Part of the appeal of this memoir is the fact that the forty or so writers who had offices on Groth's floor included some of The New Yorker's real stars of that era (Mitchell, Pauline Kael, Dwight Macdonald, Muriel Spark, Calvin Trillin, E. J. Kahn Jr.). But Janet Groth herself emerges as a thoughtful and very likable memoirist. Later in life she finished her PhD, became an English professor, and produced a total of five books on the critic Edmund Wilson. So why was it that in her 21 years at the magazine, she was never promoted above the level of receptionist, save for a short stint in the art department? Groth's willingness to tackle this and other tough questions--about her own life, and the lives of family members, lovers, and New Yorker colleagues--is one of the great virtues of this keenly intelligent (and gently gossipy) book.
Guns, Germs, and Steel was first published in 1997, but I didn’t read it until 2005-2006, shortly after a hardcover edition containing a new chapter on Japan and Korea became available. I underlined the text generously and filled my copy with notes in the margins – everything from expressions of amazement at Diamond’s brilliant insights to angry dissents when I thought he was overstating the role of geography in the development of human civilizations. A boundless intellectual feast whether you agree with the author’s conclusions or not.