MY READING LIST in recent years is pretty narrow–and then again, it’s anything but. Almost exclusively I read books that focus on some aspect of the diversity of life, and how life on earth works, whether biology or botany to evolution or even behavior and perception.
Several recent reads might make good gifts for the likewise ever-curious reader on your list.
“How to Be a Good Creature: A Memoir in 13 Animals,” by Sy Montgomery (2018)
THIS BOOK simply made me happy. Knowing each of the 13 animals in it made Montgomery happy, too.
“Knowing someone who belongs to another species can enlarge your soul in surprising ways,” Montgomery, a naturalist and longtime self-described adventurer, says at the start. She then goes on to show us how a 750-pound pet pig, various border collies, a chicken-stealing mink who arrived on a Christmas morning, a South American tarantula and even an octopus, among the baker’s dozen, do just that.
“How to Be a Good Creature” is an easy read and a wonderful gift even for young adults. Throughout, animal powers are on display—whether to heal, comfort, or instruct Montgomery in one of various ways. Like that whopper of a pig:
“He taught us how to love. How to love what life gives you. Even when life gives you slops.”
My favorite chapter in “How to Be a Good Creature:” the octopus, Octavia. Though she and Montgomery are “separated by half a billion years of evolution,” a strong bond formed—and not just because Octavia’s eight sucker-covered arms have the ability to pull 4,000 pounds (no small matter when they are eagerly gripping the author’s arms). I think you will enjoy this tale of 13 life-changing friendships.
“On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes,” by Alexandra Horowitz (2013)
THINK AGAIN about what “paying attention” means by taking a series of walks with the author of the No. 1-selling “Inside of a Dog.”
“On the phone, worrying over dinner, listening to others or to the to-do lists replaying in our own heads, we miss the world making itself available to be observed,” Horowitz writes. “And we miss the possibility of being surprised by what is hidden in plain sight right in front of us.”
Inspired initially by walks with her dog—no mere pet owner, Horowitz is a psychologist, an expert in dog cognition and therefore by profession a trained observer—she realized she’d become “a sleepwalker on the sidewalk.”
In “On Looking,” we join her first for an adventure around the New York City block with her just-learned-to-walk toddler son, and outings with a geologist, a field biologist, a blind woman, an architect and more. And yes, eventually, with her dog.
“After taking the walks described in this book,” she writes, “I would find myself at once alarmed, delighted, and humbled at the limitations of my ordinary looking.” After walking along virtually through its pages: me, too.
what I’m reading now: “Never Home Alone,” by Rob Dunn (2018)
MAYBE TWO YEARS AGO I interviewed an entomologist from North Carolina State, who specializes in “arthropods of the great indoors” (as in: our houses). I try to be on a first-name basis with the spiders and silverfish and such that live here with me, indoors and out, and always want to learn more. So it was with great delight that I heard the entomologist’s colleague Rob Dunn on “Fresh Air” recently, speaking about Dunn’s new book, “Never Home Alone: From Microbes to Millipedes, Camel Crickets, and Honeybees, the Natural History of Where We Live.”
Not just content to get a census of the insects and other animals we share our lives with, “Never Home Alone” goes much, much smaller, down to the unseen organisms—the bacteria and fungi—whether in the fermented foods we cultivate, or less deliciously, in those we regard as pathogens.
Some of the latter are covered in the chapter “Look What the Cat Dragged In,” about the unseen visitors who ride in on or inside our beloved pets. Yes, Fido himself is a community of organisms (as is not just the kitchen counter but also the showerhead and uh-oh, the surface of your skin). Don’t panic, though; just read the book. An in-depth adventure for those curious about the diversity of life, seen and unseen.
past favorites in a natural-science vein
- “Innumerable Insects” by Michael Engel
- “Braiding Sweetgrass” by Robin Wall Kimmerer
- “The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating”
- “The Snoring Bird”
favorite field guides from a real field-guide freak
WHEN IN DOUBT, read a field guide. That’s my motto, and I have a whole cupboard full of them, including these and more: