books for those ever-curious readers on your list

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

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:

FIREFLIES, GLOW-WORMS AND LIGHTNING BUGS, by Lynn Frierson Faust (Eastern and Central U.S. and Canada), is both charmingly written and technically expert, awakening us to their diversity.
SWIFT GUIDE TO BUTTERFLIES: By Dr. Jeffrey Glassberg, president of the North American Butterfly Association. A fully revised photo-driven butterfly ID tool. Even an easy photo-driven index.
THE NATURALIST'S NOTEBOOK by Nathaniel Wheelwright and Bernd Heinrich is a guide to being a better observer of nature in every season, with a 5-year blank calendar-journal at the back to call your own.
GARDEN INSECTS of North America (Princeton): Whitney Cranshaw and David Shetlar's comprehensive, easy-to-use reference is a gardener's must-have tool; now fully revised (Dec. 2017).
SPIDERS AND THEIR KIN is a tiny treasure, a little book that will get you understanding and appreciating these incredibly important creatures, and even beginning to ID the major groups. Best $7ish ever spent.
PETERSON REFERENCE GUIDE TO SPARROWS OF NORTH AMERICA, by Rick Wright, helps you get to know "your" sparrows (and juncos and towhees).
PETERSON GUIDE TO WOODPECKERS: Learn from a longtime conservationist and woodpecker expert why most species are mainly black and white, and how they evolved to withstand all that hammering and much more, plus in-depth species profiles.
COMMON SPIDERS OF NORTH AMERICA: Want to get really serious about spiders? This is the book, richly illustrated and packed with learning: ID hints, native ranges, even behavioral insights into different species.
BETTER BIRDING: Not a field guide, but a science-heavy guide to how pros observe birds using contextual cues, from senior staffers of eBird.org and American Birding Association. Includes raptors; sea, water and shorebirds; birds of the woodland edge; etc. Science-heavy.
COMMON LICHENS is an intimate look at these not-plants, not-animals that are essential to Earth's health.
MAMMALS OF NORTH AMERICA: Who knew I lived alongside 52 species of mammals of America's 462 total?
TRACKS AND SIGN OF INSECTS by Charley Eiseman demystifies all the lumps and bumps and squiggles and webs you see outdoors and ask, "What's that?"
KAUFMAN FIELD GUIDE TO BUTTERFLIES of North America: Probably the only butterfly book you'll ever need, plus easy to use.
KAUFMAN GUIDE TO INSECTS, a perfect overall guide to representative insects of every major group, with biology and life histories.
WEEDS OF NORTH AMERICA (Chicago University Press): the continent's 500 most troublesome plants, identifiable in all their life stages, seed to maturity.
DRAGONFLIES AND DAMSELFLIES of the West (Princeton University Press), Dennis Paulson's ode to Western odonates.
TREES OF WESTERN NORTH AMERICA, from Princeton: 630 native and naturalized species, ID'd and profiled.
TREES OF EASTERN NORTH AMERICA, from Princeton, with 825 native and naturalized species ID'd and profiled.
THE SIBLEY FIELD GUIDE TO BIRDS of Eastern North America is my daily go-to for confirming who's who out there. By David Sibley.
THE SIBLEY GUIDE TO BIRDS, the current master work of North American birds, written and illustrated by David Sibley.
DRAGONFLIES AND DAMSELFLIES of the East (Princeton Field Guides) by Dennis Paulson, an ode to the Eastern odonates.
PETERSON FIELD GUIDE TO MOTHS of Northeastern North America is an eye-opener for anyone who thought only butterflies were interesting.
HAWKS IN FLIGHT by Pete Dunne and colleagues, a look into the world of raptors--their ID, and life histories.
BARK: A FIELD GUIDE to Trees of the Northeast, by Michael Wojtech, teaches ID by bark, and also what bark does and how it evolved.
  1. Ellen says:

    I’ll be reading Never Home Alone. Thank you for your book recommendations! Btw, I have my yard sprayed for ticks after hubby became very ill with Lyme Disease. Can’t help but worry what this is doing in the long term scheme of things.

  2. Molly says:

    Thank you so much for all the book suggestions! You’ve introduced me to so many wonderful books. Braiding Sweetgrass is a favorite plus so many others. Octavia the octopus also appears in another book by Sy Montgomery, The Soul of an Octopus, which is fascinating and heartwarming, animal and human friendships. Thanks to you again for your wonderfully wonderful newsletter!

  3. Consuelo Almodovar says:

    I already have many of the books listed but I see several I would like to add to my library. Spiders of North America and Never Home Alone (maybe not read with my cat sitting next to me!)
    Thanks for the great list of books!

  4. John Moore says:


    Thank you for your list of natural science books. (What is the proper collective for a group of ns books? A sheaf? Herd?)

    Two to add to your bedside table are:

    Jeff Lowenfel’s wonderful introduction to microscopic soil life, “Teaming with Microbes”. It broadens a gardener’s understanding of the importance of soil critters.

    Second, there’s Henry Mitchell, the regretfully passed garden columnist from the Washington Post. You can tell he wrote in a different decade because Donald Trump is not held accountable for black spot or aphids.

    Regardless, the collections (three) of his essays are delightful (and timeless). Reading Henry is a must for all gardeners.



    1. margaret says:

      Hi, John — funny. I just shared my copy of “Teaming with Microbes” with someone recently! And yes, the Earthman, Henry Mitchell. Have his books, too. Thanks for the reminder.

  5. Cherie Luke says:

    Thank you for the book recommendations. My want list just got longer! I must say that “Bringing Nature Home” by Douglas W. Tallamy is my all time favorite.

  6. Nancy E. Sutton says:

    Thanks a bunch!! Some of my favorites are ‘Wesley the Owl’, all of Sy Montgomery’s books, the amazing ‘Alex and Me’, ‘Animal Wise’ by Morrell, the wonderful pet cat (and dog) books…. and soooo much more!! (Now I have to go back to the Amazon list that came up with my search for these titles!)

  7. Wendy Henrichs says:

    I just read HOW TO BE A GOOD CREATURE this weekend and loved it. I will be writing a review for it in my local paper. Excellent writer and an adventurous life. Animal lovers must read Sy Montgomery’s memoir.

    Thanks for all the good recommendations!

  8. Audrey says:

    My son is a biology teacher and I find such wonderful books on your website to give to him. My latest one is Michael Engel’s Innumberable Insects.

    I also have a question about spraying for ticks. We have all had Lyme disease here (with bull’s eye rash), so we had someone spray with organic spray. I was desperate. However, I am still nervous as I am wondering what is happening to other insects in our yard that the birds depend on.

    Any comments on this? We live in the area between Boston and Worcester, MA

  9. Ann says:

    Fabulous book list; I’ll be buying a number of these. I was happy to see the reference to Henry Mitchell, who was,and still is, my favorite garden writer.

  10. Elise Leahy says:

    Your podcast is my absolute favorite! How does one enter the book give aways? Just curious! I am excited also for the new version of your book which you talked about on Joe Gardener’s podcast that comes out in the spring.

  11. Marie says:

    Thank you so much for these book ideas!! I’m always looking for something wonderful to read and many of these books fit the bill. In fact, I bought How to be a Good Creature to read for myself and found it so charming that I bought a bunch of them and gave them away at Christmas as hostess gifts for parties that I went to, for my daughter’s horseback riding teacher, for my son’s reading teacher… It was my go to gift for people that I want to give a little something to. It was a short, easy read that is good for both teens and adults. Have you delved into Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle? I love all of BK’s books but the idea of sourcing all of her food from her plot of land is relevant to your ongoing discussion. Plus, anything by Michael Pollen. Cheers and Happy New Year!

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