Before reading this book, I admit that my knowledge of Madagascar was shamefully rudimentary: I knew its location on the world map, the name of its capital city, and that lemurs are part of its endemic fauna. Fortunately for me, anthropologist Alison Richard, backed by her five decades of research experience, has written a natural history book in the broadest sense of the word, encompassing geology, (palaeo)climatology, botany, zoology, conservation, and much else besides. She skillfully dismantles simplistic dichotomies and is particularly passionate about challenging the dominant conservation narrative that Madagascar was a forested paradise until humans arrived. The Sloth Lemur’s Song is revelatory in more than one way and I came away with a much deeper understanding of this remarkable island.
Despite, or perhaps because of, the ongoing pandemic, 2021 was a phenomenal year for publishing. Though I did not get to nearly as many books as I would have liked, I read and reviewed 67 books this year.
What follows is my personal top 5 of the most impactful, most beautiful, and most thought-provoking books I read during 2021.
Throughout human history, wood has been our constant, if somewhat overlooked companion. With The Wood Age, professor of biological sciences Roland Ennos delivers an eye-opening piece of environmental history. Reaching beyond the boundaries of this discipline, it gives the reader a comprehensive picture of how we have shaped wood and how, in turn, wood has shaped us.
When humans abandon a place, nature comes rushing back in. Dotted around our planet are numerous areas now devoid of human habitation: ghost towns, conflict zones, pollution hotspots, and areas wrecked by natural forces. Author and journalist Cal Flyn explores thirteen such locations and here reports their sights, sounds, and smells. Surprisingly rich in ecological and biological detail, Islands of Abandonment is a poetic and spellbinding travelogue. A dark howl of decay and human hubris, shot through with the inevitable rebirth of nature, this book haunted me long after I finished it.
History will forever associate Charles Darwin with the theory of evolution, but the idea was in the air. Had not Darwin published his famous book, someone else would have likely snatched the prize. Husband-and-wife duo John and Mary Gribbin here examine the wider milieu in which Darwin operated and the many thinkers who preceded him. Given their previous collaborations, the first two parts of On the Origin of Evolution read like a well-oiled machine, but the book falters when they turn their eyes to the legacy of Darwin’s ideas.
If you asked ten scientists what made them choose their profession, would you get ten different answers? My instinct tells me that curiosity is an overriding factor for many. It certainly was for palaeontologist Richard Fortey. Published just days after his 75th birthday, A Curious Boy reflects on his earliest years and was such a disarming and enjoyable memoir that I finished it in a single day.
In 2016, the scuba-diving philosopher Peter Godfrey-Smith wrote Other Minds where he explored the mind of the octopus—I reviewed it right before reading this book. Its bestseller status, including translations in more than 20 languages, was not entirely unpredictable. Octopuses are a sexy topic. Four years later, he explores animal minds further with Metazoa, with the tour now also including sponges, corals, shrimp, insects, fish, and mammals. Godfrey-Smith convinced me he is no one-trick pony when it comes to writing a good book, though this one is more cerebral than its predecessor.
Peter Godfrey-Smith is popularly known as the scuba-diving philosopher and has just published his new book Metazoa, in which he plumbs the evolutionary origins of minds. In preparation for reviewing that book, I am (finally) turning my attention to his initial 2016 bestseller Other Minds. Here he beholds the octopus, only to find that, behind those eight tentacles, an intelligence quite unlike ours beholds him in turn.
This is a travelogue the likes of which you do not find often. It tells of historian David Gange’s audacious journey, kayaking the length of the Atlantic coast of the British Isles over the course of a year. His motivation was to challenge established historical narratives that tend to be land-centric and focused on big cities. Wishing to become a more rounded and responsible historian, he literally immersed himself in a different perspective. The Frayed Atlantic Edge seeks to salvage the histories of coastal and island communities and show they have played a far larger role in British history than they are normally given credit for.
Many works of popular science claim to be histories of almost everything or everyone, but earth scientist Robert M. Hazen might actually be in the position to stake that claim. Whether you are talking stellar evolution, the origin of life, organic chemistry, synthetic materials, or hydrocarbon fuels – the multifaceted atom carbon is ubiquitous and pervasive. Symphony in C is a whirlwind tour through geology, biochemistry, and evolutionary biology that is an incredibly absorbing read, although in places it almost comes apart at the seams under the intensity of its enthusiasm.