I’m writing a novel about a paleontologist, so the books I’ve read this year stray far from my usual reading habits. At the Water’s Edge: Fish with Fingers, Whales with Legs by Carl Zimmer is about two great macroevolutionary events: the conversion of fish to land animals, and the subsequent return of land animals to the sea. Zimmer has the gift of explaining major scientific discoveries in the simplest, most seductive terms: the book is every bit as gripping as any adventure thriller.
The Rarest of the Rare: Stories Behind the Treasures at the Harvard Museum of Natural History is a beautiful illustrated introduction to one of the great research collections devoted to the natural world. My favorite chapter is about Stupendemys Geographicus, the largest species of turtle ever discovered. The shell, which was found in the Venezuelan desert in 1972, was so big that it had had to be broken into 30 pieces for shipment. I’ve seen the reassembled fossil, and it sits like a giant undulating cape in the middle of the museum, 6 million years old and, as its name suggests, utterly astonishing.
Finally, a novel: Euphoria, by Lily King, about a bunch of crazy anthropologists in New Guinea at the start of the 20th century. As a student of anthropology, the figures of Margaret Mead, Reo Fortune, and Gregory Bateson were mythical, not least because they didn’t just write the canonical texts of the field, but were also in a love triangle that led Mead to leave Fortune for Bateson in the summer of 1933. Lily King’s book brings all of that alive, the biographical element in service of a genuinely original plot — if only she had written the book a decade ago, when I was a sad graduate student who dreamed of being a writer.
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