Cover of Exercised by Daniel Lieberman

Exercise in the modern world has been commodified. The people talking about it the most are some of the least trustworthy. Daniel Lieberman has taken a step back from the fitness-industrial complex and asked the elephantine question: Are homo sapiens even supposed to exercise? Through the lenses of anthropology and evolution, he has untangled exercise from modern culture. The result is an enlightening journey through history, civilization, and biology.

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Cover of Breath by James Nestor

History is a funny thing. We like to think that civilization advances, that progress only goes in one direction, but reality is more complex than that. New things are learned, discoveries are made, truths uncovered, but just because someone somewhere learns something doesn’t mean everyone everywhere hears about it or remembers it. In Breath, Nestor has done some invaluable detective work; looking closely at something we all do every minute of our lives but that few of us have thought much about. He has done some hard journalism in a world of mysticism. The result is some fascinating history, a few great anecdotes, a generous helping of compelling evidence, and new questions to go with every answer.

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Nose Dive by Harold McGee

This is a book about chemistry. Actually, one could say that it’s about chemicals and only one specific group of chemicals at that. It is essentially a catalog of chemicals that you can smell. This is exactly as exciting as it sounds. The book is, on the whole, dry and repetitive, like a reference book. And yet, between the surprisingly comprehensive and thorough lists and tables, there is a wealth of fascinating information from chemistry to biology to botany to geology to history and anthropology. By looking at the world through its smells, it is necessary to take a broad view. McGee has undertaken a monumental task with patience and thoroughness and the result is a curious but unmistakably valuable book. Where else can you find answers to all those questions you never knew you had?

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Roughly speaking, this is a history of the field of taxonomy. This is not a scientific text, but it is a text about science, and science is done by people, and people are flawed biased stubborn creatures (also clever, so very clever). It is a delight to see how this problem of classification changed and coalesced over time, and all the drama and controversy that went with it. Scientists are as dysfunctional as everyone else, perhaps more so in some regards. Yoon shows us how messy progress is.

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This review contains spoilers. For a biography. Of a man who died in 1931. You have been warned.

I don’t have a proper name for this sort of story, perhaps a sub- or sibling genre of gonzo journalism. I’m going to content myself by calling it kin to “Sita Sings the Blues”. Miller interleaves a biography of David Starr Jordan with the events of her own life while writing said biography. Miller’s half of the story recounts a low point in her life. In that time she leans into her research on Jordan, who spent a lifetime classifying fish, trying to reconstruct the tree of life (for a broader view on this part of the story, see Naming Nature by Carol Kaesuk Yoon). His dedication to this cause despite catastrophic setbacks was a source of inspiration to her. So in her darkest days, she clung to the idea of this steadfast scientist; trying to understand how he did it. And then she learns that he was implicated in a murder, supported compulsory sterilization, and was more than a little racist. This is a strong beat narratively, but comes off a bit contrived. It only takes a few minutes of research to learn about the more controversial parts of Jordan’s life. To be working on a biography of a person in such a granular way so as to know the details of their early life without knowing the first thing about their adult self seems… implausible. Also, using a surprise reveal in a biography of someone who died in 1931 is questionable.

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