2015 was a very strong year for the combined Science and Nature category I love so much, a very strong year for books describing and celebrating the mind-blowing wonders of nature. This category is a bit of a sweet tooth of mine, and I’m fairly certain I read every major mainstream example of it published in the US in 2015. These were the best of the bunch:
10. The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins by Hal Whitehead (University of Chicago) – The quietly revolutionary angle of this fantatsic book is hinted right there in the title: culture – not the behavior but the culture of non-humans. The subject is huge and in very large part untenable, since whales and dolphins spend virtually all of their lives outside the range of human observation, let alone human measurement. But the attempts this book makes are very, very much worth making. You can read my full review here.
9. Noise Matters by R. Haven Wiley (Harvard University Press) – Wiley’s study impressed me quite a bit the first time I read it, and it’s only grown on me since; his questions and findings about not only the incessant noise living things set up making on Earth but also the strategies those loving things have developed to deal with the racket are fascinating, and I’ve kept thinking about them. You can read my full review here.
8. Fastest Things on Wings by Terry Masear (Houghton) – The author of this inspiring book writes about what is surely one of the most delicate jobs on the planet: rescuing and treating injured hummingbirds, insect-sized creatures as fragile as soap bubbles. Her account of this job – and her glowing portraits of the personalities of the tiny patients – is irresistible. You can read my full review here.
7. After Nature by Jedediah Purdy (Harvard University Press) – The Anthropocene is the subject and the stage of Duke University professor Purdy’s smart and morally relentless book, the Anthropocene being the bleak and dangerously denuded world mankind has made out of the far more lush and varied world that existed a couple hundred thousand years ago. This concept of the modern age has been the subject of quite a few books lately, and this one is the best. You can read my full review here.
6. Wolves on the Hunt by L. David Mech & Douglas W. Smith (University of Chicago) – It’s not often in the world of nature-writing that readers get a chance to read a kind of summation written by the single most knowledgeable expert on a given subject, and in 2015 it happened a few times. Including this great book based in such large part on the research, insight, and vast personal experience L. David Mech brings to the subject of wolves. You can read my full review here.
5. The Runes of Evolution by Simon Conway Morris (Templeton Press) – The whole subject of convergent evolution is Simon Conway Morris’s emphasis here, the phenomenon where two completely separate kinds of life will evolve the same feature independently. But Morris is brilliant and very nearly omniscient, so his book ranges far, far beyond that phenomenon. You can read my full review here.
4. Old Faithful by Peter Thorne (Harper Design) and Dog Years by Amanda Jones (Chronicle) – It’s the most beautiful and the most heart-breaking phase of living with beloved dogs: they age much faster than humans, which means their human companions get to usher squirming, leaping young puppies into white-faced, dim-eyed old age, often more than once (for some of us, many, many times). The experience can be absolutely enlightening (dogs purify in old age) and almost unbearable, and in the end there are those unthinkable first moments when they aren’t there anymore. I’ve lived through more of those moments than I ever thought possible (and I’ve been told I have two more of them coming in 2016), and I’ve read as many books about those moments as I can. In 2015 the two best dog-books were on this saddest of subjects, and to those who’ll need to read them, I can’t recommend either of them strongly enough.
3. The Secret Lives of Bats by Merwin Tuttle (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) – This is another one of those once-in-a-lifetime natural history books written by a ground-clearing titan in the field – in this case the godfather of bat-research, Merwin Tuttle, here writing in clear, engaging prose about his lifetime spent studying bats, chasing them, and most of all changing public attitudes toward them. It’s a wonderful volume of facts and reminiscences, and every time you find yourself patiently explaining to someon that bats no more want to get tangled in human hair than humans want them to, you’ll remember the author, who’se been clarifying that point for over fifty years.
2. The House of Owls by Tony Angell (Yale University Press) – In this classic, gorgeously-illustrated volume, Angell mixes personal anecdotes about meeing and observing and even raising owls with generous amounts of the natural history of owls (with a special emphasis on the nineteen species of North American owls). Angell is one-half of the team that brought readers the superb volume In the Company of Crows and Ravens, and this present volume is every bit as spellbinding.
1. The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery (Atria) – This, the best Nature book of the year, is a heartfelt love-letter from a member of one big-brained Earth species to a entire group of other big-brained Earth species, and its so utterly winning from start to finish that it’s hard to imagine a reader who wouldn’t come away from the book with an entirely brightened and expanded concept of what octopuses are like, and what they can do, and maybe even what they think. As Montgomery makes thrillingly clear, these creatures are already, right here, every day, mankind’s First Contact with an alien species.
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