getting rich writing book reviews

Warning! Long post follows. Sorry.

I have found myself commenting several times lately on the richness of my hobby-and-part-time-job, of reading books and then writing about them. I thought it was time I put this into a coherent statement for you here.

I was always a steady reader, as a child, and through school. I always loved to read. (In one of those blogging memes that went around some time ago, a self-interview sort of thing, I was supposed to give my favorite book as a child. I couldn’t remember, so I asked my mom. Her response was something like, “are you kidding! There was a new one daily!”) As a new librarian, I took a readers advisory class that recommended keeping a book blog as one way of recording one’s reading for reference later on. And that’s how we got to pagesofjulia; and that in turn is how I was able to apply to write for Shelf Awareness, a year or two down the road.

So I’ve always been a reader. And I had some fine English classes (and other social sciences) that trained me to take notes while reading, and to look for themes, leitmotif, stylistic quirks, and the like. But only since becoming a book blogger and paid book reviewer have I really begun to hone the skills of close reading – not for a class assignment (I knew how to do that), but to record my personal reactions, or the qualities that a prospective reader would want to know about. (I also began reading with an eye as to how a book might be improved. But that’s a different topic. Perhaps.)

Another result of reading for the sake of writing about what I’ve read, has been the growing diversity of the books I pick up. My reading volume has increased, is ever increasing, and I need the variety to keep from getting bored. If I read nothing but thrillers, at the present rate, it would be difficult to say something new about each one. And I want to better serve my editor by contributing diverse material. But also, as my reading has expanded, so have my interests, which then expand my reading, and there we have the most delightful self-perpetuating cycle you could imagine.

In the past several years, I have read widely in fiction (lots of mysteries and thrillers, as ever, but a little romance, fantasy, sci fi, historical and literary fiction, classics, and some odd formats, outliers and oddities) and nonfiction (sports and nature, as ever, but also science, history, biography, essays, politics, journalism, and literary criticism). I have tended to read for what I can learn from the book, myself, but also with a wider readership in mind, so that I can write a sale-able review. And a magical thing has come of this wide reading diversity.

I have never learned so much, so richly, as in reading this way. I attended a very fine public high school with a highly regarded International Baccalaureate program, and then a college Honors program, from which I graduated summa cum laude. I have a master’s degree. But I’ve never experienced such an interdisciplinary curriculum as this: read eclectically. Take notes.

The area of my reading that has most surprised me is in science. I never considered myself as having a scientific mind, and I was generally lukewarm on science classes (with a notable exception for chemistry); but with such magnetic titles as The Drunken Botanist and A Garden of Marvels, and biographies of Rachel Carson and Hali Felt, not to mention Annie Dillard‘s breathtaking Pilgrim at Tinker Creek… well, I found it easy and even natural to grow in that direction. (As a flower toward the sun, if you’ll excuse the simile.)

And when I began reading more widely, and repeatedly reading in areas new to me – like science – I noticed another magical thing: I started recognizing concepts. I have written before on what I’m calling synchronicity, the seeming coincidence of discovering a newly learned fact or area of study again and again in a short time. The more I think about it, the more I think my friend Liz is right: it’s not that things actually come to me in threes, but rather that when I’ve recently learned something, I am more able to see it the next few times it crosses my desk (book, mind). These are opportunities to relearn a new concept or fact; and they are opportunities to cross-reference within other disciplines, to reinforce knowledge, to gain a fuller understanding of what a concept or a fact means in historical, cultural, political context.

One area in which I am not an expert is education (or educational theory or design), so I’ll try not to get too far off-track here. But I think we’re probably doing something wrong in our formal education system regarding interdisciplinary learning. I’ve never felt so richly instructed as I do by simply spending all the time I can find in reading, widely and with both eyes wide open. And while a steady diet of bodice-ripping romance novels or pulp might not do it, notice that I’m not recommending reading a bunch of scholarly works, or even all nonfiction. (And some pulp is always welcome, just as you can probably eat a few M&Ms alongside your healthy diet.)

Fiction has a great deal to offer: entertainment, yes, but also the opportunity to get inside someone else’s head, to understand their processes and motivations; or to travel to another time or experience another culture, and likewise to better understand the workings of that time or place or culture. And these are valuable lessons to learn for the important everyday work of being human: the ability to empathize, or to understand or even imagine the motivations of others, makes us better people. (There have been some studies on this. See for example the Guardian here and here.) Fiction is good: I’ve said this before.

To say that reading nonfiction is education is a much more familiar concept; you learn new facts from nonfiction, right? (We could actually argue over this point, but let’s not do it here and now.) But again, I think that reading lots – fiction or non – is far more than the sum of the parts, of having read all those individual books. The more you read, the more you learn, not only from what you’ve read, but from the combined and compounded effects of varied reading. I feel more intellectually stimulated now than I did in high school, college or graduate school. It’s not just that I read a lot of books; I read lots of different kinds of books. Some are silly or pulpy, but as I scan this list, I can’t pick out even one that didn’t teach me something. Some are weird (for example). But put them all together, and they make for a fine education.

Read eclectically. Take notes.

The Remedy: Robert Koch, Arthur Conan Doyle, and the Quest to Cure Tuberculosis by Thomas Goetz

The compelling connection between Sherlock Holmes and the search for a tuberculosis cure.


Thomas Goetz’s The Remedy achieves a rare feat: serious, accurate scientific writing that is also engaging and entertaining.

In the mid-1800s, the practice of medicine largely resembled groping in the dark. Patients came to doctors “with the hope of a cure but never the expectation of one.” The final decades of that century, however, were marked by extraordinary advances in science, technology and medicine: “germ theory” was developed, infectious diseases were better understood, and more-modern notions of hygiene and sanitation began to catch on. Robert Koch, a provincial German doctor, pioneered experiment design and research standards, and in 1882 he identified the bacterial cause of tuberculosis–the most deadly disease in human history.

Koch attempted to develop a cure for TB, which he presented in Berlin. Despite meticulous empirical methods he had established, Koch’s zeal for his remedy led to his downfall, as his treatment was unprovable. An obscure British doctor and sometime writer, also provincial, was the first to pen an appropriately skeptical response. Despite his criticism, Arthur Conan Doyle was a great admirer of Koch and appreciated his scrupulous observations; in fact, Goetz asserts that without Koch, “there may never have been a Sherlock Holmes as we know him.”

The intersection of Koch and Doyle brought the spirit of scientific discovery to crime detection, and the spirit of investigation to scientific research. Goetz’s exploration of their lives and their impact on the world as we know it is both historically significant and enthralling.

This review originally ran in the April 18, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!

Rating: 9 dead rabbits.

In addition to my shorter review, above, I’d like to add a few more details. A big part of what I loved about this book was the breadth of scope. For example, to provide his readers with an accurate view of what Koch, Lister, Pasteur, and other scientists of the day were up against, Goetz describes at some length the state of medicine in their time. He warns us against coming too easily to the idea of germs and microbes as self-evident; and funnily enough, I was talking with a friend about this book, and she said just that: isn’t it obvious that surgeons would wash their hands beforehand?? But as Goetz so carefully points out, no, not obvious at all; when first presented as a theory, germs were as ridiculous as the idea that the earth might be round. Etc.

Along with medical background, we learn about the common practices of farming and domestic life; we learn about the lingering national hatred that would have pitted Pasteur and Koch so strongly against one another in the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian War; and about the social constructs that led Arthur Conan Doyle to work so hard at being a doctor when he really wanted to be a celebrated author. (I was reminded of other authors I’ve read about, like Louisa May Alcott: Doyle was always frustrated by the great success of his detective stories in the face of the failure of his more literary novels, just as Alcott was annoyed by the success of Little Women–a book she didn’t like very much. And you know, Doyle killed off Holmes, only to be pressured into his resurrection.)

I suppose I’m a sucker for breadth of scope. Nonfiction that covers history, science, social issues, and literature – and does it in fine literary style, to boot – will always win my heart. Back to the theme of synchronicity that I’m written on before: the older I get and the more of this interdisciplinary study that I encounter, the more I am convinced that this is way we should study history. How many of us found history boring in high school? I did. But once you link music, literature, fashion, politics, science, military conflicts… on and on, once you link all these threads so that the world of the past comes alive – who could not be fascinated? I think we do our kids a real disservice by not embracing this kind of study in their regular schooling.

The Remedy is both a good read, and an examination of a piece of world history whose importance really can’t be overstated.

the hermit thrush

My parents have recently moved from Houston to northern Washington state, a scant 20 miles from Canada. Pops wrote me an email the other day which I will share in part, with some locations redacted…

First, I’ll remind you the ringtone I assigned your number on my phone is the Hermit Thrush.

Today I rode a big loop out —- and back along the shore of —-; as I rode a quiet back road bordered by forest, I was climbing a moderate hill at a steady pace, but slow enough on a low-wind morning to enjoy near silence, hearing & seeing detail in the woods as I passed; it was then that the Hermit Thrush sang out as your text came in; and I swear I heard a thrush answer in the forest!

That’s happened before, back in Texas, with the Tufted Titmouse assigned to your mother – but there are no Thrushes in Texas; I haven’t yet determined if the thrush we hear around town here is the Hermit or one of the others. The book makes it hard to tell the difference; but somebody out there liked it today!

I commented that that must be a very high-quality ringtone!

from here

from here

The ringtone is an actual recording of a bird; the small speaker of a phone is naturally more effective with high pitched sounds, like bird songs, so it really is natural sounding and projects well from my jersey pocket.

One way researchers “search” for rare birds is to play recordings of their songs & calls and listening for a response, so we shouldn’t be surprised this works.

Indeed – and that makes sense; but still, who’d have thought? And by the way, according to this range map, the hermit thrush is in fact quite likely to be in my dad’s new neighborhood.

So why I am sharing this on my book blog? Well, I continue to be struck by the episodes of coincidence (if you like) or of synchronicity that inhabit my life, my world, and my reading (and cross over from my reading into my “real” world). The final page of the book I reviewed yesterday, Susan Vreeland’s The Forest Lover, made me think of my father, because it made reference to the song of the hermit thrush:

A hermit thrush spilled one long crystalline note, stilling all the earth to listen, and then poured out an ethereal flute song, over too soon. She closed her eyes, waited. Again, that purest of tones, long-held, chillingly beautiful, and then the cascade of melody like a tumbling stream. A spirit song. For her.

If she could sing like that thrush, what would she sing?

[You can listen to its song here, thanks to the Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.]

The next paragraph references, among other trees, the Douglas fir, another species belonging to my parents’ new habitat and appreciated by them. It just goes to show that life really does imitate art, and/or the reverse, and that that’s as it should be.

more on Maclean from Liz

Nature, unfortunately for the organization of academia, is vexingly interdisciplinary.

Why are the activities aboard the Titanic so fascinating to us that we give no heed to the waters through which we pass, or to that iceberg on the horizon?

Last week I posted a review of Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It, and other stories. My coworker Liz, who more than once has directed us to some great reads, immediately found and forwarded a 1989 Past President’s Address to the Western Literature Association by a Glen A. Love. Her comment was: “After reading your review I went looking for Maclean biography and found this, I know you dislike the form but I was compelled to send it along anyway.” She’s referring to my dislike of essay collections – I know, it’s terrible, right? but I can’t get excited about collections of essays. A single essay, however, for no good reason, I am game for.

This one turned out to be very interesting. (Liz wins again.) It begins:

Describing the early rejection of the manuscript for his widely admired book A River Runs Through It, Norman Maclean recalls in his acknowledgments the cool dismissal from one New York publisher: “These stories have trees in them.”

And then it largely abandons Maclean; but never fear. It’s a great argument for the failure of Literature to address ecology; it’s a polemic, and sadly no less relevant and (to my inexpert eye) no less correct in its criticisms today, despite being 24 years old. I thrilled to read about great nature writers whom I’ve loved, and also those I haven’t yet discovered (and note the reference to Gretel Ehrlich, of whom I’d never heard until recently). She is mentioned as one of those writers who “seem to slough off their New York or L.A. skins when they confront western landscapes.” If that doesn’t remind you of Phil Connors, you haven’t been paying attention. Maclean inhabits this article mostly in that phrase, quoting a rejecting publisher: “These stories have trees in them.” Love argues that this is one of the tragedies of Maclean’s kind, and a chief failure of the literary establishment: that to write about trees will get you derisively branded with “the contemptuous epithet nature-lover.”

I muse, as I read this article, about some books I’ve read that were partly nature writings, but only as a framework through which to dissect the human condition: Mountains of Light was lovely, and awed by Yosemite, but the author was really there to exorcise the particular demon of his wife’s death; and Almost Somewhere was even more overtly a drama of young women coming of age, and the unfortunate cattiness that often accompanies them, set against the John Muir Trail. This is one of Love’s points, too: that we (as a society, not only as writers & critics) continue to fail to consider nature, or the earth, in its own right, and instead keep considering its role in human experience.

I think Phil Connors and especially Derrick Jensen would agree with Love’s assessments. So, I’m feeling more of that synchronicity that I’ve written of before: I’ve found another kindred spirit, as Anne of Green Gables might say.

more synchronicities

Johnny Cash, as quoted in The Man Called Cash by Steve Turner:

[The Arc de Triomphe] was really a beautiful thing. About three times as big as I thought it would be and a lot prettier. We walked around there taking pictures and then went on to the Eiffel Tower. That was something else. That was different than I’d imagined. It didn’t seem so high but was probably higher than it looked. We couldn’t see it from very far off because of the fog, and we didn’t go to the top because we were plenty cold on the ground where we were, and it sure looked a lot colder up there.

James Baldwin, in “Encounter on the Seine: Black Meets Brown,” collected in Notes of a Native Son:

Both are quite willing, and indeed quite wise, to remark instead the considerably overrated impressiveness of the Eiffel Tower.

The Eiffel Tower has naturally long since ceased to divert the French, who consider that all Negroes arrive from America, trumpet-laden and twinkle-toed, bearing scars so unutterably painful that all the glories of the French Republic may not suffice to heal them.

[“Encounter on the Seine” appears to have been originally published in 1950 (I got that here; original pub dates were not available in my copy of Notes of a Native Son), which coincidentally is the same year that Johnny Cash joined the military. I feel safe assuming that Cash would have seen the Eiffel Tower in 1950 or ’51, although I confess I’m unclear on whether the above quotation came from a contemporary account (like a journal he kept at the Air Force base where he was stationed in Germany) or from reflections he made later in life.]

I would never have imagined, as I simultaneously read essays by James Baldwin and a biography of Johnny Cash, that I would find the two of them standing side by side, in the same year or darn close to it, at the base of the Eiffel Tower, looking up. Would you?

Notes of a Native Son by James Baldwin

Notes of a Native Son is a 1955 collection of James Baldwin’s essays and articles, all previously published elsewhere as I understand it. Their subjects range over books, movies, personal history, and social commentary; what each piece has in common is a consideration of race relations in the United States. He is concerned with the American “Negro” (this is no longer considered the right word, but I’m tempted to use it here, because he did) and the relationships amongst Americans, white and black. A persistent question he ponders is that of the black man’s search for identity in a nation that variously rejects him, resents him, or feels guilt over its treatment of him, made more difficult by the loss of his own personal history pre-slavery.

There are some heavy bits here, unsurprisingly. While not exactly academic, some of it is definitely on the philosophic side of things. When Baldwin dives deeply into literary criticism, he loses me (I guess I’m rusty on literary criticism; I used to find such articles much easier to read!): “Everybody’s Protest Novel” and “Many Thousands Gone” nearly made me quit the collection. In “Carmen Jones: The Dark Is Light Enough,” he discusses a movie, and actors, so unfamiliar to me that I was only reading on the surface – where I rather enjoyed the essay, it is true, but where I certainly failed to understand fully what he had to say. On the other hand, “The Harlem Ghetto” struck me as intelligent, occasionally amusing, and relevant today. And as you know, I am always thrilled to make connections across seemingly unrelated books I’ve read or historical figures I’ve studied. Before I was halfway through this book, I’d seen mention of Lillian Hellman (see a recent biography, one of my favorite books of the year) and the Patterson family (another), not to mention of course threads that take me back to The Warmth of Other Suns, which is how I got to this book in the first place. Ah, the circularity of things: it amazes and thrills me.

My favorite pieces in this collection were the autobiographical ones. I like Baldwin’s voice very much: he is wry and funny even when discussing the serious and the tragic. And I was most interested in learning more about him. My edition begins with a “Preface to the 1984 Edition” followed by “Autobiographical Notes,” both of which set the bar high. The titular essay comes about midway through and is also excellent. But my very favorites were the last two. “Equal in Paris” relates Baldwin’s experience being arrested in Paris and tried for possessing a bedsheet from the wrong hotel. It was hilarious, and ended chillingly. And “Stranger in the Village” covers his time spent in a tiny Swiss village where the residents had never seen a black man before, and is where I felt he made his most sweeping and hopeful statements about our present and our future. It was tragic, but forward-looking.

I really enjoyed Notes of a Native Son, although there were a few moments where I got bogged down. Baldwin’s voice charmed me. I recommend him.

Rating: 7 blocks in Harlem.

biographies of parallel lives: Rachel Carson and Marie Tharp; and beyond

Remember when I raved about Soundings, the biography of the woman who mapped the ocean floor? I was enchanted in part by the style in which author Hali Felt evoked her subject, Marie Tharp, as a personality as well as a historical figure. I was also fascinated by the unique persona of Tharp herself, and her role as a woman in science in the 1940’s, 50’s, and 60’s.

And now I’m very pleased to have picked up a new biography entitled On a Farther Shore, by William Souder, about Rachel Carson, for the 50th anniversary of the publication of her groundbreaking book. Silent Spring exposed the tragic truth, that the widely used pesticide DDT was killing not only bugs, but birds and myriad other wildlife, and even humans. Carson is credited with playing a major role in the birth of the environmentalist movement.

These two biographies employ very different styles. Felt is a visible character in the story she tells, of Tharp’s life through the lens of Felt’s research experience, while Souder’s work so far tracks like a traditional biography, with the author invisible. But their subjects share a few obvious similarities. Both were women on the margins of scientific communities that weren’t entirely prepared to let them in, and they were more or less contemporaries (Tharp was born 13 years later than Carson). Both challenged the gender barrier and accepted understandings of their fields. I recognized these parallels when I began reading On a Farther Shore.

But I wasn’t prepared for the confluences and coincidences that came fast and thick in the opening chapters. (I’m only about 50 pages in, so this is far from a final review of Souder’s work. Although I do like it so far!) For one thing, forgive my ignorance: I knew about Silent Spring (I read it when I was a kid), but had not known that prior to that most famous of her books, Carson had been a well-loved and bestselling author of literary writings about the ocean. So, number one: both women were fascinated with the sea. And then came a comparison of Silent Spring, with its unprecedented exposure of an industry that would later be legislated and regulated largely because of the book itself, to one of my all time favorites: Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. Next I learned that Carson grew up scarcely an hour’s drive away from where Edward Abbey would grow up 20 years her junior. That is a hell of a coincidence.

As I joyfully made these connections (which I know will continue, because our world is all interconnected), I mused. I remember feeling, in middle school, even in high school, that certain subjects were “work,” were chores, weren’t fun, didn’t feel like they were teaching me things I’d need to know or care to know later in life. I liked English but had less use for history. And I also remember when this changed for me, and when learning for its own sake became something I felt passionately about. The light-bulb moment was related to the interconnectedness of all things. That history, biology, political science, and literature were all the same story; that nothing happens in a vacuum, just as Gertrude Stein, mentor and friend to my main man Ernest Hemingway, was a student at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts just a few decades ahead of Rachel Carson. I don’t know about the rest of you, but learning that the world is interdisciplinary and that contemporary figureheads from a variety of textbooks lived in the same world – that Einstein’s life work and philosophy was deeply influenced by his observation of German militarism culminating in Hitler’s rise to power, that the reclusive Harper Lee and the effervescent Truman Capote were buddies, that Mark Twain and the much-younger Helen Keller were close – has been the turning point for me in appreciating so much more reading and learning than I did even 10 years ago.

Recognizing these connections has led to myriad new directions in my own reading. Some of them have been in fiction (I’ve read Gertrude Stein because of her relationship with Hemingway), and many have been nonfiction. In general, I would definitely credit this larger observation with my ever-growing appreciation of nonfiction. I’m sometimes saddened to hear from people who don’t like nonfiction, because they’re missing so much. I suspect they just haven’t met the right style of nonfiction yet; but maybe, too, they haven’t had that light-bulb moment that did it for me.

Does anybody else share this feeling that everything being connected make the world a fascinating place? Has it influenced your reading habits?

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