I am hearing the phrase “silver lining” a lot during these days of “sheltering in place” during the Covid-19 pandemic. Time with family, time for projects, and, for me, time to read without having to be elsewhere soon. Our OA students (at home, of course) are starting an online booklist, which I find really heartening. I humbly offer these favorites to add to the community list.


Natural Science:

The Annotated Origin by James Costa. This isn’t a quirky suggestion from a Darwin nerd – it’s one of the ten (five?) most important books ever written. Nothing has been the same since 1859. Costa’s annotations really help. If you can’t face a big book, the chapters titled Natural Selection and Difficulties on Theory will serve you well.

Eternal Ephemera by Niles Eldredge from the American Museum of Natural History.

Remarkable Creatures by Sean Carroll. A fun stroll through the discoveries of some 19th and 20th century adventurer-naturalists.

The Loom of Life and Nature’s Nether Regions and Flies, Frogs, and Dandelions by Menno Schilthuizen. This Dutch zoologist knows how to translate evolutionary complexity into comprehension.

Ever Since Darwin by Stephen Jay Gould. Seminal Natural History essays by a brilliant polymath. And there’s plenty more if you like these.

The Sting of the Wild by Justin Schmidt is a ride through the world of bites and stings and venom. His Pain Scale is a hoot – “Bald-faced hornet: rich, hearty, slightly crunchy. Similar to getting your hand mashed in a revolving door.”

Swampwalker’s Journal by David Carroll. One of the finest nature journals ever. Marvelous illustrations.

Voyaging and The Power of Place by Janet Browne. The two-volume definitive biography of Charles Darwin.

The Mystery of Metamorphosis by Frank Ryan. Crikey! Trust me – you don’t know this stuff yet

The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs by Steve Brusatte. The latest on dinosaur evolution.

The Forest Unseen by David Haskell. Meditative science.


Some History and Philosophy:

How to Live – The Life of Montaigne and At the Existentialist Cafe by Sarah Bakewell. She’s just really good at bringing philosophy to life.

Finding Darwin’s God by Kenneth Miller. If you need some help with questions of science and faith, here’s the calm voice of a Catholic evolutionist who walks you through the arguments and options.

Reappraisals – Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century by Tony Judt. A brilliant essayist. If you like this, there’s more essay collections and his PostWar book is epic.

The Cave and the Light by Arthur Herman. Why everything starts with Plato and Aristotle. More interesting than that sounded.

An Age of Atheists by Peter Watson. Should be titled A History of Skepticism. Why we need critical thinking.

The Ethics of Ambiguity by Simone de Beauvoir. The author of the groundbreaking The Second Sex, this intro to her themes is short and accessible.

Anything at all by Christopher Hitchens. Try to keep up.

I Am Dynamite – a Life of Nietzsche by Sue Prideaux. I am not a Nietzschean, but this is an excellent introduction to the life of a troubled and complex man. There’s so much more to Nietzsche than “God is dead and we have killed him.”

And a few misc:


The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams Bianco. This is a classic for every good reason. The definition of poignancy. Be sure to introduce your kids to it someday. The 2012 edition is, dare I say, magical, with marvelous illustrations by Charles Santore.

Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels. A young man tries to come to grips with his family’s experience during WWII. Poignant and painful, of course, but poetic.

The Memory of Old Jack and Life is a Miracle and The Way of Ignorance by Wendell Berry. Our old friend, the poetic and pragmatic agarian. Wherever you stand, he always makes sense. Most folks know Berry as an essayist, but his stories are the definition of community and going home. They are all based in the same rural community in Kentucky, so you get to meet characters throughout his books at different times of their lives.

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. The first volume of historical fiction about Thomas Cromwell, who served Henry VIII. I think this is a tricky genre, but Mantel masters it.

I’m adding The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey to my own list for this spring. I’m told it is a remarkable story. Ask Susan.

Also, it might be time to read some of those classics that you know you should. I found that Great Expectations and Middlemarch and Les Miserables pulled me in.

Happy reading during these trying times, everyone. Don’t forget to spend time with that Other Great Book, as the medieval philosophers thought – Nature!


By Ted Wesemann