Ed Yong on Reading for Science and the Soul

YONG: I’ve been so consumed with pandemic reporting for the past three years that I haven’t had much time to read for pleasure. Most of the books I’ve read are non-fiction books that people have asked me to write.

BOOKS: Who were some of the standouts?

YONG: “As Far as the Light Goes” by a young French writer, Sabrina Imbler. It is a unique combination of memoir and natural history. There is a book by Mike Mariani about what happens to people after trauma, What Doesn’t Kill Us Makes Us. It’s a beautiful exploration of the myths we tell ourselves about traumatic experiences.

BOOKS: How do you insert this reading?

YONG: Honestly, hard. I think it’s important to give back to the community. I have been very fortunate in my career in the last three years. I think social capital is worthless unless you cash it in on other people.

BOOKS: What have you read about your own book that you would recommend?

YONG: The main text is the work of the early 20th century German zoologist Jacob von Wexkull, who coined the term umwelt. His translated writings are still beautiful to contemplate today. There is also Listening in the Dark by Donald Griffin, one of the pioneers of bat echolocation. We’ve learned so much about bats since his book was published, but it’s still an exciting read. It is part scientific treatise and part memoir, with some humorous parts.

BOOKS: Are there any books that inspired you to become a science writer?

YONG: I grew up loving nature and animals from a young age. I had this incredibly detailed encyclopedia of zoology, something a college student could read. I understood absolutely nothing in it, but I enjoyed looking at the pictures. I also read a lot of David Attenborough, and later, in college, I read Carl Zimmer. His books, such as Parasite Rex, showed the cool side of nature and how elegant science writing could be. When I was writing my own book, there were those with the most lyrical prose, working in genres that were influential, like Helen MacDonald’s H Is for Hawk. Kathryn Schulz’s Being Wrong, which is more of a philosophical exploration of an idea than a personal narrative, but still had a lyrical quality.

BOOKS: Do you still have books from your childhood?

YONG: I have a heavily yellowed and worn copy of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams. It was published in 1979, two years before I was born. I remember reading it when I was in my single digits and finding it very funny. I found a like-mindedness in these books or was greatly influenced by them. My taste is still pretty absurdist.

BOOKS: How long have you been unable to read for pleasure?

YONG: Since the beginning of the pandemic. I read mostly fiction. I read novels like Exit West by Mohsin Hamid, The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen, Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, and An American Marriage by Taiari Jones. I tend to read mostly works by women or people of color. I want variety in the voices I read. I work at the intersection of two fields, science and journalism, that are dominated by white males.

BOOKS: Do you see the time for reading for pleasure coming?

YONG: God, I hope so. I feel it like a hole in my soul.

BOOKS: What would you read?

YONG: At the top of the list is Kathryn Schulz’s Lost & Found. Her book is a memoir about the grief of losing her father and the joy of finding a new partner. I haven’t had the stomach to read it yet because I’m swimming in grief in my professional reporting. I’m putting it off until I feel more resilient.

Follow us on Facebook or Twitter @GlobeBiblio. Amy Sutherland is the author, most recently, of “Saving Penny Jane” and she can be reached at [email protected].

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