Books for Troubled Times
Jean E. Thomson Black—
Dear Yale University Press Friend,
Our mission at Yale University Press is to publish books that, among other goals, stimulate public debate and enhance cultural life. The following titles represent a modest sampling from our history of science and medicine, environmental issues, and natural history lists. The first group offers context for the COVID-19 pandemic, and the second proposes respite and diversion.
You might like to start by diving into Epidemics and Society: From the Black Death to the Present by Frank Snowden. This impressive and wide-ranging survey has been characterized as “brilliant and sobering” by Paul Kennedy (Wall Street Journal) and “gigantic in scope” by Isaac Chotiner (New Yorker). One comes away with a new appreciation of how massive infectious disease outbreaks have shaped societies and how in the twenty-first century we are no different from those confronting the three bubonic plague outbreaks from 541 to the mid-twentieth century (the Plague of Justinian, 541–755; the Black Death, 1330–1830; and Modern Plague, ca. 1855–ca. 1950).
Check out Professor Snowden’s recent post on our blog as well.
James C. Scott’s Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States takes a sweeping look at what makes or breaks civilizations and again considers the role of epidemics. One learns in this elegant work the first agrarian states were the result of a series of domestications: first fire, then plants, livestock, subjects of the state, captives, and finally women in the patriarchal family—all of which can be viewed as a way of gaining control over reproduction. Scott explores why we avoided sedentism and plow agriculture; the advantages of mobile subsistence; the unforeseeable disease epidemics arising from crowding plants, animals, and grain; and the basis of all early states on millets and cereal grains and unfree labor. He also discusses the “barbarians” who long evaded state control, as a way of understanding continuing tension between states and nonsubject peoples.
The human population is now headed toward nine billion or more people on our planet who need food, water, shelter, and many other amenities. Such demands on ecosystems lead to habitat destruction and biodiversity loss, which are creating conditions for new viruses and diseases such as COVID-19. The Press has a rich list of argument-driven titles that tackle such environmental issues. To that end, A Better Planet: 40 Big Ideas for a Sustainable Future edited by Daniel Esty offers fresh thinking and forward-looking solutions from environmental thought leaders across the political spectrum. The book’s forty essays cover such subjects as ecology, environmental justice, Big Data, public health, and climate change, all with an emphasis on sustainability. The book focuses on moving toward sustainability through actionable, bipartisan approaches based on rigorous analytical research. Another related book is Biodiversity and Climate Change: Transforming the Biosphere, edited by Thomas E. Lovejoy and Lee Hannah.
In the context of biodiversity, birds are among the most appreciated and admired creatures on our planet about which we should be passionate. Among my favorites are Deborah Cramer’s The Narrow Edge: A Tiny Bird, an Ancient Crab, and an Epic Journey, a lyrically written, award-winning work revealing how the health and well-being of a tiny bird (the red knot) and an ancient crab (the horseshoe crab) mirror our own welfare and fate. And then there is a trio of beautiful, photographically driven natural histories from Mike Unwin and David Tipling: The Enigma of the Owl, The Empire of the Eagle, and Flights of Passage, which considers the enduring fascination we have with bird migration. They will leave you breathless and yearning to remain outdoors to enjoy nature.
Jean E. Thomson Black is Senior Executive Editor for Life Sciences, Physical Sciences, Environmental Sciences, and Medicine at Yale University Press.