I’m your host this glorious Nonfiction November week, so let’s get to it:
Week 3: (November 16-20) – Be The Expert/Ask the Expert/Become the Expert (Rennie [me!] @ What’s Nonfiction [here!]): Three ways to join in this week! You can either share 3 or more books on a single topic that you have read and can recommend (be the expert), you can put the call out for good nonfiction on a specific topic that you have been dying to read (ask the expert), or you can create your own list of books on a topic that you’d like to read (become the expert).
One of the most affecting books I read last year was Pleased to Meet Me, a highly readable and entertaining popular science look at epigenetics — changes in gene expression passed from parents to offspring, and how environment can turn gene expression on or off, among other things. I think about things I learned in this book all the time, like that it could explain why I like my food and coffee temperature to be extremely, near-combustibly hot whereas it doesn’t bother my husband if things are merely warm. It amazes me what genes can dictate about our behavior, preferences, and health issues.
Earlier this year I read The Lost Family by Libby Copeland, which looks at the effects, good and bad, of the DNA revolution and its extension to affordable, ubiquitous at-home testing, meaning more people are learning about their backgrounds and potentially about their (health) futures. Thorny ethical issues abound.
These have made me want to better understand topics of DNA and genetics and what they might mean for health treatment and options or decisions as knowledge progresses. Along with increasing understanding of the microbiome, which many doctors and scientists have identified as the next frontier in medicine, knowing more about genes, expression, and heritability will certainly affect our health in ways that we’re only beginning to understand.
I’ve been looking for books (accessible for non-scientists) on and around this. First, the ones I’ve read and wholeheartedly recommend:
Pleased to Meet Me: Genes, Germs, and the Curious Forces That Make Us Who We Are, by Bill Sullivan — Very readable, funny, easy to absorb and understand look at epigenetics. Sullivan is an ideal science communicator and this book is as fun to read as it is full of useful, actionable information.
The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South, by Michael Twitty — Twitty, a chef and historical interpreter, combines stunningly evocative food writing with his intense search for his family’s roots in Africa and Europe, and how it all connects to his life, work, and heritage in the American South. Some of the genetics portions went a bit over my head, but it was a fascinating study overall (and, bonus, the culinary sections are divine).
The Lost Family: How DNA Testing is Upending Who We Are, by Libby Copeland — A history of the proliferation of at-home DNA testing and the myriad ripple effects on our identities, plus implications for the future in healthcare and data privacy.
Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family, by Robert Kolker — Kolker did an immersive deep-dive into a family where six of the twelve children developed schizophrenia. Hard to argue that a genetic component isn’t at play. Kolker aligns the family story with the scientific developments that have been made in schizophrenia research, and the contributions from the Galvin family. His storytelling is incomparable and the science eye-opening, even if we’re only beginning to understand the tip of the iceberg that is schizophrenia.
Somewhat related is Matthew LaPlante’s Superlative: The Biology of Extremes, a Nonfiction November recommendation last year from Anjana at Superfluous Reading. I’m reading it now, and specific genes and genetic concepts come up often in LaPlante’s examples of extreme biological outliers. It’s not strictly genetics-based, but incorporates these elements, and the writing is breezy. And totally fascinating — there’s so much to learn from life that’s successfully evolved at the farthest reaches of the spectrum.
Here’s what I want to read:
The Gene: An Intimate History, by Siddhartha Mukherjee — This seems an ideal starting point. Pulitzer winner and cancer specialist Mukherjee is an elegant science writer, and although this book looks dense it’s supposedly accessible. I read that Mukherjee was concerned because mental illness, namely bipolar and schizophrenia, run in his family, leading to some of his research and work in this field. I loved the parts of Hidden Valley Road that dealt with schizophrenia research so I’m interested in getting his perspective on the same. (Bookshop.org)
She Has Her Mother’s Laugh: The Powers, Perversions, and Potential of Heredity, by Carl Zimmer — This book by New York Times columnist and popular science writer Zimmer is described by Science as “a sweeping overview of the history of our understanding of heredity.” There’s been no shortage of problems around how we’ve negatively applied our understanding of heredity (eugenics), and this examines the topic from that angle as well, tying in “psychology, genetics, race, and politics.” (Bookshop.org)
The Violinist’s Thumb: And Other Lost Tales of Love, War, and Genius, as Written by Our Genetic Code, by Sam Kean — These are stories of “science, history, language, and music, as told by our own DNA.” Kean alleges that “there are genes to explain crazy cat ladies, why other people have no fingerprints, and why some people survive nuclear bombs. Genes illuminate everything from JFK’s bronze skin (it wasn’t a tan) to Einstein’s genius.” I want to know all of this. (Bookshop.org)
Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, by Robert Sapolsky — I’m tossing this one in because it’s on my reading list and I think it contains some information about gene editing and expression in relation to environment and stress. It’s a classic on topics of stress, disease, and coping and less strictly about genetics, as I understand it. But all of this ends up being related, so let’s see! (Bookshop.org)
Have you read any of these? Do you have any suggestions of readable popular science books around genes and genetics, DNA, heredity, etc.? Do tell! It’s a loosely structured topic, I’m interested in any interesting science around biology, related medical developments, or narratives exploring specific stories like Kolker’s, Copeland’s, or Twitty’s.
And don’t forget to link up your own posts for Nonfiction November this week below!