What’s the most useful book you’ve ever read? And, why?
This week's Booking Through Thursday is a good one.
I think this one is a tie, and it goes to my two favorite works of nonfiction: Dunant's Dream by Caroline Moorehead, and Song of the Dodo, by David Quammen.
Dunant's Dream is about the formation and history of the International Red Cross. It focuses primarily on the period up to and including WWII, but does also spend a few chapters tracking the organization to the 1990s. It's an absolutely fascinating and inspiring book; there are very, very few things I am willing to apply the adjective "inspiring" to, and this is definitely one of them. I learned a lot about the organization, of course, but it also provides some context and narrative punch to certain historical events. So there's a large swathe of history - mainly European/American, but also Asian - from about 1860-1945 - that I have at my mental fingertips, because of this book.
Just as useful in my collection of knowledge - and that's how I judge usefulness, I suppose - is Quammen's book. Song of the Dodo is a remarkable accomplishment; it's a compellingly readable but also fairly technically complex book. About island biogeography, a phrase I revel in saying as often as possible, because it makes me sound Smart. So Quammen's book taught me a vast amount about evolution (and the development of the theory of evolution - Alfred Russel Wallace and Charles Darwin, I salute you!), in addition to all manner of quirky things about various oddball animals and places. My sense of world geography - particularly, perhaps obviously, insular geography - was practically created by this book, as is my grasp of evolutionary theory and adaptations. I also learned quite a bit about various animals - Komodo dragons, which will cheerily strip the flesh from your bones in no time at all; the kiwi bird, one of only a very few bird species which has a good sense of smell; the fact that not only are elephants buoyant, they can swim.
Between these two books, which I read at roughly the same time (in the year or two after I graduated college), my worldview and sense of place and history was radically altered and formed. I've read each book more than once, which - since each is many hundreds of pages long - is remarkable, given the subject matter.
both are infinitely recommendable, too. Quammen in particular i find myself referencing; he himself is NOT a scientist (in fact, his college degree was in English), so he has a marvelous grasp of language and story and structure, as well as an outsider's need to simplify and analogize highly complex scientific ideas. It's an incredibly readable book - narratives of his own travels to remote insular outposts of wildlife study (Mauritius, the Aru Islands) intermixed with scientific and intellectual history as well as explanations of scientific theories and phenomena.
Having read Quammen's book makes me feel smart as a whip, and that is immensely useful.