As curator of National Geographic’s Book Talk, Simon Worrall interviews authors of books about science, animals, adventure, history, and the wonders of the world. As publisher and editorial director of National Geographic Books, Lisa Thomas spends her time working with authors to create just those sorts of books. Worrall and Thomas got together to talk about their favorite books of the year.
Simon Worrall: So, Lisa, what books excited you this year?
Lisa Thomas: Our book of the year is The Photo Ark by Joel Sartore. Joel has been photographing every animal in captivity in the world. He’s about halfway through, and has created an extraordinary body of work. What was neat was that we made some beautiful comparisons between species. The storytelling he does about photographing the animals and the challenges he faces is compelling. That is a terrific book! How about you?
SW: I’ll start with a book called Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History, by Bill Schutt, which I featured on Book Talk in February. There’s something deeply creepy but compelling about the idea of eating other people. It’s the ultimate human taboo. Would you or wouldn’t you? But one of the things I learned is that in the animal kingdom cannibalism is extremely common. Not all cultures have shared this taboo, either. In ancient China, for instance, human body parts would regularly appear on imperial menus, next to sweet and sour pork or honey-glazed duck. “Pass the human thigh, please.”
LT: [Laughs] When you talk about the line between what makes us human and what doesn’t, it reminds me of a terrific book published this spring: Lee Berger’s Almost Human, which is his story of the Homo naledi find in South Africa. How we treat death and what we do with our dead is part of what makes us human. Lee found the skeletons in a cave where it appears bodies were being deliberately deposited. What I think is fascinating is that we’re just scratching the surface. We didn’t think to look in caves. We were looking in dry lakebeds and places like that. So this opens up a whole new world of places to explore to understand our origins.
SW: My second choice is a book called The Amazing Story of the Man Who Cycled from India to Europe For Love, which we featured on Book Talk in April. It’s a wonderful love story about a man called Pradyumna Kumar “PK” Mahanandia, who was born an untouchable in a remote village in eastern India, an area which partly inspired Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book.
As an untouchable, he didn’t have any hope of escaping a life of poverty and discrimination. But he was a talented artist and got a scholarship to go to art school in Delhi. To make ends meet, while at school, he sketched tourists in the main public square.
One day, he looked up and there was this beautiful Swedish woman looking down at him. She asked him to paint a portrait and came back the next day for another. They fell in love and she turned out to be a Swedish countess who was on the hippie trail. After she went home, they communicated by letter but he realized that if anything was going to happen, he’d have to get himself from India to Sweden to propose to her. So he cycled, walked, and hitchhiked across Asia and Europe to reach her. They married and the book is due to be a film.
LT: Terrific story! The idea of someone who goes to the ends of the earth to pursue their passion is echoed in a book we published this year, Shark by Brian Skerry. Brian is an incredible underwater photographer, who has done four cover stories for National Geographic Magazine on different shark species.
The book is full of his stories covering the great white sharks that have been gathering on the coast of New England in greater and greater numbers, and exploring the reasons why. What’s astonishing is, he’s photographed behavior that no one has ever seen, like a shark feeding in about 10 feet of water off a popular tourist beach. Nobody thought great white sharks would operate at depths that shallow! He’s also got these amazing aerial shots, in which you can see the beach and lines of seals massing along the shore—and the unmistakable silhouette of a great white shark, ominously right there.
SW: My number three was very popular on Book Talk in April, The Stranger in the Woods, by Michael Finkel. This was an extraordinary human narrative, very much off beat, and weird, about a man called Christopher Knight, who disappeared from his home in Massachusetts in 1986, drove to Maine and vanished into the woods where he lived in a tent in an impenetrable forest.
Strangely enough, it was only three miles from the nearest 7-Eleven. But it was in dense, thorny woods. In a little clearing, he set up his tent and lived there for three decades! He survived by burgling holiday cabins on a nearby lake.
It raised interesting questions. Why does somebody become a hermit? Was he just an antisocial loner? Maybe he had something to teach us. What was cool for us was that he discovered a novel use for his favorite magazine, National Geographic.
LT: [laughs] What was that?
SW: He would take them from the cabins, tightly bind bundles of them together, dig a hole, and stack them in the ground to create a perfect floor for his tent.
LT: Genius! [Laughs] My favorite survival story of 2017 was The Lost City of the Monkey God, by Douglas Preston. That was absolutely extraordinary. You think, in the modern era, there’s no such thing as a lost city and, if you do find one, it will be easy to reach. I loved the way Preston rolled out this story. Finding the Ciudad Blanca, the White City, and how technology—the satellite images—helped identify it and pointed the scientists to where it might be. Then, the irony of seeing the ruins on the map and the incredible challenge of getting to the spot. The snakes alone were hair-raising, plus the jungle and the diseases they had to battle. It was such a swashbuckling adventure, a real page-turner.
SW: My next one is A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived, by Adam Rutherford, a British geneticist. This was a wonderful story about genes and what makes us human. The tabloid press loves stories about the so-called warrior gene, the Alzheimer’s gene, a gene to make us a world-class sprinter or fall in love with someone of the same IQ. Rutherford shows that most of these ideas are hogwash. He explains, above all, how the science of paleogenetics, the ability to analyze DNA samples from the long dead, has revolutionized our understanding of the human species.
There were a couple of important lessons from the book. The most important is that we’re all family. For instance, the difference between a black Ethiopian and a black South African is far greater than between those two and a white person in, let’s say, Alabama.
The other thing I asked him about was one of those tragic mass shooters, Adam Lanza, who, in 2014, shot loads of children to death in Connecticut. At the time, there was an article saying that you could probably find that the evil was in his genes. Rutherford said that it’s got nothing to do with genes. The only common denominator in all these mass shootings is not genes, but access to guns.
LT: You mention a science that’s still emerging. We published a fascinating book this fall, The Psychobiotic Revolution. This is the study of the connection between the microbes in your intestine and your brain. I did not know this, but 90 percent of your serotonin is located in your lower intestines! The book is by John Cryan and Ted Dinan, two Irish researchers who coined the term psychobiotic.
Cryan and Dinan tell a story about a town in Canada that suffered a bacterial infection in the water and the entire town got sick. People recovered but about eight years later, suicides spiked in the town. They discovered a correlation between the bacterial infection that everyone got and this increased level of suicides. Understanding what links our microbiome to our brain can offset anxiety and depression, and has dramatic implications for understanding what’s inside of us and how it affects our mood. We’re only beginning to understand this.
SW: My next one is a book by British zoologist John Bradshaw, The Animals Among Us. Bradshaw is a zoologist, but he doesn’t study wild animals, he studies pet animals and their significance in our lives. Twenty years ago, when he set up doing this, his fellow zoologists regarded this as an inferior form of study. So Bradshaw and others founded a society and coined the term “anthrozoology” to cover the idea of human-pet interactions. He reminds us why one has pets, not just because they’re cute and cuddly, but also because it’s an enriching relationship.
He demolished a few myths as well. For instance, it’s become a fashion to give dogs military medals for being heroes. But he disputes the idea that a dog can be a hero because to be a hero requires you to have a concept of what a hero is, and not just act instinctively. He also made a great point that, particularly for kids, whose world is increasingly reduced to a smart phone screen, having an animal in the house is really, really important!
LT: Since you brought up the relationship between man and animal, I’m going to mention birds. A huge number of people in the U.S. and around the world are passionate bird watchers. It’s a $40 billion industry in the U.S., and about 50 million people count themselves as bird watchers. So this year we updated our Field Guide to the Birds of North America, which covers more than 10,000 species.
Next year is going to be “The Year of the Bird.” It’s also the 100th anniversary of the Migratory Bird Treaty, and National Geographic played an instrumental role in that. National Geographic Magazine is running a cover story in January with an essay by novelist Jonathan Franzen on “Why Birds Matter.” That will kick off 11 stories over the coming year and a big symposium here at National Geographic in February.
SW: My last one is an incredibly compelling survival story: Alone, by Brett Archibald. He’s a South African businessman, who fell off a boat in Indonesia. He was in his forties, on a surfing tour with some mates off the coast of Sumatra, in the Mentawai Islands. The boat was delayed, they were hungry, and so they got this dodgy pizza calzone take-out. When they cut it open on deck, there was an awful stink. Brett ate a small amount and at one in the morning, he got up, vomiting all over the place. He went up on the deck to get some fresh air but couldn’t stop vomiting. “If I vomit again,” he said to himself, “I’m going to black out.” Sure enough, he blacks out and the next thing, he’s in the water and the boat lights have disappeared.
SW: It’s the middle of the night and he’s in the water for more than 28 hours, much longer than science suggests is possible. It’s the story of those hours and the way he battles exhaustion, dehydration, and attacks by poison jellyfish, seagulls, and even a shark. He has crazy hallucinations and these desperate conversations with God. He survives but is completely changed by the experience. It’s an amazing story!
LT: So many wonderful books to read this year!
This interview was edited for length and clarity.