The Adult Reading Round Table focused on recommending narrative and other popular science books to readers at its April 2007 meeting at the Downers Grove Public Library. Thirty librarians from the Chicago suburbs spent two quick hours discussing science books, their authors, and appeal factors to consider when offering them to readers at public libraries. Sarah Statz Cords, author of The Real Story: A Guide to Nonfiction Reading Interests, joined us.
Each ARRT meeting focuses on a reading genre or sub-genre. To prepare for the discussion members read one book in common and other titles from a recommended list. For the popular science discussion, the common book was The Hot Zone by Richard Preston, which tells the story of the Ebola virus dramatically. As you would expect, not everyone liked the book. For some it was "too icky squishy." Another complaint was that the author set up too many potential crises that just evaporated; Preston could have written a shorter, more effective book. Defenders of the book said they enjoyed the thrilling, suspenseful story with good, likable characters. Having points at which the story got very gross kept them reading.
An unofficial list of appeal factors for science books began to form. Here is a feeble attempt at enumeration of ideas from a complex conversation.
1. Thrilling stories - The Hot Zone is just one of many books where a journalist tells about some threat to human existence. Other, such as The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe, tell about great human achievement.
2. Everyday life explained - Some readers like to learn more about what happens to them every day, as told in books like How to Dunk a Donut by Len Fisher.
3. Self knowledge - There are numerous books on the brain, such as An Alchemy of the Mind by Diane Ackerman.
4. Humor and quirkiness - Bill Bryson has weighed into the science genre with A Short History of Nearly Everything.
5. The beauty of science - It can be hard to grasp the concepts but the telling can be mesmerizing, as in The Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking.
6. Great writing - Some scientists can write with grace and insight, as in The Lives of the Cell by Lewis Thomas.
"Unappeal factors" included books with too many technical terms and books that are too long. Some librarians expressed that they liked science books that were more about people of science than science. Others decried that notion.
Part of the fun of the afternoon was taking part in the debates. Do journalists write better science than the scientists? Should the writer be a character in the book? How important is accuracy and authority in science books, which will become outdated by new discoveries? When do science books pass from being current events titles to history titles? When do illustrations help or hinder texts?
Another part of the fun was hearing stray factoids. Ten percent of the weight of your pillow is made up of mites, mite dung, and dead skin. People keep pillows for an average seven years. Over-flossing your teeth leads to heart disease. You may want to look these things up.
The book I want to read now is The Wild Trees: A Story of Passion and Daring by Richard Preston. One of the librarians had a review copy. It will be released April 10. (ISBN 1400064899)
I left the discussion wanting to attend the next on June 7, when ARRT discusses history and microhistory.
I also left happy to have met Sarah, who drove down from Madison, Wisconsin, where she works at the public library and teaches at the library school at the University of Wisconsin. I was in the group that enjoyed lunch with her. I hope she sells many copies of The Real Story. We keep it at the desk at Thomas Ford.