Amherst Magazine

What They Are Reading

We asked Anthony Bishop, assistant professor of chemistry, what he has been reading lately. Here’s what he told us:

I’ll start off with a confession: I rarely read fiction. There—I said it. It’s not that I dislike fiction; it’s just that, when weighing options for my too-few hours of pleasure reading (I have two sons, a toddler and an infant), non-fiction always comes out on top. (An indicator of the severity of the disease: my heart leapt when The Atlantic announced it was jettisoning its regular fiction offerings to make more room for journalism.) And, while I’m at it, here’s another confession: when it comes to pleasure reading I am an avowed dilettante. Since there is no unifying theme tying together the books on my proverbial nightstand, I will organize them by a simplistic thumbs-up/thumbs-down scale, in order of increasing “upness.”

Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind (1988): Bloom does provide some interesting intellectual history, but it is interspersed with bizarre rants against, well, anything he doesn’t like. (Rock music is described as “hymns to the joys of onanism or the killing of parents.”) I do have to credit Bloom on one prescient point, however: the more I read, the more I felt my American mind closing.

Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything (2005): A quick read—too quick. For a book that purports to wash away breezy assumptions with data, it contains strikingly little actual data. Suffice it to say, if you’re aware of the Roe v. Wade violent-crime-drop hypothesis, you’ve already encountered the most provocative (freaky?) idea in the book.

Bjørn Lomborg, The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the World (2001): Unlike Freakonomics, this book is a treasure trove of data that, as far as I know, would only otherwise be available from 1,000 (successful) Internet searches. And the fact that Lomborg was accused of modern-day heresy by the Danish Committees on Scientific Dishonesty makes the contrarian in me really want to like it. But ultimately, the book is done in by its wooden prose and its often trite conclusions, which generally boil down to arguing (rightly) that the best thing we can do for the environment is to foster economic growth in the developing world. But how in the world do we do that?

Charles C. Mann ’76, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus (2005): A fascinating read that will, hopefully, put to rest the condescending and borderline racist myth of the pre-Columbian native who “lived in harmony” with an untouched natural world. Mann clearly shows that—surprise!—indigenous Americans exploited natural resources to their own ends just like every other human population that has walked the earth. (On a provincial note, the Pioneer Valley makes a memorable cameo in the book, with photos of Native American maize hills outside of Northampton.)

Philip Short, Pol Pot: Anatomy of a Nightmare (2005): I know I’m stretching the limits of the term “pleasure reading” here, but this is an important account of one of the 20th century’s less-discussed horrors. If, like I did, you have only a vague notion of how the Khmer Rouge rose to power and how it carried out its distinctive brand of crimes against humanity, read this book.

Tony Judt, Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 (2005): Tony Judt is my new intellectual hero. Postwar is simply stunning in both scope and command. What’s that word that you see only in book reviews? Oh, yeah: magisterial.