The ASBMB Today recommended reading list

ASBMB Today Staff
By ASBMB Today Staff
Dec. 23, 2020

Every good writer is also a reader, so we asked our ASBMB Today staff and contributing writers to tell us about books they love. Here are their suggestions to help you get 2021 off to a well-read start. (And don’t try to read any significance into the order of the list — it’s the order in which they were submitted.)


Don’t Be Such a Scientist, Second Edition  Talking Substance in an Age of Style

By Randy Olson (Island Press)

I recommend this book to each and every person who has the slightest interest in making science accessible to all. The author challenges scientists to communicate science in a language understood by all and with a more human approach.  He also brings some quirky Hollywood lessons for effective communication to the scientific community. In these uncertain times when science communication is crucial than ever, this book is a must read.

— Arti Dumbrepatil, science writer and communicator  

Sightlines, a conversation with the natural world

By Kathleen Jamie (The Experiment Publishing) 

“Sightlines” is a collection of 14 essays about the natural world. The essays range in topic from a trip among the icebergs off the coast of Greenland, to observing a pathologist at work in a lab in Scotland. Kathleen Jamie’s writing is beautiful poetic, and insightful, without overly romanticizing things. Somehow Jamie’s writing expresses things about the world and our human place in it that I’ve felt or thought but hadn’t put into such perfect words.

— Beth Stivison, postdoc, Vanderbilt University

The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu

By Joshua Hammer (Simon and Schuster) 

Joshua Hammer’s in-depth reporting covers the efforts of historians in Mali to collect precious ancient manuscripts and their daring rescue mission to protect them from destruction by Al Qaeda militants. This book highlights the rich intellectual and literary history of northern Africa, dating back hundreds of years, and its legacy in modern Mali. The book reads like an adventure novel, and I learned a lot about this under-appreciated chapter in world history.

— Alyson Smith, scientist and scientific writer, Vala Sciences Inc.

 Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future

By Ashlee Vance (Ecco-Harper Collins) 

This biography of Elon Musk offers an incredible look at the successful but misunderstood man who sees the future of our world bigger than most could ever imagine. He doesn’t take “no” for an answer, and he’s truly an engineer without limits. His life has been a rollercoaster of rags to riches (back to rags, then back to riches). If you’re a scientist, engineer, or even remotely interested in the world of startups, this book will open your eyes to what a ride in Silicon Valley sometimes looks like. 

— Jaclyn Brennan, postdoctoral researcher, The George Washington University 

Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life

By Hector Garcia and Francesc Miralles (Penguin Random House)

Most of the oldest living people on earth are from Japan. This book gives a closer look into the lives of these Japanese people. It talks about their healthy lifestyle, good eating habits, daily physical exercise sessions and community engagement activities. I learned a lot from this book. It made me realize that if I incorporate these daily practices in my life, then it would help me lead a happy, healthy and joyful life. 

— Deboleena Mitra Guharay, science communicator 

Across That Bridge: A Vision for Change and the Future of America 

By John Lewis (Hachette Books)

I will always remember how I lost the naïveté of my white privilege. Over the last few years, I heard the BIPOC community speaking of unjustified police violence, such as the killing of Eric Garner in 2014, but that part of me that thought all is well with this world didn’t quite believe it. I always felt that there had to be some sort of excusing circumstances.

And then Facebook and the videos of bystanders taught me better:  Walter Scott, Tamir Rice, George Floyd and Rayshard Brooks, to name just a few of the many. Each instance would not have happened to a white man.

I was and am shocked. I was and am angry. I did and am crying. I also felt and feel guilty for my own ignorance of the effects of white supremacy and white privilege.

This was the backdrop of me reading Rev. John Lewis’ wise book. His spiritual strength in the face of racially motivated violence as part of the civil right movement was astounding. His vision for the future and how to move forward from here is inspiring.

Everything Is Figureoutable 

By Marie Forleo (Penguin Random House)

Are you, like me, an expert at finding excuses why it is not the right time to make your dreams happen? If yes, check out this super-fun book with many concrete exercises on how to figure out what you want and how to get it.

Project Me for Busy Mothers: A Practical Guide to Finding a Happier Balance

By Kelly Pietrangeli (Orion Spring)  

If you feel overwhelmed and like there are just not enough hours in your day, Kelly Pietrangeli has many cool suggestions for you. Her Project Me life wheel divides life into eight segments (personal growth, productivity, work, family, etc.) that you can monitor each month and make better choices with your focus and time to make life not only more manageable but also more fun.

— Nathalie Gerassimov, postdoctoral researcher, Carnegie Institution of Washington 

Eiger Dreams: Ventures Among Men and Mountains

By Jon Krakauer (Rowman & Littlefield) 

Jon Krakauer’s “Eiger Dreams” is a collection of essays about mountaineering that features vivid descriptions of mountainous landscapes and absorbing tales of human efforts to scale rocks of all shapes and sizes. This book is an entertaining read for amateur adventurers like myself, seasoned mountaineers, and anyone looking for couch-bound travel during the 2020 holiday season. 

— Nuala Del Piccolo, science writer, University of California, Davis 

The Gene: An Intimate History

By Siddhartha Mukherjee (Scribner)

Because I took a lot of biology courses in high school and college, I came to feel bored by a certain textbook version of the history of genetics. You know this story: It marches through experiments by Chargaff, Avery and Griffith, Meselson and Stahl, en route to Watson and Crick in a kind of greatest-hits album of early molecular biology. It isn’t a bad story — but, much like 17th-century American history, by the fourth time I learned it I was no longer so captivated. Didn’t genetics have anything more to offer?

It turns out, it did, and this book told me the tale. Mukherjee’s writing is both personal and filled with historical anecdotes as he traces the concept of inheritance from classical philosophy into our modern, molecular field. I learned that Mendel had initially wanted to study mice, but had been denied institutional approval; his abbot couldn’t countenance a breeding program in the monastery. That the study of genes and the development of genocidal ideology are linked in deep, important ways that never came up in my high school classes. I heard names I recognized and names I’d like to learn more about. In short, it’s a must-read … even if you think you already know plenty about genetics.

— Laurel Oldach, science writer, ASBMB

 Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men

By Caroline Criado Perez (Abrams Press)

This book describes how this world has been designed by men for men. For example, cities without enough toilets and large companies without parking lots for pregnant women, or cell phones that are difficult for women to handle.  

— Gabriela Contreras, postdoc, University of Tübingen  

Chasing the Monsoon

By Alexander Frater (Picador)

British journalist Alexander Frater travels with the monsoons, an annual rainfall cycle occurring between May and October in India, as it finds its way from Kerala in the south to Meghalaya in the east, and hilariously describes anecdotes of his experience. I especially liked his narrations of the surprising (at times superstitious) activities associated with this natural phenomenon. It is a light and fun read. 

— Isha Dey, scientist, Thermo Fisher Scientific

Smallpox: The Death of a Disease The Inside Story of Eradicating a Worldwide Killer

By D.A. Henderson (Prometheus Books)

My fascination with smallpox started in 1999. I was working as a high-rise concierge while finishing up my journalism degree. Part of the job was to collect mail for residents who were out of town, and one of them subscribed to The New Yorker. It was a magazine that I’d heard I should, as an aspiring writer, be reading. But, frankly, it seemed like the sort of thing only rich, snooty people would read. But that night I was on the third shift, from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m., and I was bored, so I thumbed through a copy I’d taken from someone’s mailbox.

Now, if you’ve ever seen the film “Adaptation,” Charlie Kauffman (played by Nic Cage) refers to an article in the magazine as “sprawling New Yorker shit.” That was my impression then, and it still is today, of New Yorker articles. They’re generally just not my cup of tea. But on that night, Richard Preston’s “The Demon in the Freezer” sucked me in. I was completely freaked out by his description of smallpox and the uncertainty about the whereabouts and security of the stockpiles. I think I might have been (still am) traumatized by a bad case of chicken pox my junior year of high school. Anyway, it was just so gripping and far away from anything I’d ever read. I later bought his book by the same name.

One real-life character in the book was D.A. Henderson, who headed up the World Health Organization’s eradication effort. He wrote his own book in 2009, and that’s what I’m recommending to you today. Henderson describes how challenging eradication was to achieve over the decades. Unfortunately, many of the obstacles the public health workers encountered then have stymied COVID-19 containment in the United States. It’s sad, really. But the book is a wonderful true story, and the photos of smallpox are super gross, in case you’re into that kind of thing.

— Angela Hopp, communications director, ASBMB

Lovecraft Country

By Matt Ruff (Harper Perennial Publishing)

This book explores racism and racial injustice in the Jim Crow Era through the eyes of science fiction, while acknowledging the racial stereotypes used throughout science fiction literature. 

Dare to Lead: Brave Work. Tough Conversations. Whole Hearts

By Brene Brown (Random House Publishing)

This book provides steps on how to have open and respectful conversations in the workplace, specifically in the context of corporate and leadership roles. By putting these steps into practice, you can become a stronger and more compassionate leader. 

— Nicole Lynn, Ph.D. candidate/graduate student, UCLA 

A Promised Land

By Barack Obama (Crown) 

This book shows a very honest side of Obama’s life and what is often behind the scenes, which is interesting to know. It’s also an inspiring story of someone who was motivated to do something noble and rose up in the ranks. 

— Adriana Bankston, principal legislative analyst, University of California


By Annalee Newitz (Macmillan) 

If you’re looking for science fiction that explores a dizzying array of concepts at once, “Autonomous” is an excellent choice. The protagonist and her allies fight against pharmaceutical monopolies by reverse-engineering drugs and selling them to the poor at affordable prices, but a government agent and his young artificially intelligent military robot are hot on her trail. This book is thick with immersive details that make its speculations about future technology, politics and activism believable, while also taking you on a fast-paced thrill ride across a post-melted Arctic world.  

Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art

By James Nestor (Riverhead Books)

This book illuminates the science and evolution behind respiration. The author outlines methods and techniques that help to enhance breath capacity and restore our lung health. 

— Guananí Gómez-Van Cortright, volunteer writer

The Lowland

By Jhumpa Lahiri (Random House)

This is the story of two brothers in the background of a political revolution in 1970s India. It will make you pause and reflect how our ideologies shape our decisions and eventually those decisions shape our fate which sometimes could be devastating. A marvelous read! 

— Amrita Mandal, postdoctoral fellow, National Institutes of Health  

A Perfect Spy

By John Le Carre (Alfred A. Knopf)

I’m not a fan of spy novels. In fact, the only ones I read are those by John Le Carre.  Any topic is OK by me when the writing is this good. Le Carre wrote so many fine books, but this one stands out as the most richly imagined and (I’ve been told) autobiographical.  After everything terrible that’s happened this year, I admit I felt a thunk of sadness when I heard this month that Le Carre had died. His legacy is a grand gift for readers.

— Comfort Dorn, managing editor, ASBMB Today  

ASBMB Today Staff
ASBMB Today Staff

This article was written by a member or members of the ASBMB Today staff.

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