We’ve now sat through several marathon sessions of impeachment. Chief Justice John Roberts looks likes he’s regretting his career choice. Senators are going to start expecting hefty donations from the dairy lobby. And Cory Booker sense of humor is … unchanged. So if, like those guys and us, you could use a break, here is a list of books to take your mind off everything this weekend.
Impeached: The Trial of President Andrew Johnson and the Fight for Lincoln’s Legacy, David O. Stewart.
This may seem like an odd choice for a list that is supposed to give you a break from impeachment, but this is a charming stroll through a more civilized time: a vice president drunk at his own inauguration, rampant bribery of senators, a secretary of war barricading himself in his office, and the blow-by-blow of a trial that will make O.J. trial look like a staid affair.
As the author notes, “[t]here are no funny Andrew Johnson stories, no recorded flashes or wit or self-deprecation” and yet this book does not lack for characters. They include Ben Butler, who took over for Thaddeus Stevens as the lead prosecutor in the Senate and was referred to as “that baggy-faced fruit of perdition”; Chief Justice Salmon Chase, who was said to believe “there is a fourth person in the Trinity”; and Ben “Bluff” Wade, the radical Republican president pro tem of the Senate who would become president if Johnson were removed and who “conspicuously placed two pistols on his Senate desk” after his friend Charles Sumner was beaten.*
And, of course, throughout the book one is left to ponder the path of reconstruction and race relations in the United States in the multiverse in which President Lincoln skips My American Cousin that night. By the end, its hard not to feel a little better about 2020.
The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs: A New History of a Lost World, Steve Brusatte.
Lest you also fear that this book is about the Republican Party, no, dear reader, this is actually about the Mesozoic Era. While not written for children by any means, a kiddo of the right age might appreciate trying to keep up with a parent who is as enthusiastic about these long-lost creatures as their 7-year-old. But for the adults, there is a whole world to explore as the dinosaur debates and discoveries rage on.
The book opens with Brusatte, an engaging paleontologist in his mid-30s with a knack for explaining without dumbing down, discovering a “close cousin of Jurassic Park’s villainous Velociraptor” somewhere in the wilds of the Chinese countryside. In fact, we learn that “a new species of dinosaur is being found, on average, once a week.” But he also defends the terrible lizards from their reputation as evolutionary dead ends with the zeal of a boyfriend defending his lady’s honor.
And just wait until you get to what he describes as “the worst day in the history of our planet” which he recounts in spectacular and scientific detail from the perspective of a pack of T. rex in Hell Creek in what is now the Dakotas. It’s breathtaking.
And if you miss your new friends after you reach the KT boundary, pick up The Genius of Birds by Jennifer Ackerman and you’ll pick up right where you left off as you try to befriend the crows in your backyard.
Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams, Matthew Walker.
“Sleep is universal” declares Dr. Walker. From insects to turtles to primordial mollusks and, of course, dinosaurs. Sleep appears to have emerged “at least 500 million years ago” in worms. And yet, we spend so little time thinking about how and why we spend this third of our time living on the planet.
That nightcap before bed? Bad idea. Catching up after an all-nighter? Ain’t gonna happen. Those great new LED lights? Nope nope nope. But aside from the tips you may pick up for your own sleep routine, the book is more of a scientific exploration into what we know and so many, many things we still don’t know while we try to answer this most basic of questions: Why do we need to sleep at all? After all, isn’t turning off your sight and sound senses while paralyzing your body for hours a night an odd choice that should have been weeded out over the course of a millennia or two of evolution?
Of course, the most important question in my household—and maybe yours—is why my husband is always able to get me to yawn by yawning himself? And a question the book refuses to address: Why is he always so amused by this little game?
Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President, Candice Millard.
If you’re concerned that the title might be overselling the excitement that any book can deliver on the death of our 20th president, who was only in office for six months, you are sorely mistaken.
You will annoy your friends and relatives as you insist on reading passages of this unbelievable (and unbelievably well told) story out loud. Or at least I did. And still do. Millard takes you across an America before civil service reform, before air conditioning, and—alas—before the acceptance of germ theory. Opening in 1876, Garfield is in Philadelphia with his wife and six children for the centennial fair as Alexander Graham Bell—that plucky, young Scotsman who had just three months earlier received his patent for “a new apparatus operated by the human voice”—is about to astound the world.
Robert Todd Lincoln, the eldest son of the last president to have been shot, plays a starring role. And then there’s the drama of the medical profession itself: Dr. Willard Bliss—a decorated and respected doctor who “had very little respect for Joseph Lister’s theories on infection” vs. Charles Burleigh Purvis—a 39-year-old wunderkind who boldly commanded Bliss to remove his fingers from the wound … and the first black doctor to treat a U.S. president.
Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men, Carline Criado Perez.
This is a book for everyone—not just those with the lady parts. Whether you’re reading this as a TERF or because you don’t know what a TERF is, there’s something for everyone in a book about data.
Unlike some of the other books on this list, this one does require a little extra effort because the author approaches the topic with a very specific thesis to prove: that throughout the world, there exists a “male default” when it comes to science, medicine, politics, and even bus routes.
Because of that, I suggest skipping the introduction and instead focus on the sheer amount of things we take for granted—male or female. For example, cars are rated for safety using only male crash test dummies, which might account for why women are 17 percent more likely to die and 71 percent more likely to be injured in a car crash even accounting for “height, weight, seat-belt usage, and crash intensity.” And don’t be surprised if by the end you find yourself craving a little more diversity of thought before your next roll out.
The Body: A Guide for Occupants, Bill Bryson.
If you have never read a Bill Bryson book or only know him as the oddball travel writer from the ’90s, I’d suggest starting with A Short History of Nearly Everything, which is pretty much just what the title suggests.
He is the only author on my Amazon pre-order list—he writes it; I read it, no questions asked. By way of example, he has recently done the history of all the things in your home (aptly titled At Home) and a rollicking history of three months in America covering Charles Linbergh, Babe Ruth, and the original trial of the century (One Summer: America, 1927). I mention this because Bill Bryson isn’t a doctor or a physicist or a historian. But perhaps because of his origins as a travel writer, he’s able to move into a strange new land and master any subject for the benefit of his reader.
And that brings us to this: an anatomy book that starts by informing its reader that the Royal Society of Chemistry has calculated that “the full cost of building a new human being, using the obliging Benedict Cumberbatch as a template, would be a very precise $151,578.46.” Of course, he also notes that our brains have become “much smaller today than they were ten thousand years ago…all over the world at the same time.” He cites the “common presumption” that our brains have “simply become more efficient … into a smaller space” but leaves us with the thought that “no one can prove that we haven’t simply grown dimmer.” So there’s that.
What If: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions, Randall Munroe.
It’s hard to describe what sort of person might enjoy a book that is at once an impressive physics lesson but also has cartoons. For example, some of the questions he answers are interesting on their face(“if you suddenly began rising steadily at 1 foot per second, how exactly would you die?”) and others that seem “meh” usually result in the destruction of the known universe (“what would happen if a hair dryer with continuous power were turned on and put in an airtight 1x1x1-meter box”).
Or perhaps the disclaimer that opens the book is the best summary: “ The author is an internet cartoonist…he likes it when things catch fire or explode, which means he does not have your best interests in mind.”
If all of this makes it sound like a book for precocious 10-year-olds, I get it but its really a book for adults who can’t fall asleep without knowing “if you call a random phone number and say ‘God bless you,’ what are the chances that the person who answers just sneezed?”
Photograph of book store by Robert Alexander/Getty Images.
Correction, January 24, 2020: The article conflated Chief Justice Salmon Chase with Samuel Chase. Chase was also a Supreme Court justice, but from 1796 to 1811.