PGS Behind The Scenes: Meet Group Publisher and Executive Editor Robert Kirk

We spoke to all of our science editors to find out why and how they became the integral part of PUP that they are today – Why science? Why publishing? First is Executive Editor and Group Publisher for Science and Reference Robert Kirk.  Along with heading up the department, Robert acquires titles in ornithology, natural history, and biology.  Having worked in the publishing industry for nearly thirty years and having spent much of that time focusing on bird and natural history books, Robert is an authority on science publishing and gave us many insights into the world of science publishing at PUP.

What is your background in the sciences and particularly ornithology, natural history, and biology?

I studied history at Oxford University, though I enjoyed sciences at high school and would have loved to have been able to minor in one or more of science subjects (but you simply couldn’t blend humanities and sciences when I went to university!). I’ve had a life-long interest in birds and all natural history, and grew up in the English countryside where I could get plenty of first-hand experience of the natural world. As a child, I once nursed a broken-winged Barn Swallow back to health, and still remember vividly the moment of release – and my joy – when the bird zoomed into the sky and disappeared into the clouds. (It probably died in a terrible plunge to earth soon thereafter.)

What got you interested in publishing, and when did you become a science editor?

Well, the old cliché of loving books and wanting to know more about how they were put together. I joined a small academic publisher as a publicity and marketing assistant in 1983. The company (Helm) had an excellent new birds and natural history list. I managed to wangle my way to promoting and working on the books in this list and, eventually, I became its editor in the mid-late 1980’s. The company was subsequently bought by A & C Black, which, in turn, was swallowed up by Bloomsbury (Harry Potter, etc).

How long have you been in publishing, and when did you come to PUP?

Since 1983. I sold co-editions to Princeton and other North American presses when at Helm and A & C Black in the UK. In 1997 I came over to present books at a PUP sales conference, met my wife, who was working for the Press at the time, married in 1998, and then moved to PUP in 2000.

What steps do you take to acquire ornithology, biology, and natural history books?

Identify a gap that needs filling, i.e. is there a guide – if there is, how good is it? If there isn’t, would it make sense to try to produce one. I then use my contacts, knowledge of the field, and undertake research to find the best person or people to make it happen. I then go to them with the idea and a basic framework. If the idea resonates we get down to planning and fine tuning before I sign them up. Many of these books take many years to write and illustrate, and are very expensive to produce, so it’s important to be confident about each project.

Many of PUP’s great field guides have been co-published with UK publishers, but lately it seems like more books are being wholly published by PUP (e.g. The Crossley ID Guide). Why is this? Is this a trend you see continuing in the future?

Absolutely. I was hired to expand the program as a whole, but for me, the most important part of this endeavor is to boost our home-grown guides alongside shrewd co-publishing with leading natural history and field guide publishers in Europe and beyond. I have many projects signed up and in the early stages of production and the proportion of books generated solely by PUP is increasing year on year. I am also selling co-editions of home-grown titles back to my regular co-publication partners, so it’s a win-win.

One of the books you acquired recently is Eugene H. Kaplan’s What’s Eating You?. Do you plan to continue acquiring books outside of field guides?

As and when it makes sense. Gene Kaplan’s book follows his wonderful Sensuous Seas, and the new book has the same brio, humor, and rich biological detail as the first. There is still room for more general natural history titles, and we have a number in the list already, so I would anticipate there always being books of this nature.

Are there any backlist Princeton books that you feel are the archetype for what Princeton science books should be? Please explain.

I’m delighted to say there are legion, and it’s almost invidious to single out just a few, from the established classics (Einstein is of course sui generis) such as Feynman’s QED to more recent titles such as Andy Knoll’s Life on a Young Planet and David Archer’s The Long Thaw.  All these are characterized by breadth, learning, and longevity.


What subject areas have yet to have their quintessential and iconic masterpieces written?

Microbial biology still needs a synthesizing book, and there are many other areas, cognitive science being an obvious choice, where the field is advancing so fast that it will require an overarching book to solidify, for the outsider, exactly what we have learned and are learning.

You oversee the entire science publishing program here at PUP – how does the press manage to publish in so many different subject areas while still maintaining a consistent quality and molding a singular and unparalleled science publishing program.  Are there challenges? How do we overcome them?

It’s down to the quality and vision of the individual editors. My role, I feel, is simply to help them publish the best books in their field and provide the back-up and support they need to do so. Right now, I think we have a superb team of editors – all at the top of their game. There are general and specific challenges: in many areas of the sciences, fields are journal driven and books don’t play a significant role in tenure decisions or peer to peer communication; and, depending on the discipline, there are other publishers competing for the best people and books. However, few have the breadth and range that Princeton does – from cutting-edge monographs to wonderful trade science titles. We stay ahead of the curve through the skill and tenacity of our editors and the proven success and renown of the lists as a whole.

PGS Behind The Scenes: Executive Editor Vickie Kearn and the Science of Loving Math

You and math – one of the greatest love/hate relationships of all time. What is it about the subject that excites us yet sends a chilling tingle down our spine at the same time? How can it be so precise, yet so fickle? We may never know the answers to these questions, but we do know that math is ubiquitous, though some of us may try to hide from it.

We also know that there are those who thrive off the subject, who can’t get enough of it. PUP Executive Editor Vickie Kearn is one of those people.  After all, since 2001, her job here at the Press has been acquiring the best titles in mathematics – and even before she came to PUP, she spent her whole life surrounded by numbers and equations.  While math may sometimes cause us to cry tears of despair, it has caused Vickie to cry tears of joy.  Her love of math started as a natural childhood talent, became a pleasantly surprising college benefit, and eventually grew into a career – one that she has dedicated to making the pursuit of mathematical knowledge easier and more enjoyable.

As part of our continuing series of Q&As with our Science and Reference Editors for Princeton Global Science, we found out more about Vickie’s publishing and math background.  Read her truly illuminating answers below:


What is your background in the sciences and particularly mathematics?

For as long as I can remember, I have loved math, whether it was counting things, looking at patterns, or solving logic problems. I grew up in Venezuela and the American school was very small. There were only three of us in my grade so we got a lot of attention and our teacher really loved math. Because the school only went through the 9th grade, I went to boarding school in the states for the rest of high school. Salem Academy only had 100 girls at the time I went. I had no idea that girls weren’t supposed to like math. Elsie Nunn taught the upper level math classes so I had her for three years. She was amazing. She did not have any fancy equipment but she taught a ton of math. We had math club every day after school and she always came up with something amazing. She knew all about the lives of the mathematicians so I had the benefit of knowing who the people were behind the math. I went to the University of Richmond where I studied math. At the time I went there, the campus was split and men and women were on separate sides of a lake. Since math was taught on the men’s side, I got to take all of my classes with them. Men and women were only allowed to talk on Wednesday afternoon and Saturday and Sunday. But since I was a math major and there was only one other woman math major, I was allowed to talk to the men all the time. Who would have thought math would have such great benefits?

When I graduated, I taught school for 8 years. I initially taught elementary school and then moved to the junior high to teach math. I taught in a rural open space school (no internal walls) near Richmond and later in an inner city school in Norfolk, VA. My kids taught me that not everyone learns in the same way and that if math is difficult for some students, you just need to find a different way to teach it.

What got you interested in publishing, and when did you become a science editor?

During the time I taught, I served on a lot of textbook adoption committees and found that the textbooks got worse and worse. I had the opportunity to move to New York with a friend and decided it was time to leave teaching and try to improve math teaching and learning in a bigger way. I thought I would try publishing. My first job was at Academic Press. I was a developmental editor. For three years I edited all the undergraduate textbooks. I made sure all the problems could be worked and wrote the solution’s manuals. After three years and about six different calculus textbooks, I decided that acquiring books would give me more of an opportunity to have an impact on the content so I moved to Marcel Dekker. I initially was the math/statistics editor but as editors came and went, I also did engineering and food science. Although I really liked acquiring, I was required to sign 60 books a year. I no longer had the time to do any development work so after 8 years I went to the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics. There I helped to establish the book program and also got to work with journals, membership, and marketing. The staff was a small hard working group of people dedicated to supporting the members of the society. After 13 years, (and a four hour roundtrip commute) I moved to PUP.

How long have you been in publishing, and when did you come to PUP?

I have been in publishing for 33 years. I came to PUP in March 2001.

Tell us about the books and authors that you’ve worked with. Are there any authors or titles that stand out from the rest? Why?

I have been lucky enough to meet many of the greatest mathematicians. There are so many that stand out but I will pick one from each place I have worked. The first book I edited at Academic Press was Gil Strang’s Introduction to Linear Algebra (now in its 4th edition). I thought it was the best book I had ever read. That was in 1977. My son is a student at Virginia Tech and I gave him that book when he took linear algebra his freshman year. I still see Gil at math meetings. I had the amazing opportunity to work with David and Gregory Chudnovsky at Marcel Dekker on A. D. Sakharov: Collected Scientific Works (1982). During the time we were working on the book, Sakharov was kept tight under Soviet police surveillance and all correspondence had to be smuggled in and out. All of his notes were handwritten. This was probably the most exciting of my projects. One more that I have to mention from this era is The Shape of Space by Jeffrey Weeks. I signed this book when he was a PhD student at Princeton University. This in itself was pretty unusual but this was also the first popular math title that I signed. I recently met up with Jeff again when he was attending a seminar at Princeton. One project that really stands out from SIAM is Matrix Analysis and Applied Linear Algebra by Carl Meyer (2000). This was the first undergraduate textbook that SIAM published and we added all the whistles and bells we could think of. We also included a really neat CD with all kinds of fun math facts and history about the folks mentioned in the book. I have since published another book with Carl and we are working on a third. The book at PUP that is extra special for me is Steve Strogatz’s The Calculus of Friendship: What a Teacher and a Student Learned about Life while Corresponding about Math. This is a wonderful heartwarming story (which also teaches a lot of math) and Steve’s teacher reminds me so much of my high school teacher, Elsie Nunn. This is the only math book that has ever made me cry. Although I have mentioned a few books that stand out I must say that each time I get a message that one of my books has come in, I race to my mailbox to see it. Taking an idea to a pile of papers and then a bound book is an amazing process. It takes the cooperation of so many people. Being an editor is a bit like a bartender or therapist. You need to be a good listener at times, a cheerleader at others, and always a compassionate friend. So many things can happen over the course of writing and publishing a book. I look back over the past three decades and am so happy to say that I have hundreds of friends–most of them mathematicians.

What makes mathematics publishing different from other subject areas?

In short–equations. When determining how big a book will be, compositors want to know how many words there are. I still don’t know how to count equations as words. We now work with final book pages which is much easier to calculate. In many disciplines, academics need to publish books to get tenure. In math (and many of the other sciences) academics need to publish papers; books do not add to their vita. My colleagues in the humanities and social sciences get numerous manuscripts submitted to them each year. I learn of new book projects through networking with mathematicians in academia and industry.

A surprising fact is that some of PUP’s best-selling books are math books. What is your take on popular math? Is this a trend that will continue to grow?

I believe that the attitude toward math is changing. Many people still “hate” it or find it “really hard.” I agree that much of the math in the books we publish at PUP is way beyond my understanding but everyone can learn math and appreciate it at some level. That is what our popular math books are all about. They are about finding out really neat facts and how things work. We want people to see the connections to other areas such as biology and economics. We want them to understand the history of math and how it was developed. And, we want them to understand how mathematicians work and what they do when they are not doing math. I have known mathematicians who are wonderful painters and singers. I know one who used to drop the starting flag at the Indianapolis 500. Another I know is an accomplished break dancer. One used to play for the Boston Red Sox until he was injured. Math was his backup plan. We get terrific reviews of the popular math books. Two quotes that stand out for me are the following. One reviewer stated that if he had to be stranded on a deserted island, he would want to have a book by Paul Nahin with him. One reader of Fearless Symmetry by Avner Ash and Robert Gross said it was like climbing a mountain. You might not get all the way to the top but the view was just as good. We get lots of fan mail about the popular math books, from kids as young as middle school. My hope is that everyone who is a math hater will pick up a popular math book and give it a try.

The Calculus Lifesaver by Adrian Banner is a monumental mathematics course book. What is the story behind it?

Adrian Banner developed a study course for non-math majors who were struggling with calculus. At first, only a few students showed up but it wasn’t long before the lecture hall was packed, especially right before tests. He developed notes as he taught the course. After I badgered him for a few years, he polished them and even did all the typesetting. The book is written for 18-year-old students and includes examples that are fun for them to work through. Adrian wrote it so that the students would understand the process and not learn just how to get the right answer. The book has its own MySpace and Facebook page. Adrian gets a lot of fan mail from students who profess that his book “Saved my life!”. We taped all of the lectures which are available for free. They have had more than 60 million downloads. The interesting thing is that although this book was written just as a study guide, and not a textbook, schools are starting to adopt it because students can really learn from it. It also costs only $25.00.

What are some of the most outstanding PUP mathematics series, and why? What plans do you have for these series?

The cornerstone of our mathematics program is the Annals of Mathematics Studies book series. It was started in 1940 and includes books by John Tukey, Hermann Weyl, Paul Halmos, Alonzo Church, John von Neumann, John Milnor and many other outstanding mathematicians. I sometimes look at my bookshelf and am amazed at all of those great books in one place. We publish about 4 books each year in this series. The books are rigorously refereed even though the authors are at the top of their careers. We plan to continue this series. In the past 10 years we have added an applied math monographs series and are also publishing undergraduate and graduate level textbooks.

Are there any authors or academics who haven’t worked with PUP before that you’re dying to work with?

This is an interesting question. Of course I would love to work with anyone who has won a Fields Medal or the Abel Prize. These are people who have amazing mathematical minds and who will take mathematics to the next highest level. Then there are those dedicated teachers who are able to bring out the best in their students, who may one day be Fields Medalists themselves. Most often it is these teachers who write our popular math books and our textbooks which are so important to exciting young people. I would love to work with more women authors. When I started as a math editor in 1977 I never had to describe myself before a meeting because there were so few women. That has really changed but we still need more women mathematicians and authors.

Find Out What’s Really Eating You: This Week in PUP Events

Eugene Kaplan has traveled the globe and has seen some of the most beautiful natural sights that this world has to offer, from dense and luscious jungles to deep, mysterious oceans.   Along the way, he has also closely explored the fascinating world of parasites – and the stories shares with is in What’s Eating You? People and Parasites are absolutely priceless.

Now, you have the chance to meet the author behind this truly one-of-a-kind book.  Join Eugene tomorrow (Wednesday, August 25, 2010) in New Windsor, New York at Diana’s Restaurant and Catering.  He will be discussing not only his book but sharing his hilarious encounters with creatures such as leeches, flees, tapeworms, and snakes.

This event is part of the Hudson Valley Since Café and is scheduled to begin at 7 PM.  there is a $3.00 admissions fee that includes coffee or tea, and if you arrive at Diana’s before 6 PM, you can take advantage of the restaurant’s Early Bird Specials.

So get ready to eat, drink, and discuss parasites!

Gudrun Krämer is the first Islamic Studies scholar to receive the Gerda Henkel Prize

For the first time, a scholar representing the field of Islamic Studies has won the Gerda Henkel Prize presented by the Gerda Henkel Foundation – PUP author Gudrun Krämer is that scholar. Many congratulations, Gudrun!

Since its founding in 1976, the Gerda Henkel Foundation has been funding research projects in the historical humanities, more recently starting a program dedicated to studying “Islam, the modern state and transnational movements.”

Of their honoree, Chairman of the foundation Dr. Michael Hanssler says, “Krämer’s work helps us to obtain far deeper understanding of Islamic cultures and societies. Working from a sound historical basis, the winner of the 2010 Gerda Henkel Prize is then able to give us a more nuanced view of our everyday reality.”

With her incredible research and investigations, Gudrun has established herself as a leading scholar in the field of Islamic Studies and has built an impressive reputation with her written works including A History of Palestine: From the Ottoman Conquest to the Founding of the State of Israel.

You can find out more about Gudrun and about the Gerda Henkel Foundation by clicking here.

For a complete list of recent award-winning Princeton University Press books, please click here.

“How Wars End” on the shortlist for the 2010 Arthur Ross Book Award

The Arthur Ross Book Award is given annually to the best book published on international affairs by the Council on Foreign Relations – on this year’s shortlist is PUP title How Wars End by Dan Reiter.

According to the Council on Foreign Relations, this award “is a significant award for a book on international affairs.  It was endowed by Arthur Ross in 2001 to honor nonfiction works, in English or translation, that merit special attention for bringing forth new information that changes our understanding of events or problems, developing analytical approaches that allow new and different insights into critical issues, or providing new ideas that help resolve foreign policy problems.”

Congratulations on this great achievement, Dan!

For a complete list of recent award-winning Princeton University Press books, please click here.

The 2010 Pierre Bourdieu Book Award awaits Bowen, Chingos, and McPherson across the finish line

Another PUP book is receiving an honor from the American Sociological Association this year – Crossing the Finish Line: Completing College at America’s Public Universities is the winner of the 2010 Pierre Bourdieu Book Award!

Penned by William G. Bowen, Matthew M. Chingos, and Michaels S. McPherson, Crossing the Finish Line is a groundbreaking book that gives us detailed insight into the crisis of college completion at America’s public universities, examining factors such as dropout rates and their relationships to various demographic groups.  According to the ASA, it is the best book in the Sociology of Education published in 2008 or 2009.

Crossing the Finish Line has also received an Honorable Mention for the 2009 PROSE Award for Excellence – Education.

For a complete list of recent award-winning Princeton University Press books, please click here.

Your New Reading List: Fred Inglis’ Picks

Many of our authors’ reading suggestions this summer have been seasoned classics and old favorites, but there’s nothing quite like picking up a recently-published book and unexpectedly discovering that it’s refreshingly delightful – Fred Inglis knows what we mean.  He has recently uncovered some new gems and wants to share them with you:

Fred says, “First, Christopher Ricks’s wonderful study, just out, of the poets Anthony Hecht, Geoffrey Hill, and Robert Lowell, ‘under the sign of Eliot and Pound’ as Ricks puts it, and of which the title is True Friendship, the friendship in question being the use to which fine poets put their complicated, ambivalent and devout admiration of mighty predecessors in the making of their own utterly different poetry and its purposes.  The thing is carried off with all Ricks’s extraordinary subtlety, punning and mischievously high sense of the comic, along with his similarly high seriousness and exquisite prose.

Second , Simon Critchley’s The Book of Dead Philosophers, also new, which does just that: reports on the end of the great thinkers with deadpan (as you might say) equanimity, on how they met their end (and implicitly of course), [and] on what corroboration those ends gave to the ends of life they each in their work commended. Thus Zeno was stabbed trying to bite off a tyrants ear in which he promised to whisper the secret of life, Empedocles chucked himself into Etna, Diderot died eating an apricot to try to prove to his wife that he was fine and not in the least ill, and my hero, Hume, died exemplarly and in ‘great good humour’ refusing his young friend Boswell’s efforts to convert him on his deathbed.”

Along with the two above mentioned books, you can pick up a copy of Fred’s latest PUP title, A Short History of Celebrity, hot off the presses.  You can also learn more about the book and become a fan on Facebook.

As always, share a piece of your mind below, be our friend on Facebook, or tweet us @PrincetonUPress.

“Saving God” earns Mark Johnston an AAR Award for Excellence in the Study of Religion

The American Academy of Religion (AAR), composed of over 10,000 teachers and scholars, recently selected the 2010 recipients of the Awards for Excellence in the Study of Religion – among the winners is Mark Johnston, whose Saving God: Religion after Idolatry took the top prize in the Constructive-Reflective Studies category.

According to Associate Director of Publications Stephanie Gray, the Awards for Excellence “recognize new scholarly publications that make significant contributions to the study of religion.  The awards honor books of distinctive originality, intelligence, creativity, and importance, books that affect decisively how religions is examined, understood, and interpreted.”

Mark, along with his fellow award recipients, will be honored at AAR’s 2010 Annual Meeting in Atlanta, Georgia on October 31, 2010.

Wonderful work, Mark!

For a complete list of recent award-winning Princeton University Press books, please click here.

Thinking Allowed with Kathleen Graber and Paul Muldoon: This Week in PUP Events

You definitely do not want to miss the latest lecture in the Thinking Allowed Series, a collaboration between PUP and the Princeton Public Library.  This series brings PUP authors from around the world to the Princeton community, and past lecturers have included Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Andrei Codrescu, and Pulitzer Prize-winning poet C. K. Williams.

This week, you have the opportunity to meet another Pulitzer Prize winner: tomorrow (Tuesday, August 17), Paul Muldoon will be at the PPL with Kathleen Graber, whose recent book The Eternal City was Muldoon’s choice to relaunch the prestigious Princeton Series of Contemporary Poets.

As the new editor of the series, Muldoon continues PUP’s tradition of celebrating and publishing the best work of today’s emerging and established poets.  Graber will join the ranks of PUP poets and icons Susan Stewart, Robert Pinsky, Ann Lauterbach, Jorie Graham, and Alicia Ostriker.

The event is scheduled to begin at 7:30 PM in the Community Room at the Princeton Public Library.  More information is available here.

Before you attend the event, make sure you check out The Eternal City‘s official Facebook Page, where you can learn about the book and interact with fellow poetry fans.

Your New Reading List: Paul Thagard’s Picks

Paul Thagard, author of The Brain and the Meaning of Life, discovered some new books this summer that he wants to share with you.  His recommendations cover a wide range of genres and emotions, from adventure that will keep you on the edge of your seat to a poignant personal memoir to the tension that accompanies a ground-breaking discovery.  Interested? Read what Paul says about these books:

“David Grann, The Lost City of Z. This is non-fiction, but perfect for airplanes or beaches, as it reads like a thriller. The book weaves together the biographical story of an Amazon explorer and the autobiographical story of the author’s investigation of him. It’s totally absorbing.”

“Roger Rosenblatt, Making Toast. This book is the moving and eloquent story of the author’s first year after the sudden death of his 38-year old daughter. He and his wife move in with their son-in-law and young  grandchildren. This book is an excellent grief memoir from the unusual perspective of a parent rather than a spouse.”

“Elliott S. Valenstein, The War of the Soups and the Sparks. A retired neuropsychologist tells the fascinating story of the discovery of neurotransmitters and the controversy over how new nerves communicate with each other: chemically (soups) or electrically (sparks). This intriguing history also illuminates the nature of scientific research.”

What are your favorite book genres? Let us know below, on Facebook, or on Twitter!

Margot Canaday and Anthony S. Chen both win APSA’s Gladys M. Kammerer Award

It looks like Christopher S. Parker won’t be the only PUP author honored at the 2010 American Political Science Association (APSA) Annual Meeting this year; Margot Canaday and Anthony S. Chen will be joining him!

Margot and Anthony are the 2010 joint recipients of APSA’s 2010 Gladys M. Kammerer Award for The Straight State: Sexuality and Citizenship in Twentieth-Century America and The Fifth Freedom: Jobs, Politics, and Civil Rights in the United States, 1941-1972, respectively.  The two books are considered this year’s best political science publications in the field of U.S. national policy.

The Straight State has also earned Margot the 2010 Ellis W. Hawley prize, awarded by the Organization of American Historians, and the 2010 Lambda Literary Award for LGBT Studies by the Lambda Literary Foundation.

For The Fifth Freedom, Anthony has received two additional APSA prizes: he has co-won the 2010 J. David Greenstone Award in the Politics and History Section and won the 2010 Best Book Award in the Race, Ethnicity, and Politics Section.  Anthony has also won the Social Science History Association’s 2008 President’s Book Award.

Great work, Margot and Anthony, and many wishes for continued success!

Find out more information about this year’s APSA awards here.

For a complete list of recent award-winning Princeton University Press books, please click here.

Your New Reading List: Eliana Garcés’ Picks

For Eliana Garcés, co-author of Quantitative Techniques for Competition and Antitrust Analysis, a good book is one in which the author not only asks questions but determinedly seeks answers and explanations. No matter the subject, the key to a great book is originality and a fresh perspective.  Read her recommendations below:

The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins

Eliana says, “In this book, Richard Dawkins sets out to convince the reader that the tendency to believe in God is an evolutionary side product of the way our brain works and that both empirical evidence and logic argue against the existence of a supernatural god. Richard Dawkins takes no prisoners and is ruthless in his description of religion as it would be seen by a non-initiated outsider. The book is actually extremely entertaining and anyone unafraid to ask questions would enjoy it. Richard Dawkins also interestingly discusses the evolutionary roots of morality and ethics.

The Origin of Wealth: Evolution, Complexity, and the Radical Remaking of Economics by Eric Beinhocker

Eliana says, “Another interesting take on the implication of hard science on social sciences. Eric Beinhocker caters to a growing dissatisfaction with classical and neoclassical economics by proposing an alternative approach to modeling. His premise is that economics continues to be built on 19th century science and mathematics, and this limits its ability to explain a world that is complex and constantly evolving. A better way to model economics is to use what we now know of chaos theory and evolutionary theory. Economics should abandon the idea of equilibrium and determinism. We can at best explain processes and redefine the area of the possible. The book, particularly its first part, is stimulating and entertaining. Anyone with a feeling that economics is about to radically change will enjoy the fresh thinking.”

Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman

Eliana says, “Not exactly a summer read unless you define summer as just a lot of free time to take on a large book. This is a lucid but sad novel in which the author seems to lay out all he knows about the good and evil of people. The novel is set during the battle of Stalingrad where the Soviet population under the boot of Stalin fights Nazi invaders particularly bent on murder and annihilation. Characters are soldiers, gulag prisoners, concentration camp prisoners, Russian academics, their families, bystanders, in fact fairly normal people caught in a particularly frightening time. What seems to have tortured Grossman was the easiness with which populations in both Germany and the Soviet Union accepted and adjusted to regimes of terror and oppression, when not directly cooperating with it.  The book shockingly starts by noting that extermination camps had very few guards because prisoners mostly self policed.  Grossman wants to convince himself that tyranny will always be vanquished because it ultimately goes against human nature. Read this to mean that prisoners self policed, but suffered doing so. Still some suffered more than others and this is the real question of the novel: how much evil can we bear? The answer is: it varies with people but as a group quite a lot. Anyone interested in human nature and the corrosive power of an all controlling State will find this book illuminating. Grossman himself was a Russian journalist covering the Stalingrad battle and was with the Russian army when they entered the first extermination camps. His novel was censored by the Soviet government.”

To write great books, these authors not only assuaged their curiosity; they also used investigative techniques to reveal new dimensions and gave us something new to think about.  Thanks for the suggestions, Eliana!

To give us something to think about, comment below, “like” us on Facebook, or tweet us @PrincetonUPress!