Reading Lists

Here you will find lists of books grouped under categories of potential interest to grad students in the sciences. There are few activities more personal than the handing down of a reading list from professor to grad student. Each is intimately unique and requires reflection both on the giver’s beliefs as well as the needs of the student receiving the list.

Reading lists are the “mix tape” of academia. John Janovy gave me a reading list years ago, and has a general form of the list posted here.

Five Who Will Inspire You to Write BetterJohn McPhee

Here are some folks I read if I’m facing a bit of writer’s block or otherwise want to get inspired before a morning of writing. Note these are not scientists (though I will discuss scientists who are great writers later). Great writing is great writing.

1. John McPhee. This is one of two nonfiction writers on the list. One of the best buys in books is his masterful Annals of the Former World. In it, McPhee takes you along on field trips with geologists across North America. Largely eschewing diagrams, he constructs a gripping account of the complexities of modern geology and the folks that practice it.

2. Willa Cather. I’m drawn to short novels. Cather’s The Professor’s House is not as well known as My Antonia, but has the added attraction that it is an extraordinarily well drawn picture of an aging professor in a small town. Cather’s sentences are gorgeous, and even when long and lyrical, maintain a simple elegance.

3. Edward Abbey. Desert Solitaire is one of those books I carried around in my back pocket in high school. It’s a series of ruminations about the American West as people and the power grid do their worst, damming rivers, and suffusing dark starry nights with the dull glow of citiscapes. Each sentence in this book packs a wallop. Abbey captured the beauty of deserts when deserts had few defenders.

4. Ernest Hemingway. This fellow could say more about the human heart (OK, primarily hearts bearing Y chromosomes) in less time than any American writer. You cannot read Hemingway, then sit down to write, without finding your sentences growing shorter, and your verbs actually, well, doing something. Passive tense be gone! The Complete Short Stories is one to throw into your travel bag and dig out from time to time.

5. Kurt Vonnegut. Vonnegut wrote simple parables with vivid word pictures that read like science fiction but stuck with you long after most books have faded into the mists. You have likely read Slaughterhouse Five, perhaps in an overcrowded classroom. But pick it up again. Every read reveals something new. There is not a word wasted.

Five Who Will Show You How to Write Better

Anne LamottThe following five books address two basic roadblocks to the beginning science writer. The first is “making time to write”, which often translates into “getting over that psychological hurdle that says you have nothing to say”. The second is the craft of science writing, the assortment of tips, tricks, and practices that every good science writer accrues, often through trial and error. All but one is under $20.00.

1. Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott–With its wry humor and compassion, this book has always been a favorite. Two of its most important pieces of advice–shitty first drafts, and bird by bird–are now part of the writer’s lexicon of advice. Translated, they mean “first, just get it down, there will be time for revising later”, and ” break big tasks into small ones, aim to write 300 words a day.”. This books is for anybody who wants to write.

2. Elements of Style by William Strunk and E. B. White–Chances are you own this book already. If you don’t have it, get it. If you have it, place it with quiet veneration on your toilet tank, and read a few pages daily. Elements of Style effectively defines good writing in two admonitions: Make every word count and Omit needless words. This short book practices what it preaches.

3. How to Write a Lot by Paul SilviaThis is my new favorite book on writing, and the first on the list specifically about science writing. Science writing, Silvia says, is hard work. Schedule it like you do any other vital part of your job, and just do it. Nothing magical, no nostrums. Schedule it, and do it. This short book also has pithy advice on grammar and style, as well as how to deal with editors and reviewers. Lamott and Silvia are your “good cop-bad cop” writing advisors.

4. A Short Guide to Writing about Biology by Jan Pechenik–This is a more thorough reference book that gives detailed advice about every step of the research process. Where it particularly shines is its middle chapter on revising. After your “shitty first draft”, flip to chapter 5, and Pechenik will guide you step by step through Revising for Content, Revising for Clarity, Revising for Completeness, Revising for Conciseness, Revising for Flow, and, finally, Revising for Spelling Errors. Beyond this, its advice on building every section of a scientific paper will give you the jump start you need on a slow day.

5. The War of Art by Steven Pressfield–OK, this book isn’t for everybody. But if you are having a major approach-avoidance conflict with your dissertation or otherwise procrastinate like there’s always a tomorrow, read this book with a cup of strong coffee, scream into a pillow, and have at it. The War of Art is written as a series of observations, anecdotes, and motivational speeches (hence, another good book for your leisure time in the bathroom). It is easily digested, if a bit Hollywood. Its basic premise is that there is an inverse relationship between what we know we have to do, what we are called to do, and our motivation to do it. If Sylvia can’t get you off the couch and in front of that manuscript, give Pressfield a try.

Five Who Will Show You How to Design Your Lectures and Papers


If quality = good content * good design, every beginning scientist needs to spend some time thinking about what makes good design. These five books approach this topic from different angles. All are good, but if you are just starting out, I recommend 1, 2, and 4 as essential parts of your library.

1. Elements of Graphic Design by Alex White. I’ve described this book before as a perfect introduction to the nuts and bolts of design. White starts with, well, white space as a neglected part of the design equation. Or as Keith Richards put it, “It’s not the notes, it’s the spaces between the notes.” This book will get you seeing everything–newspapers, web pages, journal articles, talks–as the products of conscious (or unconscious) design decisions.

2. Visual Display of Quantitative Information–Edward Tufte. If you’ve read this blog for a while, you know I’m a huge fan of Tufte. The Amazon reviewer pretty much nails it: “Should occupy a place of honor–within arm’s reach–of everyone attempting to understand or depict numerical data graphically.” And that is, of course, every graduate student in the sciences. It’s a bit pricey at $32, but it is well-made and gorgeous.

3. Design–innovate differentiate, communicate by Tom Peters. One can learn a lot from books aimed at the business community. “Bidness folks” face many of the same problems as graduate students–how to collaborate, produce interesting content, and manage time (plus the market is so large that the books are often reasonably priced). Here, Peters is “mad as hell” about the inattention paid to basic design. The resulting diatribe is a fun read, and full of thoughtful suggestions. Furthermore, the layout itself is a hoot, forcing you to focus on the design choices, from typography to color.

4. Presentation Zen by Garr Reynolds. Garr’s fantastic website by the same name (link on the home page) is a clearinghouse for ideas on how to give a thoughtful, catchy presentation. This book summarizes much of that wisdom in a handy “paper” format. It is an excellent example of book layout (Garr worked with the Duarte group, the folks who helped Al Gore design his An Incovenient Truth slide show.)

5. Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud. Yeah, I know, a book on comics. But this is not just a book. It’s a thesis, a rosetta stone, a how-to guide, and a history of graphical communication. Trust me on this. If you enjoy comics, this book will enrich your life. If you scorn comics, this book will make you reconsider–borrow it from that office mate who devours X-Men, Tank Girl, and The Last Man comics.


9 Responses to Reading Lists

  1. Back in the late Pleistocene, my undergraduate biology advisor, Leo Buss ( suggested to me that if I wanted to see really good writing, I should read the New York Review of Books. Since 1963, this biweekly publication (not to be confused with the New York Times Book Review) delivers outstanding creative writing on books, politics, science, poetry, and the arts to your mailbox on a regular basis. The writing is simply stellar. Of course it’s available on line (, but who can resist the feel of bifolded 22×34 newsprint?

  2. Matt Wedel says:

    McPhee and Abbey are high on my desert island list. I would put David Quammen up there, too. Everyone under the sun has read Song of the Dodo, and it’s a great book, but I like his essay collections even better. “The Desert is a Mnemonic Device” (from Flight of the Iguana) has maybe the greatest ending of any nonfiction piece I’ve ever read.

    When I’ve been reading Quammen, I find myself writing more like a human and less like a science-bot.

  3. Bug Girl says:

    You left out this one–the best way to get better at writing is to write.
    (wildly paraphrased from Jack Kerouac)

    Simply setting a task of writing *something* every day has helped me get better and more efficient at generating shitty first drafts, and then moving them on to something less…fecal.

  4. Dwight Blood says:

    I just discovered your blog and was delighted to find a fellow professor. Your content is very useful. My content on “The Curmudgeonly Professor” is a bit more whimsical, but I have many of the same goals in mind. I’ve linked your blog on my site, referenced above.

  5. aman says:

    very good

  6. […] by scientists, it is not, let us say, the most efficient way to hone your own craft. Check out the Reading Lists in the menu bar for examples of popular writers who you would do well to emulate. Magazines like […]

  7. […] more? Sure, but not if what you are reading is crap. Read the greats, and some of it will make its way into your […]

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