The couch beckons, and the brain yearns for that perfect book: the lyrical, binge-able tome that also dispenses heaps of knowledge. The writers of these top titles from 2019 have produced just that. They’ve made it easy to set aside the remote, bow out of the attention economy, and season the soul with perfect prose. Grab a copy of one of these page-turners and start living the life of the erudite sofa spud.
Year in Review: What WIRED learned from tech, science, culture, and more in 2019
When novelist Dani Shapiro’s husband hits middle age and gets curious about his family history, he sends away for a DNA test. He asks if she wants one too. Looking up at her walls covered in the sepia-toned portraits of her Orthodox Jewish family, her interest is hardly piqued. But spousal solidarity prevails. She spits, sends, and promptly forgets about it. Until, weeks later, her results come back and blast apart her hitherto firmly held reality.
The first half of Inheritance reads like an emotional thriller-slash-detective story, as Shapiro uses the tools of modern genealogy—genetic data and Google—to peel back the layers on a long-buried family secret. While the details of her parents’ lifelong deception are particular to Shapiro, her experience is shared by thousands of others in the modern age of inexpensive DNA testing. These tests, often taken in a spirit of casual curiosity, can throw genetic buzzsaws at the branches of people’s family trees.
The emotional fallout of such unexpected discoveries fills the pages of the second half of Shapiro’s searching, tenderly written memoir. At WIRED, we tend to cover technical advances in genetic testing, and the privacy implications of rapidly expanding DNA databases. For anyone wishing to understand the personal side of these cultural shifts, Inheritance should be considered required reading. —Megan Molteni
Richard Feynman once called calculus “the language God speaks,” but I’m afraid to say I wouldn’t know anything about it because I never took a calc class. At some point in high school, I got the mistaken impression that calculus—and mathematics in general—was an entirely uncreative pursuit that mostly just involved shuffling numbers and letters around on the page. I only wish that I had had a copy of Infinite Powers by Cornell mathematician Steven Strogatz as a corrective.
This is probably the only calculus book ever written that can truthfully be called a page-turner, which speaks to Strogatz’s strength as a writer and teacher. The book offers a high-level overview of fundamental concepts in calculus and goes into great detail about how they are used in modern life. Strogatz eschews complicated formulas—hardly a single one appears in these pages—in favor of simple graphs and illustrations. While the extreme simplification of remarkably heady mathematics might turn off calculus adepts, there’s something for everyone in the book, especially when he dives into the minds of some of history’s greatest thinkers. It’s a must-read for anyone interested in the intellectual history of science and mathematics, as well as those calculus dropouts like me who wonder what they’re missing out on. —Daniel Oberhaus
Reading Bottle of Lies turned out to be more expensive than I anticipated. Sure, there was the $14.99 I shelled out for the Kindle edition. But that’s nothing compared to the price of vowing to never buy another generic drug. Pills containing incorrect dosages, unstable compounds, ground-up glass, and even insects? I’d rather keep my kidneys, thanks.
Eban builds Bottle of Lies around the extraordinary deceptions of the Indian drugmaker Ranbaxy, which for years manufactured generic versions of the cholesterol drug Lipitor, among other blockbuster pharmaceuticals. When the US Food and Drug Administration’s inspectors showed up at its factories, executives trotted out a Potemkin Village of sparkling machinery, perfect protocol, and notebooks scrubbed of inconvenient data. The real pill-making took place at derelict shadow labs the investigators never got to see.
What’s especially maddening, though, is not Ranbaxy’s moral lapses so much as the structural flaws that kept it in business. The FDA is under constant pressure to provide Americans with cheap drugs. It knew about many of the lapses at Ranbaxy—and still allowed its products to flow into pharmacies and people’s homes. The agency’s dual mandates to keep drug costs low and make sure they don’t harm people are in direct conflict, and too often the desire for low price tags wins out. Trust no one. —Sandra Upson
Californians are better acquainted than most with the realities of climate change. We’ve breathed in the wildfire smoke and heard city officials’ pleas for fewer showers and flushes. But the local decisions that helped get us into this fix are mostly opaque. Mark Arax, a former Los Angeles Times reporter, is a writer of rare patience for exploring such matters. He’s covered California agriculture for decades, out in the fields and inside the coffee shops of Central Valley farm towns strung along Highway 99. That’s where, to this day, the water deals are struck, and where a drip of rumors gather into a lead a reporter can follow in the tule fog.
The Dreamt Land is Arax’s grand history of California water, beginning before Spanish arrival and following the trail of man-made decisions that exacerbate the present. It’s a story of how crooked court fights and under-the-table deals led to a set of byzantine laws, better suited to draining English swamps than managing a vast expanse of quasi-desert. The story ends, insidiously, in our current time of relative plenty, when the rains flow again and the water mining slows. Everyone can go back to pretending the land has been tamed as the fields and orchards once again expand. The Dreamt Land leaves us with the question: When the next dry spell comes, will we have gone too far? —Gregory Barber
In 2011, a gender equality initiative forced the small Swedish town of Karlskoga to re-evaluate its policies. Then the topic of snow removal came up. One official joked the gender warriors would finally have nothing to say. Snow clearing, sexist? Ha!
But because men and women tend to travel differently—men more likely to drive, women more inclined to walk or take public transit—the town’s plowing schedule was not, in fact, gender neutral. It prioritized cars by plowing main traffic arteries before sidewalks and bike paths, which exposed more women to injuries from slipping and falling.
The banal injustice of snow removal is a fitting start to journalist and social activist Caroline Criado Perez’s second book, Invisible Women. In it, she explores the often-invisible harms that come to women while navigating a world built by and for the male experience. Some of her insights will be familiar—smart phones too big for female hands, offices that are temperature-tuned to the male metabolism, ill-fitting space suits and body armor. But many are completely new, unexpected, and rage-inducing.
Invisible Women is not without hope. After Karlskoga amended its snow-clearing policy, hospital admissions (the majority of which were women) declined. A study of nearby towns found that the policy change saved about four million dollars in a single winter. Change is possible, but first must come data. —Megan Molteni
Fun fact: Because muscle contains more potassium-40 than other tissue, men tend to be more radioactive than women. Another fun/grisly fact: If you get blasted by radiation, different parts of your body will absorb different radioisotopes. Strontium-90 tends to accumulate in the bones; ruthenium in the intestines.
Such details scald the senses as you read Adam Higginbotham’s hyper-researched history of the catastrophic explosion at Chernobyl 33 years ago. Nuclear meltdowns tend to be called ‘accidents,’ but Higginbotham shows the Chernobyl tragedy was anything but. In the preceding years, reactors across the Soviet Union failed one after another. The disasters released radioactive plumes and killed workers, as when one plant’s valve burst and superheated steam boiled 14 men alive. But Soviet authorities suppressed the news and responded with obfuscated design updates that nuclear engineers largely ignored.
By conflating nuclear power with national dominance, the Soviet leadership sealed Chernobyl’s fate well before its builders broke ground. Poor manufacturing practices mixed with impossible deadlines. A culture of secrecy kept known design flaws from getting fixed. Chernobyl was going to blow; the only question was when. —Sandra Upson
Jim Simons is arguably the world’s most unlikely billionaire. For most of his young adult life, Simons embraced his role as a math prodigy, uncovering entirely new areas of mathematics and applying his skills as a government code breaker. But Simons also liked money, so in the 1980s he left a promising mathematical career to pursue a goal everyone told him was impossible: He was going to beat Wall Street.
In The Man Who Solved the Market, veteran Wall Street Journal reporter Gregory Zuckerman tells the story of how Simons became the wealthiest, most powerful investor you’ve never heard of. Simons launched Wall Street’s “quant” revolution, the use of advanced algorithms to trade stocks. Today, he is known for helming the most successful investing firm in history. Along the way, he amassed a personal fortune of $23 billion, a significant portion of which he uses to fund research into the biggest questions in science.
Simons’ influence is not limited to the sciences. His success also made Bob Mercer, whom he plucked from an obscure machine learning research group at IBM. Mercer is perhaps best known for his role as the biggest Republican donor in the 2016 elections and the man responsible for turning the far-right provocateur Steve Bannon into a White House advisor. In tracing the personal history of Jim Simons, Zuckerman shows how a renegade band of mathematicians and scientists invented quantitative finance and profoundly shaped the modern world—for better or worse. —Daniel Oberhaus
Now for some fizzier fare. Who wouldn’t want to toast a long space journey with a sip of champagne or a pint of IPA? As long as humans have grown grains and fruits, they have fermented them into various forms of booze. That’s unlikely to change just because we’re living on some other planet. Chris Carberry, CEO of the nonprofit advocacy group Explore Mars, has compiled a history of astronauts’ attempts to imbibe, Hollywood’s portrayals of outer space cantinas, and current research on how humans might grow the plants they’ll need to destress off-planet. So far, success has been elusive. Lunar and Martian soils lack nutrients. Recent efforts to grow barley, wheat, and grapes on the International Space Station or with simulated lunar soils have produced mixed results, but space-based moonshiners haven’t given up yet. If NASA scientists can figure out how to send people to Mars, it’s likely they will also figure out how to make a bit of hooch to celebrate. —Eric Niiler
By WIRED Authors:
When I was an elite athlete in the 1990s and 2000s, recovery was a noun—a state of being you hoped to attain by putting your feet up and resting. Since then, athletic recovery has become a verb—something athletes do with as much vigor as their training, aided by highly marketed products like compression gear and foam rollers. As a journalist, I wondered about the science behind this stuff. Does any of it really work?
The result is Good to Go, my investigation into the science of recovery. The book begins with a study I carefully designed to answer a burning question: Is beer an ideal recovery drink? My experiment produces exactly the answer I wanted, but in the end I don’t believe it. This disconnect illustrates important lessons about the scientific process. Other chapters tell the story of how sports drink companies made hydration ridiculously and unnecessarily complicated, what the NBA’s pb&j’s and Usain Bolt’s Olympic diet of chicken nuggets tell us about sports nutrition, and what makes Tom Brady’s infrared pajamas such an effective placebo. The most potent recovery-enhancers, I found, are free. —Christie Aschwanden
There’s always a risk, when it comes to Explaining The Youths, that said Youths will turn around and decide your explanation makes the thing no longer cool anymore (ahem, “ok boomer”). When I decided to write a book about internet language, I was worried this would be people’s response. But that’s not what I’ve been told about Because Internet. Instead, people tell me it’s helping them bridge generation gaps.
I hear from younger people that they’re buying Because Internet for their parents, to help them stop sounding inadvertently passive-aggressive in texts, but they end up reading it themselves as well and finally understanding why their coworker uses so many dot dot dots. Older people tell me they’re buying it for their half-grown kids, to give them something to talk about together, but that they’re now feeling emboldened to experiment with a broader range of informal writing styles themselves. Internet people of all ages report they start reading it because they’re curious about the origins of the internettish punctuation marks they use all the time, and it ends up leaving them feeling extremely Seen. —Gretchen McCulloch
So you want to talk to an alien, but don’t know where to begin? Have I got the book for you. Extraterrestrial Languages, is my deep dive into the scientific, artistic, and philosophical ideas that guided the creation of interstellar communication systems throughout history. Early concepts for contacting ET including lighting the world’s deserts on fire or blowing up all of our nuclear weapons on the far side of the moon.
Communication strategies have gained some nuance since then. Experts debate whether aliens might recognize a language based on mathematics. Or should we blast rock n’ roll records into the galaxy, and if so, which ones should we play? Such debates force us to grapple with the nature of the human mind, mathematics, science, and the universe itself. Even if we never make contact with ET, designing interstellar communication systems can teach us an awful lot about ourselves. —Daniel Oberhaus
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Book covers in lead art: “Because Internet” courtesy of Riverhead Books. “Alcohol in Space” courtesy of Mcfarland Books. “The Man who Solved the Market” courtesy of Penguin Random House.
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