The Victorian Internet by Tom Standage (Walker, $15). Even though it’s a history of the telegraph, this book is always relevant. The rise of the 1830s communication device continues to be a fantastic metaphor for each new Internet technology that comes along, from e-mail to IM to Facebook to Twitter.
The Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan (Random House, $16). Pollan’s more recent books are better known, but for my money, 2001’s The Botany of Desire is his best—a story of the human relationship with food, told through biographies of the apple, the tulip, marijuana, and the potato. While the seeds of Pollan’s later activism are plainly visible here, they take a back seat to wonderful storytelling.
Beautiful Evidence by Edward R. Tufte (Graphics Press, $52). Tufte is the world’s foremost authority on the presentation of data, and Beautiful Evidence is also his most accessible book. You don’t even need to read the words; the marvelous tables, charts, and photos tell you most of what you need to know. A strong argument for continuing to publish books on paper.
The Island at the Center of the World by Russell Shorto (Vintage, $16). This one edged out E.B. White’s classic Here Is New York for my favorite book about New York City. Shorto shows how Manhattan’s first Dutch settlers shaped the island into the international center it is today. Along the way, we’re introduced to Adriaen van der Donck, an important New Amsterdam figure whom Shorto calls “a forgotten founding father.”
1491 by Charles Mann (Vintage, $16) Americans typically don’t know much about the Americas before Columbus, because they figure there’s not a lot to know. Mann tells us otherwise: Scientists are discovering that the pre-Colombian Americas were home to several formidable, thriving civilizations that shaped their environments to a high degree.
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (Penguin, $8) After all that nonfiction, how about some Jane Austen for dessert? Pride and Prejudice is no light dish, though. In it, Austen achieves a balance of comedy and drama that few other authors have been able to match.