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Frans de Waal's 6 favorite books

Award-winning biologist and author Frans de Waal shares his top reads about humans facing nature

Dispatches From Pluto by Richard Grant (Simon & Schuster, $16).

An Englishman's delightful inside look at life on today's Mississippi Delta. As a longtime resident of Atlanta, I recognize the fauna, race relations, human warmth, and other aspects of the South, though I haven't experienced anything as extreme as what Grant describes.

Upheavals of Thought by Martha Nussbaum (Cambridge, $35).

My interest in emotions, while centered on those of animals, has driven me into the thicket of human emotion research. I opened this tome hoping that this bright philosopher would bring some order to the subject, but in fact the issue only got more perplexing. Some still regard emotions as the enemy of rational behavior; others — like me — think they are to be respected and understood; and Nussbaum lays all positions on the table.

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt (Back Bay, $20).

As a Dutchman, I am of course familiar with the little Carel Fabritius painting at the center of this novel, a long, adventurous coming-of-age story full of interesting turns.

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi (Random House, $25).

A brave account, unfortunately without a happy ending, about the sinister sneakiness of cancer. I found most intriguing the role reversal a surgeon must undergo as he switches from dealing with the death of others to reflecting on his own.

Wild Life by Robert Trivers (Plympton, $13).

I have long known Trivers, one of the most brilliant biologists of our time, and read his memoir with growing alarm at how often he has narrowly escaped death in his adventurous life. It's an enlightening read, especially when he uses his typical candor to describe his colleagues.

The Invention of Nature by Andrea Wulf (Knopf, $30).

I knew Alexander von Humboldt's name before I opened this book, but not his story. I read with amazement and fascination of his travels to all corners of the world to discover how all of nature is interconnected. It made me feel lazy. His political views make him a modern thinker, and this book especially illuminates how his science forever changed our worldview. This is science writing at its best.

— Biologist and primatologist Frans de Waal is the author of The Bonobo and the Atheist and Chimpanzee Politics. His latest book, Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?, tours recent discoveries about animal cognition.

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