On Monday, I discussed looking for more diversity in nonfiction for teens, but I didn’t even broach what might be the most important aspect of all when it comes to reviewing and recommending nonfiction: accuracy. While fiction can certainly have factual inaccuracies in it, and errors can even change our evaluation of the book, it would be a very unique fiction title which required factual accuracy on the level of a nonfiction title. But how do we–book reviewers, librarians, bloggers–judge the accuracy of a book whose topic we might not know much about? This discussion has come up a number of times this year, most prominently (to me) in connection to Steve Sheinkin’s Bomb: The Race to Build–and Steal–the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon (Flash Point), which encountered several types of criticisms over on Heavy Medal and Henry Wieneck’s Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves (FSG) which occasioned a tremendously interesting article in the NY Times about disputes between Wieneck and other scholars in the field of Jeffersonia
So when our own Laura Pearle raised some questions about the accuracy of one of the books she was reviewing for this blog–William Bynum’s A Little History of Science–I was excited to invite her to share her thought process on how she approaches nonfiction, and Bynum’s book in particular. As we have stated before, it is not our general policy to run negative reviews in this space, and the following isn’t really an official review at all. More, this is a chance to discuss at further length a very important topic in our approach to nonfiction. Not the least of Laura’s qualifications to discuss the matter is that she is currently serving on the YALSA Excellence in Non-Fiction committee, which incidentally, just named Bomb one of it’s finalists. So, without further ado, here’s Laura.
BYNUM, William A. A Little History of Science. 272p. Yale. 2012. $25.00. ISBN 978-0300136593.
Having spent the past year on the YALSA Excellence in Non-Fiction for Young Adults award committee, the idea of reading and reviewing non-fiction for adults was very appealing. And the title, A Little History of Science made me think of Jacob Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man (recently back in print, thanks to BBC Books). When I was in high school I’d taken a seminar based on Bronowski’s book and this new book, I thought, might be a good follow-up – perfect for teens and adults, a good curricular tie-in as well as an interesting read. It’s also important to know that I am related to a “science person”, my father, an Emeritus Professor of Physics who still does research, writes papers and lectures worldwide. When reading about physics, astronomy and the like I’ll often turn to him if I’m confused; he’s one of the rare people who can talk to both Roger Penrose (mentioned in this book) and the average idiot (aka me).
A Little History of Science takes on the task of making several thousand years of scientific ideas and discovery understandable to everyone, even those who haven’t studied (or who have forgotten what they learned about) the specific disciplines. Starting in ancient times with Babylonia and Egypt, Bynum slowly moves through the Greeks and the so-called Dark Ages to the Renaissance and then more modern science – it’s a lot of ground to cover in a mere 256 pages. It’s definitely readable, but I did question whether this was an adult book thanks to sentences like these “If you have a chemistry set then you may already know about litmus paper.” (p. 81) and “That is one reason why so many scholars wrote what we now call ‘encyclopedias’” (p. 43); because this is published by Yale University Press, it’s an adult book but those sentences don’t really seem “adult”. When looking at whether an adult book has teen interest, tone is important, obviously, and here it’s definitely skewed towards teen readers. So all good, right?
Over the course of the year, we on the YALSA ENFYA committee talked a lot about errors and how much they counted. Mark and his mother have also talked about this on Crossreferencing. Clearly this is a huge issue when thinking about an award, but is it really such a big issue when recommending a book to others? Equally important is the definition of “error” and how big an error has been made. And that’s where I started to have problems with A Little History of Science – the errors in and of themselves weren’t huge, but overall they added up. For example, it wasn’t really an error that Robert Brown is credited with finding the nucleus of a cell but not with discovering Brownian Movement (p. 157). After all, this is a 256 page book, so some detail will probably be left out. And it’s not exactly an error to say that Stephen Hawking has retired (p. 248), when he has retired from his position at Cambridge (but he continues to do research and has done residencies at the Perimeter Institute in Waterloo Ontario since leaving Cambridge). Nor is it exactly an error to say that Roger Penrose helped describe a black hole (pp. 248-9) when Penrose’s contribution was to describe the curvature of space (black holes being the extreme curvature of space). But there are definite errors, as for example when he says that there is no gravity in space (p. 200).
Notice those are all from the field of physics. What about chemistry? Geology? Medicine? It was easy to call my father to ask physics questions, not quite so easy to check the other subjects. And that brings us to final nail in the coffin: the lack of bibliography, source notes or a “learn more” section. A book covering the history of science, no matter how readable, should include some resources – after all, isn’t the point to get people interested in and knowledgeable about science? And once that’s been accomplished, isn’t it a good idea to provide ways for them to learn more, to expand what is, after all, a very brief, glossed over history?
A Little History of Science definitely has teen appeal – its conversational tone, the way the author refers back (and ahead) to topics covered (or to be covered), and the way he ties the discoveries and advances in the various fields together. But all the misstatements and errors made me question whether or not I could recommend this book for teen readers. Teens are in school now, with subject specialists they can easily check with if this book has information that contradicts what they’ve been taught. That could be an interesting exercise, which would lead me to recommend this with a huge “check with your teachers” caveat.–Laura Pearle, Venn Consultants, Carmel, NY