Saturday, December 02, 2006

The Galileo Code

Some weeks ago, Michael Skube, a journalism professor at Elon University in North Carolina, had an op-ed in the Washington Post ruing that college students don't read. He asked a class of 17 sophomores to name some of their favorite writers. He got one name: Dan Brown.

I tried to remember what books I had read when I was a college sophomore. I had soaked up a lot of bookishness around the house while I was growing up, by osmosis from my mother, especially, who was a voracious reader. And my high-school summer job as stack boy in the Chattanooga Public Library let more bookishness soak in. But by the time I went to college I hadn't read much beyond the Hardy Boys and Red Randall -- as my mother never let me forget. Oh wait. If a professor had asked me to name a favorite author I might have mentioned Mickey Spillane.

But I made up for lost time once I got started, and I suspect a few of Professor Skube's students too might end up being lifelong readers.

But for the most part, college students don't read. College and university libraries report empty stacks and carrels. They are adding coffee shops and game rooms to draw students in. Rules against talking on cellphones and bringing food and drink into the library are abandoned. The University of Texas has even removed all the books in the undergraduate library to make way for electronic resources.

Here are a few random science-related books I would leave lying around the library-cum-playroom, just in case a rare curious student might wonder what are those paper things on the few remaining shelves:

Galileo Galilei's Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina.

Charles Darwin's Voyage of the Beagle.

Eve Curie's biography of her mother, Madame Curie (blessedly still in print).

James Watson's The Double Helix, or if that's too common, then Francis Crick's What Mad Pursuit.

Evelyn Fox Keller's, A Feeling for the Organism: The Life and Work of Barbara McClintock.

Richard Feynman's Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!

E. O. Wilson's The Naturalist.

Thomas Eisner's For Love of Insects.