June Reading Roundup

CRISPR, controversy, and contradictions in this month’s reads.

Welcome to my June Reading Roundup – it’s been a great month of books! Check out what I’ve been reading, and comment below any recommendations you have for me. I am also going to start adding “Audible” in the heading for books that I listen to, rather than read, which is usually about one per month at most.


When I Fell From the Sky, by Juliane Koepcke

I actually read this in May and somehow missed it when I was drafting my May Reading Roundup, whoops! When I Fell From the Sky actually came out a decade ago, but I only recently heard of this insane story (thanks to my fiancé sending me a Reddit post about it – thank you, Viktor!) of Juliane Koepcke who literally fell out of an airplane, strapped to her seat, into a remote jungle in Peru, hiked through remote wilderness for 11 days until she luckily came across people to take her to get medical help. She was the only survivor of the crash. I’ve become quite the sucker for adventure memoirs, and memoirs in general, and this one was a solid read. It’s pretty short, and I blew through it in two afternoon sittings. Great for an easy, interesting read. And if you’re into something like this, I’d also highly recommend The Adventurer’s Son, which was one of my 2020 most interesting books I read.

Himalaya, by Ed Douglas

I didn’t finish this one. I really wanted to like Himalaya: A Human History, but I just drag when I try to read classic history books. There is something about to too large cast of characters of broad history books that make my mind wander and my interest tank. I read about a third of this 500-page book and noticed that it continued to daunt me from my side table for two months while I failed to muster the motivation to pick it up and finish it. That said, I like the set up of the book: each chapter covers a specific topic and more or less moves in chronological order. After the first 100 pages I skipped around to a couple of chapters that interested me, like the geological history of the region (my favorite), the first people of the region (very anthropological), and the mapping of the region. I really wanted to like this, but just didn’t. However, it’s a beautiful book!

A Perfect Mess, by David Labaree

I actually purchased this book over a year ago and it was one of those books that fell through the cracks of my always-too-long reading pile. I forgot exactly what compelled me, but I was browsing though the education section of my bookshelf when I noticed the book and began reading – and I’m glad I did! A Perfect Mess: The Unlikely Ascendancy of American Higher Education, is the best comprehensive, yet brief, history of the American higher education system I’ve read. Labaree also takes a very positive framing of the unique, messy, and contradictory nature of our higher education system, and points out how the US has the most successful and impactful higher education systems in the world. I wrote a bit more about this book in a newsletter earlier this month, and I would highly recommend A Perfect Mess for anyone in higher education, and especially those who view our system critically.

Chaos Monkeys, by Antonio Martinez (Audible)

I had no idea who Antonio Martinez was until I saw him trending on Twitter after being hired, then quickly fired, from Apple (here’s an article about why he was fired, and his response). Did I read this book only to find out what all the fuss was about? Absolutely. Was it worth it? Sure, it was an interesting book to read. Was the social media coverage of Martinez being a sexist tech bro accurate? Not really? He makes crude comments, but nothing that justifies his high-profile firing from Apple. He exudes a shallow superiority in how he presents himself (which is explained as “an act”); the kind of guy who feels the need to define what a bicep curl is in a footnote because you’re probably too beta to know what one is. After reading Chaos Monkeys, it’s funny to me that the douchey alpha male perspective of Silicon Valley brogrammer culture is hardly different than the raging feminist perspective of Silicon Valley brogrammer culture written about in Uncanny Valley – two authors that are unlikely to actually like each other in real life. Both are worth a read should you be curious.

The Code Breaker, by Walter Isaacson

Walter Isaacson delivers three books in one with his absolutely not underrated, The Code Breaker. This book contains scientific discovery, biography, and current events into a single impossible-to-put-down book. The first half of the book shares Doudna’s path to becoming a Nobel winning scientist detailing every competitive twist and turn in her discovery of CRISPR-Cas9 genetic engineering technology that has thrust human genome editing into a new era. After climaxing with the publication of her 2012 Science paper, Isaacson’s book shifts focus to the ethics and controversy surrounding human germline editing that was made possible with her technology, and which set off a global conversation after He Jiankui announced the birth of the world’s first genome edited twin girls in November 2018 (breaking story in MIT Tech Review). The remaining section of the book focuses on the coronavirus pandemic, which offered great insight into the engineering and function of the various mRNA-based vaccines (e.g., Pfizer) that were rolled out in late 2020 here in the US. The science shared in the book demonstrated how impactful the field of CRISPR research has been to the rapid scientific response to not only understanding the genetics and structure of SARS-CoV-2, but also why the development of vaccines was so quick and explained exactly how they function. This book was so incredibly good, and I highly recommend it.

Why They Can’t Write, by Jon Warner

Writing is one of the most dreaded things for both students and professors to have to do in the classroom. Students don’t want to write, and professors don’t want to slog through the grading. The result is that students can’t write well, and professors don’t teach writing well. In Why They Can’t Write, Warner explains his view of why: because we’re teaching it all wrong. The increasing standardization of the writing curriculum – think the five paragraph essay that has been pounded into students’ brains since they were in grade school, and contextless rules and formatting requirements – has removed any fun, interest, and excitement from writing. This book made me reflect on my own writing assignments as a professor, which have been perhaps too structured from Warner’s view. Although I don’t teach writing explicitly, this book made me realize that it’s important to foster curiosity and intrinsic interest with the assignments we give to students to get their best work, and help them actually learn rather than just perform tasks we define as important. As I plan for my fall course on child development, I’m taking lessons from Warner about how to craft interesting assignments, and reframing my learning outcomes around curiosity and engagement.

Happy reading, all! See you next month.

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