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The Bookshelf talks with Vaclav Smil

The bookshelf talks with Vaclav Smil about what he’s reading.

Could you tell us a bit about yourself?

I am an incorrigible interdisciplinarian. I was trained in a broad range of basic natural sciences (biology, chemistry, geography, geology), and then branched into energy engineering, population and economic studies and history. For the past 30 years my main effort has gone into writing books that offer new, interdisciplinary perspectives on inherently complex, messy realities. I wrote the first comprehensive books on China’s energy and on China’s environment, and I have also written a number of wide-ranging analyses of global energy, books on global ecology, food production and most recently on the technical foundations of modern civilization (more on all of them on my Web site). Right now I am writing my 24th book, Global Catastrophes and Trends: The Next 50 Years, a sweeping look at sudden events (ranging from volcanic mega-eruptions to viral pandemics) as well as some mercilessly unfolding trends (population aging, great economic power shift, global warming).

What books are you currently reading (or have you just finished reading) for your work or for pleasure? Why did you choose them, and what do you think of them?

Very easy to answer: I have kept the list of books I read (in order to be able to dip into some of them again without tormenting my memory or blindly searching) ever since we came from Europe to the United States in 1969. The list contains only novels, poetry, biographies, history, linguistics and arts books, not science books I read for my work. Here are the books I read between early July and late September. I tend to read in bunches: When I discover a new author or a new topic, I tend to do a systematic sweep of other available writings, and so the summer of 2006 was taken mostly by the first biographies of Mozart (both third or fourth rereads from my collection of Mozartiana) and by Jonathan Coe (a new discovery for me) and Naguib Mahfouz

Right now I am in the middle of Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul (Knopf, 2005).

What book recommendations do you have for young readers?
Be eclectic: try many authors, topics, fields and epochs. This is the only way to discover books that you will remember. And do it on your own: take recommendations of others as mere suggestions.

What science book recommendations do you have for nonscientists?
Stay away from highly touted bestsellers that claim to make you understand matters such as black holes or DNA sequencing: they will not. Stay away from books that appear in fashion-chasing clusters: excellent recent examples are books on nano-everything, on hydrogen economy and on global warming. Simply explore, go on book Web sites, search and buy: Paperbacks are cheap, and if you do not like them after the first few pages, give them away or just recycle the paper.