Like many other former seven-year-olds, I was once a dinosaur obsessive. With Jurassic Park roosting in the VCR, I would give any grown-up in earshot a rundown of my favorite dinosaurs (this changed daily) and what periods they lived in. If you're anything like me, a page or two into Steve Brusatte's prehistoric masterpiece, The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs (William Morrow, $29.99), will be enough to bring back the kid in you. A perfect gift for any dino-lover, Brusatte’s book presents the Mesozoic in vivid detail and with an immediacy not often reserved for a period that ended 65 million years ago. From spindly, cat-sized lizards at the beginning of the Triassic to thundering giants at the end of the Cretaceous, dinosaurs were a highly diverse, sophisticated species whose millions of years of earthly dominance help put our world and lives in far greater perspective.
Jonathan Franzen opens The End of the End of the Earth (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $26), his urgent collection of nonfiction, by trying to establish the rules of what he’s doing. Is an essay “something ventured on the basis of the author’s personal experience,” or is it “the formal apparatus of honest self-examination and sustained engagement with ideas”? Franzen covers friendships and family dramas, but also reports on the state of the environment and relentlessly questions his role as a privileged Westerner in a world of vast inequality. Above all, he puts everything in the context of climate change. “Global warming is the issue of our time, perhaps the biggest issue in all of human history.” Given that the Anthropocene may mean the end of civilization, how do we live in it? How do we think about it? In order to “accept the reality in time to prepare for it humanely,” one rule might be looking squarely at what’s there and how our actions are affecting it. Franzen does this by watching birds. They are for him “a way of experiencing” the place he’s in as well as “the most visible indicator of a healthy ecosystem.”
You have been stranded in the distant past due to an accident involving a personal time machine. Fortunately, enclosed in the user guide of your non-repairable craft is a cheat sheet for rebuilding an industrial civilization from scratch in (much) less than the 200,000 or so years it took us the first time around. How To Invent Everything (Riverhead, $27) by Ryan North is a copy of that guide, found encased in Precambrian rock on a building site, and now made available to anyone who might need to guide humanity from the invention of spoken language all the way through to the design and construction of computers, while avoiding fossil fuels, sexism, and other little mistakes. It made me wonder what “obvious” technologies we’re missing right now. Anyone interested in science, history, bizarre trivia involving birthing forceps, or laughing at how clever and, also, incredibly stupid, people can be, will like this book.