Nonfiction: Popular Science Writing (9/27/22)

WHEN: September 27, 2022

WHERE: This was a Virtual meeting on Zoom provided by Methuen’s Nevins Memorial Library.

Contact: Leane Ellis;  

Members will receive an email invitation via our Google Group, anyone else interested in attending please contact Leane at the above email address.

We are studying NONFICTION for the rest of 2022. This month we delved into Popular Science Writing.  In November 2022, we will dive into Science: Nature Writing: Flora & Fauna.


Assignment:  For the benchmarks, everyone read BOTH Neil deGrasse Tyson’s essay: “Our Earth as in the Heavens” from Astrophysics for People in a Hurry (2017) AND at least one of the following Mary Roach titles: Stiff: the Curious Lives of Human Cadavers (2003), Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife (2005), Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex (2008), Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void (2010), Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal (2013), Grunt: the Curious Science of Humans at War (2016), OR Fuzz: When Nature Breaks the Law (2021).

Also, participants read a Choice title in this category either from the suggested list below, or one that you choose yourself; and then wrote a review on our blog above under Submit Choice Titles. This is a very broad topic and accessible Popular Science is an emphasis on the CHOICE list.

For appeal, the focus was especially on Narrative Style, Pace, and Author’s Intent




MLS RA GUIDES: NONFICTION:  RA-Nonfiction from Massachusetts Library System on Vimeo with Notes and Slides (2014; 4/22/22)

NONFICTION READERS’ ADVISORY from Robert Burgin (also author of Nonfiction Readers; Advisory (2004) (Last updated: Sunday, 23 February 2020; 4/22/22)


CREATIVE NONFICTION: True Stories, Well Told. (5/05/22)

BOOKNOTES. Author interviews April 1989 to April 2004 (5/05/22)

Print/PDF Bibliography  (Available on Google Group) 

Burgin, Robert, ed. Nonfiction Readers’ Advisory. UL. 2004

Cords, Sarah Statz. The Real Story: A Guide to Nonfiction Reading Interests. UL. 2006. xvii-xxv (Introduction); 113-115 (Mathematics/Science)

Wyatt, Neal. The Readers’ Guide to Nonfiction. ALA. 2007. 1-27 (General Introduction) ; 60-67 (Science, Mathematics, and Science Writing)


Title: Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art (2020)
Author: James Nestor
Appeal Factors: TOPIC/STYLE/TONE
Summary/Thoughts: This book is about how humans breathe and how it affects our health. It contains very accessible science mostly because Nestor is a CH in the book as he makes this a personality-based tour beginning with his own need to investigate and then shares his findings with the reader, as well as some possible solutions to improper or ineffective breathing. Others (pulmonauts) in the book also become CHs that both teach and entertain. The Style of the book has the author describing scientific method along with biological and anthropological information parallel to his own and others’ experiences with clinical breathing tests, Yoga breathing, etc. I found this book in turns terrifying, informative, sometimes entertaining, and very enlightening. Nestor’s intent to educate about the importance of nasal breathing is well-thought out and backed with scientific evidence. His Epilogue before the concluding acknowledgement, an Appendix of Breathing Methods, and extensive footnotes, lists the importance of his conclusions mixed with some methods to achieve improvement. Very easy to read popular science in the same veins as Mary Roach, Bill Bryson, and Timothy Ferris.

Title: The Poison Squad (2018)
Author: Deborah Blum
Appeal Factors: Character, Frame
Summary/Thoughts: ‘The Poison Squad’ tells the story of Harvey Washington Wiley (1844-1930), the chief chemist in the Bureau of Chemistry in the Agriculture Department of the United States, the early precursor to what would eventually come the FDA. Blum’s tract meanders along the struggles and achievements of Wiley’s political career as he attempted to investigate the safety of additives like Borax and formaldehyde as food preservatives, as well as push for legislation in the interests of public safety and informing consumers. The title refers to the group of government workers who became test subjects in the sensationalized scientific study that Wiley conducted to determine whether additives such as Borax, salicylic acid and formaldehyde (among others) were as “harmless” to human health as the food industry claimed. WARNING: Don’t try to read the ‘Poison Squad’ over lunch.

The reader is fully immersed in the science of the times; the author does not give any analysis of these food additives and preservatives based on any contemporary scientific knowledge or trends. Rather, she details the information that was known at the time in layman’s terms, often lifted from primary accounts in newspapers and letters. The language also works to evoke another era; the “skullduggery” and “chicanery” of the industry perpetrators and their anti-regulatory allies in the government are pitted against the scrappy persistence of Dr. Wiley, providing the reader with a David and Goliath story that often resonates with contemporary battles in science and partisan politics.

Title: The World Without Us (2007)
Author: Alan Weisman
Appeal Factors: Narrative Style, Author’s Intent
Summary/Thoughts: The front flap touts this book as “A penetrating, page-turning, tour of a post-human Earth.” I disagree!
I found this book to be a slow-paced read that has the feel of one long environmental rant. That being said, it was informative and had a lot of scientific and technological detail. I learned a lot about what Earth was like BEFORE people, what people have done to change the natural order of Earth, and the likelihood of Earth ever recovering from our involvement. I learned very little about what the World would look like without people.
As a book about human impact on the environment, it was excellent. I would recommend it to patrons who want a readable book about the many ways people have changed the world’s environment. If a patron wanted to actually learn about how the world would react to our absence, I would recommend that they stream the History Channel’s series, “Life After People.”

Beth S.
Title: The Inheritor’s Powder: A tale of arsenic, murder, and the new forensic science (2013)
Author: Sandra Hempel
Appeal Factors: Dramatic, engaging writing, richly detailed, carefully researched
Summary/Thoughts: The account of an actual case in 1883 England involving the murder of farmer George Bodle and the investigation into his family. Arsenic was easily purchased to kill pests and treat skin ailments and hard to detect because it is tasteless and odorless. Also, the symptoms are very similar to those of food poisoning. This book delves into the family members and their relationships to the deceased. It also explores testing for arsenic as the field of forensic science evolves. The author, a medical journalist, is skilled at explaining the science at the heart of the case so that a layperson can understand it. The story may appeal to mystery lovers and readers of true crime as well as those appreciate science writing.

Jan                                                                                                                                                            TITLE: Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time (1995)  AUTHOR: Dava Sobel                                                                                                                GoodReads Review

Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Statement: RART-NE encourages all library staff to use leisure reading as a way to connect with the community, with a particular focus on reaching the underserved and promoting “own voices” authors. Throughout our discussions we will explore ways in which library staff can provide services, collections, and programming that puts EDI concerns at the forefront. Examples include but are not limited to, delivering the same information in different formats, advice on how to diversify your displays, and ways to include more staff voices in basic RA service [more voices leads to more equitable, diverse, and inclusive offerings]. Library staff attending RART-NE must be interested in allowing all staff [not just professional and/or public service staff] to participate in serving all populations, not just the ones most represented by staff or as identified in a local census.

Cancellation Policy: There is no plan to cancel a MA NE RA RT meeting since we will be meeting virtually using the Zoom platform sponsored by a group member for the foreseeable future. Leane will broadcast any cancellation or change to our meetings by 7:00am or before from the Google group, and post it on the group’s blog: Edited 5/09/22.