What’s the last great book you read?
I loved “Finding the Mother Tree,” by Suzanne Simard. She was a keen observer who discovered that there are complex interactions between soil fungi and different species of trees. Forests with a mixture of fir trees and bircheslink were more productive. Fungi in the soil helped protect the trees from disease. This was contrary to most scientific theories and getting her research published was difficult. Many scientists still believe that plant forest monoculture is best. Science will eventually prove that Simard was right. Replanted forests should be diverse. A perfect visual graphic Simard could use in a lecture is the last scenes from the movie “Avatar.” Life is interconnected.
Describe your ideal reading experience (when, where, what, how).
I like to read while sitting on the sofa while I am eating yogurt and fruit for breakfast. This is when I sit and read the scientific journals of Science and Nature. These journals cover many scientific subjects. Some of the articles I have read the most carefully are about the environment, sustainability, animal behavior and the space program.
What’s your favorite book that no one else has heard of?
I have moved many times in my life and “The Invisible Pyramid,” by Loren Eiseley, is one of the few books that survived five relocations. I read this book in the early ’70s when I was getting my master’s degree in animal science at Arizona State University. It was published in 1970, shortly after the moon landing. My old copy is heavily marked up and I highlighted this quote, referring to science: “To many, it replaces primitive magic as the solution to all human problems.” When I read this, I was toiling away, inputting my thesis data on IBM punch cards. Today, my students cannot believe that the data for several thousand individual cattle in my study on cattle-handling equipment had to be punched into a card for each animal. The cards were the same size as cardboard airline boarding passes. The cardboard boarding pass is probably the evolutionary remnant of the IBM punch card. Instead of an Excel spreadsheet, the cards were sorted mechanically. Only one statistical test per day could be run on the massive IBM mainframe. At the time, while working with this primitive equipment, I believed that science could solve all our problems. Loren Eiseley’s book was the first source of information to make me question this. While spending hours punching and sorting cards, I never imagined that in the future, I could go to the library with a device that would fit in my pocket. Today that device is a double-edged sword. It can open the door to knowledge and enlightenment or divide people and cause conflict.
In your memoir and again in your new book, you discuss ways that you are primarily a visual thinker. Is this reflected in the books you read? Are you drawn to graphic novels, say, or to books that rely on a lot of illustrations?
Actually, I hate graphic novels. It is too difficult for me to constantly switch back and forth between the pictures and the text bubbles. I like technical and scientific books with lots of illustrations. When I read business books and scientific papers, I often look at the illustrations and graphs first. The next step is to read the text. When I am reading a novel or a memoir, I prefer to create my own pictures in my imagination. As I read the text, my brain creates a movie.
What do you read when you’re working on a book? And what kind of reading do you avoid while writing?
When I was writing my new book, “Visual Thinking: The Hidden Gifts of People Who Think in Pictures, Patterns, and Abstractions,” I spent hours online looking up scientific journal studies, articles in newspapers and business publications. I searched online to find specific information about things I write about such as bridges collapsing or different ways that people think. My searches are done in a very systematic way of using triplets of three search words. I keep changing the three words until I find what I want. One website blocked my searches because my searches mimicked automated software. I was simply using my autistic brain.
You’re well known as an animal behaviorist. What science and nature writers would you particularly recommend?
Observation is an important part of science because it is used to form hypotheses for controlled experiments. I used to fight with my Ph.D. adviser, who told me that observation was not real science because there was no control group. When I started in animal behavior in the late ’60s and ’70s, B.F. Skinner’s theory that all animal behavior was stimuli responses ruled supreme. I never believed this. I was influenced by Jane Goodall’s book “In the Shadow of Man,” and a paper by Keller Breland and Marian Breland titled “The Misbehavior of Organisms.” (The title was similar to Skinner’s book “The Behavior of Organisms.”) I also recommend reading Charles Darwin’s “The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals.” Goodall, the Brelands and Darwin were all keen observers of animal behavior.
You’re also well known as an advocate for autistic people. Who writes especially well about the experience of living with autism?
The books that contain the best information on living with autism are written by autistic people, who describe their experiences. Sometimes the books that provided me with the greatest insights were not the author’s first book. Three of my favorites are “Be Different,” by John Elder Robison, “Fall Down 7 Times Get Up 8,” by Noaki Higashida, and “How Can I Talk if My Lips Don’t Move?,” by Tito Rajarshi Mukhopadhyay. I also recommend “Born on a Blue Day,” by Daniel Tammet, and “Beyond the Wall,” by Stephen Shore.
Do you count any books as guilty pleasures?
I love to read books by astronauts who describe living on the space station. One of my favorites is “How to Astronaut: An Insider’s Guide to Leaving Planet Earth,” by Terry Virts. He was a commander on the International Space Station. The tasks he performed during his spacewalks were mundane — stringing of cable and plugging it into power boxes. One minute he was Larry the Cable Guy and for a few seconds, when he looked out into space, he was one with the universe. Both the utterly sublime and the mundane were side by side.
Do you prefer books that reach you emotionally or intellectually?
There are books that reach me both emotionally and intellectually. I got emotional when I read about a scientist who defied the advice of colleagues and then made a great discovery. I cried when I read about Bob Williams in Sara Seager’s beautiful book, “The Smallest Lights in the Universe.” Against all scientific advice, Williams pointed the Hubble Space Telescope at a patch of space where there was nothing to view. In this black void, he photographed thousands of galaxies. When I think about life’s great questions, I look at his photo of myriad galaxies.
What kind of a reader were you as a child? Which childhood books and authors stick with you?
I was not able to read until I was age 8. Mother tutored me with phonics, and I quickly went from no reading to reading above my age level. My favorite books when I was in fourth grade were “Black Beauty,” “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” and a children’s book about famous inventors. I really related to Black Beauty’s pain when he was forced to pull a heavy carriage with his head held up by a bearing rein. The inventor book appealed to me because I loved to tinker with my kites to make them fly better.
What genres do you especially enjoy reading and which do you avoid?
I avoid romance novels. The books I really enjoy are either about animals or science fiction. I loved “Merle’s Door,” by Ted Kerasote. Many dogs today live really restricted lives and they have no normal dog social life. Another favorite is “The Soul of the Octopus,” by Sy Montgomery. It really made me think about consciousness. When I received a review copy of “A Dog’s Purpose,” by W. Bruce Cameron, I could not put it down. In the science fiction genre, I am a fan of Ray Bradbury and Isaac Asimov.
What’s the best book you’ve ever received as a gift?
Betsy Lerner, my co-author for “Visual Thinking,” gave me a copy of “An Immense World,” by Ed Yong. The design of an animal’s sense organs determines how it perceives the environment, and Yong immerses the reader into a realm of different sensory experiences that would be alien to us. For example, whales use sound to communicate over miles of ocean and birds use magnetic fields to navigate. A dog lives in a smell-based world that humans have a difficult time comprehending. When people walk their dogs, they often yank them away from the trees or bushes they are smelling. People do not realize that they are depriving their dog of a rich experience of myriad smells.
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