To each and every species, the world is a different place. Ed Yong explores that kaleidoscope of experiences in his new book “An Immense World: How Animal Senses Reveal the Hidden Realms Around Us.” A staff writer at the Atlantic, Yong won the 2021 Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of COVID-19 for the magazine. He is also the author of “I Contain Multitudes.” The writer was born in Malaysia, grew up in the UK, and now lives in Washington, D.C.
BOOKS: What have you been reading?
YONG: I’ve been so submerged in pandemic reporting over the last three years I’ve not had a huge amount of time to read for pleasure. Most of the books I’ve read have been nonfiction books that people have asked me to blurb.
BOOKS: What were some of the standouts?
YONG: “How Far the Light Reaches” by a young French writer, Sabrina Imbler. It’s a singular fusion of memoir and natural history. There’s a book by Mike Mariani about what happens to people after trauma, “What Doesn’t Kill Us Makes Us.” It’s a beautiful exploration of the myths we tell ourselves about traumatic experiences.
BOOKS: How do you squeeze this reading in?
YONG: Honestly, with difficulty. I think it’s important to give back to the community. I have had a lot of career fortune over the past three years. I think social capital is useless unless you cash it in on other people.
BOOKS: What did you read for your own book that you would recommend?
YONG: The pivotal text is a work by the early-20th-century German zoologist Jakob Von Uexkull, who coined the term of umwelt. His translated writings are still beautiful to think about today. There’s also “Listening in the Dark,” by Donald Griffin, one of the pioneers of bat echolocation. We’ve learned so much about bats since his book was published but it’s still thrilling to read. It’s part scientific treatise and memoir, with some humorous bits.
BOOKS: Were there books that inspired you to become a science writer?
YONG: I grew up loving nature and animals from a young age. I had this incredibly detailed zoology encyclopedia, the kind of thing a college student might read. I absolutely didn’t understand anything in it but I liked looking at the pictures. I also read a lot of David Attenborough and later, in college, I read Carl Zimmer. His books, such as “Parasite Rex,” showed a cool side of nature and how elegant science writing can be. When I was writing my own book, there were ones with the most lyrical prose that worked across genres that were influential, such as Helen Macdonald’s “H Is for Hawk.” Kathryn Schulz’s “Being Wrong,” which is a philosophical exploration of an idea rather than a personal narrative, but it still had a lyrical quality.
BOOKS: Do you still own any books from your childhood?
YONG: I have an intensely yellow and frayed copy of “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” by Douglas Adams. It was published in 1979, two years before I was born. I remember reading it when I was single digits years old and finding it very funny. I found a like-minded soul in those books or was heavily influenced by them. My taste is still pretty absurdist.
BOOKS: How long has it been since you could read for pleasure?
YONG: Since the start of pandemic. I read mostly fiction. I read novels likes Mohsin Hamid’s “Exit West,” Viet Thanh Nguyen’s “The Sympathizer,” Emily St. John Mandel’s “Station Eleven,” and Tayari Jones’s “An American Marriage.” I make a point of reading mostly work by women or people of color. I want diversity in the voices I read. I work in the confluence of two fields, science and journalism, that are dominated by white men.
BOOKS: Do you see a time coming for pleasure reading?
YONG: God, I hope so. It does feel like a hole in my soul.
BOOKS: What would you read?
YONG: At the top of the list is Kathryn Schulz’s “Lost & Found.” Her book is a memoir about the grief of losing her dad and the joy of finding a new partner. I haven’t had the stomach to read it yet because I’m swimming in grief in my professional reporting. I’m putting it off until I feel more resilient.