Before starting to write “The Signature of All Things,” her novel about the life of a 19th-century woman botanist and her family, Elizabeth Gilbert decided to do a little research. She ended up spending 3½ years reading, mostly books about science in the period. The best-selling author of “Eat, Pray, Love” is in town today to give a reading at 2 p.m. at the Coolidge Corner Theatre. Tickets for the event, which is presented by Brookline Booksmith, are $5 or free with the purchase of her book.
BOOKS: What are you reading?
GILBERT: “All the Light We Cannot See” by Anthony Doerr. It takes place at the end of World War II. It’s an interconnected series of stories about a blind French girl and a German soldier. It’s fantastic. I also liked his short-story collection “The Shell Collector.” That had nice bits of biology, radio technology, and war history.
BOOKS: Are you drawn to books set during World War II?
GILBERT: No. That I’m not a 79-year-old man will telegraph to you that this is not my general area. One of my favorite novels is “The People’s Act of Love” by James Meek, but that is set at the end of the Russian Revolution in Siberia.
BOOKS: What did you read as research for your novel that you would recommend?
GILBERT: Penguin published a beautiful edition of “The Journals of Captain Cook” about his voyages. Also “Angels and Ages” by Adam Gopnik, which is a small book about Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln, who were born on the same day.
‘ “The Origin of Species” is the last major scientific treatise written by a normal human being that a normal human being can read and understand.’
BOOKS: Have you read Darwin’s books?
GILBERT: Yes. His books are incredibly readable. The fascinating thing about “The Origin of Species” is that it’s the last major scientific treatise written by a normal human being that a normal human being can read and understand.
BOOKS: Have you always read about science?
GILBERT: I had never focused on science like I did for my novel. I’ve always loved a book of popular science, but science books often leave me behind. I’ve tried to read Stephen Hawking’s “A Brief History of Time.” I get to page 4 and I’m like, “You lost me there.’’
BOOKS: Given that you’re a gardener, do you have shelves of gardening books?
GILBERT: I’m more of an intuitive gardener so I don’t have a huge collection. The one I do love is by this guy who my sister and I have a huge crush on, William Cullina. His book is “Native Trees, Shrubs and Vines,” which is about North American woody plants. I wish you could see how much I’ve written in it.
BOOKS: Are there any kinds of books you collect?
GILBERT: This is a weird answer. I collect books made by artists. That’s my art collection and my book collection. I saw a piece by the artist Daniel Essig in a North Carolina gallery about 15 years ago. I couldn’t afford it at the time. Now I have a couple of his pieces. I also collect works by the book artist Julie Chen. I also have the bookshelf of a 97-year-old person. When my grandfather passed away last year I took most of his books. I discovered writers like Edna Ferber, people who aren’t widely read any more.
BOOKS: Have you read anything recently that you think should get more attention?
GILBERT: Jonathan Miles’s “Want Not.” I read it in manuscript. I told him he’d win the Pulitzer Prize for it. Every year there are books that you love the world also loves, and then there are those that you don’t love but the world does. Sometimes you are in synch.
BOOKS: What’s a book that everyone loves and you don’t?
GILBERT: I always feel like a moron about James Joyce’s “Ulysses.” I love his early short stories, such as “Dubliners,” but later in Joyce’s career I do feel kind of punked. I’m a really well-read person. I pick up “Ulysses” every few years and think now I must be smart enough. And it’s like I’m reading Stephen Hawking.