Charles C. Mann, a best-selling author and Atlantic Magazine contributor, explores in his new book the lives of Norman Borlaug and William Vogt, two little-known scientists whose ideas had a major impact on how we think about conservation and the environment. The Amherst resident, author of “1491” and “1493,” will read from “The Wizard and the Prophet: Two Remarkable Scientists and Their Dueling Visions To Shape Tomorrow’s World” at 7 p.m. on Weds., Feb. 21, at the Portsmouth Music Hall. Tickets are $43 for nonmembers, $41 for members, and include a copy of Mann’s book.
BOOKS: What are you reading?
MANN: My problem is that I’ll get completely absorbed in a book and fail to work for two or three days. For the last three years while I worked on my book, I’d read 30 pages of a book and if it seemed good I’d say, “No I can’t read this.” I have this huge shelf of books that I didn’t read. I’m a big fan of Peter Fleming, Ian’s brother. I found one I didn’t know about, “News from Tartary,” and read about 40 pages and put it on the shelf. I read about 100 pages of Roberto Bolaño’s “2666.” I put David Foster Wallace’s “The Pale King” on the shelf unread because I assumed that would be interesting. One book did grab me, and I lost an entire week to Colson Whitehead’s “The Underground Railroad.”
BOOKS: Are you playing catch-up now?
MANN: I took a stack of those books with me on my book tour. I read Rachel Kushner’s “The Flamethrowers” and “Roadside Picnic” by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky. It’s a really weird book. Ursula K. Le Guin liked it, which is why I bought it. I finally finished the first half of “The Book of the New Sun” by Gene Wolfe. I like his stuff though he makes me feel stupid. He’s got these unreliable narrators, who lie through their teeth, and I’m totally gullible. For nonfiction I read James C. Scott’s “Against the Grain,” which is extremely interesting. He wrote “The Art of Not Being Governed” about areas of Southeast Asia that have never been controlled by a central government. This book is a rereading of early history in the Middle East.
BOOKS: How would you characterize your taste in fiction?
MANN: I have more of a taste for novels of ideals and world building; maybe this is the legacy of reading too much science fiction [when I was young]. I like books that seem intelligent, like Jennifer Egan’s “A Visit from the Goon Squad.” I like Bolaño’s books and Helen DeWitt’s “The Last Samurai.” I have one of hers still to read, “Lightning Rods.” I have Hilary Mantel’s “A Place of Greater Safety,” which I’ve been saving for a couple years.
BOOKS: What did you read for your book that you would recommend?
MANN: I liked Oliver Morton’s book “The Planet Remade” about geo-engineering, which asks if we have to fight climate change by deliberating changing the climate. A long time ago Bill McKibben wrote “The End of Nature,” which is the first popular book about climate change. “The Planet Remade” is a worthy successor. Also I was impressed by John Perlin’s “Let It Shine” about the history of solar energy and Seth M. Siegel’s “Let There be Water,” which is about Israel’s struggle with water. And an interesting book that some people will think is crazy and some will love is Stuart Brand “Whole Earth Discipline.”
BOOKS: What are you reading next?
MANN: An important book about anthropology and archeology, Matthew Restall’s “When Montezuma Met Cortés.” It’s a complete reconsideration of what happened. I’m writing test proposals [for my next project] to see which sounds the least ridiculous, and I’m trying to stretch that out to give me a couple of months to read a lot.
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