The best books about nature, culture, and the modern world

Why am I passionate about this?

I have been writing about nature and nature conservation for nearly 35 years. I have seen it from all angles—government, non-government, private, local—in the US, Africa, Asia, and Latin America. I have written five books about how we can do better at both saving wild places and wild creatures, while also understanding how those efforts must also account for the human communities that depend on those places for their lives and livelihoods. Over the decades I have seen enormous and promising shifts in conservation practices, and although we are in the midst of a biodiversity crisis that is entirely of our own making, we are not doomed to repeat the mistakes of our past. 

I wrote...

Nature's Fortune: How Business and Society Thrive by Investing in Nature

By Mark R. Tercek, Jonathan S. Adams,

Book cover of Nature's Fortune: How Business and Society Thrive by Investing in Nature

What is my book about?

Nature is not only the foundation of human well-being, but also the smartest commercial investment any business or government can make. The forests, floodplains, and oyster reefs often seen simply as raw materials or as obstacles to be cleared in the name of progress are, in fact as important to our future prosperity as technology or law, or business innovation.

When is protecting nature a good investment? With stories from the South Pacific to the California coast, from the Andes to the Gulf of Mexico, Nature's Fortune shows how viewing nature as green infrastructure allows for breakthroughs not only in conservation -- protecting freshwater; enhancing fisheries; making cities more livable; and dealing with unavoidable climate change -- but in economic progress, as well.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water

Jonathan S. Adams Why did I love this book?

“In the west, it is said, water flows uphill towards money.” With that line, Marc Reisner captures all of the absurdity of the economic development of the arid lands west of the 100th meridian. First published in 1986, Cadillac Desert remains indispensable in understanding the hubris, greed, and stupidity that has marked so much of that development. Exhaustively researched and reported, and seasoned with the perfect amount of moral indignation, it is timeless. With the water crisis only deepening as climate change brings devastating droughts—reservoirs are at record lows and the Colorado River runs dry long before it reaches the sea— understanding how we got here is more important than ever. 

By Marc Reisner,

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked Cadillac Desert as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"The definitive work on the West's water crisis." --Newsweek

The story of the American West is the story of a relentless quest for a precious resource: water. It is a tale of rivers diverted and dammed, of political corruption and intrigue, of billion-dollar battles over water rights, of ecological and economic disaster. In his landmark book, Cadillac Desert, Marc Reisner writes of the earliest settlers, lured by the promise of paradise, and of the ruthless tactics employed by Los Angeles politicians and business interests to ensure the city's growth. He documents the bitter rivalry between two government giants, the Bureau…

Book cover of The Monkey Wrench Gang

Jonathan S. Adams Why did I love this book?

The environment has had no bolder hero (or anti-hero) than George Washington Hayduke, Edward Abbey’s fictional eco-saboteur. “My job is to save the f***ing wilderness,” says Hayduke, and he and his compatriots head into the desert to destroy the infernal machinery of the industrial age. Thus was born, or at least made compellingly readable, an idea that has worked its way into one thread of the environmental movement: the march of development must be stopped, by whatever means necessary. The Monkey Wrench Gang is worth reading both as a hugely entertaining mashup of fictional genres ranging from the pulp to the picaresque, and as an essential document in the fight for wilderness preservation.  

By Edward Abbey,

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked The Monkey Wrench Gang as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'Revolutionary ... An extravagant, finely written tale of ecological sabotage' The New York Times

Audacious, controversial and hilarious, The Monkey Wrench Gang is Edward Abbey's masterpiece - a big, boisterous and unforgettable novel about freedom and commitment that ignited the flames of environmental activism.

Throughout the vast American West, nature is being vicitimized by a Big Government / Big Business conspiracy of bridges, dams and concrete. But a motley gang of individuals has decided that enough is enough. A burnt-out veteran, a mad doctor and a polygamist join forces in a noble cause: to dismantle the machinery of progress through…

Book cover of One River: Explorations and Discoveries in the Amazon Rain Forest

Jonathan S. Adams Why did I love this book?

This is perhaps the best book on two separate yet related topics: cultural anthropology and ethnobotany. Davis, well-known for The Serpent and the Rainbow, his book (and subsequent movie) about his quest for a Haitian zombie poison, here takes on twin adventure stories: his own research in Columbia and nearby countries in the 1970s, and that of his Harvard mentor and titan of ethnobotany, Richard Evans Schultes, some 30 years earlier. Both are compelling and compulsively readable simply as adventure stories, but Davis also uses them to demonstrate, in a way few other books ever have, the profound and essential connection between human beings and the living world around them.

By Wade Davis,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked One River as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Synopsis coming soon.......

Book cover of Shadow Country: A New Rendering of the Watson Legend

Jonathan S. Adams Why did I love this book?

Shadow Country is Peter Matthiessen’s tour-de-force, semi-fictional account of life and death in the Ten Thousand Islands region of Florida’s Gulf Coast at the turn of the 20th Century. It is a slightly shorter and reworked version of a trilogy originally published separately – Killing Mr. Watson (1990); Lost Man’s River (1997); and Bone by Bone (1999). Matthiessen’s immediate story is that of Edgar Watson, a planter and outlaw, and his murder by his neighbors, but his broader canvas is the American frontier and the ecological costs of empire. His evocation of a long-lost Florida wilderness and those who exploited and transformed it evokes Dostoevsky, Conrad, and Faulkner, and is among the most powerful works of modern American literature.

By Peter Matthiessen,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Shadow Country as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Inspired by a near-mythic event of the wild Florida frontier at the turn of the twentieth century, Shadow Country reimagines the legend of the Everglades sugar planter and notorious outlaw E. J. Watson, who drives himself to his own violent end at the hands of his neighbours. Following the story of his son Lucius as he tries to learn the truth about his father, the story tells of devastating events and traverses wild landscapes inhabited by Americans of every provenance and colour. In this new rendering of the Watson trilogy, Matthiessen has consolidated his fictional masterwork into a poetic, compelling…

Book cover of Imposing Wilderness

Jonathan S. Adams Why did I love this book?

National parks have long been the bedrock of nature conservation efforts. For most Westerners, their vision of Africa is built on images from iconic parks like Tanzania’s Serengeti or Kenya’s Masai Mara. Those parks, however, were imposed on the African landscape with lasting and often devastating consequences, among them the pernicious notion that Africans themselves are little more than part of the fauna and are an impediment to conservation efforts that can be swept aside. Roderick Neuman reveals that far from a simple means to protect nature, parks are a complicated intersection of ecological, economic, political, and cultural issues. His analysis of Arusha National Park in Tanzania, not far from Mount Kilimanjaro, melds careful scholarship with passionate and vivid writing and is an essential text for understanding the promise and limitations of long-established conservation practices. 

By Roderick P. Neumann,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Imposing Wilderness as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Arusha National Park in northern Tanzania embodies all the political-ecological dilemmas facing protected areas throughout Africa. This book presents an analysis of the problems, arguing that the roots of the ongoing struggle between the park and the neighbouring Meru peasant communities go much deeper than the issues of poverty, population growth and ignorance usually cited. The author claims the conflict reflects differences that go back to the beginning of colonial rule. By imposing a European ideal of pristine wilderness, the establishment of national parks and protected areas displaced African meanings as well as material access to the land. The book…

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Book cover of Benghazi! A New History of the Fiasco that Pushed America and its World to the Brink

Ethan Chorin Author Of Benghazi! A New History of the Fiasco that Pushed America and its World to the Brink

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

Author Story-lover Middle East expert Curious Iconoclast Optimist

Ethan's 3 favorite reads in 2023

What is my book about?

Benghazi: A New History is a look back at the enigmatic 2012 attack on the US mission in Benghazi, Libya, its long-tail causes, and devastating (and largely unexamined) consequences for US domestic politics and foreign policy. It contains information not found elsewhere, and is backed up by 40 pages of citations and interviews with more than 250 key protagonists, experts, and witnesses.

So far, the book is the main -- and only -- antidote to a slew of early partisan “Benghazi” polemics, and the first to put the attack in its longer term historical, political, and social context. If you want to understand some of the events that have shaped present-day America, from political polarization and the election of Donald Trump, to January 6, the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, Russian expansionism, and the current Israel-Hamas war, I argue, you need to understand some of the twists and turns of America's most infamous "non-scandal, scandal.”

I was in Benghazi well before, during, and after the attack as a US diplomat and co-director of a medical NGO. I have written three books, and have been a contributor to The NYT, Foreign Affairs, Forbes, Salon, The Financial Times, Newsweek, and others.

By Ethan Chorin,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Benghazi! A New History of the Fiasco that Pushed America and its World to the Brink as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

On September 11, 2012, Al Qaeda proxies attacked and set fire to the US mission in Benghazi, Libya, killing a US Ambassador and three other Americans.  The attack launched one of the longest and most consequential 'scandals' in US history, only to disappear from public view once its political value was spent. 

Written in a highly engaging narrative style by one of a few Western experts on Libya, and decidely non-partisan, Benghazi!: A New History is the first to provide the full context for an event that divided, incited, and baffled most of America for more than three years, while silently reshaping…

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