The image is a photograph of heat-convection currents in air, captured by Gavan Mitchell and Phil Taylor (source) using the Schlieren technique, a method that reveals temperature & density differences in the air. The image is © Copyright 2009 by Gavan Mitchell & Phil Taylor, used with permission for the challenge. Please use this image in your own blog to publicize the 2010 Science Book Challenge.Wherein I Admit My Bias

On the eleventh day of My Twelve Days of Challenges, I’m bookchatting about the challenge that most challenged me.

On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the most challenging, I’d be tempted to give the Science Book Challenge an eleven, except that it might be unscientific to do so. (I didn’t choose any mathematically inclined reads, so I don’t know for sure.) But sheesh, did I ever struggle with this one.

It wasn’t entirely unexpected. I knew it would take some doing. But month after month passed and I was mentally ticking off progress on all of my other challenges and this one was getting no love.

And here I am, one of those people who gets incredibly annoyed with folks who read only non-fiction because they want to read about something real. ::Insert well-worn arguments about the truths that fiction can contain::

Well, by the time September rolled around, and I still hadn’t progressed at all with the three books I’d chosen for this challenge? I had to admit that I might have a previously unidentified bias.

Was I one of those annoying folks who can’t admit that non-fiction can contain truths too? ::Grin::

The non-fiction I do read regularly? It’s in the form of books about writing and grammar, books about bookishness, literary biographies, and books that intersect amongst these categories. I occasionally read about current events (like Why Your World is About to Get a Whole Lot Smaller) and I used to read a lot more history than I have read during the past two years. But science?

I can actually remember when I was regularly buying books in this category: 1990. Yup. I was working in a bookshop and I purchased from a wide variety of sections; if I’d thought of skipping the science shelves, that was soon dismissed when I realized how interesting some of the books were. And they really were interesting. ::Nods a little too eagerly::

But even if I acknowledge that they’re interesting, there’s still the fact that I don’t have the reading experience to back me up. I know my parts of speech; I don’t have to look up what an adjective is to enjoy a book on grammar. But when I was reading Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, I had to think back to Sixth Grade science class and the definition of photosynthesis. It hurt a tiny bit.

(Well, I didn’t really have to think about Mrs. Leonard’s long braid and sensible shoes, but, unbidden, that diagram with its brightly coloured arrows came to mind in a foggy, nearly-beyond-reach way, even while I was reading Michael Pollan’s succinct and purposeful explanation of the process.)

Indeed, it and the other two books that I elected to read for this challenge were demanding in their own way: Norman Doidge’s The Brain that Changes Itself and Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel.

Whether it was brain physiology or human genetics, I had to really stretch. Sometimes they were concepts that I had learned in school, but which I hadn’t thought about much, so I’d forgotten. Sometimes they were (which was often the case with Jared Diamond’s book) not only new, but overtly contradictory, to what I had learned earlier.

Fortunately, that uncomfortable feeling was explained — and encouraged — in Norman Doidge’s book. Which was incentive to continue on: apparently forcing yourself to learn about new things, later in life, once you’re past your traditional school-years and your early working-years, is one of the things that protects you from losing that ability. So I kept reading, even though I swear I could feel the neurons making new pathways. (It’s a kind of wriggly feeling up there; if I keep reading in this vein, maybe I’ll be able to do a better job of describing it some day.)

I needed a lot of incentive (often in the form of chocolate, but its antioxidant qualities made that a win-win too). I think that was an old concept learned long ago, that reinforcing something with positive experiences makes you more likely to want  to repeat that situation again. I’ll have to stock up again, because even though I’ve actually read my science books, I still need to write up the reviews and that, too, is taking those neurons into unfamiliar territory.

But, with adequate supplies of chocolate within reach, I’m prepared to read more of this. As strongly as I do believe that fiction contains truths, I now recognize a gap where my non-fiction reading (and, specifically, science reading) should be, and I’d like to narrow that gap.

Yes, they really were interesting reads. No jokes. This challenge revealed something to me about the way that I read and made me look at my shelves differently. It’s not an exaggeration to say that it made me look at my Reading Self differently.

I’m still firming up my 2011 Reading Goals, but I do know that I’m committed to reading more books like these. Who knows? Maybe I’ll even start browsing in the 500s as often as I browse in the 400s.

Maybe mapping the human genome will soon sound like it would be as much fun as diagramming sentences. (Yes, I know, some people don’t think diagramming sentences is fun.)

Have you been annoyed by a reading bias? Yours or someone else’s? Is there a challenge that really shook up your reading this year?

PS The 2011 Science Book Challenge is up and running: take a peek. And I’ll be posting full reviews of these three science-y reads before month-end.