paper, 265 p., $13
An outstanding collection of enlightening and frightening essays has been carefully culled from familiar and obscure American periodicals for this book. David Quammen provides in this book a snapshot of intellectual achievement spanning the field of human knowledge and inquiry. Mr. Quammen takes readers from the subatomic (string theory) to the microscopic (deadly viruses and bacteria) to the planetary (disappearance of animal species and family farms).
Perhaps the most alarming piece is "The Demon in the Freezer," first published in the New Yorker, about the supposed eradication of smallpox and the possibility that there are many tons of this awful virus at a biological weapons laboratory near Moscow. Anyone with an interest in health and disease will be moved by A New Germ Theory, about path-breaking studies suggesting that many scourges of mankind — such as cancer, heart disease and even Alzheimer's disease — may have infectious origins as part of their etiology. Philosopher Wendell Berry, in "Back to the Land," examines with concern and hope the past and future of family farms and rural-agrarian self-sufficiency. For students of religion, "This is Not the Place" examines the efforts of Mormon archeologists to find and excavate places mentioned in the Book of Mormon. This essay traces some of the archeologists' surprising detective work, which sheds light on the book's probable human, rather than divine, origin. "The Cancer-Cluster Myth" could, but probably will not, disarm those who find a suspicious origin in apparently nonrandom occurrences of groups of cancer cases.
Publisher Houghton Mifflin deserves the plaudits it will receive for this and other works in its new Best American series. This volume should cure almost any reader of the complacent notion that his present knowledge will suffice for the indefinite future.
— John F. Swenson, Volunteer, Plant Information Office, Chicago Botanic Garden.