In this week’s Top Reads, Science Correspondent Irene Park has five top picks that explore the big questions of the human condition: mind, identity, death, and evolution.

1. Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain
As an introvert, I have always wondered whether I should change myself to fit in an extrovert-dominated society. Quiet is a fascinating and encouraging read for me. The book outlines advantages and disadvantages of being an extrovert and introvert, showing that being an introvert is not inferior—just different. The book references research in many fields (psychology, neuroscience, evolution, etc.) to assert that introversion is not only common but also normal. The book also reveals that some of mankind’s most creative, intelligent, and influential individuals were introverts. Lastly, Quiet offers advices for workplaces, schools, households, and introverted individuals to effectively manage people of differing temperaments and function in the extrovert-dominated society.

2. Proust Was a Neuroscientist by Jonah Lehrer
In Proust Was a Neuroscientist, Lehrer argues that science is not the only way to understand human nature. Lehrer draws a connection between several artists’ work and neuroscientific concepts, creating a parallel line between what artists understood and expressed and what scientists concluded from the laboratory. For example, Marcel Proust, a French novelist best known for In Search of Lost Time, revealed in his novel that memory can be faulty. Similarly, from lab studies, the neuroscientists concluded that memory can be dependent on the moment and mood. Art and science overlap much more than one might realize.

3. Far from the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity by Andrew Solomon
Far from the Tree is an eloquent masterpiece that has a recurring theme of love and identity by providing portraits of ordinary people struggling with extraordinary challenges. Solomon elegantly weaves stories of families who cope with different challenges—children with deafness, Down syndrome, autism, or schizophrenia and children who were conceived in rape or became criminals later in life—to reveal that what the family members experience are similar in each situation in spite of how different each challenge is. All parents face the question of how much they should accept their children for who they are and celebrate the challenges with love and compassion.

4. Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters at the End by Atul Gawande
The modern advances in medicine have prolonged human life, but are people aging and dying in better ways than before? Gawande, a practicing surgeon and an author, shares stories on his family and patients to illustrate what the hospice care in the US health system is lacking compared to that of some other countries. Doctors are bad at telling their patients that a treatment is unlikely to work or that their patients have very little time to live. The doctors have a difficult time “letting go” because they fear confronting death. Gawande asks, “How much are you willing to go through just to have a chance of living longer?” and proposes an idea that perhaps the most humane thing to do is to not do anything.

5. Your Inner Fish: A Journey into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body by Neil Shubin
If you are looking for a read about evolution that combines enthusiasm, humor, and scientific facts, Your Inner Fish might be a good fit (the book also was produced as a three-part series on PBS). Shubin, a paleontologist and anatomy professor at University of Chicago, tells a story of evolution from an anatomist’s point of view. Humans resemble other creatures in many ways that we normally do not think about—our hands resemble fish fins, our head resembles the head of a jawless fish, our genomes resemble the genomes of worms and bacteria, and so on. After reading the book, readers will be encouraged to see the world and other organisms with a completely new perspective.

About The Author

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Academic Correspondent, Medicine and Genetics

Irene Park is a third-year Human Genetics PhD student at the University of Michigan Medical School. She double-majored in Biological Sciences and Philosophy at Cornell University, allowing her to explore and learn both biology and logical writing. Currently, Irene’s PhD thesis project is focused on a phenomenon called genome instability, which is an accumulation of mutations in the cells. Genome instability is a hallmark for many human diseases, including cancer. When she is not manipulating cells in her laboratory, Irene works a news reporter at The Michigan Daily, a student-run newspaper at the U of M, mainly covering issues and events about science, technology, and health. She also is a student blogger for her graduate school, often writing about more personal topics like dealing with the Imposter Syndrome. Combining her interests in science and writing, Irene wants to communicate science to a broader audience to both educate the public about science and learn more about the diverse science topics herself.