My Favorite Author: Mary Roach

By Lauren Menke

Editor’s Note: This article is the winning submission to the Textbook Nova 2021 Scholarship.

It is a common scene: a student sits slumped over a science textbook, lulled to sleep by its dull writing. While the book may detail the marvels of the human body, space exploration, or the deep ocean, the colorless text fails to excite. Often, science books are boring, but science is not. Many popular science authors have attempted to revive science with mixed success. Enter author Mary Roach, ready to revive science writing with wit and humor. While textbooks are dry, her writing is an inviting oasis for science lovers and the general population. When I first read one of her books, I felt like I had struck gold; Roach makes science fun again. 

Since my first page-turning experience, I have many of Roach’s books. Three I particularly enjoyed: Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal, Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, and Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void. In Gulp, Roach describes the digestive system, starting with the mouth. Along the way, she answers many questions that everyone wonders but no one dares to ask aloud. She tackles taboo topics bravely and envelops her delivery with humor. Her jokes are well-timed, and she steers clear of over-doing the humor. Instead, one-liners are carefully implanted among the fascinating facts. Also, it is evident that Roach does her homework; her lengthy bibliographies cite real research and experts. She proves that science does not have to be sensational to be entertaining. 

Before the publication of Gulp, she advertised the book in a unique way. Like other authors, she made a television appearance (for Roach, this was the Daily Show with Jon Stewart) (1). Then, she went a step further. She had a book trailer crafted which featured bright colors, puppets, and, of course, her characteristic humor. Once again, she did not fail to step outside of the box of traditional authorship. In an interview with Standford Medicine, Roach was questioned about her unusual topic choices. She replied, “Everybody has a certain amount of where they’re both drawn to something and repelled by it. And I’ll find a way, as a writer, to take them by the hand and say, ‘OK, yeah, this is a little repellent, a little grotesque, but come with me.’” (2). As a reader, I am always willing to cling to Roach’s hand as she guides me through the scientific topics she has unearthed. 

I believe that Roach can make any subject matter entertaining. Most people view death negatively and avoid discussing it. In contrast, Roach focusses on cadavers in Stiff. What could be a morid, depressing book is transformed by Roach’s approach. She brings details and dignity to her writing as she explains how cadavers benefit the living. Unlike many authors who sit back and record the details, Roach becomes involved in her writing process. She observed a cadaver lab in which a cosmetic surgeon demonstrated techniques to students. It is a sight that would cause many to faint, but Roach values the quality of her writing over her comfort level. This dedication to uncovering the full story draws me to Roach’s books again and again. 

When I read Packing for Mars, I became more appreciative of Roach’s writing style. While space travel would not normally pique my interest, this book gave me a new appreciation for space studies. In attempting to land a man on the moon, humans learned a lot about themselves such as that we can swallow and digest food while upside down or in zero-gravity. Roach includes a hilarious history of early space missions which were lead by monkeys, not men. During the process of writing this book, Roach participated in a parabolic flight, so she could fully describe it to her readers. Her first-hand experience makes readers feel as if they are beside her, doing loop-de-loops in a jet plane. By the end of the book, she begins discussing areas of future study that just might convince someone to become an astronaut. As with every one of Roach’s books that I read, Packing for Mars left me laughing, admiring, and pondering. 

I am not the only one to praise her work. She has published six New York Times bestsellers with a new book, Fuzz: When Nature Breaks the Law, on the horizon (1). Furthermore, she has written for Wired, National Geographic, The New York Times Magazine, and more (1). She even gave a TED talk with a snapshot of one of her books, and the video now ranks in the TED 20 Most-Watched List (1). However, she was not always making appearances at a national level. In fact, she began by working as a freelance editor before working part-time at the San Francisco Zoo (1). Eventually, she switched to writing science books and truly found her niche (1). By browsing her website, one can tell that Roach is not a typical author. When she is not writing, she enjoys “that late-night Animal Planet show about horrific animals such as the parasitic worm that attaches itself to fishes’ eyeballs but makes up for it by leading the fish around” (1). As I read Roach’s books, I feel a bit like the fish- I become sucked in on the first page and can hardly her books down. Fortunately, as I read, I am guided through a world in which science is wondrous. Like other readers, I giggle, gawk, and grasp new concepts in every chapter. 

If the world had more authors like Mary Roach, we would no longer see sleepy students drooling over science textbooks. Alternatively, readers of all ages would leap towards the science section, ready to fill their minds with the wonders of the world. In contrast to other pop-sci books, Roach’s work finds a way to perfectly balance humor and facts. She takes risks in her writing process and in advertising for her books. Then, she breaks the boundaries of typical science writing on every page. Though I may have read some of her books read ago, her delivery ensures that the facts stick in my mind like a textbook never can. Her success is evident in her books’ rankings and her multiple appearances. Needless to say, Mary Roach is my favorite author and the favorite author of many. 

References:

  1. https://www.maryroach.net/maryroach-bio.html 
  2. https://stanmed.stanford.edu/2018winter/author-mary-roach-on-being-curious-about-the-body.html 

Bart’s Books in Ojai

By Sophia Rasura

Editor’s Note: This article is the winning submission to the Textbook Nova 2020 Scholarship.

My favorite place to find new books is one of the most fascinating places filled with light and wonder that has always inspired discovery. When I am not in New York studying psychology, I am at home in Ojai, California with my younger sister, parents, two goldens, and a picket fence. Nestled between two side streets off the main avenue in our town of under 10,000 people is Bart’s Books, what I think of as my heart in this valley. Founded in 1964, it is almost entirely outdoors with books lining the inside by author last name and genre: my favorite being an undivided section nestled into the vines and wall of the history of hypnosis. It feels like yesterday that I was seventeen and there on a 70 degree day, reading Lost Horizon by James Hilton and its allusions to Ojai. The staff there consists of a twenty-year old hippie girl who reads in the back room and two Danish brothers in their mid-40s who seem to have the whole store memorized and take me on adventures & scavenger hunts for just-in first copies from Isabel Allende or Borges. When a book I’m looking for isn’t there, those two scour the whole world-wide internet to find a copy and give it to me, severely discounted, because I’ve been a bookworm in those forrest green walls since middle school. 

Bart’s has this open courtyard area amidst the masses of fiction authors categorized by last name letter with these black iron chairs and tables that somehow repel heat in a way that just seems ominous. I could sit there for hours reading books and roaming around the shaded areas and sections. My favorite memory is going in their small art book room, where they sort the art books chronologically by movement. The dusty smell of an old library archival section fills the tiny room and I become immersed in the moment. With a soft pencil stroke, I imagine the Dutch brothers & hippie woman receiving book donations and trades and writing the little number at the top of the inside page with a little line, over and over again in a kind of meditative way. The saggy plant next to the door in somehow has survived since I was a freshman in high school; I personally created a whole narrative that it had a depressive episode because it was so close to the gallery of art books but could never go inside. My first love, my best friend who emanated an artistic aura, bought me my first colossal book: aptly named Love. It was simply a collection of black and white photos of intimacy & touch. I read The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls in a small school desk from the 60s in a patch of shade during my eighth grade summer, one I remember incredibly clearly because of my obsession with memoirs at the time. I kept a Five Star brand red college-ruled, spiral-bound notebook of every single day that summer, every little event that I thought would change my life (from a CPR training at junior lifeguard camp or an inspiring takeaway and insight on symbolism) with a mechanical pencil. When I interviewed for an advanced English course over the summer before the beginning of high school, I still think about how much I felt like a snow cone on that 100-degree day, as my fears melted so quickly, meeting with my future teacher at Bart’s Books by the Ojai pottery and discussing Jeanette’s life and my perspective on sexual assault and her development. I recollect that memory now and it makes me so grateful to have that space where so much learning has been fostered over the years. 

During this quarantine and heavy isolation from social interaction, Bart’s Books as a space is closed to the public and there is no sitting inside, trading in books for new ones, fascinating chats where I discover books and authors I have never heard of. The Instagram stories are always blossoming with hope: the bookshelves that line the walls outside Bart’s are utilized with the honor system and everyone is being truthful and paying in quarters, local artists are selling totes and donating the money to Bart’s, the hippie woman will post stacks of books (from sex and love guides to Kant’s works) and offer drop-off or contactless pick up. Although the physical entity of the space is temporarily gone, the ideology of Bart’s and its values live on and continue to influence my life and literacy, which is, to say this completely lax, so cool!!! In a time where my own education feels detached and all work needs a giant push of motivation from deep in my brain, my love of reading for fun remains constant due to the enthusiasm and joy I feel at Bart’s and with the people who make it special to me. The excitement I felt when I drive up next to that red door and see one of my favorite book-recommenders walking up to my passenger seat with the just-arrived copy of Aphrodite by Isabel Allende felt similar to the feeling of just sipping a lavender lemonade on a summer afternoon reading it inside. As we do the ceremonial glove-to-glove, mask-wearing hand-off of the books, I get a boost of eagerness: I can’t wait to sit down and immerse myself into this! I capitalize off that feeling and apply it to my education: “I can’t wait to read Professor Johnston’s choice of paper on memory transformation & the senses!” 

Learning at Sarah Lawrence gives me many of the same emotions as I get when I am sitting at Bart’s Books. The unique pedagogy of the school requires seminars of less than 16 students, meeting with professors once bi-weekly to work on an individual project adjacent to the class (usually around 20 pages on your topic of choice) for two credits. As an avid reader and literature-lover, the opportunity to take a tiny class in a topic like Neuroscientific Perspectives on Mindfulness or Language and Capitalism (both real, both courses I have taken) gives me the uncommon potential that most students dream of: to read a whole bunch of articles, books, and information on a specific topic you love inside a larger topic you love. To illustrate this, I did my conference project on trauma held in the body during my fall mindfulness psychology course. I read a book by James van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score, that was both incredibly interesting to me in a literature-for-fun context, but a reading that I could analyze and receive credit for. There is a sparkle in my eye of pure possibility that Sarah Lawrence nurtures. I am able to pursue my passions and have conversations with the experts, my professors, which in turn recommend more and more books to read. Before Sarah Lawrence, I found out that what makes me feel most like myself is discussing literature with others and gaining insight about the world through reading. Without the encouragement of the booksellers at Bart’s, the personalized recommendations by professors and friends, I would not appreciate the world the way I am accustomed to now. 

In my biased eyes, books are the best present. After a brunch with my faculty advisor Elizabeth Johnston and our advisory group, we sat in her mid-century modern living room amidst her gigantic selection of books of all genres. I felt the same warmth radiating from the walls, the same curiosity that I feel at Bart’s. Interested to learn more, my first question was: “Do you see a person and know a book to recommend to them?” Her answer? “Yes, sometimes I get to know someone, even a little bit, and know a great book for them!” One aspiration I have for completing my college degree is to be able to reach this same level of knowledge of books and their benefits and affect on the reader. My most recent experience with this occured right before I left New York, sitting in the Artichoke Pizza restaurant in Chelsea with my friend Erica. We both are dedicated bookworms, carrying around books in our bags at all times like Rory from Gilmore Girls. As we wait for our margherita pizza to arrive and discuss maintaining healthy relationships and fundamentals of caring in light of COVID-19, she reads a passage of Bell Hooks’ All About Love to me. Hooks outlines what constitutes love and what separates it from dependency and caring, a concept I have always understood but never verbalized. When I am at Bart’s Books, my heart fills with that same intimacy from receiving a book hand-selected from a loved one with me in mind. By receiving this scholarship, I will have the resources to continue to learn through literature and grow this passion.

Visuals!