I’ve always enjoyed reading fiction books. Once I find genres or authors I like, I tend to stick with them for a while until I discover something new. As a child, I read (and re-read) many popular series of the time (the “Little House” books, everything by Judy Blume, etc.). As a teen, I discovered mysteries: Sherlock Holmes, Agatha Christie, Lord Peter Wimsey…even stodgy Perry Mason and his colleagues. I also enjoyed historical fiction, as a young woman coming of age. It was fascinating to me to imagine how people–especially women–lived their very human lives in different time periods under different societal constraints.Most of my reading choices have featured real people navigating their lives and solving the problems that confront them along the way. I’m not much of a fantasy, science fiction, or thriller fan. These days, I often choose stories of regular people, groups of friends, or families, who are simply doing their best when some sort of life challenge presents itself. Often, I don’t want to think too hard. If the cover has an adirondack chair (or similarly relaxing artwork) on it, it often finds its way into my hands. A “beach read” is frequently my escapism of choice for the moment. But, I love recommendations from family and friends about books that make you think, or that feature authors or themes new to me. A balance of new ideas that challenge me alongside comfortable plot devices makes for a great diversion from the routines and the stresses of life.
Fiction with a clear theme helps people find and consume books they enjoy. I’ve read many books recently that feature cooking in some way (nourishing our bodies, our families, and our lives through the medium of food). Stories of sisters, mothers and daughters, groups of girlfriends, coming of age, and the ever-present romance plot are all featured prominently in fiction aimed at women readers. This weekend, I chose a summery “beach read” called The Theory of Happily Ever After, by Kristin Billerbeck. It’s a formulaic group-of-friends/budding romance/work angst/cruise ship (!) story about the life of a female character…who just happens to be a Ph.D.-trained researcher focused on data about the study of happiness. I was intrigued: how would the author create a “regular story” about the trials and tribulations of the romantic life of a young, data-driven woman? (The story also delves into the religious principles of our protagonist and the people around her.)
It’s rare to find stories of scientists as “real people” in fiction, where the story isn’t also a science-fiction plot. Here, we have a professionally successful, but recently romantically dumped and unhappy young woman who’s supposed to be an expert in happiness and cognition (though that’s all sort of vague). The bottom line: women with Ph.D.s can be people, too. Who knew? Billerbeck’s novel is supposed to be a light work of “chick lit.” She doesn’t expand on themes of academic science, women in science, or the intersection of science and religion in her writing. But it was nice to see “Dr. Maggie Maguire” as a protagonist, enjoying a deck chair or two and cruise ship karaoke.
It got me to wondering about the broader representation of scientists as “real people” in non-academic works of fiction. Many scientists work as educators in colleges and universities. I’ve read a few books about professors as fictional characters, but they tend to be humanities-types. Moo, by Jane Smiley and Dear Committee Members, by Julie Schumaker (which are both terrific reads, by the way) come to mind first. I suppose you could count my beloved Dr. James Watson from the “Sherlock Holmes” canon as a fictional scientific character, but a war-weary physician from the 1800s may not truly reflect today’s diversity of STEM professionals. Mark Watney, the botanist who uses his scientific training to stay alive on Mars in The Martian, by Andy Weir, certainly qualifies, but the story is also a science fiction plot, which isn’t my favorite genre. (I wrote more about this story and the science reality of space last winter.) What else is out there?
A quick internet search turned up a few suggestions. First, let me point you to a thorough reflection on this topic that I found by ecologist Stephen Heard on his blog, Scientist Sees Squirrel, who asked many of these same questions before me and provides links to a number of interesting resources. (The commenters on his post also have many reading suggestions!) One of the sites he mentions is LabLit List, which catalogs books (as well as TV, films, etc.) about science. Another blog site, Dynamic Ecology, by Jeremy Fox, also lists some reading suggestions. More broadly, I also found an article about a few books featuring scientists at work as a plot theme. Adding more fictional scientists to the collection of types of people we can read about–whether doing science or carrying on with the rest of their lives–can add to the diversity of experiences and world views different people hold. Earlier this year, I wrote a blog post (“Scientists in our neighborhoods”) considering how much interaction most people have with STEM professionals in their communities. More representation of scientists in all areas of society, including in novels, can help break down barriers to communication and illuminate the work of science while celebrating our shared human experiences.
I usually choose my “beach reads” by heading to the “new fiction” shelf at the library and seeing what catches my eye. Browsing helps me stumble onto new themes and authors that I might not have encountered before. This time, it led me to Dr. Maggie Maguire and her “Love Boat”-style adventure, which was perfect for a summer Saturday afternoon. I’m now looking forward to adding a few new science-themed novels to my list, with the help of these lists. I’d love to hear your recommendations, as well. Happy reading!