The 2020 Sweat Science Holiday Book List
Check out these titles for fans of science, endurance, fitness, and adventure
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The world’s parcel delivery services are slammed beyond capacity, but it’s not too late to give the gift of knowledge this holiday season. Just call up a local bookstore near your giftee’s address and have them put aside a copy of one of the books below. Or better yet, order a few for yourself. This winter, more than any other, is the right time to curl up on the sofa next to a big stack of books and stay the heck inside (other than during your daily workout or adventure, of course).
The list rules: these are books I liked this year. Some are old, others are new, and a few are still to come. They generally align with the themes of the Sweat Science column—science, endurance, fitness, adventure—but sometimes the connection is pretty slender. For more ideas, check out the fall book list I put together back in September.
‘Bush Runner,’ by Mark Bourrie
Whether they remember it or not, most Canadian kids get a quick intro to Pierre-Esprit Radisson and Médard des Groseilliers, a pair of 17th century French fur-traders, during their high school history classes. They’re famous because, after defecting to the English, they helped form the Hudson’s Bay Company, which played a massive role in the settlement of Canada. But it turns out that the history texts massively undersell the epic scope of Radisson’s life, which includes being captured then adopted by a Mohawk family, double-crossing both the French and English multiple times, getting marooned by pirates in Spain, and being shipwrecked on the reefs of Venezuela. “He’s the Forrest Gump of his time,” Bourrie writes. “He’s everywhere.” And better yet, he wrote copious journals about his adventures. Stories about the early colonizers of North America resonate a little differently these days, and Radisson was clearly no faultless hero. But Bourrie’s book (which picked up a prestigious prize for Canadian non-fiction earlier this year) gave me the most vivid picture I’ve yet had of life in that era.
‘Endurance Performance in Sport: Psychological Theory and Interventions,’ edited by Carla Meijen
In my 2018 book Endure, I explored the mind’s role in defining our physical limits, and wrote about emerging evidence that psychological interventions like motivational self-talk can have a measurable impact on performance. After the book came out, I got a lot of questions about the best resources to put these ideas into practice—but I didn’t have a good evidence-based answer at the time. Meijen’s book, which includes contributions from some of the most prominent researchers in the field, fills that gap. It has plenty of theoretical background, and chapters and sample exercises on the most relevant psychological interventions for endurance athletes, including self-talk, mindfulness, visualization, goal setting, and attentional focus. To be clear, this is not a breezy pop psych book—the vibe (and price) are more textbook-y. But if you want to dig deep into the current state of knowledge about sports psychology for endurance athletes, this is the source.
‘The Moth and the Mountain,’ by Ed Caesar
The capsule version of this story is: damaged British First World War veteran Maurice Wilson hatches a wildly unrealistic plan to fly a rickety biplane to the foothills of Mount Everest and climb to the top, and fails. Even on its surface, you can imagine that this might make for a decent time-capsule adventure story—but in Caesar’s hands, it becomes much more. If you’ve read Caesar’s 2015 book about the marathon, Two Hours, you’ll have an idea of what to expect. He’s a beautiful and thoughtful writer, probing for meanings beneath the surface. And this particular story turns out to have some unexpected significance for Caesar, whose father died in a helicopter crash when he was two. Check out this recent New Yorker piece for some background on the book and a taste of Caesar’s prose, and for another take see Eva Holland’s review for Outside.
‘Everest: The First Ascent,’ by Harriet Tuckey
I know, I know, you’ve read a billion Everest books. But if you haven’t read this 2014 book, you’re missing a big piece of what enabled Hillary and Norgay to succeed in 1953 when so many similar expeditions had failed before them. It’s an account of the work of Griffith Pugh, the prickly scientist who designed the oxygen gear, the acclimatization protocols, the diet, the down clothing, the boots, the tents, the stoves, and even the inflatable beds for the expedition. It’s also a window into the turbulent politics of the Everest expeditions, and of the culture clash of gentlemen amateurs with emerging scientific knowledge and professionalism—a clash that effectively wrote Pugh out of history. It’s written by Pugh’s daughter, but it’s by no means an uncritical portrait. If the science of mountaineering interests you, this one’s a sure bet.
‘Running the Dream, by Matt Fitzgerald
Narrowing my picks down to just one Matt Fitzgerald title in any given year is always a challenge—he’s just that prolific. His newest book, published this month, is called The Comeback Quotient, and it has taken on additional significance given his recent revelation that he’s struggling with what he suspects is a case of post-acute COVID-19 syndrome. But my favorite Fitzgerald title of 2020 is actually the one he published back in May, about the summer he spent training with NAZ Elite as a “fake pro athlete” in his mid-40s. It’s a fun, quick read with astute insights about what the pros do differently and the ways we unwittingly limit ourselves.
‘Your Day, Your Way,’ by Timothy Caulfield
To be honest, I prefer the Canadian title for this book, Relax, Dammit! A User’s Guide to the Age of Anxiety, over the American one, Your Day, Your Way: The Fact and Fiction Behind Your Daily Decisions. Caulfield is a Canadian academic and a prominent debunker of junk science: one of his previous books is called Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything?. His new book, whatever you choose to call it, is organized around the decisions you make throughout a given day—when to wake up, what to eat for breakfast, whether to sit directly on a public toilet seat, and so on—exploring the various forces that shape our actions and the evidence that informs (or contradicts) them. But contrary to the vibe of the American title, he’s not really telling us how to live. He’s encouraging us to dig a little deeper and understand how all these decisions have become so fraught—and to chill out about them.
‘Run the World,’ by Becky Wade
For a full year after graduating from Rice University, elite runner Becky Wade traveled the world immersing herself in far-flung running cultures, thanks to a Watson Fellowship. She ended up visiting 22 different countries, embedding herself with local running clubs and training groups in countries like Ethiopia, Japan, New Zealand, and Switzerland. The result was Run the World, a travelogue published in 2016 (yes, I’m a little late to the party), by which time she was a 2:30 marathoner pursuing a pro running career. These days, in addition to running, she’s also a freelance journalist, contributing to fine publications like this one. She’s clearly got a lot of talents, and it turns out that one of them is making the right friends in foreign lands. Even though the timeline means she’s never in one place for very long, she manages to get deep enough in many of them to capture what makes each place’s running culture unique. If you’re a fan of Adharanand Finn’s books, you’ll enjoy this one.
‘The Splendid and the Vile,’ by Erik Larsen
This is a bit of a wild-card pick, but you could argue that it’s a tale of endurance. Larsen zooms way in to provide a nearly day-by-day account of Winston Churchill’s first 12 months as prime minister of Britain—a period that included the height of the Blitz and the most precarious moments of the Second World War. It was destined to be a bestseller no matter what, but the timing of its publication—late February of this year—somehow lent it some additional resonance. That said, I don’t want to twist it into an allegory about leadership and collective sacrifice in times of crisis. The bottom line is that it’s simply a great story well told, even though you know the ending. And those speeches!
I also want to mention three titles that won’t be released until after Christmas, but which are all worth putting on your radar.
The recurring catchphrase in Harvard anthropologist Daniel Lieberman’s new book, Exercised: Why Something We Never Evolved to Do Is Healthy and Rewarding (out on January 5), is “but that makes total sense from an evolutionary perspective.” Lots of things about fitness and health are puzzling: why, for example, are we so powerfully driven to laziness during the day when we know we ought to be exercising, and yet we struggle to get as much sleep as we “should”? But when we consider the environment we evolved in, these mysteries start to make sense. That doesn’t mean this is yet another manifesto for a caveperson lifestyle. (“Another irritating extreme,” Lieberman notes at one point, “are ‘born-to-runners.’”) Instead, his message is a lot like Timothy Caulfield’s: we should stop obsessing and arguing over the single “right” way of living, because neither evolution nor modern science provide one.
From the same corner of the scientific world comes Herman Pontzer’s Burn: New Research Blows the Lid Off How We Really Burn Calories, Stay Healthy, and Lose Weight (out on March 2). The subtitle is a mouthful, but it’s not as hyperbolic as it sounds: Pontzer’s research really has offered a completely new perspective on how our metabolisms work. He’s an evolutionary anthropologist at Duke, and I’ve written about his research several times, most recently last year when he and his colleagues proposed that our digestive tracts dictate the limits of sustained multi-week endurance challenges. His most notable theory, sparked by measurements of Hadza hunter-gatherers in Tanzania, is that our metabolisms adjust to maintain a roughly constant level of calorie burn no matter how much we exercise. I’ve been skeptical about that idea, but was fascinated to read about it in the larger context of the many years of research he describes. It’s a great book about an active area of science, and it’s also a fun read.
And one last book with an evolutionary take: Outside contributor Michael Easter’s The Comfort Crisis: Embrace Discomfort to Reclaim Your Wild, Happy, Healthy Self is due out on May 11. What does it mean that we can now drift through life while almost never being too hot, too cold, too hungry, too physically exhausted, too dirty, or even too bored? Easter’s voyage of self-discovery, told via an epic five-week hunting trip in the Alaskan backcountry, steers mercifully clear of evolutionary miracle cures and magical thinking. Instead, the book is a thoughtful exploration of how and why we might sometimes wish to seek out discomfort.
For more Sweat Science, join me on Twitter and Facebook, sign up for the email newsletter, and check out my book Endure: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance.