When I left my job for the summer, I fully expected to spend my whole summer filling up the blanks in my time by reading book after book after book. After all, I’d just completed my first quarter of grad school and was sure to need continuing intellectual stimulation throughout the summer, right? Not so much. I didn’t even want to touch a book for the first month. In August, I read my way through about ten Agatha Christie novels, not exactly an academic endeavor. Finally, with only about two weeks left of my summer vacation, it hit me. I was finally hungry for some high-quality, educational non-fiction and I couldn’t get enough of it. Luckily, I found two books to devour during those weeks and both turned out to be fabulous.
1. The Billionaire’s Vinegar by Benjamin Wallace
Reading The Billionaire’s Vinegar is like stepping into another world, the world of old and rare wines and the eccentrics worldwide who clamor for them. The book is primarily an account of the most expensive bottle of wine ever sold, a 1787 bottle of Château Lafite Bordeaux that was found perfectly preserved in a hidden cellar in Paris and was believed to have been owned by none other than our own Thomas Jefferson. The bottle was purchased at a Christie’s auction in London in 1985 after a quickly-escalating bidding war. It was purchased for about $156,000 by the Forbes family, and remains the most expensive bottle ever sold. The story doesn’t end there, however. Wallace traces the myriad scandals and mysteries surrounding this bottle and others found in the Jefferson cache, which range from theories about thieving Nazis to insurance fraud to wine counterfeiting. It’s a delicious read (with a mild bouquet of blackberries, persimmons, and burned charcoal!); I suggest reading it with a glass of wine on hand, otherwise you will end up drooling on the pages!
Oh yes, and the question on your mind right now, I assume, is “So? Did they drink it? Did it still taste like wine?” But the answer is disappointing. The Forbes family brought the bottle—which had been perfectly preserved for two centuries—home to the States and displayed it in their showroom in New York. Standing upright. Under a spotlight. In a matter of weeks the old cork had shriveled and fallen in the bottle and the wine was spoiled.
2. The Canon by Natalie Angiers
The Canon purports to be a “whirligig tour through the beautiful basics of science” which, though laudable, did not necessarily intrigue me. I love science, but I have always felt that Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything pretty much had the bases covered on the subject. But I picked up Angiers' challenge at a bookstore and started browsing the pages—and was soon hooked. Where Bryson is a master storyteller, Angiers is a master of metaphor and elucidation. Rather than smooth over the complicated theories and formulas of difficult science, she finds a way to unlock them so the reader can understand. I feel like I understand electricity now, even at the atomic level. In fact, now I realize that without appreciating how electricity works at the atomic level, you can’t really fully grasp it at all. Not that I drew a complete blank on the subject before reading Angiers' explanation, but I certainly couldn’t have explained it to anyone else with clarity or certainty. Now I can. Angiers wrote the book for all of us adults who love learning and science, but barely passed our high school science classes and then left the topic behind for good (I got a C in Genetics, which I thought was pretty good considering I had actually paid another classmate to complete my stupid drosophila melanogaster project).
My absolute favorite part of this book, however, is Angiers’ enlightened account of the Second Law of Thermodynamics. I am not even kidding. She somehow weaves this law into the very fabric of existence, explaining both the tragedy of it and the ultimate hope. It nearly moved me to tears. You have to read this book.