The 99% Invisible City by Roman Mars and Kurt Kohlstedt. A beautifully-illustrated guide to the miscellanea of our everyday surroundings. Roman and Kurt have produced a cornucopia of miniature essays on topics ranging from the slip-base (an elegant piece of design that causes traffic signs to fail gracefully and safely when someone crashes into them) to the awkward implication of Thomas Jefferson’s plan to package and sell squares of land: namely, that squares of land do not actually fit on the curved surface of the earth.
This is a delightful book to dip into. If I might be permitted a self-serving recommendation, if you like the bite-sized appreciations of easily-overlooked technologies, you might also like my own books Fifty Things That Made The Modern Economy and The Next Fifty Things. This is not a coincidence: the brilliant 99% Invisible podcast was an inspiration for me when I started to write those books.
Covid-19: The Pandemic That Never Should Have Happened, And How To Stop The Next One, by Debora MacKenzie. MacKenzie used to be a scientist before beginning a long and distinguished career in science journalism, so is well placed to write the definitive first draft of history on Covid. The book doesn’t disappoint: it’s well-written and authoritative on the early stages of the disease, as well as the oft-overlooked backdrop: where do new viruses come from, how do we spot them, and can we do any better next time this happens?
Debora MacKenzie’s view is that once Sars-Cov-2 leaped from bats to humans, it was probably too late to prevent a pandemic spread – although not too late to have responded far more effectively. She also thinks that the initial leap was predicted and preventable.
Inevitably, the crisis has moved on since MacKenzie finished the manuscript in late spring. At times she seems to be writing in parallel to the current debates about rapid testing, vaccines and lockdowns. But in some ways the book is all the stronger for that. This is a deep, important and fascinating subject and MacKenzie’s book is an impressive early attempt to make sense of it.