Natalie Angier’s Nonfiction Picks

Photo courtesy of Heidi Meredith

For a special section in our May/June issue, we asked some of our favorite writers about their favorite nonfiction books. Here are science journalist Natalie Angier’s answers:

Mother Jones: Which nonfiction book do you foist upon all of your friends and relatives? Why?

Natalie Angier: A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812 by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich. A professor of history at the University of New Hampshire, Ulrich used a Maine midwife’s daily log to explore in astonishingly gripping detail the social, emotional, and utilitarian texture of women’s—and men’s—lives in early America. The book was a revelation to me. Through it I learned that husbands and wives proceeded along parallel economic tracks, men engaging in the more formalized cash economy outside the home, women bartering goods and chores domestically. Their working lives rarely intersected but were equally elaborated and equally essential to the success of individual families and to the community as a whole. I also learned that out-of-wedlock births are a noble American tradition, and that one of a midwife’s more delicate tasks was to try to ascertain the paternity of any “illegitimate” newborn she helped usher into the world, and maybe even persuade the young parents that maybe, sometime within the next year or two, they consider getting married. Violence, jealousy, pettiness, depression, resilience, all play out against a backdrop of ceaseless work and those absurd Maine winters: Martha Ballard was still skipping over frozen rivers at midnight to deliver babies when she was well into her seventies. I wouldn’t have lasted a week in a midwives’ reality show like this, but I was grateful to have lived it vicariously through Ulrich’s book.

MJ: What’s the most underrated nonfiction book you’ve ever read, the gem of hidden gems?

NA: Einstein in Love by Dennis Overbye. There are plenty of biographies of Albert Einstein on the market, and some have been major bestsellers, but none is as confident, generous, and exacting as this one. Overbye somehow manages to bring both the physicist and his transformative but daunting physics alive. We trace the genesis of relativity theory. We follow Einstein’s struggles with colleagues, relatives, lovers. We get to know the man as though he were a friend, a brilliant, exasperating part of our days. We like him. We love him. Does he really have to be such a tease, such a self-involved sensitive-guy bounder? Yet this is no pathography. Even with his flaws revealed, Einstein remains a man of extraordinary achievements and an immortal core. The Einstein portrayed here retains on display, Einstein never loses, without ever losing sight of his extraordinary achievements and immortal core.   


In 2014, before Donald Trump announced his run for president, we knew we had to do something different to address the fundamental challenge facing journalism: how hard-hitting reporting that can hold the powerful accountable can survive as the bottom falls out of the news business.

Being a nonprofit, we started planning The Moment for Mother Jones: A special campaign to raise $25 million for key investments to make Mother Jones the strongest watchdog it can be. Five years later, readers have stepped up and contributed an astonishing $23 million in gifts and future pledges. This is an incredible statement from the Mother Jones community in the face of the huge threats—both economic and political—against the free press.

Read more about The Moment and see what we've been able to accomplish thanks to readers' incredible generosity so far, and please join them today. Your gift will be matched dollar for dollar, up to $500,000 total, during this critical moment for journalism.

We Recommend


Sign up for our newsletters

Subscribe and we'll send Mother Jones straight to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.


Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.


We have a new comment system! We are now using Coral, from Vox Media, for comments on all new articles. We'd love your feedback.