22nd November 1996 at 00:00
We are undoubtedly living through a golden age of science writing at the moment. Cosmology, sub-atomic physics, cognitive science - all these are being opened up by a generation of scientists who understand the importance of making their ideas and research accessible, and who are prepared to work hard at the literary craft of communication. But the field that has benefited most from this is biology, with masters of popular scientific literature such as Stephen Jay Gould, Richard Dawkins and Steven Rose.

The latest in this distinguished roster is American philosopher Daniel C Dennett's Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life (Penguin, Pounds 9.99) - though Dennett is careful to make clear at the outset that this is a book about rather than of science. His aim, fulfilled brilliantly, is to explain the far-reaching philosophical implications of Darwinism, which he describes as an intellectual "universal acid" burning through all the accepted ways we use to think about ourselves. Some of it, such as the technical discussion of algorithms, is necessarily tough going, but Dennett also draws on a wide range of cultural reference, from Borges to Bach, to open out his subject. This is popularisation of the very highest calibre.

John Carey's Faber Book of Science (Pounds 9.99) is another powerful challenge to the "two cultures" division between the arts and science. It's a highly eclectic and personal rattlebag of a collection, including much poetry and prose that is influenced by rather than directly about science. But Carey's linking commentaries are fascinating, and the range of selections demonstrates an inspiring intellectual passion. Everyone will have their own favourites, but mine are Galileo's meticulous description of the mountains of the moon and Miroslav Holub's meditation on cleaning up after a neighbour had shot a muskrat in his swimming pool.

Few periods in human history have been as written-about as the American Civil War, but there's always room for studies as vivid and gripping as David Herbert Donald's monumental Lincoln (Pimlico, Pounds 12.99). Rather than attempt a "life and times", with potted history of the war and its causes, Donald narrates events very much from the point of view of his subject.

Curiously enough for a man who achieved so much, Donald identifies as Lincoln's basic character trait "the essential passivity of his nature". His outlook on life was fatalistic and his greatest strength was his tough adaptability, his ability to make the best of events. Donald doesn't diminish Lincoln's historical stature - as imposing as his six-foot-four physical stature - but this is no hagiography. "Lincoln's version of the American dream," he writes, "was a curiously limited one." And he shows how the hard-working Illinois lawyer was reinvented as the rail-splitting frontiersman for the 1860 election, which shot Lincoln to sudden national prominence. But, as Donald argues, it was Lincoln's unshakeable belief in the Union that made him the man for the hour and the pivotal figure in America's most turbulent times.

The failure of the Civil War to resolve the nation's racial problems is the guiding theme of W E B DuBois's The Souls of Black Folk (Penguin Pounds 6. 99), a seminal work of American literature now reissued with a lengthy critical introduction by Donald B Gibson. First published in 1903, DuBois's book is a sui generis but effective hybrid of history, fiction and cultural commentary. Its racial romanticism and sometimes overblown rhetoric are very much of its time, but the analysis of African Americans' "double consciousness" - their internal conflict between an assertion of pride in their particular history and their claims to a place in white-dominated society - has had a powerful influence on later black American writers.

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