Shelf life

Don Cheadle (far right) and family, in Henry Louis Gates's new book. Don Cheadle (far right) and family, in Henry Louis Gates's new book. (''In Search of Our Roots'')
By Jan Gardner
January 25, 2009
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Living small
In 1972, environmentalist Donella H. Meadows was the lead author of the international bestseller "The Limits to Growth," one of the first books to sound an alarm over the risks posed by global population growth. A professor at Dartmouth College, Meadows practiced what she preached. She was a founder and resident of Cobb Hill, a co-housing community in Vermont with an organic farm and a commitment to sustainability.

At the time of her death, in 2001, at the age of 59, Meadows had been at work on another book. Diana Wright, a colleague at the Sustainability Institute, edited it, and "Thinking in Systems: A Primer" (Chelsea Green) is being published this week.

Meadows had a talent for translating the complex workings of agricultural, energy, and other systems into everyday language. On the cover of the new book is an image of a Slinky, which Meadows liked to use in the classroom to demonstrate how systems work.

Righteous words
Can words move readers to save a world in peril? The Harvard Museum of Natural History and PEN New England are hosting a discussion on the role of writers in fostering public concern for wildlife, nature, and conservation.

Dale Peterson, author of "Jane Goodall: The Woman Who Redefined Man," will moderate "Nature and the Written Word: A Roundtable Discussion on the Task and Craft of Nature Writing" at 6:30 p.m. Thursday at the Harvard Center for the Humanities, 12 Quincy St., Cambridge. Sy Montgomery ("The Good Good Pig"), Katy Payne ("Silent Thunder: In the Presence of Elephants"), and John Elder ("Reading the Mountains of Home") will weigh in.

A people's history
Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. draws on historical records and DNA testing to trace the ancestry of African-Americans. He has told their stories in PBS documentaries and books, the latest being "In Search of Our Roots: How 19 Extraordinary African Americans Reclaimed Their Past" (Crown). The subjects include an astronaut, an Olympic athlete, a publisher, and a host of entertainers.

Some of the most compelling details come not from DNA testing but from forgotten family histories. Chris Rock said he was amazed to find out that a 19th-century ancestor, Julius Tingman, had served as a legislator in South Carolina. Before launching a career in comedy, Rock had little hope for his future. "I assumed I would pick up things for white people for the rest of my life. Because that's what everyone I knew did," he tells Gates. If he had known about Tingman, Rock adds, "it might have taken away the inevitability that I was going to be nothing."

Coming out
"Scottish Poems," edited by Gerard Carruthers (Knopf)

"Banquet at Delmonico's: Great Minds, the Gilded Age, and the Triumph of Evolution in America," by Barry Werth (Random House)

"Dating Jesus: A Story of Fundamentalism, Feminism, and the American Girl," by Susan Campbell (Beacon)

Pick of the week
Lisa Gozashti of Brookline Booksmith, in Brookline, recommends "Wandering Star," by J.M.G. Le Clezio (Curbstone): "Le Clezio, the winner of the 2008 Nobel Prize in literature, writes with immense moral vision about two refugees, one a Jewish girl fleeing from the Germans in France, the other a Palestinian girl displaced in the 1947 war. He bears witness to the intense struggles of both without taking sides. One couldn't ask for a more timely or important book."

Jan Gardner can be reached at

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