John Tierney: Science writer and sacred cow skeptic By Amy Sutherland

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John Tierney: Science writer and sacred cow skeptic By Amy Sutherland

John Tierney says that keeping up with the latest ideas is part of his job. Fittingly, John Tierney, along with coauthor Roy Baumeister, turned in the manuscript for their new book, “Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength,’’ two months early. The New York Times science writer is known for taking a contrarian view of various sacred cows, such as recycling, with a sharp wit. Tierney was in town recently to talk about his book at Brookline Booksmith.

BOOKS: What are you reading currently?

TIERNEY: “1493’’ by Charles Mann. I’m writing a column about him. I read “1491,’’ his first one, but I think this is even better. It’s such an interesting, sweeping look at how trade has changed the world since Columbus. I’ve also been reading “The Ragged Edge of the World’’ by environmental writer Eugene Linden and a book about the Bay of Pigs, “The Brilliant Disaster’’ by Jim Rasenberger. One of the great things about doing a science column is part of your job is keeping up with recent stuff and reading really good writers.

BOOKS: Can you draw a line between your own reading and what you are reading for work?

TIERNEY: I try to keep a novel going. I’m reading “The Clash of Kings’’ from the “A Song of Fire and Ice’’ series. My son is reading that, and I like to read stuff along with him. He’s 12. On our family car trip we tried to listen to Dan Brown’s “Angels and Demons,’’ but we gave up. I was tired of Professor Langdon being flabbergasted.

BOOKS: What’s it like as an adult reader to read books for young readers?

TIERNEY: It’s been very interesting. I do worry about boys not reading these days. In so many books for young adults a tomboy girl does all the action and rescues a crippled boy. No wonder boys prefer video games.

BOOKS: What other novels have you read recently?

TIERNEY: “The Tragedy of Arthur: A Novel’’ by Arthur Phillips. It’s great. The conceit is that the author has discovered a Shakespearean play called “The Tragedy of Arthur.’’ The play is in the novel.

BOOKS: What other kind of books do you like?

TIERNEY:  I’ve been interested in a genre I call exploronography. I got into this genre of explorers about 30 years ago when I went to Antarctica. Then I coined this term, which has made it into some dictionaries. I’ve read some of H.M. Stanley’s writing and his biography by Tim Jeal is amazing. You find out about what a liar Stanley was. He never said, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume.’’

BOOKS: Any big influences on you as a reader?

TIERNEY: The Kindle. It’s just so easy now to read books. You’re waiting in line at the drugstore, and you can read three pages of a novel. In the subway I can stand up and read a book.

BOOKS: What did you read for your book that you liked?

TIERNEY: What got me into this book was in doing “God Is My Broker,’’ which is a parody of self-help books. I went back to Ben Franklin and these 19th-century self-help books. The best one was “Self Help’’ by Samuel Smiles. And I read Dale Carnegie and Norman Vincent Peale. What struck me is that the old ones are better. The new ones have a lot of easy sloganeering: “Believe it; achieve it.’’ Back in the 19th century there was this idea that you succeed through will power and self-control.

BOOKS: Did doing a book on self-control affect your reading habits?

TIERNEY: I think it’s one reason I’m reading more books now. The big things about self-control are setting realistic goals and monitoring how you use your time. By doing that you start to get a little more realistic. You start to realize that you can’t expect to do six things and read a book. You have to set aside time for that.

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