Backlist Love is an informal series on “older” books that I hope you’ll find interesting. These aren’t so much reviews as quickie recommendations, so check out Goodreads or your favorite book review sources if you want more info.
Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex by Mary Roach (W. W. Norton & Company, 2008)
The Birth of the Pill: How Four Crusaders Reinvented Sex and Launched a Revolution by Jonathan Eig (W. W. Norton & Company, 2014)
Sperm Wars: Infidelity, Sexual Conflict, and Other Bedroom Battles by Robin Baker (Basic Books, 2006)
In Bonk, the best-selling author of Stiff turns her outrageous curiosity and insight on the most alluring scientific subject of all: sex. Can a person think herself to orgasm? Why doesn’t Viagra help women — or, for that matter, pandas? Can a dead man get an erection? Is vaginal orgasm a myth? Mary Roach shows us how and why sexual arousal and orgasm — two of the most complex, delightful, and amazing scientific phenomena on earth — can be so hard to achieve and what science is doing to make the bedroom a more satisfying place.
We know it simply as “the pill,” yet its genesis was anything but simple. Jonathan Eig’s masterful narrative revolves around four principal characters: the fiery feminist Margaret Sanger, who was a champion of birth control in her campaign for the rights of women but neglected her own children in pursuit of free love; the beautiful Katharine McCormick, who owed her fortune to her wealthy husband, the son of the founder of International Harvester and a schizophrenic; the visionary scientist Gregory Pincus, who was dismissed by Harvard in the 1930s as a result of his experimentation with in vitro fertilization but who, after he was approached by Sanger and McCormick, grew obsessed with the idea of inventing a drug that could stop ovulation; and the telegenic John Rock, a Catholic doctor from Boston who battled his own church to become an enormously effective advocate in the effort to win public approval for the drug that would be marketed by Searle as Enovid.
Sperm Wars is a revolutionary thesis about sex that turned centuries-old biological assumptions on their head. Evolution has programmed men to conquer and monopolize women while women, without ever knowing they are doing it, seek the best genetic input on offer from potential sexual partners. If you’ve ever looked upon sperm as a little army of white-coated soldiers setting off to sack and pillage a barely pregnable fortress… well, you’d be right, according to Dr. Robin Baker, who has studied sperm and cervical mucus in much greater detail than anyone would’ve thought necessary and has come to some startling conclusions.
Why I liked them
Well, you know, the actual subject of intimate human relationships is and always has been kind of a hot topic — especially with Valentine’s Day coming up. But beyond that, I just really like well-researched narrative nonfiction that can take an embarrassing or taboo subject and present it in an interesting or even humorous way. Bonk is probably the best of the bunch — or at least the funniest. The Birth of the Pill gets a little more into the weeds with all the history of contraception and early 20th century sexual health/culture issues, but is still absolutely fascinating and well worth the read. Sperm Wars is also fascinating, but TBH it kind of goes off the rails at some points. The author got a little too, uh, excited about the fictional scenarios he made up to illustrate certain points, for one thing. And even though his points are based on scientific research, the conclusions presented in this book should be taken with several very large grains of salt (they tend to rely on oversimplification of human psychology/behavior and outdated social norms).
Who I’d recommend them to
I’d recommend Bonk to just about anybody, or at least anybody who has a sense of humor about sex. The Birth of the Pill is great for people who are interested in the history of medicine or the medicalization of the human life cycle, or early feminism and its impact on our current contraceptive options. I’m a little more cautious about recommending Sperm Wars, though. Only read this one if you can stand to wade through unadvertised erotica and can recognize/contend with occasional pseudoscience.
- Mary Roach’s official website
- Articles about Mary Roach from NPR
- TED Talk by the author: “10 Things You Didn’t Know About Orgasm”
The Birth of the Pill