Books: The sciences and humanities under one roof

Dr. George Siscoe, proprietor of Old Professor's Bookshop on Main Street in Belfast, Maine. Photo by John Doucette.

BELFAST, Maine — I hit a few bookstores while vacationing here, and this is a small downtown that actually has a few of them.

My favorite was Old Professor’s Bookshop.

The shop prides itself on its collection of books on or about Darwin and its purposeful marriage of works on the sciences and the humanities. One display near the front door contained Donald Johanson and Maitland Edey’s paleoanthropology book Lucy: The Beginnings of Humankind, resting next to Eugene O’Neill’s play Long Day’s Journey Into Night. A bust of Aristotle is not far from the checkout desk. And a remarkable display case, a remnant of the building’s past as a jewelry store, contains enough texts and items of scientific interest that you could spend a full visit examining that alone.

It is run by George Siscoe and Nancy Crooker, a couple. Both are research professors affiliated with Boston University after years on the West Coast.

Crooker’s research areas include heliospheric and solar-terrestrial physics. Siscoe’s  include space plasma physics, geoespace environmental modeling, and space weather. Crooker called the bookshop, open since 2008, a “retirement project” with books hand selected by her husband:

It’s been a gift. It’s so different from what we’ve done in the past.

Siscoe gives a tour of the store in a video below, addressing his goals of collecting “foundational books.” (Email subscribers to this blog may have to view it on the online version.)

Siscoe said:

It’s a small store, as you see, and so I’ve divided it into two halves. This side has the science side, so I call that the ‘what is’ side. And that side is the humanities side, so I call that the ‘what matters’ side. You need both what is and what matters to be a rounded person. That’s the connection.

One reason I loved this store, and am writing about it here, is that it pushed me outside my comfort area, which is what great bookstores (and great professors, for that matter) can do.

My reading tends to be squarely on the humanities side, and it’s fairly limited to writing, journalism, history, sports, and literary titles. Plus Elmore Leonard. On Siscoe’s recommendation, I picked up several science books, including The Life of the Grasshopper by the French entomologist Jean Henri Fabre. The book’s first line:

Fame is built up mainly of legend; in the animal world, as in the world of men, the story takes precedence of history.

Fabre uses his initial chapter to discuss folklore and storytelling. The he revises that narrative, gently but strongly based on science, observation, and his own storytelling. I couldn’t put it down, and bought another Fabre book the next day. Chances are, my opportunities in scientific research remain slim, but I have a better understanding of Fabre’s topic and works, which I probably would not have explored otherwise, and I learned a bit about writing and storytelling from an entomologist.

My trip to Belfast coincided with the first days of the Belfast Bound Book Festival, and an estimated 25,000 volumes were for sale in many stores in the immediate area.

At Old Professor’s Bookstore, a slate of experts who held Q&As at the store included Dr. Kerry Emanuel of Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, who discussed climate change. My wife and I caught the talk and picked up one of his books.

Belfast also hosts an annual poetry festival in October and has an active arts community. If you ever head to Belfast, there is some book hunting to be done at several locations. If I head back next summer, as tentatively planned, I’ll start my hunting with Old Professor’s Bookshop, since that’s where I did all of my book buying this year.

The store is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday, (207) 338-2006. Worth checking out.

The microscope near the checkout desk, and a few samples to examine.

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One thought on “Books: The sciences and humanities under one roof

  1. […] those interested in great bookstores, here’s a link to a post I wrote last year on Old Professor’s Bookshop. And here’s a video that originally ran with that […]

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