Speaking to the Folio Society in 2014, beloved broadcaster and naturalist David Attenborough reflected on his lifelong love of the printed word:

“There is something about a book that is just recently printed. It does have a smell, it does have a thrill to it, and I am subject to it because I thought I was going to be a publisher…I took a course in Graphic Reproductions at the London School of Printing and I loved the smell of printers ink and I loved the feel of print on paper. I find them quite irresistible.”

On the vital role printing has played in preserving our collective human history, he said:

“As a biologist, I have to say that printed books are a one of a very important category of things which Richard Dawkins has called ‘memes.’ That is to say, they are things in which the human experience is embedded and handed down from generation to generation, outside the body. And they are the way in which one generation passes on experience and knowledge and wisdom over generations. That’s why, fundamentally, books are important. And they’ve been important, of course, since the end of the 15th century. There was 600 years and if it wasn’t for books, there’s no way in which you could have conveyed that information until the coming of the electronic age, which has in some extent, replaced books and in some extent, replaced writing. But there’s 600 years of experience that’s hanging out there and they couldn’t all be transcribed by hand and so they’d have to be transcribed by printing.”

In the wholly terrific interview, Attenborough talks of his penchant for early natural history books, good travel writing and tribal art, and discusses his very first memories of books, as well as those he’s drawn to again and again.

Read on for David Attenborough’s most memorable books, and complement with the reading lists of Bill Nye, Carl Sagan, Jane Goodall and Neil deGrasse Tyson.


“The first book I really can see now if I shut my eyes was an extraordinary book called Foxe’s Book of Martyrs and it must be a 17th-century book…It contained the most hair-raising engravings of people having their guts pulled out and being burnt alive. In its time, it was a very famous book. Because no doubt it was a very valuable book. But I was absolutely fixated by these images of terrible things happening to human beings, human beings doing terrible things to other human beings. So Foxe’s Book of Martyrs is the first book which I can remember pages of if I just shut my eyes.” -DA

Memoirs of a Buccaneer by William Dampier

“William Dampier was an early 18th century, late 17th century buccaneer who wrote, and whose voyages are fantastic.” -DA

On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin (also rec’d by Neil deGrasse Tyson)

“The last page of the Origin of Species has a very, very famous paragraph about Darwin’s looking at the tangled bank in an English hedgerow and seeing how all these things fit together…it is a very memorable and important summary of his attitudes.” -DA

Lucretius by Aldus Manutius (out of print)

“One of my most precious books is Lucretius. It was published in Venice in 1515 by Aldus Manutius, who was a Venice printer who published the equivalent of Penguin in paperbacks. All great classical authors, or most of them, were published by Aldus Manutius in a small book in a wonderfully elegant italic script typeface.” -DA

Wild Animals I Have Known by Ernest Thompson Seton

“Ernest Thompson Seton was a ranger on the Canadian Prairie and a very competent artist. He drew lots of illustrations of these animals that he knew and there were also – along the outer margins of the text – there were footprints, so you could imagine yourself tracking these things. And the animals were personified to the extent that I could give you their names now.” -DA
The Malay Archipelago by Alfred Russel Wallace
“One of my favorite books, which I read when I was about twelve or fourteen, was Alfred Russel Wallace’s travels in the Far East in search of the birds of paradise. thought he was a marvelous man and full of insight and compassion for the people he met. He was entirely by himself, getting on for eight years wandering around the islands of East Melanesia, western New Guinea and Borneo. He writes brilliantly and says marvelous things.” -DA

(via The Folio Society)

Categories: Scientists

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