Nonfiction Books » Nature » The Solar System & Space

The best books on The Sun

recommended by Richard Cohen

It makes us feel sexy, it makes us feel healthy and it can even make us feel more inspired. No wonder we’re in thrall to the power of the sun, says Richard Cohen

Buy all books

Tell me about Lolita and its relationship to the sun.

Well, even the tone of your voice suggests Lolita, relationship with the sun? And I was surprised as you are now. I knew that in Ada two of the main characters – cousins who fall in love – go outside their ancestral home to the garden and play a game with the setting sun. And it’s become a courtship ritual. I thought, I certainly want to mention that in my book in the chapter on the sun and literature, but I’ve read so little of Nabokov’s work, just some of his stories, I really ought to read more. So about three years ago I took Lolita on holiday with me, and, to my absolute surprise, discovered that it’s more imbued with references to the sun and using the sun as symbol or metaphor – almost a kind of character in the novel – than any other work in literature.

That sounds like a great claim.

Well, I make it the fact that it’s long, about 300 pages, and the sun is mentioned roughly every three pages. It’s amazing that when it occurs so often it’s never pushed at you – Nabokov was very capable of being irritating in his word play and his cleverness. I sent the pages in my book about Lolita to the author of that wonderful book Reading Lolita in Tehran. She’d earlier written a critical book about Nabokov and she said, ‘You’re absolutely right, and I’d never noticed it.’

It’s great when you read a book through a new lens and it suddenly pops out at you, especially when you’re not looking for it. 

Well, if you go back to the novel, you’ll think, why didn’t I notice that before? But it’s one of the real credits or accomplishments of Nabokov that he’s not a show-off.

How would you try to convince someone who has never read Lolita that they have to read it? 

Well, probably I’d say that of major novels of the last 100 years it’s the sexiest. That’s normally quite a good way of convincing someone to read a book. But of course the sun is sexy. Sunbathing and being heated by the sun is all part of sexual allure. So it’s not surprising in some ways that Nabokov should enlist its help. But sunlight and lack of light turns out to have a sinister side in the novel. And really, from Homer through Shakespeare, Dante, Chaucer, major writers have written works using the sun to a great degree. Nabokov therefore is part of a long line.

And if someone says, sceptically, OK, well why don’t you don’t you look to science to understand what the sun is all about? Why look at a book of literature? What would you say to that?

Different voices have different things to tell us. In my book I have chapters not only on the sun and literature but the sun in music, the sun in art, in film, photography, architecture, which illustrates how the sun gets into everything. I mention Mark Twain almost as much as any other writer.


Because I think he is so tremendous.

Yeah, he’s incredible. 

In writing my book I went to 20 countries around the world. From Norway to the Antarctic to India…all over the world. And I wouldn’t say every place I went to Twain had been there before me, but an awful lot of them. In A Yankee in the Court of King Arthur, Twain talks about how the Yankee who is going to be put to death knows there is going to be a solar eclipse and says to his captors, ‘I’m going to put out the sun.’ He uses that as a kind of blackmail, because of course the solar eclipse arrives on time and he says, right, well I’ll put it back for you if you’ll free me. But that is a total cheat from something Columbus did in real life. And Rider Haggard uses the same idea in King Solomon’s Mines. And Hergé does the same thing in Tintin.

Let’s move on to Arthur Koestler’s The Sleepwalkers, which was published in 1959. So tell me how you chose that book and what it’s about.

Koestler was a jack-of-all-trades. He not only wrote Darkness at Noon and other novels but across a whole range of nonfiction. One moment he would be writing about the history of Judaism; the next moment he’d be writing about the nature of coincidence. But he always had an interest in science generally, and The Sleepwalkers is his work on the history of science from its earliest days through to Newton. His line is: rather than scientists sitting down and working out very rationally new discoveries in whatever particular area of science they specialised in, they were often like sleepwalkers. They would get to their great intuitions or discoveries by accident, or by wandering into an area of research and then finding out something wonderful.

“As Jung says, “The longing for light is the longing for consciousness.””

A lot of people have criticised his point of view. And I wouldn’t entirely endorse it. But what you get is Koestler’s first-class mind looking at Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, Newton, and really writing science history as well as it’s ever been done. For instance, on Copernicus he was the first person to play the little boy looking at the emperor’s clothes. And, actually, De Revolutionibus, the great work of Copernicus, where he states that the sun doesn’t go around the earth but the other way around, is one of the most unread and unreadable books of all time. He’s very severe on Copernicus, but he’s pretty convincing. Here is a person who was so afraid of rocking the establishment that he didn’t allow his book to be published until he was on his deathbed.


He was dying when a finished copy was finally put into his hands. And although he said the crucial truth – although it had already been a truth annunciated by Greek scientists many hundreds of years before – he didn’t, actually, upset the Ptolemaic system of 55 crystal spheres going around in the heavens. He was rather a retiring figure.

Not a revolutionary. 

Well, it’s difficult, because we revere him rightly, because he still said something of earth-changing, if not earth-shattering, importance.

Can you tell us about Koestler’s writing? His style?

Well, it’s extremely clear. Koestler is hugely widely read. The fact that he’s got this extraordinary inquiring mind, almost unstoppable curiosity, means he’ll delve into every area in an interesting way, and being a wonderful novelist he’s got that imaginative quality to his writing, which I think the best science writing always has.

Let’s move on to Jung. You chose Memories, Dreams, Reflections and in your description you say that in terms of the sun, this is even more important than Jung’s Man and His Symbols, right? Can you say more? 

Well, it’s difficult to choose which book of Jung’s underlines why he is such an important commentator on the sun. Memories, Dreams, Reflections is really his intellectual autobiography. He can be daft, as, I’m afraid a lot of the great psychoanalysts can be, in some of the more outlandish theories he had. But in revealing that man had an unconscious, and his ideas of the collective unconscious, he put forward ideas which have been accepted as obvious today – mainstream. And one of the things he writes about wonderfully well is how important the sun is to us in our conscious and our unconscious lives. He writes about how man has a yearning for light which is unstoppable. It’s one of the most basic needs in human beings. He went to Mexico in his early 40s and talked to some of the tribespeople there. He talks to an old leader of the tribe who says, we get up every morning and pray to the sun because if we didn’t do that it might not appear the next day.

Oh, that’s great.

And Jung realises that, but this is just one of the many important myths about the sun, and it may not be true, but it underlines something which is true: man’s great need to feel that he has some kind of power over the sun even as the sun has its great power over us. For a start, the sun makes us feel good. I was amazed when just two years ago the prestigious newspaper The Independent had as its front page lead, ‘Scientists Discover the Sun is Good For You’. It was all about vitamin D and our need to have that vitamin in our lives. Not having vitamin D can lead to rickets. Women in some countries like Saudi Arabia and so on, wearing the protective clothing they do, often suffer from lack of sun.

That is so interesting. 

In Chasing the Sun I’ve got a chapter which goes into seasonal affective disorder and the extent to which lack of sun can lead to depression of varying degrees. It can either be seasonal affective disorder, which can be a terrible disorder, to just things which we call winter blues, which is far more minor. But most people feel better under the light and it’s not just a matter of feeling better. Many people feel more inspired.

Can I ask you about Jung and which of the five senses we use to apprehend the sun? 

Again, I’ve got a whole chapter on the history of not just sunbathing but whether we want to be brown or black or white, and normally whatever colour skin you have, you want the other type. The Ancient Greeks wanted to keep out of the sun because they felt that to have pale skin was the most aristocratic, and that continued on and off through the centuries.

Certainly in Stuart times – Charles I, Charles II – their courts would want to have really white skin. And the women of court would treat themselves with things which we now would find astounding – preparations which were made from lead or arsenic, and the arsenic would eat away at their faces. In Charles II’s time there were two rival beauties who died through arsenic poisoning trying to make sure their faces were the right colour.

But then, after the Industrial Revolution, rather than showing that you were well off and didn’t have to go out on to the land to work, the reverse applied. If you could have an all-year-round tan it showed that you were a person of means and leisure.

I had no idea that shift had to do with the Industrial Revolution, but it makes so much sense. It’s so interesting because if you look at F Scott Fitzgerald – I’m thinking about Tender is the Night – by then you really have this obsession with sunbathing. 

Well, the discovery of the Riviera at the turn of the 20th century was a revolution in habits. And although one thinks it was a literary circle, it was the moneyed set who went to southern France and northern Italy, and made it their home. That was taken up in the literature of the time and became part of the new culture.

OK, let’s move on to Timothy Ferris’s Coming of Age in the Milky Way. What makes you choose that book of Ferris’s as opposed to the other ones?

I think that over the last 20 to 30 years, science writing has gotten better and better. But still an awful lot of writing about science is by authors who are writing for their peer group or the people who know a great deal about science already. Timothy Ferris, who is a professor of astronomy out on the West Coast and has been teaching in university of various kinds for years, is, I think, probably the best of all writers of modern science. Carl Sagan was a great populariser of science, but Timothy Ferris’s style is even better than Sagan’s and he’s now the author of probably about ten books. And although he is an astronomer, by training and disposition in many ways, he’s also a wonderful historian of science. And the book that I’ve nominated really goes over quite a lot of the ground that Koestler goes over in The Sleepwalkers, but from a scientist’s perspective. So the two of them are kind of bookends to the same examinations.

Great. And does he go farther than Koestler in terms of going up to the present day?

He goes up pretty well to the present day, but it’s really just a different perspective. So for instance, when he’s writing about how navigators would try to work out from looking at the sun where they were on the high seas, when they were using a sextant or an astrolabe or whatever ancient instrument they had to hand, the chances of them moving along the deck or falling over or bumping into each other, were very high. And it’s just a human perspective on what could otherwise be a rather clinical account, which makes his books – I won’t say read like novels, they’re very far from that – give you this sense of a highly imaginative writer who is also wonderfully knowledgeable about science.

Your final choice is a very recent book: Oliver Morton’s Eating the Sun: How Plants Power the Planet. Can you tell us about that? 

Oliver Morton. I can’t say he’s a friend of mine – I’ve only met him about three times – but we’ve always had very friendly meetings and he’s certainly one of the most clever people I’ve met. He used to work for The Economist magazine and now is working for Nature magazine and he’s news editor and a special feature editor. And I think that he could become the new really wonderful writer on science. This book is about photosynthesis and the gifts of the sun to the earth.

Photosynthesis is just this extraordinary thing that even now scientists don’t know all they wish to know about – how just the sun shining on plants in the earth can create the means by which we live. And it’s an extraordinarily complex process which Morton writes about gloriously. And again the passages – one when he’s writing a mere footnote in the book about CO2. He says, you know, CO2 doesn’t have the same ring as a word like, say, water or even oxygen. And if it had a more poetic or sympathetic title, whatever damage it does to the world, we would realise fully the fantastic good it does.

That’s a great point!

Anyway he goes off on a riff about what CO2 does. And it’s almost poetic. But it’s also totally convincing. Another time he talks about how trees belong to the sun, to the air, to the atmosphere, more than they do to the earth in which they’re rooted. He says that, for instance, if in the fall you stop a few yards from a tree and bend down and view the tree through your legs, you’ll see it’s now bare branches set into the sky. And you’ll say to yourself, yes, it’s as if those branches are rooted in the sky rather than its roots in the earth.

Get the weekly Five Books newsletter

That’s an amazing image. 

I saw this written – I’m not telling stories out of school – that Oliver is still in the process of leaving behind some of his science way of writing, but there’s enough of the poet and certainly the person who can take science and what is happening in science to a new audience for me to feel he’s a person I can urge people to read.

That image of the tree being rooted to the sky is wonderful. It reminds me a bit of Darwin writing about the volition of plants. And how they kind of reach longingly for the sun, or a place to hold on to. 

It’s a continuation of that. I didn’t name any of Darwin’s books: I thought that he didn’t need the recommendation. But sure, you know the way in which sunflowers track the sun – turn on their stems to follow it – it’s no surprise that portraits from the 17th century onwards often put a sunflower into the painting as a sign that that the subject of the portrait is loyal to his or her king or queen.

Oh, really? Well it seems to me that the range of work that you’ve chosen in terms of genre and discipline and where they’re coming from show the same kind of range of curiosity that I imagine I’ll find in your book when I read it. It sounds as if you used a lot of different sources. Where did your interest in the sun start? 

Although my surname is Cohen, the most Jewish of names, which I’m very proud of, my mother was Irish Catholic. So I was educated by Benedictine monks. And they didn’t have much time for science. And certainly if you were arts oriented, as I was, I think I did one year of physics and no other science at all. So I’d been carrying around this ancient guilt of not having any sense of what science is about. I wanted to read a book about the sun and I went to New York Public Library and there are just under 6,000 books indexed under the sun – probably more by now – but none of them, and some were really interesting, none of them was the book that I wanted to read. I thought, well if I want to read this book I’m going to have to write it myself. It’s taken eight years.

I can imagine. It’s a huge topic once you start thinking about it. Well it sounds fabulous. I really look forward to reading it. 

Thank you very much.

December 21, 2010

Five Books aims to keep its book recommendations and interviews up to date. If you are the interviewee and would like to update your choice of books (or even just what you say about them) please email us at [email protected]

Support Five Books

Five Books interviews are expensive to produce. If you've enjoyed this interview, please support us by .

Richard Cohen

Richard Cohen

Richard Cohen, five times UK national sabre champion, is the author of the acclaimed history of sword fighting, By the Sword. He has worked in publishing and has written for The New York TimesThe GuardianThe Observer and The Daily Telegraph, among others. In 2004 he was appointed Visiting Professor of Creative Writing at Kingston University and is the recipient of a Sloan Foundation grant for his latest book Chasing the Sun. He lives in New York City.

Richard Cohen

Richard Cohen

Richard Cohen, five times UK national sabre champion, is the author of the acclaimed history of sword fighting, By the Sword. He has worked in publishing and has written for The New York TimesThe GuardianThe Observer and The Daily Telegraph, among others. In 2004 he was appointed Visiting Professor of Creative Writing at Kingston University and is the recipient of a Sloan Foundation grant for his latest book Chasing the Sun. He lives in New York City.