When I was still trying to keep up on science news, 20 years ago, the go-to magazine for breaking science news was New Scientist, a British weekly with short news articles and longer thematic essays. I subscribed for a decade or so until unread issues piled too high. (And it was expensive, like $100/year.) These days of course there are any number of websites, perhaps even New Scientist’s, that provide similar coverage. I don’t try to keep up to that extent anymore, though I do read occasional books by folks like Stephen Hawking, Laurence Krauss, and Steven Pinker.
For SF matters, I think those core titles that Gardner mentions, by Damon Knight and James Blish, are still essential reading for anyone interested in critical discussion of SF. I would add more recently Gary K. Wolfe’s several books of collected Locus reviews. But the web has provided a variety of worthy resources, from reviews on Strange Horizons to posts on Torque Control and reviews on Tor.com, to mention just the first three that come to mind. The web has made criticism – beyond routine consumer reviews – more accessible to more people than ever before, for those interested in finding it.
For general literary matters, again the web has made accessible the book review sections of the major papers in a way that was never possible when you had to subscribe in order to get print copies. (I remember stopping by Barnes & Noble every Wednesday or Thursday to buy the print NY Times Book Review section, sold separately and available several days before the nominal Sunday publication.) Aside from those, there are any number of literary blogs of which I’m vaguely aware; the only ones I check regularly are Bookslut, the National Book Critics Circle blog, and Amazon’s Omnivoracious.
I am a dictionary reader.
Ones I particularly like are A Dictionary of Obscure Words, Talk the Talk, the American Heritage, and the Compact OED my brother got me years ago in grad school. Raymond William’s Keywords and the Penguin Dictionary of Symbols, not to mention Barbara Walker’s The Women’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets.
Also foreign language phrase books and 19th century housekeeping manuals.
Beyond that, travel books, particularly the ones of the 19th century women explorers. Robert Graves’ The White Goddess and Weston’s From Ritual to Romance.
Some of the best books are books by people who aren’t really professionals at the subject but have gotten a bee in their bonnet–there’s a fabulous book about dromons, for instance, by an Australian named Pryor, and crusader medicine, by an archaeologist who was looking for information about the injuries and disease in the crusader bones he was excavating, couldn’t find anything, so wrote his own. You can’t get that passionate edge just from wanting a degree or a promotion.
You kind of have to be brain-dead not to do research, even though the more robust among us may tend to claim otherwise. It’s what minds do in the info-ocean or sink. Call it breathing.
I’d identify at least three broad categories for me:
1) Incipit-surfing: a book of poems, a book review, a blog, any one who writes of extremis or in extremis. A year or so ago Stan Robinson introduced me to the poet William Bronk. If there were world enough and time I’d read him daily.
2) Specific texts or sites focused on the subject on hand. Pretty obvious.
3) If you’re a writer (fiction or nonfiction) or editor, any theoretical or investigative text (not counting almost anything from the university-based humanities industry, unless you’re trying to become a freemason, or pretzel maker) that will jar your mind out of task-gaze. Because there is a great danger we all in this forum do face (among all the other dangers): of becoming idiot savants, deeply learned as regards ourselves, but pig-ignorant of the fact that the most precious idiolectic things we know about ourselves are probably shared by thousands, many of whom almost certainly do our unique thing better than we do. A big world out there.
Gardner mentions Damon Knight’s In Search of Wonder. I would also throw in James Blish’s Advent essay collections The Issue at Hand and More Issues at Hand. Though the content of these three books mostly appeared first in science fiction magazines, the reviews/essays were eye-openers for me when I read them in my youth, because they were among the first books I read that assessed science fiction critically by the same standards used to assess literature. Prior to this, most non-fiction I’d read on science fiction had been fannish and non-critical. From Knight and Blish, I learned that good science fiction has to work as good fiction.
I also read The Issue at Hand and More Issues at Hand, back in the day, although I think that In Search of Wonder had more of an impact on me. Of course, Damon Knight and Robert Silverberg were the two writers who were my personal mentors when I was a young writer, particularly Damon.