7 best books for a Big Bang

Noodles, marbles and Brian May

Seven wormholes (aka books) to the origins of spacetime, as selected by The Happy Reader’s editor-in-chief

A bookshelf will always be made more interesting by a section dedicated entirely to the Big Bang, and a book from this list read in public will never not attract a curious glance or two. 

Many of my reading recommendations for the Big Bang-curious are by scientists, but not all. It seems a shame to leave this particular subject to those with access to nationally-budgeted telescopes. The Big Bang can also be funny, or weird, or food-related. It can be, and of course was, all of those things.

A Little Book About the Big Bang (2022)
Tony Rothman

The subject of the Big Bang is actually not that fashionable in literary circles, among which it’s safer to mention you are reading a memoiristic novel (any will do) or an essay collection on, I don’t know, the music of Tove Lo. Fine, but that doesn’t mean the Big Bang has stopped being interesting or that books are no longer being published for those with normal, healthy curiosity. This excellent primer is by a professor and former editor at Scientific American (he has also written a trilogy of novels about the Siege of Malta). An opportunity to understand the origins of the universe in the time it takes to catch the train to, erm, Bangor.

At the Edge of Time (2019)
Dan Hooper

This comprehensive volume, by a senior scientist at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Chicago, exists in the goldilocks zone between accessibility and meatiness. It was published recently enough to give a good overview of current theories about the ‘Big Bang’, for which I use scare quotes to acknowledge Hooper’s opinion that the term itself is a bit of a misnomer. An explosion has to happen somewhere whereas the bang in question happened, by definition, everywhere, so is it really an explosion at all?

Bang (2006, updated in 2021)
Brian May, Patrick Moore and Chris Lintott

The fact that Brian May from Queen has a PhD in astrophysics is mostly strange for being unsurprising, a consequence, I suspect, of the video for Bohemian Rhapsody being shot in front of an entirely black background, as the band is fed through the effects toolbox from 2001: A Space Odyssey. This cosmological guide for happy amateurs is a fun but also definitive history of the universe deliberately written (in tandem with astronomer Patrick Moore and astrophysics professor Chris Lintott) without use of mathematical equations. 

How the Universe Got its Spots (2002)
Janna Levin

Stylistically unusual for taking the form of a diary and involving the author’s personal life, Levin’s contribution to the genre proposes a different model for exploring cosmology, one that thrills many and exasperates a few. But in the end why not disclose the baggage that an intergalactic observer must surely bring to their professional gaze? If the boundaries of cosmology are forever being rethought, why shouldn’t the conventions of the way we write about it be played around with, or burned to the ground entirely?

The Restaurant at the End of the Universe (1980)
Douglas Adams

This one’s a cheat in being about the end rather than the beginning of the universe but they’re the same thing ultimately aren’t they? The concept is a bit like those restaurants at Disney World where you get to watch fireworks on a Saturday night except the fireworks are the heat death of the universe (diners arrive and leave via time machine). Serious space observation seems tedious compared with Adams’ teeming cornucopia of drama-queen aliens and sentient mice. 

The Complete Cosmicomics (1965)
Italo Calvino

The original Cosmicomics comprise twelve short stories featuring an immortal being named Qfwfq. Each takes a different scientific fact and unravels it into fiction. ‘All at One Point’ suggests the Big Bang was the result of a woman wishing for a bit of room so as to make ‘some noodles for you boys’. The origins of space and time are present also in ‘Games Without End’, about a (very) early game of marbles.

To the Lighthouse (1927)
Virginia Woolf

This list doesn’t include A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking because everyone already owns it even if very few of them have read it. This entry is a reminder instead that every book is ultimately about the Big Bang because that’s the whole point, that it contained everything, caused everything. To the Lighthouse resembles A Brief History of Time in the sense of being a slog, but a life-changing slog. Reading it may well be the closest I’ve come to transcending my own measly perception of the universe, and although it was published around forty years before the theory was even proposed, it contains more unspoken Big Bang than all the other unrelated books that are yet inescapably full of Big Bang as well.

In the beginning the Universe was created. This has made a lot of people very angry and has been widely regarded as a bad move.

Douglas Adams, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe

What’s so good about this?

Reading about the Big Bang is relaxing, actually. Few subjects can make our troubles seem less significant, while the very fact of being there, holding said book, is revealed as something miraculous and wonderful. 

Meet the writer

Seb Emina is editor-in-chief of The Happy Reader magazine. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Paris Review, FT Weekend, The Gentlewoman, Fantastic Man, The Guardian and Vogue. Subscribe to his (free) bookish newsletter at thehappyreader.com/newsletter.

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