A Reading List to Stay at Home With

Since you are all carefully practicing social distancing in order to do your part to slow this pandemic, I put together some DNA focused reading recommendations. I am very grateful to my kindle app which makes it easy to get books.

My favorite new book about DNA and genealogy is The Lost Family: How DNA Testing is Upending Who We Are by Libby Copeland which is as suitable for your less addicted family members as it is for you, my fellow seekers. I like the term seeker that Libby uses for those of us who are loving using DNA for solving family mysteries and genealogy puzzles. At the end of this article I have some notes about Libby’s own family discoveries from my interview with her.

Streaming movies is another way to stay in. You might watch the 2011 movie Contagion again. Click here for the NPR fact checking of it. In summary, except for the speed of a vaccine being developed, it is quite accurate. Thank goodness COVID-19 is not as lethal as the virus in the movie.

Here is more detail about each of the books I recommend.

The Lost Family weaves the Alice Plebuch story though out the entire book, a clever mechanism to keep your interest. It includes the very modern history of genetic genealogy interspersed with many stories of people discovering DNA surprises such as Daddy was not biological. From the cover flap comes this very apt quote: the book explores “what happens when we embark on a vast social experiment with little understanding of the ramifications.” Libby is an excellent writer and story teller. I found her book captivating.

The other books I have read recently about DNA are enjoyable for me, a DNA junkie, but I will not suggest them to my husband. Adam Rutherford’s A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived: The Human Story Retold Through Our Genes is dense and comprehensive – I have been reading a chapter a week in the bathtub. From Neanderthals to Eugenics it covers a great deal of ground and is both well researched and well written.

More fun, but still mainly for us seekers, is She Has Her Mother’s Laugh: The Powers, Perversions, and Potential of Heredity. My brother loved this book. It explores the vagaries of genetic inheritance from the eyes of someone becoming a parent.

An oldie but goodie from 1999 is Matt Ridley’s Genome: The Autobiography Of A Species In 23 Chapters (P.S.) This is the book which reignited my interest in genetics in the early 2000s. He has written many interesting books on this topic, this one was written while the human genome was being sequenced. It has a chapter for each chromosome highlighting a known gene on every one.

If how to respond to a pandemic is on your mind you might enjoy The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History. A nice thick book of almost 500 pages it starts with a really good history of modern medicine and continues with how the failings of various leaders let the 1918 Spanish Flu spread dramatically, for example, by not cancelling a parade in Philadelphia,

I am clearly a failure as an interviewer, since I spent most of my time with Libby talking about myself. First I complained that she did not mention my blog at all in her book. Naturally she apologized and told me it was one of the first ones she started reading when educating herself about genetic genealogy.

Next we discussed how we are coping with the pandemic. She lives only about 20 miles from that nexus in New Rochelle, whereas I live in the San Diego area which still has very few cases.

Then we talked about how we got involved in the genetic genealogy field. Her father is very much into the genealogy hobby so this was not unfamiliar territory for her. Her parents did that first National Geographic DNA test and later did 23andme, as did her brother. She finally sent her own 23andme Christmas gift kit in, when she was given the assignment to cover the Alice Plebuch case, which many of us know about from CeCe Moore’s blog. Subsequently she tested or transferred to all the other major testing companies.

In her own family the exciting discovery was of a previously unknown branch of second cousins in Sweden via an ancestor who had abandoned his family there and moved to America. Not as uncommon an occurrence as one would hope for. On her mother’s Ukranian Jewish side. she learned of a branch of cousins that survived the Holocaust and Russia, one even in New York now. Her grandfather never spoke of the family left behind but now this generation is in touch. It helps when your cousins are genealogists too! Hmmm, a genetic component to that?

I told her about my new found understanding of why I love family history: even though I am just a grain of sand on the beach of humanity, getting to know my ancestors makes me feel connected to the rest of that beach and so makes me feel less finite.

For a much better interview of Libby, listen to the March 6 podcast on the NPR Innovation hub called “Home DNA Tests Reveal More Than We Bargained For.”

Last but not least here is a good article about why we should be all practicing social distancing

Happy reading and stay healthy!

Disclaimer: I was sent free copies of some of these books in order to review them. Also as an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases in this post.


3 thoughts on “A Reading List to Stay at Home With

Click here to add your thoughts at the end of the comments
  1. Kitty,

    Thank you for your list. That’s helpful.

    Another book I would like to recommend is “Epigenetics: A Graphic Guide by Cath Ennis & Oliver Pugh.” It is a small guide with many illustrations which introduces one to this emerging field of biology which relates to both our inherited DNA and how experiences of our ancestors can play a role in “turning on” or “turning off” genes we have inherited. Fascinating. So, to really understand ourselves and our genetic make-up it can be helpful to have a better understanding of our ancestors.

    Here is an Amazon link to that book with information on its availability through Kindle:


    Here also is an article by John Cloud from the January 6, 2010 edition of “Time Magazine” which will help introduce this area of research to folks. The article is entitled,

    “Why Your DNA Isn’t Your Destiny:
    The new field of epigenetics is showing how your environment and your choices can influence your genetic code — and that of your kids.“


  2. Hi Kitty,
    I have just read “Who we are, and how we got here” by David Reich. He is a population geneticist based at Harvard. The book is very dense and full of data but quite satisfying, detailing recent dna advances in the study of ancient migrations (if that makes sense). I was a bit peeved with him saying he wouldn’t test his own dna, regarding that as a bit parochial; he said he would rather look at the bigger picture.

  3. Kitty – you mentioned the film ‘Contagion’ so I could not help adding another suggestion for some lighter reading in the form of “Year of wonders” by Geraldine Brooks. A novel wound around the true story of the village of Eyam in Derbyshire, England, which made the decision to isolate itself during the plague of 1665/1666.

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