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December 18, 2012 10:04 AM   Subscribe

I am a reader of fiction. I read a lot, and I read all sorts of fiction genres. I do not, however, read non-fiction because the couple of times I tried to I found them desperately dull. I am sure that can’t be the reality for all non-fiction books… right? Teach me something interesting and make me learn to like non-fiction please. Specific requests inside...

I consider myself a bright, intelligent person and I really like knowing things, if you know what I mean. I like being able to be involved in conversations on a wide variety of subjects. Knowledge for knowledge’s sake gets me all excited, and I get excited when I know the reasons behind things or when I found something that I believed before was wrong. I tend to have a fairly broad set of knowledge about science-based things, but when it comes to history I am pretty uneducated so maybe that is a good place to start? I find history fairly dull, so the challenge comes in trying to find a historical non-fiction that doesn’t put me to sleep.

I’m open to books that
- are focused on one specific topic that they explore in depth so that I would come away knowing just about all there is to know about that subject. (ie. A detailed history of buttons)
- address a larger topic and gives you the broad strokes of the whole picture so that later on I could possibly search out more books that explore particular parts of the larger topic. (ie. A book about a war, and later on I could find books about specific battles or individuals involved)
- challenge my existing beliefs and understandings of how things work/are. (ie. creationist vs evolutionist, why a paleo diet is brilliant/stupid)
- follow a particular perspective on something (ie. the real story of someone who got drawn in to a cult, their experiences there, and how they got out)
- whatever other form non-fiction takes... ?

I am LESS interested in
- memoires (since in many cases it is bordering on fiction and they are often ghostwritten)
- contemporary true crime type things, especially if it relates to someone who harmed or killed people. (ex. Jack the Ripper is fine, but a book about Jeffrey Dahmer would be out)
- books that focus on the worst parts of humanity (ie. the Holocost)


As long as they are written intelligently, they respect the reader’s intelligence, and they are interesting, I’m game. I usually gravitate towards more science based things. Even the fiction that I read tend to have a science/sci-fi aspect (Dune, Ender’s Game, American Gods, etc), so maybe a more science based one to start is safer, but finding something that is more historically based to help fill in those gaping holes in my knowledge isn’t a bad idea either.


So help me fill my Kindle with some non-fiction books. I’m looking for books that will
1. Keep my attention
2. Help me to learn something
3. Based on mostly fact, not as much opinion
4. Develop an appreciation of non-fiction books
posted by PuppetMcSockerson to Education (83 answers total) 225 users marked this as a favorite
 
Oh, quick side note: I'm Canadian with hardly any knowledge about Canadian history, so if there are books about Canadian history that aren't breathtakingly dull and are actually interesting to someone who doesn't find history terribly interesting, please recommend them too.
posted by PuppetMcSockerson at 10:09 AM on December 18, 2012 [3 favorites]


Operation Mincemeat is the story of a bizarre and complex British WW2 spy mission involving a dead body loaded with fake documents. It is, generally, well-written, with a good sense of narrative, and not particularly dry. Science comes up a surprising amount, but it is really more about intrigue and the determination of a bunch of people working on this in utter secrecy knowing it could turn the tide of the war. It is, from what I recall, Holocaust-free (I avoid reading Holocaust stuff, myself.)
posted by griphus at 10:09 AM on December 18, 2012 [3 favorites]


Bill Bryson is an extremely engaging writer. Try At Home and A Short History of Nearly Everything.
posted by hydrophonic at 10:09 AM on December 18, 2012 [15 favorites]


The Ghost Map is a fascinating story about a cholera outbreak in London in 1854.
posted by Rock Steady at 10:10 AM on December 18, 2012 [8 favorites]


On the health side of things, The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression is an interesting read, as is the The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer. They both fit your criteria.
posted by k8lin at 10:10 AM on December 18, 2012 [2 favorites]


I am in a very similar place, taste-wise - I have almost no patience for non-fiction. I do try to read some periodically, though, just to feed my head. Here are a few things I have enjoyed:

- Malcolm Gladwell (pretty much everything.) Interesting, readable thinking about the way systems work - the kinds of systems we all live in and with. The Tippping Point would be a perfectly good place to start.

- The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat and other Oliver Sacks stuff. Adventures in neurology - just fascinating

- Anything by Barbara Tuchman, but I particularly liked A Distant Mirror because I am fonder of the medieval than the modern period in general. Great, readable, interesting history.

Otherwise I just pick a topic I'm interested in, find out where it's shelved in the library, and pick a few things out. I've read some terrible books that way, but some fascinating ones, too.
posted by restless_nomad at 10:10 AM on December 18, 2012 [4 favorites]


Dava Sobel's Longitude is a great look at the race to invent a way to measure longitude at sea (which eventually became a race to make a clock that would work on a boat).

Mark Kurlansky's Salt is about salt. And yet, it's pretty damn interesting.

Deborah Blum's The Poisoner's Handbook is a look at the birth of modern forensics in New York City at the turn of the 20th Century. It is so, so good.

I'll second The Ghost Map, but some people I know in the public-health arena say the book makes the history a little too pat. I'll also second Barbara Tuchman and Malcolm Gladwell, but the latter is, at best, kinda superficial. But still enjoyable.
posted by Etrigan at 10:12 AM on December 18, 2012 [7 favorites]


The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood and Chaos: Making a New Science, both by James Gleick, are really interesting books as well.
posted by k8lin at 10:13 AM on December 18, 2012 [6 favorites]


This is Young Adult, but "Bomb" by Steve Sheinkin is a great book that reads like a thriller -- it focuses on the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos, espionage efforts by the Soviet Union, and also, tangentially, a mission by Norwegians to sabotage a heavy-water plant in Germany.

The Code Book by Simon Singh is really interesting, taking you from code-making in ancient times to modern computer cryptography (though it's now about 10 years old, so I guess the field has advanced since then.) It's a good balance of science and stories about secrets and conspiracies.
posted by Jeanne at 10:14 AM on December 18, 2012


I will +1 Oliver Sachs. And in a similar vein, Stephen Jay Gould.

Also:
Guns, Germs and Steel (Jared Diamond). Fascinating stuff. Totally changed my perspective on human history.
Working (Studs Terkel).

A couple of smaller books for you to get started with:
Longitude, on the invention of the first clock reliable enough to be used in navigation, and the political challenges its inventor faced
The Professor and the Madman, on the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary and a very unlikely contributor to it.
posted by adamrice at 10:17 AM on December 18, 2012 [4 favorites]


Seconding Bill Bryson. I also really like books that focus on a very narrow historical topic, like disaster-type events or adventures. Examples:
The Children's Blizzard
The Worst Hard Time
In The Heart of the Sea
Race to the Pole: Tragedy, Heroism, and Scott's Antarctic Quest

Also, James Swanson's book Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln's Killer is one of the least non-fictiony history books I have ever read. It's gripping.
posted by something something at 10:17 AM on December 18, 2012 [5 favorites]


Salt is one of the most boring, tedious books I've ever read and I read a lot of popular science/non-fiction. I loved the Emperor of All Maladies but it was somewhat horrible in places and made me feel sad for quite a few days. I'm a cancer researcher and not at all squeamish but some of the history of how breast cancer patients were treated is pretty grim. I wouldn't recommend either if you want something to get you sucked into non-fiction.

Stiff by Mary Roach, however, was engaging and interesting without being too heavy going. It's not too grim or too light-hearted and is a good place to start. Mary Roach's other books get good reviews too although I haven't read any.
posted by shelleycat at 10:18 AM on December 18, 2012 [5 favorites]


I'm normally a fiction reader myself, but I could not put down The Lost City of Z. It was like reading a thriller. I also loved Sin in the Second City and Devil in the White City, which are fun to read together.
posted by Carmelita Spats at 10:18 AM on December 18, 2012 [3 favorites]


Shackleton. Whatever the name of that book is that recounts his story at the south pole. That. Read it. Get a blanket and cocoa.

Also Adrift by Callahan is good as well.

Is The Great Escape too memoir like for you? It is excellent as well.
posted by RolandOfEld at 10:21 AM on December 18, 2012 [2 favorites]


Oh also Bryson, specifically A Walk in the wood s or A Short History of Everything, and Omnivore's Dilemma.
posted by RolandOfEld at 10:23 AM on December 18, 2012 [2 favorites]


Bill Brysons A Short History of Nearly Everything is probably a great starting point. You can then use his Bibliography to find more in depth books on any subjects he brings up that might interest you. At Home is good too.

Anything by Jared Diamond.

Tim Flannery is an Australian author but he's done a good book on North America called "The Eternal Frontier" and also a great on Australia called "The Future Eaters" they sort of tie in with the whole Jared Diamond "Guns, Germs and Steel" in giving you some idea of why things are like they are now by giving you a good historical background and are well written and easy to read and absorb.

There is a fascinating book out there called "Cod" which I found strangely interesting, way more so than "Salt".
posted by wwax at 10:25 AM on December 18, 2012 [1 favorite]



The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century.
"Alex Ross, music critic for The New Yorker, weaves together the histories of the twentieth century and its music, from Vienna before the First World War to Paris in the twenties; from Hitler's Germany and Stalin's Russia to downtown New York in the sixties and seventies up to the present."

Signor Marconi's Magic Box. "The intriguing story of how wireless was invented by Guglielmo Marconi - and how it amused Queen Victoria, saved the lives of the Titanic survivors, tracked down criminals and began the radio revolution."

River of Shadows: Edweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West. "The world as we know it today began in California in the late 1800s, and Eadweard Muybridge had a lot to do with it. ... The story of Muybridge—who in 1872 succeeded in capturing high-speed motion photographically—becomes a lens for a larger story about the acceleration and industrialization of everyday life."
posted by mykescipark at 10:25 AM on December 18, 2012 [4 favorites]


Oh yay! I love nonfiction. These are just some recent favorites!

are focused on one specific topic that they explore in depth so that I would come away knowing just about all there is to know about that subject. (ie. A detailed history of buttons

Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World 1890-1940. Astonishing, fascinating, turned my understanding of GLBT history upside-down, and you don't have to be gay or live in New York to appreciate it. Long, though.

Under the Black Flag: The Romance and the Reality of Life Among the Pirates is the definitive overview of the golden age of piracy.

The Emperor of All Maladies is about cancer. I had no idea how far we'd come in treating it, and how far we still have to go.

address a larger topic and gives you the broad strokes of the whole picture so that later on I could possibly search out more books that explore particular parts of the larger topic. (ie. A book about a war, and later on I could find books about specific battles or individuals involved)

Life: A Natural History of the First Four Billion Years of Life on Earth is about literally everything that ever lived and it is amaaaazing. I looked at everything around me with new eyes after I read this.

Mary Roach is good for broad strokes- her books aren't very academic (you can tell she's a journalist by training), but they really explore a lot of aspects of the given topic from interesting angles, and she writes very smoothly. I've read Stiff (about what happens to dead bodies) and Packing for Mars (about various aspects of the space program).

challenge my existing beliefs and understandings of how things work/are. (ie. creationist vs evolutionist, why a paleo diet is brilliant/stupid)

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures. This book will change the way you think about medicine and cross-cultural communication, and what a sad and beautiful story, too.

Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies attempts to explain how Europe became such a dominant force compared to the rest of the world over the last 500ish years. I read this in high school and it changed my thinking a LOT.

follow a particular perspective on something (ie. the real story of someone who got drawn in to a cult, their experiences there, and how they got out)

Down and Out in Paris and London, by George Orwell of 1984 fame. A firsthand look at what poverty looked like a century ago.

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, written by an author who decided to take up running and wound up completing an ultramarathon. Got me into running again (for a few months, anyway!)

I don't know if the 1950s is too recent for you, murder-wise, but In Cold Blood is the story of a murder's aftermath, told in an extremely gripping literary fashion.
posted by showbiz_liz at 10:26 AM on December 18, 2012 [8 favorites]


Battle Cry of Freedom is a great one-volume history of the American Civil War.
posted by dfan at 10:27 AM on December 18, 2012


The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes.

When Jesus Became God Richard Reubenstein

Anything by Simon Singh.

Why People Believe Weird Things by Michael Shermer
posted by Hactar at 10:28 AM on December 18, 2012 [2 favorites]


Once time, I asked this question. And I'm really glad I did. It's historically focused, but every recommendation in there that I've gone on to read has been stellar.
posted by WidgetAlley at 10:29 AM on December 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


I second The Lost City of Z. I couldn't put it down, very interesting story.

And Packing for Mars by Mary Roach. Hilarious and full of interesting lesser-known tidbits (with science) about what astronauts have gone through or go through when preparing for (or in) space (i.e., how engineers have tried to come up with the best solution for dealing with poop in space, the physics of having sex in space, etc.).
posted by foxhat10 at 10:30 AM on December 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


Seconding The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down. Extraordinary book.
posted by duvatney at 10:32 AM on December 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'm a bit like you, a voracious reader of fiction but can't usually get into the true stuff. The Lost City of Z is the only non-fic I've read in a very long time and I quite enjoyed it. Great descriptions, a harrowing tale, and I actually learned some stuff.

On preview: nthing it, apparently.
posted by Doleful Creature at 10:35 AM on December 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


Along with the Emperor of All Maladies, I really enjoyed The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot.
posted by marmot at 10:35 AM on December 18, 2012 [3 favorites]


I got a ton of awesome recommendations on my last two nonfiction askmes:

01

02
posted by elizardbits at 10:38 AM on December 18, 2012 [4 favorites]


Seconding Devil in the White City, which does have a turn-of-the-century serial killer, but is focused primarily on the 1893 Chicago World's fair. It reads just like a novel.
Thunderstruck is by the same author and does involve a murderer, but is focused on the invention of radio communication.

Also recommending any of Mary Roach's books.
posted by Durhey at 10:38 AM on December 18, 2012 [4 favorites]


Check out John McPhee.
posted by fivesavagepalms at 10:39 AM on December 18, 2012 [4 favorites]


Word Freak, Stephen Fatsis on competitive Scrabble players

The Places in Between, Rory Stewart on an epic walk across Afghanistan

The Checklist Manifesto, Atul Gawande on instituting processes that help groups of people do complicated things together. Also his medical writing in Better and Complications.

The Reach of A Chef, Michael Ruhlman, will make you want to go to French Laundry

Newjack, Jack Conover on being a prison guard in Sing Sing

I also like Michael Lewis-- The Big Short about the 2008 market crash, Moneyball and The Blind Side. The latter two are sports related and I didn't see the movies, and I don't care about sports except hockey, but still found both to be terrific reading.

Also take the content with a grain of salt, but actually really fun to read, Freakonomics.
(I personally didn't really enjoy Emperor of All Maladies.)
posted by tangaroo at 10:40 AM on December 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


You should check out Jon Ronson. The Psychopath Test is pretty incredible. Ronson's journalism is run through with his own personality and opinions, and he tends to throw himself into some cool/weird subjects.
posted by mean cheez at 10:41 AM on December 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


Yes, Mary Roach and Bill Bryson. Both make for really great audiobooks, too, if you're into that sort of thing.

Atul Gawande writes very interesting, human, thoughtful books about systems innovation and productivity that are about medicine but have a lot of application in other areas.
posted by Lyn Never at 10:45 AM on December 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


are focused on one specific topic that they explore in depth so that I would come away knowing just about all there is to know about that subject. (ie. A detailed history of buttons)

You will love Banana.
posted by troika at 10:47 AM on December 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


Incredible suggestions so far!! I'm very excited to start looking for a lot of these!

Another genre of non-fiction I'd forgotten to mention would be the self-help/self discovery/how to develop useful skills in life type book. Things like "How to make friends and Influence people", or books about the importance of personal fitness and how to get motivated to be more active. This type is probably less interesting than the suggestions I'm getting, but I'd be interested to read some of those as well.


Also, if there is a particularly interesting book about wine (the history or more of a guide for how to appreciate different wines, red wine in particular) I'm all ears. I'm starting to enjoy wine a lot more and I'd like to expand upon that.
posted by PuppetMcSockerson at 10:48 AM on December 18, 2012


Seconding Ghost Map. You might also like The Incendiary: The Misadventures of John the Painter, First Modern Terrorist
posted by smich at 10:52 AM on December 18, 2012


I'll nth the Bill Bryson and Michael Lewis recommendations.

If you like athletics, I highly recommend The Perfect Mile about the quest for the first sub-four minute mile.
posted by It's Never Lurgi at 10:55 AM on December 18, 2012


I really liked The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century's On-line Pioneers.
posted by marginaliana at 11:01 AM on December 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


Another genre of non-fiction I'd forgotten to mention would be the self-help/self discovery/how to develop useful skills in life type book. Things like "How to make friends and Influence people", or books about the importance of personal fitness and how to get motivated to be more active. This type is probably less interesting than the suggestions I'm getting, but I'd be interested to read some of those as well.

Try perennial askmefi favorite Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy! It's not just for depression, it can also help with breaking various bad habits.
posted by showbiz_liz at 11:03 AM on December 18, 2012


Another genre of non-fiction I'd forgotten to mention would be the self-help/self discovery/how to develop useful skills in life type book.

Getting Things Done is a classic, and one of my favorites. Discardia is a little more broadly applicable in the general "getting one's shit together" genre and quotes more than one mefite. I have always been delighted by books about disguise techniques or the wacky Ashida Kim ninjitsu manuals, too - just random and silly stuff.
posted by restless_nomad at 11:03 AM on December 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


A couple of books I think you'll like:

The Thousand-Mile War, by Brian Garfield. Written in a very engaging style, this will give you a lot of knowledge about a part of World War II most people have never heard of. It also ties in with Canada a bit.

And I know this doesn't match your request, but if you lean more toward fiction you might also consider The Killer Angels. This is historical fiction, about the Battle of Gettysburg. But it has been widely praised for being very historically accurate, and bringing home the drama and the personalities of the actors involved.
posted by Alaska Jack at 11:03 AM on December 18, 2012


Rolandofeld suggested The Omnivore's Dilemma by Bill Bryson, but it is actually written by Michael Pollan. I'd recommend his books. I also like A.J. Jacobs but a lot of people don't. YMMV.
posted by cooker girl at 11:07 AM on December 18, 2012


The History of the World in Six Glasses
American Nations
posted by Afroblanco at 11:07 AM on December 18, 2012


I'll second James Glieck's The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood. Probably the most fascinating book I read last year.

Two other recommendations:
A History of the World in Six Glasses by Tom Standage
Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What it Says About Us), by Tom Vanderbilt.
posted by postel's law at 11:08 AM on December 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


Another genre of non-fiction I'd forgotten to mention would be the self-help/self discovery/how to develop useful skills in life type book.

I'd have to say my cornerstone here is David Richo's "How to be an Adult." I've found others, including Susan Forward's "Toxic Parents" and Deborah Tannen's "You Just Don't Understand," interesting and useful as well. M. Scott Peck's "People of the Lie" (an examination of evil from a psychological viewpoint) is incredibly interesting. And I liked David Keirsey's "Please Understand Me"—even if you don't buy into the Myers-Briggs personality typing, it does shed some light on what other people are thinking when they do things that make you go, "what the hell are they thinking?"
posted by kindall at 11:08 AM on December 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


Something different: Seabiscuit, by Laura Hillenbrand.
I like horses/animals but not horse racing. Thoroughly researched and terrifically written, and really gripping in places. Its scope is much broader than just racing. (Did not see/will not see the film.)
She roots her narrative of the horse's breathtaking career and the wild devotion of his fans in its socioeconomic context: Seabiscuit embodied the underdog myth for a nation recovering from dire economic straits.
posted by Glinn at 11:09 AM on December 18, 2012


Here are 4 recs, 2 about a time & place, and 2 about diseases:

- Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea – Barbara Demick
- The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl - Timothy Egan
- The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression– Andrew Solomon
- The Emperor of All Maladies - Siddhartha Mukherjee
posted by Asparagus at 11:14 AM on December 18, 2012


Kurt Eichenwald:

The Informant -- About a price-fixing scandal at Archer Daniels Midland Co., the bizarre whistleblower who outed the scandal, and the FBI agents assigned to the case

Conspiracy of Fools -- About the 2001 collapse of Enron
posted by ultraviolet catastrophe at 11:16 AM on December 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


Etrigan: I'll second The Ghost Map, but some people I know in the public-health arena say the book makes the history a little too pat.

It's maybe a bit of a derail, but I feel like this is an important point to bring up for a new reader of non-fiction. Just because someone has written a popular, well-received book does not mean they are the world's expert on the given subject. Especially in non-fiction written for a general audience, simplifications are made and data is carefully edited to present a certain narrative. If you are really interested in a subject, be sure to look at multiple sources and be a critical reader.

Apologies if this seems obvious to you, but I have seen a lot of people take certain books as gospel and refuse to brook any alternate views on the topic.
posted by Rock Steady at 11:23 AM on December 18, 2012 [4 favorites]


Oh and a (sadly) timely recommendation - I have heard good things about Columbine by Dave Cullen

But that might break your "worst aspects of human nature" rule
posted by Asparagus at 11:24 AM on December 18, 2012


I can't believe no one has mentioned Oranges! I mean it's not a thriller. But it's just absurdly enjoyable, all about how the production and distribution of oranges changed in the 60s and 70s.

On the opposite side, The Journalist and the Murderer is a bit more exciting, concerning as it does betrayal and lying and murdering, but also it toys with the very genre of nonfiction in an important and fun way.

Columbine is actually a really terrific book.
posted by RJ Reynolds at 11:27 AM on December 18, 2012 [2 favorites]


Try reading some of the collections by Stephen Jay Gould. For instance, "The Flamingo's Smile".
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 11:41 AM on December 18, 2012


Oh, quick side note: I'm Canadian with hardly any knowledge about Canadian history, so if there are books about Canadian history that aren't breathtakingly dull and are actually interesting to someone who doesn't find history terribly interesting, please recommend them too.

Pierre Berton's books about Canadian history are totally and absolutely awesome.
posted by KokuRyu at 11:55 AM on December 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


Son of the Morning Star by Evan Connell--it's engrossing and he's a wonderful writer. I read so much more non-fiction that I don't know if I can pick out just a couple!
posted by Ideefixe at 11:57 AM on December 18, 2012


MeFite rory suggested the books by Giles Milton, who focuses on odd pockets of history, mainly exploration.

If you like modern music history, you might enjoy Bootleg: The Secret History of the Other Recording Industry. You can preview the book on Google Books there.

There are a few good book on Ishi, the last "wild" man in California: Ishi in Two Worlds (Gb preview), Ishi, the last Yahi (Gb preview; collection of original articles and writings on Ishi, with comments and discussion between articles), and Ishi in Three Centuries (Gb preview)

I enjoyed Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous with American History, though I found the author to write too much about himself [MeFi self-link]
posted by filthy light thief at 12:03 PM on December 18, 2012


Not mentioned yet (after a quick skim, I may have missed) :

Gödel, Escher, Bach by Douglas Hofstadter; lots of stuff on logic, art, music, perception, information theory, etc. It sounds disparate, but it all gets tied together nicely.

Age of the Infovore and The Great Stagnation by Tyler Cowen

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot; about the origins of the HeLa line of cells used in a LOT of medical research.
posted by jraenar at 12:15 PM on December 18, 2012


I love Mary Roach and Bill Bryson!

I know it has already been mentioned, but I am really enjoying A History of the World in 6 Glasses (Beer, Wine, Spirits, Coffee, Tea, Coke) Who knew there was so much to learn about the history of beer?

This may strike you as an improbable choice, but Tim Gunn's Fashion Bible is a fascinating look at the history of garments, from underpants to hats, girdles to gloves, cargo pants to capes.

One way to go is short essays. Every year I look forward to The Best American Science and Nature Writing in large part because it is such a smorgasbord of topics. I am introduced to new writers and new categories I might not have read otherwise.

Jon Krakauer always delivers a great read. Under the Banner of Heaven and Into Thin Air are his two best.

Eric Larson is another great non-fiction writer. Someone mentioned Devil in the White City already but don't miss Thunderstruck which is about the great Shipping Lines, Marconi, Dr. Crippen, and Edwardian London.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 12:51 PM on December 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


I think Debt, the First 5,000 Years will change what you know (or think you know) about what money is and why we use it

The Art of Not Being Governed might change what you think about civilization.
posted by layceepee at 12:53 PM on December 18, 2012


The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes - and Why, by Amanda Ripley. It's about the psychology behind how we react during disaster. I read this years ago, so it's not fresh in my mind, but the chapter on how panic works really stuck.
posted by bentley at 1:00 PM on December 18, 2012 [2 favorites]


Coming here to agree on Mary Roach. Especially her book Stiff.
posted by michellenoel at 1:09 PM on December 18, 2012


I didn't think I liked non-fiction that much, but I absolutely loved A Voyage for Madmen. "In 1968, nine sailors set off on the most daring race ever held: to single-handedly circumnavigate the globe nonstop. It was a feat that had never been accomplished and one that would forever change the face of sailing. Ten months later, only one of the nine men would cross the finish line and earn fame, wealth, and glory. For the others, the reward was madness, failure, and death".

I learned a ton about sailing, circumnavigation, emergency ship repair, you name it--and the author is really good about interspersing references so if you're interested in a topic in more detail, you can easily track down a source to learn more.
posted by stellaluna at 1:10 PM on December 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


Harold McGee's On Food and Cooking. (The Kindle edition is objectionably priced at $42 while you can get paper edition for much less, so you might want to kill a tree.)
posted by seanmpuckett at 2:14 PM on December 18, 2012 [3 favorites]


This is fantastic! I was thinking of asking almost this exact question - we are getting ready for some long car rides over the holidays and I am in need of some good audiobooks.

Allow me to recommend anything by John McPhee.

Also seconding adamrice's suggestion of The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary. Really excellent, although there is one brief, graphic passage that somewhat shocked my grandmother-in-law during a cross-country car trip when we listened to the audiobook. Those were probably the most embarrassing five minutes of my life; she still likes to tease me about it. But I recommend the book anyway!
posted by beandip at 2:55 PM on December 18, 2012


Seconding Godel, Escher, Bach, my favorite non-fiction book of all time.

QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter by Richard Feynman is my second favorite. A lot of pop-physics books get all hand-wavy and woo-woo. This is the opposite, yet still readable. Based on a series of lectures Feynman gave. It's a short, quick read, accessible to anyone.

Brian Green's books are an excellent overview of modern physics, focusing on string theory: The Elegant Universe, The Fabric of the Cosmos, and The Hidden Reality. I find these as thrilling to read as any hard sci-fi novel.

Three Roads to Quantum Gravity by Lee Smolin introduced me to the idea of the holographic universe. Smolin is an anti-string theory guy, favoring something called loop quantum gravity. Fascinating stuff.
posted by zanni at 3:12 PM on December 18, 2012


"Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea" is a great pair of narratives-- the first is about the SS Central America, a sidewheel steamer bring passengers from California on the second leg of their journey, from Panama (pre-canal) to the East coast. Also on board? Tons of California gold, bound for the US Treasury. 200 miles off the coast of North Carolina, she foundered and sank. Despite a daring rescue attempt by another ship, hundreds were lost. The rescue, though, is a story of heroism.

The second narrative is about a young and brilliant engineer in the late 1970s and through the 1980s, who learned of the Central America and realized the he could the locate the wrecked ship and salvage it. He's not a cutthroat treasure hunt, just a man in need of a project big enough to challenge his considerable genius. He has to navigate the waters of business, investors, salvage law, shipping, underwater scanning, as well as deal with the treasure-seeking competition.

Great read.
posted by Sunburnt at 3:14 PM on December 18, 2012


Have you ever seen the movie "Chicken Run"? Have you seen the movie it was based on, "The Great Escape"?

Either way, you may enjoy The Great Escape from Stalag Luft III: The Full Story of How 76 Allied Officers Carried Out World War II's Most Remarkable Mass Escape. Most fascinating history novel I've ever read.
posted by DisreputableDog at 4:25 PM on December 18, 2012


Oh, and seconding The Professor and the Madman!
posted by DisreputableDog at 4:28 PM on December 18, 2012


One good turn: A natural history of the screwdriver and the screw by Witold Rybczynski was fascinating. I learned a lot about screws, which were far more interesting than I anticipated. But the book also provides an interesting model about how to think about problems.

Rising Tide by John Barry is about the flooding of the Mississippi in 1927 -- and the policy responses to it. It's exciting all on it's own, but is also very applicable to many contemporary political issues.

You might also enjoy Sarah Vowell. She writes about American history from a very particular perspective. I want to call it materialist/populist, but it's really just Vowell-ist. I prefer listening to her books because she reads them herself, but I've also read and enjoyed two of them. I would recommend starting with Assassination Vacation.
posted by OrangeDisk at 5:57 PM on December 18, 2012


This was a big hit around here: Corpse: Nature, Forensics, And The Struggle To Pinpoint Time Of Death by Jessica Snyder Sachs

Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior by Temple Grandin and Catherine Johnson

Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing

Based on your follow-up post: Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol S. Dweck
posted by nanook at 5:59 PM on December 18, 2012


Shackleton. Whatever the name of that book is that recounts his story at the south pole. That. Read it. Get a blanket and cocoa.

Not entire sure which book on Shackleton RolandofEld had in mind, but I enjoyed both South by Ernest Shackleton and The Endurance by Caroline Alexander. I haven't read Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing, but it looks good too. And while we're on the topic of Antarctica, I really like Sara Wheeler's Terra Incognita.

Nthing lots of the recommendations above (Bryson, Pollan, Krakauer, Hillenbrand, Orwell) and adding Confederates in the Attic by Tony Horwitz if you've ever wanted to know what is up with the American South and our ongoing obsession with the Civil War.
posted by naoko at 6:07 PM on December 18, 2012


Mr. Wilson's Cabinet of Wonder: Pronged Ants, Horned Humans, Mice on Toast, and Other Marvels of Jurassic Technology is about the actual but not entirely real Museum of Jurassic Technology, and its place in the tradition of cabinets of curiosities.
posted by hydrophonic at 6:30 PM on December 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


The book Women's Work: The First 20,000 Years: Women, Cloth, and Society in Early Times by Elizabeth Wayland Barber is absolutely fascinating, to the point where I repeatedly found myself setting the book down so I could stare off into space while murmuring "…whoa…" It's the kind of book that changes the way you look at things that surround you in everyday life. (Having pulled it off the shelf to refresh my memory of it, I think I need to reread it again.)

The Fourth Turning: An American Prophecy - What the Cycles of History Tell Us About America's Next Rendezvous with Destiny by William Strauss and Neil Howe. They argue that for the past five centuries, Anglo-American society has followed an eighty- to one-hundred-year cycle, each cycle consisting of four "turnings" (a High, an Awakening, an Unraveling, and then a Crisis). Each turning has its own mood and zeitgeist, which shapes the generations growing up then and gives each generation an overall character or archetype (Prophet, Nomad, Hero, Artist). The differing characters of the generations shape how they respond to the events that occur during their lives, which in turn helps shape the mood of the time. Again, this was one of those change-the-way-you-see-the-world kind of books for me.
posted by Lexica at 7:04 PM on December 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


A couple of Holiday recommendations:

-Santa Claus, Last of the Wild Men; The Origins and Evolution of Saint Nicholas, Spanning 50,000 Years

-The Battle For Christmas; A Cultural History of America's Most Cherished Holiday (personal review: Summary - Washington Irving is to blame for both Yuletide commercialism, AND the fact that costumed, public, inebriated licentiousness is no longer considered traditional behavior at Christmastime. BASTARD.)

-The Man Who Invented Christmas: How Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol Rescued His Career and Revived Our Holiday Spirits (personal review)
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 7:39 PM on December 18, 2012 [2 favorites]


Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion a very interesting look into how people are convienced to buy things, support politicians, etc.
posted by fings at 8:18 PM on December 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


I share your distaste for most non-fiction, but Dreadnought, by Robert K. Massie, is a incredible work of art. Castles of Steel isn't too shabby, either.
posted by builderofscience at 8:52 PM on December 18, 2012


Oh, I just remembered Dark Tide, the story of a massive molasses explosion/flood in Boston in 1919. It is a riveting action story, but also includes legal drama and touches on fascinating aspects of economics, war, ethnic persecution and terrorism. Really interesting.
posted by Rock Steady at 8:54 PM on December 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


Harold McGee's On Food and Cooking.

Oh god yes, if you are at all interested in cooking you must have this book. It doesn't necessarily lend itself to reading cover-to-cover though (believe me, I tried...)
posted by showbiz_liz at 7:04 AM on December 19, 2012


If you're interested in the American Civil War and you've got a lot of time on your hands, you can't go wrong with Shelby Foote's The Civil War: A Narrative.

It's supremely readable and will tell you pretty much everything about the Civil War you'd ever want to know. I've been picking through each volume before bed and Foote has such a great ear for writing and a subtle sense of humor that I really enjoy.
posted by Fister Roboto at 8:12 AM on December 19, 2012 [2 favorites]


You mention that you find nonfiction books dull; how have you been learning your science, including recent science history? Documentaries, courses, word-of-mouth, blogs, or some other method? It could be that what you dislike is the book medium and you'd do better with, for example, the History of Rome podcast, the Crooked Timber blog, documentaries like Helvetica, clicking around Wikipedia, and lectures at your local college or at spaces like The Brooklyn Brainery.

I have found this list of well-written academic books really useful; for example, it pointed me to Linda Gordon's The Great Arizona Orphan Abduction, which uses a particular incident a hundred years ago as a lens to examine race, class, religion, gender, and attitudes towards vigilantism.

From your question (you don't want memoirs, you love science and science fiction, you want the "why," you want facts rather than opinions, you want to master particular topics) I infer that you dislike complex, messy historical issues where there's no clear "right" answer. Perhaps a way to start would be to read historical speculative fiction, like Lest Darkness Fall by L. Sprague de Camp, the Alternate Presidents anthology, or Maureen McHugh's story "The Lincoln Train".

History is not just a set of facts; it is a network, and each fact or insight is a node in that network. The more nodes you populate in your head, the more power the network has; each new fact or insight has more context and so you get more out of it. So you might want to use non-book methods that work for you (like Wikipedia or TV shows) to get some basic overviews, and then try nonfiction books.
posted by brainwane at 9:28 AM on December 19, 2012 [3 favorites]


Complications: A Surgeon’s Notes on an Imperfect Science by Atul Gawande
Honeybee Democracy by Professor Thomas D. Seeley
Limbo: Blue-Collar Roots, White-Collar Dreams by Alfred Lubrano
Gang Leader for a Day by Sudhir Venkatesh
City of Oranges: An Intimate History of Arabs and Jews in Jaffa by Adam LeBor

Possibly too dark for you, but still absolutely amazing:
The Culture of Make Believe by Derrick Jensen
Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by Jared Diamond
The Logic of Failure: Recognizing and Avoiding Error in Complex Situations by Dietrich Dorner
posted by 168 at 5:12 PM on December 19, 2012


A Primate's Memoir: A Neuroscientist's Unconventional Life Among the Baboons, Robert Sapolsky is an engaging read, and while it's not self-help, it has great insight into how primates behave, much of which applies to humans. I also like listening to his lectures on youtube or TED.

I usually read the New Yorker, far more for the non-fiction than the fiction, and many of the writers mentioned here have written for the New Yorker; it's a good way to find writers you'll like.
posted by theora55 at 8:57 AM on December 20, 2012


Empire of Shadows: The Epic Story of Yellowstone by George Black: Is full of wild colorful rough Deadwoodish types all ego and rotgut, and incredible adventure stories as this country headed towards becoming a world power in the 1870's, and regretfully it's first acts of murderous imperialism would occur within it's own borders in the form of pushing Indian tribes off their land and subjugating them to federal control all with the idea that America had a deeper destiny that needed to be actualized.

This is when manifest destiny and the country's growth rise as an economic and cultural power became real and a national dream of greatness became widespread. The final frontiers were being discovered by strong ruthless and relentless characters, some ex-military having fought in the civil war and some from the burgeoning academic communities in NYC and Boston, seeking immortality as explorers and the American West began to become romanticized and mythologized via visionary painters and photographers. This was when the idea of the Wild romantic West, that would go on to capture the imagination of the world, via Hollywood westerns, was born.

The book is exhasutively researched so it can be a little dry sometimes, but that's nicely balanced with lots of exciting true stories of exploration and the cunning used in the face of incredible danger.

It also pulls no punches on the shameful treatment of the Western indian tribes or on the bloody battles waged by both sides.

Full disclosure in that I helped with some of the exhaustive research on the book.
posted by Skygazer at 11:28 PM on December 22, 2012


The Emporer of Scent by Chandler Burr. About a genius, Luca Turin, who devotes his life to the understanding of the human perception of smell through the art of perfume making. Fascinating.

House by Tracy Kidder. A detailed exploration about the building of a custom home. As with Kidder's legendary work "Soul of the New Machine," I learned a lot about things I didn't know I didn't know about.

Curve of Binding Energy by John McPhee about the most pre-eminent and accomplished nuclear weapon engineer and designer, Theodore B. Taylor.

Nthing "On Food and Cooking" by McGee. One can just open the book to any page and read something keenly interesting.

"The Man Who Named the Clouds" about the guy, Luke Howard, and his quest to create the system of cloud names. Really good read, this.

Geez, there are so very many narrowly focused non-fiction reads that are so great...
posted by bz at 7:00 PM on December 23, 2012


(I will totally be printing out this thread.)

Late, but for posterity:

The Wave: In Pursuit of the Rogues, Freaks and Giants of the Ocean - The focus is on monster waves, and the science behind it, but she explores it through scientists who are interested in understanding them, surfers who are obsessed with capturing them, even companies that have to recover ships hit by them.


The Tell-Tale Brain or Phantoms in the Brain by V. S. Ramachandran - He's a neuroscientist, and he explores really understanding the brain and the creation of self. I didn't find it dry at all, and he looks a lot of cases where things go wrong in the brain, to show how the brain likely works. One of the things he's famous for is figuring out a way to treat phantom limb pain involving mirrors and tricking the brain into thinking the limb is still there.


Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts by Carol Tavris - This goes more into social psychology, but goes into how we think, and touches upon interesting cases.


The Gift of Fear by Gavin de Becker. Often shelved in self-help, it's really a practical book on understanding risk, and where fear is useful, and where it's not. He goes into a lot of real world examples to illustrate what he's talking about.


Something to challenge beliefs: Overdiagnosed: Making People Sick in the Pursuit of Health - He's a doctor who has serious questions re: the obsession with preventative/early screening movement in seemingly healthy people (i.e. are you actually preventing what you're intending to or are you just redefining "sick" then happily accepting the people who would never have had problems in the first place).
posted by smock smock smock at 9:02 PM on December 24, 2012


The Warmth of Other Sons. A nonfiction but incredible narrative of a few who were a part of the Great Migration in the US.
posted by flying_trapeze at 12:51 PM on December 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


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