Nonfiction accessible to the layman?
December 16, 2008 4:00 AM   Subscribe

Nonfiction accessible to the layman?

Some of the most satisfying books I've read are what I'd call "popular nonfiction" - books written by experts on a subject meant to be accessible to non-experts, or even specifically geared towards non-experts. Some examples that I've read are "A Brief History of Time", "Cosmos", "The Selfish Gene" in science; maybe "Freakonomics" for economics and "Blink" for Psychology, to a lesser extent. These books are fairly common in scienc-y fields (although I welcome suggestions for books on science topics), but what would a linguist suggest as a popular primer? What would an English professor suggest for literary criticism, or postmodernism? What is the best accessible, even interesting, book in your field for the lay reader?
posted by btkuhn to Education (19 answers total) 31 users marked this as a favorite
This previous post has what you're looking for.
posted by spockette at 4:20 AM on December 16, 2008

I just yesterday read about a Great Books program for non-college participants in Texas where the students range in age from 23 to 56 and who "debate Plato with gusto." I'm on the bus but I'll get the name of it for you.
posted by parmanparman at 4:43 AM on December 16, 2008

If you enjoyed A Brief History of Time and The Selfish Gene, you may enjoy Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (alternative title "A short history about everyone for the last 13,000 years") by Jared Diamond. Profound, insightful and yet easily accessible. If you've ever wondered why Spanish conquistadors landed in middle America and not the other way round, this book will help you understand why. I found Diamonds cultural insights a nice complement to Dawkins biological theories.
posted by Nightwind at 5:05 AM on December 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

There are any number of good medical books for the lay reader out there (and more than a few crappy ones). Two I recommend are King of Hearts about the beginnings of open heart surgery, particularly in children, and Walk on Water for a more up to date look at the field. The first one is the better of the two if you want to narrow it down.
posted by TedW at 6:24 AM on December 16, 2008

For sociocultural linguistics, I would suggest Social Linguistics and Literacies: Ideology in Discourses.
posted by mrmojoflying at 6:36 AM on December 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

For urban planning: The Death and Life of American Cities, by Jane Jacobs

I'm currently reading an excellent sociology/African-American studies book called Code of the Street by Elijah Anderson.
posted by desjardins at 8:20 AM on December 16, 2008 [2 favorites]

Try the annual "Best American....." series of non-fiction, science, travel, and essay writings. Here's one example in the series that's been published for several years.

Each year the books are edited by different editors who are prominent in his/her field. It's a good, easy way to expose yourself to a wide range of topics. Most libraries carry them, too. Makes for great airplane, bedtime, bathroom reading.
posted by webhund at 8:22 AM on December 16, 2008

The Pinball Effect by James Burke
posted by plinth at 8:31 AM on December 16, 2008

For science, that's all Roger Lewin does. He has many books and they are all very readable.
posted by elendil71 at 8:35 AM on December 16, 2008

John McPhee. John McPhee.
posted by Darth Fedor at 8:57 AM on December 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

*pulls up chair, sits down*

Erik Larson is very, very good at historical narrative nonfiction. I first read his Devil In The White City, which combined the stories of both the Chicago Worlds' Fair and a serial killer's activity. I've also read Thunderstruck, which combines the tale of of Marconi's inventing radio with the story of a murder in London (the two were connected because the killer tried to escape to the U.S., but the ship-to-shore radio alerted the captain of the boat that the killer may be on board and they were able to arrange his capture). He also did a book about the Galveston Hurricane and a man who worked with the weather bureau.

I also really liked Daniel Boorstein's The Discoverers, which he calls a history of science. It's a retelling of history as it relates to major scientific concepts -- the book is divided into four sections (the only ones I remember right now are "time", "society", and "the natural world"), and each section discusses the history of how mankind related to each concept; for example, the "Time" section starts with Egyptians first noticing, "say, there seems to be a pattern to how frequently this river floods, maybe we should keep track of that?" and discusses each of the measuring-and-marking time concepts from then up to today, ending with the atomic clock. In between he gets into how different technologies, religous philosophies, and myriad other things affected how we related to timekeeping, and he also includes all the weird side-bar ideas that never caught on (one of my favorite stories was about some minor inventor's idea to have a clock that worked by TASTE).
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:05 AM on December 16, 2008

I work in neuroscience and I just finished reading Eric Kandel's autobiography -- In Search of Memory. Highly recommended.
posted by peacheater at 9:10 AM on December 16, 2008

For physics (and science), just about anything by John Gribbin. For psychology, I absolutely adored Dan Gilbert's Stumbling on Happiness.
posted by alby at 9:37 AM on December 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

Seconding the Kandel. Also, Time, Love, Memory: A Great Biologist and His Quest for the Origins of Behavior.

Any popular work by Dawkins, Pinker, Jared Diamond .

Book by a clinician, similar to Oliver Sacks: Defending the Cavewoman: And Other Tales of Evolutionary Neurology by Harold Klawans.

Your Inner Fish: A Journey into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body by Neil Shubin.

(Christ, of the entire list, only one goy.)
posted by orthogonality at 9:40 AM on December 16, 2008

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down is a book about a Hmong child with epilepsy and how the Hmong culture and American?American medical cultures interact and clash. Very interesting, if specific, read.

Oliver Sacks' work in the field of neuropsychology is always fascinating. (He wrote the book upon which Awakenings is based.) Check out The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat for fascinating clinical vignettes.

For a broad discussion of the history of science, Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything is one that I am re-reading right now--I am finding it just as informative and mind-blowing this go around.
posted by thebrokedown at 9:44 AM on December 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

I know nothing about either of the fields you asked about, linguistics or literary criticism, but I read blogs, which clearly makes me highly qualified to offer an answer.

Start with the blog Language Log (they also have almost five years worth of posts in their old archives), whose contributors are a number of academic linguists who write entries that I'd call pretty accessible. Think of them as the Scientific American of linguistics blogs. They also have a book out now, Far From the Madding Gerund.

In their archives, I found a number of suggestions for laymen's reading. I can testify that I've enjoyed several of these:
  • Most of David Crystal's books, including his newest, The Fight for English: How Language Pundits Ate, Shot, and Left
  • Many of Steven Pinker's books, including The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature, Words and Rules: The Ingredients of Language, and The Language Instinct
  • Anatoly Liberman, Word Origins ...and How We Know Them: Etymology for Everyone
  • Laurie Bauer and Peter Trudgill, Language Myths
  • Geoffrey Pullum, The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax and Other Irreverent Essays on the Study of Language
  • George Miller, Spontaneous Apprentices: Children and Language and The Science of Words
  • Bob Dixon, Searching for Aboriginal Languages: Memoirs of a Field Worker
  • you can keep Googling within Language Log if you want
Noam Chomsky of course has approximately two hundred thousand books in print; some people don't find him terribly accessible even when he's writing for laymen.

I know even less about things literary, but James Wood and Harold Bloom are both notable writers of literary criticism with popular books in print, and Bloom has also done the same for literary theory. Checking the archives of popular "smart people" mags like The New Yorker and The New Republic will find you a gold mine of essays and reviews by both Wood and Bloom if you want a sample. Reviews are mixed for Wood's How Fiction Works, which came out this year, but I'll still be looking for it in the library.

Mortimer J. Adler was a philosopher with a number of popular books; several of my friends are evangelists for his How to Read a Book.

Finally, I'll put in an obligatory plug for David Foster Wallace, who wrote several critical essays plus a bunch of others that bleed from philosophy into literature into news into media into life. There's a nice blog post on The New Republic compiling links to several of his pieces that are freely available online. You can also find them and many others in his collections, A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again and Consider the Lobster.
posted by jeeves at 12:31 PM on December 16, 2008

Oh, as far as science-science goes, Carl Sagan was one of the best popularizers we had, and if all you've read is Cosmos then you should go out and get his other books too. Someone already mentioned Oliver Sacks for neuropsychology; his books are well-written perennial bestsellers. V. S. Ramachandran has done a few pretty good popular neuropsych books.

A lot of physicists have written popular books. Off the top of my head, I'd say most people find Richard Feynman and George Gamow readable. If you want books by non-dead physicists, Lisa Randall's book Warped Passages and Brian Greene's The Elegant Universe are both extremely popular. I can't bring myself to push Stephen Hawking, since I didn't like his books all that much when I was younger.
posted by jeeves at 12:45 PM on December 16, 2008

See this thread and this other thread.
posted by matildaben at 12:56 PM on December 16, 2008

I really loved How Buildings Learn
posted by BoscosMom at 11:04 AM on December 17, 2008

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