I Need a New Big Think Book!
May 10, 2009 5:03 PM   Subscribe

I need a new "big think" book! I just finished Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers, and I loved his other books as well. I've read everything Jared Diamond has published (Collapse, Guns, Germs & Steel, The Third Chimpanzee etc.) I like books that stretch your brain and reveal the hidden factors in life, the world and society.

I like books that make you look at stuff you think you know about, which show you a new perspective. I liked Moneyball, and Better, and Complications. I just enjoyed The Black Swan.

I also like the same kinds of books in a historical context, e.g. 1491, Twilight of the Mammoths, The Dinosaur Heresies and Changes in the Land.

I'm not that fond of Thomas Friedman, who seems a master of the obvious, and Ray Kurzweil seems a bit breathless.

Who else should I read?
posted by musofire to Science & Nature (65 answers total) 249 users marked this as a favorite
Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid. This is an amazing book and it will keep you occupied for a long time.
posted by lolichka at 5:06 PM on May 10, 2009 [6 favorites]

The Singularity Is Near
posted by nitsuj at 5:09 PM on May 10, 2009 [2 favorites]

Also: Maximum City
posted by nitsuj at 5:10 PM on May 10, 2009

The Discovery of France
posted by fire&wings at 5:21 PM on May 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

Homicide: A Year in the Killing Streets by perennial MeFi favorite David Simon. It's not science lite, but it will certainly make you think.
posted by The Michael The at 5:23 PM on May 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

Freakonomics was pretty popular, and fits in with the other books you've read.

I'd also check out a few of the books from Mark Kurlansky, such as Salt and Cod - great histories of everyday things.
posted by kjars at 5:24 PM on May 10, 2009

You might find Niall Ferguson's "The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World" and Gregory Clark's "A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World" interesting.
posted by caelumluna at 5:28 PM on May 10, 2009 [2 favorites]

A Natural History of the Senses
The Naked Ape

and especially, The Geography of Thought- really interesting ideas about how Eastern & Western --raised people think differently. Not entirely unlike the "Asian kids & math" chapter of Outliers. Draws different conclusions thant Gladwell drew, and details some really interesting thought experiments. I thought it was a great read and applicable to Western social circles as a sort of Introvert/Extrovert or even Ask/Guess thought process primer (click this link to see the Ask/Guess culture thing, it's probably the best comment I've ever seen on AskMefi)
posted by pseudostrabismus at 5:31 PM on May 10, 2009 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I thought Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World fell very well into the same line of thinking as the other titles you've mentioned.
posted by anildash at 5:38 PM on May 10, 2009

Wonderful Life
posted by KokuRyu at 5:43 PM on May 10, 2009

Marx's Manifesto of the Communist Party, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, and The Civil War in France with "Big Think" book in that they're aimed at a lay audience and offer a novel analysis of Important Things. Also, they're short and fun to read.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 5:43 PM on May 10, 2009

i'd like to second The Michael The with Homicide. No, it's not "big think" where it'll reveal an underlying theory of the world, but it is an outstanding book about the lowest strata of society and the state's efforts to combat its degeneracy. And, despite being written during 1988, it still holds up remarkably well today.
posted by the NATURAL at 5:47 PM on May 10, 2009

The Omnivore's Dilemma reveals the hidden factors in our society related to food.
posted by diogenes at 5:56 PM on May 10, 2009

Alan Weisman's The World Without Us takes a look at what would happen to the rest of the world if all humans were to suddenly disappear.
posted by drea at 5:58 PM on May 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

I'd suggest Fooled by Randomness.
posted by questionsandanchors at 5:58 PM on May 10, 2009

Nature's Metropolis by William Cronon is a far-reaching investigation of the early growth of Chicago--from middle of nowhere to teeming city--and its effects on the landscape around it. Lots of intriguing details about the ins and outs of commerce at the time, and how they tied in to the larger economic picture.
posted by fermion at 5:58 PM on May 10, 2009 [2 favorites]

Pop physics books are also worth taking a look at. I've only watched the documentary so YMMV, but Brian Green's The Elegant Universe was fascinating.
posted by drea at 6:00 PM on May 10, 2009

The Mismeasure Of Man by Stephen Jay Gould.

Also, War and Peace. It's in a rather different vein, being a 19th century Russian novel and all, but there are a lot of serious philosophical essays interspersed with the story. Make sure you get it unabridged, though; most abridgements cut out the essays. Also, and more importantly, it's a damn good book; it really and truly changed the how I look at the world (very few books have even come close; I am a very stubborn person). It may or may not do that for you, but it'll definitely make you think.
posted by Commander Rachek at 6:07 PM on May 10, 2009

Anything by Steven Pinker, Thomas Landsburg, or Richard Dawkins.

I also just finished The Case Against Adolescence, by Robert Epstein, which I liked for the same reasons that I like those big think books.

Also, if you aren't widely read in philosophy, try that. Derek Parfit, Robert Nozick, Peter Singer, and Thomas Nagel are particularly good at writing hypotheticals and such that will really make you think.
posted by decathecting at 6:08 PM on May 10, 2009

Matt Ridley's The Origin of Virtue.
posted by kprincehouse at 6:09 PM on May 10, 2009 [2 favorites]

The Moral Animal--A decent intro to evolutionary pyschology
The Act of Creation--by Arthur Koestler. It'll blow your mind.
Lives of a Cell
posted by John of Michigan at 6:16 PM on May 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

Good call on Nature's Metropolis. It reveals the links between the natural world, the economic system as it exists today, and our cities. If you like that sort of historical ecology stuff, there are a few other good ones to recommend. That reminds me of Patricia Limerick's The Legacy of Conquest. A different way to look at how the US West got to be the way it is.

Anyway, I was going to recommend Confessions of an Economic Hitman. I haven't read it, but even watching the San Francisco Mime Troupe's dramatized version of it a few years back gave me some food for thought. I've heard a variety of opinions but it does sound like it'd be worth a quick read.
posted by salvia at 6:41 PM on May 10, 2009

And especially relevant due to the imminent release of Wolfram|Alpha:
A New Kind of Science
posted by Kifer85 at 6:46 PM on May 10, 2009

Howard Zinn's "A People's History of the United States" fits in well with the other books you mentioned. It puts commonly known American History (at least among American children) in a new context that can be quite thought provoking.
posted by paperzach at 6:53 PM on May 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

I highly recommend Bill Bryson's "A Short History of Nearly Everything."
posted by slateyness at 7:07 PM on May 10, 2009

Howard Zinn's "A People's History of the United States" fits in well with the other books you mentioned. It puts commonly known American History (at least among American children) in a new context that can be quite thought provoking.

Second this. Also, if you're able to find a teacher's edition of the book, the end-of-chapter discussion questions take "thought provoking" to a whole 'nother level.
posted by padraigin at 7:11 PM on May 10, 2009

I second "The Omnivore's Dilemma" and "A Short History of Nearly Everything".

"Massive Change" by Bruce Mau, and "Deep Economy" by Bill McKibben are great as well.
posted by tarantula at 7:13 PM on May 10, 2009

Seconding The World Without Us. You might find this piece interesting before you pick up the works of Niall Ferugson.
posted by Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell at 7:16 PM on May 10, 2009

Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded: August 27, 1883. This is a quick read. Good stories about the history of plate tectonics and a bit of the flavor of colonial and post-colonial Indonesia.
posted by aperture_priority at 7:17 PM on May 10, 2009

When considering all these suggestions (all more or less good ones) I would also recommend a big grain of salt.

Many of these authors are masters of the art of weaving obvious truths and unsupported imaginings into quite solid-seeming structures. But the structures won't support you if you move into them.

Others are simply extended advertisements for the brilliance of their authors--you learn how wonderful their powers of analysis are, but not the methods of analysis.

But I'll add one well-known and influential work that fits the list, notable mostly for the modesty of it claims:
A Random Walk Down Wall Street first published in 1973 and revised many times.
posted by hexatron at 7:27 PM on May 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

Robert Sapolsky writes about baboons, and a lot more.
posted by theora55 at 7:32 PM on May 10, 2009

Here's some to give you a different perspective on things:

Human Smoke.

The Immortalists.

Lies My Teacher Told Me.

Babi Yar.
posted by thermonuclear.jive.turkey at 7:41 PM on May 10, 2009

Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future, by Bill McKibben (also founder of the 350 movement).
posted by meinvt at 7:44 PM on May 10, 2009

I was shocked and fascinated by Laurie Garrett's The Coming Plague. It's out of date now but the historical information on epidemics is just as horrifying as ever, and she does a good job explaining what (on a societal scale) sets the stage for infectious disease and what results from it.
posted by lakeroon at 7:45 PM on May 10, 2009

On the shortness of life, by Seneca.

Google for a free translation, so you can read it tonight & tomorrow while you're waiting for all the books above to arrive in the mail; 24 pages printed out; ~2,000 years old and still blowing minds.
posted by mabelstreet at 7:55 PM on May 10, 2009

Steps to an Ecology of Mind, by Gregory Bateson. Actually a collection of essays he wrote over a long period (so you can read the chapters out of order without breaking a chain of reasoning).
posted by Ritchie at 7:56 PM on May 10, 2009

Manuel De Landa - A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History
posted by agfa8x at 8:51 PM on May 10, 2009

The Venus Project's book list: www.thevenusproject.com/media/downloads/Booklist.pdf
posted by querty at 9:23 PM on May 10, 2009

Perhaps Six Degrees: The Science of a Connected Age. It is concerned with networks, sociology, and the interconnectedness of things.
posted by MetaMonkey at 9:30 PM on May 10, 2009

Any of Canadian John Ralston Saul's non-fiction work fits the bill. I particularly love Voltaire's Bastards: The Dictatorship of Reason in the West and The Unconscious Civilization.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 10:04 PM on May 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

In addition to the Omnivore's Dilemma, I'd suggest Fast Food Nation, which is not just for eaters of fast food.

These are older and perhaps more difficult reads, but certainly qualify:

Metaphors We Live By made the case for the importance of metaphor in how we interpret our world.

The Structure of Scientific Revolutions demolishes the notion of science as linear progress towards truth. (It's also controversial.)

The Death and Life of Great American Cities explains how cities work and how misguided planning destroys them.
posted by parudox at 10:27 PM on May 10, 2009

Oh, and another one: Descartes' Error describes the influence of the body and emotion on reason.
posted by parudox at 10:37 PM on May 10, 2009

Gah, didn't catch that in your post! Sorry! Have you read his other book, Fooled by Randomness?
posted by Dukat at 10:53 PM on May 10, 2009

Best answer: Nonzero, by Robert Wright (who has a new one out I hear is also good, The Evolution of God
At Home in the Universe, by Stuart Kauffman
Emergence, by Steven Johnson
The Wisdom of Crowds, by James Surowiecki
Annals of the Former World, by John McPhee
posted by sapere aude at 11:44 PM on May 10, 2009

No Sense of Place: The Impact of Electronic Media on Social Behavior, by Joshua Meyrowitz. A fascinating study of the impact that television has had on society.
posted by russilwvong at 12:03 AM on May 11, 2009

Seconding Taleb's Black Swan, Michael Pollan's stuff, and adding Neil Postman's classic Amusing Ourselves to Death to the media critique pool.

Great list, y'all.
posted by Emperor SnooKloze at 4:16 AM on May 11, 2009

Gah. Seconding McPhee's Annals. Cannot multitask this early.
posted by Emperor SnooKloze at 4:18 AM on May 11, 2009

I learned about Judith Rich Harris' The Nurture Assumption from this Malcolm Gladwell article and reading it really gave my views on kids (and parenting) a huge shift.
posted by copystar at 4:57 AM on May 11, 2009

Time, Love, Memory, by Jonathan Weiner was a good one.
posted by Quizicalcoatl at 5:19 AM on May 11, 2009

+1 for The Selfish Gene (Dawkins as a biologist, not an atheist)

Also, not a book but the Overcoming Bias blog fits this (but can be a complicated at times)
posted by Wilka at 6:22 AM on May 11, 2009

Stiff isn't exactly a "big idea" book, but it's an interesting look at what happens to your body after you die and all the various uses they're put to.
posted by electroboy at 6:48 AM on May 11, 2009

The Blind Side, by the same guy who wrote Moneyball, is excellent.
posted by AceRock at 8:28 AM on May 11, 2009

"Before The Dawn" by Nicholas Wade is an excellent account of the way recent advances molecular biology and archaeology are combining to shed light on human evolution. One section directly contradicts some of what Jared Diamond had to say in his more simplistic and biased "Guns, Germs and Steel", and I think it is exceptionally valuable in this respect as it's all too easy to read some of these books and regard them as authoritative when they're not. The rest of the book is also hugely thought-provoking and lays out many important issues that we as a society are just not dealing with in the way we need to.
I'll second anything by Dawkins but especially "The Selfish Gene", and Michael Pollan.
Also, this thread is likely to cause a wholesale transfer of my entire bank account to Amazon/Audible's coffers. So "thanks".
posted by nowonmai at 6:30 PM on May 11, 2009

Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed by James C. Scott. I think the title is pretty self-explanatory. Fascinating book.
Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert Cialdino. Kind of an up-to-date "Hidden Persuaders"; excellent and enlightening.
Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in America by David Hackett Fischer. Thesis is that various local cultures in England and Scotland gave rise to groups/waves of immigrants who settled in new American localities, producing specific subcultures that remain alive to this day (e.g. "Puritans" = New England; Cavaliers = southern US: people from Scottish borderlands = Applachia; and I think it's Quaker types = mid-Atlantic region. Offers, IMO, some really interesting insights into US politics and culture today.
Lawsuit by Stuart M. Speiser. Product liability law in relation to aviation. You'll never look at an aviation disaster the same way again!
Empires of the Atlantic World: Britain and Spain in America, 1492-1830, by J. H. Elliott. Spanish/Catholic/hierarchical culture vs British/Protestant/less centralized authority and how these influenced the settlement of North and South Americas, also touching on geographic factors.
Sex and Destiny: The Politics of Human Fertility by Germaine Greer. Pretty polemical -- I read it at least 20 years ago and am not sure how well it wears today -- but it definitely changed the way I look at the world.
posted by littlecatfeet at 6:31 PM on May 11, 2009

Lipstick Traces by Greil Marcus. An oldie, but a goodie.

Also Alex Ross's The Rest is Noise.
posted by sagwalla at 8:04 AM on May 12, 2009

For a fascinating look at how animals think, I'd recommend the first few chapters of Folk Physics for Apes (it gets less interesting and a bit more repetitive as the book goes on, but the first few chapters are really fascinating). It pretty much trashes commonly held beliefs about how animals (particularly our nearest relatives) process the world around them.
posted by Deathalicious at 9:02 AM on May 12, 2009

I would add Chance and Necessity by Jacques Monod. He goes through in detail from a purely biological standpoint how life could have started. He basically refutes the idea that "life is too complex to have originated from evolution".
posted by escher at 10:43 AM on May 13, 2009

Any of Seth Godin's books about marketing - brilliant! (Get a flavour of him on his blog) or the Undercover Economist by Tim Harford (brilliant, really fascinating).
posted by monster max at 2:10 PM on May 13, 2009

Lucretius' The Nature of Things
posted by aesacus at 7:29 PM on May 13, 2009 [1 favorite]

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