Suggestions needed for great narrative nonfiction reading!
July 18, 2009 6:19 AM   Subscribe

Please recommend your favorite "behind the scenes" nonfiction books!

I love reading nonfiction "behind the scenes/a year in the life" type books that emphasize the human side of particular jobs or environments. Books that I have especially enjoyed include Courtroom 302 (a year behind the scenes in a Chicago criminal courthouse), And Still We Rise (Los Angeles inner-city high school), and The Gatekeepers (Ivy League admissions office). Any other suggestions? Bonus points if the book is about education or other helping professions, but any recommendations will be appreciated!
posted by bookmammal to Media & Arts (48 answers total) 110 users marked this as a favorite
Check Tracy Kidder, esp. "Among Schoolchildren".

(Maybe a bit off-topic: "The Class" in an incredibly great film about schoolteaching. It's not nonfiction, but it's based on fact, and in turn, on a fact-based fiction book by François Bégaudeau. I haven't read the book, but the movie is *great*.)
posted by ManInSuit at 6:47 AM on July 18, 2009

David Simon's Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets. The author spent a year year with detectives from the Baltimore homicide squad.
posted by aheckler at 6:57 AM on July 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

I found a book called "On Subbing" on being a substitute teacher for $5 at an arts bookstore. It might be hard to locate, but it's a fun read.
posted by LSK at 7:08 AM on July 18, 2009

I read Educating Esme: Diary of a Teacher's First Year a few years ago & liked it.

Another from David Simon, which I haven't read, but imagine is fantastic: The Corner.
posted by knile at 7:11 AM on July 18, 2009

Heat by Bill Buford
posted by OmieWise at 7:19 AM on July 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of The Oxford English Dictionary -- It's extremely good, both as a the story of W.C. Minor and as a look into the building of the first edition of one of the most comprehensive dictionaries of the English language. (Not a bad look at Victorian England, either.)
posted by elfgirl at 7:23 AM on July 18, 2009 [2 favorites]

Two food-related books that match your criteria:

Kitchen Confidential


Waiter Rant
posted by The Gooch at 7:24 AM on July 18, 2009

"Being With Children" by Philip Lopate : "In the 1960s, prizewinning writer Philip Lopate went into an urban school to teach poetry and became a part of the school community. Being with Children, first published in 1975 but out of print for many years, is Lopate's classic account of his relationship to his craft and to his young students. Hailed by the New York Times as "a wise and tender portrait of a small society," Lopate's book explores the horrible and beautiful aspects of being with young people five hours a day, and explains why teachers persist in staying with the public schools and trying to make them into places where young people can flower."

Anything by Vivian Gussin Paley:
posted by grumblebee at 7:28 AM on July 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

Lovejoy: A Year in the Life of an Abortion Clinic by Peter Korn. I read it about a decade ago and parts still stay with me.

Used and Rare: Travels in the Book World by Lawrence and Nancy Goldman. Not quite behind-the-scenes, but a married couple gets drawn into the world of rare books.

There's a Bear in There (and he wants Swedish) by Merridy Eastman. An Australian children's television presenter and out-of-work actor goes to work as a receptionist in a brothel. (Disappointingly shallow when it comes to discussing how women end up in prostitution; best read as a light-hearted memoir.)
posted by Georgina at 7:31 AM on July 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

Journalist Ted Conover gets a job at Sing Sing in Newjack.

Ten Days in A Madhouse, by Nellie Bly (1877!)
posted by starman at 8:03 AM on July 18, 2009

A Civil Action
posted by marsha56 at 8:15 AM on July 18, 2009

William Goldman's Adventures in the Screen Trade is good, although a bit outdated now that marketing blitzes and merchandising can make almost any film profitable, overturning has 'no-one knows anything' maxim.

Bruce Campbell's If Chins Could Kill: Confessions of a B-Movie Actor is a fun look at the same industry.
posted by permafrost at 8:20 AM on July 18, 2009

Dry Storeroom No. 1 might work.

For something a little different, you might also try the graphic novel Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea, which is about the 2 months the author spent in North Korea - so a behind the scenes look at one of the oddest countries/regimes in the world.
posted by gudrun at 8:34 AM on July 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

The Other Hollywood: The Uncensored Oral History of the Porn Film Industry by Legs McNeil is really goddamn good.
posted by item at 8:38 AM on July 18, 2009

I love this topic too! This question asks about sort of the same thing pertaining to blogs -- maybe some of the blogs recommended there have been published or edited into book form.
posted by punchdrunkhistory at 9:07 AM on July 18, 2009

Confessions of a Tax Collector is excellent
posted by IanMorr at 9:25 AM on July 18, 2009

Not about teaching, but... recently I have enjoyed:

"Bringing Home the Birkin" by Michael Tonello, about a guy who finds himself the "go-to" guy for acquiring Hermes bags; very funny and a world I knew nothing about as I am not about to pay $10,000 or more for a purse.

"Quick, Before the Music Stops" by Janet Carlson, about the world of competitive ballroom dancing.

"Grand Obsession: A Piano Odyssey" by Perri Knize, about a woman's search for the perfect piano; a great look at the art of piano building and the culture that revolves around it.

And one about education for orphaned/abandoned/underprivileged kids: "A Place to Call Home: The Amazing Success Story of Modern Orphanages" by Martha Randolph Carr, which I found very interesting.
posted by OolooKitty at 9:29 AM on July 18, 2009

So You Wanna Be a Rock & Roll Star is another good one about what it's like to be the least famous member of a not very famous band that makes it big, sort of.
posted by smackfu at 9:31 AM on July 18, 2009

Probably just because I'm a nerd about these things, but Monarchy: A Year With The Queen (there's also a companion DVD set which is even better) was excellent.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 10:04 AM on July 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

dammit! /i.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 10:04 AM on July 18, 2009

Chiming in that Kitchen Confidential is great.
posted by radioamy at 10:26 AM on July 18, 2009

The Late Shift and Desperate Networks by Bill Carter.

They're about television.
posted by Sys Rq at 10:29 AM on July 18, 2009

Not really about education (except for Bissinger, who takes a cold, hard look at high school football), but certainly educational:

'Bringing the heat' - Mark Bowden
'Paper Lion' - George Plimpton
'Friday Night Lights' - HG Bissinger
'Homicide' - David Simon
'Hell's Angels' - Hunter S. Thompson
'The Soul of a New Machine' - Tracey Kidder
posted by NekulturnY at 10:29 AM on July 18, 2009

The Kid Stays in the Picture, by legendary Hollywood producer Robert Evans, is great. It's also an awesome movie.
posted by mixer at 10:45 AM on July 18, 2009

THANK YOU for all of these great suggestions! (zoel: I am actually in the middle of reading Relentless Pursuit right now--great book so far!)

I'll be hitting the library and local B&N this weekend to find some of these. In the meantime, feel free to keep adding any additional suggestions!
posted by bookmammal at 10:47 AM on July 18, 2009

Seven Days In The Art World
posted by R. Mutt at 10:55 AM on July 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

For a Behind The Scenes of a contemporary hollywood film (and there are already some great film-realted suggestions above) I can't recommend "The Devil's Candy." It is positively "exhaustive" in it's research, putting the reader in the shoes of an underpaid, overworked Production Assistant, with as much deft and care as the disaffecteed loafers of one Tom Hanks.

Not to mention it makes "bonfire of the vanities," considered to most to be a rather forgettable film, into the most interesting movie you've ever viewed...
posted by seansbrain at 11:21 AM on July 18, 2009

Two somewhat related books:

Cop in the Hood: Peter Moskos, an NYC sociologist, joined the Baltimore police department and served as a beat cop for a year. Fascinating stuff, and a must-read for fans of The Wire.

Gang Leader for a Day: Sudhir Venkatesh earned some fame for his work which led to the "Why Do Drug Dealers Live With Their Mothers?" chapter of Freakonomics. This book reflects years of close study of Chicago gang members and leaders, practically living with some of them.

Something completely different:

Ball Four: One of the only sports books worth reading, in my opinion, and totally hilarious. One-time Yankee star Jim Bouton tries to resurrect his career at age 30 with the Seattle Pilots. He gives a pretty unvarnished look at the life of major league players, circa 1970. A great read.
posted by Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell at 11:35 AM on July 18, 2009

And... seconding Professor & the Madman. Another excellent read. Waiter Rant the book is pretty good, but the blog, in my opinion, is much better. I would suggest going back to the earliest archives and reading forward from there.
posted by Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell at 11:39 AM on July 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

Two by Mark Baker, both great, and mostly just transcribed interviews.

Cops, one of the earlier books told from the cops point of view.

Nam (not overtly about helping people)
posted by Gorgik at 12:15 PM on July 18, 2009

Seconding the recommendation of Kitchen Confidential, it will definitely change the way you think about restaurants. Also The Sharper Your Knife, the Less You Cry is another behind-the-scenes look at cooking (the author is a student at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris).
posted by LolaGeek at 1:54 PM on July 18, 2009

Seconding Tracy Kidder. The Soul of a New Machine was astoundingly engrossing.

Also Neil Straus' The Game is actually really great even though it seems to be commonly misread as some kind of creeper instruction manual.
posted by cmoj at 2:05 PM on July 18, 2009

The Prince of Marshes: And Other Occupational Hazards of a Year in Iraq is an engrossing, deadpan account of a year spent as a provisional governor of a province in southern Iraq, as part of the interim coalition government. It's not a "political" book that takes a stance on the occupation of Iraq; it's a well-written account of local politics, rural Iraqi life, and the trials and tribulations involved in supplying basic services to a war-torn and undeveloped area.
posted by bookish at 2:18 PM on July 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

Totally nthing Homicide, Life on the Killing Streets. Great book.

If you are interested in how TV shows are made, I'd recommend picking up Whil Weaton's self-published Sunken Treasure - it has a short story that is a production diary from his ep of Criminal Minds. I found it fascinating.
posted by gemmy at 2:58 PM on July 18, 2009

Two books on the making of television adaptations of Emma and P&P. The one on P&P is better as I recall, part of the one on Emma being taken up by the full script.

Edward Blishen's autobiographical books: for example, Nest of Teachers, on teacher-training; Roaring Boys and This Right Soft Lot, on teaching; Donkey Work, on his time as a conscientious objector in the war. Funny and full of memorable insights.
posted by paduasoy at 3:28 PM on July 18, 2009

Dry Storeroom No. 1: The Secret Life Of The Natural History Museum by Richard Fortey (approved by Trace Beaulieu (Dr. Forester) of MST3k)
posted by Mael Oui at 7:41 PM on July 18, 2009

*Forrester, I meant.
posted by Mael Oui at 7:43 PM on July 18, 2009

2nding Rebel without a Crew.

Adding J. Maarten Troost's Sex Live of Cannibals: Adrift in the Equatorial Pacific, and if you like that, Getting Stoned with Savages (the followup book).
posted by fings at 10:13 PM on July 18, 2009

I loved Service Included, if another restaurant world title isn't too much for you.
posted by mintcake! at 11:33 PM on July 18, 2009

Nthing Heat and Homicide both. Also, try Ted Conover's Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing.
posted by nuala at 10:52 AM on July 19, 2009

Kevin smith has written/assembled at least two books of behind the scenes info about his career and movies.
posted by soelo at 11:06 AM on July 19, 2009

These aren't about education, but:

I enjoyed The Hungry Ocean which showed a swordfish boat journey from the eyes of its captain...who was female nonetheless. Very interesting.

And I haven't read it yet, but my mom recommended Plain and Simple as a glimpse into Amish life.
posted by moutonoir at 12:59 PM on July 19, 2009

I loved Snapshots from Hell by Peter Robinson, about his experience at Stanford Business School.
posted by SisterHavana at 5:40 PM on July 19, 2009

Foreign policy: George F. Kennan describes his experience as a high-level official in the US State Department during the early Cold War, in Memoirs, 1925-1950.
posted by russilwvong at 10:50 PM on July 19, 2009

God's Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible is a fascinating look at the church and state politics that served as the backdrop for this most famous and influential book. It's not a religious work, despite the subject, and is a good read for anyone interested in English cultural history.
posted by adjockey at 2:42 PM on July 20, 2009

Fantastic thread. I have a huge list of books and articles along this theme that I'll probably never have the time to read, but most of them are about topics other than education and such... you might find this one interesting though:

Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do, by Studs Terkel
posted by renovatio1 at 5:40 PM on July 20, 2009

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