Punchy non-fiction with an educational bent?
March 10, 2010 11:22 AM   Subscribe

If I enjoy the engaging (and frequently humorous) nonfiction and memoir of Stephen Fry, Mary Roach, and Bill Bryson, who else should I be reading?

I'm looking for nonfiction, essays, or memoir that are conversational, humorous, sharp, and educational--without verging too far into the sometimes-sketchy Malcolm Gladwell-esque side of pop psychology or sociology.

Other authors whose nonfiction I've enjoyed: David Foster Wallace (!), Oliver Sacks, and, to a lesser extent, Malcolm Gladwell and Bruno Maddox of Discover magazine.

(I have seen these older questions, but it's been a while.)
posted by sciapod to Education (26 answers total) 69 users marked this as a favorite
James Lileks?
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 11:30 AM on March 10, 2010

One Man's Chorus by Anthony Burgess.

Just about anything by David Sedaris.

Umberto Eco's nonfiction is often fun and informative.
posted by Sys Rq at 11:33 AM on March 10, 2010

Jon Ronson, author of The Men Who Stare at Goats and the (superior imo) Them: Adventures with Extremists.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 11:34 AM on March 10, 2010

Oh yeah! And definitely check out Sarah Vowell, especially Assassination Vacation and The Wordy Shipmates.
posted by Sys Rq at 11:35 AM on March 10, 2010

John McPhee is not humorous, but he is a great, great writer of non-fiction. Even his pieces on dated subjects still manage to hold my interest. You might start with some of the essays in Giving Good Weight, or the compendium, Table of Contents.
posted by OmieWise at 11:44 AM on March 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell.
posted by Duffington at 11:46 AM on March 10, 2010 [2 favorites]

Seconding David Sedaris and Jon Ronson. You might also enjoy Charlie Brooker, Louis Theroux, and John Hodgman. John Peel's essays, collected in Margrave of the Marshes and The Olivetti Chronicles, are also great.
posted by hot soup girl at 11:51 AM on March 10, 2010

Tom Standage has some great books.
posted by Artw at 11:54 AM on March 10, 2010

Tony Hawks (no, not that Tony Hawks) - Round Ireland with a Fridge and Playing the Moldovans at Tennis.
posted by MuffinMan at 11:55 AM on March 10, 2010

Try the Michael Palin Diaries (there are two volumes now). Such a gentle, lovely man and definitely amusing.

Also seconding Tony Hawks and Gerald Durrell. Both have written more books if you like the ones which have been recommended.
posted by shelleycat at 12:07 PM on March 10, 2010

Jonathan Ames has some great collections of articles, personal essays and autobiographical stories (often in the same volume). I recommend starting with What's Not to Love?, although My Less Than Secret Life has more articles and essays, if that's more your bag.
posted by General Malaise at 12:22 PM on March 10, 2010

Douglas Adams - Last Chance to See

Lowen - Lies my teacher told me

Richard Feynman, Bill Maher

Brooks - Bobos in paradise
posted by maulik at 12:25 PM on March 10, 2010

As I have mentioned on the green before, Tim Moore has a lot of overlap with Bill Bryson in appeal (self-effacing, wryly observed travelogues).
posted by ricochet biscuit at 12:26 PM on March 10, 2010

Tim Cahill
posted by matildaben at 1:30 PM on March 10, 2010

I adore both Stephen Fry and Bill Bryson so I suspect that you too will enjoy the Clive James autobiography, starting with Unreliable Memoirs.
posted by ceri richard at 2:23 PM on March 10, 2010

Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird
and seconding Duffington on Gerald Durrell.
posted by BoscosMom at 2:34 PM on March 10, 2010

AJ Jacobs is fun.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 2:37 PM on March 10, 2010

James Herriot? (I also love Stephen Fry and Bill Bryson)
posted by purlgurly at 3:42 PM on March 10, 2010

Betty Macdonald is brilliant. I'm particularly fond of The Plague and I (yes, yes, the cover is awful), a memoir of her time in a TB sanitarium near Seattle, but all of her books are good. Anybody Can Do Anything is about being a single mother during the Depression, but is highly amusing.

Jean Kerr's Please Don't Eat the Daisies. So much better than the description would make you think.

Florence King's Confessions of a Failed Southern Lady. Again, sorry about the cover; again, much funnier than you would think from the description.
posted by The corpse in the library at 3:42 PM on March 10, 2010

You might enjoy Wrong About Japan and 30 Days In Sydney: A Wildly Distorted Account by Peter Carey.
posted by Miss Otis' Egrets at 5:22 PM on March 10, 2010

I was going to tell you to run to your closest bookstore for A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, but I see you're already aware, so I'll second John McPhee--dry humor and not as jokey as Bryson can be, but fucking phenominal and criminally underrated. I'm reading Uncommon Carriers right now and loving it.
posted by sallybrown at 8:37 PM on March 10, 2010

Maybe a bit on the outside edge, but the less-insane stories of Hunter S. Thompson are quite sharp. I recommend Hell's Angels and some of the short stories in The Great Shark Hunt (The Temptations of Jean-Claude Killy, Strange Rumblings in Aztlan, Song of the Sausage Creature, Dust to Dust: The Funeral of Mother Miles). Avoid anything that's titled "Fear and Loathing in/at $Location/Event," however as it tends less toward sharp insight and more toward freeform gonzo wordplay IMO.

The stories in PJ O'Rourke's "Ship of Fools," can offer an opposing view politically, while still being very amusing and sharply written.
posted by 1f2frfbf at 7:49 AM on March 11, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks for your suggestions, everybody -- this'll make for a nice pile of reading material!
posted by sciapod at 12:47 PM on March 11, 2010

David Rakoff
posted by knile at 10:00 PM on March 11, 2010

Connections by James Burke would probably be right up your alley. I've read the book cover-to-cover maybe six or seven times and it's just as fascinating each time. Plus it also comes in TV show format.
posted by clorox at 1:10 AM on March 15, 2010

Bill Carter's books about the workings of the television industry are fascinating.
posted by Sys Rq at 12:47 PM on March 28, 2010

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