Parentheses are not the answer
June 10, 2010 2:19 PM   Subscribe

Help! What's the most convincing non-fiction you've ever read?

(tl;dr below)

I'm trying to put together a long essay that I'd like to be as readable and plausible as possible. There are references to several books and other media, and while it's not for a large readership it is for a fairly random one, so I'm trying to avoid making it at all academic without having to dumb it down. But, since I can’t easily refer it to anything else I've read, I'm having a hard time figuring out if it's working. In particular I'm not sure how personal I can or should make it, because the subject is fairly broad (but personal, like this distracting aside).

I've read a few notable philosophers, some social theorists and some popular and well-regarded essayists who have a personal style. The problem is that the great stuff is very cerebral (DFW, Foucault), the readable stuff is lazy and unconvincing (Rorty, Thomas Friedman) and then there's people I can't even read without a teacher or reference of some kind, and who already stand for too many things. Socratic dialogue is the most ideal form (grr) I've found so far for what I'm trying to put together, but I don't know where else it's used or even acceptable these days besides comics. (It doesn't really work for prose, does it?)

To sum up, I really want to read more compelling argumentative things, but instead of looking at popular or famous essays, I’d really rather read stuff that other people have actually been convinced by.

So please share any non-fiction that made strong arguments that changed your mind or thoroughly proved what you already thought.

It doesn’t have to be as broad as the writers I mentioned above – anything with a common subject that doesn’t require special knowledge to understand would be great.

Also welcome is anything that gave you a plausible, compelling perspective on some thing you didn’t know much about (eg: feminism in the Middle East).
posted by mondaygreens to Writing & Language (36 answers total) 56 users marked this as a favorite
I would never accuse Rorty of being lazy, although I'm not always convinced by his arguments.

How about "A Modest Proposal." I know it convinced me to add baby to my diet.
posted by OmieWise at 2:20 PM on June 10, 2010 [3 favorites]

Everything by Malcolm Gladwell is pretty good for this. His explanation for ketchup as the perfect flavor combination is pretty good for a start.
posted by NoraReed at 2:23 PM on June 10, 2010

"Guns, Germs and Steel"
"A Practical Handbook For The Actor"
"The Little Schemer"
"Predictably Irrational"
"You Just Don't Understand"
"Games People Play"
"Godel, Escher, Bach"
"Beyond Good and Evil"
"Politics and the English Language"
posted by grumblebee at 2:24 PM on June 10, 2010 [3 favorites]

Many many people like the Malcolm Gladwell approach to explaining things. Simple phenomenon that you've already noticed, explained with references to a few studies that are lookupable and explained if it's all very straightforward and you would see it the same way if you'd read and understood the same studies. I sometimes find him overly simplistic, but his style is very appealing and readable and people come away from his books feeling smarter and like they understand social phenomena better.

I look to other New Yorker type writers like Atul Gawande who, for whatever reason, I believe when I don't always believe Gladwell. Because he seems to be slightly against conventional widsom, but not in a brash or radical way, just in a "here's why conventional wisdom about this medical idea evolved the way it did. Here's why that way is wrong and here's what we can do about it" He seems educated, not flipped out, and offering practical solutions.

Someone more like DFW who is also a little problematic in his own right is Simon Winchester. He's also popular but he's more of a researcher but can write in a way that is more accessible than DFW. His book on Krakatoa and his book on the Oxford English Dictionary are great. A lot of what he does is just explain. He has a narrative that he sticks to and he gives you a ton of detail about specificp vignettes in his narrative and leaves the stuff that he knows less about off the map entirely. So you might know, for example, a lot about certain people in the Krakatoa millieu and not a lot about others. This probably has more to do with how much data Winchester was able to pull up on them, not how central they were, but the way he writes lets you overlook that fact and feel convinced that you know the whole story.

Other books I've liked along these lines: Mark Kurlansky's books, similar to Winchester's but I like his writing style much much better. 1969 really makes you feel that there were a herioc group of do-gooders changing the world. I'm not sure if I otherwise believe that, but I liked reading the book. Time Lord by Clark Blaise about when the world changed to standard time measurements [there was one guy, he was a good guy/bad guy figure, this book look into his motivation and why he did what he did]. Gina Kolata's book about the flu called Flu is also really well written and you feel like you have the whole story, not just one writer's take on it.
posted by jessamyn at 2:32 PM on June 10, 2010 [4 favorites]

"How Children Fail"

"Bad Guys Don't Have Birthdays"

"Being With Children"

"Poetics" (Aristotle)

"Shakespeare's Metrical Art"

"I Am A Strange Loop" (Read almost anything by Hofstadter. He knows how to write difficult yet accessible books.)

"From Dawn To Decadence"
posted by grumblebee at 2:33 PM on June 10, 2010

George Orwell. Essays, "Paris and London", "Wigan Pier".
Also, George Orwell.
posted by runincircles at 2:33 PM on June 10, 2010 [2 favorites]

On the "hot" side (fiery, argumentative), there's younger practitioners like Moe Tkacik (heh) and Sady Doyle (and heh). On the "cold" (hard, fact-based) side, there's the likes of older women writers, like Renata Adler and Janet Malcolm. Of course you've already read them though. :)

My words of advice to you: You shouldn't put a jacket on unless you like it—and you can't put a jacket on if you can't get your arms through the sleeves.
posted by RJ Reynolds at 2:37 PM on June 10, 2010

Oddly enough, Kottke just linked to How to write a Malcolm Gladwell Bestseller.

Just as different people learn in different ways, I suspect it's fair to say that different people will be convinced by different forms of argumentation—perhaps with the subject matter being another dimension that will influence what works. Some people will be convinced by anecdotes, some by powerful metaphors, some by the sheer weight of evidence. What seems to work on me is tying together facts that had seemed unrelated, in a way puts all of them in a new light.
posted by adamrice at 2:39 PM on June 10, 2010

'Flights of the mind' by Charles Nicholl is probably the most detailed but accessible work that comes to mind for this.
posted by StephenF at 2:42 PM on June 10, 2010

Response by poster: Thank you for all the recommendations so far - this is exactly the kind of stuff I want to be reading!

OmieWise, I should've said pragmatic, not lazy - lazy is just my interpretation.

RJ Reynolds, I have not. :( Cannot wait to go there, thanks!
posted by mondaygreens at 2:44 PM on June 10, 2010

Case Closed -- Oswald acted alone.

Watch the Skies -- All the UFO people are crazy.

In a Sunburned Country -- Australia is a weird, cool, magical place.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 2:50 PM on June 10, 2010

When you say "convincing" it tells me you intend to make some point, rather than merely report facts. Am I correct that you want to write persuasively? If so, Orwell can't be beat, as others have said. Bertrand Russell convinced me of lots of things when I was younger, as did Phillip Wylie (haven't heard his name in years). Edmund Wilson is another. So is E. B. White. I think the best of them write in relatively informal language, mixing plain fact with simile, metaphor, personal anecdote, description, etc, even jokes. Nothing makes a point better than a well-placed joke. I wish I could think of one now. Good luck. Writing is hard work.
posted by fivesavagepalms at 2:55 PM on June 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

This xkcd strip from last week inspired me to look up the Old River Control Structure, which I concluded was the most important piece of civil engineering in the US that nobody's ever heard of. The Wikipedia article, in turn, put me onto John McPhee's book The Control of Nature. The Old River Control Structure part, "Atchafalaya," is available online. It isn't a persuasive piece, but I found it quite compelling reading.
posted by tellumo at 3:07 PM on June 10, 2010 [2 favorites]


posted by galadriel at 3:24 PM on June 10, 2010

Cannibals and Kings by Marvin Harris gave me many "a ha!" moments about anthropology.
posted by desjardins at 3:28 PM on June 10, 2010

I usually recommend this to people who mention suicide. What a refreshing change. Art Kleiner's How Not to Commit Suicide is, by far, the most compelling non-fiction I've ever read.
posted by theora55 at 3:34 PM on June 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

The Drunkard's Walk: How Randomness Controls our Lives.
posted by Lutoslawski at 3:43 PM on June 10, 2010

Good Calories, Bad Calories
posted by wrok at 3:51 PM on June 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

The Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinctions. David Quammen. Scribner, 1996.
posted by Short Attention Sp at 3:58 PM on June 10, 2010

At one point, I became a little obsessed with reading compulsively good non-fiction writing on subjects that I thought were boring. I wanted to see how the writers could make me want to turn the page when they were writing about subjects that I either didn't care a fig about, or actively disliked. I wasn't able to distill what I saw into easy lessons, or anything, but I'm glad I did it.

Some winners:

Arctic Dreams, Barry Lopez
Annals of the Former World, John McPhee

A thought, though: Don't give up so easily on the dialogical form, if you think it fits your subject matter right. It may have fallen out of fashion in many circles, but it's got a strong pedigree, and it's a legitimate approach. If you value it, give it at try.
posted by .kobayashi. at 4:13 PM on June 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

OK, since you seem particularly interested in philosophy but also open to any topics, I'll list philosophy first, and then all the rest.


Mortal Questions (a collection of unrelated essays) - Thomas Nagel

The View from Nowhere - Thomas Nagel

Upheavals of Thought (about emotions; it's a huge book, so you might want to read just the first chapter, which stands on its own) - Martha Nussbaum

Freedom & Neurobiology (mainly about free will, also about political structures) - John Searle (or his related book Rationality in Action)

The Mysterious Flame (about consciousness) - Colin McGinn


Flow - Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Stumbling on Happiness - Daniel Gilbert

Arguing About War (a collection of essays on various wars; more readable than his famous Just and Unjust Wars) - Michael Walzer

In Defense of Food - Michael Pollan

Losing the Race - John McWhorter (or his follow-up, Winning the Race)

The Moral Animal - Robert Wright

Economic Facts and Fallacies - Thomas Sowell (warning: very non-Metafilter-friendly!)

The Economic Naturalist's Field Guide (mainly a collection of NYT op-eds) - Robert H. Frank
posted by Jaltcoh at 4:21 PM on June 10, 2010

The London Review of Books is a good place to find essay-length pieces on a wide variety of subjects that are readable, plausible, and (mostly) unfootnoted. Even when the articles are book reviews they tend to 'take a line' on the book itself and the literature it's a part of rather than just summing it up and giving it the thumbs-up/down.

The NYRB is good for the same thing, though it lets more footnotes through.
posted by lapsangsouchong at 4:58 PM on June 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

This is Your Brain on Music
Hardcore Zen - and other books by Brad Warner
posted by Ulquiorra at 6:28 PM on June 10, 2010

I'd be wary of Malcolm Gladwell's flippant research. From the NYTimes,

[Gladwell] provides misleading definitions of “homology,” “sagittal plane” and “power law” and quotes an expert speaking about an “igon value” (that’s eigenvalue, a basic concept in linear algebra). In the spirit of Gladwell, who likes to give portentous names to his aperçus, I will call this the Igon Value Problem: when a writer’s education on a topic consists in interviewing an expert, he is apt to offer generalizations that are banal, obtuse or flat wrong.

So, Gladwell is entertaining but sacrifices a lot of accuracy to make his gee-whiz points. Argumentative nonfiction I recommend:

Engineering and the Mind's Eye, Eugene Ferguson. Argues that modern engineering has suffered because basic design has taken a backseat to number-crunching analysis. Uses lots of examples from history (starting with italian fortress design) and modern engineering accidents (roof collapses etc.).

The Power Elite, C. Wright Mills. Posits that the post-WW2 world, especially the US, is dominated by a military-industrial-political complex and that the normal person (the "mass") is impotent to affect it. This is the original antiestablishment writing of the 20th century.

The Intelligent Investor, Ben Graham. Maybe a little too technical, but for many people including me it was our first investing book. Shows that the method of "value investing" minimizes risk and maximizes profits over long periods by using fundamental business analysis to evaluate stocks.

Weapons and Hope, Freeman Dyson. Out of print but available from used book sources (amazon etc.). Argues for a nuclear policy of "unlimited defense" to encourage things like missile defense systems as much as possible, while discouraging nuclear development. Contrasts the views of military technocrats and pacifists, using the author's personal experiences acting as both.

Iron John, Robert Bly. Argues that men and masculinity have been put down by post-WW2 culture, by analyzing and relating to modern life the Iron John fairytale. Families are tacitly assumed by matriarchs, and fathers are demonized in popular media (Darth Vader = Dark Father).
posted by mnemonic at 6:29 PM on June 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

I was reasonably convinced by _Human Smoke_, by Nicholson Baker. It certainly has a distinctive style.
posted by novalis_dt at 6:46 PM on June 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

I can't believe no one has mentioned A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking. I found it to deal with very complex issues and concepts in a very accessible and convincing manner.

I would agree that Guns, Germs and Steel is excellent too.
posted by slavlin at 7:43 PM on June 10, 2010

Shock Doctrine
posted by Elsie at 7:56 PM on June 10, 2010

Guns, Germs, and Steel made me re-evaluate how and why the whole world worked the way it did. It's very interesting and a great read as well.

This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War by Drew Gilpin Faust is quite excellent too.

Even if you're not into the Civil War, it goes into very interesting detail about 19th century society and record keeping. In case you can't tell, I'm an archivist.
posted by elder18 at 8:04 PM on June 10, 2010

Dawkins, The Selfish Gene
posted by AceRock at 10:03 PM on June 10, 2010

Ditto Selfish Gene.
posted by Suciu at 10:45 PM on June 10, 2010

Gladwell is entertaining but sacrifices a lot of accuracy to make his gee-whiz points.

I agree, but that might make him an even more appropriate choice for this questioner. See, I *know* that if I look into Gladwell's claims they're more likely than not to fall apart completely, but while I'm reading (or listening to) him, I find him utterly compelling. He's a fantastic storyteller.

I second Good Calories, Bad Calories and third The Selfish Gene. I literally became an atheist while reading it.
posted by callmejay at 4:59 AM on June 11, 2010 [1 favorite]

You're looking for The Black Swan by Taleb.

And please avoid Thomas Friedman. Life is hard enough without his pedestrian analysis of the world to muddy it up.
posted by quadog at 5:40 PM on June 11, 2010

I found Bertrand Russell's work on social issues to be very insightful and lucid, and for that reason convincing. At least one collection of his essays, Why I Am Not A Christian, is still in print, and a great read for someone interested in successfully merging popular rhetoric with intellectual rigor. (Which is not to say that Russell was always right, just that he did a good job of writing convincing but fairly rigorous essays.)
posted by voltairemodern at 11:25 PM on June 11, 2010

Fast Food Nation.
posted by getawaysticks at 9:21 AM on June 15, 2010

The God Delusion. Scared the crap out of me but made me certain of something I'd only suspected before.
posted by kostia at 8:16 PM on June 15, 2010

And the Band Played On by Randy Shilts
Anything by Tracy Kidder or John McPhee, both of whom write very simply about things I would otherwise consider boring (building a house, long haul trucking, oranges, etc) without obscuring complication or contradiction in the way Malcolm Gladwell does. It's extremely difficult (as I'm sure you're discovering) and yet they make it look very easy.

You might also consider listening to This American Life (you can stream any episode free from their website)--they often explain complicated or unfamiliar things very well. The Giant Pool of Money episode is one example.
posted by sallybrown at 8:57 PM on June 19, 2010

« Older Holidayz   |   Transfer troubles Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.