Educational, interesting books on a single topic
June 28, 2010 5:38 PM   Subscribe

I'm looking for books (or lengthy articles/blog posts) that fully explain a certain topic in a way that is interesting, easily digestible, and not too dry.

This sounds pretty broad, but I just like learning about new things so I figure these suggestions will expose me to areas I never would've considered. For example, let's say there's a book on the history of batteries and how they work. Or an article on infomercials. Or the Korean War. Essentially, anything that covers a specific topic in detail that is enjoyable to read.
posted by rastapasta to Education (25 answers total) 44 users marked this as a favorite
"Oranges" by John McPhee
posted by fivesavagepalms at 5:41 PM on June 28, 2010 [3 favorites]

On Food and Cooking, by Harold McGee.
posted by seanmpuckett at 5:44 PM on June 28, 2010 [2 favorites]

This famously epic thread from a while back is a great list of the kind of thing you're looking for.
posted by phunniemee at 5:46 PM on June 28, 2010

I'm in the middle of reading this fascinating book.
posted by dfriedman at 5:48 PM on June 28, 2010

The Oxford Very Short Introductions series is so much fun that I am screaming right now. I am especially fond of the entires on Marxism, Myth, Photography, Schopenhauer, Kant, Game Theory, and Kierkegaard.

Parasite Rex by Carl Zimmer is a good guide to parasites.

Douglas Hofstadter's I Am A Strange Loop is an extremely readable book on consciousness. It's more single-topic than Hofstadter's most famous book, Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid.

Ernest Becker's The Denial of Death is a solid book about how we're all in denial of our own mortality.

Robert Young Pelton's The World's Most Dangerous Places is either single-topic or multi-topic, depending on how you view things, but it's eminently readable either way.
posted by Sticherbeast at 5:48 PM on June 28, 2010

Really anything by John McPhee is good for this sort of thing. The man can make long distance trucking fascinating. I also like Mark Kurlansky for this. His books about the Basques, about Cod and about Salt are quite enjoyable. I also like Henry Petroski's books about the history of bookshelves, the toothpick and actually his books about engineering. I liked Spix's Macaw: The Race to Save the World's Rarest Bird about the tricky work of international bird conservation as well as Men Of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters, and the Birth of the Comic Book about the original nerds and businesspeople who basically invented and popularized what we now know as the comic book.
posted by jessamyn at 5:51 PM on June 28, 2010 [3 favorites]

Haven't read Oranges, but the "Atchafalaya" chapter of McPhee's The Control of Nature is available at the New Yorker website and is seriously absorbing.
posted by tellumo at 5:53 PM on June 28, 2010 [2 favorites]

I really liked "NPR: The Trials and Triumphs of National Public Radio" which takes you from the origins of public radio in the early 20th century up to modern day power struggles among the major public radio players.
posted by greekphilosophy at 6:06 PM on June 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

I recommend The Scientist in the Crib for child psychology and development and Animals in Translation for animal thinking and behavior.
posted by TrarNoir at 6:19 PM on June 28, 2010

Great - thanks for all of the answers so far.

Sticherbeast, the Very Short Introductions seem great. I paged through a few using Amazon's LookInside feature, and it seems now my problem will be deciding which ones to purchase first.
posted by rastapasta at 6:33 PM on June 28, 2010

The No-nonsense guide series are well worth a read.
posted by cranberrymonger at 6:49 PM on June 28, 2010

Miles Davis for Beginners
posted by rhizome at 7:04 PM on June 28, 2010

Logicomix: an epic search for truth is a graphic novel about logic told through the eyes of Bertrand Russell (it's awesome).
posted by pwally at 7:07 PM on June 28, 2010

rastapasta: "and it seems now my problem will be deciding which ones to purchase first."

posted by yaymukund at 7:16 PM on June 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

Yaymukund, touche. ;-)
posted by rastapasta at 7:27 PM on June 28, 2010

John W. Dower's Embracing defeat: Japan in the wake of World War II and Nicholas Ostler's Empires of the word were both memorably rewarding, non-specialist non-fiction reads for me.
posted by No-sword at 8:02 PM on June 28, 2010

Sticherbeast, the Very Short Introductions seem great. I paged through a few using Amazon's LookInside feature, and it seems now my problem will be deciding which ones to purchase first.

The "Racism" one is fascinating!

Taschen has a great series of small books too, on Egyptian and Roman and Greek art and a number of other subjects. They're great, compact—and ten bucks, with lots of pictures, but written by people who know what they're talking about.
posted by RJ Reynolds at 8:08 PM on June 28, 2010

I often suggest this, and it's often right on: King Leopold's Ghost by Adam Hochschild is a really, really well written book about Leopold's absolutely savage conquest of the Congo. Having read a ton of history, I'd say it's probably the best written of any book I've come across.
posted by General Malaise at 9:53 PM on June 28, 2010

How about an excellent book about screwdrivers?
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 7:01 AM on June 29, 2010

Anything by John McPhee.

Anything by Joseph Mitchell.

Anything by A.J. Liebling.

Henry Petroski produces well-researched single-topic books (the toothpick, the pencil), but he's not in the same league as McPhee, Mitchell or Liebling as a writer.

For miscellaneous mid-length articles (10-20 pp.), Longform is pretty good.

3 Quarks Daily always has interesting links.
posted by KRS at 7:35 AM on June 29, 2010

Salt: A World History is by no means all-encompassing about either topic described, but it's engaging and an easy read that's somewhat informative.
posted by ifjuly at 8:16 AM on June 29, 2010

Not one subject but many. A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson.
posted by snowjoe at 6:38 PM on June 29, 2010 [2 favorites]

Literary Theory: An Introduction by Terry Eagleton

Eagleton has a great, easy style and it goes through all the bases of literary theory in a way which is neither patronising, nor heavy. Even if you don't like literary theory or aren't particularly interested in it, you should still give this a go: I've given it to friends who couldn't care less about semiotics and the like yet they still found it a good read.
posted by litleozy at 2:07 AM on July 2, 2010

It doesn't quite fit because it's more a memoir, but it was eye-opening and fascinating and thorough to me: Muscle: Confessions of an Unlikely Bodybuilder. If you don't know much about the world of obsessive bodybuilding, the grisly everyday details of the regimen, and why and how it becomes so addictive, it's a great, well written read.
posted by ifjuly at 10:21 AM on July 3, 2010

« Older inexpensive gaming system.   |   Where can I find a photo booth in downtown Chicago... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.