Book suggestions?
December 12, 2010 9:18 AM   Subscribe

I'm looking for some good, meaty non-fiction to read over Christmas break while I'm home from grad school. Something with difficult ideas, yet readable and contemporary, and taking a fairly "big picture" view of a particular field. Any suggestions? Examples below.

Previous favorites include Burton Malkiel's "A Random Walk Down Wall Street," Peter Watson's "Ideas: A History of Thought and Invention," Hawking's "A Brief History of Time," Dennett's "Consciousness Explained," and Clive James's "Cultural Amnesia." So in other words, something written for the layperson, but at a high level. Thanks!
posted by decoherence to Media & Arts (46 answers total) 93 users marked this as a favorite
Take a look at Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel.
posted by arco at 9:24 AM on December 12, 2010 [6 favorites]

You might like William McNeill's Plagues and Peoples. Also seconding Guns, Germs, and Steel which was the first book that came to mind for me when I read the question.
posted by Wisco72 at 9:29 AM on December 12, 2010

The MIT Encyclopedia of the Cognitive Sciences (amazon link)

Since its in encyclopedia format, it doesn't really have a narrative or anything, but its nice in that each entry is self-contained but still cross-referenced with others. Can be kind of addictive in the same way wikipedia is. Good bathroom reading.

Its written in a pretty accessable way, so you don't necessarily need any background in artificial intelligence, psychology, philosophy or neurology to get something out of it.
posted by Hither at 9:31 AM on December 12, 2010 [3 favorites]

Jonah Lehrer’s “How We Decide.” NYT review.
posted by MonkeyToes at 9:33 AM on December 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

Maybe Monk's biography of Wittgenstein?
posted by princelyfox at 9:36 AM on December 12, 2010

Gödel, Escher, Bach has been on my list for a while now.
posted by kjell at 9:39 AM on December 12, 2010

I've been working through Sam Harris's The Moral Landscape. Richard Dawkins said it made him rethink the relationship of science and morality, so if you're interested in something philosophical, it's definitely meaty. It's also well annotated, so if you want to go deeper than the text itself, there's plenty more in the footnotes.
posted by BlooPen at 9:44 AM on December 12, 2010

I'm polishing off Subjectivity: Theories of Self From Freud to Haraway. It really is an overview of modern theories of subjectivity (as in the sensation of having a self), so it's mostly serving the purpose of populating my reading list for the immediate future.
posted by cmoj at 9:46 AM on December 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

Voyager, by Stephen Pyne, if you're at all interested in space exploration.
posted by Sidhedevil at 10:00 AM on December 12, 2010

Annals of the Former World by John McPhee.
It's contemporary-ish, but even more so in geological time.
posted by thusspakeparanoia at 10:03 AM on December 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

Big Seconding to 'How We Decide' That was an awesome book.

Instead of making a list I'm just going to link you to my goodreads nonfiction list. I love the kind of book you describe so there's a long list!
posted by Caravantea at 10:24 AM on December 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

Q. E. D. by Feynman.
posted by jeffamaphone at 10:36 AM on December 12, 2010

Chaos by James Gleik is an oldie but a goodie.

The first review in the link is excellent, and touches on why the book has aged so well in such a fast moving field.
posted by uncanny hengeman at 10:38 AM on December 12, 2010

Stumbling on Happiness.

From the title it sounds a bit like a frou-frou self-help book, but it's not. It's a serious but very readable book about, among other things, the difference between what we assume makes people happy and what actually makes people happy.
posted by lore at 10:51 AM on December 12, 2010

Us and Them: The Science of Identity by David Berreby (also subtitled "Understanding your tribal mind" in another edition). Fascinating, comprehensive, and even practical.
posted by Corvid at 10:54 AM on December 12, 2010

THE RADICALISM OF THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION, by Gordon Wood -- if analysis of the ideas, economics, and culture of the Founding is your cup of tea. It's one of my favorite books.
posted by Mr. Justice at 11:03 AM on December 12, 2010

Backlash. As unfortunately relevant as ever.
posted by mkultra at 11:07 AM on December 12, 2010 [2 favorites]

Oh, and 'tis the season for The Battle For Christmas.
posted by mkultra at 11:09 AM on December 12, 2010

Gary Taubes' Good Calories, Bad Calories.
posted by Earl the Polliwog at 11:17 AM on December 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'd like you to try Plague Time: The New Germ Theory of Disease

According to conventional wisdom, our genes and lifestyles are the most important causes of the most deadly ailments of our time. Conventional wisdom may be wrong. In this controversial book, the eminent biologist Paul W. Ewald offers some startling arguments: -Germs appear to be at the root of heart disease, Alzheimer's, schizophrenia, many forms of cancer, and other chronic diseases. -The greatest threats to our health come not from sensational killers such as Ebola, West Nile virus, and super-virulent strains of influenza, but from agents that are already here causing long-term infections, which eventually lead to debilitation and death. -The medical establishment has largely ignored the evidence that implicates these germs, to the detriment of our public health. ...

In conjunction with a good, solid, semi-popular account of the (Byzantine X Machiavellian) complexities of the immune system: In Defense of Self: How the Immune System Really Works in Managing Health and Disease by William R. Clark.

Which appears to be pretty difficult to lay hands on, unfortunately!
posted by jamjam at 11:27 AM on December 12, 2010

Tony Judt, Postwar
posted by scody at 11:49 AM on December 12, 2010

I was pretty meh on Guns, Germs and Steel, but us history majors tend to be cranky like that. Some good "generalist" books I've read recently are A History of Modern Britain, Right Honourable Men (an interesting Canadian history book! miracle!) and Made In America: An Informal History of the English Language in the United States. I also enjoyed Battlecry of Freedom--it's a great one volume treatment of the Civil War.
posted by Go Banana at 11:49 AM on December 12, 2010

Oh, and if the idea of Guns, Germs and Steel appeals to you, you might like Ecological Imperialism.
posted by Go Banana at 11:51 AM on December 12, 2010

The Discoveries by Alan Lightman. Much of 20th century science, explained by the people who found it out, with handholding provided by one of the best writer/physicist combos in the world.
posted by pmb at 11:53 AM on December 12, 2010

The Guns of August details the start of the first world war, and was one of John F. Kennedy's all-time favorite books.

The Twentieth Century half of Howard Zinn's Peoples' History of the United States is also spectacular
posted by Jon_Evil at 11:53 AM on December 12, 2010

Sorry, The Twentieth Century half...
posted by Jon_Evil at 11:54 AM on December 12, 2010

The first review in the link is excellent, and touches on why the book has aged so well in such a fast moving field.

Darn it. Looks like I meant the third review. The first user review. This one.

posted by uncanny hengeman at 12:00 PM on December 12, 2010

I always recommend Forbidden Knowledge: From Prometheus to Pornography.
posted by rhartong at 12:05 PM on December 12, 2010

Reading the Forested Landscape is my suggestion if you will have any time to walk in the New England woods.
posted by mearls at 12:29 PM on December 12, 2010

I came here to recommend McPhee's Annals of the Former World, but since thusspakeparanoia beat me to it, here are a couple others:

David Christian, Maps of Time - an introduction to "big history," from the Big Bang to the modern age.

Hugh Raffles, Insectopedia - loosely connected essays on the human-bug relationship.
posted by brianogilvie at 12:42 PM on December 12, 2010

An ocean of air by Gabrielle Walker is an absolutely smashing science book - the way she weaves in personal stories of scientists with the science itself is a delight.

I've just started Longitude by Dava Sobel, and I'm really enjoying its story as well.
posted by smoke at 2:12 PM on December 12, 2010

An oldie but a goodie: The Death and Life of Great American Cities--the book that convinced me to be a social scientist.
posted by pompelmo at 4:09 PM on December 12, 2010 [2 favorites]

Oliver Sacks, Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain
posted by ms.codex at 4:41 PM on December 12, 2010

If you liked A Brief History of Time, you need to check out The Elegant Universe by Brian Greene.
posted by tetralix at 5:17 PM on December 12, 2010

William Vollmann - Rising Up, and Rising Down

The single-volume version of this is a pretty terrific read, positing a sort of calculus of violence--when is it appropriate? moral? duty-bound?

Phenomenal book.

And Vollmann went to Deep Springs...
posted by Joseph Gurl at 6:25 PM on December 12, 2010

I can't believe nobody's mentioned The Emperor of Maladies: A Biography of Cancer yet. It's been getting all sorts of press. Also: it's available on Google eBooks :D
posted by cybertaur1 at 6:41 PM on December 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

discovering the cosmos is a great one if you like looking up...

and the particle explosion is a great one for looking down...the first review sums it up very well...there's apparently a newer version i haven't seen by the same authors: the particle odyssey
posted by sexyrobot at 1:30 AM on December 13, 2010

I am a big fan of the single theme book that expands out: Salt and Cod are two such examples.

These are the same author, but there are others. (A perfect red, Banana, Spice)
posted by fluffycreature at 8:51 AM on December 13, 2010

I will second Ray Monk's biography of me. It's excellent.
posted by wittgenstein at 9:09 AM on December 13, 2010

Seconding Godel, Escher, Bach. There's nothing meatier.
posted by neuron at 1:19 PM on December 13, 2010

William McNeill's Plagues and Peoples and Brian Fagan's The Little Ice Age make interesting bookends of a kind. Norman F. Cantor's The Civilization of the Middle Ages is also good read if you're it the mood for something medieval.
posted by cool breeze at 2:53 PM on December 13, 2010

I am currently reading The Emperor of Maladies: A Biography of Cancer and I can say it is one of the best subject based books I have ever read.

I was worried it would be slow going, but the historical narrative is intriguing enough that I don't really want to put it down. It's also an interesting socio-cultural look at contemporary illness, and how they are now more than simply pathologies to be solved in a lab, but instead complex cultural entities. Highly recommended.
posted by ghostpony at 3:27 PM on December 13, 2010

oh, i read that salt book...oddly enough it was a lot about cod.
posted by sexyrobot at 4:18 AM on December 14, 2010

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