Books that suck you in... TO REALITY
February 14, 2011 3:10 PM   Subscribe

Recommend me some immersive, journalistic non-fiction books.

I love books that follow this basic structure: an extremely talented journalist spends a really long time following around a group of people who are doing something interesting that I know nothing about. Some examples would be The Soul of a New Machine (about developing a computer), Homicide (about homicide detectives in Baltimore), and recently Play Their Hearts Out (about AAU youth basketball).

Things I like about these books:
  • The writers develop their subjects like characters in a novel. Sometimes they would rather try to figure out someone's true motivations than maintain a proper objective distance at all times.
  • Similarly, they find the most compelling narratives in their reporting and treat them dramatically. Basically, they give you the feeling that you're reading a good novel with the added thrill of it being true.
  • The balance of storytelling and explication is well handled. These aren't textbooks, so they don't spend 10 pages on, like, CPU logic, but at the same time they trust their readers and aren't afraid to get pretty technical when the story demands it.
  • The writers are seriously goddamn good. Of my examples, two have won Pulitzers and one is David fucking Simon.
Hopefully that's somewhat clear. (And if there's already a thread like this I'd love to know about it. I couldn't find one that quite fit.) So MeFi, what else fits these criteria?
posted by eggplantplacebo to Media & Arts (53 answers total) 116 users marked this as a favorite
Most of John McPhee's books fall into this category.

A Sense of Where You Are - about Bill Bradley's college basketball career at Princeton - would be an excellent starting point.
posted by Joe Beese at 3:20 PM on February 14, 2011 [2 favorites]

John McPhee has written several books that fit all your demands, in fact he may have invented the genre. One title especially comes to mind -- since a lot of his books are collections of portraits -- The Deltoid Pumpkin Seed.
posted by ijsbrand at 3:22 PM on February 14, 2011 [2 favorites]

All three non- fiction books by Robert Baer.
posted by clavdivs at 3:23 PM on February 14, 2011

Word Freak, by Stefan Fatsis, about tournament Scrabble players.
posted by iftheaccidentwill at 3:28 PM on February 14, 2011 [4 favorites]

Mary Roach's Packing for Mars and Richard Panek's The Four Percent Universe.

I love John McPhee and Imma let him finish, but Hunter Thompson's book Hell's Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga is one of the greatest immersive journalism books OF ALL TIME!
posted by Sidhedevil at 3:33 PM on February 14, 2011 [2 favorites]

Oh my god, Word Freak is one of my favourite reads. Seriously, read it. Then read some of these:

Friday Night Lights, about football and teen culture in small town Texas post-oil boom. Heart-breaking stuff.

Into Thin Air by the same guy who wrote Into The Wild, about a disaster on top of Mt Everest that resulted in numerous deaths, that the author himself was present for.

Next Man Up, about a year following an NFL football team (Ravens).

This is my favourite genre of non-fiction so I will likely be back with more when I have access to my bookshelf.
posted by hepta at 3:35 PM on February 14, 2011

Response by poster: Whoa, these are all like exactly what I'm looking form. Thanks everyone! I think I've already got my reading list for the rest of the year, but keep 'em coming.
posted by eggplantplacebo at 3:44 PM on February 14, 2011

Among the Thugs, by Bill Buford, about soccer hooligans.
posted by builderofscience at 3:44 PM on February 14, 2011

If you don't mind reading something really sad/upsetting, Philip Gourevitch's We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families about the Rwanda genocide is quite good and I think meets your criteria.
posted by naoko at 3:46 PM on February 14, 2011 [4 favorites]

We Regret to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families is easily one of the best books I have EVER read. Very highly recommended.
posted by fso at 3:53 PM on February 14, 2011

Slight derail because, not books, but I hope you're a reader of the Longform website which highlights good long-form journalism of various kinds which might suit your tastes.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 3:58 PM on February 14, 2011 [2 favorites]

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down.
The Big Burn.
Everything by John McPhee.
Everything by David McCullough.
Surely You're Joking Mr. Feynman is an autobiography, but will give you the effect you're looking for.
posted by neuron at 4:00 PM on February 14, 2011 [2 favorites]

Gang Leader for a Day: A Rogue Sociologist Takes to the Streets is on my list. Looks fascinating.
posted by MonkeyToes at 4:01 PM on February 14, 2011

The Journalist and the Murderer, Janet Malcolm
Rosa Lee, Leon Dash
posted by AlliKat75 at 4:13 PM on February 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

Hampton Sides belongs on this list. Ghost Soldiers, Blood and Thunder, the latest Hellhound on his trail, the collection Americana all have this strong storytelling and journalistic characteristic. His earlier Stomping Grounds contains some good short pieces. He is a first class writer and an extremely keen-eyed and balanced observer. He said that paragon of non-fiction story-tellers, Shelby Foote, was an early inspiration.
posted by Anitanola at 4:15 PM on February 14, 2011

Best answer: Check this thread for additional suggestions.
posted by bookmammal at 4:18 PM on February 14, 2011

Random Family by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc. Reads like a novel but it's all true. The author spent about ten years with an extended family in the Bronx. I couldn't put this one down.
posted by bookmammal at 4:23 PM on February 14, 2011

The Lost City of Z
posted by Artw at 4:35 PM on February 14, 2011 [3 favorites]

I'm a big fan of many of the books and writers above, and also Robert Sapolsky, particularly Primate's Memoir.
posted by theora55 at 4:52 PM on February 14, 2011

You might like The Eudaemonic Pie. It's a bit like the Soul of a New Machine; it follows a group of physics grad students and dropouts in Santa Cruz in the 70s as they try to fit a computer in a shoe so that they can predict roulette in Vegas, make a fortune, and live life as they see fit. The writing is a bit weak in places but the story and the people in it are compelling (and some of them have gone on to well-known careers in physics and finance).

A very different example is The Executioner's Song, by Norman Mailer. It's very well written; the first half is a minute reconstruction of Gary Gilmore's life up until he killed two people in cold blood; the second half details the legal battles that led to his execution.
posted by pombe at 4:55 PM on February 14, 2011 [2 favorites]

If you enjoyed Homicide, then try Tokyo Vice.
posted by curious nu at 4:59 PM on February 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

Just chiming in to second Executioner's Song and Into Thin Air - two of my favourite books ever. So great to see them here.
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 5:41 PM on February 14, 2011

People have already mentioned a few of my favorites here, so I'll try to give you ones not mentioned yet.

Maximum City Bombay by Mehta

The Making of a Chef by Ruhlman. His other books are good too.

Michael Lewis' book, Moneyball is excellent. His other books are also good at bringing you into various worlds.

Susan Orlean's book, Orchid Thief upon which the movie Adaptation was based, is good. If you have seen the movie and not read the book, please remember that there are some distinct differences between the two.

Of McPhee's books, two seldom mentioned but excellent reads are The Pine Barrens and Oranges.

Also, not completely on topic for your request, but an excellent non-fiction book, City of Oranges, in which the author spends time with six families who live/d in Jaffa and their experience of Arab-Israeli-etc relationships.

The kind of books you're asking for I tend to call "someone else's obsession books." I like 'em too.
posted by sciencegeek at 5:47 PM on February 14, 2011 [2 favorites]

I read And The Band Played On like it was a pulp novel. Except, of course, that it's all true.

It also has the added benefit, if like me you're too young to remember the beginning of the AIDS crisis, of filling in all the gaps of stuff you heard grownups gossiping about or saw but only vaguely understood on the evening news.
posted by Sara C. at 6:08 PM on February 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

Another vote for Word Freak (if you're interested in Scrabble) and Packing For Mars (if you're interested in NASA / space travel). Both are great reads!
posted by geeky at 6:41 PM on February 14, 2011

Tom Wolfe The Right Stuff

Tracy Kidder: The Soul of a New Machine, Mountains Beyond Mountains
posted by zoel at 7:01 PM on February 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

It's a bio, but totally engrossing: American Prometheus, about J. Robert Oppenheimer.
posted by devinemissk at 7:05 PM on February 14, 2011

Not as long but easily as engrossing--everything Joseph Mitchell ever wrote, including Joe Gould's Secret, in Up in the Old Hotel.
posted by Ideefixe at 7:11 PM on February 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

I wholeheartedly recommend Unbroken.

Also, if you haven't read it already, a classic that I think fits your criteria--In Cold Blood.
posted by torticat at 8:36 PM on February 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

Oh look, I've never recommended Rivethead: Tales from the Assembly Line on Askme before. It is still one of my favorite true stories, even if the car factories of Flint that he worked in and wrote about are long gone, the struggle to remain human among giant machines goes on.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 2:31 AM on February 15, 2011

Seconding Gang Leader for A Day. It's one of my very favorite books and if you told me you didn't like it, I'd wonder what the hell is wrong with you.

Unique for sure.
posted by qsysopr at 3:04 AM on February 15, 2011

Hah! Rivethead is awesome. Good call, Potomac.

I would suggest anything by William Langeweische. Michael Kelly is a reporter who was killed inIraq early on; his collection "Things Worth Fighting For" contains many very good short pieces. And I love Mark Bowden's books, like "Guests of the Ayatollah."
posted by wenestvedt at 5:55 AM on February 15, 2011

Anything by Ted Conover. He's written books where he has lived with illegal aliens, with hobos riding the rails and while working in a prison as a guard.

Bringing Down the House about the MIT Blackjack team was infinitely better than the movie that was based on it.
posted by mmascolino at 5:59 AM on February 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

The Ghost Map
The Zen of Fish
Orchid Thief was previously recommended and is awesome.
posted by darkgroove at 6:11 AM on February 15, 2011

I really enjoyed House. It is about the buionding of a custom designed home, the architect, the owner, the builders, and the problems and conflicts, and the house, that ensue. A really different read.

I am surprised that no one has mentioned The Brethren yet. It is about the inside workings of the Supreme Court (USA).
posted by SLC Mom at 6:51 AM on February 15, 2011

*building*, even.
posted by SLC Mom at 6:51 AM on February 15, 2011

Ohhhh I love this genre too! Two of my favorites:

Mountains beyond Mountains, by Tracy Kidder
The Gift of Pain, by Paul Brand

Definite must-reads, seriously.
posted by angab at 7:09 AM on February 15, 2011

Oh also, In Cold Blood by Truman Capote.
posted by angab at 7:31 AM on February 15, 2011

The Good Soldiers was amazingly good.
posted by pecknpah at 7:46 AM on February 15, 2011

I highly recommend The Money Game, by Adam Smith. It's a bit dated, but it remains the best book about the stock market ever.

If you can get your hands on it, Tom Wolfe's anthology The New Journalism contains classic short works from the genre as it was emerging. Included are excerpts from "The Selling of the President 1968" by Joe McGinnis, and "The General Goes Zapping Charlie Cong" by Nicholas Tomalin. Patriculary moving was Robert Christgau's “Beth Ann and Macrobioticism,” about a macrobiotic woman who died of malnutrition.
posted by magstheaxe at 8:25 AM on February 15, 2011

I think Black Hawk Down meets all of your criteria, except that Bowden didn't follow the soldiers around, he recreated the events after the fact. But it is a riveting read about, it focuses on a few major characters, and is a very immersible look at battle.
posted by I am the Walrus at 8:32 AM on February 15, 2011

If you liked Homicide, definitely read The Corner, too. It's simmering with barely restrained rage and it is magnificent. I just finished Random Family and really enjoyed it, so I'm seconding that vote as well.

On the lighter side: if you like the sports immersion genre, also try Paper Lion by the venerable George Plimpton and A Few Seconds of Panic by Stefan Fatsis. I also second the rec for Fatsis's Word Freak - he's a stylish writer and both books dig deeper than the "wow, isn't this a weird world" shiny veneer to come up with surprisingly insightful observations.
posted by superfluousm at 8:49 AM on February 15, 2011

I keep coming up with more...The Last Dive is a fairly quick read and quite the nail-biter.
posted by angab at 4:14 PM on February 15, 2011

Lots of great suggestions in this thread, but when I came across Making of a Chef I said, "Yes!"

Part of what makes it such a great example of this particular genre is that the author is eventually able to describe his subject from all the way inside.
posted by Joe Beese at 7:53 PM on February 15, 2011

Highrise: How 1,000 Men and Women Worked Around the Clock for Five Years and Lost $200 Million Building a Skyscraper. Fascinating story of real estate development.
posted by joyride at 6:38 AM on February 16, 2011

It may be a bit broad-scoped for you, but I fell completely in love with Daniel Boorstein's The Discoverers. It's basically a history of scientific inquiry into four fairly broad topics; the book is in four sections covering ridiculously broad categories like "time", "space," "society", etc. And then each section starts with the very first instance of man relating to that topic, and tracing how man continued to relate to that topic and the development of knowledge along the way, tracing it up to today. So -- the "time" topic, for instance, starts with people on the Nile thinking, "huh, there seems to be a sort of pattern to how often this river floods -- I wonder if it would be helpful to keep track of that in some way?...." and it ends with the development of the atomic clock.

And on the way he gets into all these fascinating little detours, going over all the ideas that people tried for a while that didn't work. Like -- did you know that there was a clock for a while that worked by TASTE? The idea was that this was something you could use in the dark -- each number on the clock face had a little bowl full of some kind of spice, and the idea was that you felt your way along the clock's hands to the bowl it was pointing to, had a taste, and that let you know, "ah, cinnamon. That means it's half-past two." It was impossibly clunky and far-fetched, but it always fascinated me to know that while people were thinking up the concept of a clock they tried out some pretty weird ideas.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:00 AM on February 18, 2011

Zeitoun by Dave Egger is a fascinating account of Katrina's aftermath.
posted by natasha_k at 6:05 AM on February 19, 2011

I can't believe no one mentioned Into Thin Air, by John Krakauer which probably everyone has heard of and read by now. It started out as a journalist embedded onto a climbing team on Mt. Everest to do a story about how the over commercialization of Everest has led to crowding, pollution, and unsafe climbing practices. While he's there, he just happens to witness and be involved in the rescue, and barely survive, the worst disaster in the history of Mt. Everest, which was largely due to the tourism industry and unsafe climbing practices he was covering. One of the few books that I *literally* couldn't put down, reading it all in one shot.
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 3:23 PM on February 19, 2011

Oh, someone did mention it, I missed it.

Then I will change my answer to Shantaram, the account of an Australian fugitive who hides out in the slums of Bombay, eventually becoming a member of the community.
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 3:26 PM on February 19, 2011

Shantaram is "nonfiction" in only the barest sense. But still an interesting book. If you don't like it, you can also get your money's worth by using it as a doorstop.
posted by Sara C. at 6:12 PM on February 19, 2011

I too highly recommend Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand

I wasn't expecting much when I checked out the Book on CD from the library, but Holy shit, what a great story, extremely well told. I'm actually listening to it in my car right now and there's been times when I've arrived home and sat in the driveway another 10-15 minutes because I just had to find out what happened.
posted by crayon at 7:55 PM on February 19, 2011

Have you tried Tony Horwitz? Confederates in the Attic and Blue Latitudes come to mind...
posted by LittleMy at 6:43 AM on February 21, 2011

Just Kids, by Patti Smith.
Beautiful and honest memoir of the NYC BoHo scene in the late 60's - early 70's and o Smith's coming of age as an artist. All kids of famous folks populate the pages, but the real story is the enduring love and friendship between Smith and the late photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. I finished it on a plane and had to pretend not to be crying for the last few pages.
posted by Prevailing Southwest at 3:04 PM on March 16, 2011

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