Fingers on the pulse - give me your "zeitgeistiest" non-fiction picks
August 15, 2011 2:33 AM   Subscribe

Help me put together a list of the most zeitgeist-y, readable and accomplished "big idea" non-fiction books of recent years.

Pretend I just dropped out of the sky and want to catch up on the big global debates, conversations, popular trends of intellectual thought in the English-speaking world. What's my reading list? I am not looking for esoteric academic debates, but the books that everybody's reading, or should be reading, and which have been influential in shaping public opinion and/or our understanding of the world in the last couple of years. I'm talking environment, politics, science, foreign affairs -- whatever we're reading and talking about.

To make this a little mechanical, what are the English language books published within the last (say) 5 years that would score highest all around on the following metrics (if not maxing out all of them):

1) "Zeitgeistiness" (topical, relevant, and talked about);
2) Readability;
3) Excellence (generally respected in its relevant field - high quality research and insight)

I'm looking for books that are relevant to current events and trends AND books like Guns, Germs, Steel that can reframe how we think about our own history. Books like Nudge, Blink, Being Wrong also acceptable, so long as they're not total fluff.
posted by oneaday to Writing & Language (31 answers total) 137 users marked this as a favorite
Is Freakonomics too obvious? It certainly provoked debate.

No Logo is near ten years old now, but The Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein's follow-up book, may fit your criteria. I'd also throw in Tescopoly, and Joanna Blythman's 'Shopped'.
posted by mippy at 2:46 AM on August 15, 2011

Is Fast Food Nation too old?
posted by tracicle at 3:08 AM on August 15, 2011

Just remembered - Female Chauvinist Pigs by Ariel Levy falls within your five-year remit. A good companion piece is Caitlin Moran's How To Be A Woman, but that mixes polemic with biography so may fall too far from what you#re after./
posted by mippy at 3:12 AM on August 15, 2011

I really enjoyed Why The West Rules (for now), which is along the lines of Guns Germs and Steel, but with more of a Eurasian slant.
posted by pompomtom at 3:19 AM on August 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

Michael Pollan - though not sure whether to put forward In Defense of Food or The Omnivore's Dilemma. Food - what we're eating, where it comes from, what we should stop eating, why we're too fat, why others don't have enough, what the government is doing about it or not, organic yes/no - certainly seems to be a topic getting plenty of air time these days.
posted by AnnaRat at 3:29 AM on August 15, 2011 [6 favorites]

McMafia by Misha Glenny
posted by Abiezer at 3:36 AM on August 15, 2011 [2 favorites]

'Waste' by Tristram Stuart (winner of the 2011 Sophia Prize). It's a very impressive catalogue of food waste, and argues quite convincingly that yes, all the food you scrape off your plate every night into the wastebin does take food out of the mouths of the poor children in Africa.

I second 'Fast Food Nation'.
posted by NekulturnY at 4:03 AM on August 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

Published in 2006, this'll meet the deadline: The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions by Karen Armstrong. Earlier and later works are also worth reading, but this was particularly fine.

Published in 2007 and written by the only guy who cleaned up thanks to the crisis, Nassim Nicholas Taleb's The Black Swan: Second Edition: The Impact of the Highly Improbable: With a new section: "On Robustness and Fragility" stirred up a lot of annoyance. As did Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets, published in 2008.

+1 for Shock Doctrine
posted by likeso at 4:18 AM on August 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

The world without us - Alan Weisman
posted by natasha_k at 4:31 AM on August 15, 2011 [2 favorites]

This might be more hands-on than what you're looking for, but if you're interested in energy policy at all, I can definitely recommend Sustainable Energy - Without the Hot Air by David McKay. It's a great and straightforward read.
posted by cerbous at 4:42 AM on August 15, 2011

The Big Short by Michael Lewis
posted by chrisulonic at 4:42 AM on August 15, 2011

Better by Atul Gawande, a candid look at doctoring and discussing problems with the U.S. health care system.
posted by lillygog at 4:50 AM on August 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

The key in your criteria is "excellence" I have read a lot of the suggestions posted thus far, and while they are provocative interesting books many have provoked powerful critical responses and/or are unabashedly partisan, and so might not fit your definition. Looking at books that even their critics would acknowledge as "excellent" that I have read (slanted heavily towards my interests):

Seconding both, The Big Short by Michael Lewis and Sustainable Energy - Without the Hot Air by David McKay.

Poor Economics is still making waves and has come in for some criticism, but it is a pioneering work and may well be one of the most important books on poverty for a long time

Piracy: The intellectual Property wars from Gutenberg to Gates by Adrian Johns is something of a niche interest but I have not met a single person interested in IP who has not come away raving about it. It can be a little dense at times but the content is just superb - I doubt there will be a better book on intellectual property this decade.

Getting Things Done by David Allen will surely go down both as the "geeks guide to productivity" and as a book that launched a thousand terrible blogs (and the brilliant work of merlin mann)

I would like to recommend a book on atheism, but none of the usual suspects (dawkins, hitchens act) really meet your criteria of "excellence". The only excellent recent book I have read on the subject is The Non-Existence of God by Nicholas Everett; however it is excellent precisely because it is not aimed at a general audience and I suspect most readers will find it too heavy going.

The last few years have given us some incredible cookbooks. In particular The Fat Duck Cookbook by Heston Blumenthal and Modernist Cuisine by Nathan Mryvold are landmarks.

Finally two personal choices I am guessing no-one else will recommend:
Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter by Tom Bissel is the best book on video games I have ever read by a large margin. You should read it.

Jazz by Garry Giddins is a comprehensive guide to what is sadly a slowly dying musical form, the best introduction to the whole field of jazz music I have ever read. clearly aimed at undergraduate "introduction to jazz classes" it is very suitable for a wider audience. Not "prevocative
posted by Another Fine Product From The Nonsense Factory at 5:18 AM on August 15, 2011 [8 favorites]

Linked: How Everything Is Connected to Everything Else and What It Means might not be familiar to everyone in the same way "The Black Swan" is, but a lot of the ideas in it influenced the sort of books you're talking about.
posted by deanc at 5:21 AM on August 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

Hot, Flat, and Crowded
posted by Jason and Laszlo at 5:43 AM on August 15, 2011

OH YES...not sure if it was released earlier than 2006, but Stephen Poole's Everything Bad is Good For You. Recently there was a counterpoint book, The Shallows, but it's waiting for me to read it.

Simon Garfield's Rip It Up and Start Again and can't-remember-who-it's-by's The Rest Is Noise are two landmark books on music from the last five years. Jamie Oliver's work on school dinners has provoked a lot of debate in the UK, but I think this was mainly television and not in book form.

Both Getting Things Done and Fast Food Nation are too old now to be recent by the OP's criterion.
posted by mippy at 5:49 AM on August 15, 2011

You mentioned Blink, I'd also include Outliers.
posted by fings at 6:14 AM on August 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Great stuff so far, and as I hoped a lot of new titles to me. Keep 'em coming!
posted by oneaday at 6:20 AM on August 15, 2011

The Coming Insurrection is all about a palpable zeitgeist. (wikipedia)
posted by McGuillicuddy at 6:47 AM on August 15, 2011

I enjoyed The Next 100 Years by George Friedman.

"In the book, Friedman attempts to predict the major geopolitical events and trends of the 21st century. Friedman also speculates in the book on changes in technology and culture that may take place during this period."

He has another book which came out this year, The Next Decade.
posted by banwa at 7:35 AM on August 15, 2011

A few that have influenced me:

Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell.

Where Good Ideas Come From by Steven Johnson.

The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan.

And three more that I read with a grain of salt, but you may find interesting:

The Great Reset by Richard Florida.

Hot, Flat and Crowded by Thomas Friedman.

Cognitive Surplus by Clay Shirky.

Happy reading!
posted by crackingdes at 7:39 AM on August 15, 2011

The Singularity Is Near by Ray Kurzweil. I found it rather uplifting.
posted by lpsguy at 8:30 AM on August 15, 2011

Way too old (1993) but going to throw it out there anyway just in case: The McDonaldization of Society, which is not about what you might assumeby its title (I figured it was like Fast Food Nation before I read it and discovered it was about something broader and more universally problematic). Even older is Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death. And there was just an FPP about the 10th anniversary of Nickel and Dimed, reevaluating and revisiting its premise.
posted by ifjuly at 10:44 AM on August 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

And I totally agree about anything by Atul Gawande (his New Yorker pieces for a long time were amazing). The topics he struggles with--intersection of technological possibility with social and economic justice and corporatization of medicine/business managing care and the sort of cultural psychology that narrates epidemics, on and on--are about as topical as they come right now for American society.
posted by ifjuly at 10:48 AM on August 15, 2011 [2 favorites]

Here are more that are maybe a little more 'academic' than you'd like -- but, IMO, are actually driving debate or introducing new ideas in a substantive way:

The aforementioned Poor Economics
Tyler Cowen, The Great Stagnation
Francis Fukuyama, The Origins of Political Order
James Gleick, The Information
Charles Mann, 1491
Arum and Roksa, Academically Adrift
Tony Judt, Postwar
Daniel Richter, Before the Revolution: America's Ancient Pasts

If you haven't discovered it, you might want to check out FiveBooks, a site which invites experts in different fields to name their five favorite books.
posted by josh at 12:50 PM on August 15, 2011 [4 favorites]

Francis Fukuyama, The Origins of Political Order

Really? I haven't got around to looking at it yet, but I'd heard very negative reviews.
posted by atrazine at 2:44 PM on August 15, 2011

Response by poster: Josh, thanks for that FiveBooks site - great rec!
posted by oneaday at 3:09 PM on August 15, 2011

Sebastian Junger's War

Samantha Power's A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide
posted by thinkingwoman at 7:42 PM on August 15, 2011

Three books really fascinated me recently:

You Are Not A Gadget, by Jaron Lanier

Reality Hunger, by David Shields

Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter, by Tom Bissell

What I find interesting about them is that they are "big idea" books that are sort of memoiristic and confessional, sort of hybrid types of manifesto-analysis-diary which I found really cool. They all have to do with the way technology intersects with personal identity/aesthetics/creativity/story. Really cool books.
posted by jayder at 8:37 AM on August 25, 2011

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