Fun non-fiction?
September 10, 2011 9:08 AM   Subscribe

I love non-fiction, but a lot of it is either annoyingly precise or too worthy. I'm looking for fun entertaining bedtime reading that won't tax the mind too much. Any suggestions?

Books I recently read and enjoyed include:

- Traffic (Tom Vanderbilt)
- Risk (Dan Gardner)
- Mind Hacks
- The Drunkard's Walk
- Watching The English

So as you can see:
Reasonably lightweight
Filled with fascinating trivia
Something of a psychology/sociology slant... although this isn't a must


posted by cdenman to Media & Arts (39 answers total) 138 users marked this as a favorite
Obligatory: Malcolm Gladwell.
posted by box at 9:09 AM on September 10, 2011 [3 favorites]

Jon Ronson. Them: Adventures with Extremists is his best, but his latest The Psychopath Test also fits your criteria.
posted by Lentrohamsanin at 9:11 AM on September 10, 2011 [3 favorites]

Schott's Original Miscellany is lightweight and full of trivia, and it is in a non-linear format that lends itself to reading in short bursts.
posted by michaelh at 9:11 AM on September 10, 2011

I've long been a big fan of the various People's Almanac/Book of Lists books. If you like those, you might also enjoy James Burke's Connections, Cecil Adams' Straight Dope books and the Imponderables books.
posted by box at 9:14 AM on September 10, 2011

I loved "Stiff: The curious lives of human cadavers" by Mary Roach.

It really is quite light-hearted and funny at moments and very touching at other moments. She is respectful of the dead, though.
posted by cranberrymonger at 9:14 AM on September 10, 2011 [6 favorites]

There must be thousands of possibilities. Mary Roach has another called Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex. There's the Quite Interesting books. And a left-field one: P J O'Rourke's book on The Wealth of Nations. Nobody could accuse it of being annoyingly precise nor boring either.
posted by Logophiliac at 9:21 AM on September 10, 2011

I like travel books for this purpose - Bill Bryson is an obvious one (my favorite: In a Sunburned Country) but I also loved Travels in Siberia by Ian Frazier and Ghost Train to the Eastern Star by Paul Theroux.
posted by something something at 9:22 AM on September 10, 2011 [5 favorites]

Also came here to recommend Mary Roach. Since that has been covered here is what I am enjoying right now Operation Mincemeat: How a Dead Man and a Bizarre Plan Fooled the Nazis and Assured an Allied Victory
posted by futz at 9:30 AM on September 10, 2011

Devil in the White City!

Seconding Operation Mincemeat, Mary Roach and Bill Bryson.
posted by ambrosia at 9:33 AM on September 10, 2011 [3 favorites]

I found The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin, while not exactly light, to be a fun and very informative read. He was a rock star in his day.
posted by elendil71 at 9:41 AM on September 10, 2011

Savage Summit: The True Stories of the First Five Women Who Climbed K2, the World's Most Feared Mountain

The Last Man on the Mountain: The Death of an American Adventurer on K2

Modoc: The True Story of the Greatest Elephant That Ever Lived

Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea: The History and Discovery of the World's Richest Shipwreck

The last book is one of my all time favorites. Absolutely fascinating.
posted by futz at 9:56 AM on September 10, 2011 [2 favorites]

I love Robert Sapolsky, especially Primate's Memoir. Not that lightweight, but totally engaging and fun to read.

Oliver Sacks is terrific. Start with The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat: And Other Clinical Tales
posted by theora55 at 10:15 AM on September 10, 2011

I very much enjoyed Mary Roach's Packing for Mars, and also Stiff which is occasionally sort of revolting and which I stupidly read over lunch. She's not graphic for no reason, but describing the various stages of corpses rotting in food terms is still unappealing while you eat. I still recommend these books.

Deborah Blum's The Poisoner's Handbook was great.

It's not quite as lightweight, but Philbrick's In the Heart of the Sea is brilliant.

I enjoyed Ken Jennings' book about trivia and Jeopardy, Braniac.

The Best X Writing books are very good -- the science one for the decade 2000-2009 was full of excellent articles, in particular.
posted by jeather at 10:21 AM on September 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

Jan Krakaur, although his books are in the 'true adventure' line.
posted by SLC Mom at 10:22 AM on September 10, 2011

Sticking with futz' mountain climbing theme, there's also Into Thin Air.
Mark Bowen writes some pretty straight-forward compelling stuff: Consider Blackhawk Down.
Would The Tao of Pooh qualify?
posted by Gilbert at 10:25 AM on September 10, 2011

Sarah Vowell's last three books (Assassination Vacation, The Wordy Shipmates, and Unfamiliar Fishes) are fun, breezy reads full of both hard history and the dishy dirt most histories tend to gloss over.
posted by Sys Rq at 10:46 AM on September 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption

I loved this book, and I don't typically read non-fiction. This was freakin' awesome. However, I can't say it was "lightweight" but it was engrossing and plain awesome.

Also, The Great Divorce: A Nineteenth-Century Mother's Extraordinary Fight Against Her Husband, The Shakers, and Her Time
posted by Sassyfras at 10:55 AM on September 10, 2011

I'm a huge space buff and I love the astronaut memoirs. "Riding Rockets" by Mike Mullane is hilarious; the book starts off with him preparing for a colonoscopy as part of his medical exam and trying to make sure he beats all the other astronaut candidates by having the cleanest rectum. Other times he's very serious. Fun and lightweight, unlike some other astronaut bios that are long and more spiritual.
posted by RobotNinja at 11:24 AM on September 10, 2011

John McPhee is an essayist who I think would fit the bill. I don't think there's explicitly a psychology/sociology slant, but if you read for that I think you'd find some.

For non-taxing yet edifying nonfiction I also really like to read random biographies, autobiographies, memoirs, etc.
posted by hattifattener at 11:54 AM on September 10, 2011

The Cloudspotters Guide is a good book - fun and intelligent but not too technical and written in an amusing, interesting way.
Freakonomics and its sequal SuperFreakonomics are also entertaning and will probably be of interest to someone interested in sociology.
posted by Laura_J at 11:59 AM on September 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

I like reading O. Henry before bed. The stories are short enough that I don't end up staying up all night reading and they all have a fun twist.
posted by TooFewShoes at 12:01 PM on September 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

Seconding Devil in the White City.

RobotNinja reminds me: The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe. Not really psych/sociology but it does go into what makes a test pilot tick.
posted by Quietgal at 12:15 PM on September 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

2nding anything by John McPhee, nthing early Tom Wolfe. Lately, I have been readng and re-reading this old collection of newspaper columns.
posted by timsteil at 1:15 PM on September 10, 2011

In the same vein as Devil in the White City, I love Erik Larson's new book, In The Garden Of Beasts, about pre-WWII Germany seen through the eyes of an American diplomat and his family.
posted by zoomorphic at 2:16 PM on September 10, 2011 [2 favorites]

I think you'd like Moonwalking with Einstein.
posted by Wordwoman at 2:31 PM on September 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rival:The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln is an incredibly engrossing book. I'm not a huge fan of biography but this is one of my favorite books. I couldn't wait to get in bed at night to read it.
posted by PaulBGoode at 2:52 PM on September 10, 2011

I have similar preferences and really enjoyed The Ghost Map. Not sociology/psychology/Gladwell type reading, but extremely fascinating if you have any interest in public health.
posted by telegraph at 3:01 PM on September 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

Several of my favorites have been mentioned here already, but these are a few others I've enjoyed:

The Dead Beat
Confederates in the Attic
How I Killed Pluto
Animal, Vegetable, Miracle
posted by helloknitty at 3:29 PM on September 10, 2011

I love the Best American Crime Reporting annuals for this.
posted by biscotti at 4:39 PM on September 10, 2011

Seabiscuit: An American Legend is very detail-packed but the writing style is very breezy; it's one of those books you learn from effortlessly because reading it feels more like a conversation with an awesomely well-informed person than anything else.
posted by bettafish at 4:54 PM on September 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

Not as light as some (and OH MAN some excellent suggestions up there), but The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman is one of my favorite nonfiction books to put into people's hands. It's utterly fantastic and engrossing.
posted by bibliogrrl at 5:43 PM on September 10, 2011 [3 favorites]

Came here to write what bibliogrrl wrote! Not only is the book fascinating but the author creates a truly balanced portrait. Agree that it is not really a "light
book, but it's not extrememly heavy or dense either. Also, if you are interested in psychology/sociology it is right up your alley.
posted by bearette at 8:34 PM on September 10, 2011

hattifattener/timsteil: what's your favorite by McPhee?
posted by Lentrohamsanin at 1:22 PM on September 11, 2011

Hard to choose. The Control of Nature maybe.
posted by hattifattener at 6:08 PM on September 11, 2011

Chuck Klosterman.
posted by mecran01 at 8:26 PM on September 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

Edward Tufte
posted by schmod at 9:24 AM on September 12, 2011

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil
The Guns of August
Guns, Germs, and Steel
posted by dracomarca at 11:58 AM on September 12, 2011

I'm surprised to not see any A.J. Jacobs on this list. I greatly enjoyed The Know-It-All. His collection My Life As An Experiment is an introduction to his experimental/stunt/immersive-investigative journalism.
posted by knile at 5:18 AM on July 18, 2012

« Older Trumpets & Violins   |   I think I love my staff. Literally. Help. Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.