Suggestions for reading about large scale projects?
February 1, 2012 10:38 AM   Subscribe

What large scale, generally peaceful and non-space related projects would be as fun to read about as the Apollo space program? Specific details are below the fold.

One of my favorite things about reading up on Apollo is the sheer number of books that tell the story from different viewpoints. One can read about program from the point of view of the astronauts, people in Mission Control, designers of the machines or even as historical documents that chronicle the political, economical and social forces that birthed, grew and killed the program.

What other large scale projects offer a lot of reading material (mostly in book form) that cover a number of different views or aspects of the project?
posted by Brandon Blatcher to Media & Arts (33 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
How about the history of AIDS/HIV research?
posted by Ratio at 10:45 AM on February 1, 2012

Codebreaking in WWII and beyond? If you wanted to get specific, the work done against the Enigma machine is always great reading.
posted by jquinby at 10:51 AM on February 1, 2012 [3 favorites]

Lately I've been reading about control of teen girls' sexuality in the early 20th century. (Yeah, I know, what a thing to nerd out about. But it's also interesting in light of yesterday's FPP re: the Susan G. Komen Foundation and Planned Parenthood).

I've enjoyed reading about it from the perspective of legislators and worried parents, the girls themselves, and the special circumstances in the South at the time. Tied into this are the many taboos and mysteries surrounding menarche, periods and coming of age.
posted by runningwithscissors at 10:53 AM on February 1, 2012

Additional notes.

I really enjoyed reading about the various people that were involved in the Apollo program and not just the astronauts. It was extremely interesting to learn how different people, across various specialities coped with and adapted to being both part of this large project and their specific contribution to it. Some of the best reading was where these people described specific problems they had and how they solved them.

If you have specific suggestions about what books to read about a subject and a specific order, that would be awesome.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 10:55 AM on February 1, 2012

I don't know how many books there are on the subject but there are probably hundreds of articles on the making of Coppola's Godfather films. I've probably read a dozen or so.

For that matter, the making of Apocalypse Now was also a huge project and I've seen lots of material on that as well.
posted by Ratio at 10:57 AM on February 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

The history of computer development is an interesting one. Two recommendations:

The Chip by T. R. Reid. How two guys came up with the idea of a microchip and what that meant for computing. (Reid's book Confucius Lives Next Door, which talks about living in Japan with his family is also well worth checking out.)

Soul of a New Machine by Tracy Kidder. t's about the development of a mainframe computer right at the dawn of the PC age, but I am always astounded how the problems they face are repeated even in this day and age.
posted by fifteen schnitzengruben is my limit at 11:03 AM on February 1, 2012 [2 favorites]

I think history of the U.S. railroads and some of the Depression-era projects (like WPA, CCC) would make for some interesting reading -- social, political, and environmental/artistic perspectives.
posted by pantarei70 at 11:05 AM on February 1, 2012

What about the Manhattan project? I haven't read much about it, but I remember how much I enjoyed reading those chapters of Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman! and I imagine there are many more accounts of various aspects of the project.
posted by cider at 11:13 AM on February 1, 2012

The history of computer development is an interesting one.

Agreed! Here's two more suggestions, both by Stephen Levy:

Hackers, Heroes of the Computer Revolution (Rotten title, awesome book. Free Project Gutenberg download.)

Insanely Great: The Life and Times of the Macintosh, the Computer That Changed Everything
(OK, this guy seriously cannot title his books, but he writes a very readable history.)

These are more about the people than the technology, but there are more than enough deep geek technical details to delight the curious.
posted by Slap*Happy at 11:21 AM on February 1, 2012

The TVA and the history of rural electrification. It's got everything from corruption and malfeasance to heroism and engineering marvels, sweeping sociological transformations and cultural conflict, and big ol' complicated machinery.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 11:22 AM on February 1, 2012 [2 favorites]

I think history of the U.S. railroads...

Note, I'm not limited to US centric programs, though having reading material in English is required.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 11:26 AM on February 1, 2012

The expeditions to measure the 1761 and 1769 Transits of Venus were some of the greatest scientific adventures of all time. Teams from the US and Europe spread out from Hudson Bay to the Cape of Good Hope. Catherine the Great observed the Transit in St. Petersburg while Captain Cook watched it from Tahiti.
posted by chrisulonic at 11:34 AM on February 1, 2012

How about John Wesley Powell's exploration of the Grand Canyon?

Climbing Mt. Everest? Expeditions to the poles? The establishment of our National Parks?
posted by hydrophonic at 11:38 AM on February 1, 2012

All Corvettes Are Red, the story of the design of the C5, the fifth-generation Corvette.
posted by mogget at 11:43 AM on February 1, 2012

Indeed, the Great Depression is great to study from all different points of view. I particularly liked The Worst Hard Time, which is personal stories of folks who lived at ground zero of the Dust Bowl in Oklahoma. I think somewhere the ad copy reads: "You read about the story of the Joads, and their life in California. This is the story of those who stayed behind."
posted by Melismata at 11:46 AM on February 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

Some of the Early Mt. Everest expeditions (before it became a total shithole and a trophy for the rich and super-obsessed) are interesting to read about from a logistical point of view. There's the few climbers who reach the summit but there's also the guys who drive the trucks with several tons of gear overland, bribing boarder guards along the way, the doctors and researchers, the guys negotiating with the Sherpas, the salesmen back home drumming up sponsorship, things like that.

A couple that come to mind:

Americans on Everest

There's also one by Chris Bonington, about the successful British 1975 SW Face expedition.

I believe both books, although credited to a singly author, contain snippets and points-of-view from other members of the teams.

Really, any book written about a major Himalayan expedition before around the mid-1970s or so. These were giant operations with hundreds of support people and tons of gear.
posted by bondcliff at 11:48 AM on February 1, 2012

The Voyage of the Beagle? Darwin's account of the voyage itself, and the work it produced, obviously, but there are lots of interesting side stories, like how it wracked the ship's very-Christian captain to suicide.

A more macabre project to investigate would be the Franklin Expedition and the searches thereafter. It just goes on and on and on, starting with a British colonial project, to relations with the Inuit, to modern CSI stuff and lots of Science!. Fascinating. All the more so because it's still going on.
posted by Capt. Renault at 11:51 AM on February 1, 2012

The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich may be right up your alley as a starting point for jumping into that era in history. I know, I know, you said "generally peaceful" but I'm at least a third of the way in and it's focus has been much more political and economic and racial than militarily focused. There was that one little fire and a few political rallies that got a bit, shall we say, forceful of course.

Barring that you could dive into some history of the Appalachian trail with A Walk in the Woods by Bryson serving as an interesting jumping off point. Going further (and sideways with regards to topic) with Bryson you could check out A Short History of Nearly Everything and go from there.

Probably a weak answer but it might pan out. Looking above the recommendation on code breaking (I don't remember the book I have at home on the subject) would fit in really well. The personal side of things is really interesting.
posted by RolandOfEld at 11:52 AM on February 1, 2012

Oh and the polar exploration recommendation was a good one as well. Shackleton's story in Endurance coupled with almost any other north/south pole exploration stories sucked me in for a good few months.
posted by RolandOfEld at 11:55 AM on February 1, 2012

Group effort here with Mr. Kit: I just finished reading The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks; this could be a jumping-off point for cancer research. Or, you could read about the series of discoveries that led to the discovery of the DNA code, like the work done by Watson & Crick, or even Watson's own account of their work. Here's a book about Rosalind Franklin, whose work Crick & Watson relied on in their research.
posted by kitarra at 12:29 PM on February 1, 2012

More notes: Have previously read about computer development, Everest, polar expeditions and discovering DNA, so if we could steer away from those topics, that would be great.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 12:36 PM on February 1, 2012

Ernest Shackleton
posted by Confess, Fletch at 12:44 PM on February 1, 2012

In the same vein as Ernest Shackleton but with more piracy, I suggest Felix Von Luckner.
posted by RonButNotStupid at 1:04 PM on February 1, 2012

There are also a wide range of books on the construction of the Panama Canal, covering not just the engineering, but also Latin American and US politics; failed Spanish, French and Scottish attempts; the canal's impact on global trade; and the impact of the construction on the treatment of tropical diseases.
posted by chrisulonic at 1:12 PM on February 1, 2012

From studying Italian, you could read up on Silvio Berlusconi's corruption, and then the Mafia, from Italy to the US.
posted by ellieBOA at 3:15 PM on February 1, 2012

Re "recommendation on code breaking" above, try "The Hut Six Story" by Gordon Welchman
posted by lungtaworld at 5:15 PM on February 1, 2012

try "The Hut Six Story" by Gordon Welchman

I'd also recommend The Codebreakers by David Kahn. It's a pretty extensive history on the subject, and the sections covering WWII are great. If you like Kahn, you might also enjoy The Puzzle Palace, by James Bamford, which is a detailed look at the inner workings (!) of the NSA.
posted by jquinby at 5:53 PM on February 1, 2012

My dad loved Daniel Yergin's The Prize about the growth of the oil industry.

I bet there's a ton of books in that vein.
posted by jann at 6:36 PM on February 1, 2012

How about the US Interstate Highway System?
posted by Harald74 at 3:14 AM on February 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

Have you read Space Race? That also has a lot of info on the Soviet program.
posted by empath at 6:15 AM on February 2, 2012

The Atomic Bomb was an amazing project to read about. Basically everyone involved changed the world in one way or another. Richard Rhodes is an excellent writer.
posted by montaigneisright at 7:20 AM on February 2, 2012

The Great Escape by Paul Brickhill: The first and still definitive account of the attempted mass escape of Allied POW's during World War II.

The Longest Tunnel by Alan Burgess: a later overview of the whole escape. Doesn't go into as much detail as Brickhill, but benefits from some behind the Iron Curtain sources becoming available.

Stalag Luft III by Arthur Durand: History of the entire camp the escape was made from.

Then some memoirs and biographies of folks who participated in the escape:

Sage by Jerry Sage.
Wings Day by Sydney Smith.
In the Presence of Mine Enemies by Eugen Daniel.
posted by marxchivist at 9:15 AM on February 2, 2012

Since the Italy reading appeals, here's the bibliography from an essay I wrote about Berlusconi's corruption. I highly recommend Paul Ginsborg, I'm currently hunting for my dissertation reading list so will post if I find it.

Amyot, G & Verzichelli, L. (eds). (2006). Italian Politics: The End of the Berlusconi Era? Berghahn Books, Oxford.

Bellucci, P & Bull, M. (eds). (2002). Italian Politics: The Return of Berlusconi. Berghahn Books, Oxford.

Blondel, J & Segatti, P. (eds). (2003). Italian Politics: The Second Berlusconi Government. Berghahn Books, Oxford.

Cento Bull, A & Gilbert, M. (2001). The Lega Nord and the Northern Question in Italian Politics. Palgrave, Basingstoke.

Ginsborg, P. (2001). Italy and its Discontents. Penguin Books, London.

Ginsborg, P. (2004). Silvio Berlusconi: Television, Power and Patrimony. Verso, London.

Hitchcock, W. (2004). The Struggle for Europe: A History of the Continent since 1945. (Paperback edition). Profile Books Ltd, London.

Lane, D. (2005). Berlusconi’s Shadow. (Paperback edition). Penguin Books, London.

Stille, A. (2007). The Sack of Rome: Media + Money + Celebrity = Power = Silvio Berlusconi. (2nd). Penguin Books, London.
posted by ellieBOA at 1:21 PM on February 2, 2012

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