Bizarre nonfiction recommendations?
February 15, 2012 7:47 AM   Subscribe

Nonfiction books that are off-the-wall, of mixed-to-dubious accuracy, but which are also entertaining and insightful as works of literature, irrespective of the factual claims presented therein. Clarification and examples lurk within.

I'm looking for nonfiction books that are too strange and/or creative and/or wrong to be considered "normal" nonfiction, but which are also too readable to be considered gibberish or pure formal experimentalism.

For the purposes of this question, I'm not looking for personal stories or personal journeys. These books should be about history, science, travel, language, etc. etc. etc.

The author should be attempting for factual accuracy, even if s/he falls short of the mark.

Encyclopedic books are more than fine, so long as they're readable front-to-back.

I'm not interested in straight-up conspiracy literature of the "who killed JFK" variety, let alone anything of the "aliens at Area 51" variety, unless the book is truly, truly amazing, especially as far as the prose itself is concerned. I'd rather come way from the book feeling that I've actually learned something, even if I'm not entirely sure how reliable the lessons were.

I'm not really looking for pop science or pop history, not because I'm a snob, but because those books are generally not weird enough. For example, Mark Kurlansky's books are good, but they're not what I'm looking for.

Some examples of what I am looking for include:

Peter Levenda's Sinister Forces trilogy, which reads American history through an occult lens. Distinguishes itself from plain old conspiracy books by being much more about undercurrents and strange connections than it is about any particular big-C Conspiracy, especially since most of the conspiracy elements are about things which are verifiably true to some extent or another (e.g. MKULTRA really did exist, Frank Olson really did die at the Pennsylvania Hotel, and so on). This book is maybe the best example of what I'm looking for - there's a thesis, there are subtheses, it's well-researched, it's sort of insane, much of it is perfectly true, much of it is probably false, but I read the entire thing with pleasure. Levenda's Unholy Alliance also fits within what I'm looking for.

Reza Negarestani's Cyclonopedia fuses a loose fictional frame with some truly heady theory. This one's further out on the experimental fringe of what I'm looking for. While the factual assertions made in this book are not meant to be taken at face value, the theory is, so it still has that feeling of a delirious nonfiction book.

Ernest Becker's The Birth and Death of Meaning is on the more sober, academic fringe of what I'm looking for. It's well-cited, with a mature and respected thesis that has been developed in further works, including Becker's own work and in the work of his acolytes.

G. K. Chesterton's The Everlasting Man is a conservative example of what I'm looking for. It's a loose history of the world, as seen through the lens of a fervent Catholic. Neither fish nor fowl, but a very good book.

Colin Wilson's A Criminal History of Mankind. I'm currently reading this book, and I love it. I'm also very much aware that much of what Wilson is writing is complete bunk - not quite woo, just bunk. Nonetheless, this book is what inspired this question. For all of the nonsense the book has, it's very well-assembled, and what's more, there's real insight in here, as well as real facts and anecdotes.
posted by Sticherbeast to Writing & Language (44 answers total) 125 users marked this as a favorite
The Remarkable Life of John Murray Spear: Agitator for the Spirit Land by John Benedict Buescher.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 7:52 AM on February 15, 2012

The Voynich Manuscript: The Mysterious Code That Has Defied Interpretation for Centuries by Rob Churchill and Gerry Kennedy

It details connections between some of history's weirder figures by way of this manuscript. It also covers the manuscript itself, attacks the mystery of it on a lot of fronts, and basically tries to make sense of something which, to all appearances, intrinsically cannot be made sense of.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 7:55 AM on February 15, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Julian Jaynes, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind.
posted by stopgap at 8:00 AM on February 15, 2012 [11 favorites]

Best answer: Europeana by Patrik Ourednik.
posted by cog_nate at 8:04 AM on February 15, 2012

There is a special place in my heart for Graham Hancock's weird theories - The Fingerprints of the Gods is a good place to start.
posted by something something at 8:07 AM on February 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

Beyond Belief by Emlyn Williams is a frankly pretty bizarre book about the Moors murders (committed in the 60s by Ian Brady and Myra Hindley).

What makes it different from other true crime books is that Williams novelises it, taking leaps of imagination to guess at what was going on in their minds, filling in the factual gaps with stream of consciousness, pages of invented dialogue (rendered in regional dialect), and some some pretty out-there speculation.

It's quite weird and given the subject matter and the strange writing style might not be to everyone's taste but thought I'd throw it out there. I enjoyed it, but then I'm weird that way.
posted by Ziggy500 at 8:17 AM on February 15, 2012

Terence McKenna's True Hallucinations remains one of the most entertaining "non-fiction" books I've ever read. To this day, I still start snickering whenever I start thinking through the logic chain involving ayahuasca-psilocybin complex fusion molecules binding to neural DNA and making the brain a psychofluid superconductor if you hum right because the sound waves inside the skull cancel each other out to make absolute zero for the DNA-drug matrices. Which, by the way, immanentized the eschaton, which I believe is due this year, so time's probably short for reading it.
posted by Drastic at 8:18 AM on February 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

The White Goddess by Robert Graves. It directly connects the religion of Wales and Ireland with that of Greece and the Mediterranean in a way that is a little hard to accept. If you relax and just go with it, it is a really fun book, though it is a little hard to read.

It really is amazing how much can be tied to human sacrifice.
posted by Quonab at 8:30 AM on February 15, 2012

Best answer: Ed Sanders' book on Manson, The Family fits into this category, I think.

It begins as a serious, detail-oriented attempt to understand the motivations behind the crimes, runs off the rails as he begins recording the many occult / conspiracy-related threads connected to them, and yet still (and maybe as a result) manages, by the end, to get closer to the probable truth than any of the more conventional accounts.

If you haven't already, you may also want to have a look at the Feral House catalog.
posted by ryanshepard at 8:39 AM on February 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I kind of liked Fingerprints of the Gods, I admit. (Though it's been ages.)

Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi is the fascinating, comprehensive and very chilling tale of the Manson family murders, how badly the police f*cked up and how Manson almost got away with all of it. Also, imo, well-written. It's true crime but so seriously strange and engrossing that it may fit your description.

I also read Bugliosi's And the Sea Will Tell, another chilling but fascinating and well-written tale, this time about two unlikely couples in paradise (but less engrossing than the other).

Oh! For more chilling but really interesting, well-written history, I just finished The Devil in the White City about the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, (frequently recommended in AskMe).
posted by Glinn at 8:44 AM on February 15, 2012 [2 favorites]

I dropped in to recommend The Devil in the White City, but Glinn beat me to it. Great, fascinating read.

I'd also recommend just about anything by Mary Roach, whose sense of humor and writing style make for some great non-fiction. I loved Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers and Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife.
posted by BrianJ at 8:59 AM on February 15, 2012

I should also plug Terence McLaughlin's short, sui generis Dirt: A Social History as Seen Through the Uses and Abuses of Dirt - a meditation on the nature of messy, underlying reality and our relationship to it, framed as a history of sanitation.
posted by ryanshepard at 9:12 AM on February 15, 2012

Anything by Peter Tompkins would probably fit the bill. I'm thinking particularly of The Secret Life of Plants and Secrets of the Soil.
posted by woodman at 9:15 AM on February 15, 2012

How about Chariots of the Gods?
posted by rhizome at 9:18 AM on February 15, 2012

This might be a bit too off the wall for your tastes, but there's nothing quite like it: Jack Cuozzo's Buried Alive - The Startling Untold Story about Neanderthal Man. Lots of cloak-and-dagger dealings with museum officials etc. as this creationist dentist works to prove his theories of Neanderthal (de)evolution.

Here's a sample chapter, featuring his dubious but vigorously argued interpretation of a 'cave carving' of a dinosaur fighting a mammoth!
posted by heyforfour at 9:19 AM on February 15, 2012

Best answer: The books are perhaps a little woo-ier than you specified, but Jarret Kobek's electric publishing wing hosts a number of (free) "obscure, outlandish and otherwise outré works of semi-fine literature."

Titles include The Oldest History of the World Discovered by Occult Science in Detroit, Michigan, by Benny Evangelist (who was apparently "murdered and decapitated in 1929"); Early British Trackways, Moats, Mounds, Camps, and Sites, an exhaustive photographic survey of British ley lines; and The Mystery of Pain, by James Hinton. (Kobek's blurbs this last with "Mystery solved: God kills everything that you love.")

Also: Books Fatal to their Authors, by P.H. Ditchfield, a weirdly smug, weirdly compelling catalog of inquisition, repression, and literary ruin.
posted by Iridic at 9:19 AM on February 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

Banvard's Folly by Paul Collins

The Night Battles by Carlo Ginzburg
posted by mattbucher at 9:24 AM on February 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: After the Orgy by Dominic Pettman, He "identifies and examines the dynamic tensions of various apocalyptic discourses, from the fin-de-siècle decadents of the 1890s to the fin-de-millènnium cyberpunks of the 1990s, in order to highlight the complex constellation of exhaustion, anticipation, panic, and ecstasy in contemporary culture."

The Medea Hypothesis: Is Life on Earth Ultimately Self-Destructive? by Peter Ward
posted by perhapses at 9:42 AM on February 15, 2012

Best answer: Read the Histories of Herodotus. I'm serious. Don't just take my word for it, Larry Gonick – of The Cartoon History of the Universe fame – spends his entire first book flogging Herodotus. It is very entertainingly written and full of juicy tidbits.

My favorite bit is where the Thracians claim they cannot explore any further north, because of the bees.
posted by furiousthought at 9:48 AM on February 15, 2012 [6 favorites]

The Aquatic Ape Hypothesis by Elaine Morgan is a good example of cargo cult science.

Reading it made me more leery of the temptations of "neat" ideas. An idea can be neat and still be spectacularly wrong.
posted by balistic at 10:20 AM on February 15, 2012

From the other direction, The Illuminatus! Trilogy was written after Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson worked as editors for Playboy. Wilson, of course, got all kinds of letters about every imaginable conspiracy theory, so they wrote this as if every single one of them were true at the same time. So, it goes from the simple idea that the American court system uses language to obfuscate justice and justify the government's own brutality (obviously true) to the assertion that Cain was the son of Eve and Satan and the Illuminati consists of his direct descendants and another secret society that fights the Illuminati is headed by a man in a giant golden submarine (probably not).

They're novels, but a little of it is certainly true, but someone somewhere believes all of its components.
posted by cmoj at 10:34 AM on February 15, 2012

I'm not sure exactly if this fits what you're looking for, but Carl Jung's The Red Book.
posted by Durin's Bane at 10:43 AM on February 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

A Brief History of Everything by Ken Wilber.
posted by John Cohen at 10:55 AM on February 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Check out the catalog of New Falcon Publications.

Very much on the sober end of the spectrum, David Edwards' Burning All Illusions: A Guide to Personal and Political Freedom appeals to me for the same sorts of reasons you describe; it's an idiosyncratic self-help/history/philosophy book rooted in the thought of Noam Chomsky and other thinkers. It is perhaps too sensible for you, but still struck me as weird.

The work of Iain Sinclair, while not really indulging in the kind of weird conspiracy side of your question, combines meditations on history with his own travels in a genre called "psychogeography." He's worth checking out to see if he suits your interest.
posted by jayder at 11:00 AM on February 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

It's an oldie, and much exploited, but Holy Blood, Holy Grail is darn fun, especially in the context of the huge popularity of all the DaVinci Code stuff. And if you like it, there are hundreds of similar things to read.
posted by Corvid at 11:42 AM on February 15, 2012

Velikovski's Worlds in Collision is highly amusing bunk that still gets trotted out from time to time.
posted by Abinadab at 12:03 PM on February 15, 2012

Response by poster: So many great suggestions! Thanks so much! I can't wait to check these out.

Re: psychogeography, I've enjoyed Will Self's psychogeography books, so it would make sense to go to the originals.
posted by Sticherbeast at 1:25 PM on February 15, 2012

I would recommend Sarah Vowell. Her books about history are always interesting and fun to read, but entirely factual as far as I know. I liked Assassination Vacation and the Wordy Shipmates.
posted by source.decay at 5:39 PM on February 15, 2012

Best answer: Re: psychogeography, I've enjoyed Will Self's psychogeography books, so it would make sense to go to the originals.

Back beyond Sinclair and Self are Ivan Chtcheglov, Guy Debord, Raoul Vaneigem, and the Situationists, and even farther back is Baudelaire, with people like Walter Benjamin commenting and practicing along the way. Psychogeography a reading wormhole in itself.
posted by ryanshepard at 5:40 PM on February 15, 2012

Seconding Julian Jaynes. The O of C in the B of the BM is a fantastic read, regardless of the apparently kind of multifarious collection of angles from which it can be criticized.
posted by kengraham at 6:55 PM on February 15, 2012

The Mayan Factor by José Argüelles. Also relatively further out on the experimental fringe of what you're looking for.

The Mayan Prophecies: Unlocking the Secrets of a Lost Civilization by Adrian G. Gilbert and Maurice M. Cotterell. Eight appendices helpfully chart geomagnetic reversals, sunspot microcycles, and human ovulation cycles.

Programming and Metaprogramming in the Human Biocomputer by John C. Lilly. The brain as computer. No source code is provided.

Another Ken Wilbur artifact (along the sober dimension): The Spectrum of Consciousness. "[A] synthesis, not an eclecticism, that values equally the insights of Freud, Jung, Maslow, May, Berne, [...] as well as the great spiritual sages from Buddha to Krishnamurti."
posted by yz at 7:05 PM on February 15, 2012

Best answer: One of my favorite books in the "genre" (if you can call it that) is Van Loon's Lives: being a true and faithful account of a number of highly interesting meetings with certain historical personages from Confucius and Plato to Voltaire and Thomas Jefferson by Hendrik Van Loon.

Van Loon wrote in the first half of the century on just about every subject: the history of ships, geography, the Bible, the development of civilization, tolerance, art, etc. Lives is a late work in which he imagines a situation in which he can invite any historical figure to supper. The book is an account not only of those suppers (which are really entertaining), but also how he plans for those suppers--deciding on the food, music, wine, topics of conversation, etc. All with the help of the ghost of Desidrious Erasmus.
posted by imposster at 12:41 AM on February 16, 2012

Anything by Bill Bryson has been terrific; a Short History of Nearly Everything was a win. All of his travel books are good as well. Might not be weird enough for you, but terrific reading in general.
posted by talldean at 8:03 AM on February 16, 2012

a Short History of Nearly Everything

That is a great book and might even fit most of the OP's criteria (I'm not qualified to say). But it is definitely "pop science." The OP said: "I'm not really looking for pop science."
posted by John Cohen at 9:15 AM on February 16, 2012

Michael Taussig's books might fit into your category, especially The Magic of the State
posted by jrb223 at 9:46 AM on February 16, 2012

(It seems that I misspelled "Wilber" above.)

As a reasonable book, Lost Continents: The Atlantis Theme in History, Science, and Literature by L. Sprague de Camp is not what you are looking for. But it is a reasonable book about various unreasonable (and indeed bizarre) books and might be of interest at least as a reference.

You could also try any number of literary-theoretical and philosophical works of deconstruction, poststructuralism, and the like. You know what I mean. Derrida, Deleuze and Guattari, etc., etc. Largely or wholly nonsensical, quite serious as academic studies, and not infrequently stylistically indulgent.
posted by yz at 5:45 PM on February 16, 2012

Best answer: I love these types of books. Here's some of my favorites:

The Tiger's Way by H. John Poole.

Poole was a gunnery sergeant major in the US marine corp, and now spends his time teaching infantry tactics as a consultant. This book is like those CIA how-to guides, except for infantrymen. The twist? Poole spends much of the book arguing that contemporary soldiers should become Ninjas, yes, real Ninjas. I'm not talking about Ninjitsu as a hand-to-hand fighting system. Poole lays out a framework for how the skills of the ninja (tactical deception and infiltration) can be applied to contemporary soldiering. Complete with chapters on using terrain, how to move surreptitiously at night, how to use combat deception (like pretending you have been shot, to confuse the opposing infantrymen). The scholarship is bad (he quotes a known fraud in the Martial Art community), but the ideas are excellent and thought-provoking.

The World's Most Dangerous Places by Robert Young Pelton.

This book is a travel book with a twist: it is a travel book for warzones. It includes a ton of useful information you wouldn't find elsewhere. Like how to go about bribing the local cops or military (if you need to, and under what conditions you should). What to do if you are arrested or kidnapped. How to gain entry into war zones and countries of ill repute. The information in it about specific countries is becoming dated. RYP is supposed to be writing a new book soon, but the publishers are milking the title above for all it is worth. It is still excellent though as a weird nonfiction book.

Manuel de Landa is another author you should check out. Especially his two books A Thousand years of Nonlinear History and War in the Age of Intelligent Machines. The former is a take on macrohistory combining continental philosophy, geology, memetics, ecology, and chaos theory. Rationalist types would have a fit, but I know of several scientists who like the book (one is Cosma Shalizi). The latter book is written from the perspective of an artificial intelligence (a "robot historian" in de landa's words) in the future. Again, it combines several areas into a weird collage like continental philosophy, AI, operations research, and military strategy.

The last recommendation is semi-crackpottery, but I still enjoyed reading it. It is George Hansen's The Trickster and the Paranormal. Hansen tries to argue that there is a single underlying theme of everything to do with the paranormal (from claims about ghosts, to UFOs). That theme is the archetype of the trickster. He just doesn't cover crank-related phenomenon either. He also has a very interesting discussion on government disinformation (and their role in spreading ideas about ufos to cover up for black projects involving cold war aviation technology), and why magicians (the stage ones) are at the forefront of debunking. You can read the annotated contents here. Here is a sample chapter and another.

Oh, and you should also check out this page on LJ. Some author came up with the name for the genre you are kinda after: eliptony. Cut and pasted from somewhere else, "Ken Hite's word for apophenic secret history/knowledge, 'magical thinking' of an ironic-credulous Fortean sort." That is his reading list.
posted by ollyollyoxenfree at 1:46 AM on February 17, 2012 [3 favorites]

Love those suggestions by the previous commenter. It reminds me that you should check out the extensive website for Coast to Coast AM, which has summaries of most or all of their past shows, and many of the shows feature authors of the sort of fringe, crank, and crackpot books about the paranormal, extraterrestrials, conspiracy theory and new world order stuff, strange diseases and monsters, remote viewing and CIA stuff. (Also check out Alex Jones/Prison Planet, who is just as rich as Coast to Coast with regard to conspiracy and New World Order stuff.)
posted by jayder at 9:14 AM on February 17, 2012

Last comment, I promise. Reading the description of Cyclonopedia put me in mind, a little bit, of the works of Ernst Junger. They may not have that spurious element you're looking for, but still check them out. You might try his nonfiction books, especially "On Pain," and "Storm of Steel." Here is the Amazon description of "On Pain":

Written and published in 1934, a year after Hitler's rise to power in Germany, Ernst Juenger's On Pain is an astonishing essay that announces the rise of a new metaphysics of pain in a totalitarian age. One of the most controversial authors of twentieth-century Germany, Juenger rejects the liberal values of liberty, security, ease, and comfort, and seeks instead the measure of man in the capacity to withstand pain and sacrifice. Juenger heralds the rise of a breed of men who--equipped with an unmatched ability to treat themselves and others in a cold and detached way--become one with new, terrorizing machines of death and destruction in human-guided torpedoes and manned airborne missiles, and whose "peculiarly cruel way of seeing," resembling the insensitive lens of a camera, anticipates the horrors of World War II. With a preface by Russell A. Berman and an introduction by translator David C. Durst, this remarkable essay not only provides valuable insights into the cult of courage and death in Nazi Germany, but also throws light on the ideology of terrorism today.
posted by jayder at 9:50 AM on February 17, 2012

Response by poster: Once again, I want to thank everyone for excellent book recommendations. Cheers.

Ollyollyoxenfree's link to the Eliptony Core Samples is especially amazing. Anyone who favorited this question should go check out that link.

From the many recommendations on there, I picked up From the Ashes of Angels by Andrew Collins, and it's extremely entertaining so far.
posted by Sticherbeast at 3:14 PM on February 21, 2012

Descartes' Bones may more "weird" than "strange," as much is about the (secret) movements of Descartes' skull, and some of his skeletal remains. There are weird bits of history woven in, which might elevate the work to strange territory. However it falls, it's a fascinating read on struggles between science and religion following Descartes death, and the role his teachings, and his bones, have played. For a longer review, here's Gary Rosen's NY Times review. For a series of short review, check Good Reads.
posted by filthy light thief at 9:41 AM on February 22, 2012

Response by poster: Another recent discovery: Europe's Inner Demons, by Norman Cohn. Despite being about an occult topic, the research itself is solid and reasonable, conducted by a respected historian. What elevates it into the "strange" territory is its argument that much of what we know about European witch trials are probably wrong, with many of the older sources having been forged. It goes against the usual thread about witches as having been actual practitioners of older pagan religions, or as there having been materialist reasons behind the witch trials, such as burning witches in order to seize their families' land.

Also, I now remember an older book which falls into this rubric: The Story of the Devil [Google Books link], by Arturo Graf. It's a cultural study of the devil, written in a semi-biographic style which reminds me of Arthur Machen.

The Conspiracy Against the Human Race by Thomas Ligotti is a book of philosophy by the celebrated horror author. Reading it is actually quite a bit like having a soul-sucking octopus attached to your face. Highly recommended, but not to the already-depressed.
posted by Sticherbeast at 10:07 AM on February 22, 2012

From the Dadaists, to the Situationists. to odd 50s crooning, to the punks. It's "Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century", by Greil Marcus.
posted by benito.strauss at 11:27 PM on March 24, 2012

A good "historical" example of this type of book might be Ferdinand Ossendowski's Men, Beasts, and Gods. It's an early 20th century account of a journey through Siberia, Mongolia, and China which was presented as true and even became something of a bestseller, and contained all sorts of bizarre legends about mysterious underground kingdoms and so forth.
posted by demonic winged headgear at 1:02 PM on April 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

« Older The LTR analogy: familiar small town versus...   |   Do Capsacin sports creams actually work? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.