The world is just awesome.
April 15, 2012 4:44 PM   Subscribe

I want to mainline wonder! Recommend me nonfiction books or films (science, nature, history, culture, the human mind) that will make me fall in love with the world we live in.

Depression-free, creatively unblocked and finally starting to emerge into the world I've been hiding from since adolescence. It looks pretty awesome! Help me get to know it and love it better. What nonfiction books or documentaries have both educated you about the world we live in and infected you with a passion for that subject?

This may be a vague-sounding question, but I am looking for books that give me two specific things:

1. The feeling of OMG AMAZING FACTS
2. A resounding answer to the question "Why should I care about this?"

Something magical happens when I'm introduced to a topic by a geek with a gift for explaining what they love about it. It's different from being lectured by an expert. I start to feel not like I am being presented with facts but introduced to a beloved friend of a friend. And then I start to love it too.

In short, I want people describing or depicting something in such a way that I glimpse its character and fall in love with it. If the book is about stars, I want it to make me feel at home in the night sky. If it's about snails, I want it to make every snail I meet after that feel like a friend. (Hey, buddy.) And so on.
posted by stuck on an island to Science & Nature (35 answers total) 154 users marked this as a favorite
Don't know if you've read it yet, but I might as well get it out of the way: Cosmos by Carl Sagan is *amazing*. There's also a 13-part accompanying documentary by the same name that you can find on Netflix (the DVD is kinda pricey, though).

As a rule, anything by Sagan is worth reading, and doubly so with the aim you've got in mind. Enjoy it!
posted by un petit cadeau at 4:49 PM on April 15, 2012 [3 favorites]

I feel like Douglas Hofstadter is good at this kind of writing, if you don't find him incredibly annoying. See if you can read some samples of his work - if you like his style, as I do, he will open up whole new worlds of thought to you. If you hate it, he writes some pretty highfalutin doorstops. Probably I'd start with Metamagical Themas since it covers such a wide variety of ground.
posted by troublesome at 4:55 PM on April 15, 2012 [2 favorites]

Dr. Tatiana's Sex Advice to All Creation: The Definitive Guide to the Evolutionary Biology of Sex has amazed, entertained, instructed me for years and always left me with a sense of wonder at the variety of solutions to what should be the simple job of reproducing.

I gave a copy to my niece, who is the mother of four, as a way to naturally introduce discussions of sex topics to her children before the difficult preteen years got there. She said they all learned an laughed a lot.
posted by francesca too at 5:02 PM on April 15, 2012 [3 favorites]

The Queen of Trees is a documentary about the relationship between a wasp so tiny it's difficult to see with the naked eye and a giant fig tree in Africa, and while it sounds like a simple premise, it's pretty mindblowing. I looked at the world just a bit differently after seeing it.
posted by mireille at 5:03 PM on April 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

I highly recommend The Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes. It is an excellent book and should meet all of your criteria.
posted by purephase at 5:06 PM on April 15, 2012

Coming of Age in the Milky Way by Timothy Ferris
posted by selfmedicating at 5:12 PM on April 15, 2012

Here are a few I've read recent(ish)ly that I think would fit your criteria:

The Elegant Universe - Brian Green A "human readable" explanation of string theory and the "story of time and space since Einstein." If this book does not twist your mind, nothing will - 3 dimensions aren't cool, you know whats cool? 11 dimensions.

Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman - Many books will give you new ideas to think about, but will few change the way you think like this summary of the science of how we think. The author won a nobel prize for the work, which is part of what is covered. The strongest part of the book is that it is filled with clever examples and self-experiments that vividly demonstrate that even you naturally think in very odd ways.

1491 - Charles Mann - I have not read a History book for a few years that left me realising quite how ignorant of a huge area of world history I was, reading this is less embarrassing and more exciting than a history of China/India because the story is developing at a fast pace and most other people have equally wrong images of "The America's before Columbus" in their heads.

Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years - Diarmaid MacCulloch - As readable a single volume history on Christianity as we are likely to get, an impossible task to make one of course (and if you are like me you are likely to want/need more on early Israelite history, the reformation and rome/greece than is provided here) but this is still magisterial and anyone will learn a huge amount from it even if you have taken courses on religious history before.

And a few from my "to read" pile that I have high hopes for:

THE BEAUTY AND THE SORROW: AN INTIMATE HISTORY OF THE FIRST WORLD WAR by Peter Englund. This intense and bighearted book, from a Swedish historian and journalist, contains few banner names, famous battles or major treaties. Instead it threads together the often moving and harrowing wartime experiences of 20 more or less unknown men and women. It’s not so much a book about what happened, the talented author explains, as “a book about what it was like.” It’s about “feelings, impressions, experiences and moods.

Philip Hoare’s book The Whale.
This is a wonderful book. It is about the whale, and everything about the whale – its history, its myth and its science. Whales are huge and compelling, and Philip Hoare’s excitement about them comes through. It is also a very handsome book and very nicely illustrated. Everyone talks about what the future of books will be because of electronics, and I have this theory that the future of books is beautiful books. Books that you would want to look at and touch and own. This is that sort of book.

Taj Mahal Foxtrot, the story of Bombay's jazz age

Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age -
Religion in Human Evolution is a work of extraordinary ambition--a wide-ranging, nuanced probing of our biological past to discover the kinds of lives that human beings have most often imagined were worth living. It offers what is frequently seen as a forbidden theory of the origin of religion that goes deep into evolution, especially but not exclusively cultural evolution. How did our early ancestors transcend the quotidian demands of everyday existence to embrace an alternative reality that called into question the very meaning of their daily struggle? Robert Bellah, one of the leading sociologists of our time, identifies a range of cultural capacities, such as communal dancing, storytelling, and theorizing, whose emergence made this religious development possible. Deploying the latest findings in biology, cognitive science, and evolutionary psychology, he traces the expansion of these cultural capacities from the Paleolithic to the Axial Age (roughly, the first millennium BCE), when individuals and groups in the Old World challenged the norms and beliefs of class societies ruled by kings and aristocracies. These religious prophets and renouncers never succeeded in founding their alternative utopias, but they left a heritage of criticism that would not be quenched. Bellah's treatment of the four great civilizations of the Axial Age--in ancient Israel, Greece, China, and India--shows all existing religions, both prophetic and mystic, to be rooted in the evolutionary story he tells. Religion in Human Evolution answers the call for a critical history of religion grounded in the full range of human constraints and possibilities.

posted by Another Fine Product From The Nonsense Factory at 5:13 PM on April 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

2nd'ing Hofstadter in general an Metamagical Themas in particular.
Daniel Boorstin's The Creators and The Discoverers
Code by Charles Petzold
The Cloudspotter's Guide by Gavin Pretor-Pinney - you'll never look at a cloudy sky the same way again. Blue skies are bo-ring.
The Nature of Light and Color in the Open Air by Marcel Minnaert
Outside Lies Magic by John Stilgoe
posted by jquinby at 5:18 PM on April 15, 2012 [4 favorites]

Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 5:22 PM on April 15, 2012 [4 favorites]

Also, if you have not watched the (original BBC version of) Planet Earth in glorious Blu-Ray, I urge you to do so at once.
posted by jquinby at 5:22 PM on April 15, 2012

Strongly seconding Planet Earth -- it's one of the most extraordinary and vividly beautiful documentaries I've ever seen. This gorgeous, wordless trailer is my go-to example of compelling web video.
posted by Rhaomi at 5:38 PM on April 15, 2012

2 Book Recommendations:

A History of the World in 10½ Chapters

The Invisible Landscape
posted by mannequito at 5:46 PM on April 15, 2012

Anything - nay, everything! - by John McPhee. Facts -- meticulously researched, beautifully written, passionately related. You can't help but share his fascination.
James Gleick is another author who writes exciting non-fiction.
The Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan is an eye-opener.
posted by Jode at 5:52 PM on April 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

Please, please do yourself a favor and watch Planet Earth and BBC's followup, Life. Life has more of a focus on "never filmed before!" moments. I highly recommend you get the ones with David Attenborough's narration. They're still lovely on DVD.
Definitely read Sagan and start with Cosmos as suggested above. He had the expert's deep passion and the ability to explain science clearly. His book The Demon-Haunted World is one of my favorite books ever, although it's more about critical thinking than natural wonder.
Richard Fortey's book Life: A Natural History of the First Four Billion Years of Life on Earth is just what it says and well-written to boot. I was reading with interest even while he was describing the life and times of the primordial slime. ;)
Your Inner Fish clearly explains how the human body evolved as it did, as well as curiosities like why we hiccup.
Diane Ackerman's A Natural History of the Senses is a luscious book that discusses all aspects of the senses, from their evolutionary purpose to their cultural significance (everything from the Roman emperors' bloodthirsty dinner parties to the inner workings of perfume labs).

If you're open to coffee table books that have informative text:
Animal Life is lavishly illustrated with gorgeous photos of animals' most interesting survival adaptations. Highly recommended.
The Deep is loaded with photos of the bizarre creatures that lurk at the bottom of the sea.
posted by QryHavoq at 6:03 PM on April 15, 2012 [3 favorites]

As soon as I read your question, I thought, "Microcosmos!" It's about the tiny insect life on our planet and it is filmed and narrated most beautifully. I saw it ages ago and I still remember how much it amazed me.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 6:11 PM on April 15, 2012

Charles Mann has written another good book, 1493 -- it is an interesting discussion of how globalization started really with Columbus's voyages and the benefits and downsides of what happened next.
posted by elmay at 6:49 PM on April 15, 2012

This book The Wave: In Pursuit of the Rogues, Freaks and Giants of the Ocean made me want to take up surfing, even though I am terrified of any body of water that doesn't have lane markers and stripes marked on the bottom.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 6:50 PM on April 15, 2012

Seconding John Mcphee - hes an amazing writer and makes the most mundane things seem like the world depends on them. An all-time fave and it doesn't matter which book you pick up first.
posted by Lipstick Thespian at 8:20 PM on April 15, 2012

So, interpreting this as looking for the kind of things that make you say "Damn, science is cool!" or "History is so awesome!"…

James Burke - Connections If you haven't encountered the Great Leisure Suite Of Knowledge before, you're in for a treat.

The Nova series Secrets of Lost Empires (the trebuchet and Egyptian obelisk episodes are my favorites)

Any documentary/historical thing done by Terry Jones (of Monty Python fame) (most of which are available online).

The book Women's Work: The First 20,000 Years: Women, Cloth, and Society in Early Times.

The PBS series Secrets of the Dead has had some great episodes. Murder at Stonehenge. Day of the Zulu (the Battle of Isandlwana).

Britain BC. Britain AD.

A Force More Powerful: A Century of Nonviolent Conflict

From Jesus to Christ: The First Christians
posted by Lexica at 8:57 PM on April 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

Most anything by Oliver Sacks, but Uncle Tungsten in particular: a history of the periodic table, atomic theory, and the light bulb, intertwined with meditations on the spiritual properties of metals and a memoir of growing up in a wacky Jewish family in WWII London. And I just noticed that the publisher's blurb uses the phrase "full of the electrifying joy of discovery," which sounds like just what you want.
posted by zadermatermorts at 9:11 PM on April 15, 2012 [3 favorites]

-Who is Britain's Real Monarch?

-August 1826 was when The Last Duel to the death over a matter of honor was fought in Scotland.

-Into sports? Empire of Cricket looks quite closely at the game from the national perspective of England (who created and exported the game across the Empire) as well as Australia, the West Indies, and India, who all took the colonial game and excelled beyond their colonizers at it. India in Particular is changing the way the venerable game is played, much to the consternation of many old-school English fans.

-Under the Black Flag: The Romance and the Reality of Life Among the Pirates

-Don't Know Much About History, Anniversary Edition: Everything You Need to Know About American History but Never Learned

-Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong

-A People's History of the United States: 1492 to Present

posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 9:20 PM on April 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

I recommend this a lot here, but it's one of my favourite books; it's really changed the way I look at things

Fractals The Patterns of Chaos
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 11:40 PM on April 15, 2012

Annie Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
posted by gyusan at 7:15 AM on April 16, 2012

Response by poster: I started marking best answers, but realized the entire page would be marked.

These suggestions are AWESOME. Bonus points for biographies/memoirs!
posted by stuck on an island at 8:54 AM on April 16, 2012

Have you read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks? It's part biography, part detective story, and part non-fiction (and thoroughly fascinating) science.

(From the Amazon description/review) Just the simple facts are hard to believe: that in 1951, a poor black woman named Henrietta Lacks dies of cervical cancer, but pieces of the tumor that killed her--taken without her knowledge or consent--live on, first in one lab, then in hundreds, then thousands, then in giant factories churning out polio vaccines, then aboard rocket ships launched into space. The cells from this one tumor would spawn a multi-billion dollar industry and become a foundation of modern science--leading to breakthroughs in gene mapping, cloning and fertility and helping to discover how viruses work and how cancer develops (among a million other things). All of which is to say: the science end of this story is enough to blow one's mind right out of one's face.
posted by mireille at 10:04 AM on April 16, 2012 [3 favorites]

The Code Book by Simon Singh.

Also, if the medium appeals to you Larry Gonick's Cartoon Guides/Cartoon Histories are great. (I've read the Physics one and the Universe one, but if the rest are in the same style, they're worth a read.)
posted by Hactar at 10:25 AM on April 16, 2012

Another Fine Product From The Nonsense Factory: "And a few from my "to read" pile that I have high hopes for:

THE BEAUTY AND THE SORROW: AN INTIMATE HISTORY OF THE FIRST WORLD WAR by Peter Englund. This intense and bighearted book, from a Swedish historian and journalist, contains few banner names, famous battles or major treaties. Instead it threads together the often moving and harrowing wartime experiences of 20 more or less unknown men and women. It’s not so much a book about what happened, the talented author explains, as “a book about what it was like.” It’s about “feelings, impressions, experiences and moods.

Here is a quote from a NYT review of The Beauty and The Sorrow: Some stories are about honor and bravery. One American recognizes his own impulse toward savagery and declares about war: “You feel that, after all, this is what men were intended for rather than to sit in easy chairs with a cigarette and whiskey, the evening paper or the best seller, and to pretend that such a veneer means civilization and that there is no barbarian behind your starched and studded shirt front.”

This book looks great.
posted by dancestoblue at 12:59 PM on April 16, 2012

Dale Pendell has written the "Pharmako" trilogy about the plant world; I've only read "Pharmako/Poeia" but it was pretty awesome. Lots of science and research, wrapped in poetics, steeped in enigma and served up with a light drizzle of autobiography. Reads like a fascinating encyclopedia colorfully annotated by an eccentric alchemist uncle.
posted by Rube R. Nekker at 4:38 PM on April 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

The film Baraka. No words, just pictures. It's like 20 years old but still just blows me away.
posted by BoscosMom at 11:48 PM on April 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

The Mind of a Mnemonist by Luria. Its a beautifully written book about a man who can't forget anything and his troubles with life. Its half science and half biography. I can't recommend it highly enough.
posted by SpaceWarp13 at 5:17 AM on April 17, 2012

For the second time this week, I'll link to an old comment of mine illustrating why I find the 11-volume History of Civilization by Will and Ariel Durant thoroughly delightful.
posted by kristi at 11:21 AM on April 17, 2012

TED talks 20 mins each, great for lunchtime at work.
The DO lectures
posted by at at 5:21 PM on April 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

Hactar's mention of the cartoon guides/histories prompted me to bring up Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics, which is interesting because I'm usually ready to recommend that book to anyone remotely interested in any sort of art, not just comics and not even just visual art.

I'll also cast my vote for the already-mentioned Uncle Tungsten and The Botany of Desire (and if you enjoy that, go ahead with more Pollan and check out The Omnivore's Dilemma).

I'd hate to miss out on the history recommendations that everyone is giving you, so how about Mark Kurlansky's Salt: A World History?

And there's also Penny LeCouteur and Jay Burreson with Napoleon's Buttons: How 17 Molecules Changed History

And here are a few more:

Mary Roach's Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers

Atul Gawande's Complications (and if you enjoy that, Better)

Malcolm Gladwell's New Yorker columns, which may get you into his books (The Tipping Point, Blink, Outliers)

You said you like memoirs? Read anything by Richard Feynman. And you can also look into his books/lectures on physics.

I could go on for ages, but instead I'll stop there.
posted by cardioid at 11:59 PM on April 17, 2012

Response by poster: I now have an Amazon wish list as long as my arm.

To add a recommendation of my own, I am currently reading The Master and His Emissary, which completely fits the bill. Copious underlinings. Mind blown.
posted by stuck on an island at 12:22 PM on April 29, 2012

Robert Sapolsky, Primate's Memoir.
2nding Connections, a terrific and engaging series
And another vote for John McPhee, as well as for the New Yorker, where McPhee was published. I love the articles in the New Yorker that take an ordinary topic, plumb its depths, and make it a riveting story.
posted by theora55 at 12:23 PM on January 19, 2013

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