Looking for a good memoir/autobiography
June 27, 2012 5:06 PM   Subscribe

I like first-person accounts of intellectual/professional adventure. What should I be reading?

I'm not looking so much for life-long autobiographies so much as I'm looking for books written by an average Joe documenting an extraordinary adventure. That said, some of my favorite books have been long-term memoirs (Personal Witness, by Abba Eban, for example).

My favorites seem to be ones where someone starts as a total novice, but ends up as a total expert. Examples include (and I realize this list may reveal the limitations of my intellectual aspirations):

-Moonwalking with Einstein, by Josh Foer
-Liar's Poker, by Michael Lewis
-Brainiac (and to a lesser extent, Maphead), by Ken Jennings
-Most of A.J. Jacobs' books
-A Walk in the Woods, by Bill Bryson

Not quite fitting the above description-- but equally enjoyable--have been Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma and Derren Brown's Confessions of a Conjurer. I must also confess an appreciation for Malcolm Gladwell's books.

What else will I like? Something that's good for frequent starts and stops- I read mostly on my subway commute.

posted by holterbarbour to Media & Arts (37 answers total) 97 users marked this as a favorite

Best answer: Poker Face: A Girlhood Among Gamblers
posted by Wordwoman at 5:30 PM on June 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Seconding "Word Freak." It's terrific.

Less of an adventure than a quest for a remembered candy bar of childhood, "Candyfreak: A Journey through the Chocolate Underbelly of America," by Steve Almond, might suit. Its chapters discuss different candies, and individual factories, so it might fit your episodic requirement.
posted by MonkeyToes at 5:31 PM on June 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I just finished A Walk in the Woods and Hiking Through. I found A Walk in the Woods to be a more enjoyable read overall, but in my opinion Hiking Through is a little heavier on the extraordinary journey details. If you're up for another Appalachian trail book, that might be a good one. I also just started reading Wild, about a through-hike of the Pacific Crest Trail. So far it's completely different from the other two, and I'm only as far as her first day on the actual trail, but it seems promising.

One other book that I finished recently and enjoyed is Long Road Home, about one man's journey from priveleged-class North Korean to labor camp, to escaping the camp and the country.
posted by Balonious Assault at 5:32 PM on June 27, 2012

Best answer: Chris Ballard's The Art of a Beautiful Game: The Thinking Fan's Tour of the NBA gives an SI writer amazing access to a bunch of NBA superstars who talk to him various physical and mental skills. It's not so much about his personal development as a player but it's better.

Scott Turow's One L depicts a turbulent first year at Harvard Law School.

Ruth Reichl's Garlic and Sapphires covers her tenure as the NY Times restaurant reviewer, which necessitated ever-changing disguises.
posted by acidic at 5:40 PM on June 27, 2012

Best answer: Chasing Che by Patrick Symmes. He re-traces the motorcycle trip Che Guevara took through South America.
posted by ambrosia at 5:43 PM on June 27, 2012

Best answer: If you liked Brainiac then you must read Prisoner of Trebekistan by Bob Harris. It's another Jeopardy contestant memoir, but there's a parallel focus on how being on the show changed Bob's life and his worldview. It's also funny as heck.
posted by themanwho at 5:47 PM on June 27, 2012

Best answer: Stefan Fatsis (the guy who wrote Word Freak) also wrote a book about trying to become a kicker in the NFL, which I found really interesting because you never really hear about kickers.

Mary Roach's books don't usually end with her becoming an expert, but are quick to read and involve the "total novice goes into weird situations and meets interesting people" angle.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 5:48 PM on June 27, 2012

Response by poster: Ooh, Word Freak and Mary Roach's stuff sound great. I read One L before law school; also a great read.
posted by holterbarbour at 5:51 PM on June 27, 2012

Best answer: Rapture Ready: Adventures in the Parallel Universe of Christian Pop Culture by Daniel Radosh. Hilarious and surprisingly even-handed.
posted by ActionPopulated at 5:54 PM on June 27, 2012

Response by poster: Incidentally, this morning I bought Kevin Mitnick's book "Ghost in the Wires" based on a recent NYT review. Looking forward to starting that.
posted by holterbarbour at 5:57 PM on June 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Oh, I forgot one of my all-time favorites. If you can find a copy read Black Sand and Gold. It's the story of an ordinary accountant's journey to find riches in the Klondike gold rush in the late 1800s. The book was actually written by his daughter years later, compiled and edited from his journals, but it reads as an extraordinarily compelling first-person account of an almost unimaginable adventure.
posted by Balonious Assault at 6:00 PM on June 27, 2012

Best answer: A Primate's Memoir!
posted by prex at 6:05 PM on June 27, 2012 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Also, Kabloona.
posted by Balonious Assault at 6:08 PM on June 27, 2012

Best answer: So glad that acidic recommended "Garlic and Sapphires"! And Sapolsky's "A Primate's Memoir" is fantastic.

Michael Perry's "Population: 485: Meeting Your Neighbors One Siren at a Time" is worth checking out.
posted by MonkeyToes at 6:13 PM on June 27, 2012

Best answer: A Schoolteacher in Old Alaska, the Story of Hannah Breece (recreated from her diaries, very very interesting)
Gang Leader for a Day: A Rogue Sociologist Takes to the Streets by Sudhir Venkatesh (you've read about him in Freaknomics, this is his book)
Isaac's Storm: A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History by Erik Larson (not a memoir, but basically about this one dude)
Possum Living: How to Live Well Without a Job and With (Almost) No Money by Dolly Freed
Andrew Zimmern's Bizarre World of Food: Brains, Bugs, and Blood Sausage (sort of for kids but I don't care)
posted by jessamyn at 6:15 PM on June 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Oh, the Venkatesh book reminded me.

David Simon of The Wire fame has two books. Homicide: A Year On The Killing Streets is his chronicle of hanging out with the Baltimore detectives (and inspired the show Homicide) and The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner City Neighborhood is his chronicle of hanging out with the Baltimore underworld (and inspired The Wire). Two of the best books I've ever read.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 6:55 PM on June 27, 2012

Best answer: Authors:
Jon Ronson - funny nonfiction about extremists and other weird people
John McPhee - huge range of topics, essays of New Yorker length; he picks great interesting people to follow around and learn about their area of expertise.

About groups of smart people doing interesting things:
Eudaemonic Pie - gambling-with-early-computers book
Skunkworks - about war plane development
The Right Stuff - about early days of the space program

There's a whole category of "solo sailing around the world" books that might interest you.
posted by LobsterMitten at 7:15 PM on June 27, 2012

Best answer: Among the Thugs is a fantastic book about an unsuspecting journalist who travels around Europe with Soccer Hooligans. Not quite a memoir, but it isn't quite a non-fiction book either. I loved it!

Mary Roach is a fantastic suggestion, she is one of my favorite authors and never fails to make me laugh at the weirdest stuff.

I'm also a big fan of mountainering/climbing books, but that is because I more than mildly obsessed with rock climbing. I especially love Jon Krakauer's books, Eiger Dreams is my favorite of his (besides Into Thin Air, which is just a classic).
posted by ruhroh at 7:59 PM on June 27, 2012

A Primate's Memoir x eleventy-million. One of the best books I have ever read.
posted by sweetkid at 8:36 PM on June 27, 2012

Best answer: If you like Bill Bryson you might also like Tim Moore, an average Joe who does things like explore the Arctic and follow the Camino de Santiago in Spain (with a donkey). He usually does not become an expert but sometimes he becomes slightly less incompetent. It's fairly lightweight stuff but pretty funny.
posted by tinymojo at 8:37 PM on June 27, 2012

Best answer: Roald Dahl's Going Solo. The author of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory as a young man working for Shell Oil in Africa when WWII breaks out.
posted by nightwood at 8:40 PM on June 27, 2012

Best answer: Oh, and jeez, also Geoff Dyer, especially Out of Sheer Rage (about his attempt to write a book about DH Laurence) and Yoga for People Who Can't Be Bothered to Do It. These are more intellectual than professional adventures & more memoir-y than some of your other recommendations; Dyer is in his own head a lot of the time but that's a pretty brilliant place to be.
posted by tinymojo at 8:45 PM on June 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I like Derren Brown, too.

Super obscure, super great, and exactly what you want: Werner Herzog's memoir (yeah, a book, not a film), Of Walking in Ice. From the blurb: "In the winter of 1974, filmmaker Werner Herzog made a three week solo journey from Munich to Paris on foot. He believed it was the only way his close friend, film historian Lotte Eisner, would survive a horrible sickness that had overtaken her. During this monumental odyssey through a seemingly endless blizzard, Herzog documented everything he saw and felt with intense sincerity"

Bubbles, Slogs, and Selling Out , the surreal, super-funny saga, blog-serialized, of how a first-wave web site (Chowhound.com) was overwhelmed by its own popularity and struggled to survive and eventually be sold out. Very vivid/transportive.

Not exactly what you're looking for, but I really think you'd like it: the Radio Lab program Limits of the Body (and the films and web sites recommended during the broadcast and on that web page). It's an account of ordinary people, in not particularly good physical shape, entering a coast-to-coast bicycle race for non-athletes. The typical experience is they pass through mortal exhaustion and find they can keep going...and going. The body apparently sends up dire pain/exhaustion alarms long, long before it actually runs out of energy. Fascinating.

Waking: A Memoir of Trauma and Transcendence by Matthew Sanford is an insightful, harrowing-but-hopeful tale of a catastrophic accident that left him paralyzed, and how he dug himself out of that hole via yoga....he's now an acclaimed yoga teacher (though still paralyzed!). His yoga mastery gives him fascinating insight into the body and debilitating injury.

If not too obvious, Kerouac's On the Road and Castaneda's The Teachings of Don Juan.
posted by Quisp Lover at 9:10 PM on June 27, 2012

Best answer: The Education of a Speculator
posted by yoyo_nyc at 9:12 PM on June 27, 2012

Best answer: Woops, I forgot Orwell's Homage to Catalonia, his gritty first-hand view of the Spanish Civil War. Not as talked-about as it once was, and timely reading at a moment of such agitated political division here in the US.

Thanks, above, for the Primate's Memoir recco. I'd not heard of it, and I think I've never seen a more positive Amazon rating.
posted by Quisp Lover at 9:22 PM on June 27, 2012

Best answer: The Horizontal Everest.
posted by urbanwhaleshark at 10:36 PM on June 27, 2012

Best answer: Don't know if becoming an internet supercriminal counts as an "adventure", but Kingpin is a good read, and satisfies your novice-to-expert requirement.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 4:18 AM on June 28, 2012

Best answer: When Prophecy Fails: A Social and Psychological Study of a Modern Group That Predicted the Destruction of the World Leon Festinger and a couple of research cohorts infiltrate an apocalyptic UFO cult and stay in character to the bitter end.
posted by telstar at 5:14 AM on June 28, 2012

Best answer: I liked Julie and Julia and the sequel, Cleaving, a lot - a secretary starts by cooking her way through Julia Child's The Art of French Cooking, and in the second book her marriage hits trouble while she trains to be a butcher (not knowing much about butchery, it was fascinating). Both by Julie Powell. It's kind of chick-lit with bone marrow at times, but that's not always a bad thing.
posted by mippy at 5:53 AM on June 28, 2012

Best answer: It's been a while since I read Desmond Morris's "Animal Days," but I remember it as being well-written, funny, and genuinely affectionate about the process of becoming a zoologist/science popularizer.
posted by MonkeyToes at 5:55 AM on June 28, 2012

Best answer: Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman! (Adventures of a Curious Character) by Richard P. Feynman and Ralph Leighton

What Do You Care What Other People Think?: Further Adventures of a Curious Character by Richard P. Feynman and Ralph Leighton

The Soul of A New Machine by Tracy Kidder
posted by at at 6:07 AM on June 28, 2012

Is fiction OK? I really enjoyed The Man in the Brown Suit by Agatha Christie about a young woman who is bored with her life, her father dies, and, rather than marry up with some old fellow as her only prospect, goes on an adventure in Africa.
posted by jillithd at 6:41 AM on June 28, 2012

Best answer: Positively Fifth Street, the true events of James McManus's Esquire Magazine story that sent him to cover both the World Series of Poker at Binion's Casino and the trial for Murder of Benny Binion's killers. As part of the story, McManus entered the WSoP...and made it to the final table.
posted by Sunburnt at 11:29 AM on June 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Bill Buford's "Heat: An Amateur's Adventures as Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-Maker, and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher in Tuscany" sounds like it's alone lines of Butchery.

Buford is first and foremost a writer, but wanted to try cooking. He worked in the kitchen at Babbo, perhaps Mario Batali's best-known restaurant. Later he studied pork butchery in Tuscany, a far deeper subject than he ever anticipated.
posted by Sunburnt at 11:35 AM on June 28, 2012

Response by poster: In case others like this list, two more that I should have listed as examples in my question are Catch Me If You Can, by Frank Abagnale, and Kitchen Confidential, by Anthony Bourdain. Those were both great.
posted by holterbarbour at 5:02 AM on June 29, 2012

Best answer: I have heard good things about The True Adventures of the World's Greatest Stuntman by Vic Armstrong. The link goes to an excerpt.
posted by I am the Walrus at 6:11 AM on July 3, 2012

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