Looking for the best in non-repetitive non-fiction
August 3, 2013 10:39 PM   Subscribe

You know how a lot of non-fiction books get really tiresome after the first few chapters? Yeah, me too. Help me compile a list of non-fiction books that can keep my interest from the first to the last page. Challenge: no psych/neuro allowed. Other sciences okay.

I enjoy non-fiction, but I find that I usually *really* enjoy only the first few chapters of any given book. After that, I often lose interest or feel like the book gets repetitive. This might be a function of authors turning long-form magazine articles into full-length books-- covering all of the main theses in the first few chapters, then expanding on those themes in later chapters (e.g., Gladwell, Silver, Pinker).

I'm looking for a non-fiction book that will keep me interested throughout, either by telling a narrative that unfolds over many chapters or by addressing a separate but related topic in each chapter (e.g., Roach, Bryson SHoNE).

Challenge: I study psych/neuro in real life, so would like to exclude those topics from my fun-time reading. My interests skew toward science, but am happy to branch out. I suspect science-y non-fiction might be more likely to fall into repetition, but please prove me wrong.

This question is related: http://ask.metafilter.com/95357/Looking-for-novelesque-nonfiction-books, but a few years old and focuses specifically on historical nonfiction (which is ok but a subset of what I'm looking for).

Any recommendations?
posted by dino might to Writing & Language (45 answers total) 148 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I read a lot of nonfiction, and am also in a neuro-related field, so I can relate. Here are some books I've read and enjoyed recently.

The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer
, Siddhartha Mukherjee
The Philadelphia Chromosome: A Mutant Gene and the Quest to Cure Cancer at the Genetic Level, Jessica Wapner
There Are No Children Here: The Story of Two Boys Growing Up in the Other America, Alex Kotlowitz
The Hot Zone, Richard Preston (I also read The Demon in the Freezer, which was fine but I liked The Hot Zone better)
Flu: The Story of the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918, Gina Kolata
And the Band Played On, Randy Shilts
The Greatest Benefit to Mankind: A Medical History of Humanity, Roy Porter

I found this thread helpful.
posted by easy, lucky, free at 11:10 PM on August 3, 2013 [2 favorites]

I've enjoyed a few memoirs/discussion books lately, specifically The Kid and The Commitment by Dan Savage, and The Unlikely Disciple by Kevin Roose. All three mix memoir with discussion of issues, and (perhaps because of the story-like quality of the memoir parts) remained quite gripping - there were surprises and twists and a plot climax.

For more research-oriented, rather than personal, books, you might enjoy some of the more well-written academic books. My knowledge is biased towards European history. Carlo Ginzberg writes on unorthodox religion in 16th century Italy and is a fun and fascinating read - Night Battles is about people who fought witches with barley stalks, and The Cheese and the Worms is about a miller who had his own, idiosyncratic take on the origin of the universe. I also really enjoyed Beneath the Cross by Barbara Diefendorf, which looks at religious tension in 16th century France leading up to the St Bartholomew's day massacre. I remember reading that for my qualifying exams, and I was only supposed to read parts of it, but it was too gripping and I kept reading it straight through.

I've also always been a fan of Isaac Asimov's non-fiction. Obviously the science will be dated now, but one of my favourite books as a kid was his exegesis of the Story of Ruth, and another book of essays called The Planet that Never was.
posted by jb at 11:16 PM on August 3, 2013

The Invention of Air.
posted by Obscure Reference at 11:24 PM on August 3, 2013

The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher by Kate Summerscale. I always recommend this to people looking for good non-fiction. I read it (actually, listened to the audiobook, narrated by the excellent Christian Rodska) on the recommendation of crush-onastick in a previous AskMe thread. It's the true story of a rather gruesome Victorian murder and its investigation by a Scotland Yard detective when that sort of policework was in its infancy. Absolutely fascinating stuff.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 12:01 AM on August 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

She's a bit of a controversial author but I really liked Wild Swans. I agree non-fiction can get really boring, but I've read this through a few times and I found it really interesting each time. The story deals with three different women and time periods, so in that way each transitory chapter is really interesting.
posted by Dimes at 12:53 AM on August 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

Goedel, Escher, Bach?

A Thousand Plateaus?

The Practice of Everyday Life?
posted by Joseph Gurl at 12:59 AM on August 4, 2013

Stasiland, by Anna Funder, is an amazing read about Stasi-era Germany. It's novelistic in style (she follows several individuals' experiences as well as the broader history in part) but non-fiction. It is partially like journalism I suppose- but longer. Not autobio, like Wild Swans. I also enjoyed The psychopath Test- can't remember author but someone else will I'm sure.
posted by jojobobo at 1:12 AM on August 4, 2013 [5 favorites]

Best answer: I cannot recommend Anne Fadiman's The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down enough. It's written so fantastically that it engages you as if it were fiction. It interweaves the narrative of a young girl in the American medical system and history and information about her ethnic background. It won the National Book Critics Circle Award for General Nonfiction, and I always have my copy lent out. (:

Here's an excerpt.
posted by Quilford at 1:13 AM on August 4, 2013 [9 favorites]

I read non fiction almost exclusively, and my interests skew towards science/medicine/public health. I always recommend The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks and Infections and Inequalities. The latter of these two books shaped my post-graduate career path, so I'm especially fond of it.
posted by makonan at 1:28 AM on August 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon

also, pretty much anything by Jon Krakauer (whether or not you watched the movie of Into the Wild, I really recommend the book, since they left out a crucial angle Krakauer's own story).
posted by mannequito at 2:18 AM on August 4, 2013 [3 favorites]

Savage Inequalities by Jonathan Kozol
posted by ImproviseOrDie at 3:00 AM on August 4, 2013

Best answer: I disliked The Suspicions of Mr Whicher immensely. Felt that Summerscale threw her entire library of 19th Lit at a crime case and kept whatever stuck if it meant taking things out of context. The crime story itself was interesting, though.

I presume the OP has already read Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything? It rekindled my interest in science and science history.

Peter Ackroyd's London Under: The Secret History Beneath the Streets was an interesting read and each chapter tells a complete story about a place and a time. Fascinating stuff.

I tend towards cultural history, so you may not be as interested in the next couple of books:

Shawn Levy's Ready, Steady, Go! about London and the cultural revolution of the 1960s.

I really didn't take to John Man's The Gutenberg Revolution because I specialise in print culture, but I think it would be a great read for a layman wanting to learn about the invention of printing and what it meant for the development of Western civilisation.

Karen Armstrong's A Short History of Myth is a quick read but very good for capturing her topic - how human beings developed from living our lives according to "mythos" (stories) to "logos" (reason).

Finally, I am currently reading Robert MacFarlane's The Old Ways which is more of a meditation about landscape and how human beings place ourselves in the landscape than a straightforward travelogue. It's an acquired taste, but I am enjoying it.
posted by kariebookish at 4:16 AM on August 4, 2013 [3 favorites]

Please add Robert Sapolsky's "A Primate's Memoir" to your list. From the NYT review:
One closes his book a lot more knowledgeable about plenty of baboon-related matters. But mostly one has already begun to miss the company of this sometimes cranky but always impassioned, learned and winningly irreverent man. What more can we ask of a writer than that he draw us into the charmed circle of his obsessions? That much (and more) Sapolsky has done in a book that achieves an almost Homeric emotional range. Sapolsky steeps us in baboon-land variants of heroism, lamentation, vengeance and loneliness in a plot thickened with kidnappings, trysts, betrayals, out-of-the-blue tenderness, palace coups and sundry wars of attrition. ''A Primate's Memoir'' is the closest the baboon is likely to come -- and it's plenty close enough -- to having its own ''Iliad.''
posted by MonkeyToes at 4:39 AM on August 4, 2013 [2 favorites]

What about history? There's the usual list of greats --The Fatal Shore, about the colonization of Australia, Citizens by Simon Schama, about the French Revolution, King Leopold's Ghost, about the Belgian colonization of the Congo basin, anything by Nathaniel Philbrick, and one of my recent faves, Brtual Journey, about Cabeza De Vaca's I'll-fated expedition to the gulf coast in the early 1600's.

Polar exploration has always fascinated me & two I've enjoyed greatly are Shackelton's Forgotten Expedition, The Voyage of the Nimrod, and The Ice Master, The Doomed 1913 Voyage of the Karluk.

I also recently enjoyed The Enemy At the Gate, about the last Ottoman attempt to take Vienna in 1683.
posted by Devils Rancher at 6:15 AM on August 4, 2013

Young Men and Fire came to mind because it sort of wanders around between forensics, history, memoir and "nature writing". It's not written according to the non-fiction formula and as far as I know it's not an expansion of an already too-long New Yorker article. However, it is meandering, old fashioned and nerdy. So your call. I adored it.
posted by latkes at 6:24 AM on August 4, 2013

Best answer: Please read Consider the Lobster, David Foster Wallace's smart and hilarious collection of essays. Seriously, one of the funniest books I have ever read.

It took me forever to finally pick it up and read it because I was so turned off by the I-turn-up-my-nose-at-you-if-you-haven't-struggled-through-Infinite-Jest attitude of so many DFW acolytes. But screw them! And bonus/great relief: there are no 4-page run-on sentences about tennis!
posted by sevensnowflakes at 6:37 AM on August 4, 2013

Bruce Catten's 3-volume history of the Civil War was fascinating to me right up to the very end. The first volume was the hardest to read; the third one was the easiest. (Volume 3 picks up just as Grant has been put in charge.)
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 6:38 AM on August 4, 2013

Atul Gawande's books about medicine would fit the bill for separate but related topic in every chapter. I particularly liked Complications, about judgment calls and the potential for error in medicine. Also see if you can track down his New Yorker pieces.
posted by ActionPopulated at 6:42 AM on August 4, 2013 [2 favorites]

I too struggle with sticking it out with non-fiction works but i found two which were engaging to the point that they ended too soon for me. They are both by Laura Hillenbrand: "Seabiscuit: An American Legend" and "Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption."

Considering that I knew next to nothing about the Pacific theatre of WWII, and cared not one iota about horse racing, that is high praise indeed.
posted by Ginesthoi at 6:50 AM on August 4, 2013

Best answer: Seconding The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks - I get super easily distracted from non-fiction reading, but I finished that one easily.
posted by pemberkins at 7:17 AM on August 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I found The Ghost Map, about cholera and the development of the sewers in London, fascinating from beginning to end.
posted by not that girl at 7:21 AM on August 4, 2013 [4 favorites]

Best answer: I also have trouble finishing things, but I recently read and finished (and thoroughly enjoyed) The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson.
posted by darchildre at 7:22 AM on August 4, 2013

I recently read Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution and had no problem finishing it. It's a history of the forces behind the creation of the big, ambitious TV shows of the past decade or so: The Sopranos, the Wire, Breaking Bad. I think you'd want to have seen most of the shows it talks about for it to be interesting to you (and worth the spoilers). I didn't know anything about how television works - I had only vaguely heard the term showrunner, for example - so there was a great, almost queasy how-the-sausage-is-made aspect to it. The portraits of the men in charge of those shows were well-done and compelling, if a bit horrifying. It's definitely a fun, gossipy read, but not a waste of time.
posted by pretentious illiterate at 7:25 AM on August 4, 2013

I'm currently reading "The World of The Shining Prince," by Ivan Morris.


Wherein history reads like science fiction. Okay, it's a historical book review, if you insist. If you've ever wondered what pre-feudal Japanese aristocrats did in their spare time, but didn't want to read Murasaki's epic novel....
posted by mule98J at 7:45 AM on August 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I'm going to second In the Heart of the Sea, The Ghost Map, ad The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. I'm also going to second the dislike for The Suspicions of Mr Whicher.

I strongly recommend Deborah Blum's The Poisoner's Handbook and I found Margalit Fox's The Riddle of the Labyrinth also interesting. David Quammen's books are very good, also Erik Larson. I really enjoyed Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, though it's got actually a slow start. Up next for me is Charles Graeber's The Good Nurse, which has been recommended by someone I trust.
posted by jeather at 7:56 AM on August 4, 2013

I know nothing about climbing or Everest (and wouldn't peg myself as having an interest in either) but I could not put down Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer.

I also could not put down Nothing To Envy by Barbara Demick which is about North Korea through the eyes of North Korean citizens.
posted by kitkatcathy at 8:01 AM on August 4, 2013

I'm in banking, so a lot of the nonfiction I read is about the financial crisis. I particularly enjoyed "No One Would Listen" by Harry Markopolos (about a guy in finance who sussed out Bernie Madoff's Ponzi scheme and then couldn't get anyone to pay attention to it), "The Lost Bank" by Kirsten Grind (about the rise and fall of Washington Mutual, America's biggest bank failure), "The Big Short" by Michael Lewis (about many of the causes of the financial crisis and just what, exactly, mortgage-backed securities are), and "Exile on Wall Street" by Mike Mayo.
posted by skycrashesdown at 8:13 AM on August 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

The Fabric of Reality by David Deutsch

Sciencey--quantum mechanics, to be precise, but accessible to the layperson (i.e. me). He is of the "many-worlds" school, and deals (rationally) with time travel and parallel universes and all that.

Meets all of your criteria. It actually gets a lot more engrossing as it goes on, such that after the last chapter, I was all like "No, don't be over!"

If you like it, there's a follow-up, The Beginning of Infinity.
posted by Z. Aurelius Fraught at 9:34 AM on August 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes. Nonfiction, science (physics), novelesque, and a Pulitzer winner to boot. One of my top five books of all time.
posted by Mr Stickfigure at 10:19 AM on August 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

Maybe a little more history/cultural studies than you're looking for, but I always recommend Erna Paris's Long Shadows to people as an example of engaging, thought-provoking, and at times breathtakingly poetic non-fiction.

It's essentially a book about historiography (and the historiography of cultural trauma, in particular) but the lens she uses to approach her material is surprisingly intimate and personal, without ever losing sight of the big questions she is asking. The book reads more like a memoir than an academic tract (which may be either a feature or a bug, depending on your tastes), and each section explores her themes through a different case study (Post WWII France, Germany, and Japan; post-Apartheid South Africa; the discussion of slavery reparations in the American South; etc.).

The book is over a decade old now, so its more "topical" later chapters might seem a little dated, but Paris' exploration of collective memory and what she calls "national amnesia" is unexpectedly stirring, and (I think) handled with a deft balance of empathy and insight.
posted by Dorinda at 12:15 PM on August 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

I promise you that Eating the Dinosaur by Chuck Klosterman is 1) well outside of your psych/neuro rut, 2) fun (okay, that's subjective on my part), and 3) anything but repetitive.
posted by Rykey at 12:23 PM on August 4, 2013

Kessler's A Question of Intent is a great book about the fight the FDA had to get the Tobacco industry to come clean about the health risks of smoking. I had to read a couple of chapters for a class, and ended up just zooming through the whole thing. It was engrossing.

I think being a story rather than a book centered around support of an overarching thesis helps to keep it from having that repetitive feeling.
posted by Lady Li at 12:57 PM on August 4, 2013

Columbine by Dave Cullen
posted by backwards guitar at 2:12 PM on August 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Season of the Witch is a history of San Francisco from 67–87 and covers how San Francisco became the home of "San Francisco values" from the very Catholic town it was before. Each chapter is a bite-size story about a different person or group, with a few spanning multiple chapters, so it is easy to keep going back for more new stories.
posted by dame at 2:25 PM on August 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

I really liked At Home by Bill Bryson. It's mostly history, but he takes lots of interesting digressions as he goes along, many of which were things I've often wondered about. I keep meaning to look up his other books too. Also The UFO Diaries: travels in the weird world of High Strangeness was awesome. It's more of a look at the people who believe in weird stuff and why they might believe it rather than trying to convince anyone of anything. Along complementary lines, Randi's Prize was good too, though obviously biased towards the skeptical.
posted by Athanassiel at 5:44 PM on August 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Seconding John Krakauer.

If you like epidemiology, as I do: Marilyn McKenna's Beating Back the Devil, Laurie Garrett's The Coming Plague, and The Ghost Map and Richard Preston's books as mentioned above.

Leslie Chang's Factory Girls, which follows young migrant workers in China, and Barbara Demick's Nothing to Envy, which follows defectors from North Korea, have the same kind of many-stories-same-issue structure. Both are good.
posted by snorkmaiden at 8:25 PM on August 4, 2013 [2 favorites]

Oh yes, almost forgot because it has been a few years: Yiwu Liao's The Corpse Walkers was unputdownable even though each story was frequently horrifying in terms of the things people endured. Yiwu interviewed 27 Chinese people who are mostly not the kind of people usually listened to - the dregs of society, some might call them. Unemployed, doing a job people generally loathe, religious believers, etc. It was fantastic.

In a similar vein in terms of the oral history aspect, Underground by Haruki Murakami was also gripping. The book is a collection of interviews with people who survived the sarin gas attacks on the Tokyo subway in 1995 and with members (or ex-members) of the cult Aum Shinrikyo, which was responsible for the attacks. It was just fascinating.
posted by Athanassiel at 9:27 PM on August 4, 2013 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks everyone! I'm starting with The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (great so far!), and The Ghost Map is next on my list.
posted by dino might at 9:57 PM on August 4, 2013

The Wild Trees, by Richard Preston, is about scientists who climb redwoods and investigate the ecology of the canopies, and it reads like a very interesting novel. I've lent it out to more than one person and everyone's returned raving about it.

The Sack of Rome, by Alexander Stille, is a totally thrilling biography of Silvio Berlusconi. It's like reading a mystery novel or a horror book or something -- I think I read the whole thing in one sitting, it's that gripping.

I also loved Emperor of Scent, by Chandler Burr, which describes this crazy scientists' attempt to completely reform the way we understand how smelling works, and how he could never get his papers published in Nature or Science despite trying and trying and trying. So it's both a fascinating tour of the current hypotheses and theories of how olfaction works, and also a really intriguing look into the politics of peer-reviewed journals.
posted by feets at 4:11 AM on August 5, 2013

One of my favorite hobbies is raiding the new non-fiction section of the Carnegie Library in Pittsburgh. I've read a few newer books that appealed to me but are a little less-known. Some winners:

+Pandora's Lunchbox. A book-long investigation into the gums, dyes, and preservatives pumped into processed food and potential ramifications. It's surprisingly even-handed, and it humanizes the employees of the food industry without being apologetic for its practices.
+Einstein's Jewish Science. This is heavy on philosophy of Judaism, relativity, and Einstein's personal faith and moral code, but I thought it did a fantastic job of touching on relativity theory, Einstein's life, and the principles of Naziism. A very complete history.
+Neurogastronomy. You said nothing from neuro, but I thought this was such a complete story of how humans perceive taste that it's worth a mention. It's pretty dense, but I think it's worth it.
+Manhunt: The 12 Day Chase for Lincoln's Killer. Thrilling. Reads like a novel.
+The Taste of War. The story of World War II as told through food supplies. A surprisingly complete portrayal of the war from all sides.
+The Beak of the Finch. Evolution as told through finch research on the Galapagos Islands.
posted by Turkey Glue at 4:27 PM on August 5, 2013 [4 favorites]

I immediately thought of Lindy Woodhead's War Paint. It's about two women who made and sold make-up, but it's also about social history, the immigrant experience, the changing roles of women in the 20th century, and art collectors.

I also really loved The Boy Who Fell from the Sky, about a man whose brother died in the Lockerbie disaster.

If you liked Emperor of Scent, Burr's book The Perfect Scent, on the production of two perfumes from concept to marketing to sales is worth reading. There's less molecular biology in there, and you might need at least a passing interest in perfume to get the most out of it, but the commercial and industrial background to the stuff on the department store shelves was really interesting.
posted by mippy at 6:53 AM on August 6, 2013

Some travel books (all of which transcend the genre) to add to the list:

The Road to Oxiana - Robert Byron
Naples '44 - Norman Lewis
In Patagonia - Bruce Chatwin
Lights out for the Territory - Iain Sinclair
Spirit Wrestlers - Philip Marsden
Desert Divers - Sven Linquist
A Time of Gifts - Patrick Leigh Fermor
posted by johnny novak at 12:12 PM on August 7, 2013

I read fiction almost exclusively, so my hopes were pretty low when someone recommended "Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival". I have never been so riveted in my life. I get chills just thinking of this book. For weeks afterward, I was boring my friends and complete strangers at bus-stops with facts about tigers, and Stalin, and Russian history... OK, maybe not complete strangers, but I can't articulate how fascinating, and how well-written this book is.
posted by LauraJ at 2:45 PM on August 8, 2013

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