Nonfiction books about exciting professions through one person's eyes?
August 9, 2013 11:28 AM   Subscribe

What are some good nonfiction books that offer a window into an exciting but little-known industry or profession through the eyes/life of one person?

I’m looking for books that do what Newjack did for prison guards, Sniper did for military snipers, and Complications did for surgeons: describe an unfamiliar, risky but fascinating world through the eyes and experience of a single person.

Bestsellers like The Perfect Storm and Into Thin Air are along these lines, but they use small groups—I’m looking for lone protagonists, either first-person or third-person.

Other examples: Report from Engine Co. 82 (firefighters), Weekends at Bellevue (psych ER), The Hungry Ocean (commercial fishing).
posted by gottabefunky to Media & Arts (14 answers total) 66 users marked this as a favorite
The best example I know of this is Chickenhawk, by a guy who flew helicopters during the Vietnam War. The first thing he does in the book is teach you how to fly a helicopter so that he can then describe tactical actions he took and have you understand what he's doing and what risks are involved. It's pretty amazing.
posted by janey47 at 11:33 AM on August 9, 2013 [7 favorites]

"For Richer, For Poorer: Confessions of a Player" by Victoria Coren is the author's account of her life as a professional poker player. It's partly an autobiography -- she writes about the ups and downs of being a professional player, and a (rare) female professional player, at that -- mixed with an overview of the sweeping changes that happened in the pro poker world during the 90s/early 00s, when televised and online tournaments raised the profile of the game outside of its traditional audience.
posted by meronym at 11:44 AM on August 9, 2013

I'm most of the way through Call the Midwife and it's great. Also a BBC miniseries now.
posted by carolr at 11:51 AM on August 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

Rivethead, the best gonzo assembly line memoir ever
Positively 5th Street: inside the World Series of Poker
This Bloody Mary is the Last Thing I Own -- Boxing reporter reports on boxing reporting.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 12:17 PM on August 9, 2013

The Cuckoo's Egg is a great look at the life of a security analyst before we were called security analysts.
posted by bfranklin at 12:25 PM on August 9, 2013

James Herriot's books (beginning with All Creatures Great and Small) document in frequently extremely graphic fashion the life of a rural large-animal veterinarian. What's particularly fascinating is that Herriot's career spans the introduction of antibiotics (in human and veterinary practice both), the shift from virtually all farm work being horse-driven to tractor-driven, and the concurrent shift in veterinary practice from large animal vets working with farmers to small animals vets treating urban and suburban pets. It documents a really unique period in veterinary medicine and the history of human/animal relationships.

You will read a lot about what happens to a man with his arm up a cow's vagina to his shoulder when she goes into labor, especially if she wants to try to roll over. (Actually, I think in the fourth book, he talks a little bit about how he discouraged his daughter from going into veterinary practice because it was such an incredibly physical undertaking at the time and he worried a woman wouldn't be strong enough for all the large-animal wrangling, but he suspects he may have been wrong in doing so because of the technological advances in veterinary medicine and the changes in types of animals treated. But she's a people doctor now so it worked out okay.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 12:58 PM on August 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

Sort of depends how you view "exciting" You can read these descriptions and see what you think counts.

I liked A Schoolteacher in Old Alaska: The Story of Hannah Breece which is about a woman who went solo to Alaska to teach in the early 1900s. (review)

John McPhee does a lot of this with third person narratives. You might like Encounters with the Archdruid which talks about environmentalist David Brower. The Headmaster is similar. Jobs are interesting but maybe not exciting. Also Philip Mould the Antiques Roadshow guy wrote a book called The Art Detective about ferreting out art forgeries.

You would enjoy Neal Stephenson's long article in Wired Mother Earth, Mother Board about the people who lay transatlantic cable.

Likewise Andrew Zimmern’s Bizarre World of Food: Brains, Bugs, and Blood Sausage is written for kids but talks about traveling the world in search of local odd foods to eat.

The Last of the Bush Pilots
is another Alaska book about the years when bush piloting was the main way people got into and out of most of Alaska. Don't get the novel by accident.

The Murder Room
is more about two people than one but I think you'd like it anyhow, looks into a weird group of dudes who take and solve cold cases in a secret society kind of way.

Opium Fiend is about a modern day guy that winds up with an ancient addiction.

Swimming to Antarctica does what it says on the tin.

Thinking In Pictures: The Making Of The Movie Matewan talks about shooting a movie on a very slender budget.

The Poet and the Murderer
looks like it's going to be one sort of book but winds up mostly being about the guy who did all the wacky Mormon forgeries and worse.
posted by jessamyn at 2:36 PM on August 9, 2013 [3 favorites]

Heat by Bill Buford, the New Yorker turned line cook and butcher apprentice.
posted by biscuits at 5:08 PM on August 9, 2013 [2 favorites]

I don't know what other people consider exciting, but here's a couple of autobiographies that are that and more to me, and deal with careers that are not well known to the world at large...

Disturbing the Universe, Freeman Dyson. The part that deals with his experiences as a statistician during World War 2 is particularly eye opening, not only about his work, but about the war.

The Economist's Tale, Peter Griffiths. The story of a guy trying to stop a famine in 1980s Africa. It's kind of like The Wire, but about the aid industry rather than policing.
posted by philipy at 7:09 PM on August 9, 2013

Horses, Hitches and Rocky Trails by Joe Back. This is a how-to book for the aspiring back-country horse traveler. It's dated, because, well, it's dated. But everything in it is from hard-won experience by a wrangler of the first water, and his principles are still sound. Tales told well, and good illustrations. This is entertaining, even if you can't tell, and don't care to know, the difference between a horse and a mule.

Also, Chickenhawk's author, Bob Mason, is an amazing man. I highly second that recommendation.

(His wife, Patience, is pretty amazing, too.)
posted by mule98J at 7:39 PM on August 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

Never Cry Wolf is about a naturalist studying wolf behavior in the wilds of Canada. Not sure if that fits exactly the bill you're looking for, but I enjoyed it.
posted by Aleyn at 8:38 PM on August 9, 2013

It's not very risky, unless you count getting a job at a car wash in the end as a danger, but Cheese Chronicles: The True Story of a Rock 'n' Roll Band You've Never Heard Of is a pretty good memoir that focuses on the work-related aspects of being in a band that didn't 'make it,' in spite of having some cult classic songs.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 10:50 PM on August 9, 2013

Joe McCormack, Virus Hunter.
posted by j_curiouser at 1:05 PM on August 10, 2013

I'm not sure if it fits, but My Lead Dog Was A Lesbian is about a guy who ran the Iditarod.
posted by rmd1023 at 12:38 PM on September 13, 2013

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