What nonfiction books are like these nonfiction books?
April 29, 2014 1:58 PM   Subscribe

I have a hard time finding books to read that can balance holding my attention with not being too difficult or a "hard" read. What non-fiction books are like the books after the cut?

Books I have really enjoyed a lot:
Marie Antoinette by Antonia Fraser
Columbine by Dave Cullen
The Sports Gene by David Epstein
Captain Scott by Ranulph Fiennes

Book recommending websites don't work because I just get tips for more books about the French Revolution or school shootings or polar exploration, but really what I want is tips for smart but readable non fiction books on one topic. I read/analyse a lot in work and so don't want anything that requires me to "try" when reading on my own time. At the same time, I find myself easily bored and unengaged by fluff reading (I think my dodgy tv habits scratch that itch!). I'm not so much interested in Malcolm Gladwell or Bill Bryson style stuff here, both of whom I enjoy but find putdownable rather than engrossing and unputdownable for reasons I am apparently unable to articulate. Thanks in advance!
posted by bimbam to Media & Arts (26 answers total) 89 users marked this as a favorite

Richard Preston
Timothy Egan
John McPhee
Barbara Tuchman
Robert Massie

are all authors of a range of topics who write beautifully about topics and people alike. their works are engaging and will teach you about the times, the players, the world that they write about regardless of the specific subject. many are common favorites of mefites everywhere.
posted by OHenryPacey at 2:13 PM on April 29, 2014

Simon Winchester -- The Professor and the Madman.
John Berendt - Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil
Luis Urrea - The Devil's Highway
Evan Wright - Generation Kill
Thomas Lynch - Undertakings: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade
posted by janey47 at 2:14 PM on April 29, 2014 [3 favorites]

Some of my favourite non-fiction books include anything by Mary Roach, though Packing for Mars is #1, In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick, The Poisoner's Handbook by Deborah Blum, Last Call by Daniel Okrent, The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson, and High Crimes by Michael Kodas. I like not too heavy but not stupid non-fiction, though generally not biographies.
posted by jeather at 2:14 PM on April 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

Seconding everything by Mary Roach.

Also Erik Larson, especially Devil in the White City-- reminiscent of Dave Cullen in some respects.
posted by warm_planet at 2:16 PM on April 29, 2014 [2 favorites]

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

Shadow Divers by Robert Kurson

Thunderstruck by Eric Larson

Murder of the Century by Paul Collins
posted by stampsgal at 2:17 PM on April 29, 2014

If you liked a book about Captain Scott, try Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage, by Alfred Lansing.
posted by mmiddle at 2:17 PM on April 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

In the Heart of the Sea, recommended above, read like a novel to me. I zipped through it - I really second that rec in the spirit of your question.

If you're okay with true crime, Lost Girls by Robert Kolker and People Who Eat Darkness by Richard Lloyd Parry are very much in the vein of Dave Cullen - they're written incredibly well so you'll want to stay up late to finish, but they're thoughtful and incisive enough not to be salacious or tabloidy.
posted by superfluousm at 2:22 PM on April 29, 2014

Oh, and The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman totally captures what you're looking for here (and is just an amazing book to boot.)
posted by superfluousm at 2:26 PM on April 29, 2014 [10 favorites]

I answered in this previous thread, which has some excellent recommendations--that asker's first criteria was for non-fiction that would keep one's attention.

Also-- +3 to In the Heart of the Sea.
posted by stellaluna at 2:31 PM on April 29, 2014

I really love David Quammen. My favorite by him is The Song of the Dodo, which is a very in-depth book about island biogeography and conservation, but I also enjoyed Monster of God, which is about large carnivores, and Spillover, which is about zoonotic diseases.

The Corner, by David Simon and Edward Burns, is also excellent. It is about a few blocks in Baltimore and the drug dealers, local folks, and police who live and work there (and may be very familiar if you like The Wire).

A Primate's Memoir by Robert Sapolsky is my favorite primatology book. Sapolsky is a really funny writer and does really cool research on baboons and stress and neuroendocrinology.

I liked The Disappearing Spoon, by Sam Kean, which is about the discovery of various elements. This one was more episodic and less engrossing, but a fun read.

Finally, The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes was an amazing, amazing book about physics and chemistry from about 1880-1945, and the physicists and chemists who were instrumental to the bomb. I thought it was incredibly interesting. I hate physics and still really appreciated this book.

On preview, seconding The Spirit Catches You When You Fall Down.
posted by ChuraChura at 2:32 PM on April 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

It would be worth your while to see if you find the opening pages of the first volume of The Years of Lyndon Johnson unputdownable – I did, not everyone does – because if you do, you're sorted for the next year of reading, or more… Large samples are available for free on Kindle. 

A recent favourite: Pilgrim's Wilderness by Tom Kizzia.
posted by oliverburkeman at 2:37 PM on April 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

Oh! I thought of two more. Your Inner Fish by Neil Shubin is all about our evolutionary heritage, going way back to the early lungfish Tiktaalik, and Team of Rivals, which was all about Abraham Lincoln's campaigns for presidency, the other candidates, and how it all worked together in his administration until he was assassinated. I wasn't expecting to enjoy Team of Rivals, but really did.
posted by ChuraChura at 2:40 PM on April 29, 2014

I read and loved Columbine, so my recommendations are based on that. Seconding People Who Eat Darkness. I also liked Methland a lot, and An Intimate Life is about the sex surrogate that The Sessions movie was based on. Really interesting and eye-opening.
posted by jabes at 2:49 PM on April 29, 2014

I see several of my favorites in the links above, but didn't see this one:
The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer.

The Emperor of All Maladies is a magnificent, profoundly humane “biography” of cancer—from its first documented appearances thousands of years ago through the epic battles in the twentieth century to cure, control, and conquer it to a radical new understanding of its essence. Physician, researcher, and award-winning science writer, Siddhartha Mukherjee examines cancer with a cellular biologist’s precision, a historian’s perspective, and a biographer’s passion. The result is an astonishingly lucid and eloquent chronicle of a disease humans have lived with—and perished from—for more than five thousand years.
posted by RedOrGreen at 3:15 PM on April 29, 2014 [4 favorites]

David Grann is the most Erik Larson-like writer out there (other than Larsen). I recommend The Devil and Sherlock Holmes which is a compilation of his short pieces. Also, The Lost City of Z. (Actually these are his only two)
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 4:33 PM on April 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

Nthing David Grann, the emperor of maladies, A primates memoir. I'm on my phone and linking is a total pain, but I also highly recommend the following:

An Ocean of Air, by Gabrielle Aitken

Longitude, by Dave Sobel

And Genghis Khan and the making of an empire by Jack Weatherford.
posted by smoke at 5:04 PM on April 29, 2014

Laura Hillenbrand's Seabiscuit: An American Legend and Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption are page-turners.
posted by bettafish at 6:20 PM on April 29, 2014

you would probably like anything by ben mezrich or michael lewis...mezrich wrote about the founding of Facebook and the mit card counting that became the films the social network and 21. i second the anne radioman suggestion of the spirit catches you and you fall down. i couldn't put it down.
posted by Jewel98 at 6:52 PM on April 29, 2014

I found David McCullough's The Path Between the Seas surprisingly gripping, considering that you know exactly what happens (they built a canal in Panama!) And yet I found myself staying up into the wee hours of the morning reading, because I couldn't put it down.

Also: Operation Mincemeat: How a Dead Man and a Bizarre Plan Fooled the Nazis and Assured an Allied Victory. It's such a crazy story, with a brief appearance by Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond.

Seconding Mary Roach, 1491 (and 1493), and Devil in the White City.
posted by ambrosia at 7:48 PM on April 29, 2014

I mostly read fiction, so I tend to like the same kind of non-fiction you are asking about.

I first came across this book in a few Metafilter threads, and now I always recommend it in non-fiction AskMes: Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, by Barbara Demick. The book tells the stories of six people who grew up in North Korea and escaped in adulthood to South Korea. It reads like a novel but it's non-fiction. I found it completely engrossing, and I can still recall the stories vividly even though it's been a few years since I read it. I'd say it is probably my favourite non-fiction book of all time.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 10:20 PM on April 29, 2014 [2 favorites]

Jeffrey Robinson's The Hotel. Also published under this name.
posted by JanetLand at 7:54 AM on April 30, 2014

If you are into naval history, The Boats of Cherbourg by Rabinowitz, or any thing by Samual Eliot Morrison. If you are interested in sailing, anything by John Rousmaniere, especially After The Storm.
posted by SemiSalt at 9:46 AM on April 30, 2014

Don't Kill the Birthday Girl by Sandra Beasley
posted by Lay Off The Books at 10:50 AM on April 30, 2014

Stung!: On Jellyfish Blooms and the Future of the Ocean is a compelling read.
posted by spacewaitress at 3:48 PM on May 1, 2014

Robert Caro's The Power Broker is necessary to understanding modern New York – as well as being a first-rate biography of a remarkable person. I also strongly recommend Caro's biography of Lyndon Johnson.

Krakauer's Into Thin Air reads like a novel.
posted by barryparr at 5:59 PM on May 1, 2014

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