Readable yet extremely comprehensive history books
January 16, 2015 10:54 AM   Subscribe

I just finished reading The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer again and it was just as incredible if not more so the second time around. I'm wondering if there are other nonfiction books of similar quality and comprehensiveness for other topics - primarily looking for a diabetes book but also interested in any other comparable books.

After reading The Emperor of All Maladies I feel like I've got a decent foundation not only for what cancer is and what can cause it but also its treatment (both past and present) and what the future might hold for patients.

A young cousin of mine recently discovered that he has juvenile-onset diabetes, and I realized that I knew absolutely nothing about it. I've been looking for a similar book, some sort of "biography of diabetes" but haven't had much luck.

One of the things I liked most about The Emperor of All Maladies was how readable it was, and how much context it provided about the disease.

Does such a book exist for any other illnesses beyond cancer? I'm very interested in finding a comprehensive and readable book about diabetes but am also interested in any other books that you think might compare to The Emperor of All Maladies.

posted by cybertaur1 to Education (30 answers total) 99 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: "The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression." Not current on the latest science at this point but excellent history.
posted by Snarl Furillo at 11:00 AM on January 16, 2015 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Are you interested in illness/disease only? If not, may I suggest Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World.
posted by MsMolly at 11:02 AM on January 16, 2015 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I like these books too; they seem to be called 'microhistories'.

My recommendation would be Salt: A World History.
posted by Monochrome at 11:23 AM on January 16, 2015 [3 favorites]

How We Die by Sherwin Nuland doesn't go into as much detail for each of the seven most common causes of death but is really good. Likewise One Doctor by Brendan Reilly.
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 11:23 AM on January 16, 2015 [2 favorites]

Kurlansky (who wrote the Cod book referenced above) is great; I especially enjoyed Salt: A World History.
posted by phoenix_rising at 11:24 AM on January 16, 2015 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Not exclusively looking for illness/disease-related books (though I realize that my question was pretty much all about that topic).

Thanks for the recommendations!
posted by cybertaur1 at 11:24 AM on January 16, 2015

(Oops, Monochrome posted just as I was making my post.)
posted by phoenix_rising at 11:24 AM on January 16, 2015

Rats, Lice, and History is a classic "biography" of the Rickettsia bacteria that causes typhus.
posted by ottereroticist at 11:38 AM on January 16, 2015 [2 favorites]

Not quite the same, but still biomedical: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot is a facinating look at one of the most common test cultures used in medicine.
posted by bonehead at 11:40 AM on January 16, 2015 [2 favorites]

I remember really enjoying "Ghost Map" by Steven Johnson. It's more a biography of a specific outbreak than a biography of a disease. Very readable book about a huge cholera outbreak in Victorian London, how it was dealt with in that cultural context, and how it relates to the development of epidemiology in general.
posted by kensington314 at 11:43 AM on January 16, 2015 [3 favorites]

I felt like I learned a lot about tuberculosis when I read Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder.
posted by dawkins_7 at 11:45 AM on January 16, 2015 [1 favorite]

The writer Erik Larson does a lot of these - the first (and best to my mind) is Devil In The White City, which covers both the 1893 Worlds' Fair and the actions of the guy who was arguably the country's first serial killer. His other books combine pairs of seemingly-disparate things - a history of meteorology and a hurricane, or the invention of radio and the capture of an English serial killer, or US European diplomacy and the Third Reich. And it looks like his new one combines the Lusitania sinking with U.S. Progressive Era politics.

Also, cartoonist Larry Gonick is such an exhaustive and comprehensive writer that his "Cartoon Guides to [blank]" are sometimes assigned as supplementary reading in colleges; his "Cartoon History of the Universe/Cartoon Guide to the Modern World" series begins with the Big Bang and ends in 2003, and is WAY well done.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:01 PM on January 16, 2015 [5 favorites]

Best answer: It's not particularly long but Susan Sontag's Illness as Metaphor is a wonderful study on the history of symbolic interpretations of biological disease through history that I felt like I learned a lot from.
posted by kaspen at 12:21 PM on January 16, 2015 [2 favorites]

I enjoy Simon Winchester's books; his Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded goes into things like the history of the Dutch East India Company and the pepper trade (which is why the nearby settlements destroyed in the eruption were established) and the rise of amateur Victorian scientists (who helped capture data about the atmospheric effects thanks to the ubiquity of in-home barometers).

He gives similar treatments to his book about the San Francisco Earthquake; I'm looking forward to reading his book about the compilation of the Oxford English Dictionary (with major contributions from a man in a lunatic asylum!) later this year.
posted by Gelatin at 12:22 PM on January 16, 2015 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I like this sort of writing as well; you might like anything by John McPhee, and as for health related, King of Hearts is a good read about the origins of open heart surgery.
posted by TedW at 12:23 PM on January 16, 2015 [2 favorites]

Best answer: And the Band Played On is a biography of the AIDS epidemic. I don't know from the new edition but I recommend the original very highly.

In Cold Blood is a biography of a murder, and is by Truman Capote.
posted by DarlingBri at 12:33 PM on January 16, 2015 [3 favorites]

I'm a big fan of Stephan Talty. Empire of Blue Water is an incredibly engaging and entertaining history of Henry Morgan and the historical pirates of the Caribbean. The Illustrious Dead covers Napoleon's invasion of Russia, but with a focus on how it was Typhus, not the Russians or the Russian winter, that destroyed his army.

His books involve culture, world politics and a focus on the individual lives of not-so-important people to give you a sense of what life was like for the average person involved in the situation. He also gets into science-oriented aspects of his subject. Empire of Blue Water ends with a fascinating account of the earthquake that destroyed Port Royal, while Illustrious Dead tells you a great deal about how typhus evolved, works and spreads, all while remaining completely readable.
posted by scaryblackdeath at 2:34 PM on January 16, 2015 [1 favorite]

I absolutely loved Andrew Solomon's Far From the Tree. It is about parents and exceptional children. The exceptionalities are not usually diseases, although there is one chapter on schizophrenia. But having read The Emperor of All Maladies, I think it might appeal to you.
posted by merejane at 3:28 PM on January 16, 2015 [1 favorite]

posted by j_curiouser at 3:46 PM on January 16, 2015

A similar question from earlier this month (sorry, can't link from my phone)
Also, Hampton Sides' books, especially the one on Kit Carson ("Blood and Thunder"). He is a great storyteller, and a detailed historian.
posted by mmiddle at 5:39 PM on January 16, 2015

The Murder of the Century: The Gilded Age Crime That Scandalized a City & Sparked the Tabloid Wars - "The grisly finds that began on the afternoon of June 26, 1897, plunged detectives
headlong into the era's most baffling murder mystery. Seized upon by battling media moguls Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst, the case became a publicity circus. Reenactments of the murder were staged in Times Square, armed reporters lurked in the streets of Hell's Kitchen in pursuit of suspects, and an unlikely trio--a hard-luck cop, a cub reporter, and an eccentric professor--all raced to solve the crime."

Mauve: How One Man Invented a Color That Changed the World - "In 1856 eighteen-year-old English chemist William Perkin accidentally discovered a way to mass-produce color. In a "witty, erudite, and entertaining" (Esquire) style, Simon Garfield explains how the experimental mishap that produced an odd shade of purple revolutionized fashion, as well as industrial applications of chemistry research. Occasionally honored in certain colleges and chemistry clubs, Perkin until now has been a forgotten man."

Not exactly microhistories (I think?) but anything by Mary Roach, particularly Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers. (Yes, it is gross but it's also really interesting and has changed the way I think about human remains.)
posted by kassila at 8:58 PM on January 16, 2015 [2 favorites]

A few suggestions:

Empire of the Summer Moon -- How westward expansion systematically exploited and exterminated Native Americans.

Battle Cry of Freedom -- Comprehensive history of the Civil War. Very lengthy, but surprisingly readable.
posted by aheckler at 8:53 AM on January 17, 2015

Quadruple hyper double agree on anything by Kurlansky or Winchester. Both authors are very accessible and cover fascinating topics.

And if you're like me and work / home have made it impossible to ever sit down to read a book, subscribe to Dan Carlin's Hardcore History podcast. It's brilliant.
posted by GatorDavid at 10:12 AM on January 17, 2015

At the moment I am about 30 percent through The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. Great stuff and really in depth at 1100 pages. Get the kindle version if you want to carry it around much!

I have read most of the books in this thread and there are some great recommendations.
Ron Chernow is a great writer, I especially recommend "Washington, a Life".

One of my favorite reads of last year was Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President.

David McCullough's books are all great. I read The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870-1914 back in October as well as The Johnstown Flood earlier in the year.
posted by WillRun4Fun at 10:24 AM on January 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

Ben Franklin Stilled the Waves is a pretty fascinating history of a very specific experiment - pouring oil on water to reduce its turbulence. Honestly, I found much of it readable but did not ultimately finish it. Still very interesting. A microhistory of a single scientific experiment, the scientists over the years who played with it, and how it led to our understanding of how cell membranes work.`
posted by Deathalicious at 12:52 PM on January 18, 2015

You might like Laurie Garret's The Coming Plague. It was published in 1994, so not up on the latest researc clearly, but it is a series of "biographies" of a few diseases including ebola, swine flu, legionnaire's disease, HIV, toxic shock syndrome, and sin nombre virus, among other topics. It was hugely influential to me in forming an interest and knowledge base for diseases. And that last sentence sounds weird, but you get the point.
posted by Panjandrum at 5:13 PM on January 18, 2015

It's been a little while since I read it, but Diabetes: The Biography by Robert Tattershall was very readable, if a bit clinical in its approach. It's history section was good, and made me appreciate how far we've come since the 1920's.
posted by Helga-woo at 1:58 PM on January 21, 2015

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