The best non-fiction I ever read. Help me find more.
June 9, 2015 5:12 PM   Subscribe

I recently finished The Making of The Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes and it is probably the best non-fiction book I ever read. I picked it up based on the overwhelmingly positive reviews not because I have any particular interest in WWII or wars in general.

What I don't want:

* Sexy speculative stuff, I'm not interested in being on the forefront of science/technology/economics
* "How the brain might work", philosophy that borders on self help, most recent psychology (I'm weary because of recent reports about irreproducibility and poorly applied statistics), malcolm gladwell, jared diamond, 1491, freakonomics. pretty much pop-anything.
* Multiple universes or super symmetry or string theory
* People's history of anything, no aha moment counter intuitive anti-histories. (or similar books that try to aggressively convince you of something rather than intrigue or inform)
* Nothing that overreaches in its application or over-fits its conclusions to the narrative (salt, cod, a history of the world in 6 glasses).
*I don't want books that are only enjoyable if you buy into the author's breathless arguments which you can't make any judgement about unless you've read dozens of academic papers.
*NOT primary sources. For example I don't want to read centuries old texts or dense academic papers. I want to read ABOUT them and their implications in context, NOT the authors interpretation of those ideas applied to the present day. This goes especially for philosophy. (I realize all history is subjective but I want The Making of the Atomic Bomb subjective not Guns, Germs and Steel subjective)

I have read most of these books and found value in them but I'm just not in the mood to read similar ones right now

What I do want:
*The kind of stuff that you can't and wouldn't want to sum up in a sentence at a cocktail party.
*Things that are almost boring but have had a profound lasting impact on history.
*Books about ideas that are still interesting even though they have been proven mostly wrong or at least heavily criticized. Foucault, Thomas Kuhn, Stephen Gould and Julian Jaynes fall into this category for me. I'm not on a search for the unquestioned truth of humanity.
*Could be on any topic: social science, law, technology, architecture, business, art, music. In fact I would prefer books that fit my criteria but are outside of categories that seem obvious for a white cis male in his 20s (guilty).
*Biographies / histories
*Basically narrative textbooks

Books/Authors I'm not interested in:
*Oliver Sachs
*Michio Kaku
*Stephen Pinker

Some books I have read that seem relevant
*lords of finance (a little too dry)
*godel escher and bach (I've read other books by Hofstadter and didn't really care for them)
*the emperor of all maladies
*discipline and Punish / the structure of scientific revolutions
*Most of Feynman's books besides QED/lectures on physics
*I've read most of michael lewis' books. entertaining but fluffy
*thinking fast and slow - I enjoyed a few of the chapters in the middle of the book but overall found it too pop psychology.
*Into Thin Air (again, entertaining but a little too much narrative)

Next books I'm looking at: (mostly related stuff I found on goodreads)

*american prometheus
*the devil in the white city
*the selfish gene (read the beginning of this book and kinda iffy about it)
*After "The Making of the Atomic Bomb" I'm interested in more physics/chemistry narrative stuff
*The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
*Fermat's Enigma
*The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History
*The Botany of Desire: A Plant's-Eye View of the World recommends lots of fiction and David McCullough (I have read Truman and John Adams and enjoyed them, but that's enough for me).

Amazon recommends more manhattan project/atomic bomb related books which besides American Prometheus I'm not interested in right now.
posted by laptolain to Media & Arts (81 answers total) 196 users marked this as a favorite
I think it's the writing that's the key. So, anything by John Keegan (Six Armies in Normandy or The Face of Battle). That's my recommendation.
posted by Nevin at 5:14 PM on June 9, 2015 [1 favorite]

I think Being Mortal by Atul Gawande would fit your parameters (and it's also very excellent).
posted by Asparagus at 5:21 PM on June 9, 2015 [2 favorites]

I was going to recommend David McCullough, but you said "that's enough for me." I don't get why. If you liked The Making of the Atomic Bomb, read everything by David McCullough.

Also, Richard Rhodes wrote three more books about the nuclear age:
Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb
Arsenals of Folly: The Making of the Nuclear Arms Race (
The Twilight of the Bombs

posted by beagle at 5:22 PM on June 9, 2015

Every time a question like this pops up on AskMe I recommend Barrow's Boys.
posted by The Card Cheat at 5:23 PM on June 9, 2015 [1 favorite]

Two non-fiction books I have liked that you have not mentioned are Beyond The Beautiful Forevers and The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down.

Now, both of these are single-story narratives - they follow a particular true event and use that to illustrate the larger realities of, for one, the changing socioeconomic structures of modern-day India, and for the other, of the conflict between Western and non-Western styles of medical care. As a person who reads primarily fiction, this worked for me in a way that, say, Emperor of All Maladies didn't.
posted by vunder at 5:24 PM on June 9, 2015 [7 favorites]

Previously, along similar lines:
Bizarre nonfiction recommendations?
What's the best non-fiction I haven't found yet?
Recommend me books about ants, termites, Quakerism and black cowboys

John McPhee might suit.

I'm reading Why Buildings Stand Up and am enjoying it, as well as learning from it.
posted by MonkeyToes at 5:24 PM on June 9, 2015 [1 favorite]

The Code Breakers by David Kahn. Get the hardback version (or the kindle version of same). It's a history of codes and ciphers up to the development of the computer, which changed everything.

Don't get the paperback version; it isn't complete. (They edited it down substantially and left out a lot of the good parts.)
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 5:24 PM on June 9, 2015 [2 favorites]

It's already on your list, but I would move The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks to the top of your list. I would say that, and Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything are the best non-fiction books I've read.
posted by pazazygeek at 5:27 PM on June 9, 2015 [5 favorites]

I really enjoyed The Ghost Map.
posted by microcarpetus at 5:31 PM on June 9, 2015 [1 favorite]

Seconding The Ghost Map, The Code Breakers.

Also: In The Heart of The Sea, The Poisoner's Handbook, Last Call, Flash Boys.
posted by jeather at 5:36 PM on June 9, 2015 [1 favorite]

Mary Roach might be a little too popular science, but she's also great.
posted by jeather at 5:37 PM on June 9, 2015 [3 favorites]

Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick

Randy Shilts - The Mayor of Castro Street; And The Band Played On

The Life and Death of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs does have an argument (unlike my other suggestions), but there's nothing pop or "sexy" about it.
posted by sunset in snow country at 5:37 PM on June 9, 2015 [2 favorites]

The best non-fiction book I can think of, which I picked up solely based on the reviews, is Assassins of the Turquoise Palace. It's about Iranian dissidents who were murdered in Germany and the German prosecutor's efforts to get justice despite political opposition. It was my Christmas present* yet I had to keep fighting my dad for it as he'd snatch it up to read if I made the mistake of setting it down.

*I picked it for my own Christmas present. My mom ran out of time to do her present shopping that year.
posted by carolr at 5:41 PM on June 9, 2015 [1 favorite]

If you can find a copy, Watch the Skies is a fantastic cultural study of the UFO myth. It's a full skeptical debunking, but it's also a great look at why popular notions of UFOs became what they are, and how a single person you've never heard of can have so much influence on worldwide culture.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 5:41 PM on June 9, 2015 [1 favorite]

I've read Rhodes' "Making" and "Dark Sun." Dark Sun wasn't narratively as strong, but was still interesting as hell.

I enjoyed the crap out of Robert K. Massie's books "Dreadnought" and the sequel "Castles of Steel," which were the history of 19th Century England and Germany, up through 1918ish, told from a Naval perspective. It features the transition of the steel navy to oil, the development of HMS Dreadnought, the first real battleship as we now know them, and the broad strokes that lead to WWI. The second book covers WWI only, and naval stuff only.

Massie also wrote a bunch of books about the Russian royals which I've heard are good, but not yet read.

More that comes to mind is Scurvy: How a Surgeon, a Mariner, and a Gentleman Solved the Greatest Medical Mystery of the Age of Sail.

Seconding John Keegan ("The Price of Admiralty" is among my favorites) and "Longitude," as above. Nathaniel Philbrick (In the Heart of the Sea, mentioned above) is worth a read-- I enjoyed that book and "Sea of Glory," about a great nautical expedition that excused itself from history.
posted by Sunburnt at 5:42 PM on June 9, 2015

William Langewiesche?
posted by TWinbrook8 at 5:44 PM on June 9, 2015 [2 favorites]

I really enjoyed reading Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker's The Many-Headed Hydra.
posted by synecdoche at 5:44 PM on June 9, 2015

Seconding In the Heart of the Sea and adding another doomed ship voyage: In the Kingdom of Ice. It's amazing and will teach you a bit about late 19th-century US.
posted by griseus at 5:52 PM on June 9, 2015

Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History by the late Stephen Jay Gould is excellent.
posted by Klaxon Aoooogah at 5:56 PM on June 9, 2015 [1 favorite]

The 9/11 Wars - all the reviews below are correct as far as I am concerned.
"The best overview of the 9/11 decade so far in print." —Economist
"A magisterial history of the last decade." —Guardian
"At a time when there are more books out on terrorism than ever before . . . this is likely to be among the best." —Sunday Telegraph
"Potent. . . journalism of a high order. . . essential for understanding the past decade." —Sunday Times
posted by adamvasco at 6:05 PM on June 9, 2015

The Devil in White City is a good add to your list, but first I'd say try the book Erik Larson wrote after that - In the Garden Of Beasts.

It's story of the American ambassador's arrival in Berlin on the eve of Hitler's appointment as Chancellor.
posted by JoeZydeco at 6:06 PM on June 9, 2015

Seconding McPhee. And a couple of oldies-but-goodies: Th Soul Of A New Machine by Tracy Kidder and The Cuckoo's Egg by Clifford Stoll.
posted by Johnny Wallflower at 6:09 PM on June 9, 2015 [2 favorites]

Don't hesitate about Selfish Gene. It's my field, has problems, but is nevertheless seminal and valuable (and at this point you're informed by a lot of science, even pop science, that will help guide you through it with a critical eye).

Assembling California, by John McPhee
(He's a fantastic writer, so any of his works are great summaries of banal things that have huge impact on the structure of the contemporary world. Highly recommended.)

Secret Historian, by Justin Spring*
(Much better than the drier, more academic, but also enjoyable Men in Eden, by William Benemann*)

Political/social philosophy:
Anti-intellectualism in American Life, by Richard Hofstadter
(Different Hof. Some people hate this book, others find it an illuminating and relevant voice from the near past.)

Seconding the Randy Shilts recommendations.*

* Good for the cis male thing, maybe?
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 6:21 PM on June 9, 2015

I feel like you want J. Anthony Lukas. He wrote two big, long, exhaustively researched books about moments in American history you might not know much about: Common Ground, about school desegregation in Boston in the 1970s, and Big Trouble, about labor strife in Idaho at the turn of the 20th century. He's a reporter, not an advocate. And a great writer.

My only hesitation is that if you're not American (I can't tell from your profile) you might not care.
posted by escabeche at 6:33 PM on June 9, 2015 [2 favorites]

Talking Hands - Margalit Fox
Don't Sleep, There are Snakes : Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle - Daniel Everett
An African in Greenland - Tete-Michel Kpomassie, James Kirkup, A. Alvarez
The Lady and the Monk: Four Seasons in Kyoto - Pico Iyer
Winterdance - Gary Paulsen
posted by plinth at 6:35 PM on June 9, 2015 [1 favorite]

A lot of great recommendations here, but don't shy away from American Prometheus. It's really spectacular.
posted by arco at 6:38 PM on June 9, 2015

Oh, and Rhodes' new book on the Spanish Civil War, Hell and Good Company is really good, too.
posted by arco at 6:40 PM on June 9, 2015

The Cheese and the Worms: the story of a 16th century Italian miller charged with heresy in the midst of the Inquistion. The author, a historian, explores this man's intricate and unique convictions, traces the origins of his worldview, and recounts what happens to him. Rigorously academic but also fascinating and moving.

Also, A Beautiful Mind. Different and much better than the movie.
posted by reren at 6:41 PM on June 9, 2015 [1 favorite]

The World Without Us by Alan Weisman should be right up your alley.

The Making of a Chef: Mastering Heat at the Culinary Institute of America by Michael Ruhlman is not just a terrific read but also deep in much the way Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is.

The Summing Up by W. Somerset Maugham is a terrifically absorbing memoir by someone once considered one the preeminent authors of his century.

Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals by John Gray will make you think hard about unpleasant things. The Clock of the Long Now by Stewart Brand will make a refreshing palate cleanser.

The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener by Martin Gardner is like getting to know one of the most humane and thoughtful men you'll ever meet.

Working by Studs Terkel has a strong claim to have more real life in it than any book ever written.

Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby is very funny but also surprisingly deep.

The Eudaemonic Pie by Thomas A. Bass is one of the great "hacker" adventures.

The Air-Conditioned Nightmare by Henry Miller is his anguished travel book on returning to the United States in the 1940s and is written in his usual coruscating prose.
posted by The Big Foist at 6:45 PM on June 9, 2015 [5 favorites]

Of the ones on your list I liked The Great Influenza and The Devil in the White City. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks was also good but I didn't like it as much as the others.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers was so good. So, so good. Like, I want to figure out a way to put the title in dancing 30-point type so you'll notice it.

The Age of Wonder was terrific.
Cleopatra was excellent and because there's relatively little known about the lady herself, mostly it's about the historical events surrounding her reign.
posted by The Elusive Architeuthis at 6:47 PM on June 9, 2015 [1 favorite]

Also: Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell. His usual brilliant reporting and a fine preventive against self-pity.
posted by The Big Foist at 6:48 PM on June 9, 2015 [1 favorite]

Seconding Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick
Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America by Barbara Ehrenreich
Stasiland by Anna Funder
The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of The Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester
Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things by Gail Steketee and Randy Frost
Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith by Jon Krakauer

(For context, I'm generally a fiction reader & in non-fiction tend towards personal narratives, with a prediliction for psychology and cult-ish groups... as this list amply demonstrates!)
posted by yesbut at 6:53 PM on June 9, 2015 [2 favorites]

Addiction By Design by Natasha Dow Schull is about the casino industry and particularly slot machines. It covers the history of modern gambling, goes into some detail about technology and regulation, and combines this with an anthropological study of addicted gamblers in Las Vegas.

In general, you might be able to find books like this by looking at syllabi for intro survey courses, and by looking at books published by various academic presses. Of the survey courses I took, I actually think all of them had a book that's been mentioned here.
posted by vogon_poet at 6:55 PM on June 9, 2015

The Boys in the Boat - about the nine men who rowed for the United States in the 1936 Berlin Olympics. This is a great book, one of the best I've ever read.
posted by Kangaroo at 7:00 PM on June 9, 2015

I really liked How Buildings Learn
posted by BoscosMom at 7:08 PM on June 9, 2015 [1 favorite]

Seconding "The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down" and "American Prometheus" (although the latter will probably enrage you because it discusses stupidity so deep it makes your stomach hurt).
posted by holborne at 7:10 PM on June 9, 2015

Question for you: do you actually want to learn a subject, or are you looking merely to be informed?

I've always been a fan of Isaac Asimov. You read Realm of Algebra, you'll come away able to do algebra. He's a teacher, although his books are at a more basic level than an intro college course. I liked The Wellsprings of Life, Realm of Number, An Easy Introduction To The Slide Rule, and his books on the Romans.

I never had that feeling with John McPhee, who's been recommended above -- I read Assembling California, in which he hangs out with a geologist and tries to give you a sense of what he learned. Although I now have a good sense of how the Sierra Nevada mountains were formed, I don't feel like he taught me Geology 101 or even Geology 001.

This sense of putting yourself (and your full attention) in the hands of a good teacher is what I got from Gödel, Escher, Bach, at least the parts where Hofstadter teaches you formal number theory and Gödel's Theorem and DNA/RNA biology (less so in the philosophical speculations of intelligence & Strange Loops). Sounds like you are the same way, since you didn't like his other books.

So let me know what you want and I'll make recommendations.
posted by Harvey Kilobit at 7:37 PM on June 9, 2015 [2 favorites]

Hard Road West: History and Geology along the Gold Rush Trail

Taking readers along the 2,000-mile California Trail, Keith Meldahl uses the diaries and letters of the settlers themselves—as well as the countless hours he has spent following the trail—to reveal how the geology and geography of the West directly affected our nation’s westward expansion. He guides us through a corrugated landscape of sawtooth mountains, following the meager streams that served as lifelines through an arid land, all the way to California itself, where colliding tectonic plates created breathtaking scenery and planted the gold that lured travelers west in the first place.

Completely fantastic.
posted by rtha at 7:51 PM on June 9, 2015

nthing The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman
Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver
The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan
One Man's Meat by E.B. White
The Art of Eating by M.F.K. Fisher
posted by Daily Alice at 7:54 PM on June 9, 2015

McPhee, McPhee, McPhee, always and forever, every single one.

After that, David Quammen's Song of the Dodo, maybe the most entertaining pop science book ever.
posted by neroli at 7:55 PM on June 9, 2015 [1 favorite]

Great recommendations so far, I plan on checking them all out.

Question for you: do you actually want to learn a subject, or are you looking merely to be informed?

I don't think The Making of the Atomic Bomb really taught me anything in the way a textbook might. For example I came away understanding what gaseous diffusion is (and all the different types) but I couldn't explain it in a fundamental way.

I've always been a fan of Isaac Asimov. You read Realm of Algebra, you'll come away able to do algebra. He's a teacher, although his books are at a more basic level than an intro college course. I liked The Wellsprings of Life, Realm of Number, An Easy Introduction To The Slide Rule, and his books on the Romans.

These books all sound exactly like what I'm looking for so I guess then maybe I am looking to learn rather than be informed.

Part of my long term education goal is to sit down with 101 college textbooks on the topics I'm interested in (physics/chemistry) and see how far I get. One of the most valuable things I did in college was taking calculus 1/2/3 which more than the math itself taught me what to expect from textbook learning. In some sense I wish there was a "The Making of the Atomic Bomb" for calculus that would have helped me put all of these supposedly great things I was learning in context. So I guess that's what I'm looking for....a balance between theory and information.
posted by laptolain at 8:01 PM on June 9, 2015

There are a lot of good recommendations in this thread. "The Making of the Atomic Bomb" is one of my favorite books. I also highly recommend "Dark Sun"; it's not quite as good as "Making" because so much more is classified that the narrative is less clear, but it's very good. I didn't like the later books in the series as much, largely because they had less detail.

The other nonfiction book I love is Neil Sheehan's "A Bright Shining Lie" - it has a lot of the same qualities that made "Making" compelling - a detailed history of a complicated topic, with interesting characters, written really well. I also really like "The Executioner's Song", although that lives somewhat between fiction and nonfiction. I'll 2nd the Randy Shilts recommendations - I found "The Mayor of Castro Street" a fascinating history of San Francisco and insight into the early days of the gay rights movement.

Other excellent books:
Taylor Branch's magisterial three volume history of the civil rights movement.
Robert Caro's "The Power Broker"
If you want more science history, "The Eighth Day of Creation", about the early days of molecular biology, is good, as is "The Second Creation", about modern physics, but neither is the page turner that "Making" is.
posted by pombe at 8:09 PM on June 9, 2015 [2 favorites]

I can't believe I forgot "Code: The Hidden Language of Computer Hardware and Software" which odinsdream mentioned. It's right up there with "The Making of the Atomic Bomb" for me. The part about recreating a microprocessor was very slow going for me (I have no background in that area) but it was very rewarding.
posted by laptolain at 8:16 PM on June 9, 2015

The Killing of Crazy Horse by Thomas Powers.
posted by Guernsey Halleck at 8:20 PM on June 9, 2015

"Command and Control" by Eric Schlosser was awesome.

(Also, I may have a spare copy of Singh's "The Code Book" in hardcover.)
posted by wenestvedt at 8:48 PM on June 9, 2015 [2 favorites]

Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder.

Do No Harm by Henry Marsh.

Both about two very driven, intense, and complex people in medicine (global health/infectious disease and neurosurgery respectively)
posted by un petit cadeau at 8:50 PM on June 9, 2015 [1 favorite]

Seconding Massie's Dreadnought and Castles of Steel. I don't typically enjoy historical nonfiction, but I loved the hell out of both of those books.

His Russian books are okay, but the two mentioned are tremendous.
posted by builderofscience at 8:51 PM on June 9, 2015 [1 favorite]

At Day's Close: Night in Times Past gives a vivid impression of life after dark in preindustrial Europe and America. Includes discussions of nighttime dangers (there was actually a very serious risk of falling in ditches before the advent of street lamps), sleep habits, crime (theft was also a big problem at night), work, love, taverns, and so on. It's a great work of cultural history.
posted by teponaztli at 8:56 PM on June 9, 2015 [1 favorite]

Not sure if The Hot Zone falls into your "pop" category, but it reads like a thriller. Be aware that some facts of the affects of the various viruses on individuals are wrong, which we on the Internet use as justification to backlash against and then hate things. Regardless, it's a really entertaining read.
posted by cnc at 9:07 PM on June 9, 2015 [1 favorite]

I've mentioned it here before, but Mauve: How One Man Invented a Color That Changed the World by Simon Garfield is a fascinating story about how one man discovered synthetic chemistry by accident.
posted by Multicellular Exothermic at 9:08 PM on June 9, 2015

The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood
About the history of information/info theory as well as sociohistorical contexts/ramifications.

Exploding The Phone
Looks into the world of phone phreaking and the people who hacked the telephone network in the 1950s and into the 1980s. Also does a terrific job of elucidating how the network was built as well as the innovations and technological forces that would bring an end to this era of unauthorized exploration.
posted by theartandsound at 9:18 PM on June 9, 2015

The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson, Spillover by David Quammen, Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo
posted by AceRock at 9:50 PM on June 9, 2015

Oh and Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America by Gilbert King
posted by AceRock at 9:57 PM on June 9, 2015

My interests tend to be more history and food-related, so these may not work for you but try:

At Home: A short history of private life, by Bill Bryson
Consider the Fork: A history of how we cook and eat, by Bee Wilson
Longitude: The true story of a lone genius who solved the greatest scientific problem of his time, by Dava Sobel
A Perfect Red: Empire, espionage, and the quest for the color of desire, by Amy Butler Greenfield
Tea: The drink that changed the world, by Laura C Martin
Salt: A world history, by Mark Kurlansky
posted by ninazer0 at 11:27 PM on June 9, 2015 [3 favorites]

If you're interested in learning about the 'happiness economics' field, I'd recommend Happiness, by Richard Layard. It's a founding text in the area and responsible for kickstarting political interest in the field in the UK.
posted by yesbut at 12:20 AM on June 10, 2015

History and biographies:
* Peter the Great: His Life and World by Robert K. Massie
* Any of Alison Weir's non-fiction, especially The Life of Elizabeth I
* Any of Barbara Tuchman's books

* Any of Stephen Hawking's books
* Any of Mary Roach's books (except My Planet)
* Death from the Skies!: The Science Behind the End of the World by Phil Plait
* The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail--but Some Don't by Nate Silver
posted by neushoorn at 12:36 AM on June 10, 2015

Frances Yates' The Art of Memory is a bit academic, but the history of mnemonic aids such as memory palaces, is a fascinating tour through renaissance magic and the origins of scientific thinking.
posted by crocomancer at 1:54 AM on June 10, 2015

Supercontinent by Ted Nield tells the story of the Earth's geology over a span of billions of years, and how the scientific discoveries that allowed us to piece it together came about. It's beautifully, evocatively written and very interesting (easily the best non-fiction book I've ever read).
posted by Otto the Magnificent at 3:17 AM on June 10, 2015 [1 favorite]

I wonder if you have read Silent Spring by Rachel Carson, which is like a seminal work of environmental, ecological scientific thinking, published in 1962?
The book documented the detrimental effects on the environment—particularly on birds—of the indiscriminate use of pesticides. Carson accused the chemical industry of spreading disinformation and public officials of accepting industry claims unquestioningly. Silent Spring was met with fierce opposition by chemical companies, but it spurred a reversal in national pesticide policy, led to a nationwide ban on DDT for agricultural uses,[2] and inspired an environmental movement that led to the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.[3][4]

Here's a history/travel book, Rebecca West's Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: A Journey Through Yugoslavia, published in 1941. The book is over 1,100 pages in modern editions and gives an account of Balkan history and ethnography during West's six week trip to Yugoslavia in 1937. West's objective was "to show the past side by side with the present it created".[1]
It's pretty amazing, as is Rebecca West. Here's a longform interview with her in The Paris Review 1981. The interviewer was Marina Warner.

Authors go in and out of fashion, and it's odd sometimes to see how thoroughly well-known authors, books and incidents are forgotten. A very well-known writer on history, archeology and prehistory when I was young was Jacquetta Hawkes. Here's a blog post about A Land. I think she wrote about the Minoans as well as many other things, but I can't even find a bibliography.
posted by glasseyes at 3:43 AM on June 10, 2015 [1 favorite]

tl;dr but has anyone suggested Cadillac Desert or Beyond the Hundredth Meridian?
posted by mmiddle at 4:36 AM on June 10, 2015

Oh, yeah, Beyond the Hundredth Meridian: John Wesley Powell and the Opening of the American West is fantastic. Read it back-to-back with Hard Road West, which I recommended above.
posted by rtha at 5:45 AM on June 10, 2015

Sapiens- A brief history of humankind History of humans.
posted by Coffeetyme at 6:06 AM on June 10, 2015 [1 favorite]

Not really a "narrative textbook," but City of Nets: A Portrait of Hollywood in the 1940's is excellent.
posted by Mothlight at 6:38 AM on June 10, 2015

nthing Command and Control and In The Kingdom of Ice. The latter pretty much brought me to tears with the unbelievable level of human perseverance in the face of the unknown. Avoid spoilers if you don't know what happened! Hampton Sides (author of Kingdom of Ice) is in general fantastic. I also read his Hellhound on His Trail about the hunt for MLK's killer and again, just an incredible tale. Very readable and exciting, not at all dry.
posted by freecellwizard at 6:40 AM on June 10, 2015 [2 favorites]

I'd second Ghost Map (follows the discovery of the source of cholera).
posted by typecloud at 6:45 AM on June 10, 2015

I've been on a medical/science history kick and I think some of these might work (although they tend to get a bit polemic in the last chapter or two):

The Worst of Evils: The Fight Against Pain by Thomas Dormandy
The Speckled Monster: A Historical Tale of Battling Smallpox by Jennifer Lee Carrell
Dread: How Fear and Fantasy Have Fueled Epidemics from the Black Death to Avian Flu by Phillip Alcabes
The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee
The Alchemy of Air: A Jewish Genius, a Doomed Tycoon, and the Scientific Discovery That Fed the World but Fueled the Rise of Hitler by Thomas Hager
The Demon Under The Microscope by Thomas Hager

I especially recommend the Hager books.
posted by Hactar at 7:38 AM on June 10, 2015 [1 favorite]

Not quite sure why you object to 1491 (unless you meant 1461, the extremely dubious book about Chinese seafaring).

1491 on the other hand is one of the best books I've ever read and was going to be on the top of the list.
posted by overeducated_alligator at 10:08 AM on June 10, 2015 [7 favorites]

Denise Kiernan's The Girls of Atomic City, about the lives of women who worked and lived at Oak Ridge during WWII.
posted by augustimagination at 10:52 AM on June 10, 2015

Henry Petroski's 1985 book "To Engineer Is Human: The Role of Failure in Successful Design" started off retelling Goldilocks and the 3 Bears from an engineering structural analysis point of view. He published 17 more books.
posted by Sophont at 5:25 PM on June 10, 2015 [1 favorite]

Dying Words: Endangered Languages and What They Have to Tell Us by Nick Evans is great.
posted by flora at 6:10 PM on June 10, 2015

The Devil in White City is a good add to your list, but first I'd say try the book Erik Larson wrote after that - In the Garden Of Beasts.

His newest book on the Lusitania is just as good. I preordered it based on the strength of the first two and was not disappointed.

Similarly, I will always recommend Under the Banner of Heaven, but really anything Jon Krakauer has written is just excellent. Into Thin Air, read alongside Anatoli Boukereev's book. Where men Win Glory, the Pat Tillman story: a tale worth being told.
posted by Dashy at 5:55 PM on June 12, 2015

Also, Endurance, the Shackleton story.
posted by Dashy at 6:02 PM on June 12, 2015

Rhodes' Atomic Bomb is one of my favorite books too, and I think you would love the detail and storytelling in Robert Caro's The Power Broker. It's a biography of Robert Moses, whose policies and hardheaded arrogance shaped the roads in, and consequently the city of New York. It's an excellent, vivid biography with the meticulous detail of Rhodes, but it's also a story of lording power and the murky back door deals that truly drive government.
posted by Turkey Glue at 8:55 AM on June 15, 2015

I love books on American history - particularly dealing with westward expansion. Deal with these:

Ordeal by Hunger - The definitive book on the experience of the Donner Party. It sucks you in and puts you there with them next to their wagons. You agonize with them over the decisions that ultimately led to their ordeal. Fantastic, fantastic book.

Fur, Fortune and Empire - A history of the fur trade in the United States that is particularly engrossing. The fur trade played a huge part in US place names, western expansion and the placement of various cities and towns. Great book.

Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson and the Opening of the American West - You seem pretty selective and this might be a little too 'pop' for you but it is still a great book.

Manhunt: The 12 Day Chase to Catch Lincolns Killer - an obsessive and engrossing account of the assassination of Lincoln and the experience of John Wilkes Booth during his 12 days on the run.

Across the Wide Missouri - Focuses on the heyday of the 'mountain men' during the last 20 years of the American Fur Trade. Another fur-trade book but focuses on a particularly colorful period.

The Age of Gold: The California Gold Rush and the New American Dream Great overview of the California Gold Rush and its impact on manifest destiny / US expansion.

The World Rushed In - Another California Gold Rush history but with insights and interpretations of diaries etc...

Bandito: The Life and Times of Tiburcio Vasquez - a fantastically well-researched biography of one of the most notorious bandits of Old California. His exploits are legendary.
posted by jnnla at 5:17 PM on June 15, 2015 [1 favorite]

I immediately thought of A Man on the Moon by Andrew Chaikin. Fantastic account of the space program.
posted by Philbo at 11:55 AM on June 20, 2015

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