Fiction or non-fiction books that describe a job or profession
May 29, 2016 1:58 PM   Subscribe

I'm looking for "behind the scenes of the XYZ industry" type books. They can be fiction or non-fiction.

I've just finished reading Kill your Friends a "fiction" book by John Niven which describes the internal mechanisms of the music business. It was the most informative insight into the music business which I've ever read but was also hilariously funny. I've also recently read Do No Harm by Henry Marsh about his life as a (real-life) brain surgeon and From the wonderful folks who gave you Pearl Harbor by Jerry Femina about his life in advertising. Lastly, I've read Stephen King's On Writing where he describes his craft as a professional writer. All of these made for some fascinating reading. Can anyone recommend any other "behind the scenes" type books (fiction or non-fiction) where people discuss their craft or industry?
posted by jacobean to Writing & Language (29 answers total) 53 users marked this as a favorite
Unnatural Death: Confessions of a Medical Examiner by Michael Baden. Fascinating stuff!
posted by ejs at 2:19 PM on May 29, 2016 [2 favorites]

David Feige, Indefensible, about the life of a public defender.
posted by heavenknows at 2:59 PM on May 29, 2016 [2 favorites]

Author John Mcphee has written books about people that give huge insight into their profession and how it works. Plus he is one of the very best writers of mon-fiction.
posted by SemiSalt at 3:07 PM on May 29, 2016 [5 favorites]

Taking the Heat is a detailed account of being a steel worker.
posted by The otter lady at 4:11 PM on May 29, 2016 [1 favorite]

The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade by Thomas Lynch, Undertaker. If you're a fan of the show Six Feet Under, you'll find a lot of commonality-- I personally think the writers cribbed some of his biography for the 6FU characters.
posted by Sunburnt at 4:57 PM on May 29, 2016 [1 favorite]

The Imperfectionists - set with the protagonist working for an English newspaper in Rome.
posted by hepta at 5:06 PM on May 29, 2016 [2 favorites]

Courtroom 302 is about one year in the Chicago Criminal Courts building.
Shelf Life is an account of a year working in a bookstore (I was a bookseller in a previous life and found this book to be incredibly accurate!).
The Making of a Chef and The Soul of a Chef are both in-depth looks at the world of professional cooking--both the training and the day to day life.
posted by bookmammal at 5:37 PM on May 29, 2016 [2 favorites]

Working by Studs Terkel is one of the classics in this genre.
posted by SisterHavana at 6:25 PM on May 29, 2016 [2 favorites]

Two (nonfiction) books that aim to give insight into the life of mathematicians:

Birth of a Theorem by Cedric Villani, a contemporary book by one of the top young mathematicians in France, in a "slice of life" format including large chunks of uncompiled LaTeX

A Mathematician's Apology, by G.H. Hardy, more literary in style and reflecting an earlier era of the profession, but with more arms-length reflection on what it means to do mathematics, and what it's like to do it.
posted by escabeche at 6:29 PM on May 29, 2016 [1 favorite]

Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain.

If you want to hop into the way-back machine, there's always The Jungle and Moby Dick.
posted by Huffy Puffy at 6:48 PM on May 29, 2016 [2 favorites]

A Civil Action (1996) is a nonfiction narrative about a small law office that files a civil suit on behalf of 8 families who lost children to leukemia possibly caused by two corporations dumping toxic chemicals and poisoning the town's drinking water. The story focuses on one lawyer in particular, Jan Schlichtmann. I read this not long after it first came out, and couldn't put it down. Very revealing on how the legal system really works.
posted by marsha56 at 6:53 PM on May 29, 2016 [3 favorites]

Running the Books: Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian has been on my list for a long time.
posted by jrobin276 at 7:17 PM on May 29, 2016

Best answer: Heads in Beds by Jacob Tomsky
It is mostly non-fiction about working in the hotel industry. Really funny and interesting.

posted by photoexplorer at 8:03 PM on May 29, 2016 [1 favorite]

Hunter S. Thompson's "Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72" was probably the must fruitful reading I've ever done about journalists covering presidential campaigns from a many-candidate beginning to the final hours, especially with terrific seamy-underbelly coverage of the DNC Convention in which McGovern routed the much-better-positioned Humphrey in a contested convention. HST's narrative is a bit drug-fueled and gonzo here and there, but he talks about the strange wonder of covering the campaigns through the Primary season, convention, and election. He also has a strange limo ride with President Nixon, a memorably weird speech shouted into the atrium of a Florida high-rise hotel, and a strange hypothesis about a man who might be HST and who might've personally been the final straw that broke the back of Ed Muskie for President. A single grain of salt will not be sufficient for this read, but read it you should.

I read it in a trade paperback form, but it was initially this article for Rolling Stone magazine, so you can at least dip your toe into this for free.
posted by Sunburnt at 10:13 PM on May 29, 2016 [3 favorites]

David Simon's "Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets" and "The Corner" are books usually found on the True Crime shelf, but both are pure journalism as Simon, then a Baltimore Sun police-beat writer, spent a year with the Baltimore PD Homicide Squad and another year with a group of drug dealers, respectively. (I haven't read The Corner, so don't take my word on that.) Both books ultimately parlayed into Simon's TV shows, "Homicide: Life on the Streets," a miniseries based on "The Corner," and of course "The Wire," which combines both.
posted by Sunburnt at 10:17 PM on May 29, 2016 [3 favorites]

For something a bit different, although detective fiction, I understand that Dorothy Sayers' Murder Must Advertise is an accurate portrayal of the British advertising industry in the 1930s.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 10:51 PM on May 29, 2016

Blood, Bones, & Butter, by Gabrielle Hamilton, is an excellent insight into pro cooking without Bourdain's (delightful) hyperbolic enhancements.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 1:37 AM on May 30, 2016

Tracy Kidder is another author to look at. Soul of a New Machine is the inside story of development of a new computer. House is about the building of a house.
posted by SemiSalt at 7:08 AM on May 30, 2016 [1 favorite]

posted by latkes at 7:11 AM on May 30, 2016 [1 favorite]

While I'm at it. Alan Villiers is the author for the whys and wherefores of square rigged ships.

Henry Dana's Two Years Before The Mast describes experiences around the horn to California and back, with some very interesting material about life in Cali back in the day.
posted by SemiSalt at 7:12 AM on May 30, 2016 [1 favorite]

Seconding "Two Years Before the Mast." There are a decent number of accounts of seagoing in the age of sail by officers, them being the educated men on board, but Richard Henry Dana Jr. was a Harvard student who took two years off (for eyestrain) to work on a fur-trading ship, and he did so "before the mast," i.e. with the crew of the ship, not as an officer. (Crew live in the bow of the ship, officers live in the stern.) He spoke at length about some fairly terrible work they had to do, such as scraping and then sea-and-sun-curing the furs they were sold by trappers, but also gives some of the best descriptions of life at sea, working the ship, etc.
posted by Sunburnt at 11:03 AM on May 30, 2016 [1 favorite]

Two related non-fiction ones which are informative and amusing - Blood, Sweat and Tea for the London Ambulance Service, and Nee Naw for the ambulance dispatchers. One I haven't read, but have had reccomended to me which is along similar lines is Trust Me, I'm a (Junior) Doctor.
posted by Vortisaur at 12:40 PM on May 30, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: On the serious side, Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing, about a year working as a prison guard. Most of it is his story, but several chapters are more generally about prisons, crime, justice, and society.

And at the much lighter end of the spectrum, Heads in Beds, about the hotel industry.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 7:08 PM on May 30, 2016 [1 favorite]

House, by Tracy Kidder is about building a custom-made house.
Excellent, enjoyable read. You'll need to find an old copy, as it is out of print now.
posted by SLC Mom at 7:42 AM on May 31, 2016

Response by poster: Thanks guys for all those recommendations. I've just ordered Heads in Beds about the hotel industry. I always wanted know what goes on behind the scenes in a hotel! The authors writing style seems to be very observational and breezily funny -just right for some nice light summer reading. Thank again for all the great suggestions.
posted by jacobean at 9:37 AM on May 31, 2016

Satin Island captures both the more interesting aspects and the corporate nonsense of corporate anthropology really well. It has virtually no plot, and weak characters, and is wonderful (if you have a high tolerance for "navel-gazing").
posted by taltalim at 6:24 PM on May 31, 2016

I've only heard an excerpt from the book (on This American Life), but you might find "Keys to the City: Tales of a New York City Locksmith" by Joel Kostman to be up your alley. Here's the excerpt from episode 75(!) of TAL, read by the author. 13 minutes, does not autoplay.
posted by Sunburnt at 7:42 PM on June 1, 2016

Walk on Water by Michael Ruhlman, who also wrote The Making of a Chef, mentioned above. This one is about pediatric heart surgeons at the Cleveland Clinic. I found it utterly fascinating, especially trying to understand how hard it is to make sutures in a baby's heart when it's the size of a peach pit and as fragile as wet facial tissue... gripping.
posted by ToucanDoug at 6:19 PM on June 20, 2016

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