Gripping nonfiction books about THINGS
October 25, 2016 3:59 AM   Subscribe

I realized recently that I like nonfiction books that are about things -- books that don't have an obvious narrative, but that are exciting to read nonetheless. Any suggestions?

Some recent examples I thought were engaging were Traffic, and The Triumph of Seeds. I wasn't as crazy about Cod, which others thought I'd like. I guess I'm looking for books that don't have an obvious story/narrative/characters (like Seabiscuit, though I love it) but still manage to be really engaging.

Articles will work too -- like this New Yorker article about elevators.
posted by heavenknows to Writing & Language (42 answers total) 102 users marked this as a favorite
 
Henry Petroski's book on the pencil was a big hit back in the 90's, although I haven't read it.
posted by thelonius at 4:19 AM on October 25, 2016 [4 favorites]


The Professor and the Madman.
posted by Bretley at 4:34 AM on October 25, 2016 [4 favorites]


Previously. Previously. Previously. Previously. Previously.

I remembered the Books of Authority thread and searched for my own contribution. For the remaining four, I searched for John McPhee.
posted by Bruce H. at 4:38 AM on October 25, 2016 [5 favorites]


Whoa, excellent Bruce, thank you.
posted by Bretley at 4:46 AM on October 25, 2016


Yeah, John McPhee seems right up your alley.
posted by kevinbelt at 4:48 AM on October 25, 2016 [3 favorites]


The Wild Trees, which is about the Coastal redwoods, and is by Richard Preston is great.
posted by childofTethys at 5:01 AM on October 25, 2016


This is the best nonfiction book about a "thing" that I have ever read:
The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger

I found it to be absolutely fascinating.
posted by jmsta at 5:18 AM on October 25, 2016 [6 favorites]


I loved Traffic, and while I haven't read Cod so this might be too similar, I did enjoy the book Salt: A World History by the same author.
posted by the agents of KAOS at 5:29 AM on October 25, 2016 [4 favorites]


Also worth checking out The Burglars Guide To The City
posted by the agents of KAOS at 5:31 AM on October 25, 2016


Travels in Siberia by Ian Frazier. Siberia definitely counts as a thing.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 5:36 AM on October 25, 2016


Also previously, one of my questions. He finally stopped talking about toothpicks but it was like months of Interesting Toothpick Facts after he read that book.
posted by Stacey at 5:48 AM on October 25, 2016 [3 favorites]


At Day's Close is about the history of night
posted by Prunesquallor at 5:49 AM on October 25, 2016 [1 favorite]


I'm currently getting lost in Imaginary Cities. Recent interview with the author.
posted by rodlymight at 5:52 AM on October 25, 2016


The Pound: A Biography - The Story of the Currency That Ruled the World. A fascinating history, and a very pleasant read.
posted by kmennie at 6:12 AM on October 25, 2016


Malcolm Gladwell's early piece Listening to Khakis
posted by crocomancer at 6:16 AM on October 25, 2016


Eric Sloane "A Reverence for Wood". Very captivating descriptions of all kinds of interesting facts relating to... well, wood (construction, economic relevance, folklore, historic impact, mostly focused on America / early settlement period). Check out the first pages on the Amazon preview to decide if that is what you are looking for.
posted by PontifexPrimus at 6:19 AM on October 25, 2016 [5 favorites]


Jeffrey Jerome Cohen's "Stone: An Ecology of the Inhuman" might be a little theory-heavy but it certainly fits the bill. [LARB review]
posted by informavore at 6:29 AM on October 25, 2016 [1 favorite]


I think you would really like Bloomsbury's Object Lessons series.

I cannot say enough good things about: David Hohn's Moby-Duck: The True Story of 28,000 Bath Toys Lost at Sea and Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing's The Mushroom at the End of the World.

Finally, you might like to sink your teeth into the British Museum's History of the World in 100 Objects -- there's a podcast and a book.
posted by pinkacademic at 6:44 AM on October 25, 2016


Sort of a thing... dead body?

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers
was an interesting read.
posted by ReluctantViking at 6:45 AM on October 25, 2016 [2 favorites]


Now out of print and ludicrously expensive, but if you have access to a library copy, I highly recommend Terence McLaughlin's strange, sui generis Dirt: A Social History as Seen Through the Uses and Abuses of Dirt. Related is Lee Jackson's much easier to come by and very entertaining Dirty Old London: The Victorian Fight Against Filth.
posted by ryanshepard at 7:10 AM on October 25, 2016 [2 favorites]


Two of my favourites: The Oxford Companion to Food (I'm not a foody, I just love esoteric information and witty erudition), and The Elements by Theodore Grey (stuffed with anecdote and witty observations, the antithesis of a dry chemistry textbook.)
posted by snarfois at 8:33 AM on October 25, 2016


The Design of Everyday Things by Don Norman
posted by Room 641-A at 8:43 AM on October 25, 2016


Lives of a Cell, Lewis Thomas

Neal Stephenson's article in Wired about "the laying of the longest wire on Earth."
posted by Bron at 9:09 AM on October 25, 2016 [2 favorites]


Ignition! : An informal history of liquid rocket propellants by John D Clark
posted by rhamphorhynchus at 9:15 AM on October 25, 2016


Seconding ReluctantViking's recommendation of a Mary Roach title, I recently enjoyed Grunt - the Curious Science of Humans at War, on my Kindle from the library.
posted by ElGuapo at 9:17 AM on October 25, 2016 [1 favorite]


Also a fan of this... "A History of ___ via ____" genre

Lesser Beasts: A Snout-to-Tail History of The Humble Pig Fun facts, galore.

Some Michael Pollan seems relevant here, especially Botany of Desire

I recently read the intro to Trees in Paradise, which seemed promising. Salt, Mushroom at the End of the World, and Four Fish are on my reading list which seem to fall into this general catagory
posted by shaqlvaney at 9:19 AM on October 25, 2016 [1 favorite]


I'd suggest checking out Bill Bryson; your question reminded me of At Home: A Short History of Private Life. We read this for my book club an nearly everyone enjoyed it.
posted by onecircleaday at 9:36 AM on October 25, 2016 [4 favorites]


I see onecirclelady beat me to it with the Bill Bryson Recommendation. While it's scope is rather large & about things per se you might also enjoy his other books

"A Short History of Nearly Everything". which is pretty much a history of nearly everything.
"Mother Tongue" which is about the development/history of the English Language.
"Made in America" The history of the English language in America

He actually packs a lot of interesting information into his books in a very easy to read manner.
posted by wwax at 9:53 AM on October 25, 2016 [1 favorite]


Mother Tongue" which is about the development/history of the English Language.

Also, The Story of English, which was a companion to the 80s PBS series and a great read on its own.
posted by Room 641-A at 10:16 AM on October 25, 2016


A TV series rather than a book, Tim Hunkin's 'The Secret Life of Machines'. Wonderful!
posted by at at 10:22 AM on October 25, 2016


I love these types of books. I've more or less exhausted the Audible selection of them. My favorites, by subject:
Salt (Salt, A World History)
Malaria (The Fever by Sonia Shah)
Paper (On Paper)
Rain (Rain: A Natural and Cultural History)
Rust (Rust: The Longest War)
Cotton (Empire of Cotton)
Kitchen Implements (Consider the Fork)
Cancer (The Emperor of All Maladies)

Two that I absolutely love, but cover both the people who did the inventing and the inventions themselves are The Alchemy of Air and The Demon Under the Microscope by Thomas Hager. The first is about the discovery of artificially fixing nitrogen from the air, which gives us human made fertilizer and the second is about the discovery of Sulfa drugs and the world's first mass-produced antibiotic. These have characters, etc.
posted by Hactar at 10:33 AM on October 25, 2016 [4 favorites]


Rats (confession: I haven't actually read it, but I heard an interview with the author which made it sound really interesting)

The Poisoner's Handbook (the author fits it around a narrative of Charles Norris and Andrew Gettler, who are interesting characters)

The Disappearing Spoon (unread, but a pretty common recommendation along with TPH).

Wicked Plants (I wish it was longer)

Color: A Natural History of the Palette
posted by sparklemotion at 11:29 AM on October 25, 2016


Red by Amy Butler Greenfield might suit your needs.
posted by azalea_chant at 12:01 PM on October 25, 2016


This kind of book is my jam, and Women's Work: The First 20000 Years is my favorite.
posted by freezer cake at 12:09 PM on October 25, 2016


Rats (confession: I haven't actually read it, but I heard an interview with the author which made it sound really interesting)

It's OK, but his book about the Meadowlands is one my favorite pieces of US "post-nature" writing. Definitely the place to start with Robert Sullivan.
posted by ryanshepard at 12:35 PM on October 25, 2016 [1 favorite]


Code: The Hidden Language of Computer Hardware and Software is a great book about how computers and electronics work.

What if from the author of the XKCD comic is also a fun read about what happens from a physics and engineering standpoint in various crazy situations. You can also read some related articles online at https://what-if.xkcd.com/archive/
posted by nalyd at 8:14 PM on October 25, 2016 [1 favorite]


Yes, anything by Mary Roach would fit your criteria.
posted by ptm at 9:47 PM on October 25, 2016


Brilliant: The Evolution of Artificial Light is fascinating, and I also immediately thought of Bill Bryson's At Home when I saw this question.
posted by anderjen at 6:36 AM on October 26, 2016


I find William Langewiesche's books -- all nonfiction -- to be very gripping.

The Outlaw Sea talks about ocean commerce and piracy (though the last third of the book is about a ferry disaster, and I found that portion quite upsetting despite being a very good read).

American Ground: Unbuilding the World Trade Center is about clearing off "The Pile" after 9/11. Again, might be painful for some people, but a very good piece of writing.
posted by wenestvedt at 9:38 AM on October 26, 2016


Guns, Germs, and Steel - Jared Diamond. Also turned into a PBS series.

The Devil's Cup about the history of coffee

Longitude about the solving of the Longitude Problem

I tried reading the toothpick book but couldn't get through it.

I've read all Kurlansky's books and found Cod to be so-so. In content, it overlapped a bit with the far superior The Basque History of the World. Salt was also excellent. Paper was pretty good as well.
posted by bluejayway at 10:31 AM on October 26, 2016


Parasite Rex by Carl Zimmer is a fine read on parasites.
posted by rmd1023 at 12:25 PM on October 26, 2016


Since you're asking about books about things, how about a system? The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander.
posted by moody cow at 4:29 AM on November 22, 2016


« Older What should I bake for the bake off finale?!   |   What's the best secured debit card to own? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.