Nonfiction describing learning/daily experience in profession/skill/etc?
September 12, 2017 9:37 PM   Subscribe

I just finished Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, a book about working in a crematorium, and I am craving more nonfiction books describing what it is like to work in a particular field/profession, or just what it is like to learn or do a particular skill/hobby. Does not have to be sole focus of book, just occupy big chunks of it.

I'm willing to cast my net pretty broadly here, so, for example, Nickel and Dimed would probably qualify because I learned stuff I didn't know about working in service industries (I read it over half a decade ago but I seem to recall that not being the focus of the book).

I just took a book out from the library about someone who wanted to raise a falcon and, without having read it yet, it sounds like it might also scratch this itch.

Anything that let's me experience a taste of living life specifically while engaging in a skill/activity/area of interest/profession/work/etc etc.

Oh, and it doesn't need to be strictly a book, I'm open to webcomics etc. I'm probably also willing to negotiate the non-fiction part, as long as it's fiction based heavily on personal experience/research of the author.
posted by Cozybee to Writing & Language (33 answers total) 90 users marked this as a favorite
Oh! A chance to recommend my very favourite nonfiction book in the entire world! Winterdance by Gary Paulsen is an incredible book about learning to work with sled dogs, leading up to running the Iditarod. It's funny and tragic in equal measure. He really makes you feel how hard it is to run dogs, and also helps you understand why it's worth it. This book is SO good.
posted by DSime at 10:02 PM on September 12, 2017 [3 favorites]

Going with a smoke theme how about firefighter books; B-Shifter: A Firefighter's Memoir. Or maybe Smokejumper...
posted by X4ster at 10:08 PM on September 12, 2017

Atul Gawande's books might be worth a look.
posted by Emperor SnooKloze at 10:24 PM on September 12, 2017 [2 favorites]

Lab Girl by Hope Jahren describes how the author became an academic research scientist (along with many great reflections on trees).
posted by matildaben at 10:30 PM on September 12, 2017 [5 favorites]

Word Freak, about competitive Scrabble players.
posted by joycehealy at 10:33 PM on September 12, 2017 [6 favorites]

Lab Girl was fantastic.
posted by bookworm4125 at 10:43 PM on September 12, 2017

"Nonfiction books about exciting professions through one person's eyes?" and "Fiction or non-fiction books that describe a job or profession" are two previous questions that might be helpful. Incidentally, the book I recalled being recommended in one of them and that helped me find those threads was Newjack.
posted by Wobbuffet at 11:06 PM on September 12, 2017

Rivethead is hilarious. It's more like a portrait of both a job and a time in history, but oh god.
posted by girl Mark at 11:13 PM on September 12, 2017 [2 favorites]

also, this isn't entirely what you're asking for, but Shop Class As Soulcraft:
posted by girl Mark at 11:15 PM on September 12, 2017

Tracy Kidder's Soul of a New Machine
posted by at at 11:19 PM on September 12, 2017 [2 favorites]

John McFee is a MeFi favorite, and one reason is that his nonfiction works give an intimate portrait of what it is like to be a geologist, an engineer designing nuclear plants, an aeronautical engineer, an environmental activist, etc.
posted by flug at 11:21 PM on September 12, 2017 [1 favorite]

Adding to Wobbuffet, there's Good Industry Memoirs.
posted by Sunburnt at 11:23 PM on September 12, 2017 [1 favorite]

Eating Dirt: Forests, Timber, and Life With the Tree Planting Tribe is Charlotte Gill's award winning memoir about becoming a tree planter in forests across Canada.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 11:53 PM on September 12, 2017

The University of Chicago Press lets you download a free eBook every month, and the books they feature cover all kinds of interesting topics (usually non-fiction).

I haven't read it yet, but this month's book is The Secret Lives of Teachers by Anonymous. The author chose to be anonymous because he's "more candid than is generally politic for a working teacher." It sounds like this could be a perfect scratch for your what-it's-like-to-work-in-a-particular-profession itch. The book is described as exploring "the dimensions of teaching that no one else has, those private thoughts few would dare put into a book but that form an important part of the day-to-day experience of a teacher." It's also described as "unflinching, wry, and at times laugh-out-loud funny."

Plus, once you enter your email address to get the free eBook, you'll receive email notifications each month when the next free eBook becomes available.
posted by Asterism at 12:32 AM on September 13, 2017 [6 favorites]

Heat, by Bill Buford is amazing at this. A writer, with no professional cooking experience, leaves his job at the New Yorker to work as a line cook at Mario Batali's restaurant. It's an amazingly well written account and gives a very real look at the day to day work of the workings of a professional kitchen.
posted by Karaage at 12:33 AM on September 13, 2017 [6 favorites]

Ice Bird: The Classic Story of the First Single-Handed Voyage to Antarctica

It's about the first guy to single-handedly voyage to Antarctica in a small boat. Called the Ice Bird.

It's a classic story.
posted by sebastienbailard at 12:54 AM on September 13, 2017 [3 favorites]

Two on my list are:
Welcome to the God Damn Ice Cube by Blair Braverman about being a young female dog sledder and
Running the Books by Avi Steinburg about being a prison librarian.

Blair also has a great stuff on twitter/YouTube and a lengthy interview on the podcast Real Talk with Nicole Antoinette.
posted by jrobin276 at 1:00 AM on September 13, 2017 [2 favorites]

Henry Marsh's books on being a neurosurgeon are excellent - Do No Harm, and Admissions
posted by crocomancer at 1:35 AM on September 13, 2017

Baby Doctor by Perri Klass
posted by Crystal Fox at 2:11 AM on September 13, 2017

When a couple of friends of mine were medical residents, I enjoyed reading Hot Lights, Cold Steel:
posted by girl Mark at 2:38 AM on September 13, 2017

Hobby rather than job, but Sandy Balfour's two little tiny autobiographical books about solving crossword puzzles are a lot of fun. The titles are, more or less, Pretty Girl in Crimson Rose and I Say Nothing.
Mary Norris' Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen is about proofreading at the New Yorker.
If you don't mind collections of various people talking about their jobs, the gold standard is Studs Terkel's Working. There is a sort of millennial version of it called Gig, edited by John and Marisa Bowe, and a shorter recent UK take on the same called All Day Long by Joanna Biggs. All are my go-to reads when I want something like what you're talking about.
posted by huimangm at 4:03 AM on September 13, 2017 [1 favorite]

A Primate's Memoir by Robert Sapolsky is one of my favorites in this vein, following Robert Sapolsky as he becomes a neuroendocrinologist and primate biologist.

The Song of the Dodo by David Quammen is broadly about island biogeography, but it is explained by focusing on the research and day-to-day work of individual field ecologists all around the world.

Some of Mary Roach's books do an excellent job at this - especially Grunt and Packing For Mars.
posted by ChuraChura at 4:48 AM on September 13, 2017 [3 favorites]

There's some crossover here with the answers to a previous Ask: "What single book is the best introduction to your field (or specialization within your field) for laypeople?" From that: Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom, William Ball's A Sense of Direction, Walter Murch's In The Blink of an Eye, The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade by Thomas Lynch, Notes on Nursing by Florence Nightingale, Stephen King's On Writing.

Lee Iacocca's autobiography (car industry)
Slow River by Nicola Griffith (novel that has a lot of detail about water treatment)
The Apprentice by Jacques Pepin (cooking autobiography)
practically anything by Tracy Kidder or Atul Gawande
Dreaming in Code by Scott Rosenberg (software development)
The Bug by Ellen Ullman (novel with a lot about software development and debugging)
Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott (memoir about fiction writing)
Jobnik! by Miriam Libicki (graphic (comic) memoir about serving in the Israel Defense Forces)
21 Dog Years by Mike Daisey (autobigraphy about working at Amazon)
Confessions of a Tax Collector: One Man's Tour of Duty Inside the IRS by Richard Yancey
The Autobiography of Malcolm X
Toil: Building Yourself by Jody Procter (memoir about building houses)
Born Standing Up by Steve Martin (comedy autobiography)
The Fire Inside: Firefighters Talk About Their Lives
posted by brainwane at 5:24 AM on September 13, 2017 [3 favorites]

Studs Terkel, Working.
John McPhee, Uncommon Carriers.
posted by kevinbelt at 5:55 AM on September 13, 2017 [3 favorites]

Oh! A chance to recommend my very favourite nonfiction book in the entire world! Winterdance by Gary Paulsen is an incredible book about learning to work with sled dogs, leading up to running the Iditarod.

Winterdance is great, and so is Clabbered Dirt and Sweet Grass by Paulsen, which is about running a farm before mechanization.

John McPhee has a ton of these types of books, and is always great to read. Coming Into the Country, which is about Alaska and Alaskans is particularly good, although they type of thing you are asking for is only part of it. His earlier books of essays are very good for this. Giving Good Weight is my favorite of those.
posted by OmieWise at 6:15 AM on September 13, 2017 [2 favorites]

Word by Word by Kory Stamper about how dictionaries are made. And definitely Lab Girl and John McPhee's many books.
posted by ALeaflikeStructure at 8:12 AM on September 13, 2017 [1 favorite]

Two older books: Liar's Poker (bond trading) and Double Billing (Biglaw). Outdated at least in part now, but entertaining.
posted by praemunire at 8:31 AM on September 13, 2017 [2 favorites]

+1 on Kidder's Soul of a New Machine. Also by Kidder: House, all about building a custom single family house and the interplay between the builder, the architect, and the customer.
posted by Bron at 10:40 AM on September 13, 2017

I really enjoyed Cruising Attitude by Heather Poole. The writing style wasn't my favorite, but I learned a lot about what being a flight attendant is like!

I also really liked A Fly for the Prosecution by Lee Goff. I read this around the same time I read Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, and it scratched a similar itch. It was surprisingly funny (in a dry sort of way) for a book about the ins and outs of forensic entomology.

Also: Caitlin Doughty's new book From Here to Eternity is coming out next month! :)
posted by helloimjennsco at 12:15 PM on September 13, 2017

Baby Catcher by Peggy Vincent is a fascinating memoir about being a nurse-midwife attending homebirths.

Train Up a Child by Karen Johnson-Weiner is a book about Amish schools and education; I think it gives a very goid picture of what it would be like to be an Amish teacher (or student).

The Professor, the Banker, and the Suicide King by Michael Craig tells the story of the richest poker game of all time (at the time) and describes the life of a professional poker player circa 2001 as well.

No Shortcuts to the Top by Ed Viesturs is an autobiography about his quest to climb the world's 14 highest mountains.

Anthony Bourdain has done a lot of excellent foid writing. In his book Medium Raw, Chapter 18 is about a man named Justo who is the absolute best at cutting fish. More than that, it's a tribute to his skill.

Homicide: a year on the killing streets by David Simon was written while he spent a year shadowing a shift of Baltimore homicide detectives.
posted by epj at 3:58 PM on September 13, 2017 [1 favorite]

I'm currently reading Stiff by Mary Roach, which is about cadavers. I bought it right after reading Smoke Gets In Your Eyes but only just got around to reading it. It's got a surprising amount (so far, I'm about 3 chapters in) of information about cadaver-related jobs, such as people who research decomposition of bodies, people who work in mortuaries doing embalming and the like, and surgeons who practise on cadavers.

I also really enjoyed Bringing Home the Birkin by Michael Tonello, which is a sort of hobby/job book. It's about a guy who moves to Barcelona from the U.S., then when his expected job offer falls through, he falls back on selling designer clothes and accessories on eBay to pay the rent. He eventually gets caught up in chasing down some of the most exclusive and hard-to-get designer accessories all over Europe to sell to his eBay clients. It's full of surprising and fun adventures, as well as exploring how he makes a living this way, and ends on his thoughts about the meaning of this kind of career.

Winter Season: A Dancer's Journal by Toni Bentley is about being a professional ballet dancer. It was pretty good.

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson is about his job as a lawyer defending people on death row. It taught me a lot I didn't know, but it's also a frustrating read full of injustice.

The Call of the Weird: Travels in American Subcultures by Louis Theroux covers a series of stories where he meets and follows real people with unusual hobbies or lifestyles.

The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio: How My Mother Raised 10 Kids on 25 Words or Less by Terry Ryan is about a woman who liked to enter competitions writing poems, jingles, etc. when those were a big deal, and basically kept her family afloat by doing so.
posted by bellebethcooper at 6:15 PM on September 13, 2017 [2 favorites]

I just finished reading We'll Call You If We Need You: Experiences of Women Working Construction by Susan Eisenberg. I might be biased and find it more interesting because I'm also a woman in construction, but I couldn't put it down. I picked up Smoke Gets in Your Eyes after I finished and I'm three chapters in!
posted by teslacoilswoah at 7:27 PM on September 13, 2017 [1 favorite]

A Degree Of Mastery by Annie Tremmel Wilcox about becoming a book arts (binding, repairing, etc) apprentice. It's a lovely book.
posted by bibliogrrl at 7:29 PM on September 13, 2017

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