Books that made you understand the world better
March 9, 2019 1:03 PM   Subscribe

Reading the newspaper has been raising my blood pressure without making me feel like I’m learning a lot. So I’m thinking about spending a year reading books instead of the paper. (Nonfiction probably, though a novel works if it elucidates stuff about science, history or culture.). Some areas I know I’d like to read about are: China, Russia, vaccines, farming, ecology, immigration/Latin America, and pipelines/climate change — though I’m also interested in pretty much any subject areas if you have a fabulous recommendation!

My ideal book would have a compelling narrative. They don’t have to be super topical (in fact it might be better for my blood pressure if they weren’t super “current”), but I’d like to feel at the end that I’ve learned something that makes the world make a little more sense.
posted by hungrytiger to Writing & Language (37 answers total) 89 users marked this as a favorite
The Hot Zone by Richard Preston is an extremely gripping book that will leave you with an expanded perspective on deadly epidemics and how governments respond to them.
posted by ejs at 1:13 PM on March 9, 2019 [3 favorites]

Oh! And one other point, I am doing this to try and make myself a bit less miserable and anxious, so ideally not a relentlessly bleak book (like that new book about climate doom) nor a very anxiety provoking book (like the hot zone). I do love Richard Preston though and HIGHLY recommend his book about people who climb redwoods — I think it’s called “The Wild Trees”.

Stepping back from thread sitting now.
posted by hungrytiger at 1:17 PM on March 9, 2019

Though dated by now, The Clustering of America essentially explains the phenomenon that enables Big Data to predict our preferences and attitudes from the merest bits of information about us. Reading the book made me look at neighborhoods near and far in a much different way.
posted by DrGail at 1:18 PM on March 9, 2019 [1 favorite]

Oh, just realized I’ve long been conflating the Hot Zone with Demon in the Freezer by the same author. Check them both out!
posted by ejs at 1:19 PM on March 9, 2019 [1 favorite]

In the farming/ecology category There is "Our Native Bees" a book on the native bees of North America and their importance as pollinators that I just put a discussion up for on fanfare.
posted by Homo neanderthalensis at 1:22 PM on March 9, 2019

It has its problems, but Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel absolutely exploded my worldview in high school and is the main reason I went on to study anthropology in college.

In my anthro degree, I read The Origins of Virtue: Human Instincts and the Evolution of Cooperation, which obliterated any lingering libertarian tendencies I had left.

Both are highly readable and accessible.
posted by showbiz_liz at 1:34 PM on March 9, 2019 [6 favorites]

Overstory by Richard Powers. Amazing read about the intricate life of trees as it tells a fictional story of the people "involved" with the trees. Simply stunning.
posted by Fuzzy Lumpkins at 1:41 PM on March 9, 2019 [1 favorite]

Most of the books on my "revelatory" list are fairly old, possibly superseded by newer books but a few are:
How Buildings Learn by Stewart Brand
The Timeless Way of Building and A Pattern Language by Christopher Alexander
The Geography of Nowhere by James Howard Kunstler
These gave me a vocabulary for the built environment and a way to understand what bothered me about modern planning and building.
Diplomacy for the Next Century by Abba Eban
They are doing it all wrong!
The Triumph of Seeds by Thor Hanson
Eye-opening in an unstressful way.
posted by Botanizer at 1:44 PM on March 9, 2019 [6 favorites]

Once when I was visiting my girlfriend in college, I had time to kill while she was in class, so I read her geography textbook cover to cover. It completely reframed my view on the meaning of permanence while sparking a fascination for events happening at a scale I could never experience or even fully understand. It was kind of like that but from Hitchhiker’s Guide with the image of the universe and “You are here,” but in a good way.
posted by ejs at 2:15 PM on March 9, 2019 [2 favorites]

The IPCC Fifth Assessment Report is essentially a custom-designed textbook for understanding climate change that was published back in 2014, so it paints a rosier picture than the latest news. (And the reports are published six or seven years apart, so you can follow the links in that Wikipedia article further back in time if you want a less-dire portrait of the state of things alongside still-cogent explanations of the fundamental issues.)
posted by XMLicious at 2:23 PM on March 9, 2019

I've been reading Age of Ambition by Evan Osnos recently and it's a fantastic overview of modern day China. Incredibly accessible and doesn't get too bogged down by any one topic. It was written in 2014 and he tells the larger story through a series of smaller narratives.
posted by holmesian at 2:47 PM on March 9, 2019 [2 favorites]

I don't know if it will be revelatory or lend itself towards a better understanding of the world, although it does have one moment in there I like about worldviews.

But my grandmother was an author and a medical missionary (i.e. under auspices of church but went there to medically help and then incidentally share word of Lord as a side gig). She wrote a book about her time there called The Chinese Ginger Jars which went into the public domain a while ago, and the Internet Archive saved and OCR'd it.

It involved the Second Sino-Japanese War while they were there, and my grandfather was shot by a drunk Japanese soldier on his own hospital's grounds. (Fortunately, the gun jammed twice when the soldier went for a headshot, and so he lived, or I would not be here to type this.)

Anyway, since you mentioned China as an interest, thought I'd mention it.
posted by WCityMike at 3:41 PM on March 9, 2019 [1 favorite]

Red Notice by Bill Browder, fascinating non fiction about current Russian oligarchy, Putin, etc. Fiction but historical and so good: Pachinko, about Korea and its colonization by Japan, from pre ww2 to current times.
posted by j810c at 4:03 PM on March 9, 2019 [3 favorites]

Definitely read Educated by Tara Westover. It's amazing! Non fiction, anti-vaxer family (to wildly understate the situation). I thought about it for weeks after I was done with it. It is a great book!
posted by crapples at 4:11 PM on March 9, 2019

Without you there is no us

Teaching children of elite in North Korea.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 4:22 PM on March 9, 2019 [1 favorite]

I enjoyed The Man Without A Face by Masha Gessen - a very readable narrative of the rise of Putin. It’s not exactly happy times, and there’s murder and stuff, but it’s less bleak than a book about the annihilation of all life, I think.
posted by eirias at 4:35 PM on March 9, 2019 [3 favorites]

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind is a delightful, thought-provoking read.
posted by 6thsense at 5:01 PM on March 9, 2019 [1 favorite]

Steve Pinker’s books have all very much shaped how I see people, but none more so than The Blank Slate. It’s fascinating and I revisit it frequently, and especially certain chapters depending on what’s going on in my life (such as “Politics” last year, “Children” currently).
posted by lovableiago at 5:46 PM on March 9, 2019

Since you mentioned culture, I thought you might like some of these recommendations:

- The Banquet Years - about the French Avant Guard (Surrealists, Dada, etc.)
- Lipstick Traces - about how the European Avant Guard influenced punk and other movements.
The Best Minds of My Generation - by Allen Ginsberg about The Beats
The Guerilla Girls' Bedside Companion to Western Art

The Warmth of Other Suns about the great Northern Migration of African-Americans from the south
posted by brookeb at 5:59 PM on March 9, 2019

The Search for Modern China and The Gate of Heavenly Peace, both by Richard Spence are both classic and highly readable surveys of Modern Chinese history.
posted by soren_lorensen at 7:22 PM on March 9, 2019 [3 favorites]

Well, if you haven't tried Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle, you should give it a spin to see if it suits you. It's a rollicking and insanely ambitious fiction, and at almost 3000 pages over three books, not at all a quick read, but you can't emerge from it uneducated about the history of the Enlightenment.
posted by minervous at 7:31 PM on March 9, 2019 [1 favorite]

I have really enjoyed the following in the last year or so.

Factfulness - hopeful, uplifting look at how things are going
Origin Story - physics, biology, geography, history, culture - this book covers everything.
The Opposable Mind - thinking about thinking, how the adult mind develops
The Elephant in the Brain - self-deception's role in culture and institutions
Conspiracy - in depth look at how a major conspiracy was pulled off
The Sound Book - a book about sound, its role in our lives, descriptions (and links to audio) of really amazing auditory spaces
Ongoingness - author tried to capture every moment through journaling, then got pregnant and had a child. really interesting look at mortality and meaning.
Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? - updated version of a book from 20 years ago and we are still having the same discussions. I think all white people should have to read this book.
Farsighted - how we make (and how we should make) long-term decisions
Homo Deus - astonishing look at where humans might be going (a follow up to Sapiens mentioned above, but you don't have to have read one to read the other)
The Unschooling Handbook - optimistic approach to alternative homeschooling, primarily a great reminder that kids are people too
Creating Great Choices - developing a mind that can look for integrated solutions instead of compromises
The Efficiency Paradox - how our modern focus on efficiency could be creating more difficult lives (but not depressing)

American War - a second American civil war in the late 21st century highlights how people become radicalized and how sympathetic their causes can seem. This was really great food for thought in the current political climate.
Seven Eves - if a natural disaster were threatening humanity, could we come together to continue the human race? What might that look like?
Severance - if society began to break down, how long would it take you to change your behavior, if you didn't really know what else to do?
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 7:46 PM on March 9, 2019 [4 favorites]

I enjoyed all of these immensely.

In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex

In the Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette

Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle

The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl

Maphead: Charting the Wide, Weird World of Geography Wonks

The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II
posted by scorpia22 at 7:48 PM on March 9, 2019 [3 favorites]

My Weeds by Sara Stein. A really lot of science in a collection of stories about gardening. Plants are BONKERS, people.
posted by Horkus at 8:15 PM on March 9, 2019 [3 favorites]

Simon Winchester's The Man Who Loved China is a biography of the scientist Joseph Needham, which as the title suggests also involves a great deal about the history and science of China, and is extremely readable into the bargain.
posted by huimangm at 8:53 PM on March 9, 2019

Second A Pattern Language - it highlighted a bunch of patterns I wouldn't have noticed about why I liked spaces I liked.

Becoming A Tiger: How baby animals learn to live in the wild - about a whole bunch of different learning patterns, and fascinating examples of animal learning, tool using, reasoning and feeling.
posted by lorimt at 9:55 PM on March 9, 2019

Lying For Money by Dan Davies is a really good book about how different sorts of fraud and scams work, with a lot of case studies. It's an amusing overview of the creativity of scammers and how they exploit systemic weaknesses.
posted by the duck by the oboe at 12:42 AM on March 10, 2019 [1 favorite]

Pushkin's history of Russia just prior to the Bolshevik Revolution, I got one copy with copious footnotes that was truly great. The Pugachov Rebellion was so interesting. The picture he created of country life in that time was exceptional.
posted by Oyéah at 1:05 AM on March 10, 2019

Prisoners of Geography: Ten maps that tell you everything you need to know about global politics sounds like exactly what you’re looking for. It offers a compelling narrative of global politics, especially for Russia and China, that hinges on physical geographical reasons for why these countries act the way they do. There’s a great explanation of why Russian governments are so anxious to control Crimea, and an explanation of the vital importance of the South China Sea that made all the Chinese battles over who controls what tiny island suddenly make total sense to me. It also touches on climate change and how that will likely shift geopolitics in the coming years. For a book purporting to be about maps, the maps could be better, but you’ll be poring over google maps the whole time anyway.

I read it alongside the novel Pachinko (which is also fantastic), and it made the plot, which is heavily influenced by the Japanese invasion of Korea, make so much more sense.
posted by Concordia at 5:26 AM on March 10, 2019 [1 favorite]

'The Fabric of Reality" by David Deutsch.
posted by Ipsifendus at 6:57 AM on March 10, 2019

Le Ton Beau de Marot by Douglas Hofstadter - this is about various translation possibilities for a short poem, and uses that as a jumping off point to talk about language, translation, thought, and how much the constraints of each impact the others. Hard book to describe, but an absolute favorite.

Lies My Teacher Told Me - a good overview of some issues with American education.

A word of warning about Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle - there is animal torture. I couldn't read it. I am still mad at people for not warning me about this.
posted by bile and syntax at 10:01 AM on March 10, 2019 [2 favorites]

One of my favorite non-fiction books is Travels with Lizbeth: Three Years on the Road and on the Streets. The author was homeless for a stretch, and wrote about his experiences. The book really taught me a lot about homelessness. It's quite well done.
posted by alex1965 at 1:14 PM on March 10, 2019 [2 favorites]

Frantz Fanon's "The Wretched of the Earth" is perhaps the classic text on the effects of and the struggle against colonialism. Fanon's writing style is glorious: the book is a pleasure to read.
posted by Sheydem-tants at 6:07 PM on March 10, 2019 [2 favorites]

I found Richard Pipes' Russia under the Old Regime superb for understanding Russia.
posted by bertran at 6:33 PM on March 10, 2019

Braudel's Civilization and Capitalism, which has all the meaty stuff the Baroque Cycle has and more. And illustrations. And is a narrative of each regional civilization developing markets and an economy and then all of them tied into the global system. The first couple chapters are denser than the rest.

How To Solve It. Has been in print for decades, you can find a used copy. Written about math, principles apply broadly, the gist can be boiled down into one page (the application can't, alas!)

Darwin's big popular four
; it seems now like The Voyage of the Beagle is stuff everyone knows, but feeling him figure some of it out is still electrifying. Also it's an adventure tale and mildly funny and he's surprisingly kind, which one does not always find in autobiographies. If Darwin's too long, The Beak of the Finch is all these things too.

Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Assumes you know neither how to boil water nor how to chop an onion at the beginning, starts with very reliable recipes and how to vary them with your current ingredients, discusses coherent menus as it goes, and you wind up with quite a lot of French cooking!

Carol Deppe was a Harvard geneticist for a while, and wrote a spectacularly accessible-plus-informative Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties, but that's not where most people *start* so instead I recommend, say, The Resilient Gardener, which is about ecologically reasonable subsistence gardening in late middle age (!) in the PNW.

Anyway, for not freaking out, I clearly like either long-sweep-of-history theoretical background books, or theoretically informed but testable how-to-do-it books. Resignation from one, agency from the other.
posted by clew at 10:20 AM on March 12, 2019 [1 favorite]

Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet. I'm not a technology person by any stretch, but I found learning about the physical structure of the internet really fascinating.
posted by BusyBusyBusy at 1:51 AM on April 3, 2019

i really enjoyed "on immunity: an inoculation" by eula biss,which is about vaccines.
posted by dianebluegreen at 1:45 AM on July 13, 2019

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