Favourite non-fiction?
March 22, 2006 3:06 PM   Subscribe

What's your favourite piece of non-fiction ever?

For a class, I've been asked to find and analyse an example of a great piece of non-fictional writing, preferably from a book.

Now, I could have done this easily if it was fiction (I have a whole shelf full of fiction I love), but for non-fiction I'm drawing a big blank. What I'm looking for is something that isn't necessarily inherently interesting so much as very, very well-written.

So what should I be reading? Huge bonus points if it's online somewhere (maybe Project Gutenberg, for older stuff?). Thanks!
posted by reklaw to Writing & Language (116 answers total) 39 users marked this as a favorite
To be honest, the thing I read the most of in the non-fiction realm was my high school history book. It's the only thing offhand that comes to mind, though there might be others I enjoyed more that I forgot about.
posted by cellphone at 3:10 PM on March 22, 2006 [1 favorite]

So why did you bother "answering"?

I recommend Malcolm Gladwell; nobody's going to agree with everything he says, but his essays are brilliantly constructed and well written, and he always makes you think. And he puts it all online on his site!
posted by languagehat at 3:12 PM on March 22, 2006

I loved the Bill Bryson I've read (A Walk in the Woods, A Short History of Nearly Everything, and some of In a Sunburned Country).
posted by danb at 3:13 PM on March 22, 2006

Some might debate its position as a non-fiction, but "In Cold Blood" is excellent. I've read it five or six times now, and every time I start it, I read it all the way through, in one sitting.
posted by interrobang at 3:13 PM on March 22, 2006

The White Album by Joan Didion
Pilgrim At Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard
Riding The Iron rooster by Paul Theroux
posted by gt2 at 3:16 PM on March 22, 2006

Guns, Germs and Steel, by Jared Diamond. Maybe not absolute favourite, but a really great book.
posted by GuyZero at 3:18 PM on March 22, 2006

An Edge in my voice - Harlan Ellison
posted by oh pollo! at 3:20 PM on March 22, 2006

I second Bill Bryson. Hugely enjoyable, funny and keeps you turning the page.
posted by tomble at 3:21 PM on March 22, 2006

I really like Michael Young's Rise of the Meritocracy, but that is really fiction disguised as non-fiction (albeit with a non-fiction purpose), so it wouldn't count.

This will be too obvious, but Jonathan Swift's "A modest proposal" is one of the finest pieces of rhetoric ever written. I could read it over and over again, just for the power of his language.

I've heard that Gibson's Fall of the Roman Empire is also suposed to bevery well written, although quite out of date on Roman historiography, of course.

And I've recently been reading Susannah Moodie's Roughing it in the bush from Project Gutenburg and finding it quite engaging. (Though when she gets very classist and chauvenist, I am uncomfortably reminded of the everyday prejudices of the 1850s.)
posted by jb at 3:21 PM on March 22, 2006

Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb and The Making of the Atomic Bomb, both by Richard Rhodes. The latter got him a Pulitzer, I believe. [I recall liking Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel too.]
posted by ubersturm at 3:22 PM on March 22, 2006

Thirding Bill Bryson. He can take even not-intrinsically-interesting experiences and make them interesting, which sounds like just what you want. Probably A Walk in the Woods would be best.

Also, are there any more qualifications to meet besides "not fiction"? There's so much recent autobiography that's technically nonfiction, but reads like fiction. David Sedaris and Augusten Burroughs can both write well and I think both have memoirs worth reading. On the other hand, I think both rely a good deal on situational appeal as well as their talent.

If you want actual nonfictionlike nonfiction, I thought Helter Skelter was pretty well-written. Or maybe I just mean it had a big effect on me -- sleeping with one eye open for a few weeks will do that to you.
posted by booksandlibretti at 3:22 PM on March 22, 2006

I loved "The Dead Girl," Melanie Thernstrom's elegy to her murdered friend, but many people hate it for the writing style...saying it's too much about Thernstrom and less about her friend, Bibi. I found it beautiful and moving. Her friend's parents forbid her rights to use actual letters from her friend, so she had to recreate them differently.
posted by GaelFC at 3:24 PM on March 22, 2006

1491 by Charles C. Mann. I'll second Jared Diamond and Malcolm Gladwell too.
posted by ambrosia at 3:26 PM on March 22, 2006

If you want to, you could just page through Project Gutenberg and see what is there - you might discover something you hadn't thought of. And for the purposes of studying style, older forms would be very interesting.
posted by jb at 3:26 PM on March 22, 2006

One of my favorites is How to Think About Weird Things by Theodore Schick and Lewis Vaughn. Probably the best primer on critical scientific thinking I've ever read, and a fairly easy read.

It's been described to me as a "love it or hate it" book, though, so YMMV.
posted by gwenzel at 3:27 PM on March 22, 2006

How about "A Million Little Pieces" by James Frey? No, just kidding.

Seriously though, I third (fourth?) Bryson. Also, the book "Moneyball" might work for you, if you're into baseball.
posted by inigo2 at 3:27 PM on March 22, 2006

One of my all-time faves: Frederic Morton's A Nervous Splendor.
posted by scody at 3:27 PM on March 22, 2006

What I'm looking for is something that isn't necessarily inherently interesting so much as very, very well-written.

Try John McPhee or E.B. White. For subject matter, I prefer McPhee — his book The Deltoid Pumpkin Seed, on the rise and fall of an experimental aircraft company, is especially interesting — but both have absolutely top-notch prose style.
posted by nebulawindphone at 3:29 PM on March 22, 2006

Both Stalingrad or Berlin by Antony Beevor are very readable and nicely paced.

Or perhaps something by Colin Wilson?
posted by selton at 3:29 PM on March 22, 2006

Hofstadter's Gödel, Escher, Bach comes to mind; covers logic, provability, paradoxes, music, koans, AI, self-reference, and much more.
posted by kurumi at 3:35 PM on March 22, 2006

Salt. A book about the history salt has no right to be this interesting, and yet it is. It's a great read.

A quick Bryson warning, if you're inclined down that path (pardon the pun...); don't read too many of his books. The first one you read will be ultra-charming, witty, and clever; the second, a little less so, and by the third it's entirely possible you'll want to beat him over the head with a board. And no, the ones you read don't matter - the pattern will hold whichever you choose.
posted by pdb at 3:37 PM on March 22, 2006 [1 favorite]

Might check out Ronald Wright's A Short History of Progress. It's new and supposedly really good.

John McPhee's Encounters with the Archdruid? Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff?

If personal essays are okay, I second Joan Didion (e.g., "On Morality"), E.B. White (e.g., "Once More to the Lake").

You could just pick up the New Yorker Magazine and find any article in there.
posted by salvia at 3:40 PM on March 22, 2006

FWIW, I was highly motivated and couldn't finish Guns, Germs, & Steel.
posted by salvia at 3:40 PM on March 22, 2006

I've heard that Gibson's Fall of the Roman Empire is also suposed to bevery well written


I'm reading a book about Tibet right now that's doing an excellent job of getting through some very dry history and giving a solid, balanced political backround for the entertaining "travelogue" parts. I usually have a rough time reading through this stuff no matter how interested I am, so I thought it was worth mentioning as a good example. (Actually, i haven't read that much Bill Bryson, but i think it succeeds for similar reasons.)
posted by xanthippe at 3:43 PM on March 22, 2006

These might be my top five:

He takes some.... uh... licence with the truth, but for impact, colour and insight, I'd nominate two of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson's classics: Fear and loathing on the campaign trail '72 (him reporting on the 1972 McGovern/Nixon US election; the scene talking with Nixon about football is classic) and Hell's Angels, in which he hangs out/ gets drunk/ rides bikes/ gets beaten up by the Oakland chapter. For my money, both are highwater marks of the New Journalism.

Philip Gourevitch's We regret to inform you tomorrow we will be killed with our families: Stories from Rwanda is a chilling, awesome work.

Robert Hughes' The fatal shore: The epic of Australia's founding is the most old-school history of my suggestions, but it is still an intimate, fascinating work. It almost made me want to visit Australia. It admirably blends fine-grained social history with the larger, macro narrative of empire. Great. And beautifully written.

David Simon's Homicide: A year on the killing streets was the basis for the tv show. He was a Baltimore Sun journalist that somehow convinced his bosses and the police brass to let him be a fly on the wall of the homicide squad for a year. For me, it was fascinating on so many levels: On how homicide cops do their jobs in a crack- and guns-infested city; how they deal with their jobs as the people who "speak for the dead"; race and class in a post-industrial US town. (It and its sequel, The Corner is the most eloquent indictment of the US "war on drugs" ever put to paper); the harrowing toll of addiction.*

William McNeill's Plagues and peoples* is, in some ways, a precursor to Diamond's Guns, germs and steel, and deals with the history of the impact of infectious disease on human communities.

(* These two books were partly inspired my decision to go back to school to study infectious disease and epidemiology; so, yeah, they had an impact.)
posted by docgonzo at 3:43 PM on March 22, 2006

Robert Caro's The Power Broker, about Robert Moses; or Ascent to Power, the second volume of his bio of Lyndon Johnson.
posted by nicwolff at 3:45 PM on March 22, 2006

(Though he's a good bit less annoying than Bill Bryson gets after half an hour, lest any non-fans be put off by the comparison.)
posted by xanthippe at 3:46 PM on March 22, 2006

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
posted by dmo at 3:50 PM on March 22, 2006

I am a fiction junkie, but these are two non-fiction books that I found captivating and entertaining:

Word Freak by Stefan Fatsis, which is a first hand look at the world of competitive Scrabble

Confederates in the Attic : Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War by Tony Horowitz, which analyzes why the Civil War has such a lingering presence in the South
posted by kimdog at 3:52 PM on March 22, 2006

Freaking anything by Jon Krakauer, but notably Into thin Air (Everest disaster) and Into the Wild (chronicling a young man's desire to leave society).

I'm 75 pages into Under the Banner of Heaven (about Mormonism and Mormom Fundamentalism) and so far loving it.

<3 Krakauer.
posted by xmutex at 3:54 PM on March 22, 2006

I recommend Paul Farmer's Infections and Inequalities to everyone. That book is why I work in the health care trenches.
posted by makonan at 3:54 PM on March 22, 2006

I quite like David Foster Wallace's essays in A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again.
posted by aubilenon at 3:55 PM on March 22, 2006

Second Caro, and I'll toss in Nicholson Baker, especially the essays in The Size of Thoughts.
posted by languagehat at 4:00 PM on March 22, 2006

This list isn't bad and many of those titles are available online....

I can personally recommend:


THE DOUBLE HELIX by James D. Watson

SPEAK, MEMORY by Vladimir Nabokov

THE GUNS OF AUGUST by Barbara Tuchman

THE MISMEASURE OF MAN by Stephen Jay Gould


IDEAS AND OPINIONS by Albert Einstein


GOODBYE TO ALL THAT by Robert Graves


IN COLD BLOOD by Truman Capote
posted by vacapinta at 4:00 PM on March 22, 2006

David Foster Wallace's A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again is one of my book of essays, and believe me, if you don't like his fiction, you may really like his non-fiction. His most recent, Consider the Lobster, has two excellent essays, one about John McCain during the 2000 election and the title essay that features a well-reasoned argument for vegetarianism.
posted by rabbitsnake at 4:06 PM on March 22, 2006

Robert A. Caro, The Power Broker (1973). Best. Biography. Ever.
posted by Saucy Intruder at 4:09 PM on March 22, 2006

Lots of excellent recommendations so far...

The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes, seconded. Amazing.

The non-fiction work that really raised the bar for me was Carl Sandburg's biography of Lincoln.
posted by Brian James at 4:10 PM on March 22, 2006

Ben Goldacre's Bad Science column makes my eyes pop in disbelief week in week out.

If you have access to a good library, they may have a good selection of Granta magazines. They call them magazines but they're really books, and every issue has at least one gripping non-fiction piece that'll stick in your mind.

Failing that, the Faber Book of Reportage should be perfect for you. It confirmed for me that Dickens was a much better journalists than he ever was a novelist.

As for my own favourite piece of non-fiction ever? It was probably on a blog somewhere so I'm sure that doesn't count.
posted by macdara at 4:10 PM on March 22, 2006

Cadillac Desert by Marc Reisner.
posted by speicus at 4:11 PM on March 22, 2006

Peter Freuchen's Book of the Eskimos. Great (true) stories, like one about these two fur trappers spending the winter in a small cabin totally isolated. One of them dies and the other lets the corpse freeze under the cabin (for storage till spring, the ship was going to pick them up). But after a few months he can't take the lonelyness and props his dead friend up in a chair for company. This goes on for months, but in spring, the guy's mind is now totally shot. He now doesn't trust his dead friend. When the frozen corpse sits out to long next to the stove, his friend thaws and starts to slump over. The guy thinks he's moving and coming to attack him and so shoots him. When the ship comes, they find the corpse with a bullet hole in the forehead and put the poor guy in chains.
posted by 445supermag at 4:13 PM on March 22, 2006

Soul of a New Machine, not only won a Pulitzer and an American Book Award, but was a huge influence in my future career choice.
posted by jaimev at 4:14 PM on March 22, 2006

Shelby Foote's Civil War trilogy. If that's too big to tackle, try the excerpted The Stars in Their Courses, which describes the Gettysburg campaign.

Young Men and Fire by Norman Mclean. It's an uneven read, but there are passages like raisins in oatmeal: "Burning to death on a mountainside is dying at least three times ... first, considerably ahead of the fire, you reach the verge of death in your boots and your legs; next, as you fail, you sink back in the region of strange gases and red and blue darts where there is no oxygen and here you die in your lungs; then you sink in prayer into the main fire that consumes."
posted by forrest at 4:20 PM on March 22, 2006

One of my favorite nonfiction writers is Janet Malcolm.

I have read pretty much all of her work, with the exception of her collection of essays on photography. I particularly enjoyed The Crime of Sheila McGough, which tranfixed me from beginning to end---a book I was quite literally unable to put down.
posted by jayder at 4:30 PM on March 22, 2006

Orwell. "Politics and the English Language" and "Shooting an Elephant" are wonderful essays. For longer work, I'd recommend Homage to Catalonia, a memoir of his experience fighting for the socialists in the Spanish Civil War, or Down and Out in Paris and London, his memoir of tramping through Europe.
posted by bardic at 4:38 PM on March 22, 2006

"The Men Who Stare At Goats"
posted by krisjohn at 4:40 PM on March 22, 2006

I love well-written non-fiction. I can't believe people are recommending Malcolm Gladwell and Jon Krakauer and the like. I have nothing against Gladwell and Krakauer — in fact, I quite like them — but their writing is not particularly brilliant. It's standard modern English, which is fine for what it is, but it is not well-written.

I agree that Orwell is particularly keen, but if I had to choose, I'd select something from the beginning or the end of The Education of Henry Adams. (The middle is a slow go even for me, and I like the book.) That link takes you to the Project Gutenberg etext.

I think this is exactly what you're looking for.
posted by jdroth at 4:44 PM on March 22, 2006

I have trouble stomaching nonfiction, so I gravitate toward writers who can really tell a story, like Oliver Sacks (The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat) and Stephen Jay Gould (Eight Little Piggies).
posted by steef at 4:45 PM on March 22, 2006

The Art of Fact is an interesting anthology.
posted by Sticherbeast at 4:47 PM on March 22, 2006

Thirding the Making of the Atomic Bomb. I'm surprised no one has mentioned Neil Sheehan's A Bright Shining Lie. It was one of the few non-fiction books I couldn't put down - a brilliant intertwining of a history of the Vietnam war and a biography of one of a fascinating man caught up in it.
posted by pombe at 4:49 PM on March 22, 2006

Faber Book of Reportage edited by John Carey
posted by johoney at 4:51 PM on March 22, 2006

Another vote for Nicholson Baker's The Size of Thoughts and Oliver Sacks's The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat.

Annie Dillard: Holy the Firm or For the Time Being (time, personal significance, deist theology, beautiful metaphors)
Simon Singh: Fermat's Enigma (math history)
Richard Preston: The Hot Zone (bioterrorism)
Eric Hoffer: The True Believer (history and psychology of mass movements, religious or not)
posted by heatherann at 4:53 PM on March 22, 2006

Two books came to mind immediately.
Skeletons on the Zahara
Modoc: The True Story of the Greatest Elephant That Ever Lived
posted by geekyguy at 4:57 PM on March 22, 2006

Second Janet Malcolm, especially the slim, astonishing, and perfect In the Freud Archives. I'm afraid it is spectacularly interesting as well as exceptionally well-written. And second (with some surprise I'm not fifthing or sixthing) Godel, Escher, Bach, the only math book ever to win the Pulitzer Prize. Oh, and I'll second David Foster Wallace's A Supposedly Fun Thing... again: here's my review.
His prose is great, but in such a singular way that it's not clear to me it would be pedagogically useful to study it.

I guess I should first something. So: Meghan Daum, My Misspent Youth, especially the essay "Music is my Bag," the most penetrating examination of contemporary nerd culture I have ever read. And Common Ground by J. Anthony Lukas, though this book, about the Boston busing crisis, is probably classic more as reporting than belles-lettres.
posted by escabeche at 5:00 PM on March 22, 2006

I love these book questins. And while I too am a fiction junkie, a few non-fiction books I liked come to mind.

1) Crabcakes: A Memoir by James Allen McPherson

It was one of the required books for some course in the textbook section of a bookstore I frequent. It looked interesting and I liked that it was set mostly in Baltimore (being a native "Baltimoron"). It turned out to be a terrific book. Smart but troubled dude telling his story.

2) Waterfront : A Journey Around Manhattan by Phillip Lopate

I'm fascinated by New York City.

3) The Napoleon of New York: Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia by H. Paul Jeffers

More fascination with NYC. Fiorello and Robert Moses were quite a pair.

4) All Souls : A Family Story from Southie by Michael Patrick Macdonald

Hard times in South Boston.

5) Absolutely American : Four Years at West Point by David Lipsky

You've got to admire the preseverence of this one cadet that much of the story revolves around.

6) Turbulent Souls: : A Catholic Son's Return To His Jewish Family by Stephen J. Dubner

Very dysfunctional and troubled family. A bazillion kids being raised in semi-rural upstate New York by fanatical Catholic parents. The parents were bonkers, IMHO.
posted by bim at 5:02 PM on March 22, 2006

It's difficult to couple favourites with online availability but you might try Amazon's search this book feature for some listed. But since everyone is ploughing ahead with their favourites regardless, so shall I!

Simon Schama is an excellent writer, I loved The Embarrassment of Riches (a history of Dutch culture).

Gitta Sereny's book "The Case of Mary Bell: A Portrait of a Child Who Murdered" was a difficult read because of the subject matter but very well written.

Simon Weston's Walking Tall. Not strictly in the superb writing category (he left school at 16 to join the Welsh Guards) but is unbelievably moving and inspiring.

Kevin McCloud's Lighting Style. I'd never have believed that a book dedicated to lighting could be so interesting.

Oh and yet another vote for Mr Bryson.
posted by ceri richard at 5:03 PM on March 22, 2006

I have nothing against Gladwell and Krakauer — in fact, I quite like them — but their writing is not particularly brilliant. It's standard modern English, which is fine for what it is, but it is not well-written.

That's your opinion, which is fine for what it is, but it's not accurate. If you think the only kind of writing that's well written is by people like James, you have extremely limited tastes, useful to you but not to someone trying to interest a class.

Oh, and Sacks is definitely a good call.
posted by languagehat at 5:05 PM on March 22, 2006

The Quicksand War, Lucien Bodard's visionary vignettes of the war in French Indochina.

Combined Fleet Decoded, a retelling of the Military Intelligence fight with the Japanese, with new facts and insights. Forget what you knew about Midway.

Biomimicry, how research into biology is helping build the materials of tomorrow. I find it quoted endlessly in other books.

U.S. Grant's autobiography. The first American to grasp total war. Funny, insightful. Grant, as the future; Lee, the past.
posted by atchafalaya at 5:06 PM on March 22, 2006

Couldn't possibly improve on docgonzo's list above, but if you're in the mood for some good old spleen-venting, try a bit of Joy. Other classic diatribes essays by Joy Williams here.
Bonus: link is the source of one of my favorite insults: "Oh, the precious liquid!"
posted by rob511 at 5:08 PM on March 22, 2006

i really enjoyed Andrew Chaiken's A Man on the Moon, but i am a space-history fanatic.
posted by joeblough at 5:14 PM on March 22, 2006

Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four. Okay, mostly kidding. But truly, and also by Orwell, Down and Out in Paris and London.

Also Michael Pollan's The Botany of Desire.
posted by desuetude at 5:23 PM on March 22, 2006

That's your opinion, which is fine for what it is, but it's not accurate.

It's certainly as accurate as your opinion, languagehat, or anyone else's opinion in the thread.

If you think the only kind of writing that's well written is by people like James, you have extremely limited tastes.

I agree that would be the case if it were true. Fortunately, that's not the only type of writing that I think is well-written. My tastes are broad and varied. They include both Malcolm Gladwell and Henry Adams, and myriad other authors. I just don't think that Gladwell and Krakauer produce stuff that is, in the poster's words, "very, very well-written".

What Krakauer does produce, however, is compelling hard-to-put-down prose that draws you into a story and won't let you go. Kind of like Stephen King, you know? This, to me, is different than the "well-written" the poster is looking for. Maybe I'm being too analytical.
posted by jdroth at 5:25 PM on March 22, 2006

I have to say that I read The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat, and it didn't thrill me. But YMMV, of course.

American Ground, by William Langewische, is probably one of the most compelling non-fiction books I've ever read. If you're looking for something shorter, look for any of the pieces he's written for the Atlantic Monthly (American Ground was originally serialized there, and his piece on the Columbia accident was phenomenal as well.
posted by Johnny Assay at 5:26 PM on March 22, 2006

HA! A Self-Murder Mystery by Gordon Sheppard is awesome, but if you need to do a report on it, it's a monster of a book size-wise.

Product Dimensions: 9.8 x 7.2 x 2.6 inches
Shipping Weight: 3.4 pounds.

posted by juv3nal at 5:39 PM on March 22, 2006

The Moronic Inferno by Martin Amis
posted by bunglin jones at 5:39 PM on March 22, 2006

John Julius Norwich's 3 volume history of Byzantium is amazing. He also did a 1 volume version (which is what hooked me). Funny, informative, well-written and assumes the reader is neither an idiot nor particularly strong on the history of that time and place.

Faust's Metropolis by Alexandria Richie is another history of a time and place I didn't know enough about that I couldn't put down. For a few minutes there, I understood how a country could go fascist.

Both of these kept me up several nights in a row.
posted by QIbHom at 5:54 PM on March 22, 2006

The Gulag Archipelago, part 1.
posted by The Jesse Helms at 5:55 PM on March 22, 2006

Why I am not a Christian Bertrand Russell
Gotham Edwin G. Burrows & Mike Wallace
Free Schools, Free People Ron Miller
The Right to Useful Unemployment and its Professional Enemies Ivan Illich
posted by jivadravya at 5:59 PM on March 22, 2006

Longitude. An incredibly quick read about the contest to make the first 'accurate' timepiece. You will not be dissapointed.
posted by bytemover at 6:04 PM on March 22, 2006

Goodbye to All That and Down and Out in Paris and London were excellent. I'd also recommend looking into The Great War and Modern Memory by Paul Fussell.
posted by Vervain at 6:15 PM on March 22, 2006

Seeing in the Dark by Timothy Ferris

I'll second American Ground by William Langewiesche

Williams father, Wolfgang Langewiesche is the author of Stick and Rudder, which is the most amazing book ever about how airplanes work. It's a bit dated in style ("When a man is flying over his best girl's house...") but it's fascinating and very well written. He explains flying in a way that at first sounds counterintuitive but by the end of the book it makes perfect sense and you'll never think of planes the same way again. Probably a bit too narrow of a subject for your needs though.
posted by bondcliff at 6:15 PM on March 22, 2006

_A Thousand Plateaus_ , by Deleuze & Guattari
posted by Joseph Gurl at 6:20 PM on March 22, 2006

The New Way Things Work, by David Macullay. I've found it useful on so many levels, from when I was in elementary school, to this very day. It's like HowStuffWorks, but with amazing explanatory illustration, and mammoths. (It's the "new" way because they added a great section on personal computers.)
posted by potch at 6:21 PM on March 22, 2006

The Emperor of Scent by Chandler Burr.
posted by auntbunny at 6:26 PM on March 22, 2006

I thought Martin Amis's book about Stalin, Koba the Dread, to be an amazing read. It has some memoir-ish elements though, so I don't know if it counts as non-fiction. Someone once described his writing as literary pyrotechnics, and it really is dazzling.
posted by Oobidaius at 7:01 PM on March 22, 2006

The Skeptical Environmentalist by Bjorn Lomberg. Honestly, even if people attack the writer and occasionally what is written, it's an interesting read. It is weird how a book that says the sky isn't falling is a bit of a shock.

Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology by Eric Drexler, although arguably fiction, is fascinating. Reading about the awareness of a hopefully eventually coming significant technological change is really cool. The books view of an information network, which has been realised with the new is worth noting too.

The Blank Slate by Steven Pinker is the last book I read that really shook up my world view.

Sorrows of Empire by Chalmers Johnson was very informative.

Patterns in the Stone by Danny Hillis is also cool.
posted by sien at 7:01 PM on March 22, 2006

Pierre Berton has a fantastic writing style, and I think he has done more to make Canadian history accessible and interesting than any other writer. The Arctic Grail is the first book I remember reading by him and I still remember it as one of his best.

Gwynne Dyer's War is a very interesting book about the nature of war in human history, regardless of the fact that the synopsis on Indigo uses the hackneyed 'post-September 11 world'.
posted by Dipsomaniac at 7:02 PM on March 22, 2006

I couldn't stand Guns, Germs, and Steel. Maybe I'm not intellecutal enough, but I found it incredibly painful to get through.

I really liked Wild Swans and A People's History of the United states, although the latter might be a little text-booky for this project
posted by nuclear_soup at 7:18 PM on March 22, 2006

"A History of God" by Karen Armstrong. It's a history of monotheism, and one I found quite enthralling.
posted by headlessagnew at 7:51 PM on March 22, 2006

CunningLinquist recommended a great book to me: "The Botany of Desire", which explores the symbiotic relationship between plants and people.

I also love "Devil in the White City," about America's first serial killer.

I just finished "The Glass Castle," which is one of the best autobiographies I've ever read.

Other recommendations:

"Fluid Concepts & Creative Analogies" and "Le Ton Beau De Marot" by Douglas ("Goedel, Escher, Back") Hofstadter.

ANYTHING by Oliver Sacks, but you might as well start with "The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat".

"The Discoverers" and "The Creators" by Daniel J. Boorstin.

"Will in the World" (Best book I've read about Shakespeare).

"The Empty Space", Peter Brook's great essays on theatre.

"The User Illusion", the most profound book about consciousness I've ever read.

(You want great writing?) Joseph Mitchell's New Yorker essays: "Up in the Old Hotel".

"Elizabeth and Mary : Cousins, Rivals, Queens" by Jane Dunn"
posted by grumblebee at 7:55 PM on March 22, 2006

I really enjoyed Longitude, by Dava Sobel. It's an incredibly obscure topic that the author makes fascinating.

I also found Sexual Personae by Camile Paglia incredibly well written even if I disagreed with most of her main theses. It did, however, totally change my understanding of major movements of poetry and art.
posted by DarthDuckie at 8:12 PM on March 22, 2006

I've loved Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff ever since I was a kid.
posted by EarBucket at 8:15 PM on March 22, 2006

I agree with Orwell's essays as being about the best written in the English language.

I would add Neil Sheehan's "A Bright Shining Lie" for its brilliant structure and fascinating story.

I've loved the "The Best American Crime Writing" series. A variety of styles, many compelling stories.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 8:17 PM on March 22, 2006

nthing David Foster Wallace books.

Oliver Sacks: I had to re-shelve two of his earlier books, Awakenings (for being too jargony) and Seeing Voices. That said, Island of the Colorblind and An Anthropologist on Mars were superb, Oaxaca Journal enjoyable.
posted by user92371 at 8:18 PM on March 22, 2006

I may have just missed them, but it looks like no one's recommended either Hiroshima or Night, two amazing and compelling non-fiction standards. If you're on a timeline, take heart in the fact that they're both slim volumes and very fast reads
posted by saladin at 8:21 PM on March 22, 2006

Anything by John McPhee, esp. Coming Into The Country.
Any memoir by Jonathan Franzen
posted by docpops at 8:29 PM on March 22, 2006

I agree -- anything by John McPhee.

As well -- anything by Michael Ruhlman and Tracy Kidder.
posted by ericb at 8:40 PM on March 22, 2006

I loved Devil in the White City (found it hard to put down), but I wouldn't consider it "very, very well-written". Its strengths lie in the events, the storytelling and the flow, less in the writing, which felt clumsy and trying too hard in parts. To me, anyway.

I second Hiroshima, it's definitely worth a look. It's short and extremely compelling. I haven't read it in probably fifteen years and I still know parts of it off by heart because they burned into my brain. When I read it, it seemed beautifully-written.
posted by biscotti at 8:50 PM on March 22, 2006

"The Best and the Brightest" by David Halberstam - the story of how the geniuses in government got us into Vietnam, mostly a story of Kennedy's and LBJ's cabinets.

Two from WWII, "The Duel" and "Five Days in London, May 1940" by John Lukacs. If you're not a Winston Churchill fan, you'll become one.
posted by vito90 at 9:05 PM on March 22, 2006

Catapult: Harry and I Build a Siege Weapon, by Jim Paul.

Read it!
posted by raysmj at 9:26 PM on March 22, 2006

Lucky, by Alice Sebold, the author of the Lovely Bones, is an enthralling first person account of her rape and the lingering affects it had on her.

Strangely, the best word to describe it is "inspirational." I loved it. And I avoided reading it for quite some time.
posted by visual mechanic at 9:29 PM on March 22, 2006

Lies My Teacher Told Me : Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong

Woodrow Wilson was a racist. Henry Ford was a Nazi. Helen Keller was a communist. And the state of Tennessee officially reveres the founder of the Klu Klux Klan.
posted by frogan at 10:12 PM on March 22, 2006

My favourite piece of nonfiction? Hands down is a piece from a primarily fiction writer: Douglas Adams & Mark Carwardine - Last Chance To See
posted by mce at 10:46 PM on March 22, 2006

Another source of great American non-fiction is
">Twain, especially his travelogues and literary criticism. I read Innocents Abroad for a book club recently and found myself reading passages outloud to my husband. He is absolutely hysterical in a very modern snarky way.
posted by DarthDuckie at 10:53 PM on March 22, 2006

Grass Soup
by Zhang Xianliang
posted by atom71 at 11:04 PM on March 22, 2006

The Bible.
posted by orthogonality at 11:25 PM on March 22, 2006

Charles Jonscher: Wiredlife

Very entertaining and interesting read. It's a few years old, so not up to date with all the latest technology fads, but the message still sticks.
posted by richardh at 12:20 AM on March 23, 2006

My absolute favourite non-fiction is Primo Levi's 'The Truce'. Levi was an Italian Jew sent to Auschwitz, the Truce tells the story of his convoluted journey home from the camp to his family home in Turin via much of Easter Europe. Levi's writing is often praised for his viewpoint in his autobiographical writing and his understanding of his captors as people but what stands out for me in this book is the huge positivity of Levi and his co-travellers especially the larger-than-life Cesare. I'm not one to be easily inspired but this book does it for me. The Truce is often paired in a dual volume with 'If This is a Man', the story of Levi's time in Auschwitz. (Also worth reading.)
posted by biffa at 4:42 AM on March 23, 2006

History of the Arab Peoples by Albert Hourani.

I read it not long after 9-11. If you want to know your Arab history, this is a well written and very readable book.

...and I'd second anything by Karen Armstrong.
posted by bim at 4:57 AM on March 23, 2006

Oooh, one more I forgot:
Dirt: The Autobiography of Motley Crue.

Surprisingly captivating.
posted by inigo2 at 5:17 AM on March 23, 2006

Fortunate Son: The Autobiography of Lewis B. Puller, Jr.
posted by WyoWhy at 5:51 AM on March 23, 2006

Give Me My Father's Body: The Life of Minik, the New York Eskimo is about a young Inuk taken from his home in Greenland by the explorer Robert Peary and put on display at the Museum of Natural History in New York in 1897.

Nine Parts of Desire: The Hiden World of Islamic Women is an exploration of the daily life of Muslim women.

Secret Tibet, which I haven't finished yet, is about Tibetan history, culture and religion as seen through the eyes of a young Italian who travels to Tibet in the late 1930s
posted by KathyK at 6:10 AM on March 23, 2006

War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning by Chris Hedges is probably one of the most profound books about war that I've ever read. So beautiful, so sad.
posted by jivadravya at 6:26 AM on March 23, 2006

Wow, lots of great suggestions here.

I also really enjoyed Under the Banner of Heaven. Religion is a particular interest of mine. (Something can be in standard modern English and well-written. In fact for modern books, especially non-fiction, it's all but required--that's our opinion, we welcome yours). It is, however, very commercial non-fiction. So if that's not what you're looking for, then...that's not what you're looking for. A more academic non-fiction text I found very readable and interesting was Who Wrote the Bible? by Richard E. Friedman.

And if personal essays are acceptable, my absolute favorite (that I can think of right now) is The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien. Especially "How to Tell a True War Story," which has a lot to say about storytelling. And also Travels with Charley by Steinbeck, which is, surprise, a travellogue. Both very quick reads.
posted by lampoil at 6:54 AM on March 23, 2006

I really think McPhee is excellent.

Homage to Catalonia is my favorite non-fiction book because of the great writing, the great story, the engagement, and the great modelling of how to live a life.
posted by OmieWise at 8:05 AM on March 23, 2006

If you want something short and sweet, pick perhaps one or two of the letters in Rainer Maria Rilke's "Letters to a Young Poet."
posted by bim at 8:23 AM on March 23, 2006

I've just finished reading Hiding the Elephant - it's written by a real-life Jonathan Creek (except without the murder-solving) and it makes the 'golden age' of magic - the Victorian era - come alive. It could easily have been very dry, but the author really makes it work.
posted by flameproof at 9:46 AM on March 23, 2006

I adored Pulitzer prizewinning Natalie Angier's Woman: An Intimate Geography. Besides being fascinating and far-ranging in topics, the author's style is clear and gorgeous, if occasionally a tad precious.
posted by gillyflower at 2:30 PM on March 23, 2006

Late to the party, but...
  • The Johnstown Flood
  • Devil in the White City
  • Alexander Hamilton
  • The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test
  • On the Road
  • Into Thin Air
  • Under the Banner of Heaven

posted by pardonyou? at 2:33 PM on March 23, 2006

Shelby Foote's Civil War trilogy. If that's too big to tackle, try the excerpted The Stars in Their Courses, which describes the Gettysburg campaign.

It doesn't get much better than Shelby Foote's books. That guy knew how to bring history alive.
posted by Gerard Sorme at 4:24 PM on March 23, 2006


Assuming that you have a library card from a relatively decent library, you probably have access to a lot of the material mentioned above online. See if your library provides online access to databases such as LexisNexis Academic, Expanded Academic ASAP, Academic Search Premier, or something similar.

Through the databases, you probably have access to the New Yorker (John McPhee), Atlantic Monthly (David Foster Wallace), Harper's magazine and others. Many of the non-fiction books mentioned above started out as essays in one of these magazines.

Malcolm Gladwell's website has a large archive of of his New Yorker essays. I'm not sure if they're necessarily the best examples of his writing, but the The Naked Face, Big and Bad, and The Ketchup Conundrum were all particularly interesting reads.

One author I don't think I've saw above is Eric Schlosser, who wrote Fast Food Nation and Reefer Madness. Some of his essays have appeared in the Atlantic Monthly and in the New Yorker.

I'll also second the recommendation for Simon Singh's book Fermat's Enigma. My copy of that book got passed along to more people than any other book I've owned. Practically everyone then went on to rave about it.

Thanks for asking the because I'm going to enjoy digging through all the recommended material myself.
posted by xulu at 11:35 PM on March 23, 2006

_Ways of the Hand_ by David Sudnow.
A sort of phenomenological examination of the author learning in his hands how to play jazz piano, how to improvise.

In a way, it's boring, but simultaneously fascinating. A rare combination :)
posted by Joseph Gurl at 9:26 PM on March 25, 2006 [1 favorite]

In a way, it's boring, but simultaneously fascinating.

I'm guessing that this is just a feeling you get -- that probably defies explanation. But if you CAN elaborate, I'd be grateful. I've never experienced boredom and fascination at the same time. What's it like?

Do you mean it was boring when you read it but fascinating to think about later on????
posted by grumblebee at 8:48 AM on March 27, 2006

The Destruction of the European Jews
posted by matteo at 8:03 AM on March 29, 2006


I mean, since it's phenomenology, it's full of very specific descriptions of exactly what's happening, like this:

"My handful knowledge of the terrain is not a knowledge of places that a photograph would depict, and an Ab scale is an Ab way, in this terminology, if it is present for 'the hand' for secure targeting: for the 'whole hand,' for 'some of its digits,' for a 'single finger,' and, even more than this, for I can use a pencil to play an Ab scale wayfully. 'Its distances' are known not just to 'fingers,' but to a 'system of spatializations' that may not be reduced to properties of a photographed or filmed characterization (and measurements thereby facilitated). Indeed, the very notion of a handful way, not having separable existential properties."

Which can be boring, but it's so worth it, because it sinks in as you parse it, and the import and simplicity of the project has deep resonances.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 5:04 PM on March 29, 2006

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