What's the best non-fiction I haven't found yet?
August 22, 2006 10:25 PM   Subscribe

I'm looking for more great non-fiction books. Requirements: writing to make an English major swoon; a thesis or narrative structure that makes for an organized, logical flow; well-reported; interesting; true, with embellishments of known fact made known by the author.

Great non-fiction gives me thrills, but I guess I have pretty high standards. I'm hard to please.

The best non-fiction book I've read recently was "The Guns of August," by Barbara Tuchman. Her prose was amazing, each sentence lead into the next, each chapter led into the next. The book has themes, a thesis and a narrative. And it's well footnoted, too.

Other books that are pretty good:
* "Under the Banner of Heavan" by John Krakauer -- fascinating subject, strong writing, well-reported, good flow, doesn't quite sing.
* "Devil in the White City," -- passages of great writing, well organized, but occasionally limping flow.

Frustrating books:
* "The Outlaw Sea," by William Langewiesche -- fantastic writing, great subject, but no central thesis stronger than "the ocean is vast and underestimated" and no sense of flow between the chapters.
* "Fast Food Nation"-- Compelling enough, I guess, but the writing was too preachy and ordinary.
* Any non-fiction by Tom Wolfe or Hunter S. Thompson -- fun to read, but not particularly artful writing and not much of a deep plot.

Never again:
* "Salt," by Mark Kurlansky -- Each chapter is a series of grammatically correct sentences on a single subject, with no clear organization. The various chapters are arranged in no particular order. No thesis. No narrative. No apparent point.

Wouldn't qualify:
* "In Cold Blood," Truman Capote -- I love this book, its writing, its structure, but too much of it comes from the writer's own imagination to qualify as non-fiction by my definition.
posted by croutonsupafreak to Writing & Language (45 answers total) 66 users marked this as a favorite
You sound like John McPhee's work, with its range and its focused craftmanship, its dedication to structure and to narrative and information, is exactly what you want. McPhee is one of the greatest journalists and best writers of the twentieth century.
posted by cgc373 at 10:31 PM on August 22, 2006

"In the Freud Archives," by Janet Malcolm, as I say every time someone asks me this.
posted by escabeche at 10:35 PM on August 22, 2006

Have you read any Bill Bryson? He does travel stuff mostly, but his work is very enjoyable and Made In Americawas so interesting I kept insisting people borrow it from me (joke's on me, because the last person liked it so much he never returned it..
The Discoverers by Boorstin. Thought-provoking, well-written, very enjoyable.
Aztec Treasure House, more history (that's what I like) but I found it a can't-put-down read.
posted by Rubber Soul at 10:36 PM on August 22, 2006

Joan Didion can also do nonfiction with the emotional weight and development more characteristic of novels, perhaps because she's a novelist, too. I just read Where I Was From, about the Central Valley of California, and I was amazed how vivid and interesting she could make a place I lived in for too long and found too dull to bear. I wasn't paying the right sort of attention. Didion was.
posted by cgc373 at 10:37 PM on August 22, 2006

Anything by Jared Diamond or Steven Pinker.
posted by orthogonality at 10:39 PM on August 22, 2006

Anything by Tracy Kidder, specifically House, Hometown, and (of course) Soul of a New Machine.
posted by IshmaelGraves at 10:52 PM on August 22, 2006 [1 favorite]

Young Men and Fire by Norman Maclean.
posted by LarryC at 10:54 PM on August 22, 2006

You'll find lots of recommendations in this earlier AskMefi thread.
posted by xulu at 10:54 PM on August 22, 2006

Mountains beyond Mountains by Kidder.
posted by craniac at 11:03 PM on August 22, 2006

Cool question! I have a number of suggestions, and will have more when I actually get a chance to look at my books at home.

For cultural history, I recommend:

Lords of the Horizon is an absolutely lovely history of the Ottoman Empire.

Civilizations by Oxford historian Felipe Fernandez-Armesto is a really great argument about how geography determined the nature of civilization. Much more sophisticated than Jared Diamond, in my view and superbly written.

From Dawn to Decadence is a pretty amazing (if opinionated) view of the last 500 years of Western culture by Jacques Barzun

For literary history:

The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony by Calasso is an excellent book that interweaves the multiple ways Greek myths were understood.

For business and economics:

Tracey Kidder's The Soul of a New Machine is a classic describing aspects of the birth of the computer industry

The Elusive Quest for Growth is about the efforts of economists to figure out the secrets of economic growth, by experimenting with one country at a time starting in the 1950s.
posted by blahblahblah at 11:13 PM on August 22, 2006

I read Jay Stevens' Storming Heaven about the history of LSD, in college, and found it really compelling as a narrative.
posted by Gilbert at 11:13 PM on August 22, 2006

Currently reading Song for the Blue Ocean by Carl Safina. It explores the state of three key fish populations, and the environments, communities and individuals whose fates are intertwined with them. I know, a book about fish doesn't sound all that exciting, but the stories are riveting and beautifully written.
posted by platinum at 11:25 PM on August 22, 2006

American Dream: Three Women, Ten Kids, and a Nation's Drive to End Welfare by Jason DeParle is excellent. The writing is superb, the narrative completely draws you in, and the reporting is extraordinary and multi-dimensional. I know welfare reform doesn't sound like the most compelling topic but everyone I've recommended this to has loved it.

I also second the recommendations of Guns, Germs, and Steel and pretty much anything by Tracy Kidder. A Hope in the Unseen by Ron Suskind was pretty good, too.
posted by chickletworks at 11:45 PM on August 22, 2006

I don't know if you're looking for personal essays, but Thomas Lynch's The Undertaking, about being a small-town mortician, is marvellous. In addition to being a mortician, Lynch is a poet (the good kind) and I was completely knocked out by this book's combination of elegance and heart.

I can also recommend a pair of urban history books. Luc Sante's Low Life is a lush, gritty, bizarre book about turn of the century New York City. Mike Davis's Quartz City, which is about how Los Angeles came to be Los Angeles, also satisfies.

Finally, check out The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction by Justine Larbalestier. The title is unfortunate, but the book is exciting: It's a study of how gender was constructed and concieved in the earliest days of science fiction, based on review of the letter columns in the first pulp magazines. It's smart, rich, and terribly funny, and I've never read anything like it before or since.
posted by palmcorder_yajna at 11:57 PM on August 22, 2006

Guns, Germs and Steel is a fine book but think that Jared Diamond's new book Collapse is not nearly as good.

Longitude might qualify for what you're looking for.

Another is The Code Book which is a good read.
posted by sien at 12:04 AM on August 23, 2006

Everything by Robert A. Caro will suit your needs ('The Power Broker', 'The Years of Lyndon Johnson').

'Hell's Angels' by Hunter S. Thompson is great non fiction (although its central thesis - "hells angels are lunatic assholes" might be a bit thin for you).

I couldn't get through Jared Diamond's 'Guns, germs and steel', because at times it was just plain boring.

I bought David Simon's 'Homicide' and 'The corner' recently, hoping that they would be the sort of stuff you describe: fast plotted, rich, streetwise, and well written.
posted by NekulturnY at 3:45 AM on August 23, 2006 [1 favorite]

Try Stephen J. Gould, especially 'Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History'. Also try 'The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind' by Julina Jaynes. Both great reads. Both well written.
posted by RussHy at 4:13 AM on August 23, 2006

Try The Ancestors Tale by Richard Dawkins. It's an amazing tale of the origins and developments of life based loosely on the canterbury tales.
posted by scodger at 4:15 AM on August 23, 2006

Joe Klein's Woody Gutherie: A Life . Its an amazing book, written before Klein became known for not wanting to be known.
posted by R. Mutt at 4:55 AM on August 23, 2006

Tracey Kidder is pretty fabulous. I read House before renovating a very old house and I read Among Schoolchildren before becoming a teacher.
Old Friends is about people in an nursing home. It is a very difficult read because it has such a true feeling about it and is so very human.

I've always enjoyed James Burke's work, in that his presentation of history has been one of the few that I've found compelling. His writing is direct, but not showy.

I will also second the writing of Stephen J. Gould. When I studied anthropology in college, I looked forward to the reserve reading because most of it was Gould.

I've read McPhee and he didn't really do it for me. I love Bryson because he's hilarious, but he's not a wordsmith.

The Tao is Silent by Raymond Smullyan is a fairly good collection of essays about the Tao. Smullyan is a logician and tends towards a writing style with arguments between characters to make a point. Sometimes his writing is smug or clever for the sake of being clever, but most of the book I found fascinating. Having a logician explain logically something that is illogical is mind-bending. I found this book via one of its chapters, "Is God a Taoist?" which was excerpted in The Mind's I by Douglas Hofstadter and Daniel Dennett.
posted by plinth at 5:18 AM on August 23, 2006

The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal, by David McCullough. This book is amazing.
posted by posadnitsa at 5:19 AM on August 23, 2006 [1 favorite]

Anthony Beevor's "Stalingrad" has been burned into my mind for all eternity.
posted by theinsectsarewaiting at 5:29 AM on August 23, 2006

Links to reviews or excerpts.

Stalingrad by Anthony Beevor

Strong narrative (from beginning to end of battle), widely regarded as enormously good, personal detail and stories, iconic period of history.

Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond

A sweeping, fascinating, fun attempt to explain why armoured Zulus on zebra didn't sack Rome and Incan settlers didn't push the French into reservations in Poland as they settled Europe.

Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner

A collection of essays, true, but each is coherent and simple enough for non-economists while still being fascinating.

Rubicon by Tom Holland

A gripping, readable story of the Fall of the Roman Republic, possibly the greatest story ever told (sorry) with the best cast, full of anecdote and humour and drama.

I'm missing out The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins because, wonderful though it is, I don't recall it having much of a narrative. But I'm happy to be corrected: it's terribly, terribly good.

posted by alasdair at 5:31 AM on August 23, 2006

Seeing in the Dark, or anything by Timothy Ferris

Flags of our Fathers, by James Bradley
posted by bondcliff at 5:34 AM on August 23, 2006

Seconding palmcorder's recommendation for The Undertaking. Other memoir/essay's I've enjoyed include Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential, Jacobs Know-it-All, and, for truth at its most grim, Hodgman's The Areas of My Expertise.

For non-fiction based on subject, I've enjoyed Crosby's The Measure of Reality, Kennedy's Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word, and the already mentioned Freakonomics.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 6:35 AM on August 23, 2006

Oh! And Founding Brothers!
posted by robocop is bleeding at 6:36 AM on August 23, 2006

I cannot recommend any book by Patrick Leigh Fermor highly enough. Reads like fiction, but entirely true. In the 30s, he set out from Britain to Constantinople (not Istanbul) on foot and he recounts his story in A Time of Gifts and Between The Woods and The Water. He also wrote a few books on life in Greece (Mani and Roumeli), was an active part of the Cretan resistance during WWII, and is just an all around amazing person. There was an article about him and his life and writings in the May 22 issue of the New Yorker, written by Anthony Lane, which I came across while reading A Time of Gifts. It's not online that I can find, but well worth reading if you can find it.
posted by The Michael The at 6:59 AM on August 23, 2006 [1 favorite]

And his prose is straight fantastic.
posted by The Michael The at 6:59 AM on August 23, 2006

Job's Body.

Anatomy & Physiology, inspirational to several bodyworkers I know.
posted by dragonsi55 at 7:06 AM on August 23, 2006

If you're into history at all, then check out Armageddon by Max Hastings (2004). It's a detailed and enthralling text on the post-Normandy conflicts that prolonged WWII extensively. It describes in great detail the blunders of the Allied forces and the initiative of the Axis troops that extended WWII for many months.

Hasting writes with extreme authority and detail, and his endless research and inclusion of first-hand accounts really make this not only a gripping but incredibly educational text.
posted by sprocket87 at 8:01 AM on August 23, 2006

seconding posadnitsa's suggestion of The Path Between the Seas. David McCullough took a story where the outcome is known (A Man! A Plan! A Canal! Panama!) and made it a page-turner you stay up reading until the wee hours because you can't put it down.

I'll add 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann. A fasccinating, if a bit depressing , re-examination of indigenous societies in the Americas before the arrival of Europeans.
posted by ambrosia at 8:29 AM on August 23, 2006

Can't believe no one's mentioned Annie Dillard yet -- gorgeous prose supporting profound thinking. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is her most well-known, Pulitzer prize-winning work. I'm also extremely fond her her latest, For The Time Being, and I think that her short book Holy the Firm is an excellent introduction to her writing and themes.
posted by junkbox at 8:37 AM on August 23, 2006

John Ralston Saul's utter masterpiece of historical writing - "Voltaire's Bastards: the Dictatorship of Reason in the West," is a remarkable, mind-blowing book about the tyranny of experts and "expertism" and how it has affected nearly every facet of modern life. Saul has a Ph.d (I think from France, but he's a Canadian), and he's published various novels and been a big-time corporate executive honcho. This book is graceful, deep and immensely insightful.

If you have any interest in nature and the outdoors, especially the US soutwest desert, any collection of essays by the late Edward Abbey (famed for his novel "The Monkey Wrench Gang") is a must. Most people agree his "Desert Solitaire" was his finest, but I also loved "The Journey Home," "Abbey's Road," and "Beyond the Wall."

If you like outdoorsy books, also get the splendid "Tough Trip Through Paradise," by Andrew Garcia. He was an authentic mountain man who recounts in this book his life and many, many adventures in what is now the Yellowstone Park area of Montana in the late 1870's. He's not a great literary stylist or academically educated, but his slightly rough style is easy to read and has a kind of dead-pan humor that comes out from time-to-time. He was involved in business, trapping, lots of chases and battles, and had a number of Indian wives. If you access the 1974 ediiton of the book, you'll see pictures of him and his wives. What I was very touched by and did not expect was his humility and modesty about himself. He's not at all boastful or given to exaggeration, quite the opposite, a sign to me that he wrote the book as honestly and accurately as he could. I so much wanted to read much more when I completed it. He wrote *many more* books, the manuscripts of which were found in his home when he died, but no one published them as yet. Oh, how I hope some publisher someday brings them out!
posted by Kellyu at 9:56 AM on August 23, 2006

Forgot to mention: 'Black Hawk Down' by Mark Bowden is as thrilling as nonfiction gets.

And I don't know about the well written part (I never read the English translation), but 'Birth of the Prison' by Michel Foucault is very thoroughly researched.
posted by NekulturnY at 9:56 AM on August 23, 2006

Carl Van Doren's Benjamin Franklin.
posted by Mick at 10:07 AM on August 23, 2006

Tracy Kidder and John McPhee and Joan Didion are really the gold standards here as far as I'm concerned. It's hard to go wrong with them. (plinth is the only person I've ever even encountered who wasn't wowed by McPhee. His books are on a wide variety of pretty well-defined subjects, so if, for instance, you don't like geology, then don't read his geology books.)
posted by OmieWise at 10:21 AM on August 23, 2006

Though it's a bit dated now, Steven Levy's Hackers is a wonderfully written account of the pioneer days of computing, running from the Sixties to the early Eighties.

Ruth Reichl's Tender at the Bone and Comfort Me with Apples recount her life's preoccupation with food with both wit and vivid imagery.
posted by nightengine at 11:42 AM on August 23, 2006

I always have liked the work of Tina Rosenberg. Try Children of Cain (about the Latin American predilection for violence).
posted by anjamu at 1:28 PM on August 23, 2006

Some history books I found to be well-written:

Shelby Foote's Civil War trilogy
Lord Kinross' The Ottoman Centuries
Simon Schama's History of Britain (I've only read the first volume so far)

I'll second Young Men and Fire with the qualification that the writing is turgid at times, but McLean then hits you with amazingly wonderful images. It's like finding diamonds in a dustpile.
posted by forrest at 3:52 PM on August 23, 2006

I'll second Longitude, The Mind's I, The Soul of a New Machine ("I'm not puttin' a bag on the side of the Eclipse!"), anything by Bill Bryson (Neither Here nor There is still the best for me).

The Eighth Day of Creation
by Horace Freeland Judson is a detailed, romantic and engaging history of the molecular revolution that transformed biology in the latter half (or a bit more) of the twentieth century. It gets to the heart of what it's like to do science, and what it must have been like to be active in the field when it was changing so quickly. I'm sure it's accessible to the non-scientist and I highly recommend it.
posted by Turtles all the way down at 4:29 PM on August 23, 2006

croutonsupafreak: I see this thread is almost dead but it's been worrying me as I've been out; I knew I had something else to suggest. Here it is (I know you'll keep checking the thread if noone else is).

Witold Rybczynski, The Most Beautiful House in the World. Thoughtful meditations on architecture, in this case how he went about converting an old barn in New England into a living space for himself. All his books are great.

Margaret Visser:
Much Depends Upon Dinner and everything else she's written meets your criteria of thoughtful, provoking, erudite writing.

And I'm proud to say they're both Canadian. Happy reading from Turtles!
posted by Turtles all the way down at 7:09 PM on August 23, 2006

Second on Annie Dillard. My favorite is An American Childhood, about growing up in Pittsburgh.

Also, I can't believe nobody else has mentioned Anne Lamott. Try Operating Instructions, Bird by Bird, Traveling Mercies, and Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith. I'm not crazy about her fiction stuff, but I love her non-fiction accounts of life as a wacky, recovering drug addict, single mother, white woman in dreadlocks self.
posted by printchick at 8:12 PM on August 23, 2006

I would suggest Song of the Dodo by David Quammen. Frankly, it could stand to be about half as long as it is, but it ties together contemporary biodiversity, evolution, and the historical story of Darwin and Wallace trying to discover the theory of evolution. I frequently assign chapters from it to my Environmental Studies class and even high school students seem impressed.

I'd second (or more) Gould, McPhee, and Mann's 1491... And I'll have to get busy with some of the other recommendations.
posted by mhespenheide at 10:05 AM on August 24, 2006

One River by Wade Davis is a great ethno-botanical book about the Amazon river basin.
posted by OmieWise at 10:57 AM on August 24, 2006 [1 favorite]

I second The Power Broker by Roberet Caro (though it is long) and add Common Ground by J.Anthony Lukas, an amazing book on busing in Boston in the 1970s
posted by spira at 8:07 PM on August 24, 2006

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