Really, really, really good non-fiction books
June 27, 2007 11:46 AM   Subscribe

Few books have given me as much sheer joy as Bringhurst's "The Elements of Typographic Style". Tufte's "Visual Explanations" is also up there in terms of content and presentation. What other exceedingly well researched, written and designed non-fiction books would you recommend for somebody interested in Design, Architecture, Programming, Information Visualization, Maps, Math, Music and Science?

This is based on the observation that novels just don't impress me as much as they once did, whereas a well executed non-fiction book grips me the way Banks and Borges used to.
I'm not looking for "not so well written or designed, but still interesting", but rather books that fill you with joy as soon as you crack open a page. The topics are a bit broad on purpose, as it's more the quality of the book than the topic that interests me.
posted by signal to Media & Arts (35 answers total) 96 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: By 'well designed' I mean Beautiful, of course.
posted by signal at 11:49 AM on June 27, 2007

I've always loved Schneier's "Applied Cryptography" (amazon link). Well written, quite interesting, and amazingly gripping for a book that is essentially a text on math and cryptographic theory.

It's a tad dated (published in '95) but still very interesting, and I occasionally re-read parts of it in a whim.
posted by tocts at 12:01 PM on June 27, 2007 [1 favorite]

You may also be interested in McLean's The Thames & Hudson Manual of Typography and Doyald Young's The Art of the Letter. And of course anything by Tschichold!
posted by luriete at 12:04 PM on June 27, 2007

You've set a high bar. Bringhurst and Tufte are close to peerless with respect to marrying design with content in their books.

My first thought is that some of Douglas Hofstadter's books (particularly Godel, Escher, Bach and Metamagical Themas) may be a good match for you, especially given the fields you're interested in. However, Hofstadter doesn't integrate design into his books so much as use it to illustrate some of his topics.

I'll try to think of a better suggestion.
posted by steadystate at 12:14 PM on June 27, 2007 [1 favorite]

I just read an interesting book called The Origins of Virtue, which looks at the evolution of human cooperation largely in terms of game theory. It discusses the development of game theory through computer programs. As an anthropology student with an interest in the cooler applications of math, I found it fascinating.
posted by showbiz_liz at 12:16 PM on June 27, 2007

A few books that leap to mind. Their common thread is being awesome and engaging no matter what your level of interest in the subject matter. Stop me if you've read them all:

The Design of Everyday Things, by Donald Norman.

In Suspect Terrain (geology) and The Curve of Binding Energy (nuclear physics), by John McPhee (or pretty much any of his other books).

The Making of The Atomic Bomb, by Richard Rhodes, which turns out to be a spectacularly comprehensive history of the first half of the 20th century from all sorts of angles.

Longitude, by Dava Sobel.

The Arcanum: The Extraordinary True Story of Percelain, by Janet Gleeson.

Emporer of Scent, by Chandler Burr. (about perfume and a science radical)

And last but not least, despite it's awful title, Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea, by Gary Kinder, turn out to be one of the most mindblowing real life stories I've ever read.
posted by [@I][:+:][@I] at 12:20 PM on June 27, 2007 [3 favorites]

I like The Look of the Century by Michael Tambini and The Way Things Work By David Macaulay. Acually, I like everything by Macaulay.
posted by jquinby at 12:21 PM on June 27, 2007

"Ways of Seeing" by John Berger is the classic art school required reading.

You might also enjoy books by the book artist Keith Smith. "Text in the Book Format" comes immediately to mind.
posted by advicepig at 12:22 PM on June 27, 2007

Seconding the recommendation of Hofstadter's books. They are beautiful reflections on beauty, and Hofstadter takes a meticulous interest in every level of the book: typography, indexing, design and so on. I think Metamagical Themas has dated less than Godel, Escher, Bach.
posted by infobomb at 12:22 PM on June 27, 2007

...almost forgot: for pure beauty, take a look at the Kelmscott Chaucer. I do not own a copy, but I dearly wish that I did.
posted by jquinby at 12:23 PM on June 27, 2007 [1 favorite]

Oh, that Tom Wolfe book about modern art is pretty cool.
posted by [@I][:+:][@I] at 12:28 PM on June 27, 2007

I'd second Tschichold as an obvious choice. It's slightly further outside your tech/science/design interests, but Ways of Seeing was a great suggestion, and you might also want to look at John Berger's Another Way of Telling, about the intersection between photography and narration. You could also check out Franco Moretti's Atlas of the European Novel for some Tuftean ideas about information display adapted to present an unconventional work of literary history and criticism. It's a bit hard to tell whether you're asking for pretty books or compelling reading, but if stunning page design is not a requirement then A Pattern Language (and its companion volumes) is another strong match for your interests.
posted by RogerB at 12:39 PM on June 27, 2007

David Hockney's Secret Knowledge is elegantly reasoned and presented.
posted by nicwolff at 12:49 PM on June 27, 2007 [1 favorite]

The Art of Computer Programming series is the most mind-blowing and challenging text I've seen under the heading of Programming. It's interesting not just for the insight into computer programming, but also for Knuth's interesting approach to format. I'll confess that I've not read all of it, and I've understood less, but it's a heck of a read, in a "pick it up from time to time and get lost" way.

Thank you for the great question - I hope to see more fantastic answers.
posted by rush at 12:56 PM on June 27, 2007

Nth-ing Tufte and Hofstadter and McPhee.
I really enjoyed Chaos by James Gleick. I love his style and the subject matter crosses a wide range of fields you'd probably find interesting.
Perhaps not as elegant but equally enjoyable to me is James Burke's Connections.
And I too am looking forward to more great answers.
posted by ChromeDome at 1:14 PM on June 27, 2007

Stewart Brand's How Buildings Learn is exceptional.
posted by Mapes at 1:37 PM on June 27, 2007

Visual Complex Analysis by Tristan Needham. A beautiful book, on a beautiful subject, with illustrations (and text) that will make you see the light.
posted by king walnut at 1:40 PM on June 27, 2007 [1 favorite]

A few that might fit that haven't been mentioned.

Industrial Design by Raymond Lowery

Boundaries by Maya Lin, more of an art book, but interesting none the less

The Code Book: The Evolution Of Secrecy From Mary, To Queen Of Scots To Quantum Cryptography by Simon Singh

An Eames Primer by Eames Demetrios< br>
Code: the hidden language of computer hardware and software by Charles Petzold

Also, any Andy Goldsworthy art books. Any Henry Petrowski.
posted by alikins at 1:55 PM on June 27, 2007

Response by poster: Wow, lots of great answers. Hard to mark best answers until I get the actual books (via Bookmooch, natch), but I will update with the books I actually read.
Thanks, and keep them coming!
posted by signal at 3:30 PM on June 27, 2007

Weingart's Typography, Bosshard's The Typographic Grid, and any of the Joseph Muller-Brockmann books, really, if you want it hardcore. All beautiful objects...
posted by lovejones at 3:48 PM on June 27, 2007

Seconding "Longitude," and Sobel's most recent book, "The Planets," is also pretty terrific.
posted by shallowcenter at 4:43 PM on June 27, 2007

S, M, L, XL by Rem Koolhaas and Bruce Mau
posted by Falconetti at 5:12 PM on June 27, 2007

Derek Birdsall, Notes on Book Design
posted by londongeezer at 6:07 PM on June 27, 2007

Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art is great great great, and popped into my head as soon as I read your question. I read it once year.
posted by Scoo at 7:08 PM on June 27, 2007

Not a book, but BldgBlog offers spectacularly interesting and informed postings about many of your interests, and often reviews books or interviews authors you might enjoy.

It's regularly updated, and it is a wonderful resource!
posted by extrabox at 7:35 PM on June 27, 2007

This edition of The Elements of Style.
posted by Eringatang at 7:44 PM on June 27, 2007

I'm not a fan of any of Hofstadter's books, and I feel that GEB is grossly overrated. (But my background is theoretical CS so you might say I'm biased.)

My pick is Mapping The Next Millennium by Stephen Hall. It's about maps: starting with the earth sciences maps (and historic maps) through biological maps, math/fractal maps, and cosmological maps. The cover is a beautiful depiction of the sea floor, calculated based on extremely precise measurements of the surface of the sea (which reveal the earth's gravity and hence the topography of the seafloor).

If you have a CS or typesetting background, try The TeXBook by Knuth. I've been reading that book for around 20 years and I still learn new stuff (and I still can't do all the exercises).

If you like Math, Gamma by Julian Havil about the Euler-Mascheroni constant. It's not as glamorous as π or e but when I read the book I was shocked there was such a cool constant that I knew nothing about.

For current directions in cosmology, Voyage To The Great Attractor by Alan Dressler. If you've ever wondered how we know about things like the accelerating expansion of the universe, or the picture of the Big Bang revealed by the cosmic background radiation, this is the book for you -- told by one of the scientists involved.

And, of course anything by John McPhee or Stephen Jay Gould.
posted by phliar at 8:29 PM on June 27, 2007

One more to add the list: The New Science of Strong Materials by J. E. Gordon. That's one of the guys that developed glassfiber-reinforced plastics. He tells the story and explains the science, both very well. For me, that book really bridged the macroscopic world of billiard balls and the atomic world of covalent bonds.
posted by phliar at 9:43 PM on June 27, 2007

Maps of the imagination: The writer as cartographer, by Peter Turchi
You are here, by Katherine Harmon
The Mapmaker's Wife by Robert Whitaker.

All three are map related.

The Beak of the Finch by Jonathan Weiner
posted by dhruva at 1:04 AM on June 28, 2007

While it’s more surface than substance, you might enjoy looking through Alan Fletcher’s The Art of Looking Sideways.
posted by misteraitch at 2:39 AM on June 28, 2007

I second the recommendation for McCloud's Understanding Comics, easily one of the most refreshing books about design, art and narratives i've ever read. Don't let the title mislead you: it's about much more than just comics.

Also, i would recommend The Language of New Media by Lev Manovich (large excerpts available for free online at Google Books). It's one of the few books i know that really goes deep into what new media are, what they aren't, and how they impact our daily lives. Especially his vision on the database as the most important 'form' (instead of narratives) in new media (chapter 4) is something everyone even remotely interested in new media should haeve read.
posted by husky at 3:55 AM on June 28, 2007

I really enjoyed The Spell of the Sensuous by David Abram and have been meaning to re-read it for some time now. Space, time, language...lovely.
posted by ikahime at 11:42 AM on June 28, 2007

richard dawkins' book, "the blind watchmaker" looks at some natural-history phenomena that once confused evolutionary biologists, and often still confuse laymen about the mechanisms of evolution. dawkins' stunningly clearheaded explanations are a delight to read.

scott mccloud - "understanding comics" and "making comics", two thoughtful graphic textbooks about sequential storytelling. (the two i suggested are his first and third books: the second, "reinventing comics", is not as good).

book-jacket designer chip kidd's "good is dead", a fascinating coffee table book with great photos of his high-quality and very clever book designs. a beautifully laid-out collection.
posted by twistofrhyme at 1:49 PM on June 28, 2007

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