What single book is the best introduction to your field (or specialization within your field) for laypeople?
September 8, 2007 5:40 PM   Subscribe

What single book is the best introduction to your field (or specialization within your field) for laypeople?

I'm particularly interested in introductions for non-experts to subjects like biology, physics and astronomy, but I thought that opening up the question as broadly as possible would make it most interesting to me and other readers, especially as a future reference-point. I am thinking of books like "Mathematics for the Million", which made math accessible to a great deal of people.
posted by limon to Education (237 answers total) 1903 users marked this as a favorite
The Oxford Guide to Library Research by Thomas Mann is one of the most essential books for learning how to formulate a research question and then go about answering it.
posted by jessamyn at 5:51 PM on September 8, 2007 [18 favorites]

The Art of Electronics and The Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs are widely considered to fit the bill in electrical engineering and computer science, respectively.
posted by phrontist at 5:57 PM on September 8, 2007 [14 favorites]

Slightly more advanced, but still very much intended for the layman is What is Mathematics? (which I haven't got around to reading personally, but have heard nothing but good things about).

Bertrand Russel's The Problem's of Philosophy is well regarded in that field.
posted by phrontist at 5:59 PM on September 8, 2007 [1 favorite]

Oh, oh! This summer I read the extremely good "Very Short Introduction to the Philosophy of Science" which is part of a series by the Oxford University Press - all of which are intended to fill your exact need.
posted by phrontist at 6:02 PM on September 8, 2007 [5 favorites]

For electrical engineering: The Art of Electronics, for showing that developing an intuition in your field is at least as important as understanding the science of your field.

My mate, an ER nurse, says that for nursing it is a tie between any Anatomy & Physiology book and Notes on Nursing by Florence Nightingale.
posted by foobario at 6:08 PM on September 8, 2007

hey whipple, squeeze this by luke sullivan is the authority for advertising creatives.
posted by krautland at 6:10 PM on September 8, 2007 [6 favorites]

I'm a theoretical astrophysicist. I always recommend Our Cosmic Habitat by Martin Rees for astrophysics and Maths: A Very Short Introduction by Timothy Gowers for maths. Timothy Gowers's book in particular is amazingly clear and really gives an idea of what real pure maths research is like today, which is a very difficult thing to get across.
posted by caek at 6:30 PM on September 8, 2007 [4 favorites]

Carlson's Physiology of Behavior and Dowling's Neurons and Networks are two wonderful college-level texts that sparked my own interest in neuroscience. For introducing lay people to the practice of medical neurology, Oliver Sacks' works will probably not be surpassed for a long time.

I recently read Brian Greene's The Elegant Universe and I wouldn't mind caek's take on whether it was any good; I certainly enjoyed it a lot.
posted by ikkyu2 at 6:51 PM on September 8, 2007 [5 favorites]

Hearing Beyond the Words: How to Become a Listening Pastor, by Emma Justes is pretty much the standard in Chicago seminaries for introductory pastoral care classes.

And The Complete Modern Blacksmith is where you should begin if you want to start... blacksmithing.
posted by Baby_Balrog at 7:06 PM on September 8, 2007 [2 favorites]

Coming of Age in the Milky Way is one of my favorite non-technical books about astronomy, and specifically the history of the subject. This is the book I would recommend for the "interested layperson" (I think that layperson is a depressingly condescending term. Perhaps "non-specialist" is better).
posted by kiltedtaco at 7:09 PM on September 8, 2007 [3 favorites]

The Elements of User Experience, by Jesse James Garrett: web design and development.
posted by macinchik at 7:09 PM on September 8, 2007 [3 favorites]

For the field of Historic Preservation, I'd be hard pressed to choose between The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs and How Buildings Learn by Stewart Brand.

Great question, BTW.
posted by Rock Steady at 7:24 PM on September 8, 2007 [7 favorites]

For radio, at least public radio, it's undoubtedly Radio: An Illustrated Guide by Ira Glass and Jessica Abel.
posted by YoungAmerican at 7:29 PM on September 8, 2007 [1 favorite]

All You Need To Know About The Music Business by Donald Passman. So many books about the music industry are complete nonsense. This is not one of those. Covers a wide range of complex topics thoroughly and clearly. A great primer for anyone interested in the recording industry or music publishing.
posted by quarterframer at 7:30 PM on September 8, 2007 [4 favorites]

As far as I know, there isn't much in the way of technical literature for labor/community/political organizers, but Rules for Radicals seems to be required reading.
posted by univac at 7:40 PM on September 8, 2007 [1 favorite]

I've had a hard time thinking of one for law, but here's a shot:

Introduction to Legal Reasoning by Edward Levi. This was the first book I was assigned to read in law school.
posted by jayder at 7:40 PM on September 8, 2007 [1 favorite]

I work in children's books editorial.

The sort of (kind of) joke answer is that anyone who is thinking of getting an entry level editorial job, (especially at a major media corporation, such as my workplace), should first read The Devil Wears Prada.

But the real answer, more specifically for children's books, is Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom, who is widely considered the greatest children's book editor of all time (so far! Look out world!)
posted by lampoil at 8:30 PM on September 8, 2007 [7 favorites]

The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy by John DeFrancis, maybe, or Chinese by Jerry Norman.
posted by bokane at 9:06 PM on September 8, 2007

Seconding the VSI series - I picked up 9 for the summer in a 3-for-2 deal, and they've been great.

For law (at least in the UK), the Introduction to... series by Clarendon tend to be the most used, although I always find that they skim everything rather quickly, rather than concentrating on a few things of a part of the law, thus leaving you both informed and intrigued.

I always find that reading the journals is actually more rewarding - greater scope for argument and analysis, without a need to set down what the law is. Rather, interest you in what the law could/should be.

I hear great things about Law, Liberty and Morality though, and have a copy on my shelf waiting to be read.
posted by djgh at 9:38 PM on September 8, 2007 [2 favorites]

Reminisences Of a Stock Operator. This book is the bible for self directed independent trading and speculation. I read it my first week in the business and keep a copy on my desk to this day 20+ years later. If you are disciplined, patient and can follow the lessons in this book, you can be successful at trading.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 10:23 PM on September 8, 2007 [3 favorites]

I read Genes at VII, but I bet it's still good at IX. It's a nice introduction to molecular biology. For methods, I recommend Molecular Cloning. Again, I haven't read the latest edition. But assuming there hasn't been drastic changes, it is a very informative and entertaining manual.
posted by Jorus at 10:52 PM on September 8, 2007 [1 favorite]

DNS & Bind - Cricket & Liu (O'Reilly)
posted by rhizome at 11:15 PM on September 8, 2007

Code Complete, by Steve McConnell, is well-recommended as an introduction to the practice of software construction, i.e. actually writing code.
posted by onalark at 11:23 PM on September 8, 2007 [7 favorites]

For play directing, I've never found something I liked more than William Ball's A Sense of Direction. Totally inspiring every time I read it again.
posted by lauranesson at 11:50 PM on September 8, 2007 [2 favorites]

For making films, you need to read two books:
Directing the Film: Film Directors on Their Art and The Guerilla Film Makers Handbook.
posted by slimepuppy at 2:22 AM on September 9, 2007 [2 favorites]

For chemistry, this is a good read:

Uncle Tungsten by Oliver Sacks

Not a textbook, but captures the sense of wonder that the discovery of science can inspire.
posted by kjs4 at 3:49 AM on September 9, 2007 [2 favorites]

Wind Power: Renewable Energy for Home, Farm, and Business, by Paul Gipe.
posted by scruss at 5:24 AM on September 9, 2007 [3 favorites]

Books in the Digital Age: The Transformation of Academic and Higher Education Publishing in Britain and the United States by John Thompson. While it does focus a bit more on publishing in the UK rather than the US, the trends he describes are relevant to both markets.
posted by Toekneesan at 5:49 AM on September 9, 2007 [1 favorite]

Made to Measure: New Materials for the 21st Century is a fantastic introduction for lay people to the field of Materials Science. It is well written, very clear, scientifically pretty good, and quite non-mathematical.

It is a bit older (~10 years), and so some of the information may be out of date, but it's still a good read and I would recommend it highly.
posted by JMOZ at 6:10 AM on September 9, 2007 [1 favorite]

For aspects of microfabrication, MEMS, and nanotechnology: Marc Madou's Fundamentals of Microfabrication.
posted by Mapes at 7:00 AM on September 9, 2007

Beginning Glassblowing by Edward T. Schmid.
posted by ursus_comiter at 7:11 AM on September 9, 2007

Robbins & Cotran Pathologic Basis of Disease. Basic pathology for non-pathology doctors. I think that a layperson with a good foundation in biology would get quite a bit out of this.

Fantastic question btw
posted by i_am_a_Jedi at 7:20 AM on September 9, 2007 [1 favorite]

Real World Color Management by Bruce Fraser. There many other books on Photoshop but this one takes on one of least understood and thorniest portions of the program and makes it understandable.
posted by doctor_negative at 7:51 AM on September 9, 2007 [8 favorites]

For psychometrics and educational measurement, it's Anastasi and Urbina's Psychological Testing. It gives a brief but insightful overview of nearly every testing topic I've ever wanted to look up.
posted by parkerjackson at 7:54 AM on September 9, 2007 [1 favorite]

I'm a web product manager, but my background is instructional design & technology. I can't think of anything more useful than Anglin's Instructional Technology: Past, Present, and Furture. For a fabulous look at the history of the field, Saettler's Evolution of American Educational Technology.

I was introduced to both of these books in my graduate program and I continue to pick them up seven years later.
posted by wildeepdotorg at 8:23 AM on September 9, 2007 [6 favorites]

so far there's no good popular science book that covers my general field, cognitive science, or my subfield, developmental cognitive science (alas). But there's a pretty good one for one of my areas of specailization - Steven Pinker's The Language Instinct lays out the basics of language acquisition and development in a very accessible and engaging way.
posted by dropkick queen at 8:47 AM on September 9, 2007 [6 favorites]

the fire inside by steve delsohn is a really good read about firefighters and EMS. he interviews 200+ people from the field, anonymously, about the job and all aspects of it. some amazing stories, funny as hell and just as sad. gives a really good insight into the subculture of the field as well.
posted by andywolf at 10:51 AM on September 9, 2007 [4 favorites]

The Money Machine by Phillip Coggan is a great guide to understanding the complexities of financial markets and breaks it down into simple, easily understood concepts. Highly recommended.
posted by ClanvidHorse at 1:50 PM on September 9, 2007 [22 favorites]

Robert Pinsky's "The Sounds of Poetry" is a concise, accessible introduction to poetry/poetics.
posted by brooklynexperiment at 2:34 PM on September 9, 2007 [3 favorites]

Robert Bringhurst's The Elements of Typographic Style will fascinate anyone who's been curious about why things they read look the way they do.
posted by zadcat at 7:55 PM on September 9, 2007 [11 favorites]

Dave Allan's Stream Ecology: Structure and Function of Running Waters is a very well-written paperback aimed at the undergraduate level that does a great job of talking about the biological, chemical, geomorphological, and hydrologic aspects of streams and rivers.
posted by hydropsyche at 5:45 AM on September 10, 2007 [2 favorites]

The Mud Pie Delimma is a must-read for anyone who wants to become a working artist, and not just in ceramics.

There's a good review of it here.
posted by 1f2frfbf at 7:50 AM on September 10, 2007 [2 favorites]

TCP/IP Illustrated. It's a little more specialized then most books I am seeing others answer with, but if you need to learn the inner workings of TCP/IP communications, this is your bible.
posted by ShootTheMoon at 9:37 AM on September 10, 2007 [3 favorites]

I particularly like the book Art and Physics that discusses the history of art in parallel with the history of physics. You get to see very quickly in this book how artists sometimes discovered things about the laws of physics before the physists of the time did. It's a great read!
posted by kathk at 3:39 PM on September 10, 2007 [6 favorites]

Don't Make Me Think is a great introduction to web usability.
posted by belladonna at 7:25 PM on September 10, 2007 [17 favorites]

I asked an economist this question a few years ago and he recommended The Age of Diminished Expectations, by Paul Krugman.
posted by russilwvong at 12:07 AM on September 11, 2007 [1 favorite]

For the film industry in general, I recommend The Movie Business Book by Jason Squire; it features essays by everybody involved in making a movie talking about what they do, from the director to the line producer to the guy who provides the completion guarantee bonds.
posted by yankeefog at 2:11 AM on September 11, 2007 [1 favorite]

For DJing:

Last Night a DJ Saved My Life.
posted by empath at 9:22 AM on September 11, 2007 [5 favorites]

For urban planning, I'd point to a few essays in The City Reader.

And, of course, the above mentioned Death and Life of Great American Cities.
posted by gordie at 9:37 AM on September 11, 2007 [2 favorites]

Literary Theory, An Introduction, by Terry Eagleton.
posted by jokeefe at 9:46 AM on September 11, 2007 [4 favorites]

For Crime Scene Investigation and Processing:

Practical Crime Scene Processing and Investigation

For Forensic Entomology:

A Fly for the Prosecution
posted by fallenposters at 9:50 AM on September 11, 2007 [2 favorites]

For playwriting:

In Their Own Words, by David Savran. Contemporary playwrights talk about their lives and plays. Not a how-to; more of a "how come?"
posted by BClady at 9:54 AM on September 11, 2007

Religion Online: Finding Faith on the Internet is a fantastic book that gives a great overview of the sociology of religion on the internet.
posted by arcticwoman at 9:55 AM on September 11, 2007 [2 favorites]

Spiders and Their Kin (Golden Guide) for identifying spiders.
posted by Tehanu at 10:04 AM on September 11, 2007

Don't Make Me Think is a great introduction to web usability.

Second that. I'd even say it's the best introduction for web design.

I haven't found a book yet that effectively lays out the case for web accessibility to the lay person. Most of them are some combination of esoteric and technical.
posted by dw at 10:05 AM on September 11, 2007 [2 favorites]

For history, I'm fond of Richard Southern's The Making of the Middle Ages, though it's outside my field chronologically, and Gordon Wood's The Radicalism of the American Revolution, which is just stunning.
The book that first turned me into a historian was Lynn Montross' War Through The Ages, a well-written, but out of print, military history of Europe.

For philosophy, a good basic introduction, at least on the history-of-ideas level, is Durant's The Story of Philosophy.
posted by nasreddin at 10:42 AM on September 11, 2007 [2 favorites]

For film editing, the best book is In the Blink of an Eye. Walter Murch is the best.
posted by MythMaker at 10:49 AM on September 11, 2007 [2 favorites]

For physics, The Cartoon Guide To Physics is great. It's cartoonish and fun, but accurate and not watered down. Feynman also gave a series of lectures at the college freshman level, available in print here, and they are absolutely wonderful, but large and expensive. See if a library has them.
posted by rossmik at 10:57 AM on September 11, 2007 [15 favorites]

Sub (copy) editing: Essential English for Journalists, Writers and Editors. Get it, and never use "on a daily basis" again.
posted by bonaldi at 10:59 AM on September 11, 2007 [12 favorites]

(history and nerd-centric)

Radicalism is a fantastic read, but not what I'd call approachable to the masses nor broad in scope. If you really wanted to get the Omnibus American Revolution text, I'd suggest his Creation of the American Republic. If you wanted something approachable and generally overview-y, I'd suggest Lies My Teacher Told Me instead.

If you're interested in the history of the internet and software development, I always point people toward Where Wizards Stay Up Late and Hackers, both well written and easy to read.

If you are a fencer, you must track down a copy of Aldo Nadi's On Fencing

If you are interested in the formation of the Christian canon, you really need to read Erhman's Misquoting Jesus.
posted by absalom at 11:04 AM on September 11, 2007 [4 favorites]

These aren't my 'fields' per se, but they are the books I've found most illuminating about subjects I have an interest in.

Finance/Investing: The Intelligent Investor by Benjamin Graham (imho better than "security analysis" for the layperson)

Engineering: To Engineer Is Human by Henry Petroski - more than any other book I've read, including the art of electronics, this book describes the engineering mindset and though process, how engineers solve problems. (Art of Electronics is a great book, but it is a bit heavy on the math). Perfect for the non-engineer.
posted by Pastabagel at 11:05 AM on September 11, 2007 [8 favorites]

If you wanted something approachable and generally overview-y, I'd suggest Lies My Teacher Told Me instead.

The problem is, to the modern reader that book sounds like it's picking a fight with an opponent that hasn't existed for 40 years.
posted by nasreddin at 11:24 AM on September 11, 2007 [1 favorite]

Growing Gourmet and Medicinal Mushrooms - Paul Stamets.

Let's Grow Mushrooms - 2 DVD Set, featured on Cool Tools, condenses a lot of the highly technical information and practices from Stamets workflow into an easily digestible video format.
posted by prostyle at 11:24 AM on September 11, 2007 [4 favorites]

Nthing 'Don't Make Me Think'. Not only is it an excellent layman's introduction to the topics of usability and web design, it will also provide sufficient instruction on how to effectively conduct usability tests and integrate them into web design and development process at a professional level. A remarkable feat.
posted by ardgedee at 11:46 AM on September 11, 2007 [3 favorites]

An alternative suggestion for learning about a common law system: Glanville Williams' Learning the Law.
posted by tiny crocodile at 12:16 PM on September 11, 2007 [1 favorite]

CMOS Circuit Design, Layout, and Simulation by R. Jacob Baker is about the best introductory integrated circuit design text I've seen. IC design is my specialization within the field of Electrical Engineering. The previously Art of Electronics seems like the best introduction to the field as a whole.
posted by substrate at 12:20 PM on September 11, 2007 [1 favorite]

Monsters and Magical Sticks: There's no Such Thing as Hypnosis? by Heller & Steele. It'll give you an idea of what (some people think) is going on but you'd be hard-pressed to apply much of what you'd get out of it. (Hypnotherapy by Elman is much more practical but is a harder read for the layman.)
posted by Nomen Nescio at 12:21 PM on September 11, 2007 [2 favorites]

As a consistent source of inspiration & information about all kinds of creative/communications endeavors, I return to the following all the time:

Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics (not just about comics!);
Edward Tufte's The Visual Display of Quantitative Information; and
the aforementioned The Elements of Typographic Style by Robert Bringhurst.

And for graphic design, you could do far worse than to start with this book.
posted by Haruspex at 12:28 PM on September 11, 2007 [7 favorites]

For a slightly different approach to poetry than Pinsky's, Terry Eagleton's How to Read a Poem is good.

Or for a couple of fairly traditional approaches to meter and rhetoric in poetry (more from a writer's perspective than a critic's), Mary Kinzie's A Poet's Guide to Poetry and John Hollander's Rhyme's Reason are both solid.
posted by Hypocrite_Lecteur at 12:36 PM on September 11, 2007 [2 favorites]

How to Brew by John Palmer is the best introduction to Homebrewing Beer. It's available online and free, at that link, and in print.

In that same vein, Ray Daniels' Designing Great Beers is a most awesome handbook to the history and crafting of many particular styles.
posted by Lafe at 12:57 PM on September 11, 2007 [12 favorites]

After much thought, Natenberg's Option Volatility & Pricing. Ignore the boring title, it is the most accessible book for an area in which even the basic principals are disputed (that is whether option pricing is supply/demand based on if, as Merton put it, we are spiraling towards "dynamic completeness" ... basically options can be manufactured endlessly). No need of advanced mathematics or a garduate degree in probability and statistics. So accessible I hear banks give their trainees this book on their first day. Keep in mind that while trainees are on a whole smart, not all are business majors.
posted by geoff. at 1:05 PM on September 11, 2007 [1 favorite]

The Investigative Reporter's Handbook is more than just an introduction, but it's pretty great, and has tools that anyone interested in gathering information about the world can use.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 1:08 PM on September 11, 2007 [4 favorites]

For statistics, How to Lie with Statistics is a perennial favorite. It's mostly a cautionary tale aimed at understanding manipulation. If you really want to know about random variables, well, you probably aren't a layman.

For abstract math, I loved Chapter Zero, but it is more aimed at learning. By it's nature, it assumes almost no knowledge.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 1:09 PM on September 11, 2007 [8 favorites]

While ubiquitous computation only really exists as a research domain, and a fledgling one at that, Adam Greenfield's Everyware is a very accessible introduction to what ubicomp systems look like today and what they will look like in the future.
posted by Nelsormensch at 1:38 PM on September 11, 2007 [1 favorite]

Ok, while I an't in any specialist field, my other half is heading into the area of Forensic Egyptology.

Osteology: Human Osteology: A Laboratory and Field Manual
Egyptian History: The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt
Egyptian Hieroglyphs: How to Read Egyptian Hieroglyphs
Archaeology: the self titled, Archaeology
posted by Nik_Doof at 1:40 PM on September 11, 2007 [1 favorite]

As someone who studies entrepreneurship, organizations, and innovation, two angles:

For practical use, Crossing the Chasm is a great introduction to high-technology sales, Influence is a really fun (and short) applied psychology book, and the Innovator's Dilemma is a great guide to technological change.

For the more academic, Eric Von Hippel's Democratizing Innovation (free online) is a great discussion of distributed innovation and open source, Aldrich's Organizations Evolving is a good work on the state of entrepreneurship, and the Social Construction of Technological Innovation is a readable introduction to why technology evolves the way it does.
posted by blahblahblah at 1:42 PM on September 11, 2007 [10 favorites]

For history, Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts.
posted by beelerspace at 1:43 PM on September 11, 2007 [4 favorites]

Fundamental Immunology as a reference text, and Immunobiology as a textbook.

On the path front, i_am_a_Jedi nails it.
posted by NucleophilicAttack at 1:47 PM on September 11, 2007 [1 favorite]

Geology: John McPhee's Annals of the Former World is a nice (though dated in some parts) nontechnical tour of North American geologic history.

Philosophy: Yes, Russell's Problems of Philosophy and Durants The Story of Philosophy are perennial favorites. A lot of the major works you can just start in on by yourself - eg Plato's The Republic. Free online, if you like that, and about a million commentaries on it are available. Ditto Descartes' The Meditations and many others.
posted by LobsterMitten at 1:52 PM on September 11, 2007 [1 favorite]

And again philosophy, Roger Scruton's A Short History of Modern Philosophy is a readable but serious introduction to major figures of the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
posted by LobsterMitten at 1:54 PM on September 11, 2007

As for more basic biology, Jorus has it with Genes (I also used VII, but Genes IX is out now).

For cell biology, MBOC is canonical. However, it's rather outdated, given the recent advances in basic science with microRNAs.

For a good overview on general signal transduction pathways in cells, there's Krauss' Biochemistry of Signal Transduction and Regulation.

There's many biochemistry texts that are considered canon, but many people (not me) learned from Stryer.
posted by NucleophilicAttack at 1:56 PM on September 11, 2007 [1 favorite]

And for formal logic see here.

list of recommended books for topics in physics and math

and of course, search Ask archives for topics of interest, since there have been a lot of good threads (eg "what's the best book on Chinese history?") with suggestions not mentioned here.
posted by LobsterMitten at 2:03 PM on September 11, 2007 [6 favorites]

For architecture, particularly the technical side of how various buildings go together, I highly reccommend Ching's Building Construction Illustrated.

Almost all architectural theory started at Vitruvius' Ten Books on Architecture. The basic principles are all there and still apply in a general sense.

Recommending a good architectural theory book is impossible, since there are literally thousands of schools of thought. Architects = Ego. Go figure.
posted by Benway at 2:13 PM on September 11, 2007 [3 favorites]

Mechanics of Flight by A.C Kermode is the best book to read if you ever wondered how aeroplanes fly and why they're shaped that way.
posted by racingjs at 2:19 PM on September 11, 2007 [1 favorite]

The best general introduction to linguistics I've encountered is David Crystal's Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language. It's not organised as an encyclopedia, but as a series of one- or two-page summaries on major topics in linguistics. Highly readable, informative, and written with the intelligent layperson in mind.
posted by Paragon at 2:27 PM on September 11, 2007 [8 favorites]


Squire's Fundamentals of Radiology by Robert Novelline
posted by aswihart at 4:06 PM on September 11, 2007

The Family Cow by Dirk Van Loon.

So it's not precisely what I do. There don't seem to be any digestible books on that subject.
posted by zennie at 4:16 PM on September 11, 2007 [2 favorites]

Graphic Design:

Design, Form, and Chaos by Paul Rand.


Stop Stealing Sheep & Find Out How Type Works by Erik Spiekermann and E.M. Ginger.

And I third The Elements of Typographic Style.
posted by muscat at 4:43 PM on September 11, 2007 [5 favorites]

I have to link back to reddit's thread on this thread, since it contains some good suggestions (whiskey, drawing animals, poker...) as well , and because they bitch about askme 's 'presentation'.
posted by of strange foe at 4:47 PM on September 11, 2007 [6 favorites]

As for the Christian canon and the origins of the Bible, I have personally found The Journey from Texts to Translations: The Origin and Development of the Bible by Paul D. Wegner to be not only comprehensive but easily read and understood.
posted by mumeishi at 4:59 PM on September 11, 2007

Aspiring high school English teacher:

The Literature Workshop, by Sheridan Blau

Written in an almost narrative form with lots of simulated classroom discussion so you can see how a highly effective student-centered class operates.
posted by themadjuggler at 4:59 PM on September 11, 2007 [7 favorites]

Language: An Introduction to the Study of Speech by Edward Sapir was published in 1921. I think it's still the best introduction to what linguistics is all about. It was written in an unassuming style, and manages to explain complex ideas like the phoneme memorably and intelligibly.
posted by snifty at 5:40 PM on September 11, 2007 [8 favorites]

Aspiring high school English teacher into lefty politics:

Teaching to Transgress
by bell hooks. She frames the book as a response to Paolo Friere's famous Pedagogy of the Oppressed, and her language is much more accessible than Friere's.
posted by HeroZero at 5:41 PM on September 11, 2007 [7 favorites]

For anyone who is interested in children, education and schools or certainly anyone interested in teaching, I would highly recommend (among others) How Children Learn, by John Holt. It's not technical at all.
posted by jaronson at 5:45 PM on September 11, 2007 [4 favorites]

On Becoming a Novelist by John Gardner
The Lie that tells a Truth by John Dufresne

My mate is a lighting designer, among other things:
Stage Lighting Design: The Art, The Craft, The Life by Richard Pilbrow
posted by Bookhouse at 6:00 PM on September 11, 2007 [6 favorites]

Moving the Earth
posted by jfuller at 6:14 PM on September 11, 2007

For a layman's understand of biology- ranging from the broad animal kingdom to plant life to a decent introduction into molecular biology- Biology is a wonderful resource and doesn't require any previous biology.
posted by jmd82 at 7:15 PM on September 11, 2007 [1 favorite]

I'm Just Here for the Food
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 8:23 PM on September 11, 2007 [3 favorites]

If you want to learn how to repair metal bodywork, The Key to Metal Bumping by Frank T. Sargent is still the definitive introduction more than 50 years after it was written.
posted by maxwelton at 8:47 PM on September 11, 2007 [1 favorite]

Thinking in Java was the first book I picked up when learning Java and I still use it to this day.
posted by toomuch at 8:49 PM on September 11, 2007

For authors, no matter what your genre, The Forest for the Trees: An Editor's Advice to Writers by Betsy Lerner and Putting Your Passion Into Print, by Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry, will tell you almost everything you need to know about the business of publishing.
posted by annabellee at 8:51 PM on September 11, 2007 [3 favorites]

Game designer:

I highly recommend Rules of Play. To my mind, it's the first really substantive and truly educational book on the topic, and though it can be pretty academic at times it should be generally readable to anyone with an interest in the topic.
posted by Inkslinger at 9:15 PM on September 11, 2007 [2 favorites]

The last few years of my life, my "field" has been parenting. So I'm going to go with Taking Charge of Your Fertility, and Becoming The Parent You Want To Be.

That said, a good book on mixing drinks has come in mighty handy many times over the last little while.
posted by padraigin at 9:22 PM on September 11, 2007 [4 favorites]


Law 101: Everything you Need to Know About the American Legal System.

Great concise book, walking you through the highlights of what you would learn in a first-year law school curriculum.
posted by falconred at 10:39 PM on September 11, 2007 [2 favorites]

It doesn't go into history at all, but as I see philosophy as a skill, my favorite introduction to the field is Del Kiernan-Lewis's Learning to Philosophize: A Primer.
posted by ontic at 11:05 PM on September 11, 2007 [2 favorites]

For screenwriting, the bible is Lajos Egri's The Art of Dramatic Writing.
posted by DudeAsInCool at 11:23 PM on September 11, 2007 [1 favorite]

I'm a math grad student, and I think Coincidences, Chaos, and All That Math Jazz is a really nice book that covers a lot of the more interesting math principles that affect everyday life, as well as some surprisingly abstract concepts that I didn't actually learn in a class till the upper level of undergraduate studies. This should be accessible to almost anyone. It's not a particularly technical introduction to math, but it is a great introduction to some of the concepts and mathematical gems that are normally not known to people outside of the field.
posted by Earl the Polliwog at 11:39 PM on September 11, 2007 [6 favorites]

A very informative book on the singing of opera and classical music is Jerome Hines's Great Singers on Great Singing, a series of interviews with high-profile opera singers about the mechanics of their craft.

It can't teach you to sing-- no book can-- but it provides a lot of insight into how others sing.
posted by Pallas Athena at 11:45 PM on September 11, 2007

Seconding Pastabagel's recommendation, and adding Steven Casey's "Set Phasers on Stun" and Kim Vicente's "The Human Factor" for all those more engineering/technical minded folks that care about the people that use their creations.
posted by anthill at 1:22 AM on September 12, 2007 [1 favorite]

For Mariners: International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea is the bible - albeit not exactly a delightful read.
posted by rongorongo at 1:41 AM on September 12, 2007 [2 favorites]

Field: Gynaecology by Ten Teachers is by far my favourite undergrad gynaecology textbook, and I should imagine is just about approachable for a layperson if armed with a medical dictionary.
Sub-specialisation: Female Urinary Incontinence in Practice which is suitable for anyone with any basic healthcare training.
posted by roofus at 3:28 AM on September 12, 2007

unexpected side-bonus of this great thread: finding out what other MeFites are experts in. Forensic Entomology? Opera Singing? We need to have a MeFite talent show sometime.
posted by Rock Steady at 4:29 AM on September 12, 2007 [3 favorites]

For morticians, clergy, or anyone who may ever die (or know anyone who might die one day) The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade
posted by ColdChef at 4:34 AM on September 12, 2007 [6 favorites]

For the feel and practice of psychotherapy: On Kissing, Tickling, and Being Bored by Adam Phillips.

On the science of how and why psychotherapy works: The Great Psychotherapy Debate by Bruce Wampold.
posted by OmieWise at 6:14 AM on September 12, 2007 [6 favorites]

The main things I do: directing classic plays, programming, teaching, writing and being a husband.

-- PLAYMAKING: (1) "A Practical Handbook for the Actor." This is the Strunk and White of acting books (it's short and to-the-point), and it's also a great book for fiction writers. A century's worth of acting theory is distilled into a useful recipe.

(2) "Thinking Shakespeare." This book contain literally EVERYTHING you need to know in order to rehearse and perform Shakespeare plays. It's really useful for actors/directors who want direct non-Shakespeare plays, too. And it's fun for the non-thespian Shakespeare enthusiast.

-- PROGRAMMING: "The Little Lisper" (a.k.a. "The Litter Schemer"). This book won't get you a job as a code monkey, but it will help you understand how programmers think (or should think) and why programming is beautiful. The book itself is the only programming book I've ever read that I'd consider a work of art.

-- TEACHING: "How Children Fail." It should really be called "How Teachers Fail."

-- WRITING: "Politics and The English Language" (I'm not interested in Politics, but this essay pretty much taught me how to write) and "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses." (Who better to teach you writing than George Orwell and Mark Twain?)

-- HUSBANDING: "You Just Don't Understand" is written by a linguist who treats men and women as if they're from two different cultures. This book is really good for teachers and writers, too.
posted by grumblebee at 7:30 AM on September 12, 2007 [18 favorites]

For software programmers or for people who need to think about security theory, Bruce Schneier's Applied Cryptography is the shiznit.
posted by cmiller at 8:33 AM on September 12, 2007 [3 favorites]

As someone who does a lot of presentations, I find Cliff Atkinson's Beyond Bullet Points to be invaluable.

As is Edward Tufte's Visual Display of Quantative Information.
posted by mooders at 8:53 AM on September 12, 2007 [7 favorites]

Thinking further, given that I tend to write a lot Fowler's Modern English Usage is also pretty useful.
posted by mooders at 8:58 AM on September 12, 2007 [2 favorites]

Seconding Biology by Campbell & Reece.

Foelix's Biology of Spiders is a more comprehensive introduction to spider biology than the Golden Guide I mentioned before.
posted by Tehanu at 9:25 AM on September 12, 2007

Parachuting: The Skydiver's Handbook by Dan Poynter.
posted by Tubes at 10:34 AM on September 12, 2007 [2 favorites]

I forgot to mention that as a day job, I paint scenery for theatres, and the newest edition of Scenic Art for the Theatre has a bunch of great interviews with other scenic artists, as well as tips on how to make anything look like expensive wood.
posted by lauranesson at 12:01 PM on September 12, 2007

Korfhage's Information Storage and Retrieval was the key that unlocked most of the math behind major IR theories for me. Most everything else I might offer comes in the form of journal articles which don't really qualify here.
posted by Fezboy! at 12:24 PM on September 12, 2007 [3 favorites]

[Good thread.] I would just like to thank Tehanu, for reminding me to look up the name of the local arachnid population. Spined Micrathena mostly, and some Argiopes. That's handy!
posted by steef at 1:02 PM on September 12, 2007

I have yet to find the right primary care medicine book for the lay person (and who would read such a book?), but The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down describes many of the day to day challenges I deal with.
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 1:30 PM on September 12, 2007 [2 favorites]

from my time as a pastry chef:
The Professional Pastry Chef: Fundamentals of Baking and Pastry
by Bo Friedman
posted by culberjo at 5:24 PM on September 12, 2007

William Zinsser, On Writing Well
posted by gottabefunky at 5:29 PM on September 12, 2007 [5 favorites]

You guys are way cooler than me.

DVD Demystified, 3rd Edition.
posted by infinitewindow at 5:29 PM on September 12, 2007 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Needless to say, your responses have been great. Thanks so much. I hope they keep coming. I won't mark a best answer, due to the nature of the thread.
posted by limon at 9:01 PM on September 12, 2007

The Trouble with Physics by Lee Smolin has one of the more accessible history of physics sections I have run across
posted by doppleradar at 9:09 PM on September 12, 2007 [1 favorite]

For writers: Grumblebee mentioned Strunk and White in passing, but oddly enough, nobody's actually listed their Elements of Style. Read it, if only to know what rules you're breaking.

For budding urbanists: After you've finished the Jane Jacobs, consider James Howard Kunstler's The Geography of Nowhere, a succinct and entertaining introduction to the orthodoxies of anti-suburbanism.

For journalists, and foreign correspondents especially: Scoop, by Evelyn Waugh is most highly recommended. A 60-year old satire of Fleet Street that couldn't be a better introduction to the cynicism of journalists, the weariness of their bosses, or the absurdity of the places they're sent to.
posted by bicyclefish at 9:53 PM on September 12, 2007 [4 favorites]

From what I've heard from animator friends, Disney's Illusion of Life has still got it. Sure, it's a bit rah-rah Disney but it's by some of the biggest names in the history of the field and there's treasure on every page.

I still haven't read a book about programming that really conveyed to me what my daily life is like. They tend to be either too romantic ("making the bits dance"...uh huh) or absolutely dull.
posted by crinklebat at 10:22 PM on September 12, 2007 [3 favorites]

Computer programming: Gerald Weinberg, The Psychology of Computer Programming.
posted by russilwvong at 10:42 PM on September 12, 2007 [1 favorite]

Maldoror, by the Comte de Lautramont (Isidore Ducasse) - I'm a surrealist.
posted by UbuRoivas at 1:35 AM on September 13, 2007 [7 favorites]

Lautreamont. (Perec moment)
posted by UbuRoivas at 1:35 AM on September 13, 2007 [2 favorites]

Another about poetry: How Does A Poem Mean, by John Ciardi.
posted by box at 5:14 AM on September 13, 2007 [1 favorite]

for photography Langford's Basic Photography and , inevitably, Photoshop for Photographers
posted by brilliantmistake at 5:51 AM on September 13, 2007 [2 favorites]

An update, since this thread is going so well. Here's my suggestions for all the budding artists out there.

If you're interested in ceramics (or specifically pottery) you need the following: Clay and Glazes for the Potter by Rhodes and Hopper for all the basics, Val Cushing's Handbook (only available from the man himself) for everything technical, The Kiln Book by Olsen for everything on kilns and firing, and Turners and Burners by Zug for the history of it all.

For photography: The Camera, The Negative and The Print, all by Ansel Adams, got me thinking in the right way, and I still refer to them even in this digital age.

For painting: Formulas for Painters by Massey and The Painter's Handook by Gottsegen. And The Art of Encaustic Painting by Marttera for encaustic work, specifically.
posted by 1f2frfbf at 8:38 AM on September 13, 2007 [5 favorites]

For knitting, particularly sweater knitting: Elizabeth Zimmermann's Knitting Without Tears!
posted by bitter-girl.com at 9:09 AM on September 13, 2007 [1 favorite]

If you want to learn how to write clear, concise English then George Orwell's Politics and the English Language is the essay to read. Don't be put off by the title - it's relevant for anyone who wants to avoid jargon and cliche in their writing.
posted by little apollo at 9:55 AM on September 13, 2007 [10 favorites]

Up At The Old Hotel by Joseph Mitchell.
posted by Football Bat at 11:49 AM on September 13, 2007

A: The Flying Circus of Physics. Q: How do you get young people hooked on the wonders of physics?

A: Making Music for the Joy of It. Q: I want to learn a musical instrument as an adult, where do I start?

A: Your Money or Your Life . Q: How do I become financially independent?

A: The Four Pillars of Investing. Q: How do I invest successfully?

A: Don't Believe Everything You Think. . Q: Why my brain not work so well?

A: Juggling for the Complete Klutz. Q: I'm clumsy but I like to throw things around, where can i get some help?
posted by storybored at 12:29 PM on September 13, 2007 [15 favorites]

The late great Steve Allen's tome "How To Be Funny" is indispensible for the disgruntled stand up comedian wannabe. It is chock full of examples of what is funny, distilled by a professional in such a way as to remove any humor from said examples by process of dissection, and then adroitly fails to show how to actually be funny. Essentially, "How To Be Funny" explains one either is funny or is not, and one can work at it all their life and one will still be unfunny, unless other people of course determine that one actually is funny, at which point one should be prepared to give speeches at fancy suit and tie dinners just in case. Steve Allen also applauds the use of index cards, but doesn't quite get around to saying why.

The book then eventually descends into the madness of a happily married couple editing one another's notes on the subject and discussing them over the breakfast table for several months at at time. At least, I hope that was a breakfast table, because I don't want to imagine Allen and his wife in bed together, although it'd probably be like an episode of I Love Lucy come to think of it. Y'know, separate beds... Oh great now I've thought of it. Now I gotta wash my mind out with soap. Great. That's just great.
posted by ZachsMind at 2:49 PM on September 13, 2007

Trail Solutions, from the International Mountain Biking Association (IMBA). While it draws heavily on an existing base of trail building books and known procedures, its the best in terms of layout, diagrams and pictures. The techniques presented are applicable to hiking and equestrian trails, as well as mountain bike trails.

For trail crew leaders, the best manual is from Volunteers for Outdoor Colorado.
posted by F Mackenzie at 3:15 PM on September 13, 2007 [3 favorites]

...As for my actual profession, Richard Belzer once wrote a book which was his attempt at humor, and in his introduction he suggested anyone who wants to do comedy but isn't actually funny should look into telemarketing.

I don't recommend Belzer's book, or any book about telemarketing.
posted by ZachsMind at 3:50 PM on September 13, 2007 [1 favorite]

The Anatomy of Melancholy
Partial Contents: Definition of Melancholy; Causes of Melancholy; Bad Diet; Passions and Perturbations of the Mind; Symptoms or Signs of Melancholy in the body; Prognosticks of Melancholy; Unlawful Cures Rejected; Lawful Cures; Diet Rectified; Deformity of Body, Sickness, Baseness of Birth; Against Poverty and Want and other Adversities; Against: Servitude, Loss of Liberty, Imprisonment, Sorrow for death of Friends, Vain Fear, Envy, Emulation, Hatred, Ambition, Self-love, and all other Affections; Against: Repulse, Abuses, Injuries, Disgraces, Slanders; Cure of Melancholy all over the Body; Love-Melancholy; Symptoms or Signs of Love-Melancholy; Symptoms of Jealously, fear, sorrow, suspicion; Cure of Jealously; Religious Melancholy. An outstanding analysis of what melancholy is, its kinds, causes, symptoms, prognosticks, and several cures for it; Philosophically, Medicinally, and Historically.
posted by vronsky at 10:30 PM on September 13, 2007 [2 favorites]

Someone else already mentioned DNS & BIND, but let me add a few books that "got me started" and sit on my shelf as well-thumbed references 10-12 years later. It's hard to name a single book, because there's not really one title that covers EVERYTHING.

Essential System Administration (the 2nd edition is preferrable to the 3rd)

UNIX System Administration Handbook (I had the red 2nd edition, but the purple 3rd edition is just as good)

Before Postfix became popular, sendmail (both making it through the hefty O'Reilly book, and the program itself) was a rite of passage as a systems administrator.

I really wish that The Practice of System and Network Administration had been available ten years ago. It's one of the few books that I've felt was worth the $50 it cost, and I insisted that my coworkers and manager read it. After doing so, they went out and bought their own copies.

I would consider ESA and TPOSA to be the "must have" books on my list.
posted by mrbill at 11:47 PM on September 13, 2007 [10 favorites]

Follow the story, by James B. Stewart is a decent introduction to reporting and feature writing, although I expect there's still quite some room for improvement in the "how to write the definitive feature article"-genre.

Most of the 'how to write'-books seem written by editors, who seem to be obsessed with, for lack of a better word, neatness. They have rules for everything (use a joke, get an anecdote, don't write too many words, kill your darlings). They're also pedantic. See: 'On Writing Well', which starts with a few overlong pages about "this time when I was teaching a bunch of college kids, and I imparted on them this snippet of wisdom..." blablabla. It's easy to improve the writing of college kids. What do you have for me?

What sets a great feature article apart from a mediocre one is plot, but that's something most of these editors seem to take for granted. After all, it's a "real life" story, right? The plot is there, it happened, you just have to write it down. I guess the really great reporters (à la David Simon in 'Homicide') will rather write a great nonfiction book than go through the laborious work of telling others how to do it.

I notice that I've gone all hobbyhorsical here, but it's my hobby horse, and I'm riding it all the way into the sunset, dammit.
posted by NekulturnY at 3:35 AM on September 14, 2007 [5 favorites]

Field: psychology of heuristics and biases. Book: "Irrationality: The Enemy Within" by Stuart Sutherland. Easily readable but based on a huge amount of scientific literature. Also seconding the earlier recommendation of Robert Cialdini's "Influence" books
posted by infobomb at 5:21 AM on September 14, 2007

My god I'm boring: The Handbook of Fixed Income Securities by Frank Fabozzi. 58 chapters of finance goodness.

"Now in its seventh edition, this is the standard handbook on fixed income securities. Everyone has a copy—at least everyone involved in the fixed income markets. You can almost tell how long people have been in the business by what edition they have on their shelf."
posted by patricio at 6:22 AM on September 14, 2007

Structures: Why Buildings Fall Down.
posted by yeti at 8:52 AM on September 14, 2007 [4 favorites]

For the teaching of writing, Victor Villenueva's Cross-Talk in Comp Theory introduced me to the hundreds of conversations going on about this topic and the most articulate voices and the most influential theories.
posted by Aghast. at 9:37 AM on September 14, 2007 [2 favorites]

Being hip and generally groovy: Good Advice for Young Trendy People of All Ages
posted by Hicksu at 9:44 AM on September 14, 2007 [4 favorites]

Michael Sherraden's Assets and the Poor basically created the field of asset-building as a community development and poverty fighting strategy.
posted by yarrow at 1:09 PM on September 14, 2007 [1 favorite]

This is, almost certainly, the most expensive thread in the history of Ask.Metafilter.
posted by Malor at 1:58 PM on September 14, 2007 [20 favorites]

For reference and depth, Scott Mueller's Upgrading and Repairing books are essentials for computer technicians:

Upgrading and Repairing PCs (the 18th edition comes out Sept 24 -- this is the granddaddy of them all)
Upgrading and Repairing Networks
Upgrading and Repairing Laptops
Upgrading and Repairing Servers
Upgrading and Repairing Microsoft Windows
posted by edverb at 3:52 PM on September 14, 2007 [4 favorites]

Cognitive neuropsychiatry-- Phantoms in the Brain by V.S. Ramachandran. Really a fantastic read, and I credit it for getting me into neuroscience.
posted by supercres at 6:16 PM on September 14, 2007 [2 favorites]

This is, almost certainly, the most expensive thread in the history of Ask.Metafilter.
posted by Malor at 1:58 PM on September 14 [2 favorites +] [!]
And the most well read.
posted by iamkimiam at 10:45 PM on September 14, 2007 [1 favorite]

Selling IT services...

In person: The New Solution Selling

In writing: Persuasive Business Proposals

Ye gods, what a great thread. I've just ordered almost a dozen books... and saved twenty more to order later.
posted by enrevanche at 1:35 AM on September 15, 2007 [2 favorites]

Cognitive science / philosophy of mind:
Consciousness explained by Daniel Dennett tends to use nasty rug-pulling to get its points across, and is needlessly heavy at times, but it does start with a bang, and should help untangle some ancient questions about the nature of minds.
posted by Anything at 2:56 PM on September 15, 2007 [2 favorites]

Consciousness Explained has a lot of good stuff in it, but bring your critical thinking hat as you read it. Dennett's bluffly confident tone can tend to be convincing where sometimes it shouldn't be so convincing. One example: his theory boils down to the claim that conscious experience is an illusion. Ask yourself what that can possibly mean. "It only seems to us that we have conscious experience when really we don't"? That's incoherent, though -- having something seem to be a certain way is itself a conscious experience. Illusions are something that only conscious entities can experience. (Ok, end of rant. Read it, but don't just take his word for things.)
posted by LobsterMitten at 7:32 PM on September 15, 2007 [1 favorite]

ikkyu2, regarding Brian Greene's Elegant Universe: I'm a string theorist, and I have to say this book is alright. It's a fun read that gives you a reasonable flavor of the field, but it is now a bit out of date and does paint Greene's own work in quite a flattering light.

I don't actually have a suggestion for a better string theory book for the non expert though, so that's the one I usually recommend. People with at least some background in undergraduate physics might appreciate Barton Zweibach's A First Course in String Theory.

I do have to strongly recommend my personal favorite physics book which is quite accessible: N David Mermin's Space and Time in Special Relativity. This book will actually teach you the algebra behind SR; it's really quite beautiful and accessible.

Looks like Mermin also has another book on relativity, It's About Time, but I haven't read it.

Oh, and a second for Juggling for the Complete Klutz. I am a complete klutz, and 15 years ago this book taught me to juggle- and I'm still at it.

This is my favorite thread ever.
posted by nat at 7:41 PM on September 15, 2007 [8 favorites]

Speaking of consciousness, David Chalmers says this about the The Blackwell Companion to Consciousness,

"This is a really impressive volume containing about 55 substantial articles, roughly evenly divided between the philosophy and the science of consciousness, written by many of the leading people in the field. I've read a number of the articles already, and they are terrific. For someone wanting a comprehensive yet in-depth guide to the field, there probably isn't a better single source."
posted by Gyan at 3:26 AM on September 16, 2007 [2 favorites]

This is, almost certainly, the most expensive thread in the history of Ask.Metafilter.

Tell me about it. My Amazon WishList just exploded.

My rec: The Cambridge Concise History of Astronomy
posted by Zinger at 1:51 PM on September 16, 2007 [2 favorites]

The one book I wish everyone who hasn't taken a psychology course would read is How to Think Straight About Psychology. It doesn't tell you much about any one area or theory, but it tells you that psychologists think, and do research, much like any other branch of the sciences, and it's a good primer on critical scientific thinking for anyone, in any field.
posted by slow graffiti at 2:45 PM on September 16, 2007 [2 favorites]

A: 13 Fatal Errors Managers Make and How You can Avoid Them. Q: I've just been promoted to management, how do I avoid screwing up?

A: Why Marriages Succeed or Fail. Q: I'm getting hitched, how do I know whether it's going to last?

A: Aha! Insight. Q: What is a deliciously cool book of logic and math puzzles?

A: Story. Q: Why do Hollywood movies suck and how can I do better?

A: The Non-Designer's Design Book. Q: How do I create a business card/poster/newsletter and not have it look crappy?
posted by storybored at 3:10 PM on September 16, 2007 [15 favorites]

In film studies, I'd say that Film Art: An Introduction by David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson and is the gold standard covering all of the main areas and since its always being updated often includes commentary on relatively new films. The latest 8th edition has 'Hidden' on the cover.

To cheat a little, though, to look at some of the more complex issues related to feminism and psychoanalytical approaches, Cinema Studies: The Key Concepts by Susan Hayward is worth looking at. I'd say that these where the two books that got me through my film studies degree.
posted by feelinglistless at 4:54 PM on September 16, 2007 [2 favorites]

For creative writing, the essays and books listed in various comments above are fine for the already initiated in the craft.

However, as an INTRODUCTION to the field, in my opinion nothing beats Stephen King's On Writing. Written both as "a memoir of the craft" and a how-to guideline, King's introduction to his world of literature is exactly what a newcomer needs. If you don't have an interest in creative writing after reading this book, you're not a writer, but if you are there are more detailed and advanced books out there for which On Writing serves as a platform to jump from.
posted by kar at 12:26 AM on September 17, 2007 [5 favorites]

As an introduction to photography, I can only recommend what got me started -- Michael Langford's 35mm Handbook. Starts off simple and explains the possibilities with lots of illustrations of what works and what does not. Still useful today.
posted by seanmpuckett at 9:06 AM on September 17, 2007 [4 favorites]

An Artist's Notebook by Bernard Chaet was the first truly geek reference book for art, especially oil paint, that I referred to over and over.
Then when I had to get a real day job, in the early 90s, I pored over every new edition of David Pogue's Macworld Secrets.
posted by coevals at 12:36 PM on September 17, 2007 [3 favorites]

For Rock Climbing and Mountaineering, read 'Mountaineering, The Freedom of the Hills'

From knots, to food, to weather, to first aid, this is the climber and mountaineer's bible.

Galen Rowell's 'The Inner Game of Outdoor Photography"

If you want to document your travels with something more than just just a knowledge of apeture and shutter, this is the book.
posted by thenormshow at 12:47 PM on September 17, 2007 [1 favorite]

Not a comprehensive book but I find the book with the most "Aha!" moments for Theatre Arts (and possibly screenwriting) is Backwards and Forwards: A Technical Manual for Reading Plays, by David Ball. Despite the dry sounding title, it's the funnest textbook to read that I've ever encountered (and it's really short too).

Parenting: How To Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen so Kids Will Talk (probably also useful for teachers -- actually it's probably just as useful for talking so adults will listen)

Oh, and I second How Buildings Learn, Why Buildings Fall Down, and How To Lie With Statistics. And A Brief History of Time is the Physics 101 text that did the most for me.
posted by winston at 6:28 PM on September 17, 2007 [4 favorites]

Learning From Museums: Visitor Experience and the Making of Meaning, by John Falk and Lynn Dierking, who run the Institute for Learning Innovation, a rather amazing place.
posted by Miko at 7:25 PM on September 17, 2007 [7 favorites]

For use as a reference for stagecraft and theatrical properties artisan work, (rather than as clip art, which I believe it's also marketed as) the pricey Complete Encyclopedia of Illustration is a phenomenal resource.
posted by stagewhisper at 8:13 PM on September 17, 2007

One of each, please!

Well, if people are still adding to this, I'll jump in. For linguistics in general, Language Myths, edited by Bauer and Trudgill. They rounded up language experts and assigned each to write a short, clear essay on common beliefs about language and why those beliefs aren't true. (For example, French is more logical than other languages, black children are verbally deprived, women talk more than men, TV makes everyone sound the same, etc.) Almost all of the essays are excellent, and they guide you to further reading. This book is a great gift for anyone with an unexplored interest in human languages.

For applied linguistics, specifically teaching English to speakers of other languages, either Teaching by Principles: An Interactive Approach to Language Pedagogy or Principles of Language Learning and Teaching (a bit more practical, IIRC), both by H. Douglas Brown, would be a good start. My field is unusual in the vast numbers of completely untrained people who take it on as a profession, both as teachers in overseas schools and as tutors in English-speaking regions. There is a widespread assumption that being a native speaker automatically enables you to teach your native language, but teaching is an entirely different skill set. Brown's books won't replace actual training, but are a good start and don't assume that the reader knows anything about the field. Although both are somewhat geared toward English teaching, most of the information applies to the teaching and learning of any language.
posted by wintersweet at 10:18 AM on September 18, 2007 [4 favorites]

for macrobiology I recommend "The Selfish Gene" by Richard Dawkins.
posted by GoodAaron at 11:26 AM on September 18, 2007

Timing for Animation isn't as flashy or lushly illustrated as The Illusion of Life, but as a concise, nuts and bolts manual for animators it can't be beat.
posted by maryh at 11:37 AM on September 18, 2007 [2 favorites]

A Pattern Language.
A book on architecture, but listed under communities.
posted by dragonsi55 at 8:15 AM on September 19, 2007 [5 favorites]

For hunter-jumper riders:
Hunter Seat Equitation, by George Morris, is the Bible of hunters written by the God of hunters, and starts from the ground up - literally. The first chapter is on mounting the horse. It goes from there to the highest levels of control and refinement in riding and training the hunter.

For artists in general:
The Artist's Complete Guide to Facial Expression, by Gary Faigin. Absolutely amazing book that you don't even have to read - just look at the illustrations and skim the captions, and your understanding and drawing will improve.

For animators specifically:
Cartoon Animation, by Preston Blair, has always been the Animator's Bible of choice amongst teachers I've known along with The Illusion of Life mentioned by maryh above.
posted by po at 9:11 AM on September 19, 2007 [2 favorites]

As an introduction on how computers, and computer logic, works, I highly recommend Code, it's one ofthe few books I always point to when people say they want an interesting book recommendation.
posted by KirTakat at 9:55 PM on September 19, 2007 [3 favorites]

The Yamaha Guide to Sound Reinforcement is THE sound reinforcement reference. Tells you everything you need to know about practical sound setups, and a lot of stuff that you don't know about, but should.

All people who pretend to audiophile status should read this book, weep, ebay their worthless de-oxygenated silver speaker cable, and spend an hour adjusting their sound systems the right way.

Also, whether or not you are an Ansel Adams fan, his trilogy - The Camera, The Negative, and The Print are excellent reading for anybody who wants to learn the craft of photography. Art, well, that's a different matter.
posted by Sukiari at 12:41 AM on September 20, 2007 [4 favorites]

Quine's textbook, Methods of Logic, is one of the best textbook introductions to formal logic.

It is not, however, the best guide to the applications of logic in daily life. I think that the best, and certainly most succinct, text in that area is Weston's Rulebook for Arguments. If your work requires you to productively interact with other human beings at all, you will find it immensely useful.

Finally, if you find yourself enjoying logic so much that you wish to read more as a hobby, many of Lewis Carroll's writings are chock-full of logic, such as the familiar riddles strewn throughout Alice in Wonderland.
posted by voltairemodern at 8:53 PM on September 20, 2007 [4 favorites]

CMHC's Canadian Wood-Frame House Construction is the definitive resource for residential wood frame construction (in Canada anyways). It details both code minimums and best practises and with the exception of a few specialized trades (like septic system) any handy person could build a decent house for the Canadian climate using this text as a reference. If you can find it the plastic comb bound version is a bit more durable; however, the perfect bound version is cheap enough that buying another copy doesn't really hurt..
posted by Mitheral at 2:55 AM on September 21, 2007 [1 favorite]

The noonday demon helped me understand what it really feels like to be depressed, while at the same time giving a complete history of the treatment of depression and covering present day treatments. Plus it's a damn good read.
posted by afu at 5:24 AM on September 21, 2007 [3 favorites]

Vernon Geberth's Practical Homicide Investigation is *the* textbook. Bring a strong stomach. David Simon's Homicide is a great read and gives you a sense of what it's like in the squad room.
posted by CunningLinguist at 6:48 AM on September 21, 2007 [4 favorites]

Doviak & Zrnic's book on Doppler weather radar is the bible in my (niche) field.
posted by landtuna at 10:09 AM on September 21, 2007

Some very specialized recommendations follow:

If anyone wants to learn microscopy: Shinya Inoue's Video Microscopy is a classic. For more advanced microscopy techniques (not just confocal!), The Handbook of Confocal Microscopy is essential. It's the closest thing to the bible of microscopy I've seen.

If you need to learn about fluorescence, "The Principles of Fluorescence Spectroscopy" is your book.

None of these are probably useful to laypeople, but if you know a bit of science and need to know more they are excellent.

For scientific programming (mathematical modelling, etc), I have found the Numerical Recipes series of books (link goes to the 3rd edition, which was just released) excellent. I rarely use their code, but they do an excellent job of explaining the math, the algorithms, and how to implement them. I've learned a lot about data analysis from this book.
posted by pombe at 10:14 AM on September 21, 2007 [2 favorites]

Biological Sequence Analysis: Probabilistic Models of Proteins and Nucleic Acids. I don't think it's a good introduction for laymen, but I can't think of anything better, and for anyone with basic mathematical competence, it's probably as accessible as Genes. I suppose I could be biased because my postdoc adviser is one of the authors, though.

For general statistical analysis, a good not-really-for-laymen textbook is Information Theory, Inference, and Learning Algorithms (free for online reading) and a good rant on the same topic is Probability Theory: The Logic of Science.

For truly introductory books on Math, Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid got me interested, and it was by reading Misteaks... and How to Find Them Before the Teacher Does that I began to grow competent at Math. But that was almost 20 years ago, now.
posted by Coventry at 10:22 AM on September 21, 2007 [5 favorites]

For God’s sake, don’t foist Bringhurst on typographic beginners, or anyone with a low tolerance for dull bloviating and yesterday’s advice. (Quick: How many books have you read with divine-proportion page margins?)

Spiekermann (op. cit.) or James Felici’s The Complete Manual of Typography are much better choices. Spiekermann is of course tons more fun.
posted by joeclark at 1:26 PM on September 21, 2007

Video Game producer:

The Game Producer's Handbook, Dan Irish.

If you've been doing the job for a while, some of the content will elicit "no sh*t, Sherlock" responses, but if somebody were starting from ground zero, this is the book I'd give them.
posted by ga$money at 5:01 PM on September 21, 2007


You can imagine having fun with hypnosis?


Having fun with subtle hypnosis-- really?

If you can imagine smiling and making people smile with subtle hypnosis, so now you want to learn more, start with Bandler and Grinder's Trance-Formations.
posted by darth_tedious at 6:45 PM on September 21, 2007 [2 favorites]

I wouldn't necessarily say it's "my field," but for Texas Hold 'Em Poker, David Sklansky's The Theory of Poker is perhaps the definitive authority for beginners.
posted by Micah at 6:37 AM on September 22, 2007 [3 favorites]

Life in moving fluids: (biological) fluid mechanics explained by a biologist. He does a great job and avoids the usual mathematical overload. For a thorough analysis, there's no substitute for An introduction to Fluid Mechanics by GK Batchelor - but this is only if you plan to study the field, not for a cursory reading.
posted by swordfishtrombones at 8:45 AM on September 22, 2007 [1 favorite]

For bicycle framebulding, The Paterek Manual. For bicycle maintenance, Barnett's Manual.
posted by tim_in_oz at 3:58 AM on September 23, 2007 [3 favorites]

I hope that the Mefi admins keep this thread open for a while; it's one of the best I've come across in a long while.

As a Speech-Language Pathologist, I can't think of one book that covers everything that I am responsible for knowing, alas. Some of the education/teaching books already mentioned certainly would be good, as are the linguistics books. But I can't think of one that encompasses all the facets of treatment in my field. Any SLPs out there have some good suggestions? Or should this link to the Bureau of Labor suffice? It's surprisingly comprehensive and where I direct people when they ask, "You do what?"
posted by absquatulate at 3:06 PM on September 23, 2007

AskMe threads are open for a year.
posted by Mitheral at 4:01 PM on September 24, 2007

Designing with Web Standards 2nd Edition, by the beanie-bearing Jeff Zeldman.
posted by Soup at 7:45 PM on September 25, 2007 [1 favorite]

A Fortran Coloring Book (photo of cover here) by Dr. Kaufman.
posted by flabdablet at 5:16 AM on September 26, 2007 [1 favorite]

People have been citing Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics as a fundamental user-interface and design book, but, well, I actually work in comics. So it gets a vote for that as well.

Nobody's written a book yet about what it's like to actually work in the comic-book industry in the modern age, but as a history lesson for the Golden Age when the whole business was run by the Mafia (no, seriously), Gerard Jones' Men Of Tomorrow is pretty unbeatable.
posted by logovisual at 8:14 AM on September 27, 2007

Titles 6 and 8, Code of Federal Regulations. Thrilling reads I assure you.
posted by Pollomacho at 2:54 PM on September 28, 2007

Zen Training by Katsuki Sekida.
posted by simonemarie at 9:03 PM on September 28, 2007

Jewelry making and metal work:

The Complete Metalsmith by Tim McCreight

The Encyclopedia of Jewelry-Making Techniques by Jinks McGrath
posted by Flakypastry at 5:27 AM on October 1, 2007 [1 favorite]

Accounting for Dummies?
posted by vin43075 at 5:48 AM on October 1, 2007

These are the books I keep going back to:

Marine Ecology: Marine Ecological Processes by Ivan Valiela (I also recommend his Doing Science on "How to be a scientist")

Oceanography: Fundamentals of Oceanography, by Sverdrup, Duxbury, and Duxbury

Coastal Marine Ecology: The Ecology of Atlantic Shorelines by Mark Bertness

Population Biology: A Primer of Ecology by Nicholas Gotelli
posted by nekton at 12:51 PM on October 2, 2007 [3 favorites]

It's a pleasure to see what everybody does. Hurrah for McCloud on comics and Burton on melancholy. If you do what I do generally (English lit.) I would register respectful disagreement with whoever recommended Terry Eagleton and plump for Wellek and Watson's Theory of Literature. If you do what I do specifically (18th century British prose), the noble Life of Johnson will introduce you to everybody who's anybody in something resembling their own words.
posted by sy at 7:52 PM on October 2, 2007 [1 favorite]

For learners of the Japanese kanji, Jack Halpern's book The Kodansha Kanji Learners Dictionary is indispensable. There's more to be learned from this dictionary than most other books on the Japanese language.
posted by dead_ at 11:16 AM on October 4, 2007 [1 favorite]

I always recommend The Mythical Man-Month: Essays on Software Engineering as a look into to the counter-intuitive world of software development. For example, "Brooks' Law": "Assigning more programmers to a project running behind schedule, may make it even more late."
posted by maschnitz at 11:55 AM on October 4, 2007

Dynamics: The Geometry of Behavior, by Abraham and Shaw. It's a picture book of dynamical systems theory. Shaw's terrific hand-drawn illustrations provide a powerful intuitive understanding of the core concepts of this intensely geometrical and abstract subject: invariant manifolds, attractors, global stability, local and global bifurcations, and, of course, chaos. I have all of my students read it when they start with me.

It's an excellent prelude to rigorous mathematical study, but it also is great for people who just want to know the subject in an informal, yet substantial, way. It used to come in about 4 volumes. They've all apparently been merged into one.
posted by mondo dentro at 7:58 PM on October 4, 2007 [3 favorites]

It's mentioned in the thread on introductions to math logic, but I want to second here Godel, Escher & Bach, an Eternal Golden Braid as a fantastic book about logic and computer science aimed and laymen.
posted by Zach! at 4:09 PM on October 5, 2007

Thanks all. I will be ordering about 80% of the books here (not for a personal collection, building a new library for a liberal arts college). The thread may be dying down, but if not, keep 'em coming.

How about books on:

cognitive science
materials science
genetics (there have been a few, but can you think of any more?)
molecular biology (again, can you add anything?)
art history
history (particulary non-Western Civ. or world history).
economics (a few were mentioned, but surely there are more)
posted by bumpkin at 8:36 AM on October 7, 2007

cognitive science

The Cognitive Neurosciences III
posted by Gyan at 1:47 AM on October 9, 2007 [1 favorite]

Stith Thompson, Motif-Index of Folk-Literature
posted by sushiwiththejury at 12:23 AM on October 10, 2007

This thread is brilliant - but oh my aching visa card!

For a flavour of why geologists get so excited by those plain ol' pebbles I recommend Reading The Rocks by Marcia Bjornerud. It's a tiny bit techy in parts but overall a hugely readable intro into earth sciences.
posted by freya_lamb at 3:08 PM on October 10, 2007 [1 favorite]

For economics, I'd say Economics in One Lesson.
posted by champthom at 2:22 PM on October 13, 2007 [4 favorites]

Another for the creative writing stack: the underrated but excellent Making Shapely Fiction by Jerome Stern.
posted by dontoine at 10:52 PM on October 13, 2007 [2 favorites]

The Backstage Handbook the indispensable survey of technical theater arts. Though not exhaustive, there is nothing quite like it. I don't really work in the field any more, but even in my dopey higher-ed job I reference it every now and then.
posted by milquetoast at 9:51 PM on October 14, 2007

...is the indispensable survey...

For theater generally, I'd have to go with The Empty Space by Peter Brook.
posted by milquetoast at 10:04 PM on October 14, 2007

For screenwriting, as well as Lajos Egri previously cited I'd add Syd Field's SCREENPLAY, which is execrable and yet still somehow required reading. McKee's STORY and Linda Seger's MAKING A GOOD SCRIPT GREAT are state of the art.

Documentary filmmaking: Michael Rabiger's DIRECTING THE DOCUMENTARY.

posted by unSane at 6:43 AM on October 15, 2007 [1 favorite]

Thanks a lot, people. I just spent $300 at amazon.

... dammit.
posted by zerolives at 9:51 PM on October 15, 2007 [2 favorites]

Another knitting recommendation: Vogue Knitting. It covers everything. For example, a lot of knitting books may talk about dropping stitches without explaining how that's done. This book also explains how to repair stitches which were dropped accidentally, and has instructions for several methods of casting on and casting off.
posted by halonine at 9:34 AM on October 16, 2007

For Anthropometry Stephen Pheasant's Bodyspace will tell you, for example, the 5th percentile knuckle height for women - or how high to make the riser on a stair.

For film making Roy Thompson's "The Grammar of the Shot" will help you plan your pans and much else besides.
posted by rongorongo at 4:37 PM on October 17, 2007

A few have mentioned books for maths, but they were books for exploring some interesting fun with numbers, rather than books intended for someone who would seriously be learning maths. If you want an introductory book because you are going to be learning seriously, allow me to recommend a few books:

For high school algebra: Elementary And Intermediate Algebra by Timothy Craine is probably the best high school algebra book out there in terms of preparing a person for further study. It goes a little bit into university algebra, too, so if you are using this as a prepatory book for university, you will find the transition into university level maths to be seamless.

Trig: Precalculus by Margaret L. Lial. Unfortunately, it's a little dry in its tone, but it will give you an excellent background to prepare you for calc. It is very heavily focused on the applications of the mathematics you are learning, which I think is a big advantage.

Calc: The Calculus Tutoring Book by Carol Ash is also a little dry, but clear and easy to follow.

Linear Algebra: Matrix Analysis and Applied Linear Algebra Book by Carl Meyer is a book you really need to have a good background to understand well, because it is much lighter on review than other textbooks, but if you have a solid background in advanced algebra, then you should get through this book smoothly.

I have yet to find truly excellent introductory books on number theory, discrete math and probability. I learned this stuff by going to the library and reading the snippets that were well written out of a variety of books. If anyone is aware of good introductory books in these fields, please share.
posted by giggleknickers at 4:16 PM on October 18, 2007 [14 favorites]

Energy (Thermodynamics):
Incropera & DeWitt
posted by pegstar at 6:13 PM on October 22, 2007

The Horse's Mind by Lucy Rees

Equine psychology in a highly readable, un-hyped form.
posted by Arqa at 4:20 PM on October 25, 2007

The Code Book for a good history of cryptanalysis.
posted by Poleris at 12:36 PM on November 1, 2007 [2 favorites]

Orientalism - You may not agree with it, but there it is.

Albert Hourani's A History of the Arab Peoples - An excellent social history of the Middle East.

Robert D. Kaplan's The Arabists: The Romance of an American Elite - Gives a great introduction to the human aspect of American foreign policy in the Middle East
posted by awenner at 6:41 AM on December 17, 2007

Response by poster: I'll add another:

Sir Anthony Kenny, a leading English philosopher and former President of the British Academy, among other honors, has recently completed his four-volume history of western philosophy:

Volume 1: Ancient Philosophy
Volume 2: Medieval Philosophy
Volume 3: The Rise of Modern Philosophy
Volume 4: Philosophy in the Modern World

The links are to the paperback version, except volume 4, which has not come out in paperback yet.
posted by limon at 9:45 PM on December 23, 2007 [3 favorites]

Machiavelli's The Prince is pretty essential for any politician as it is considered a "classic study of power - how to get it, expand it and use it for maximum effect."
posted by andythebean at 2:11 PM on March 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

"Stimmo", as he's lovingly known in my area, wrote The Book a while ago; he named it "Introduction to Airborne Radar".

Highly recommended, and I'd say not a bad template for an introductory-to-intermediate text on any complex subject.
posted by Cods at 10:26 PM on March 31, 2008 [1 favorite]

The Intellectual Foundations of Information Organization by Elaine Svenonius is pretty much the authoritative work in my field (Google Books). It's dry, but taxonomy is a dry field.
posted by stet at 10:03 AM on June 3, 2008 [1 favorite]

Living Folklore: An Introduction to the Study of People and Their Traditions by Sims and Stephens

Introduction to Historical Linguistics by Anthony Arlotto (sadly not very available, and does presume some knowledge of general linguistics)

For beginning ethnographers, People Studying People: The Human Element in Fieldwork raises issues in ethnography and provides a lot of insight in how to do it ethically, under real conditions. Since I'm still a beginning ethnographer myself, and therefore not very well-read on it, there may be better examples (and certainly more well-known ones--check the "Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought" section) in the field, but this is the book I know, and the thread hasn't really touched on ethnography, so I thought I'd throw it in.

For writing: The Writer's Presence: A Pool of Readings by McQuade and Atwan
posted by manguero at 10:01 PM on August 9, 2008 [4 favorites]

hmmm... I'm a little late to the party.

Interested in wine? The University Wine Course is a great introduction that goes beyond the soft fluffy "how to taste" books and looks at viticulture and vinification as well.

Understanding Wine Technology has to be the best technical yet incredibly accessible introduction to wine making.
posted by melogranato at 1:39 PM on August 25, 2008 [3 favorites]

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