Beautiful Non-Fiction Books Needed
December 31, 2007 6:17 AM   Subscribe

Can you recommend some beautiful / well designed non-fiction books? Topic is (mostly) irrelevant.

I appear to have developed a fondness for books that are extremely well designed, regardless of whether the actual content interests me or not. I'm more interested in the layout, quality of the paper, the "feel" of the book, the pedagogy, the infographics / diagrams, all that sort of thing.

It's rather hard finding books like this as the best books (in a factual sense) in a particular field are not necessarily the best designed. I'm looking for books that may even totally get things wrong, but that still feel nice and present things in a compelling way (even if incorrect). All these books seem to act as a sort of mental compost for me, especially as I am in the field of writing informational and instructional texts / books myself.

Here are a few books I totally dig that would meet these criteria, just for inspiration with the answers:

Steve Krug - Don't Make Me Think
Scott McCloud - Understanding Comics
Edward Tufte - Visual Display of Quantitative Information
Edward Tufte - Envisioning Information
Tres Logos
Most "TASCHEN" books
O'Reilly's "Head First" series (such as Head First Java)
Karen Cheng - Designing Type
Aho, Lam, Sethi & Ullman - Compilers (the "Dragon" book)
Roy H Williams - The Wizard Of Ads

The topic of the books is not important. The books just need to be well designed, feel nice, look good on the bookshelf, and be enjoyable to thumb through.
posted by wackybrit to Media & Arts (32 answers total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
Selected Non-Fiction of Jorge Luis Borges (in hard cover if possible, but the paper back is really nice, too!)
posted by milarepa at 6:23 AM on December 31, 2007

Alan Fletcher, The Art of Looking Sideways.

Though it would be wastful not to read in it.
posted by ijsbrand at 6:28 AM on December 31, 2007 [1 favorite]

That link doesn't show what I thought it would bring. Try this one.
posted by ijsbrand at 6:31 AM on December 31, 2007

A designer friend of mine was leafing through our copy of John Cage's Notations on Saturday and was completely blown away by its design. I just took a look on Amazon and it seems to be out of print and hideously expensive right now, but if you ever stumble across a cheap secondhand copy like we did, it's well worth picking up. If you don't like the design, you can apparently resell it for an exorbitant fee, so it'll be a win-win situation!
posted by Stacey at 6:37 AM on December 31, 2007

Paola Antonelli's Safe and Humble Masterpieces.

The Lucky Shopping Manual actually has a pleasing heft and a nice feel when open. It has a very "clean" layout.

I like Yann Arthus-Bertrand's Earth from Above, even though it's difficult to navigate because the sections aren't clearly marked. But it's very square and bold, and it's massive so it definitely makes a statement on a coffee table or bookshelf. (Bonus: the content is awesome.)

I love Irma Boom's book designs; see also here (mainly in Dutch) and here (YouTube video of 20 of her designs).
posted by korres at 6:59 AM on December 31, 2007

I think Metafilter's own John Hodgman's book, The Areas of My Expertise was well done with regard to infographics and cover design.

Charles Schumann's Amercian Bar and Stephan Gabanyi's Whisk(e)y, both from the Abbeville Press, are nicely done as well.
posted by mds35 at 7:01 AM on December 31, 2007

The illustrated edition of 1776 is very nice, with vellum folders throughout containing nice reproductions of period documents such as maps and posters.
posted by TedW at 7:11 AM on December 31, 2007

I love Phaidon press books and can leaf through any of them. I loved year's 30,000 years of art for example. Any book by david macaulay, for example The Way Things Work.
posted by shothotbot at 7:39 AM on December 31, 2007 [1 favorite]

Davey and Priestley's Lattices and Order is gorgeous. And if you enjoy maths and read it, it's so well written it hurts. Heh.
posted by Iosephus at 7:41 AM on December 31, 2007

Anita Albus published a book called The Art of Arts: Recollections of Painting, with full-color illustrations of some of the raw pigments used to produce various colors. It's a beautiful, beautiful book, also beautifully written.

There's a four-volume set of books called How Things Work, whose publication history is really weird. I think it's translated from German, originally published in Geneva, reprinted in the U.S. by Simon & Schuster, and the only listed writer is Roger-Jean Segalat, who was the illustrator. In any case, these books are gorgeous, each two-page spread explaining in some detail how some device or principle in physics actually works, with a clear, breathtaking illustration to guide your imagination.

And Robert Bringhurst's lovely book, The Elements of Typographic Style, should probably also be mentioned in this class, as well as D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson's On Growth and Form (reprinted by Dover).
posted by cgc373 at 7:51 AM on December 31, 2007

The new hardcover Yale edition of EH Gombrich's A Little History of the World is beautiful. As is the new Phaidon edition of Gombrich's Story of Art. Ben Schott's Miscellany series are very nicely made.
posted by WPW at 8:10 AM on December 31, 2007

Edward Tufte writes books about how to present information visually (mostly data graphics) and all of his books that I've seen have been beautifully designed, laid out and printed.
posted by Quietgal at 8:22 AM on December 31, 2007

crap, missed Tufte in your list up there. insufficiently caffeinated is my excuse.
posted by Quietgal at 8:23 AM on December 31, 2007

Books I have given:

Libraries of the world (I'm not sure if this is the same book, but it's beautiful)

Books I've received:

The Deep. Has its own website.
posted by codybaldwin at 8:33 AM on December 31, 2007

Huh. Amazon's recommendation engine pointed out that people who have looked at some of the stuff I looked at in order to make my comment above also buy Philip Ball's The Self-Made Tapestry, and I had in fact meant to bring it up. Also, William McDonough's book Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, in addition to being quite attractive itself, also embodies some of its own philosophy of design, being made not of paper but of recyclable materials similar to the packaging for yogurt containers. And the WorldChanging people produced a solid book this year, which in part summarizes some of what they've been up to on the web in the past few years, and in part works as a manifesto for further worldchanging activism. It's pretty great and interestingly put-together.
posted by cgc373 at 8:38 AM on December 31, 2007

shothotbot is right with Phaidon - I particularly like this one.
posted by djgh at 8:41 AM on December 31, 2007

Response by poster: Quietgal: I only own TVDoQI and EI. If you had to recommend any single other book of Tufte's, what would it be? I haven't got his latest one yet either.
posted by wackybrit at 8:45 AM on December 31, 2007

Check out Rudy Vanderlans' Supermarket, among other Gingko Press titles.
posted by generalist at 8:54 AM on December 31, 2007

I bought The Measure of Man & Woman for my friends who have what I think of as a high design style who just had a baby. It's about human factors in design and the book itself is lovely and full of anthropmetric drawings of people including a really good set of developmental indicators for child development. You can do a little peeking inside over at Amazon. The only caveat is that the book is in a fairly non-standard size and so might be awkward on a normal-depth bookshelf.
posted by jessamyn at 8:56 AM on December 31, 2007

Wow. Great thread. I imagine we'll be thumbing through more than one recent Xmas gift.

I got a lump of coal this Xmas, but here are a couple fun non-fiction books:

Bent Ply. "The authoritative illustrated history of modern plywood furniture." The cover is made of ... Ply (unfortunately, it's not bent).

This one is wrapped in less interesting cover material, but it includes samples (scores of 'em) of the subject material: What Wood is That?

Yeah, it's true. I like wood.
posted by notyou at 8:59 AM on December 31, 2007

Seconding the Art of Looking Sideways, a fascinating book that is also a joy to handle.
posted by patricio at 9:10 AM on December 31, 2007

Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid is a hefty, beautiful book, IMHO.
posted by jockc at 10:12 AM on December 31, 2007

Seconding Bringhurst's book.

Another one to consider, though it's not exactly what you're looking for, is Thomas and Turner's Clear and Simple as the Truth. It's a very good book about writing in the classic style, but for this discussion you'll appreciate that the typography and page layout are beautiful and understated. It's quiet and subtle, and a very nice example of the principles described by Bringhurst.
posted by terceiro at 10:52 AM on December 31, 2007

The Art of Computer Programming by Knuth. He invented his own typesetting system in order to make it look the way he wanted.
posted by aofl at 11:17 AM on December 31, 2007

Well you hit on multiple criteria -- physical quality of the book (paper, etc.), visual / graphical beauty, and pedagogy. In any case, the Tufte books were the first ones that popped into my head. I see that you have the compiler book on there, so I'll throw one out that has some unique characteristics on the geeky pedagogy end: Physically Based Rendering: From Theory to Implementation. It's about rendering (what you would more generically call computer graphics), and the unique bit is that it really is "from theory to implementation". It does an amazing job of presenting the mathematical theory, the computer science / algorithms, and the implementation (source code) simultaneously in the text -- the book itself was constructed as a "literate program", i.e. it is simultaneously a typeset book and a very capable photorealistic renderer. You can see how it all works in the sample chapter, go far enough in to see the source code and margin cross referencing.
posted by madmethods at 11:38 AM on December 31, 2007

Ah, and of course echoing aofl above -- anything by Knuth. He's the creator of literate programming, and you'll see the ancestry of "Physically Based Rendering" in his stuff.
posted by madmethods at 11:42 AM on December 31, 2007

i like book cover designer chip kidd's monograph. lots of neat pics of kidd's clever, eyecatching, recognizable, and basically awesome cover designs in a big, coffee-table sized book.
posted by twistofrhyme at 11:58 AM on December 31, 2007

I love Tufte as well, and I'll second The Elements of Type, it's a little dry in the design, but it's purposeful, and I liked that. Reading it was one of the first books that made me think about book design. I also like Making and Breaking the Grid, but here are my two recs:

Stefan Sagmeister - Made You Look
Hillman Curtis - MTIV: Making the Invisible Visible

Both worth reading as well.
posted by hue at 5:22 PM on December 31, 2007

The Girlosophy series may interest you.
posted by divabat at 6:33 PM on December 31, 2007

What about the children's "ology" books? I think they're marvelous in design with no consideration whatsoever for content.

They may not exactly meet your criterion of "non-fiction," but the ones that aren't explicitly fantastic do contain some good information (like the Egyptology one), and some of the fantasy ones are set up as factual guides containing counterfactual information.
posted by Cricket at 10:51 PM on December 31, 2007

Response by poster: Pretty much every book suggested here is a good one, and I have added most to my wish list for future trickle purchasing. I know I mentioned Taschen in my example list, but I've ordered Maior Atlas today.. 7 kilograms, 600 pages, of broadsheet sized mediaeval atlas goodness!

I saw the Art of Looking Sideways while in the US and vowed to buy it on my return here, but I forgot about it till mentioned above, so thanks for that! Note that I'm not going to mark best answers, simply because I'd be marking almost every post. Excellent stuff folks.. thanks!
posted by wackybrit at 11:46 AM on January 1, 2008

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