I kicked off the week with a grumpy post about the Guardian’s flawed list of great non-fiction, so let’s end the week with a slightly more upbeat take on the same basic idea. The New York Times did a slightly lighter list, asking their staff to pick favorite nonfiction. The lack of consensus is pretty impressive, but the list is still heavy with books that are famous– even if you haven’t read them (I mostly haven’t), you’ll recognize the titles.
So, famous works of non-fiction are pretty well covered. Which leaves non-famous non-fiction as a decent bloggy topic. So:
What are some of your favorite lesser-known works of nonfiction?
“Lesser-known” here does not necessarily mean “obscure academic works published by university presses in Bulgaria,” just things that aren’t quite as famous as the books on the lists produced by the Guardian and the Times. We’re talking about books that you can almost certainly get easily through Amazon, but won’t necessarily find on the shelves of your local chain bookstore (so the obvious suck-up choice of How to Teach Physics to Your Dog is out– it’s still readily available in most bog-box chains).
I’ll list a few below the fold; provide your own suggestions in the comments.
Before I list some books, a quick caveat: I’m not a huge reader of nonfiction. Most of my leisure reading is trashy genre fiction, so the non-fiction shelf behind me has a rather random scattering of history, pop-science, political commentary, and travel narrative. This is not remotely representative of non-fiction publishing as a general matter, but is fairly representative of my reading habits.
– Hokkaido Highway Blues by Will Ferguson is a terrific story about the author deciding to hitchhike the north-south length of Japan, following the cherry blossoms. Ferguson is Canadian (and, indeed, the author of Why I Hate Canadians), and lived in Japan teaching English for a while, so this is full of really good foreigner-in-Japan stories. Which explains a lot of its appeal to me, but it’s a nice piece of travel writing on its own, I think.
– Apocalypse Pretty Soon by Alex Heard is a collection of essays about various apocalyptic cults and other fringe groups. It’s kind of a pre-9/11 version of Them by Jon Ronson, and less well-known as a result. It covers a pretty wide range of craziness, though, and writes sympathetically about a number of odd people and their odd belief systems.
– Culture of Complaint by Robert Hughes is a blistering attack on the “Culture Wars” of the early ’90’s, and as such is getting a little dated. It’s got some really good rants about the absurdity of that whole era, on both sides, though, and it’s one of the few books about that topic from that era that I actually enjoyed reading.
– Science-wise, I’m rather fond of Robert Oerter’s The Theory of Almost Eevrything, an excellent little book about the Standard Model (Amazon link). It’s somewhat overlooked because it’s primarily about what we already know, not speculation about stuff that may or may not be true, and that’s just not as sexy. But it’s a good read, and gives you a good feel for the actual science of the best theory we have now.
So, there are a few of the lesser-known nonfiction books from my shelves that I think highly of. None were huge bestsellers or critical sensations, and I doubt I’d put them among the best nonfiction books of all time, but I enjoyed them, and still remember bits. So, what suggestions do you have in that vein?