Non-Famous Non-Fiction

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?

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Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World by Nicholas Ostler. I loved this book - it's the history of how different languages grew, spread, mutated and died over 5000 years.

By Bayoris the Goatherd (not verified) on 24 Jun 2011 #permalink

The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan
This really made me understand how bad the dust bowl was.

The Children's Blizzard by David Laskin
Another one that shows the power of weather and its devastating impact.

The Frozen-Water Trade: A True Story By Gavin Weightman
Unbelievable that in the days before refrigerators ice was actually shipped from the US to India.

The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History by John M. Barry
Interesting for its descriptions of the state of medicine/medical practice in the US in the late 1800s and early 1900s, as well as the way politics and the war affected the spread of the flu.

The Story of Science: Aristotle Leads the Way
The Story of Science: Newton at the Center
The Story of Science: Einstein Adds a New Dimension
all by Joy Hakim. Targeted at middle schoolers, but I enjoyed them and found them interesting.

By Jo in OKC (not verified) on 24 Jun 2011 #permalink

A Miracle, a Universe by Lawrence Weschler
A harrowing but wonderfully written book about societies dealing with the aftermath of state torture.

By Simon Ross (not verified) on 24 Jun 2011 #permalink

Here are some suggestions:

Monster: Living Off the Big Screen, by John Gregory Dunne. Dunne tells the story of writing the screen play for what became Up Close and Personal, which is "based" on the book Golden Girl about Jessica Savitch. It chronicles Dunne's attempts to stay true to the source material. It's a great insider account of some of the forces that shape modern movies. My favorite part comes when Dunne asks the producer what he thinks the movie is about. His answer? "It's about two movie stars."

The Logic Of Failure: Recognizing And Avoiding Error In Complex Situations by Dietrich Dorner. Dorner is a psychologist who studies how people make decisions about complex systems. Very interesting and enlightening, the tl;dr version is "not very well."

The Challenger Launch Decision: Risky Technology, Culture, and Deviance at NASA, by Diane Vaughn. An excellent, engrossing study of what happened within NASA that allowed the Challenger to be launched.

By Chris Goedde (not verified) on 24 Jun 2011 #permalink

Isaac Asimov wrote a significant amount of nonfiction in addition to the fiction for which he is better known. That was one of the main influences that pushed me toward a career in science. These days you are more likely to find these books secondhand, but some of them are still in print. Asimov would write about just about anything that caught his fancy; e.g., there is an Asimov's Guide to the Bible (which I have read). One of the more interesting tidbits: the Greek mythological character Iapetus has a cameo role in Genesis.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 24 Jun 2011 #permalink

Well, Gödel, Escher, Bach was already listed, so I'll say my second favorite, Richard Dawkins' The Ancestor's Tale.

John McPhee's collections on geology (Basin & Range, etc).
Bill Bryson's "Short History of Nearly Everything" is a delightful romp.
Steven Weinberg's "The First Three Minutes" remains a good introduction.
And Darwin's "Voyage of the Beagle" is remarkably readable for it's period, and available in paperback and by free download in several formats.

John M. Barry's "Rising Tide" is an amazing book about the 1927 Mississippi River flood. A good look at the river, the engineering challenges, the social and political aspects of the flood, how the federal government responded to the flood, etc.

"Common Ground", by J Anthony Lukas. School integration in Boston in the '70's, from the point of view of three families.

"Young Men and Fire", by Norman Maclean, about smokejumpers and the 1949 Mann Gulch fire.

"The Travels of a T-shirt in the Global Economy", by Pietra Rivoli. From where the cotton is grown to where the shirt ends up after you drop it off at Goodwill, what happens to that t-shirt you're wearing.

None of these were on either the Guardian or the NYTimes lists, though at least the first three were critically acclaimed when they came out and "Common Ground" won the Pulitzer.

Well this changes, so here are some current ones. Oerter's book is definitely on my list also.

"Earth" by Richard Fortey is better than McPhee's books, newer and with a better perspective to me. Is British dry sometimes.

"After the Ice" is a neat look at the last 25000 years or so, up until that boring real history stuff kicked in. It really gives a perspective on what the Last Glacial Maximum did to humanity and how odd the stable climate has been the last few thousand years.

"Jaguars Ripped my Flesh" and "A Wolverine is eating my Leg" by Tim Cahill have to mentioned although they are older. They are compilations of his columns from Outdoor and other magazines. The titles are enough, but they are fascinating.

And of course Knuth's "Fundamental Algorithms". Got to have that. It is kind of like Principia but with impossible exercises thrown in as suggestions as well.

How about "The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody", by Will Cuppy, or "How to Lie With Statistics", by Darrell Huff? Both were popular enough when they were published, but are kind of falling through the cracks these days.

How to Lie With Statistics is, indeed, a terrific little book, though it's badly hurt by inflation-- the opening anecdote marvels at the average salary of $22,000 (or something close to that) reported for Yale alumni of a certain year. We're supposed to be impressed by how large that number is (because it was big when the book was written), but nowadays, it suggests that most of the class is unemployed or something...

Somebody should really do a new edition with updated numerical values.

The Eighth Day of Creation: Makers of the Revolution in Biology by Horace Freeland Judson
It is thick and may not be as easy to read as, say "The Double Helix," but you can learn a lot about the history of molecular biology revolution and characters involved in it.

The Second Creation: Makers of the Revolution in Twentieth-Century Physics by Robert P. Crease and Charles C. Mann
A very accessible book about the history of elementary particle physics.

Natural Obsessions: The Search for the Oncogene by Natalie Angier
Angier spent some time with Robert Weinberg's lab at the period they were making some of the most exciting discoveries in cancer biology. This is really a fun book to read on human dramas in doing science.

Breaking the Maya Code by Michael D. Coe
This is a fascinating story of how the Maya script was deciphered.

Sync: How Order Emerges From Chaos In the Universe, Nature, and Daily Life by Steven H. Strogatz

Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals' Abuse of Science by Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont
One of the authors is Alan Sokal of the Sokal hoax fame. I am biased because I am a scientist, but the abuse of science by these intellectuals are so bad that they are funny.

Thanks for the pointer about Culture of Complaint, except it's not available on Kindle. The 90s may be over, but the vast majority of certain parts of our faculty (and yours, no doubt) come from the era of the culture wars. How else to explain this question from a job application?…

And those wars seem to be coming back yet again if you follow national politics.

By CCPhysicist (not verified) on 24 Jun 2011 #permalink

I'm a military history buff so my first two are military in nature...

Shelby Foote's American Civil War trilogy. Foote was primarily a novelist and his writing is excellent.

'The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors', James Hornfischer's narrative of the battle off Samar which formed part of the Battle of Leyte Gulf.

'Into Thin Air' by John Krakauer.

By NoAstronomer (not verified) on 24 Jun 2011 #permalink

My favorite non-fiction books:

"Kill Devil Hill" by Harry Combs with Martin Caidin is the story of the Wright brothers' first manned controlled flight and the remarkable men who made it possible.

"An Introduction to General Systems Thinking" by Gerald M. Weinberg is an insightful look at complex systems and the mental tools used to understand them.

I will put Godel, Escher, Bach on the list regardless. People can sneer if they will, but I found and read the book when I was just about finishing an MSEE. While GEB was not decisive, it was certainly a factor in my gradual move from straight engineering over to computer science, and it is quite possible that if I had not read it, I would not be in a PhD program today. (I hated computer science and programming, as an undergrad.)

I will also add The Shield of Achillles by Phil Bobbitt. It is a look at modern western history (Renaissance and afterward) as the interplay of technology, war, and legal frameworks against each other. Bobbitt is a seriously, seriously smart guy, and he writes well in my opinion, so I found this riveting. It was written about ten years ago, so it's getting a little dated, and as with all Big Schemes of History, he may try a little too hard to force things to fit. Even so, well worth reading.

And I'll end with Four Thousand Years Ago which is actually pretty obscure. I stumbled across it completely by accident in the library as an undergrad, and recently tracked down a used copy through Amazon. It's light history of the period from 3000 BC to 200 BC, with two gimmicks:

First, the chapters are "written to human scale," by which the author means that each one gives a thumbnail sketch of a common man's view in 70-year chunks, showing the changes they would have seen in their lives. This is by conscious contrast to photographs or illustrations showing a six foot tall guy alongside some Great Big Structure, to illustrate the scale. Second, there are some things that happened in (say) 2500 BC that are very obscured to history-- they probably weren't obscure in 2300 BC, though, and the author carefully notes large examples of these things as he goes along.

That one was written in 1961, and so is now very dated. And the description I just gave has the potential to make it awful... except it was written by Geoffrey Bibby, the archaeologist who discovered Dilmun, so he kinda knew what he was talking about. This book was one of the accidental discoveries that got me interested in history, just as I was taking the last history class I was ever required to take. Little did I know I'd end up with about a bookcase and a half of history books over the next 20 years.

By John Novak (not verified) on 24 Jun 2011 #permalink

The Far Traveler: Voyages of a Viking Woman, by Nancy Marie Brown combines archeology and analysis of Viking sagas, to figure out the likely voyages of Gudrin, around the year 1000, between Greenland and Vinland.

The Power of Their Ideas, by Deborah Meier. How a public school (in Harlem) can be.

Talking Hands: What Sign Language Reveals About the Mind, by Margalit Fox.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot. But this one I picked up at the airport, so perhaps too famous?

Science-wise, I'm rather fond of Robert Oerter's The Theory of Almost Eevrything [...]. It's somewhat overlooked because it's primarily about what we already know, not speculation about stuff that may or may not be true.

This is exactly what makes this book great. It is one of few relatively recent popular-science books that will actually try to teach you and help you understand something about what science has actually found out in the last fifty-odd years or so, rather than try to impress you with speculations and half-explained quantum/relativity weirdness.

The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher by Lewis Thomas.

Pardon me if in my search I failed to see that someone has in fact listed it already, but I can't let it go by if it hasn't.

Chasing the Sea: Lost Among the Ghosts of Empire in Central Asia, by Tom Bissell (Uzbekistan 1996â97), Pantheon Books, September 2003.

Numerous reviews are available, of course. It is a traveler's adventure in the classic sense. It attains a sense of timelessness as it interweaves a sweeping sense of history with Bissell's experiences on the ground. Eventually it arrives at the Aral sea, the site of an unprecedented environmental disaster with frightening consequences for the region and perhaps the world (not that I think anyone here would be unfamiliar with the situation). The title of the book is apt, in that the vast majority of the book is getting to the sea. Bissell's focus is, throughout, on the journey, the people, the history of the regions he travels through on his way there, but one might think of it as assembling a gun, looking at the pieces of it and fitting them together, loading the gun, and then firing it as the last scene. It is, in my esteem, a genuine tour de force.

By James Pomeroy (not verified) on 25 Jun 2011 #permalink

So, a few that I'd add to the list.

First, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, by Hunter S. Thompson. Not really his biggest or most well known work, but his writing in it is just brilliant, and what got me hooked on his works.

The rest all are from the history section.

Dreadnought and Castles of Steel by Robert K. Massie. These two books cover from about 1901 until the end of WW I, and the naval arms race between Britain and Germany and how everything played out in The Great War.

Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, William Shirer. This book always symbolized the start of the summer for me. I'd check it out and read it at the end of every school year in junior high and high school, and what got me interested in and reading about history and military history.

I'll second Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. I read that over one summer on a rowboat. Also, Coe's book on decoding Mayan, an amazing story that begins with the fall of Berlin in '45, and Godel, Escher and Bach, which is the best layman's introduction to recursive function theory around.

I'll add Havil's Gamma: Exploring Euler's Constant which is an amazing exploration of complex analysis. I can only describe it as sweet. Also, Perrin's Les Atomes, which is basically about Avogadro's number, determined ten or so different ways. That's the book that clinched the atom theory of matter. In history, I'll go for McPherson's Battle Cry of Freedom, a truly great history of the civil war and Hackett-Fischer's A Great Wave, a study of a thousand years of inflation, collapse and economic cycles.

"Consciousness Explained" & "Darwin's Dangerous Idea" by Daniel Dennett.

"Consciousness Explained" is a bit dated in terms of the actual science, but since Dennett is a philosopher its actually not that important. The real heart of this book is a program for deciding what would constitute an explanation for consciousness, which isn't as obvious as one might think.

"Darwin's Dangerous Idea" is a really impassioned argument for the explanatory power of natural selection. If nothing else, you have to admire a complete outsider coming in to the field of evolution and writing a book that devotes an entire chapter ripping Steven Jay Gould for being insufficiently Darwinian. Its like a recent convert to Catholicism criticizing the Pope for being insufficiently Catholic.

I'll second "Into Thin Air", it was written very shortly after the events it describes so the time for research as well as emotional distance was limited - this is a big part of the impact that it has.

If you liked "Into Thin AIr" its worth mentioning Joe Simpson's "Touching the Void" which is as harrowing a tail of survival as you can imagine told in an unfailingly deadpan manner. The BBC made a docu-drama style documentary recently (of the same name) which is also worth watching as it features interviews with the author and other participants in the events. Any iota of interest in adventure climbing you might have left after reading "Into Thin Air" will be completely crushed by reading this book.

I have to pop back into this thread to second Lee's recommendations of Into Thin Air and Touching the Void. And I would especially recommend getting the audiobook version of Into Thin Air, as it is read by Jon Krakauer himself, which adds a dimension to the work that is both intimate and harrowing.

Finally, in the same vein as the two above, I have to recommend (or re-recommend; I don't know if someone's already listed it and I'm too lazy this morning to look) Robert Kurson's spellbinding work, Shadow Divers (, which recounts the discovery and exploration of a German U-boat 60 miles off the coast of New Jersey and 230 feet under the tumultuous Atlantic waves. I could not put it down.

By James Pomeroy (not verified) on 26 Jun 2011 #permalink

Francis Spufford's Backroom Boys: The Return of the British Boffin, a history of some British engineering projects from 1950 to 2000, Blue Streak, Elite, Concorde, cell phones, the Human Genome Project and a Mars lander.

Anne de Courcy's The Viceroy's Daughers a biography of Lord Curzon's daughters which is also a wonderful introduction to Britain of the 20s and 30s, including lots of sex and politics.

Robert Sapolsky's A Primate's Memoir, the memoir of a primate researcher's travels to Africa to research baboons, with lots about baboons and lots about scientists, seen from the same angle. Hilarious and clever and absorbing.

John Morris's Londinium a big readable book about Roman London with lots of archaeology and history and detail.

George Orwell's four volume Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters, one of the most readable collections of such things ever.

Similarly Cicero's Selected Letters, the Penguin Classics edition which arranges a selection of Cicero's letters in chronological order, unlike all the other editions in the world, and which gives you the feeling of actually being there and the events of the end of the Republic happening around your head.

Jack Cohen's The Privileged Ape, a really interesting book about biology and evolution.

Let me add another vote for How to Lie with Statistics, one of my other favourite non-fiction books.

By Jo Walton (not verified) on 26 Jun 2011 #permalink

The Visual Display of Quantitative Information by Edward R. Tufte is applicable to many (most? all?) branches of science. Science communication would be better if every science writer read it and re-read it.

The nonfiction I read is pretty eclectic, almost random. Here are some favorites:

Godel, Escher, Bach by Douglas Hofstadter (already mentioned several times)
Le Ton Beau de Marot, by Douglas Hofstadter (about language and translation)
Lies Across America AND Lies My Teacher Told Me, by James Loewen (reexamining commonly held misconceptions about history)
Some of Bill Bryson's stuff, try A Walk in the Woods or Made in America.
Small World AND States of Mind by Brad Herzog (travel around small town America)
Bringing Down the House, Ben Mezrich (MIT students figure out how to win a lot of money playing blackjack)
The Cold War, John Lewis Gaddis (self-evident)