Home / General / Nonfiction Open Thread

Nonfiction Open Thread



Our esteemed colleague howard (Further research shows it was Patricia and not howard and I thank you very much!) recently purchased for me the first volume of the Library of America collection of the science writer Loren Eiseley. I am immediately enchanted by his amazing writing. Someone else (was it also howard? I can’t remember now, sorry!) Patricia also bought for me not too long ago the LOA collection of the African-American essayist Albert Murray, which after reading The Omni-Americans, completely blew my mind with its razor sharp critique of race in 1970, including a contempt for social sciences that far surpasses my own skepticism (this was right after the Moynihan report and between Daniel Patrick Moniyhan and Stanley Elkins, this was an infuriated response).

Anyway, this all made me realize that I need to expand my reading a bit into good quality literary nonfiction. And while I can find all the US history you can want (see tomorrow’s post listing my reading from 2016), what else should I be reading from the last 50 or 75 years? Could be something published last week or it could be some great piece from 1946. So consider this an open thread on non-fiction for a Friday evening.

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Google+
  • Linkedin
  • Pinterest
  • Hogan

    Ellen Willis.

    • howard

      a. ellen willis is well worth reading: i was lucky enough to participate in a weekend workshop with her in 1994, and she was every bit as thoughtful, as insightful, and as wise in person as she is on the page.

      b. i have to confess here that much as i would like to take credit for sending erik loren eisley, i actually sent him something else and someone else deserves the thanks!

      c. same goes for albert murray: i’d like to say i sent it to erik but someone else did and i just wrote up my experiences with murray and i strongly recommend him.

      btw, anyone who is interested in murray (yes, erik, this means you!), should definitely check out jumping at the woodside, the second volume of the recently discovered “savory collection:” lester young live with basie, 1938-40, some of murray’s favorite music.

  • JBC31187

    The Nightmare Years: 1930 – 1940 by William L. Shirer.

    • efgoldman

      The Nightmare Years: 1930 – 1940 by William L. Shirer.

      I read Rise and Fall of the Third Reich the summer I graduated high school (1963). I haven’t been inclined to read another tome of the sort since.

      • JBC31187

        Was it too strong, or just not very good?

        I picked up The Nightmare Years back in high school during the Bush administration. I don’t want to say it “woke” me or anything (I’m pretty dense), but it started to change my mind. Shirer visiting old friends-turned-fascists gives me nightmares now.

        • one of the blue

          Reminds me of working doors pre-election and running into articulate, intelligent-sounding Trump supporters. Bothered me much more than the two or three obnoxious loudmouths I encountered.

          I’m putting Nightmare Years on my list. I read Rise and Fall when I was quite young, but nowadays find the account a little to media-y for my taste. I do recommend Shirer’s Berlin Diary for a very nice day to day account of the difficulties of reporting from Nazi Germany right up through, I believe, the end of 1940.

      • J Alfred Press

        I read Rise and Fall of the Third Reich at a tender age, when I was actually probably far too young to evaluate it meaningfully, except to say that Shirer’s knack for portraying the Great Men of that putrid kingdom of bullshit as insecure, preening, vainglorious, tantrum-prone little pinheads was *very* effective at heading off any of the “Well yes they were evil, but my god how *illustrious and brilliant* some of those people were,” phase that a lot of my friends in the gifted classes went through. My take on Nazis was always simply, “They were evil, and they were shit-heads, and they were grifters and fuck Bowie and anybody else who romanticizes that freakshow.”

        I guess I also thought back a LOT during the election cycle when my savvier friends were explaining to me that Trump could not possibly win because he and his followers were uncouth, stupid, grasping, pathetic, awkward, ugly faliures to Shirer’s description of a generation of pathetic, beaten, underemployed, miserable, fucked up has-beens and never-weres who seized power and wielded that power for monstrous things.

    • Ronan

      Relatedly, if you haven’t read it, recks “diary of a man in despair” is quite good (“good” in the sense of a series of observations, spaced out over a few years, by a conservative German aristocrat consumed by hatred for Hitler and the Nazis. I’m not sure how well it stands up as a historical document, but it’s quite bracing)

      “My life in this pit will soon enter its fifth year. For more than
      forty-two months, I have thought hate, have lain down with hate
      in my heart, have dreamed hate and awakened with hate. I suffo-cate in the knowledge that I am the prisoner of a horde of vicious
      apes, and I rack my brains over the perpetual riddle of how this
      same people which so jealously watched over its rights a few years
      ago can have sunk into this stupor, in which it not only allows itself
      to be dominated by the street-corner idlers of yesterday, but actu-
      ally, height of shame, is incapable any longer of perceiving its
      shame for the shame that it is. “

      • JBC31187

        Ugh. That sounds… familiar.

  • joejoejoe

    Great Plains by Ian Frazier is one of my favorites. Part memoir, part history, part travelogue. Published in 1989.

    • wjts

      I’ve liked most of the Ian Frazier stuff I’ve read. It’s a collection of humor rather than non-fiction, but I remember his Coyote v. Acme being very funny.

      • Warren Terra

        I like Ian Frazier’s Great Plains and On The Rez but I’m not sure I’d recommend both, they overlap a lot. Of the two, probably the latter (though I read it when I was younger and more impressionable, so that may not be fair)

        • wjts

          I think I remember liking Great Plains more than On the Rez, but it’s been ages since I read either.

  • jeer9

    Murray’s correspondence with Ralph Ellison, Trading Twelves, is also well worth a read and filled with interesting observations from both about jazz and race relations.

    Patrick Leigh Fermor’s travel writing.

  • HenryW

    Labor and Monopoly Capital: The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century by Harry Braverman.

    • BGinCHI

      Key text of my excellent undergraduate education.

      I’d also add “All That Is Solid Melts Into Air,” by Marshall Berman.

      • dn

        I’ll second Berman.

        • howard

          and i’ll third it.

    • Warren Terra

      I’ve never read it, but in a somewhat related vein I’ll mention Frederick Lewis Allen, Only Yesterday, which unless I’m confusing it with something else has a good discussion of the origins of the modern corporation.

      • efgoldman

        I’ll mention Frederick Lewis Allen, Only Yesterday

        Allen wrote several popular histories which were current in the 60s. It’s been a long time….
        I remember my (terrific) high school American history teacher didn’t much like him. I read a couple of his books, don’t remember which ones, and enjoyed them.

      • carolannie

        I agree

  • pdxtyler

    Hammer and Hoe by Robin Kelley.

  • dcoffin

    For me, this was professional reading. It’s a continuation of Joel Mokyr’s exploration of the causes and consequences of the “industrial revolution”: A Culture of Growth.

  • jim, some guy in iowa

    “The Night Country” is a *hell* of a good book, but you’ll find that out

    currently plowing through “American Ulysses” by Ronald C White which yes is about Grant- a bit fanboyish, but it moves along and I’m learning things I didn’t know. Richard Norton Smith has a biography of Nelson Rockefeller which looked interesting

    also: Diane Johnson’s bio of Dashiell Hammett and for something completely different if you can find “Private Places/Public Faces” by Abigail McCarthy you will learn about growing up Catholic liberal and Minnesotan during the depression and eventually going to Washington. It ends with Gene leaving her after the various fiascos of 1968- you can tell she was blindsided and maybe still a bit stunned. A remarkable woman, in her own understated way

    edit to add: the Minnesota Historical Society published “Women of the Mayo Clinic- the founding generation” by Virginia Wright-Peterson, about the nuns who built the hospital and various women who worked right alongside the Mayo brothers and created a hell of what we know as modern medicine

  • wjts

    Vassily Grossman’s A Writer at War: A Soviet Journalist with the Red Army, 1941-1945 was a very interesting read, sort of a Soviet Ernie Pyle. I read and enjoyed Paul Kosmin’s The Land of the Elephant Kings: Space, Territory, and Ideology in the Seleucid Empire about a year ago and the subtitle will probably tell you whether or not you would. Fans of the ghost story writer and antiquarian M.R. James are encouraged to check out his Eton and King’s, a memoir of the ~50 years he spent at those two schools.

    • jeer9

      Grossman’s novel Life and Fate is tremendous.

    • N__B

      Vassily Grossman’s A Writer at War: A Soviet Journalist with the Red Army, 1941-1945 was a very interesting read, sort of a Soviet Ernie Pyle.

      And if that’s not depressing enough for your taste, Ivan’s War by Catherine Merridale, an oral and document history of life for the common soldiers in the Red Army.

      • wjts

        The most heartwarmingly horrifying book I’ve ever read is The Wipers Times, more or less The Onion of World War I, written and printed by B.E.F. soldiers in the trenches at the Ypres Salient. Gems include this weather forecast:

        5 to 1 Mist

        11 to 2 East Wind or Frost

        8 to 1 Chlorine.

        • N__B

          The most horrifying war book I’ve read is a WWI novel, Through The Wheat. It makes Dos Passos’s Three Soldiers look like Monty Python.

          • wjts

            Hadn’t heard of it, but yeesh.

            • DocAmazing

              From the other side,Storm of Steel by Ernst Junger.

        • runsinbackground

          Thank you for The Wipers Times! It sounds like exactly what I’ve been looking for. One good turn deserves another: Wandering Ghost: the Odyssey of Lafcadio Hearn, by Jonathan Cott, which includes much material out of print elsewhere, such as Hearn’s early journalism.

    • Bill Murray

      Another interesting book related to the Soviet Union and the US during the Depression

      Ilf and Petrov’s American Road Trip

    • Dagmar

      I was fascinated by Vassily Grossman’s A Writer at War and Life and Fate, which I wandered into after reading Bloodlands by Timothy Snyder.

      • Hogan

        We must have been on the same bus.

    • LFC

      Thanks for mentioning the Kosmin. Wdn’t have run across it otherwise, I’m pretty sure; not to say I’ll nec. read it but am glad to know about it.

  • MPAVictoria

    Recently read Militant Anti-Fascisim: A Hundred Years of Resistance

    I think the lessons of this book are sadly going to be very important over the next 4 years. I encourage you to read it.

    • dl

      i read this recently too (skimmed parts) and wasn’t too impressed. read like a recitation of events. what did you like about it?

  • Todd

    If you like science writing, then any layman-oriented volume by Richard Lewontin or Stephen Jay Gould. Gould has all those essay collections, and I enjoyed Lewontin’s “It Ain’t Necessarily So”.

    Dr. Josephine Baker’s “Fighting or Life” is also a good story of bringing science’s practical benefits to poor people through well-managed government in spite of poorly managed government.

    Also seems like a good place to point out that based on a recommendation from you (I think it may have been a tweet), “The Magna Carta Manifesto” found it’s way down the chimney and is on the list for this winter.

    • wjts

      I thought Gould’s essay collections started going downhill somewhere around Dinosaur in a Haystack. For all his faults, Richard Dawkins’ The Ancestor’s Tale is probably the best popular biology book I’ve ever read.

      • Warren Terra

        Really? I read one Dawkins book (The Blind Watchmaker maybe?) and it had about one and a half good ideas (really, genuinely good and important ideas) endlessly rehashed and stretched out to an insufferably smug hundred or more pages. And that was long before Dawkins was a household name and personally disliked by most people even who might often agree with him.

        • wjts

          I’d agree with that assessment of The Blind Watchmaker, but The Ancestor’s Tale uses different branching points (“convergence points”, I guess, since the chronology of the book runs backwards) in the evolutionary history of life to illustrate various biological principles and ideas. It is, as you’d expect, highly selectionist and gene-centric in its perspective, but even as someone who comes at things from a different outlook, I found it very engaging and well-written.

          • Ronan

            Have you ever read David Anthony’s the horse, the wheel, and language


            ABout the spread of the indo European languages from the Eurasian steppes (my impression Is you have some professional knowledge about such things…. ?)

            • wjts

              I have what might generously be called “professional-adjacent knowledge about such things”. I read a couple of chapters, and thought some of his assumptions about language and culture were overly simplistic, but all the Eurasian archaeologists I know who read it thought his archaeological analysis was both solid and provocative.

        • David Allan Poe

          It’s worth remembering that The Blind Watchmaker was pretty explicitly a polemic, too, which accounts for coming at the same ideas from every possible angle. It shattered me when I read it at around seventeen, as it was designed to do, because I was coming from a background of fundamentalist Christianity. It wasn’t the only thing that brought me out, but it was definitely one of the most important. What might read as insufferable smugness to someone who’s already familiar with Darwinian theory read to me as more along the lines of a boxer who is relentlessly destroying his opponent and taking no small degree of pleasure in it.

          It’s sad that Dawkins turned into (or revealed himself to be) such a fucking asshole.

        • Just at the moment I am madly enjoying dipping into and back out of an old collection of short pieces, The Most of S. J. Perelman.

          Conversations with the Dead by Margaret Atwood: about writing (especially, but not exclusively, writing poetry). I’d also recommend any and all of her books of poetry.

          This fall I reread, for only the second time since first being assigned it in a summer program for 10th graders, Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Great gods, the man can be tendentious and tedious when he gets his monomythic monomania going, but it’s worth it for his (tendentious, but rarely tedious) retellings of this, that, and the other appropriated fragment of someone else’s culture.

          Along the same lines, but (for me) worth rereading many more times than twice, Robert Graves’s two-volume Penguin paperback The Greek Myths. How can’t you love a book whose first reviews included zingers like these?

          ANDREW LANG ONCE WROTE that the history of mythological studies was one of “rash, premature, and exclusive theories.” Robert Graves’ new work on the Greek myths is the latest piece of evidence attesting to the validity of this remark.

          Like The White Goddess its progenitor, The Greek Myths in spite of the tremendous suggestiveness of many things in it is a crank book. That does not exclude its being a work of genius, which in some sense it probably is: so much ingenuity and creative imagination must be worth something.

          If anything in the book were to be taken seriously, it might be worth while to list a few of the sheer ‘howlers’ which stud it; but it is not.

          …That’ll do, at least for now.

          • wjts

            Conversations with the Dead by Margaret Atwood: about writing (especially, but not exclusively, writing poetry). I’d also recommend any and all of her books of poetry.

            I really liked Strange Things: The Malevolent North in Canadian Literature. A.S. Byatt’s On Histories and Stories was pretty good, too.

            • one of the blue

              Speaking of AS Byatt, her Ragnarok is quite good also, though strictly speaking, it’s not non-fiction, since the central tale is framed as the experience of it by a young English girl evacuated to the countryside during WW II.

              • wjts

                Yeah, I liked that one, too. Along the same lines, her novel The Biographer’s Tale has some interesting things to say about writing biographies specifically and history more generally.

          • PeteW

            Conversations Negotiating with the Dead. And thank you. My daughter is a budding writer and this looks like something she would definitely like (will have to be a new years’ gift).

            • Bah. On the road, and too lazy to check my memory against Google.

              • Bill Murray

                I back your memory. Big title probably got to Google, you know how they are

      • JBC31187

        I liked Jerry Coyne’s Why Evolution is True. It’s short, to the point and makes its case clearly. In a better world it would be middle- or high school reading.

        • Bill Murray

          Yes, this is a very good book

          • Ronan

            Decent book , though I wasn’t convinced

            • econoclast

              You weren’t convinced that evolution is true?

              • Ronan

                Seems a little far fetched when you have the argument laid out in front of you

                • Bill Murray

                  as opposed to what other ideas? Realizing that isn’t a positive statement for evolution, let’s go with

                  which parts are far fetched? Descent with modification? Some modifications will improve survival rates and become more prevalent in the species in the future? Over sufficient time with separation in time, space or habitat the descendants become sufficiently different from their long-past fore-mothers that they constitute a different species.

                  In the end we have more proof of how evolution works than gravity.

                • Ronan

                  I’m only engaging in some bufooneery.

                • econoclast

                  That’s actually pretty funny, but the last six weeks have removed my ability to understand jokes.

      • dougok

        I also thoughtThe Ancestor’s Tale was fantastic, and better than other Dawkins stuff I’ve read. Epic and gripping!

  • Warren Terra

    Like a lot of people here I could probably come up with an interminable list (you should maybe be glad I’m away from home and can’t consult my bookcases). I have no idea what constitutes “literary merit” and I’m going to stretch the time period and maybe the “nonfiction” label with a couple of my suggestions:

    Judson, The Eighth Day Of Creation. Quite simply the best and most important general-audience science book I’ve ever read. Everyone with the slightest interest in the transformation of biology in the postwar era should read it.

    Sturtevant, A History Of Genetics. Not as much of a general-audience crowd pleaser maybe, but very accessible and really describes a key part of how biology stopped being the domain of descriptive naturalists and Victorian gentleman alchemists, and became a real experimental science.

    Caro, The Power Broker. It manages to live up to the hype.

    McPhee, Uncommon Carriers
    Collins, Banvard’s Folly
    A couple of (very different) books that are fun, thought provoking, and highly episodic, so they work well for reading in the bathroom or on the bus.

    O’Hanlon, Trawler: An endearing fish-out-of-water adventure memoir that jumped the tracks halfway through and started reminding me of Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas. That maybe isn’t a great description. Worth reading.

    Louis Fischer: wrote an important biography of Gandhi, a solid biography of Lenin, a great memoir (mostly of his infatuation and disillusionment with the Soviet Union, while remaining of the left), a somewhat turgid but important history of early Soviet diplomacy, and an eerily prescient book describing the cold war before it really got underway.

    Bullock, Hitler/Stalin: if you read only one biography of Hitler or Stalin, read this biography of both.

    Trotsky, Stalin: if you read two biographies of Stalin, this entertaining and highly vituperative account is worth considering for the second one.

    Hopkirk, The Great Game and a bunch more like it
    Holland, various books about the Romans and other topics in pre-modern Europe

    I could continue, but this comment already well and truly got out of hand …

    ETA one more, that I was reminded of recently: Foster and Huber, Judging Science. Surprisingly interesting and readable.

    • wjts

      Second Banvard’s Folly. Collins’ Sixpence House is also a fun read. I haven’t read Uncommon Carriers, but I don’t think John McPhee is capable of writing a bad book. Looking for a Ship, Coming Into the Country, and Annals of the Former World are probably my favorites.

    • N__B

      Caro, The Power Broker. It manages to live up to the hype.

      Great book, but I have to say that it’s not often that a biographer hates his subject person so much that he hates his subject person’s grandmother.

      • econoclast

        Caro’s 1948 LBJ book is so unfair it’s made me retrospectively wonder if the same is true of The Power Broker.

        • N__B

          I know a bit about the topic and every charge he aims at Moses is true to some degree. He may have exaggerated, but no more than that. IMO, he didn’t exaggerate.

          Moses’s grandmother, on the other hand…

  • carolannie

    Vance Packard: The Ultra Rich
    JK Galbraith: American Capitalism
    Fernand Braudel: The Structure of Everyday Life (if you haven’t read it)
    Hannah Arendt (of course) The Origins of Totalitarianism
    Jacob Bronowski: The Ascent of Man
    Norman Cousins: Anatomy of an Illness
    Max Weber: The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism
    Eric Hoffer: The True Believer
    SI Hayakawa: Language in Thought and Action
    Karl Popper: The Myth of the Framework

    I dunno, I sure have read a lot of crap too

  • dcoffin

    Let me add some things. Almost anything by Mark Kurlansky makes interesting reading. He is definitely not a specialist. Some titles:
    Salt: A World History
    Big Oyster
    A Basque History of the World
    1968: The Year that Rocked the World

    And John McPhee is also almost always compulsively readable. Conversations With the Arch-Druid–about David Brower–is my personal favorite.

    • DocAmazing

      If you’re a fan of those single-subject overview books, pick up anything by Mary Roach. Start with Stiff, about dead bodies and where they end up.

      • N__B

        Mrs__B seconds this recommendation.

        • howard

          my wife just read “gulp” and loved it.

    • Bill Murray

      I very much liked The Basque History of the World

  • proportionwheel

    Barbara Tuchman’s “The March of Folly”

    Science: Bernd Heinrich’s “The Mind of The Raven” and I certainly second Todd’s recommendation of Richard Lewontin and Stephen Jay Gould (the quibbles and complaints about the latter don’t come close to invalidating the vast body of great popular science writing). Also try Peter Medawar’s “Pluto’s Republic.”

    (recommendations of a non-academic)

    • carolannie

      Definitely Tuchman, but that is history
      I agree about Gould, and Lewontin,. Also Lewis Thomas: Lives of a Cell

  • Hercules Mulligan

    It’s a few years old, and I have a vague recollection it may have been mentioned on this blog before, but John Farrell’s Clarence Darrow biography (Attorney for the Damned) is one of my favorite books of all time. Even though the focus is on Darrow’s life, there’s a lot of great looks at the political context of radical movements, conservative/progressive splits in labor, feminist, and civil rights organizations, and so on. The most important part, for me, is that since the book corrects a lot of myths that have been part of the Darrow legend since Irving Stone (falsely) claimed them in his original biography, it does an incredible job showing the risks of creating heroes in our minds that will inevitably disappoint us.

  • NewishLawyer

    The Night Club Era by Stanley Walker is a Newspaperman’s account of speakeasies in Manhattan during prohibition. Written in the great casual language of a 1920s and 30s Newspaper reporter.

    • Woodrowfan

      thanks, Just ordered it!

  • dilbert dogbert

    Found Loren Eiseley in the San Jose State College bookstore in 1958. Got hooked.

  • J. Otto Pohl

    Allworth, Edward, ed., Central Asia: 130 Years of Russian Dominance: A Historical Overview, 3rd edition (Duke University Press, 1994).

    Amenumey, D.E.K., Ghana: A Concise History from Pre-Colonial Times to the 20th Century (Accra: Woeli Publishing Services, 2011).

    Fisher, Alan W., The Crimean Tatars (Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution, 1978).

    Gellately, Robert, Lenin, Stalin and Hitler: The Age of Social Catastrophe (London: Vintage Books, 2008).

    Long, James, From Privileged to Dispossessed: The Volga Germans, 1860-1917 (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1988).

    Natali, Denise, The Kurds and the State: Evolving National Identity in Iraq, Turkey, and Iran (Syracuse University Press, 2005).

    Olcott, Martha Brill, The Kazakhs, 2nd edition (Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press, 1995).

    Polian, Pavel, Against Their Will (Budapest, Central European University, 2004).

    Rubin, Barnett, The Fragmentation of Afghanistan, 2nd edition (Yale University Press, 2005).

    Turner, Thomas, The Congo Wars: Conflict, Myth & Reality (London: Zed Books, 2007).

    Zurcher, Erik, Turkey: A Modern History (London: I.B. Tauris and Co., Ltd., 2001).

    • DocAmazing

      If you’re in a Russian mood, Zinky Boys by Aleievich.

      • Ender Wiggin

        Better to start with Zinky Boys or Secondhand Time?

  • N__B

    Robert Kanigel, The One Best Way. How Frederick Winslow Taylor hitched his star to the Protestant work ethic and fucked us all forever.

    • Since you mention someone with the first name Frederick, I have to admit that I stopped reading The Devil in the White City after about three chapters—the breathless style finally took my breath away—but at least the idea of telling the story of the Chicago World’s Fair interlarded with that of the mass murderer Mudgett was a good one.

      • N__B

        I’ve read one and a half of Larsen’s books. He’s the Kilgore Trout of nonfiction: he’d be a great writer if only he could write.

      • Bill Murray

        I liked both of Larsen’s books that I have read (Devil in the White City and the one about Dr. Crippen and Marconi), but then I am pretty sure I have a completely different idea of good writing than people that like what is generally considered literature.

        • Gone2Ground

          I like literature and I enjoyed his books,too….White City fascinated me with the accounts of the construction of the Worlds Fair.

  • delazeur

    Dangerous. I almost always spend money after reading threads like these.

    • carolannie

      So many books to read. So little time. The best part is that most of these are ones that don’t need to be reread, because they are often mind-shifting and sometimes foundational

  • Dr. Ronnie James, DO

    Some McPhee that would be up your alley (someone already mentioned Encounters With the Arch Druid):
    * Coming Into The Country (Alaska weirdos)
    * The Control of Nature (ringing the alarm on the Army Corps of Engineers’ shenanigans in the Mississippi River 20 years pre-Katrina).
    * A Sense of Where You Are: maybe the best sportswriting ever – young Bill Bradley at Princeton was like an otherworldly hybrid of LeBron’s passing and Steph Curry’s electron-microscope shooting precision.
    * La Place de la Concorde Suisse (the Swiss Army is fascinating)
    * Basin and Range (geology), Oranges and the Arthur Ashe book (Levels of the Game?) are beloved but for whatever reason I could never finish them.

    Steve Coll, Game of Shadows – riveting and prescient history of US/ Soviet/ Pakistani meddling in Afghanistan, and how it led to 9/11. A friend’s brother worked for a CIA team that tracked bin Laden, and said this book gets more right than any other.

    Ioan Grillo’s El Narco was terrific and seems to get more right about the Mexican cartels than any other single book.

    I liked City of Quartz and a lot of Mike Davis’ work, but have read that he has some issues with the truth.

    • DocAmazing

      If you like Mike Davis, a good short one is Buda’s Wagon, about the history and use of car bombs.

    • Dr. Acula

      For McPhee, there’s a compilation of four of his geology books, Annals of the Former World, that’s really worth getting.

      And, speaking of Mike Davis, his Ecology of Fear is a pretty good read.

  • N__B

    Belgian Education in the Congo, Newton Leroy Gingrich.

    • wjts

      By the same author:

      “But darling, Germany and the United States are not at war. What harm is there if we share the occasional bit of . . . gossip? Surely you don’t think that I, a loyal Swede . . .” The question trailed off in a lethal pout as his beautiful and so very exotic mistress stretched languidly, mock-innocent appeal in her eyes.
      Even though it had been only minutes since their last lovemaking John Mayhew was as ever overwhelmed by the sight of her, the shameless pleasure she took in her own body and its affect on him. Still, he mustn’t let her see just how much she moved him. A relationship had to have some balance. He stretched in turn, reached over for his cigarettes and gold-plated Ronson on the art deco nightstand with its Tiffany lamp. Since he wasn’t sure what to say he made a production out of lighting up and enjoying that first luxurious after-bout inhalation.
      His continued silence earned him a small punishment.
      “Darling . . . isn’t it time for you to leave?”
      Playfully, to drive home the potential loss, she bit his shoulder, then kissed it better.
      “Aw, hell, I don’t want to . . . I wish I could just divorce Mrs. Little Goodie Two-Shoes!”
      “I like this arrangement.” She laughed softly. “Mistress to the Chief of Staff of the President of the United States. Nice title, don’t you think? Such a book I could write.”
      Mayhew shuddered at the thought. “Don’t even joke about it.” But he could trust her to be discreet. . . . He was sure he could trust her.
      More to cover his moment of doubt than for any other reason, he harked back to her initial gambit. “One thing we really don’t have to worry about is a war between Germany and the United States. It just isn’t in the cards. There’s no way it could happen within the next six months, and after that – well, just take it from me, nobody is going to dream of messing with the United States, not even Adolf Hitler.”
      “I don’t think there is going to be a war either, but you seem so sure. What is your big secret? You were so excited about it when you came in here, and now you won’t tell me.” Suddenly the pouting sex kitten gave way to Diana the Huntress. She rolled onto him and somehow was sitting athwart his chest, her knees pinning his shoulders. “Tell me, or I will make you do terrible things,” she hissed.

      • N__B

        Suddenly the pouting sex kitten gave way to Diana the Huntress.

        This is Bulwer-Lytton Contest territory.

      • DocAmazing

        Sitting athwart his chest, yelling “stop!”

      • dougok

        This is awesome!

        Question: If you were going to read only one of Newt’s novels, which one should it be?

        This should really be a thread by itself.

    • efgoldman

      Belgian Education in the Congo, Newton Leroy Gingrich.

      Tulane should lose its accreditation for granting him two graduate degrees.

      • Bill Murray

        are their graduate degrees accredited?

  • I’ll recommend Elif Batuman’s longform articles in The New Yorker. Her articles about Turkey are just so interesting, and she’s a fantastic writer. Their best, imo.

    THE VIEW FROM THE STANDS” is about soccer gangs.
    The Sanctuary” is about Gobekli Tepe
    The Big Dig” is about an archaelogical site that’s holding up a major construction project in Istanbul. It’s my favorite of the three.

  • DocAmazing

    Tayman, The Colony: the Harrowing True Stories of the Exiles of Molokai, about leprosy, public health, and good intentions gone awry.

    Schneider, Canned: How I Lost Ten Jobs in Ten Years and Learned to Love Unemployment, about failing to make peace with late capitalism while drinking too much.

  • dudleydowrong

    Wolfer by Carter Niemeyer is a pretty great read. He helped lead the project that restored wolves to Yellowstone. Part of what makes it a good read is his honesty around the number of idiots on both sides of the ‘pro-wolf’ – ‘anti-wolf’ debate, and the fact that it’s an emotional issue for most people, and not a scientific issue (no educated biologist denies the necessity of keystone predators in a healthy ecosystem)

  • Monty

    Anyway, this all made me realize that I need to expand my reading a bit into good quality literary nonfiction.

    This is just a general observation and will probably shew my reading speed (or lack thereof) as much as my choice of material, but

    How can I expand my reading capacity while
    a) maintaining a job that requires some 50+ hrs week
    b) gym/health regimen of 45-90 mins/day, 5 days/week
    c) reading mystery/adventure/scifi narratives of various literary quality
    d) reading Plato, John Rawls, Nietzsche, etc (in some cases, rereading)
    e) sleeping


    • DocAmazing

      Books on tape while commuting/working out?

    • Bill Murray

      1) build a time machine
      2) slow the rotation of the earth
      3) discover a pocket dimension in your wardrobe
      4) Find a way to travel very near the speed of light and take many books with you. Also don’t worry about all the books you missed, you can take them on your next trip

  • Gone2Ground

    “Travels With Myself and Another” by Martha Gellhorn – funny and well written. Anyone who can go anywhere with Hemingway….

    “The Reluctant Mr. Darwin” – Newfound respect for Darwin, his methodology, and the synchronicity of ideas.

    Lots of good inspiration here.

  • Mike Lommler

    I am presently re-reading Peter Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard, because it is a beautiful book. It concerns a trek with the wildlife biologist George Schaller in the Himalayas in the 70’s, for those not familiar.

    Craig Childs’ House of Rain is another piece of non-fiction I like to go back and re-read every once in a while. He follows what we can piece together of the movements of the ancient Pueblo (“Anasazi” is a flawed word but one that more people are familiar with) peoples in the American Southwest. Wonderfully written, meticulously researched.

  • SatanicPanic

    I know you like housing issues, so I recommend Blueprint for Disaster by D Bradford Hunt. It’s about the causes of Chicago’s terrible public housing.

  • blister

    Anything by AJ Liebling. You’d probably enjoy “The Earl of Louisiana” as an intro if you don’t know AJ.

    • Ghost of Joe Liebling’s Dog

      +1 for AJL (of course) and The Earl of Louisiana in particular – and then, if you like that, go on to any of his work. The Sweet Science has phrases and passages that have stayed in my head for years.

      • howard

        i’ll second this recommendation as well!

  • dn

    Jackson Lears, Rebirth of a Nation
    Richard White, The Middle Ground
    Lucien Bianco, Origins of the Chinese Revolution
    Orlando Figes, A People’s Tragedy

  • HenryW

    I didn’t mention it earlier since I thought that histories were not allowed on this list, but Caro’s fourth volume on LBJ is great. Yes, I know Caro’s blindness to Coke Stevenson’s odious qualities marred the earlier volumes of his work (I stayed away from them for that reason and suffered through Dallek’s pedestrian bio in their place), but Caro has since acknowledged his errors, plus the narrative no longer concerns Texas in 1948. The book is a masterpiece, hands down.

    • zackthedog

      The Coke Stevenson episode is in the second volume, which is the weakest of the four. If you haven’t read the first and third volumes, you’re cheating yourself out of some brilliant writing on American politics. ;-)

  • jamesepowell

    Stories, Identities, and Political Change by Charles Tilly

    The Cult of the Nation in France: Inventing Nationalism, 1680-1800 by David Bell

    Imagined Communities by Benedict Anderson

    Lovemarks: Beyond Brands Kevin Roberts

    Lovemarks helps us understand Republican base loyalty

  • Thlayli

    Currently re-reading The Best and the Brightest.

    Mark Kurlansky was mentioned above, I would add A Chosen Few.

    Best sports book of 2016: Angels With Dirty Faces by Jonathan Wilson.

  • econoclast

    Mark Blaug’s Economic Theory in Retrospect is a good history of economic theory, one of Eric’s favorite subjects. (IIRC, it’s not very good on Marx.)

  • Proto-Morlock

    Since it’s not a subject area widely referenced here, current reading on history of technology:

    Marc Levinson – Box – How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger

    Sally Denton – The Profiteers – Bechtel and the Men Who Built the World

    Annie Jacobsen – The Pentagon’s Brain – An Uncensored History of DARPA, America’s Top-Secret Military Research Agency

    David C. Lindberg – The Beginnings of Western Science – The European Scientific Tradition in Philosophical, Religious and Institutional Context, Prehistory to A.D. 1450

    Denise Kiernan – The Girls of Atomic City – The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II

    Laurence Bergreen – Over the Edge of the World – Magellan’s Terrifying Circumnavigation of the Globe

    Michael Lewis – The New New Thing – A Silicon Valley Story

    Penny Le Couteur, Jay Burreson – Napoleon’s Buttons – 17 Molecules that Changed History

    Could go on, shan’t go on…

    • carolannie

      Definitely Denton

    • econoclast

      I didn’t think the Lewis was very good. He misunderstood Silicon Valley in a way characteristic for journalists. Silicon Valley is not successful because of its visionary founders. It’s successful because it’s full of weirdos. Teams of weirdos develop ideas, and then one person out of that team gets all of the credit and most of the money. Jim Clark is not very important in the history of technology, but because he’s a billionaire twice over he gets a whole book about him by a celebrity journalist.

      Better books that captures the flavor of Silicon Valley are Po Bronson’s Nudist on the Late Shift (which is a collection of columns), and Cringely’s Accidental Empires. Bronson is a journalist, but he’s interested in ground-level stories (like the nudist who worked the late shift at some tech company). Cringely is himself a Silicon Valley weirdo, so his style captures the style of the place.

      • Proto-Morlock

        I said current, not “best”, and Lewis is worth reading as much for how he gets it wrong as for getting it right. Still looking for a proper biography of Andy Grove and some of the other founders.

      • DocAmazing

        Books about Silicon Valley culture: I’m still a big fan of Paulina Borsook’s Cyberselfish, about the glibertarian I-got-mine stench that pervades the place.

        • econoclast

          Silicon Valley glibertarianism is a real thing and has a peculiar flavor — and is deserving of mockery — but it’s just not any worse than any other group of white dudes that make lots of money. I think the fact that people act like it’s so much worse than any random exurb is because people just fucking hate nerds, so anything nerds do is automatically worse than your generic used car salesmen, or account executive. Lots of people in Silicon Valley are wifty socialists or people with inscrutible otherworldly politics. Clinton crushed Trump in both San Mateo and Santa Clara counties, getting 70+% of the vote in each.

    • Bill Murray

      Kiernan’s book is very good

  • carolannie

    Moar books: I was reading tressiemc ‘s blog, and felt a little guilty because I haven’t read social commentary on racial relations

    …Arendt knew things. But Paulette Nardal, Edouard Glissant, Patrick Chamoiseau, and Sylvia Wynter knew (and know) other things.— andré carrington PhD (@prof_carrington) December 22, 2016

    So back to the book lists for me. I should have because 1/2 of my family is other than “white” (that fictional social racial category) and I have read articles and am aware of their challenges but still, being grounded is better

  • Unlearner

    Luc Sante, especially his collection of essays.

  • q-tip

    Ralph Wiley, whether on race or sports.

  • Kathleen

    Fascinating post and comments. Thank you all. I recommend two Studs Terkels books – Working and Hard Times. I read them back in the early 80’s and they made a great impression on me. Hard Times in particular. Terkel’s interviews range from those who suffered greatly in the Depression to those who prospered.

    • howard

      to make a long story short, i enjoyed both of these two, but it’s worth knowing that you are reading a heavily edited version of what people said, not a transcript with some words removed.

  • philip.koop

    Here are some of my favourites.

    E.C. Pielou, After the Ice Age: The Return of Life to Glaciated North America
    Science has moved on in the quarter-century since she wrote this, but it still holds up pretty well. Her approach to evaluating evidence is a timeless paragon. And she aces the “joy to read” test.

    Christopher McGowan, Dinosaurs, Spitfires, and Sea Dragons
    This is even older than Pielou, but on the other hand, his field moves more slowly. And since is theme is the uncertainty inherent in evaluating the ancient historical record, it still makes for salutary reading.

    Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, Mothers and Others: The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding
    Hrdy argues – I would say convincingly – that the evolutionary origins of human cooperation lie in the biological requirements of raising human infants. I have no idea why this book is not more popular, because it is very well written, and, if correct, has far-reaching implications.

    Feynman, Leighton, and Sands, The Feynman Lectures on Physics
    This is so famous that I suppose you have either already read it or have no inclination to do so. It is more demanding than the popular science books above. But everyone should read the first three chapters.

    Richard T. Cox, The Algebra of Probable Inference
    Well obviously, this is not everyone’s cup of tea. But for people who like this sort of thing, it is one of the most beautiful monographs ever written (it clocks in at under 100 pages.)

    Witold Rybczynski, Home: A Short History of an Idea
    Another books that was enormously popular when it was first published. But it seems to have sunk into obscurity; it’s well worth looking up if you’ve never read it.

    Robert A. Kaster, Emotion, Restraint, and Community in Ancient Rome
    Though only 148 pages long, this subtle book is difficult to summarize. But I might say: it is about how culture mediates the interpretation of emotions, and how emotions in turn support cultural norms, in the context of Ancient Rome. It requires effort to read, yet it is still pleasurable to do so.

    David Fraser, Frederick the Great
    Fraser would seem to be almost uniquely qualified for this work, having been a senior general officer in the British Army and having sufficient historical training and linguistic fluency to deal with the primary sources. The military engagements are naturally dealt with by a professional eye, but that is not Fraser’s main focus. He is fascinated by Frederick the personality. The best Frederick biography in English.

    N.A.M. Rodger, The Safeguard of the Sea: A Naval History of Britain
    What it says on the tin. The best naval history I have ever read, yet about far more than just the navy.

    • Srsly Dad Y

      Right up my alley, thanks for this list.

    • Warren Terra

      Feynman shouldn’t be mentioned without a nod towards his collection of (embellished, ghostwritten or at least transcribed unacknowledged) anecdotes about being a curious character, in a couple of senses: Surely you’re joking, Mr. Feynman. Highly entertaining, great for kids.

  • zackthedog

    Richard Rhodes’ THE MAKING OF THE ATOMIC BOMB is one of the best books I’ve ever read about anything. A great exposition of the art and humanity of science.

    Ron Chernow’s TITAN is a terrific biography, much better than His Hamilton bio.

    Robert Caro’s four-volume (so far) bio of LBJ will probably stand as one of the great biographies of all time. It’s about politics and American history and all sorts of other things.

    • Warren Terra

      I found The making of the atomic bomb a bit of a slog and I think never finished reading it (though, I was quite young) but thought the sequel about the hydrogen bomb, Dark Sun, was quite good.

      • zackthedog

        You should give it another shot. I was weeping at the end. I think it’s a very powerful and brilliantly told story.

  • Alworth

    The Beer Bible, of course! Lots of history and highly literary.

It is main inner container footer text