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Author Topic: Best Non-fiction Books
Sterling
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quote:
Originally posted by Reshpeckobiggle:
Start with Darwin's Black Box by Michael Behe, Slouching Toward Gomorrah by Robert Bork, and Godless by Ann Coulter. That should lay down a pretty strong foundation, I think.

Or, you could try reading some non-fiction.

I highly recommend The Omnivore's Dilemma. It's one of the most interesting books about food and how we get it that I've ever read.

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The White Whale
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Here are some that I've read in the past few years that I really liked. After looking at this list, they all seem to fall on the environmental or humans as a species side of things.

  • Omnivore's Dilemma, by Michael Pollan
  • Botany of Desire, by Michael Pollan
  • In Defense of Food, by Michael Pollan
  • American Earth: Environmental Writing Since Thoureau, edited by Bill McKibben
  • Collapse, How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, by Jared Diamond
  • Greenlanders, by Jane Smiley (while it is fiction, it immerses you so directly into what it would have been like to be in Greenland during this time, in my mind it feels like non-fiction)
  • Into the Wild, by John Krakauer
  • When Smoke Ran Like Water, by Devra Davis
  • The Ghost Map: The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic-and How it Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World, by Steven Johnson

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Jhai
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Are you looking to deeply understand the subject you're reading about, get a good, "generalist" overview, or learn about a few key features of the subject?

If it's the second or third, my suggestions for popular economics books would be Discover Your Inner Economist by Tyler Cowen (subtitled "Use Incentives to Fall in Love, Survive Your Next Meeting, and Motivate Your Dentist "), The Armchair Economist: Economics in Everyday Life by Steven Landsburg (an oldie but a goodie), or either of Tim Hardford's books. I do not recommend Freakanomics because I donít think it gives a very good understanding of what most (micro) economics is really about, and some of the results presented in that book arenít accepted as correct in the field. Itís still a fun book, though.

If you want something in economics a bit more in-depth, and less chatty, Iíll have to check the bookmarks on my home computer. There are several good ones out there (especially a couple on globalization), but I canít remember them off the top of my head.

I'll check out my bookshelves, and get back to you on general philosophy, ethics specifically, and other social science books tonight, if you're intested. My husband could recommend religious studies, post-colonial studies, or lit theory books, if you'd like.

[ December 17, 2008, 02:50 PM: Message edited by: Jhai ]

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Noemon
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I've been wanting to read America Calling: A Social History of the Telephone to 1940 for a little while now.

Sarah Vowell's stuff is all pretty good. I'd recommend Assination Vacation.

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Christine
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Thanks for the suggestions so far, keep them coming!

quote:
Originally posted by Jhai:
Are you looking to deeply understand the subject you're reading about, get a good, "generalist" overview, or learn about a few key features of the subject?

More of an overview at this point. If I fall in love with a topic, I can get specific later.
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Noemon
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Oh, and Parasite Rex: Inside the Bizarre World of Nature's Most Dangerous Creatures is one I've been hearing good things about for ages.
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aiua
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~The Hot Zone, by Richard Preston -- about Ebola
~E=mc2, by David Bodanis -- an interesting explanation of the equation
~Grinding it Out, by Ray Kroc -- autobiography from the father of McDonald's
~Twilight, by Stephanie Meyer -- vampires are real and you know it

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Epictetus
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The History of the World in Six Glasses by Tom Standage

May It Please the Court: Live Recordings and Transcripts of Landmark Oral Arguments Made Before the Supreme Court Since 1955 by Peter Irons and Stephanie Guitton

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rivka
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Honey, Mud, & Maggots
Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!
The Mold in Dr. Florey's Coat

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Noemon
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I thought about suggesting Honey, Mud, & Maggots, but figured that if I didn't you would, rivka.

It's not a perfect book, but it's certainly worth a read.

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rivka
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[Big Grin]
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Darth_Mauve
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The Pinball Effect is a fun book.

A Brief History of Time is another one.

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Lupus
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I loved 1776 and John Adams. Both are by David McCullough.
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Liz B
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Oooh, Christine! You should join me on the Goodreads group 50 Books in 2008 (the name is changing when the year changes, I think).

Some of my favorites in nonfiction:

*My Losing Year (Pat Conroy [Prince of Tides] writes about playing basketball at the Citadel

*Into Thin Air (Krakauer--I liked Into the Wild but I LOVED Into Thin Air)

*Eagle Blue (A basketball team in a northern Alaska village)

*Heat (Bill Buford goes to work for Mario Batali and learns a lot about Italian cooking)

*In Cold Blood--it really is that good

*It Must've Been Something I Ate (Jeffrey Steingarten, food critic for vogue, writing hilariously about food & eating)

*Such a Pretty Fat (funny funny blog-turned memoir; this is her 3rd and in my opinion the funniest)

*Julie and Julia (New York apartment dweller cooks every recipe in Julia Child's most famous book--another blog-turned-memoir)

*The Partly Cloudy Patriot (Sarah Vowell--author of Assassination Vacation, mentioned above)--I liked both but this is funnier. I know you listen to books on tape--this is one worth getting. Vowell is a contributor to This American Life and reads her own work beautifully and hilariously.

*Animal, Vegetable, Mineral (Barbara Kingsolver [The Poisonwood Bible] eats locally for a year)

*The Omnivore's Dilemma

I could go on and on and on and on. I discovered nonfiction about 4 or 5 years ago. I still read much more fiction, but I love nonfiction too.

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amira tharani
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I like two of the Stephen Pinker books: The Language Instinct and The Blank Slate.

If you can stomach Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker is a damned good read. When he sticks to the science, he is really very good at communicating it.

God and the New Physics by Paul Davies is probably out of date, but really interesting.

Susan Greenfield's books on the brain: The Human Brain: A Guided Tour and The Private Life of the Brain are easy and enjoyable as well as being informative.

A History of God by Karen Armstrong, and her biographies of the Buddha and Muhammad are also excellent. She is a self-taught amateur and knows how to keep a narrative going while still being scholarly. If you want to know more about her, The Spiral Staircase is her memoir about her life as a nun and after she left the convent.

If you want to try some philosophy, you could do worse than read Descartes' Meditations or Hume's An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals. Among more contemporary philosophers, I like After Virtue by Alasdair MacIntyre.

How's that for a list?!

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ricree101
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I just got through reading Godel, Escher, Bach by Douglas Hofstadter and I highly recommend it.
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Noemon
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Those look really interesting, amira. I'm probably most curious about Armstrong's biography of Buddha. Is there any kind of evidence about his actual life beyond the hagiographies of him?
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amira tharani
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I'll have to look at her sources again. I think so. She does a good job of looking at the context, too - situating him in the age when the Upanishads were being written and there was a sense of spiritual anxiety.
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Strider
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A Brief History of Time, Stephen Hawking
The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins(I'd suggest this one over The Blind Watchmaker, it has less of an "agenda" in a sense and provides a more fundamental background in the same subject)
Guns, Germs, & Steel, Jared Diamond
How the Mind Works, Steven Pinker
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig
The Assault on Reason, Al Gore
Consciousness Explained, Daniel Dennett
Brave New World Revisited, Aldous Huxley

that's what i came up with off the top of my head. I won't overload you, as there are tons of other great suggestions as well.

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Christine
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Thanks for all the suggestions! I've heard of some of those, but many are new. The only one I've read is A Brief History of Time. (Oh, and Twilight, which was neither non-fiction nor good. [Smile] )

Liz: I joined the 50 books group. Thanks for the tip.

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C3PO the Dragon Slayer
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Nemesis: The Death Star

Yes, it IS non-fiction.

I don't know if it's still available; it's by Richard A. Muller about how he and some colleagues and how they discovered that the dinosaurs were wiped out by a meteor, and then how they hypothesized that the Solar System is really a binary star system, with a star they call Nemesis coming close enough to the Oort cloud every 17 million years to disrupt the orbits of comets and send a few Earthbound. It's a great book, really. It's written like a mystery novel, only in the perspective of science. I have a signed copy from the author, who gave it to me when I was in third grade, and showing above-average scientific aspirations.

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Sean Monahan
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quote:
Originally posted by ricree101:
I just got through reading Godel, Escher, Bach by Douglas Hofstadter and I highly recommend it.

I have never read a book that has been more influential to me than this one. I highly recommend it as well - if you find Godel's Incompleteness Theorem interesting. Otherwise it may be tedious and fatiguing for you. I have recommended the book to others who didn't think Godel's IT was all that interesting, and they couldn't finish it.
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Alcon
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A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson is a great general review of the history of... well... pretty much all of science. It's pretty cool and a very good read.

A Walk in the Woods is another one by Bryson which is his humorous account of his attempt to tackle the Appalachian Trail. It's another great read, especially if you like hiking yourself (though if you're an experienced backpacker you'll soon find yourself laughing at how clueless he and his friend are).

White House Ghosts: Presidents and Their Speechwriters by Robert Schlesinger is a really interesting tale about Presidential Speech writers from Roosevelt up through W. It's full of fun anecdotes about both the speech writers and their presidents. It's pretty eye opening to as to how much policy and famous lines actually came from speech writers nobody's ever heard of.

Thirteen Days by Robert F Kennedy is his account of the Cuban Missile Crisis and what went on inside the White House. Obviously it leaves some stuff out because it was published only about five years after the event, but I think recently published versions of it have a forward saying just what it left out.

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FlyingCow
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I'd throw in on top of Alcon's Bill Bryson selections "In a Sunburned Country" which is his travelogue through Australia.
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dkw
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God: A Brief History by Paul Capetz is a good, short, extremely readable book about the development of Christian doctrines of God.

The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions by Marcus Borg and NT Wright is a very fun book co-written by two scholars on differenct sides of the "historical Jesus" brouhaha. And it's a nice model of dialogue in difference -- they don't agree, but you get the sense they really respect one another.

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SenojRetep
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Some non-fiction books I've read recently that I've liked are:

America and the World (Zbignew Brzezinski and Brent Scocroft, moderated by David Ignatius)
Post-American World (Fareed Zakaria)
The Ends of the Earth (Robert Kaplan)
From the Shadows (Robert Gates)

I guess I've been on a bit of a foreign policy kick. Another I really liked (although I'm sure there's some reason Jhai didn't recommend it) is
Freakonomics (Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner), a fairly accessible and very readable collection of economic anecdotes and analysis. Another good one (although Tracy Kidder's voice got on my nerves) was Mountains Beyond Mountains (Tracy Kidder) about Paul Farmer's work trying to treat tuberculosis and HIV in various poverty-stricken areas.

I think I'm the only person alive who didn't like Omnivore's Dilemma. I dug the extreme localism of the Polyface farm (and thought often of Porter and beverly who, IIRC, are engaged in a similar sort of experiment on a small scale), but the rest of the book was unbearably preachy and pretentious. I just have a big aversion to polemic in general; I find it very unenlightening to hear one side of an argument. But my wife (whom I love and respect immensely) thought it was great. So I'm sure there's all sorts of redeeming qualities for those without my particular hangups.

I also wasn't a fan of Bill Bryson's "Short History." I thought it presented a particularly narrow, almost parochial, view, for something purporting to be a history of nearly everything. But it was a fairly engaging (if not enlightening) review of Western European scientific discoveries from the last three or four hundred years (at least, some of the more important ones). That sounds terribly pompous, I know, but it's really how I feel. "Walk in the Woods" was much better.

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Kwea
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quote:
Originally posted by Sterling:
quote:
Originally posted by Reshpeckobiggle:
Start with Darwin's Black Box by Michael Behe, Slouching Toward Gomorrah by Robert Bork, and Godless by Ann Coulter. That should lay down a pretty strong foundation, I think.

Or, you could try reading some non-fiction.

.

Damn...you beat me to it. [Big Grin]
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Kwea
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This is Your Brain on Music was GREAT, and I loved it.

I also liked Guns, Germs and Steel and The Hot Zone, although The Hot Zone isn't completely correct in some of it's conclusions. I worked at USAMRIID, so I know a little bit about the subject material, but the few flaws it had were minor and easily overlooked.

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Corwin
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quote:
Originally posted by Liz B:
Oooh, Christine! You should join me on the Goodreads group 50 Books in 2008 (the name is changing when the year changes, I think).

I read far less than I would have liked this year, so I joined the group in view of next year. And the suggestions in this thread will surely help. [Smile]
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JennaDean
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I don't read much non-fiction at all, but this year I really enjoyed The Year of Living Biblically by A.J. Jacobs. He spent a year trying to live every commandment in the Bible - from being honest and helping your neighbor, to not cutting the corners of your beard and stoning adulterers. It was entertaining and insightful and caused me to look more closely at myself. I couldn't believe how many lies we tell a day. And parts of it were really funny. I enjoyed it.
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Stephan
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I am a fan of travel books. Just finished reading The Sex Lives of Canibals, which was great.
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Sean Monahan
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Would you be willing to read biography? If so, I recommend Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, written by himself.

EDIT: Also, Born Standing Up, by Steve Martin, also recommended by OSC.

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Shmuel
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I highly recommend Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time, by Dava Sobel, an engagingly written account of a generally unknown technological breakthrough with far-reaching implications.
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Starsnuffer
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To accompany C3PO's suggestion of "Nemesis: The Death Star" I'll throw Nemesis out there. It's about the same concept of hidden Nemesis star (Though this is fiction). I felt the end of it seemed... anticlimactic, like it could have had a sequel or continued on a whole new story for hundreds more pages, but instead it just sort of ends open-ended.

I must heartily recommend Cosmos by Carl Sagan. It is essentially a broad, accessible, and fantastic explanation of Astronomy including some history, why anyone should care about astronomy, and just how freakin' cool it is.

Other astronomy books I suggest are Death by Black Hole by Neil deGrasse Tyson. And Death From the Skies!
I don't remember the first particularly well, but I recall I liked his writing pretty well and learned some cool stuff. The second is written by the author of the Discovery blog Bad Astronomy, which is awesome in its own right. Each chapter is about a way humanity could be brought to an end by some astronomical event along with how that would work, why it would happen, how likely it is to happen, and how avoidable it would be. Looks good.

Some book on the brain I've liked are:
The Three-Pound Enigma and Conversations with Neil's Brain

Ok, I'm all recommendation-ed out. I'll post some more if I think of them.

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Eaquae Legit
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Most of the usual suspects have already been mentioned, so here's some oddball favourites I have.

I recommend Dr. Tatiana's Sex Advice to All Creation as an entertaining and accessible intro to evolutionary biology.

First Person Plural was an interesting account of what it's like to discover and then live with multiple personalities. I don't have the education to evaluate its veracity, but I enjoyed it.

The Sacred and the Profane, by Mircea Eliade, is dated and a bit dense, but it's a classic of the sociology of religion and still quite interesting.

Eifelheim, by Michael Flynn, is really a sci-fi, but it's so wonderfully researched and accurate that if you take out the aliens you get a fantastic picture of 14th-century Germany, scholastic philosophy, and general medieval culture. So I'd recommend it anyway.

Adam: God's Beloved, by Henri Nouwen, is the beautiful true story of an ordinary young man with severe disabilities and the people who loved him. It breaks my heart every time I read it.

Why I Hate Canadians is a hilarious look into Canada's history and how it's shaped Canadians (and occasionally Americans, too).

The Romance of Arthur is a great overview of the history and development of the Arthurian myth cycle(s). Great use of primary sources.

And one last, Napoleon's Buttons: How 17 Molecules Changed History is, well, exactly what it says. Good, solid chemistry is there for those that want it, but it's clear enough to be read and enjoyed by the non-chemist as well. Also has some great history (as the title would suggest).

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rivka
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quote:
Originally posted by Eaquae Legit:
I recommend Dr. Tatiana's Sex Advice to All Creation as an entertaining and accessible intro to evolutionary biology.

And one last, Napoleon's Buttons: How 17 Molecules Changed History is, well, exactly what it says. Good, solid chemistry is there for those that want it, but it's clear enough to be read and enjoyed by the non-chemist as well. Also has some great history (as the title would suggest).

Both of these are on my bought-but-haven't-gotten-around-to-reading-yet stack. I should bump them up.
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AvidReader
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Blood and Roses by Helen Castor chronicles the Paston family's rise from serfdom in the aftermath of the Black Plague through their near destruction by backing the losing side in the War of the Roses. It was fun to both root for the family and get a feel for how the break down of the normal order effected England. In a word? Badly.

Marie-Therese, Child of Terror by Susan Nagel examines some of the rumors around Marie Antoinette's daughter. It can be a little gruesome, especially the parts describing her brother's death in the tower, but it was engrossing. It offered some details I hadn't seen before, and it really makes me want to find a good biography of Axel Fersen. He was really the only decent human being the kid had left in the aftermath.

And while my friend's history teacher freaked when I said this, I really liked Marie Antoinette: The Journey by Antonia Fraser. The conflict there is that the teacher was very much on the side of the revolutionaries, and Fraser is pro-Marie. It reminds me of Pastwatch. It takes a hard look at the times that created Marie but still recognizes the times that she rose above the flaws of her world.

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GinaG
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Some of my recent reads.

Sacrilege by Leon Podles, a chronicle of the sexual abuse scandals in the Catholic church. It was unfortunately good companion reading for...

The Sociopath Next Door by Martha Stout. "How to spot a sociopath," i.e. before they ruin your life.

Mathematical Mysteries: The Beauty and Magic of Numbers by Calvin Clawson.

The Christian East and the Rise of the Papacy, The Church 1071-1453 AD by Aristeides Papadakis and John Meyendorff. Gives a rare look at the Middle Ages, including the Crusades, from the perspective of eastern Christians. Unfortunately some of it seems timely in that the "helpfulness" of the western church in launching the Crusades severely weakened many ancient eastern churches where it did not completely supplant them with western-dominated Christianity. This is still happening in the Middle East today, most excruciatingly to be seen at the moment in Iraq.

A couple all-time favorites on medieval history are Norman Cantor's The Civilization of the Middle Ages and Regine Pernoud's Those Terrible Middle Ages and Women in the Days of Cathedrals.

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mr_porteiro_head
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quote:
Originally posted by Jhai:
my suggestions for popular economics books would be Discover Your Inner Economist by Tyler Cowen (subtitled "Use Incentives to Fall in Love, Survive Your Next Meeting, and Motivate Your Dentist ") [/QB]

Heh. He references Ender's Game.
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Tatiana
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quote:
Originally posted by ricree101:
I just got through reading Godel, Escher, Bach by Douglas Hofstadter and I highly recommend it.

Another vote for Godel, Escher, Bach. This is my favorite non-fiction book of all time.

I also recommend "QED" and "The Character of Physical Law" by Richard Feynman. They describe in laymen's terms the underlying structure of the universe, as far as we have been able to discover it. Old but definitely not out of date.

I also second rivka's vote for "Surely You're Joking". It's great fun. RPF is my hero.

Also, Douglas Hofstadter's other books are interesting and enjoyable as well. GEB was the best by far, though.

Anything by Isaac Asimov on science is good. He's a great explainer of science. I credit him with turning me into a science geek because I read all his science-for-laymen books in high school.

Stephen Jay Gould is another favorite of mine. Start with "Ever Since Darwin" or any of his collections of essays from Natural History magazine. They're fun and fascinating. Pretty much everything I know about evolutionary biology I learned from Charles Darwin and Gould.

Freeman Dyson is another thinker and writer I love to read. His book "Disturbing the Universe" was excellent.

Mark Salzman's memoir "True Notebooks" was great. It had me laughing and crying in every chapter.

Finally, I'm enjoying Barack Obama's memoir "Dreams from My Father", though I'm only about halfway through.

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Uprooted
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I don't remember the authors' names and am too lazy to look them up, but two excellent non-fiction reads are Beethoven's Hair and Seabiscuit.

The former, in case you're not familiar with it, is the fascinating story of a lock of (yup, you guessed it) Beethoven's hair and the search for its provenance (including a tale of the Holocaust). It's interwoven with the story of DNA analysis of said hair and a conclusion about the illness which troubled the composer.

Everyone probably knows all about Seabiscuit already, but it's just so compellingly written, I couldn't put it down.

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ketchupqueen
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I'm looking at my "nonfiction" shelf on Goodreads. Some of my non-fiction is simply non-fiction, and some is biography or autobiography. Here are adult nonfiction/biography books that I gave 4 or 5 stars to (in no particular order):

A Civil Action
Kitchen Privileges: A Memoir
Teacher Man: A Memoir
The Cooper's Wife Is Missing: The Trials of Bridget Cleary
The Complete Maus
The Cat Who Came for Christmas
The Cat and the Curmudgeon
The Best Cat Ever
All Creatures Great and Small
Every Living Thing
James Herriot's Dog Stories
Do They Hear You When You Cry
Mutants: On Genetic Variety and the Human Body
The Mold in Dr. Florey's Coat: The Story of the Penicillin Miracle
Women's Work: The First 20,000 Years: Women, Cloth, and Society in Early Times

That last one is among my favorite books EVER.

I'm also currently reading Reading Lolita In Tehran, and loving it so far.

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rivka
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quote:
Originally posted by ketchupqueen:
I'm looking at my "nonfiction" shelf on Goodreads.

Heh. That's what I did too.
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mr_porteiro_head
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quote:
Originally posted by rivka:

Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!

I'm about halfway through, and it's a hoot and a half. Thanks for the recommendation.

[ January 09, 2009, 02:18 AM: Message edited by: mr_porteiro_head ]

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rivka
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*eyes GR meaningfully*
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Jeni
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Black Like Me , John Howard Griffin - White journalist disguises himself as an African-American in Mississippi in the late '50s.

Wind, Sand and Stars, Antoine de Saint-Exupery - Exupery's memoir from his days as a pilot, about his love of flight, the people he met, and the truths he learned about life.

All the President's Men, Bob Woodward & Carl Bernstein - Uncovering the Watergate scandal.

Thirteen Days, Robert Kennedy - A close look at the Cuban Missile Crisis

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Brinestone
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There are two that I haven't seen mentioned that have changed the way I perceive the world:
1. Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, wherein a reporter goes undercover as a blue-collar worker for a few months to see if she can make enough to earn the necessities of life.

2. You Just Don't Understand, a sociolinguist's look at the differences between male and female speech. You don't need to read the whole book to get the gist, though.

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Lostinspace
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The World is Flat... in my mind in this economy its a must read. The Reagan Diaries...very great book. Star Trek Memories...if you are a star trek geek. A Child Call "It"...a scary story with kind of happy outcome. Diplomacy...a must read.
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ricree101
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quote:
Originally posted by mr_porteiro_head:
quote:
Originally posted by rivka:

Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!

I'm about halfway through, and it's a hoot and a half. Thanks for the recommendation.
I'll definitely second (or is it third now) the recommendation. That's a great book.

Also, Godel, Escher, Bach is a great book that everyone ought to consider reading.

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Sterling
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Fourth on Feynman.

We've been slowly reading through Scott Adams' Stick To Drawing Comics, Monkey Brain!, and enjoying it. Uneven (by nature of the material) but definitely some funny stuff there.

Ooh, and In The Beginning Was The Command Line, by Neal Stephenson. Very interesting if you like computers, but (lest that last comment ward you off) not in the least dry or overly technical.

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