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Books - Non-Fiction

Non-fiction, book length (Top 10 Index)
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A Year in the Maine Woods - Bernd Heinrich
Heinrich - a professor - went, like Thoreau - into the woods to live his life as an experiment.

While he capitulated to a degree (a phone was strung to his outhouse, making for a really confused phone-company installer), he gave up a lot to make him more attuned to what was around him locally. A very interesting read, the title pretty much sums up what the book is about.

Broadsides From the Other Orders - Sue Hubbell
Subtitled, "A Book of Bugs," well, I guess that pretty much explains it.

The book's dozen or so chapters are broken out by orders, with special attention to one species in the order. If I recall correctly, the order (most precise to largest umbrella) is species, genus, family, order, kingdom. But I'm kind of fuzzy about it.

I used to write a column for a magazine about bugs, so this was right up my alley - but it might be up yours, as well: This is entomology in the same way that Carl Sagan's Cosmos is about astrophysics. Accessible, well-written, a good read.

I must read more by her.

Civilization and Its Discontents - Sigmund Freud
For those who think Freud is too cerebral and inaccessible to read, read this book. It reads well and says much in its ~100 pages.

One of my favorite lines from the book is this deceptively simple yet oh-so-true statement: "Civilization is built upon a renunciation of instinct."

Chew on that.

Coming Into the Country - John McPhee
Best known for his carefully crafted essays on many subjects, from fruit markets through river engineering to physics, this book concentrates on one subject: Alaska and its inhabitants.

Coming into the country refers to when a person came to Alaska - the country - and McPhee weaves a tale of those born in country (native or otherwise) and what is becoming of the country, such as the move of the capital from Juneau to Anchorage.

Four hundred or so pages woven into three "books," McPhee manages to keep the same light but intelligent tone that characterizes his essays through this more involved work.

Lab Girl - Hope Jahren
Both a memoir and a book about science (primarily botany, but Jahren goes all over the place - in a good way). Talks about her growing up the daughter of a science teacher, her struggles with studies (funding, being a woman in what is still a boys club) and opening her many labs - the most recent on in Hawaii.

It's also a book about her long-time workmate, Bill, her husband, her struggles with postpartum depression and so much more. It's a well-written tome; an effortless read.

I like science, I like plants, I like a well-written book. This is the trifecta!

Let Us Now Praise Famous Men - James Agee
With pictues by Walker Evans, Agee's account of southern sharecroppers in the 1930s is about that and everything else in life. Evans' introduction to a latter edition - 'James Agee in 1936' - is as good as the book proper.

This is a book that is difficult to define - basically, it's about Agee and Evans spending time with sharecroppers in the U.S. South in the mid-1930s as part of a (projected) article for, I believe, Fortune magazine.

The aricle(s) never appeared, but the book eventually did. It's about sharecropping, the sharecroppers and the South, but it's also about everything else in the world. This is Agee channelling James Joyce and Heracletis, weaving, telling and hinting at stories.

It's an example of a writer giving into his inner demons and writing to excess...to great effect. This is not a book; it's an organism.

My Own Country - Abraham Verghese
The book's subtitle pretty much sums up the book: "A doctor's story of a town and its people in the age of AIDs."

However, this leaves out a few important items: Verghese is a doctor born in India and now practicing medicine in a small town in Tennessee - at a time when AIDs was just beginning to get on the medical radar, especially in rural areas.

Had someone not recommended this book to me, I would have never heard of it. And that would have been a loss. Much like Oliver Sacks' books, Verghese's tale is about the personal cases he treated, the people/families he know, and weaves in his own life - how the time spent with patients and this odd, mysterious disease was stealing time from his family and marriage.

It's a book about real people, written in a warm, compassionate, personal manner.

The Discoverers - Daniel Boorstin
One of my all-time favorite books, and it's really hard to even describe what it's about.

Basically, it's about man's search to understand and explore his world ("discover", get it??).

While it skimps on recent technology - 20th century physics (atomic bomb etc) in particular - at the expense of older discoveries, this is a minor quibble.

The Making of the Atomic Bomb - Richard Rhodes
Long-ass book; I read it all (I've lots of friends who said, "You skipped over the neutron/physics parts, right?"). I liked the obtuse depth of physics, math and so on. Flawed (every book is, especially historical) this it the definitive work of the creation and birth of the Atomic Bomb

The Mind of a Mnemonist - A.R. Luria
Oliver Sacks, the psychologist behind books such as The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat mentions in several of his books that Luria was an inspiration to him. Having never heard of the man - but loving Sacks' books - I tracked this one down.

It's a very Sacks-like book: A psychological study of (in this case) a single remarkable mind. Luria details his contact over the years with a Russian who had pretty much limitless memory. Fascinating.

The Russian's memory was so good he had to invent memory tricks to hide some of the memories - he'd "gather up" memories and put them behind a screen in his mind, so they wouldn't clutter things. Remarkable.

The Song of the Dodo - David Quammen
This book is subtitled, "Island Biogeography in the Age of Extinctions," so you should get the book's topic from that.

The title comes from the fact that we don't know what the dodo sounded like - it was wiped so quickly and without any real thought that, by the time we cared enough to question what it sounded like, we are left with no recordings/records of what this bird did sound like.

This book extends Darwin/Wallace and touches on some current topics, such as man's encroachment on existing habitats, re-introducing animals to isolated areas (such as wolves to Yellowstone Park)

The Soul of a New Machine - Tracy Kidder
Geek Warning: A book about building a new computer (nee 'machine') - old day thinking, pre-PC and all that...still the classic of this genre.

Walden - Henry David Thoreau
Thoreau has - unfortunately - become a cliche. He/his writings represent (depending on your politics): Civil disobedience (title of another book of his), wandering in the woods...blah blah.

Again, read his works instead of reading about his works.

Like Marx, the text does not represent the reality (both are generally viewed as poor/oppressed; reality: NOT), but there is still much value to what is written.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance - Robert Pirsig
Almost a cult book, it still manages to say a lot. It's the type of book that allows one to think, which is high praise, in my book. It's about Pirsig and his battles; it's also about life.

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