Popular nonfiction books, well-written and engaging for the general reader. These are not the newest books but those that have stood the test of time.
If you're new to nonfiction these books are an ideal place to start as they will inform and entertain.
“It chilled my blood. No pun intended . . . In some of my books, I’ve taken to heart that if you turn right instead of left, either nothing will happen to you, or something really bad will happen to you just because of a seemingly random confluence of events. I learned that lesson vividly from In Cold Blood.” Read more...
The Best Mystery Books
“Jon Krakauer is a phenomenal writer. It’s about a climbing season when the ascending teams made an avalanche of mistakes. Despite a dire forecast, out of pure hubris, many climbers cast all cautions and rules about when to return aside. Some were stranded at the top of Everest. But when the will to survive set in, they pulled together to save themselves and others. It reminds me that the will to live can have a clarifying effect in many murky situations.” Read more...
The best books on National Security
“The story about how Ernest Shackleton led his men to safety after his ship, the Endurance, was beset and then crushed by sea ice….I’ve read the book several times now, and every time I do, the stories of what Shackleton and his crew went through sends shivers down my spine. Again and again they escaped what seemed like certain death, and in the end they all survived….Much of the polar exploration of the past was driven by nationalism, greed and plain old ego and glory, and the failed Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition was no different in this respect, but these guys were the real deal. Whenever I think I have it rough I think back to Shackleton’s voyage. It helps to put things into perspective.” Read more...
The best books on Ice
Some academic historians have been quite critical of Sapiens by the Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari, pointing out that some of the nuances of debates are lost in a popular history book. But that's also why it makes a good read and an effective audiobook. It not only gives Harari more scope to address the big questions, but also gives many people their first detailed introduction to the origins of human beings. There's a lot to think about after reading this book, even if you ultimately disagree with his interpretation.
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“Michelle Alexander shows how you can change a system politically and legally, but without ever destroying its social roots. Racial domination in the United States has always found a way of coming back to life, despite legal changes… It is probably the most important book on prisons since Foucault’s Discipline and Punish in 1975. It proves that you can win the judicial battle, change the legal order and still lose the political one.” Read more...
The best books on State
Geoffroy de Lagasnerie,
“Even if we’re not technically in a mass extinction event like the one that did in the dinosaurs, it’s clear we are in the midst of a crash in species diversity and population size that is so devastating as to influence the operation of the Earth system as we know it. We’ve heard this quite a lot over the years, but Kolbert’s book brought it home in a more intimate, and a more damning way. There’s a calmness, and a detachedness in her writing that makes it that much more powerful and affecting” Read more...
The best books on Global Challenges
“Silent Spring by Rachel Carson, which looked at how pesticide use was harming, and in some cases killing, animals and humans, and really was the first book of its kind to illustrate this environmental destruction. I’ve been so involved in the environment for years and years and that has been a great guideline – it was really the awakening, if you will, to the environmental movement and to the progress we’ve made over the last quarter century or more.” Read more...
The best books on Progressivism
“This is a fascinating book on so many different levels. It is really compelling as the story of the author trying to uncover the history of the woman from whom all these cells came…For me, part of the fascination with Rebecca’s book is that it is the story about what viruses can do. The papillomavirus infects a cell in the skin or other kinds of lining in the body. But it doesn’t try to kill the cell; it actually does the opposite. It actually produces proteins that link onto the proteins in the cell and speed up its growth and division. Basically, its strategy is: If there are more host cells that are infected with the virus, that means there are more viruses.” Read more...
The best books on The Strangeness of Life
Dale Carnegie’s book, How to Win Friends and Influence People, is the granddaddy of all self-help books and has sold an estimated 15 million copies since its publication in 1936.
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“What would that be like? What would it be like to be unable to lay down any new memories, to think it’s 1945 all the time and everybody you meet is new? It’s fascinating to imagine, and I feel a lot of sympathy for the Mariner even though he doesn’t know how bad he has it.” Read more...
The best books on Philosophical Wonder
“Everybody knows Hawking’s greatest contributions: understanding that black holes radiate light and other particles, that they contain entropy and all these things that no one imagined before him. Hawking and Roger Penrose also worked out the Big Bang singularity, the very moment of creation. To hear him describe some of these things with his own word choices, his own phrasing—not to mention his own personal biography and his disability—there’s no other book like it.” Read more...
The Best Books on the Big Bang
“The book is a masterpiece in terms of integrating a vast range of material from different disciplines, material on language, archaeology, comparative bio-geography, with also lots of his own ethnographic field studies peppered in there…whether you think it is right or wrong, it’s spurred an incredible amount of research. People took it seriously and fully engaged with it. It’s driven economists to get better data to test the theory. So, for example, there’s a number of economic studies now supporting Diamond’s basic thesis. Researchers went and got the date for the earliest beginning of agriculture in different parts of the world, and then used that to predict modern economic development—GDP per capita in the year 2000. You control for a lot of factors statistically, and it is still seems to be the case that what Jared Diamond presented very qualitatively—that the earliness of agriculture really matters—does hold when you do statistical analyses.” Read more...
The best books on Cultural Evolution