19 votes

What non-fiction books have had lasting explanatory power?

I was telling someone about a psychology book I'm reading at the moment. Intending to read it themselves they messaged me later to ask for the title. And I felt a bit unsettled at sharing it!

Whilst it's interesting and I'm enjoying it, I doubt I'll remember its lessons or claims in a year or two. Which got me thinking about books that I read years ago which still help me understand the world.

So I thought I'd make a post asking which books other users still found helpful year(s) later.

tldr; share books that are:

  • Non-fiction (or at least serious fiction).
  • First read over a year ago.
  • Have been helpful to you multiple times since.

19 comments

  1. [3]
    kfwyre
    (edited )
    Link
    You've unleashed the beast! I read a LOT of non-fiction, and I keep diligent logs of when I've read everything, so I can definitively say that these are the best, most compelling non-fiction reads...

    You've unleashed the beast! I read a LOT of non-fiction, and I keep diligent logs of when I've read everything, so I can definitively say that these are the best, most compelling non-fiction reads I've come across that have stuck with me for more than a year. I am going to try to limit myself to ten eleven, so as not to go completely overboard.

    • And the Band Played On (1987) by Randy Shilts

    The definitive account of the AIDS epidemic, and probably the longest book I've ever read. The author was so committed to remaining unbiased in his reporting that he refused to view the results of his own HIV test until after he was done writing the book. He later died of AIDS-related causes. I was lucky enough to get to see his panel on the AIDS quilt, and I still tear up just thinking about that moment.

    • There Are No Children Here (1991) by Alex Kotlowitz

    The author tells the story of two young brothers growing up in poverty in Chicago. You will fall in love with these kids, and your heart will subsequently break for them. The title of the book comes from a quote from the boys' own mother, referring to how the difficult life circumstances of poverty rob children of their childhoods. I have spent most of my teaching career working in low-income schools, and this is one of three books I would recommend to people to give them a sense of what that's like--not because it focuses on teaching, but because it shows the devastating injustices so many of my kids have to live through, day in and day out.

    • In the Heart of the Sea (1999) by Nathaniel Philbrick

    Don't judge this by the movie. I was bored for its entire runtime. The book, however? I could not put it down. It is more interesting than it has any right to be, and not just for the titillating narrative of cannibalism in the latter half. The first half of the book was arguably better, as it details just how important whale oil was as a commodity, which explains why people would set sail for years in order to find it. Whale hunting was the original offshore drilling! This one made me appreciate the modern convenience we live with and how we take affordable, consistent energy for granted.

    • Stiff (2003) by Mary Roach

    This book is all about cadavers, and it's written in Mary Roach's inimitable style. She's curious, thoughtful, funny, and blunt, and she mixes the rich, exact truths of science with the less rigid but no less real truths of human experience. I had not given much thought to dead bodies, nor to the people who work with them, but Roach explores this entire topic in a fascinating, reverential way. The book is far less morbid and far more enriching than you would expect, given its subject matter.

    • The Devil in the White City (2003) by Erik Larson

    This one is so very compelling. It tells the story of the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, with half the book focusing on the monumental, groundbreaking engineering that went into making such an event happen. The other half of the book focuses on H. H. Holmes, a serial killer who used the huge influx of people as fodder for his "murder hotel." Chapters alternate back and forth, and the book is noteworthy for being equally interesting in both narratives; the chapters on engineering are just as engaging as the ones on Holmes! I don't know if it fits your "explanatory" criteria, but I include it because it's one of my all-time favorites.

    • In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts (2008) by Gabor Maté

    A frank, compassionate, and controversial look at addiction from a doctor who runs a program for drug users in Vancouver. He never loses sight of the humanity of addicted individuals, but he also acknowledges that the power of addiction is sometimes insurmountable. One of the toughest takeaways from the book is that sometimes proper treatment is not sobriety but instead palliative care.

    • The New Jim Crow (2010) by Michelle Alexander

    The definitive text about race and justice in America. Thorough, incredibly well-researched, and illuminating. This is a must-read for anyone wanting to understand institutional racism in the United States in a modern context.

    • Dreamland (2015) by Sam Quinones

    This is a great companion text to In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts. Ghosts focuses on the human experience of addiction, while Dreamland focuses almost exclusively on the economic side of drug distribution. It details parallel narratives: the rise of oxycontin in America, and the efforts of a drug cartel to expand their market for black tar heroin. This book is a direct answer to the question of why the United States has an opioid problem, and it's as fascinating as it is devastating.

    • Missoula (2015) by Jon Krakauer

    This one is an incredibly tough but incredibly necessary read. It delves into the stories of several women in a college town, the horrific details of their sexual assaults, and their subsequent attempts to seek justice. I read the book shortly before the Brock Turner trial hit the news, and it was like I was watching an epilogue to this book. Ditto with the rise of the #MeToo movement. I'm going to go out on a gendered limb here and say that I think more men need to read this. I know it gave me some much needed perspective.

    • Dark Money (2016) by Jane Mayer

    Do you get angry at money's influence in American politics? Does it sometimes feel like America's been hijacked by corporate interests? Well, do I have a book for you! Mayer's book is immaculately researched and thoroughly upsetting. She gives us a peek behind the curtain of just how money and power correlate, and lays out in no uncertain terms that this connection has been exploited and strengthened for decades.

    • The Radium Girls (2017) by Kate Moore

    The book features a recurring three-word motif: "Lip. Dip. Paint." It's haunting in its simplicity, as it describes the process that many women used to paint glow-in-the-dark faces on watches. After using the radioactive paint on the brush, they would put the bristles to their mouths and use their lips to get them to a fine point, only to dip and paint again. At the time, nobody knew how destructive radiation was, so the process was largely innocent. Over time, however, it became clear that this was a dangerous, eventually fatal process. Nevertheless, many women were intentionally kept in the dark about this, so as to not impact production and profits. The book reads like a true crime novel, telling the stories of women who were intentionally maimed or killed in the name of industry and their attempts to bring their attackers to justice.

    Honorable Mentions (or, books that I think would make this list, but I've read them within the past year)

    • Columbine (2009) by Dave Cullen
    • Nothing to Envy (2009) by Barbara Demick
    • The Divide (2014) by Matt Taibbi
    15 votes
    1. JXM
      Link Parent
      There Are No Children Here and Columbine are both fantastic. There Are No Children Here is one of those books that, having never lived in a major city when I read them, changed the way I look at...

      There Are No Children Here and Columbine are both fantastic.

      There Are No Children Here is one of those books that, having never lived in a major city when I read them, changed the way I look at the world.

      If people want a similar book, I highly recommend The Corner by David Simon and Ed Burns. It’s one of the major inspirations for the television show The Wire.

      3 votes
    2. r_13
      Link Parent
      That's a great list, and thankyou for the thought out blurbs. I suddenly find myself with a list of books I want to read. That doesn't happen to me often.

      That's a great list, and thankyou for the thought out blurbs. I suddenly find myself with a list of books I want to read. That doesn't happen to me often.

      2 votes
  2. nic
    (edited )
    Link
    Positioning, the battle for your mind - seminal book on product positioning Crossing the Chasm - how new technologies gain (or fail to gain) a mainstream audience The Innovator's Dilemma - when...

    Positioning, the battle for your mind - seminal book on product positioning

    Crossing the Chasm - how new technologies gain (or fail to gain) a mainstream audience

    The Innovator's Dilemma - when new technologies cause great companies to fail

    Irrational Exuberance - called out the dot com bubble in early 2000, the housing bubble in 2006, and the bond bubble of 2016.

    7 votes
  3. [2]
    BuckeyeSundae
    Link
    There are a few non-fiction books that have had a sort of haunting impact on me over the years. Here are the biggest. Robert Thaler and Cass Sunstein's Nudge - Using choice architecture to guide...

    There are a few non-fiction books that have had a sort of haunting impact on me over the years. Here are the biggest.

    1. Robert Thaler and Cass Sunstein's Nudge - Using choice architecture to guide and make good choices easier than bad choices, while not taking away someone's ability to choose. Manipulation for good!
    2. Nassim Nicholas Taleb's The Black Swan - You don't know what you don't know, and pretending you do can lead to the greatest and most rocking vulnerabilities. Half the book is brilliant. The other half is Taleb being an arrogant ass.
    3. Frederick Douglass' Narrative of the Life - Never looking at institutional oppression the same way, nor am I going to have wool over my eyes when it comes to the horrors of slavery.
    4. Joe Sacco's Palestine - An Israeli journalist goes to Palestine and draws his way out. This graphic novel really doesn't pull many punches.
    5. Barry Schwartz' The Paradox of Choice - This was a necessary relief to me. I've always been told I was so smart that I could do literally anything, and my reaction to that was paralysis and fear. This book affirms that reaction is normal and makes me feel a little less of a failure for not being on Mars right now.
    6. Robert A. Burton's On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You're Not - This is a neurologist arguing (with studies backing his view) that certainty is a feeling much like joy or fear or anger, not a rational experience.
    7 votes
    1. frostycakes
      Link Parent
      The Paradox of Choice is fantastic, I'm glad someone else mentioned it already. Even on a more mundane level, it's helped me stop second-guessing my decisions and purchases so much, before this I...

      The Paradox of Choice is fantastic, I'm glad someone else mentioned it already. Even on a more mundane level, it's helped me stop second-guessing my decisions and purchases so much, before this I was the person who would constantly return things/agonize over my decisions.

      Even professionally, it's helped me adopt more of a 'good-enough' attitude instead of running myself ragged in the hunt for perfection in my job.

      4 votes
  4. [2]
    patience_limited
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    Link
    Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions Antique (1962), but essential reading. It's about the cultural anthropology, organizational psychology, and history of science, focusing on...

    Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions Antique (1962), but essential reading. It's about the cultural anthropology, organizational psychology, and history of science, focusing on obstructions to adoption of proven theories, and was the origin of the term, "paradigm shift". It influenced my decision not to pursue a PhD, and continues to inform how I look at the idea of progress in science and industry.

    It's old (1981), but Stephen Jay Gould's The Mismeasure of Man had an enormous impact on how I understand the practice of science. It's a devastating historical and statistical treatise on motivated reasoning, bias, and "scientific" racism. It's also compellingly written. The Mismeasure of Man has withstood the test of time fairly well, though there are some potentially valid criticisms.

    Ben Goldacre, Bad Science - I keep coming back to what I learned from Goldacre's columns, compiled in this book. If I'm a regular curmudgeon about bad reporting, disinformation, bias, the difficulty of discovering truth, and poor statistical inference, this is one of the major influences.

    Charles Perrow, Normal Accidents: Living with High-Risk Technologies - The Wikipedia entry refers to the 1984 original edition, but this is the one that got me through health and safety engineering in the 90's. [Full disclosure - my dad was one of the investigating engineers on the U.S. Three Mile Island nuclear reactor accident in 1980, and this book was bedtime reading!] There's a revised edition published in 2011. The narrative style and supporting examples are still engaging enough for laypeople, not to mention dramatic. The underlying concepts are relevant across a broad range of professions, and potentially of interest for developers writing complex, tightly coupled software for real-time control systems. Normal Accidents was cited in Nicholas Nassem Talib's analysis of markets in The Black Swan, mentioned above.

    Howard Zinn, A People's History of the United States - Most recent revision, 2005. I never read any history again without looking for what stories were omitted. The usual criticism among academic historians is that People's History is incomplete, biased towards a class struggle narrative, and doesn't provide answers to the question of why immigrants still perceive America as a land of opportunity despite its faults.

    Stephen Batchelor, Buddhism Without Beliefs, and Jon Kabat-Zinn, Mindfulness for Beginners. Neither is the best place to start a mindfulness practice. There are much better current sources, but both of these books had techniques that got me through some dark and difficult places in life.

    Richard Preston's The Hot Zone - this is the creepy nightmare bestseller version of the stuff which troubles the sleep of anyone with a scintilla of public health sensitivity. I bang on about good governance in part because humans are the biggest mammalian ecological niche on the planet. Public systems of disease surveillance and hygiene measures are the only things standing between 7.4 billion humans and 90+% population collapse.

    David Brin's The Transparent Society, 1998. There's a 2018 interview with Brin here, where he discusses the book's predictive power 20 years after its writing. There are more modern texts on privacy, surveillance, tyranny, security, and technology policy, but this one was visionary. I struggle to remain a technology optimist, and like Brin, believe we'll eventually get the balance right.

    Thomas Piketty's Capital in the 21st Century and Kate Raworth's Doughnut Economics. I've been slowly grinding and digesting my way through Capital. These books provide useful models for understanding where we are and where we need to go to survive the coming global changes.

    That's enough for now, but if anyone wants more, I've got more.

    5 votes
    1. SystemicPlural
      Link Parent
      The Transparent Society and his earlier novel Earth were both formative books for me. It is a great shame that society has not headed them and instead we have a great imbalance of privacy where...

      The Transparent Society and his earlier novel Earth were both formative books for me. It is a great shame that society has not headed them and instead we have a great imbalance of privacy where only the powerful get to know everything and the rest of us are drip fed through opaque algorithms.

      1 vote
  5. Whom
    Link
    While my full understanding of the subject is a lot more grounded in socialist theory, Derrick Bell's Faces At The Bottom Of The Well: The Permanence Of Racism has been the single most useful...

    While my full understanding of the subject is a lot more grounded in socialist theory, Derrick Bell's Faces At The Bottom Of The Well: The Permanence Of Racism has been the single most useful resource I've found for understanding race (particularly in America). It's an important work in the formation of critical race theory, if you're familiar with that.

    Despite this being primarily a work of nonfiction and always one that is concerned with the permanence of racism (and unraveling racism and racial hatred), Bell is a great storyteller and the part that stands out to most everyone who reads it is the Space Traders short story that I would absolutely suggest checking out, even if it works better in the context of the book.

    4 votes
  6. super_james
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    To answer my own question: Mistakes were made but not by me. - This is an introduction to the ideas of "cognitive dissonance theory". It's very helpful for understanding why people do things that...

    To answer my own question:

    Mistakes were made but not by me. - This is an introduction to the ideas of "cognitive dissonance theory".

    It's very helpful for understanding why people do things that otherwise seem just insanely stupid. From joining cults to overlooking obvious evidence in murder investigations to becoming an anti-vaxxer.

    The Truth About Markets - A critical look at market economics, written in 2002.

    I've found this very helpful for developing what I understand of why economics works the way it does and fundamentally what economics and an economy is.

    3 votes
  7. [4]
    Deimos
    Link
    It's a fairly popular book so it's probably not a very interesting answer, but I've had a copy of On Writing Well for years that I go back to regularly. It's a great book with a lot of really...

    It's a fairly popular book so it's probably not a very interesting answer, but I've had a copy of On Writing Well for years that I go back to regularly. It's a great book with a lot of really useful advice.

    3 votes
    1. [3]
      Nmg
      Link Parent
      huh, I have a similar recommendation: Style.

      huh, I have a similar recommendation: Style.

      2 votes
      1. [2]
        nacho
        Link Parent
        I bet you'd also enjoy Strunk and White's The Elements of Style

        I bet you'd also enjoy Strunk and White's The Elements of Style

        3 votes
        1. Nmg
          Link Parent
          Someone else recommended that to me yesterday :-)

          Someone else recommended that to me yesterday :-)

          1 vote
  8. alexandria
    Link
    Bertrand Russell's "In Praise of Idleness" (Specifically the "In Praise of Idleness" and "Useless Knowledge" essays in that book). Ellen Meiksins Wood's "The Origins of Capitalism". I haven't read...

    Bertrand Russell's "In Praise of Idleness" (Specifically the "In Praise of Idleness" and "Useless Knowledge" essays in that book).

    Ellen Meiksins Wood's "The Origins of Capitalism". I haven't read it fully, but even the short amount I did read was pretty enlightening, and continues to enlighten me.

    Lawrence Lessig's Free Culture.

    Jane Liedloff - The Continuum Concept. It was marketed mainly for child-rearing, but it shows how deeply the work ethic is ingrained in humanity across cultures, and how our own culture emphases stressful points of view when in compared to others. It's a short read, but probably one of the most valuable books I've read.

    3 votes
  9. PMmeyourtits
    Link
    Man's search for meaning by Victor Frankl has stuck with me since nice I read it. The central ideas that even suffering can behave meaning if you are suffering for something that is important to...

    Man's search for meaning by Victor Frankl has stuck with me since nice I read it. The central ideas that even suffering can behave meaning if you are suffering for something that is important to you has helped me find some sense of the world.

    3 votes
  10. SystemicPlural
    (edited )
    Link
    Cosmic Evolution: The Rise of Complexity in Nature - Eric Chaisson Explores how pretty much everything in the universe emerges out of non equilibrium thermodynamics. Completely changed my view of...

    Cosmic Evolution: The Rise of Complexity in Nature - Eric Chaisson

    Explores how pretty much everything in the universe emerges out of non equilibrium thermodynamics. Completely changed my view of life. In my opinion this understanding is more important than evolution - since evolution is just a subset of emergent complexity due to non equilibrium thermodynamics - but it remains an obscure topic despite first being explored by Schrödinger about 70 years ago. There are other good books on this subject such as Into the Cool, but Eric's was the first I read and it has really stayed with me.

    Consciousness and the Social Brain

    By far the best attempt I have read to explain what consciousness is and how it works in practical terms. Also, naturally fits in with theories of emergent complexity. Formed my current view on sentience.

    Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle

    A very good characterisation of tribal life mixed in with the authors transformation from missionary to humanitarian. No other book on tribal anthropology has made me see life through their eyes as this one has.

    Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind

    Meditation as it simply is.

    The Seven Principles For Making Marriage Work

    For someone who is not naturally good at relationships, this has become the bible of our marriage. And it is based on science!

    3 votes
  11. starcloak
    Link
    The Strategy of Conflict by Thomas C. Schelling I read it about 10 years ago, but I still find myself recalling some of it's principles whenever I am trying to negotiate something. I was also...

    The Strategy of Conflict by Thomas C. Schelling I read it about 10 years ago, but I still find myself recalling some of it's principles whenever I am trying to negotiate something. I was also really taken with the idea of "Schelling Points" or points that for some reason people are more likely to coalesce to without prearrangement or communication. Game theory isn't really my field, though, so perhaps newer books on the subject have surpassed it.

    2 votes
  12. kichelmoon
    Link
    Amusing ourselves to death This book showed me how easy it is to waste your time watching video essays on youtube and browsing articles without actually learning anything.

    Amusing ourselves to death
    This book showed me how easy it is to waste your time watching video essays on youtube and browsing articles without actually learning anything.

    1 vote