Recommend me some entertaining non-fiction

So, I’ve really been getting into my reading recently - but much prefer non-fiction to fiction at the moment, just because knowledge for its own sake is always a good thing. I’ve been splurging out on Amazon, but don’t know if I’m missing some good stuff, so thought I’d ask the Dope.

The kind of things I’m thinking of and want more of is historical stuff like The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England, which I’m enjoying at the moment and Samurai William (the account of a ship-wreaked Englishman in feudal Japan - fascinating stuff), but apart from the more jaunty and light-hearted reads I’ve also just re-read Berlin: The Downfall 1945 and as usual it gripped me by the eyeballs (as I’ve started about 300 GD threads inspired by it). Amazon’s recommendations only go so far; so what can you personally recommend as a good engaging read to expand the horizons?

Someone loaned me The Afghan Campaign and I didn’t get read it for a while because I wasn’t in the mood for heavy historical stuff. But I started it last night and holy cow, it’s great! Story-form, but really nice writing, very entertaining, and I’'m recommending it now even though I’m only 40 pages in. The link goes to a hardcover, but mine is softcover, not nearly as costly.

p.s. Historical fiction is about the only type of war-stuff that I enjoy at all, and this is very enjoyable. VERY enjoyable! If I still feel this way when I’m done, I will definitely be looking for more of this guy’s stuff. It sort of reminds me of HBO’s “Rome” series, which I enjoyed quite a bit. Moves faster though; like I said, a great beginning, and I hope the rest of the book keeps up; if so, I am absolutely hooked.

Three that completely captivated me:

The Fatal Shore, which tells the story of the founding of Australia. Completely new material for me, and utterly fascinating.

The Birth of the Modern, about the way the world changed between 1815 and 1830.

Alexis de Tocqueville: A Life - After reading this book, you will feel like you actually know the man, and he lived through about six different eras of French history, not to mention providing a unique perspective on early America.

Also, since this is the Dope, if you haven’t read it already Guns, Germs and Steel is a must.

My old favorite Gunpowder comes to mind immediately. Fascinating read on the history of…well, you can guess.

Paul Revere’s Ride, not the Longfellow poem but a great book about the events leading up to the start of the American Revolution including a greatly detailed account of the ride and the battles of Lexington and Concord.

Edge of your seat thriller stuff.

I’m currently about a third of the way through Unbroken, a really amazing story about Louie Zamperini, an Olympic athlete who becomes a bombardier in the Pacific theatre when WWII breaks out. Eventually his plane has to ditch in the Pacific, but he survives and becomes a POW stuck in Japan. It’s fantastic so far, and I think it’ll just get better.

The Devil in the White City. It’s kind of a split story about the men who put together the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair and a serial killer who took advantage of the fair to find victims. I bought it for the serial killer aspect but wound up looking forward to the Fair planner’s parts even more, it’s a fascinating story and a great book.

Seconded. I’ll add:

  • Anything by Bill Bryson

  • *Empire *by Niall Ferguson. He’s aggravating, but engaging.

  • Freakonomics. The sequel, Superfreakonomics, didn’t rock my world nearly as much, but the chapter on prostitution was enlightening (though it could have been better).

  • *Lincoln *by David Herbert Donald. Evenhanded, well-researched, and accessible.

Many fiction writers have written lovely memoirs. Three I would definitely recommend are Stephen King’s “On Writing” and Roald Dahl’s “Boy” and “Flying Solo.”

I came into this thread to say this. The fair stuff ended up being fascinating, but the serial killer angle was also well-done, and very creepy. (That footprint…shudder)

Also, I don’t know how entertaining you’ll find this, but Lies My Teacher Told Me is a very interesting read. It’s about high school American history textbooks and…well, just how much they suck. Quite eye-opening.

There’s also the obligatory mention of Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond. It’s a bit on the dry side, but it makes some interesting arguments.

Since you seem to like history, I’m going to recommend “Empires of the Sea” by Roger Crowley. It’s a history of conflict on the Mediterranean Sea between the Ottoman Empire and assorted European powers. The book is very well written. It reads almost like a novel, and it’s damn exciting. There’s corsairs and pirates, the Knights of St. John and Janissaries, swords and cannons and armor and flamethrowers and galleys rowed by slaves and just all sorts of really cool stuff. It’s also an area of history that doesn’t get a lot of coverage, even though it was fairly important to the development of Western and Middle Eastern civilization. It’s the best book I’ve read in quite some time, and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in history.

Here’s a link

I’ve recommended this book like fifteen times on the SDMB, and I think it’s worked, because the last time I saw someone ask for recommendations on American history books, someone else beat me: American Colonies, by Alan Taylor. I enjoy history for history’s sake, but it’s often a bit of a slog. I keep going because I like learning. But this book is freaking riveting - no slogging necessary.

Another: The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression, by Andrew Solomon. I really highly recommend this book to people who, like myself, don’t suffer from depression. It’s extremely eye-opening. And it won the National Book Award.

The Eternal Frontier: An Ecological History of North America and its Peoples, by Tim Flannery. For anyone who’s enjoyed Jared Diamond’s books.

I can make a lot more popular science recommendations if you’re into that sort of thing. I only discovered that I loved science long after I was done with high school so as an adult I’ve read a lot of pop sci.

I just started They Marched Into Sunlight and I’m loving it. I just downloaded the sample and decided to buy the book tonight.

It’s about an ambush in Vietnam and the first real anti-war rally in the States, going on around the same time.

Steven King - Danse Macabre

Mark Kurlansky - Cod, The Big Oyster, Salt

I really liked Eric Lax - The Mold in Dr Floreys Coat The story about the invention of penicillin

I am now reading Bill Bryson’s At Home and I think it fits the bill. He goes through his house, an old rectory built in 1851, and covers the history of each room and the history of related items. For instance, he tells how a hall got demoted from being the entire house (Toad Hall) to just a tiny room where you hang your coat, and how cabinet diverged into meaning both the group of leaders of a country and the place you store your pills. I’ve learned something on almost every page.

I agree on that one. Also The Big Oyster

Gandhi & Churchill is both fascinating and amazing. It covers things that I hadn’t seen before (Did you know that the map of the contemporary Middle East was pretty much drawn by Churchill?) and makes the case that the two of them – who only met once – shaped the 20th century.

The State of Jones. A look at one of the more obscure events of the Civil War, with some details that fly in the face of the stereotypes of the South.

The White Nile, by Alan Moorehead. Everything you wanted to know about the exploration of the great river, written by an historian with a knack for a story. Probably the best book I’ve ever read on the subject. The sequel, The Blue Nile, is also recommended.

The Lost City of Z, by David Grann. The story of the exploration of, and obsession with, the Amazon Basin by Percy Fawcett, the premier British explorer.

God’s Debris by Scott Adams.

It’s a bit shallow as a philosophy book, but it is an entertaining read. It’s also quick. If you start now, you’ll be done before dinner.

Read it for free (and legal) here:

Roughly Depression-era American nonfiction:

The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz-Age New York, by Deborah Blum.

Less about murder, and more about poisons and toxins and the first real toxicologist in New York City. Really interesting section on radium and how misinformed people were about it: “Radium Water Tonic,” good for what ails you!

The Girls of Murder City: Fame, Lust, and the Beautiful Killers Who Inspired Chicago, by Douglas Perry.

Very interesting, and a nice tight focus on the newspaper reporting angle, and on really trying to be honest about what may have actually happened, and on some of the other killings that didn’t garner as much attention.

Totally not historical nonfiction, but it’s a really interesting read:

Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void, by Mary Roach.

Really hysterical summation of all sorts of little basic things you didn’t know about the space race, and how things really work up in the shuttles and space stations.