Einstein's Unfinished Revolution
Ever try to explain quantum physics? Hell, ever try to understand quantum physics? Lee Smolin can help. The theoretical physicist takes you through the infinite (and infinitesimal) intricacies of one of the more abstract ideas out there, and, what’s more, Smolin tries to determine what’s beyond quantum physics, which is basically some place we’ve never been before.
How do you take over for Steve Jobs? Seems like an impossible task, yet Tim Cook has shown that the famed founder and CEO of Apple wasn’t the only one who could lead the company to remarkable success. Leander Kahney’s new book tells the story of one legacy giving way to a new one.
Robert L. O'Connell
Robert O’Connell’s Revolutionary focuses on George Washington’s years as a soldier and eventually a general, and how those experiences shaped him into one of our founding fathers, and also how that shaping affected the nature of the country he help create.
Chasing the Moon
A companion to the PBS documentary of the same name, Chasing the Moon collects numerous stories from a wide range of participants about the unlikely events that lead to the moon landing in 1969. Filled with eyewitness accounts from an eclectic group of artists, scientists, and military people, Chasing the Moon reveals the fascinating behind-the-scenes truth of one of America’s most iconic achievements.
Kristin L. Hoganson
A compelling and necessary history of middle America, the mythic “heartland” of downhome folks, conservative values, and cultural isolation. Only Kristin L. Hoganson in her research uncovers a much more nuanced story behind the creation of these various regions and finds a richer, more human tale underneath.
In Superbugs, physician and ethics professor Matt McCarthy takes us to the front lines in the fight against superbugs—bacteria that have built up immunities to our drugs—and the new ways of developing antibiotics that can potentially (hopefully) defeat them.
The Good Vices
Dr. Harry Ofgang
How about a book that suggests that drinking alcohol and eating eggs and not exercising like an athlete are totally okay and maybe even actually good for you? Physician Dr. Harry Ofgang and health journalist Erik Ofgang’s The Good Vices claims exactly that: many of the things we’ve been taught are bad for us aren’t quite as bad as we thought.
Monica L. Smith
Since more than half of the planet lives in urban areas, Monica L. Smith’s sprawling, multi-millennia history of cities is of interest to most of us. From Mesopotamia to Pompeii, Rome to Manhattan, Cities is nothing less than the story of civilization.
The Ghost Ships of Archangel
The remarkable true account of four Allied ships in the North Pole in 1942. Attempting to deliver supplies to the Soviet Union’s war effort, the ships eluded and dodged icebergs, Nazi battleships, and a constant barrage of bombs from above. William Geroux’s The Ghost Ships of Archangel recounts an extraordinary and unknown moment in history.
Ritz and Escoffier
In Belle Epoque London, César Ritz and Auguste Escoffer created the Savoy Hotel, a forerunner to the modern luxury hotel, which, Luke Barr argues in Ritz and Escoffer, coincided with the rise of the middle class. A fascinating peak into a bygone era (one that is nonetheless connected to our own), Barr’s book is as packed with drama and unique characters as any novel.
The Road to Unfreedom
Renowned historian Timothy Snyder tracks the rise of authoritarianism in contemporary culture, how the political ambitions of Putin’s Russia were only achievable because of vulnerabilities in the West that need to be probed and understood. The Road to Unfreedom is a necessary primer for our tumultuous political times.
Who doesn’t love the idea that late bloomers, i.e., those of us who weren’t mega-successes right out of college, i.e., most of us, are not only undervalued but powerful in their own right? Rich Karlgaard, the publisher of Forbes, found success later in life, and since the executive function of our brains doesn’t mature until our mid- to late-20s, many of us do, too. So why is our culture so obsessed with wunderkinds?
The Mirage Factory
In telling the stories of engineer William Mulholland, filmmaker D.W. Griffith, and evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson, Gary Krist’s The Mirage Factory actually tells the story of the creation of Los Angeles, an unlikely metropolis on pretty much uninhabitable land, and the inventive and illusionist minds behind it.
The Truffle Underground
Who knew that the world of fungi was filled with duplicity and deceit? Turns out the valuable market for truffles has created a dangerous and dirty industry, one where farmers guard their land with rifles and recipe secrecy is paramount, and Ryan Jacobs’s The Truffle Underground takes you right to the front lines of fungus.
The Feather Thief
Kirk Wallace Johnson
In 2009 an American flautist stole hundreds of bird skins from the British Museum of Natural History and then vanished. Why did he do this? That’s the question journalist Kirk Wallace Johnson tries to answer in his riveting work, The Feather Thief, which delves into the niche world of salmon fly-tying (which is fascinating in and of itself) and uncovers a years-long investigation in the hunt for the criminal behind this strange robbery.
Yale Law School professor Amy Chua argues that America’s perception of the world beyond our borders is slanted more toward nation-states and less toward tribal groups, so that, for instance, during the war in Iraq, we were ignorant of the intense hatred between the Sunnis and the Shias. Political Tribes suggests that incorporating an awareness of tribal politics will help us understand the world and ourselves better.
The Unwanted is a harrowing account of a small village in Germany during the Holocaust, where Jewish families sought American visas to escape the Nazis. Strikingly familiar to our current situation, Michael Dobbs, among other things, describes how American officials held intellectual debates about whether they should accept refugees in the country at the same time those refugees were being murdered en masse.
The Castle on Sunset
Film critic Shawn Levy, author of the wonderful Dolce Vita Confidential, takes on the history of the Chateau Marmont, the most notorious Hollywood hotel, where Jim Morrison partied until he nearly died and John Belushi actually did. An iconic part of Hollywood lore, the Chateau Marmont, as depicted by Levy in The Castle on Sunset, is as richly storied as the luminaries who stayed there.
The Map of Knowledge
Violet Moller offers a vast and complex narrative of three manuscripts—Euclid’s Elements, Ptolemy’s The Almagest, and Galen’s writings—were created, published, and saved through seven cities and over a thousand years, which, she argues, brought ancient knowledge to modernity.
Notes from the Field
Anna Deavere Smith
For the last thirty years, Anna Deavere Smith’s one-of-a-kind form of documentary theater—in which the actor interviews dozens of people, stitches them together into a one-man show, and performs their words in character—has tackled numerous topics, from the LA riots to the deterioration of the body. In Notes from the Field, Smith takes on the prison industrial complex and the young kids of color who are most targeted by it.
“The secret to life,” wrote Stanley Elkin, “is specialization,” and I think the same is true for conversation. Nowadays, anyone can comment on the latest article or news story foisted on the world by social media, but the most fascinating discussions come from deeper and more specialized sources: books. To read a well-written nonfiction book on any given subject is to arm you with a richer insight into its topic, so the next time you’re at a party or out with friends, you can actually tell them something they didn’t know. From George Washington to superbugs to sex, here are 20 nonfiction books to read by authors from whose expertise we can all socially benefit.