by Marylaine Block
note: if you want to get your hands on any of these books, and they're out of print, click here
American Life and Culture American Politics Animals Gender Issues History Journalism and Media Language and Mind Medicine and Medical Ethics Race Social Issues Sports Teaching Technology and Science Travel Essays, Columns, Creative nonfiction
Marv Albert. I'd Love To But I Have a Game. Pretend you don't know anything about his sex life and just enjoy his entertaining account of his life in sports--which extended back into his childhood, when he and his brother were hard put to decide which of them would play a game and which would do the mock broadcast spiel on it. He has a lot of interesting and amusing stories about sports, broadcasting, and the players in both.
Books about Sports
Ira Berkow. Pitchers Do Get Lonely. One of our best sportswriters collects here some of his best writings on baseball.
Tom Boswell. Why Time Begins on Opening Day. Also, How Life Imitates the World Series. Like Berkow, Boswell is damn near poetic when he writes about baseball, which he loves and understands profoundly. If you love baseball, you will want to read this. If you can't fathom why people love baseball so much, you must read this.
Norman Chad. Hold On, Honey, I'll Take You to the Hospital at Halftime, or, Notes from a Professional Couch Potato. Imagine writing television sports criticism for a living. Chad has a rich knowledge of ESPN, professional bowling, the Olympics, and football, and a passionate hatred of Dick Vitale. This is frothy, but fun. And his idea of what the Battle of Little Big Horn might have sounded like if it was broadcast by Dick Vitale is not to be missed.
John Feinstein. A Season at the Brink. He followed the Indiana Hoosiers through a season in which Bobby Knight appeared to be on the edge of a breakdown. Nonetheless, Feinstein makes it clear that, erratic temper and all, Knight is a great coach, a brilliant teacher, and a mentor who cares that his students actually do well in their courses and graduate, as well as play ball.
David Halberstam. The Breaks of the Game. One of the best books ever written about basketball. This follows the championship season of the Portland Trailblazers. It's a story about the season, the games, and the strategies that got them to the championship. But it's also a book about the players, many of them black, many of them rescued from poverty, but not from racism, by their extraordinary physical skills. It's a story, too, about the relationship between sport and American society. Halberstam is one of the best journalists in the business, and this is fascinating reading.
Phillip Hoose. Necessities. A devastating account of racism in American sports.
Bill James. The Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract. James, a charter member of the Society for American Baseball Research, analyzes baseball, using the tools at hand, which includes an extraordinary wealth of baseball statistics. He uses them to compare players from different eras with each other, to determine how one assesses "greatness," etc. An outstanding reference book which is also just plain fun to read.
Mariah Burton Nelson. The Stronger Women Get, the More Men Love Football. She talks convincingly about the way sports reinforces sexism, and helps to restore men's declining sense of power and dominance. She also talks at length of how sports can liberate and empower women.
Terry Pluto. Tall Tales: the Glory Years of the NBA. Also try Loose Balls: the Short Wild Life of the American Basketball Association, and 48 Minutes. Pluto writes very well indeed about basketball. The first two books mingle the accounts of various people who were there in the early days of professional basketball--players, coaches, referees, sportswriters, announcers, etc., and they are full of interesting anecdote, but nonetheless add up to fairly structured historical accounts of the leagues. 48 Minutes is a minute by minute, platy by play dissection of a game between the Boston Celtics and the Cleveland Cavaliers, from the chalkboard view of the coaches. You see why every single decision is made--plays run, substitutions made--and how it works out. The first two can be read with pleasure by any basketball fan, whereas this is a great book for the true basketball junkie.
Joan Ryan. Little Girls in Pretty Boxes. About the abusive treatment and near starvation of young gymnasts and ice skaters, resulting in early osteoporosis, anorexia and bulimia, and often serious (and disregarded) injury.
Earl Strom. Calling the Shots. One of the most respected (now retired) NBA referees talks about his life in the NBA and the ABA (he was later ostracized by the NBA for his gall in working for the ABA). Interesting insights into the game, and anecdotes about the great and not so great players.
Rick Telander. Heaven Is a Playground. Telander spent the summer of 1975 hanging out on the basketball courts of Brooklyn where kids played basketball from dawn to dusk as if their lives depended on it--as, in a sense, they did, for basketball was pretty much the only available exit from the mean streets.
Gene Wojciechowski. Pond Scum and Vultures. Stories sportswriters tell about their lives hanging around the players, reporting on what they're doing, and just generally annoying them (hence the title). A lot of amusing stories here about the sports and the players.
William Zinsser. Spring Training. Zinsser followed Sid Thrift's Pittsburgh Pirates through spring training, observing the decisions being made about the players, the work on fundamental skills, and the specific work being done by indivudal players to improve their skills and correct their flaws. For those who think of baseball as a game, rather than a profession, this is fascinating stuff.
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Ron Clark. The Essential 55. This national teacher of the year talks about the rules he gives his students that make it possible for them to learn and succeed beyond their wildest dreams.
Books about Teaching
Leah Hager Cohen. Train Go Sorry. Leah, child of a hearing man born to deaf parents, is raised in and around the Lexington School for the Deaf, where her father teaches. The book details her experiences with the deaf students, and with the teachers, both deaf and hearing. She also talks about the politics surrounding "deaf culture"-- the politics of ASL, oral culture, and mainstreaming. Extremely interesting.
Robert L. Fried. The Passionate Teacher. Fried believes that passionate teachers, which is to say, the ones that can connect the students with their subject matter--are not necessarily born, but can be trained. He thinks there are techniques teachers can master, beliefs about their students that can be instilled, that can turn ordinary teachers into great ones. Lots of good examples of how teachers arouse students interest and keep it.
Torey Hayden. Just Another Kid. Hayden clearly is one of the great teachers of our time, a woman with a gift for getting through to unspeakably damaged children. She teaches classes of children with serious behavior disorders. In this book, even though her class is small, each child requires far more time and attention than Torey can possibly devote to any one of them, so she enlists the mother of one child, and finds that this woman is "Just Another Kid," a woman at least as troubled as any of the children. Torey herself, plus the responsibility of working with the children, help this woman to sober up and regain the confidence that her husband has systematically destroyed. Hayden's other books will also be of interest: One Child, also Somebody Else's Kids, and Murphy's Boy and Ghost Girl. All of them will fill the reader with rage against the adults who would inflict such harm on children, and with wonder at the recuperative powers of children and the power of a dedicated, loving teacher.
Lou Anne Johnson. My Posse Don't Do Homework. This is the book that was turned into the movie and TV show, Dangerous Minds. It's a funny, warm, loving book by a teacher who is crazy about her adolescent students and will do some pretty far-out things to reach them. Johnson, an ex-marine, is a brand new teacher, thrown into a school program for at-risk kids. Despite the transience of her student population, and despite the incredible poverty and violence and dysfunction of her kids' lives, LouAnne is one of those life-changing teachers who turns lives around. For all her successes, one is struck by her sadness at not being able to save each and every one of them. Also read the sequel, The Girls in the Back of the Class.
Tracy Kidder. Among Schoolchildren. Another book about great teaching against great odds. A year in the life of a gifted schoolteacher working with a room full of disadvantaged kids.
Peter Kline. Why America's Children Can't Think. I hate the title, which is more excessive a pan of the younger generations than the book itself presents in a rousing condemnation of how reading is taught in this country (since he believes thought is not possible without good reading skills). Suggests some excellent strategies for teaching both reading and thinking, and he obviously is an inspired and inspiring teacher.
Rita Kramer. Ed School Follies. Rita Kramer visited a number of teacher-training programs, from highly esteemed ones to ordinary ones, to see who the future teachers were and what they were being taught, and the results are discouraging. She finds far too many dim bulbs aspiring to be teachers; she finds a newer, more polite racism in the way many of them embrace multiculturalism (as in, "Poor dears, they come from a deprived background, so they can't possibly understand algebra"); and a devotion for teaching skills that often masks a contempt for (and absence of) actual content knowledge of subject disciplines.
James W. Loewen. Lies My Teacher Taught Me. About how American history is mis-taught, because it is used as an instrument for inculcating patriotism. As a consequence, history textbooks create public controversy, and end up being stripped of much of the truth of the American experience. Not to mention much of the color of real events. Furthermore, the mythology offered up in place of historical method and content prevents us from understanding ourselves and our role in the world.
Edward MacNeal. Mathsemantics. The best book about math and math education I have ever come across. MacNeal speaks about how much math understanding is depentent on semantic understanding, which is rarely taught along with the math, so that even people who consider themselves "good with numbers" routinely make mind-boggling mistakes. He has some excellent suggestions for improving math education.
Ken Macrorie. Twenty Teachers. This is a man who studies good teaching. Here he presents twenty of the nation's best teachers in action. He shows how they got there, what they want to achieve, how they achieve it, and how they interact with, and affect the lives of, their students. From these, and the many other teachers he has studied, Macrorie deduces a number of principles of good teaching.
Orenstein, Peggy. School Girls. While most of the books I've chosen here celebrate great teaching, we also need to talk about horrendous teaching. In this book, we see girls whose teachers assume little intelligence in them, demand little from them in the way of performance, and understand nothing about their lives. These are girls whose families and neighborhoods gave them little, and their teachers do nothing but confirm that they are destined for failure and hopelessness. This is a terribly sad and angering book.
David Owen. High School. Also, try None of the Above. In the first, Owen, at the age of 26, masquerades as a high school student so he can see how much student culture has changed, if at all, since he left high school. In the second, he gives you a lot of inside dope about the testing establishment, and leads you to question just what it is the SAT's measure, other than the abaility to think like an ETS test question writer.
Neil Postman. Teaching as a Subversive Activity. Postman is one of my favorite thinkers about education, and clearly a brilliant teacher. Here he presents some brilliant and radical ideas, about the relationship between the teacher and the taught, many of which he later rejected as he realized that the overwhelming force of media would destroy all understanding of history. At this point he wrote Teaching as a Conserving Activity, in which he argued that the primary function schools should serve is providing historical context for a society that changes way too fast. He argues that all courses should be taught in historical context, and that schools should concentrate on developing the traditional left brain skills--reading, writing, computation, critical analysis--that the media devalue. In Amusing Ourselves To Death, he delivers a devastating indictment of what television does to our ability to think and learn and understand the world around us. In his Conscientious Objections there's an essay called "Columbusity," in which he presents a compelling argument for teaching creationism alongside evolution as the best possible way to show how science proposes and tests hypotheses.
Mike Rose. Possible Lives: the Promise of Public Education in America. Rose has traveled all over the country, visiting public schools where the kinds of children our politicians are willing to write off are being lovingly taught, educated in the root sense of the word, knowledge and undertstanding being drawn from the children. The children are Latinos and Navajos and rural one-room school students and ghetto blacks, and learning-disabled kids, but because their teachers believe ALL children can learn, and because they take the trouble to know and respect the children, they do learn and think and make the learning uniquely theirs. This is an inspiring book.
Pepper White. The Idea Factory: Learning To Think at M.I.T. M.I.T. is a sink-or-swim sort of place. It's far more about each student learning by choosing on an individual project to work on, which will create knowledge, than it is about students being taught--indeed, the theory seems to be that, if you actually need teaching, you should be at some other institution. Understandably, this results in a carefully selected pool of brilliant, dedicated, fairly weird students, and a vortex of scientific and technological creativity most colleges would envy. At the same time, it's not an easy life for students, either. This is a fascinating book about the creation and costs of excellence.
George H. Wood. Schools That Work. And lots more schools do, in fact, work brilliantly, than you are led to believe, public schools as well as private. Here we are shown a number of schools that in different ways fully engage ALL their students and bring out their capacities. None of these schools use ability grouping, none of them focus on individual achievement. In all of these schools, children work in teams; they get to help choose what subjects will be studied. In these schools, what the children learn is intrinsic to concerns of the community, and children come to see themselves as agents of change.
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Edward Abbey. Desert Solitaire. One of the most important pieces of environmental writing. Abbey worked for the park service in Utah's desert, near Moab, trying to both assist the tourists and save the park from them. The book is extraordinary in its sense of place, an all five senses rendering of the stark spareness of a beautiful land that must be preserved
Books about Technology and Science
Natalie Angier. The Beauty of the Beastly. A collection of science essays, ranging from cellular chemistry through why we get fat and why vegetables are good for us and why being lazy is natural to every species except ours.
Stewart Brand. How Buildings Learn is about buildings people love, because they can be changed and adapted to new purposes, and buildings people hate, even if they are architectural masterpieces, because they are rigid and inflexible. It's about the eternal conflict between the architect, who believes he is giving you a perfect work of art, fixed for all time, and the users who think the building is there to serve their needs. And I do wish the man had gotten around to writing this book before we started building a new library.
Bill Bryson. A Short History of Nearly Everything. Bryson, a journalist with minimal science background, spent several years researching and talking to scientists to offer this brilliant explanation, intelligible to laypersons, of how science currently understands the world - evolution, geology, astronomy, human behavior, etc.
Mark Buchanan. Ubiquity. In which he finds that sandpiles, earthquakes, forest fires, stock market collapses, and human history all share the characteristic of being poised in a critical state, which can be altered by the slightest of incidents or molecules; furthermore, he finds that in each case, the greater the magnitude of the incident, the less likely it is to happen, and that the incidents can be plotted with a consistent powers of ten ratio. Pretty interesting.
James Burke and Robert Ornstein. The Axemaker's Gift. Burke, of course, is well-known as the man who produced and narrated the TV series, Connections and also The Day the Universe Changed. Ornstein is an authority on the evolution of human mind. Together they show how the progress of our technologies has altered our lives, our minds, and our philosophies.
K.C. Cole. The Universe and the Teacup: the Mathematics of Truth and Beauty. A terrific book which talks about how poor our brains generally are at things like calculating risk, understanding exponential amplification, understanding scale, separating noise from signal (which is partly a matter of knowing what to look for in the first place-she too believes the answer you get depends on the question you ask, but the question you ask depends on your knowledge and what your theory is. The most useful part of the book explains what math, especially game theory, has come up with to help us deal with conflict and leave everybody feeling that the settlement is fair. Very good at showing that math and science deal not with absolutes but with probabilities which may change with new knowledge, and that our categories are useful oversimplifications (she makes mincemeat of Charles Murray's theory of race and IQ).
Jared Diamond. Collapse. Vanished civilizations are a warning to present ones. After considering a variety of explanations for the disappearance of several complex civilizations, Diamond finds compelling evidence that they overstrained and destroyed the ecology that made their civilization possible. He concludes with thoughts on dangers that threaten civilizations today.
Dietrich Dorner. The Logic of Failure: Why Things Go Wrong and What We Can Do To Make Them Right. Actually, it's about why our problem-solving skills fail. In a series of experiments using computer simulation games, subjects are given a variety of complex problems to solve. The great majority of the subjects not only fail to solve the problems, or even make them worse, but they end up rationalizing bad outcomes (the famine was good because it wiped out unfit people) but blaming the computer or the game-maker for creating unsolvable situations. By having people think outloud in their problem-solving, the experimenters are able to see where some of the thought problems arise: inadequate information-gathering, failing to monitor results until they are statistically huge and irreversible, failing to understand time-based processes, etc.
Nancy Etcoff. Survival of the Prettiest. A detailed examination of the research on beauty suggests that there are universal standards of beauty, and attraction to beauty is hardwired into us, from infancy on.
Ira Flatow. They All Laughed. Short and often surprising histories of various inventions - the light bulb, microwave, television (take your pick among the inventors), the typewriter (which nobody wanted - the inventor nearly went broke), etc
Wendy Grossman. Net Wars. Discusses the social implications of the net and online communities. Interesting chapter on the creation of an underclass-AOL users, who "couldn't get a clue if they were standing in the middle of a clue field during clue mating season dressed as a clue and drenched with clue pheromones," but were really software impaired. Discusses the fight over encryption, the privacy vs. free product issue (TV isn't free-advertisers want your time, and if you're not willing to tell the advertisers who you are, why should they give you a free ride>), the hacker culture, porno, etc. Very interesting.
Henry Hobhouse. Seeds of Change. How five crops changed world history--quinine, tea, potatoes, cotton and sugar. This is interesting and extremely well written.
Hannah Holmes. Suburban Safari. She spends a year studying the wildlife and plants surrounding (and inhabiting) her home - invisible microbes, slugs, skunks, crows, chipmunks, grasses, hawks, trees, etc. What she doesn't understand, she asks experts about. Pretty interesting.
Sue Hubbell. Shrinking the Cat. Humans have been messing with animal and plant genes for thousands of years; they just didn't know that was what they were doing. Hubbell takes 3 instances: silkworms, cats, and apples, to illustrate how humans have transplanted them, and sought to improve the humanly desirable qualities. Fascinating stuff.
Peter Huber. Galileo's Revenge: Junk Science in the Courtroom. In Huber's opinion, far too many cunning lawyers have taken advantage of the scientific illiteracy of most juries to pass of totally unfounded scientific theories to justify major personal injury awards against corporations. As a conservative and as a business reporter, Huber has an ax to grind, but he nonetheless makes a clear case that stupid science creates stupid law.
Leonard Lee. The Day the Phones Stopped: How People Get Hurt When Computers Go Wrong. Very scary, especially because of the abnormally high level of trust people place in computers, which means we don't tend to double-check or second-guess whatever they say..
Paul Levinson. The Soft Edge: A Natural History and Future of the Information Revolution. Discusses all the changes historically in information technology and their impact: the alphabet, creating a monopoly of knowledge, the printing press and public education, photography, telegraphy, telephone, radio, "remedial media" which corrects flaws in the original media (like VCRs for time shifting, word processing for writing), the internet and hypertext, which more than ever allows for joint creation between writer and reader of a work of fiction.
David Macaulay. Building Big. Draws and explains the way different kinds of dams, bridges, tunnels, domes and skyscrapers are built. Especially interesting is how specific locations create unique set of problems to be solved, necessitating different kids of structure and engineering.
Robert McMath. What Were They Thinking? From the man who founded the New Products Showcase and Learning Center, what we can learn about product development and marketing from failed products and bad marketing ideas. Entertaining anecdotes, and great lessons.
Harold Morowitz. The Thermodynamics of Pizza. Also, Mayonnaise and the Origin of Life. Morowitz is one of the best in the business at explaining science to the layman in brief essays which are often amusing and always interesting.
Donald Norman. Things That Make Us Smart. Perhaps the most interesting distinction between human beings and other animals is that we have invented technology that helps us become smart. "Technology" in this case includes cognitive artifacts, like reading, mathematics, formal logic) and physical artifacts, like computers, that extend the abilities of the human mind, and allow us to communicate beyond the limits of space and time. Norman's other books include The Psychology of Everyday Things, a book about good design (i.e., coinciding with the way human minds work) and bad design of products. When a lot of intelligent people use a product wrong, Norman argues, this is a clear sign of bad design; when a sign has to be posted to tell people how to use something as simple as a door or a water faucet, this is another clear sign of bad design.
Charles Officer and Jake Page. Tales of the Earth. True stories of how the earth affects human beings, and vice versa. Stories include how the eruption of Tambora caused the "year without a summer," and totally disrupted animal life, crops, and human life, the story of killer smogs, and the story of the destruction of the ozone layer. This is well written, so that the non-scientist can easily understand.
Phil Patton. Made in USA. A country gets the technology it wants and cares about. This is a book about how American design, no matter what the product, serves the same personal needs. Anyone who has any interest in gadgets and products and inventions, and how they came to exist and look the way they do, will find this quite fascinating.
Frederick Pohl. Chasing Science: Science as Spectator Sport. Pohl talks about his adventures as a scientific amateur, how he came to learn about stars, volcanoes, floods, caves, bones, and more.
Terry Pratchett, Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen. The Science of Discworld. Using a story of the wizards of unseen university on Discworld creating planet earth (not that they know they're doing it), Pratchett in his inimitable style illustrates the scientific principles governing our planet and how life evolved on it, and re-evolved after disaster, time after time. A must for science teachers.
Ed Regis. Great Mambo Chicken and the Transhuman Condition: Science Slightly Over the Edge. He looks at scientists and amateurs who are asking the unlikely questions. Like "Why do we have to die? What can we do about that?" And "Why can't we send infinitely tiny computers inside the body to do surgery and alter genes and stuff?" Strange but fascinating stuff.
Daniel Schachter. The Seven Sins of Memory. Which are: transience, absent-mindedness, blocking, misattribution, suggestibility, bias, and persistence. Good blend of serious research and accessible writing.
Edward Tenner. Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences, makes a compelling case that it is not an accident, but an inevitability, that technology will undercut itself, that it carries within itself the seeds of its own destruction. If we, for example, interfere with nature and create antibiotics that kill bacteria, the bacteria will inevitably fight back by creating new generations of bacteria that are resistant. This is not a book I can synopsize very well. I simply recommend it heartily.
David Shenk. Data Smog. Too much information, if devoid of context, is as impoverishing as too little information. Whether it comes from television or radio or the internet, it overwhelms us and makes it difficult to find the time and quiet to sort it out and make sense of it. Furthermore, it can be used to undermine our resistance to specific messages and sakes pitches, commercial and political. He does have some suggestions about how to control our exposure to information.
James Trefil. Are We Unique? A Scientist Explores the Unparalleled Intelligence of the Human Mind. Though he agrees that there are many things we share with animals, and that animals exhibit characteristics that resemble language and tool-making, the difference in degree is enough to assert uniqueness. And while computers have also bee taught to do things that resemble thought in key ways, it is still, nonetheless, different from human thought. In answer to the question, will (or should) machines replace human thought, his convincing answer is no.
Marilyn J. Abraham. First We Quit Our Jobs. Marilyn and her husband Sandy McGregor both had good jobs in Manhattan, but they were both high pressure jobs with no time left over. They re-eavluated what they wanted to do with their lives and bought an RV and drove it to Alaska and back, living a life outside of time and news, learning to appreciate each day and spot on the landscape, learning how many of their things they could get along without nicely. It was all preparation for a major life change, still not decided on by the time the book appeared.
Bill Bryson. A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail, Neither Here nor There: Travels in Europe, Notes from a Small Island, In a Sunburned Country, and almost any of his books, which combine funny stories, snide commentary on each country's oddities, and an appreciation of its special charms.
Elinor Burkett. So Many Enemies, So Little Time. Burkett travels to Kyrgyzstan as a Fulbright scholar, teaching journalism to students who have had all curiosity and skepticism bred out of them by their soviet-dominated government. During her stay, she travels to Afghanistan and Iran to report on the condition of women, and to the other former soviet republics, where it's clear that government support, inadequate as it is, has drained citizens of any ability to solve problems for themselves. The universal whines are, America should stop interfering, and America should fix our problems.
David Elliot Cohen. One Year Off: Leaving It All Behind for a Round-the-World Journey with Our Children. This is a really fun book. He writes well, he and his wife are interesting people, and the kids bring a refreshing take to the sights (Grand Canyon, so? Las Vegas, wow!). The travel writing is detailed and amusing and makes you want to visit some of the sites (especially Sardinia). The trip covered Costa Rica, France, Italy, Turkey, South Africa, India, Cambodia, Thailand and Australia. It was a good chance for them to reexamine what mattered in their lives, and a great chance to get to know each other better.
Judy Corbett. Castles in the Air. Since this is set in Wales, I'll put this book which doesn't fit into any of my categories here. It's the charmingly written true adventures of a young improverished couple who nonetheless buy Gwidyr Castle in Wales and restore it. A leg-after-leg-the-dog-got-to-Dover story, with lots of misadventures and small coups along the way. In tone it reminds me very much of Cassandra in Dodie Smith's I Capture the Castle.
Bob Dotson. In Pursuit of the American Dream. Dotson traveled around the country, learning about the stories of ordinary Americans' lives, which of course were not ordinary at all - the folks who run the mom and pop jail, the Flying Fathers hockey team, the people who teach the children of the circus, the Texan who lobbies for wildflowers…
Lesley Hazleton. Driving to Detroit. This woman with an amazingly varied background (British, resident in the US for 15 years, reporter in the middle east, English teacher, car reporter for a Seattle newspaper, pilot, houseboat owner) sets out for the Detroit auto show by auto (actually, 4 wheel drive SUV), by way of important automobile icon sites: the Bonneville Salt Flats, where Craig Breedlove is working on breaking the sound barrier by car, Pebble beach for an antique car rally, the spot where james Dean's car crashed, the Saturn plant at Spring Hills, TN, the ultimate automobile graveyard, the outfit in Cincinnati that armor plates cars. A fascinating trip, with interesting observations about cars and history and Americans.
Joe Kurmaskie. Metal Cowboy: Tales from the Road Less Pedaled. An ingratiating collection of short essays about his adventures in long-distance biking, which leads to getting to meet some real interesting people along the way.
David Lamb. A Sense of Place. The same man who wrote Stolen Season: a Journey through America's Minor Leagues, is on the road again, listening to Americans, hearing and telling us stories of Greyhound buses and the emptiness and crimelessness of North Dakota, of the real old west and the dying trade of the hobo, of Route 66 and forgotten Aleuts and the last of the Nez Perce. Excellent writing, fascinating true stories. Also recommended: Over the Hills, in which Lamb tells about bicycling across the United States, from Virginia to Santa Monica Pier, testing his mental and physical endurance, confronting bike trouble, rude drivers, bad roads, and inaccessible roads (the only east-west roads across some states don't allow bicycles), but meeting lots of people, seeing lots of small and dying towns, and learning that there are other bikers out there doing the same thing.
James Laxer. Discovering America: Travels in the Land of Guns, God & Corporate Gurus. A Canadian, Laxer has spent his life being bemused and amazed by the antics of us neighbors to the south, so he set out to travel through 38 of those states, getting up close and personal.
Dale Peterson. Storyville, USA. He takes his teenage daughter and his 10 year old son on an expedition across America, exploring small towns with weird names, meeting people and asking them about the origins of the names and chatting with them about their lives. Bug Scuffle, Bird-in-Hand, Monkey's Eyebrow, Cut and Shoot, Hallelujah Junction, and many many others all have stories to tell (though it's astonishing how incurious many people are, who have never thought to ask why their towns are named this way), and the story is as much as anything a pursuit of the people who would know. He hits nearly every state, and appears to have a genuinely nice time with his kids the while.
Terry Pindell. Making Tracks: an American Rail Odyssey. Fascinating combination of railroad history and legend and real life adventures as he journeys on every single mile of Amtrak and chats with fellow passengers en route
Jon Ronson. Them: Adventures with Extremists. Ronson, a Jewish guy who spent several years living with conspiracy theorists of various stripes -- Muslims, Randy Weaver's daughter, the leader of the kinder gentler Ku Klux Klan, etc. The one thing uniting them was their conviction that the Bilderberg club met in private to determine the fate of the world. So of course, he set out to get inside the Bilderberg Club, and did in fact penetrate the hotel in Portugal it was meeting at, and the Bohemian Grove ceremonies. Needless to say, his Jewishness became a bit sticky at times during all this. Pretty fascinating stuff. Side note: when he ordered a copy of Protocols of the Elders of Zion from Amazon, it helpfully pointed out that he might also like Mein Kampf.
Charles Slack. Blue Fairways: Three Months, Sixty Courses, No Mulligans. Business reporter Charles Slack fulfills a kind of dream, playing his way through the public golf courses that line route 1, from Maine to Key West, in hopes of improving his game, meeting people, and getting to understand the country better. He succeeds in all of those, as well as acquiring a new appreciation of the pleasures of home (his wife delivered a baby in the middle of his trip, which he came home for for three months). An interesting book.
Alice Steinbach. Without Reservations. Alice takes almost a year off to travel, though not the way most of us do; she spends long periods of time in one place: Paris, London, Oxford, and Italy, learning to know the real life of these places. She has an amazing gift for turning strangers into friends to go exploring with, and for making the most out of spontaneous experience. See also her earlier book Educating Alice: Adventures of a Curious Woman. The theme of Steinbach's travels learning specific cultural skills (training Scottish sheepdogs, the tradition Japanese female graces, etc.) as a way of understanding the societies at a more intimate, day-to-day level.
John Steinbeck. Travels with Charley. A tour across America with dog by a writer who feared he had fallen out of touch with Americans. Very interesting.
Christopher Wren. Walking to Vermont. On the first day of his retirement from his post as foreign correspondent for the New York Times, Wren begins a trek to the house in Vermont they bought for their retirement. It has some kinship to Bryson's book about the Appalachian Trail, but it's very much a personal discovery sort of thing for him, kind of a whim at first, but as he works into the rhythm of it, it becomes very elemental for him. He achieves a lot of the Thoreauvian simplicity he had hoped for. A newsman all his life, he doesn't even bother to turn on his radio to find out what's happening in the world (not even whether the paychecks the Times had somehow failed to write him ever turned up). His thoughts about the trail trigger thoughts about his various adventures as a foreign correspondent, which he recounts; they don't always seem to fit in logically, but they're interesting as well.
Essays, Columns and Creative Nonfiction
I'm a columnist myself. Unfortunately, the column I wrote every week for Fox News Online, called Observing US, is no longer being published, but my personal column, My Word's Worth, can be found at http://marylaine.com/myword/index.html. These are some of the people whose columns and essays have left me in awe and envy.
Douglas Adams. The Salmon of Doubt. The result of Douglas Adams' hard drive being turned over to his editors, this is a wonderful anthology of Adams' interviews, introductions, random musings, letters, and beginnings of projects like the third volume of the Dirk Gently series, lovingly reconstructed here.
The Art of Fact. A terrific anthology of literary journalism, from Daniel Defoe up through the present, including selections from Jack London, Stephen Crane, John Hersey, Tracy Kidder, Bob Greene, George Orwell, Rebecca West. Really memorable pieces, John McPhee, "From the Pine Barrens," Bill Buford, "Among the Thugs," Michael Herr, "Dispatches," George Orwell, "Marrakech," Lawrence Otis Graham on Harlem, Tom Wolfe, "The Electric Acid Kool-Aid Test."
Chris Ballard. The Butterfly Hunter: Adventures of People Who Found Their True Calling Way Off the Beaten Path. Including a butterfly hunter, a man who makes artificial eyes, a professional mushroom collector, a "spiderman" who makes his living doing whatever people need done at the tops of tall buildings, a female lumberjack, and a professional model railroader who's building an authentic 1:87 scale model of the route from Troy NY to the Canadian border circa 1951, complete with tiny prostitutes in Troy's red light district.
Bill Bryson. I'm a Stranger Here Myself. A collection of his columns written for a British newspaper when he returned to America. Here he muses on things like 800 numbers so you can ask for help on flossing, the Statistical Abstract figures on how many Americans are injured by their bedding, the overbundance of choice, and other amusing aspects of American life. Bryson is a very funny man.
Christopher Buckley. Wry Martinis. A collection of his essays and parodies for Forbes and New Yorker and such, including the one claiming Russia was selling Lenin's corpse that Peter Jennings then reported as fact on the evening news, and his review of Tom Clancy, which Clancy took umbrage to, with Buckley responding that he was, like Mark Twain, accounting for the literary offenses of the best paid bad writer in America. Parodies of roundups of books reviews ("The New Fly-Fishing Books"), of McNamara's mea Culpa (as Idi Amin and other notables might have imitated it), straight accounts of travels in Brazilian jungles with Malcolm Forbes, of going up in an F-16, of being 4-F and regretful/relieved during VietNam, his review of Pat Robertson's awful novel, etc.
Jon Carroll. Near Life Exeriences. A collection of some of his best columns, by my very favorite columnist. He can be funny, bizarre, or absolutely serious, on topics from cats and circuses to organ donation and politics. And what's even better, since this book will hook you, is that there's a several year archive of his work online at the San Francisco Chronicle web site, where he continues to write daily.
Alastair Cooke. Talk About America, a collection of short pieces he wrote back in the sixties. It's kind of odd to read them now, because though much of what he has to say remains true, a great deal has changed. For one thing, he's commenting cheerfully on how our fondness for dogs reveals us as a gregarious lot--much better a sort than a nation of cat-owners, say. Well, he's not the first to think that. A few years back when the population of pet cats first surged ahead of pet dogs, Cullen Murphy or somebody wrote about what a sad indicator that was about American life, how it revealed a nation of people too likely to live alone and too busy to care for dogs. One of the things you would like, I think, is the essay on how one man constructed Golden Gate Park out of the unlikeliest least friendly-to-life-forms land, and by trial and error found many varieties of plants that would thrive in the salt sea air and brackish water available there. Great essay. Also notable: a nice essay about attending an honest to God town meeting, where the town's budget was debated, line by line, another about the end of the era of the iceman, and one about European preconceptions of America (he was told, when LBJ became president, to write about rich Texans and oil wealth, none of which had anything to do with LBJ, so he wrote about where LBJ really came from and why he was a passionate new dealer).
Linda Ellerbee. Take Big Bites. TV producer Ellerbee's life has been about travel, friends, politics, and food. This book is chockful of interesting stories about all of the above, with recipes tossed in for good measure.
Robert Fulghum. Maybe (Maybe Not). On the joys of fieldtrips, and stories told in barbershops, and the nonjoys of faculty meetings, and being handy around the house. Nice stories: competitive and non-competitive musical chairs; the woman who gave her memory-impaired husband Christmas memories; the marriage of the naked model and the gorilla; how the man whose wife agreed either children or dogs but not both, ended up with both anyway. Fulghum's gift is for storytelling and seeing in the stories a universal moral point.
Bob Garfield. Waking Up Screaming from the American Dream. Explorations of people pursuing the impossible dream, from spiritual seekers in Santa Fe to Strip Joints for Jesus to Morris Katz, the man who paints more painting faster than anybody else in the world, the man who manufactures public telephone condoms to protect the public from germs, to competitors in a poetry slam. Fascinating stuff.
William Geist. Toward a Safe and Sane Halloween and Other Tales of Suburbia (re-published in paperback as The Zucchini Plague and Other Tales of Suburbia) and City Slickers. Geist began writing columns about the strange folkways of suburbia--lawn flamingos, bridal expos, sofa-sized art, and such--but then he moved to New York (where he is now a commentator for CBS); Here he found the folkways odder still--the 24 hour espresso repair service, for instance (New Yorkers understand an emergency when they see one!).
Malcolm Gladwell. The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. Of the three kinds of influentials (mavens, connectors, and persuaders) and the conditions for meme epidemics: the stickiness factor, the law of the few, and the power of context. Fascinating book.
Ellen Goodman. Paper Trail. Columns from between about 1992 and 2002. She writes even better than I remembered, and amazingly often about the exact same things I've written about - the need to dump unnecessary data from our brains in order to accommodate new info, emotional voyeurism, Elian Gonzalez, the excess of certainty, living too fast to pay attention, the extremeness of our rhetoric, cringing over "closure" and "healing" and emotional timetables, the supersizing of food, etc., often with a really nice phrase like "the Olympic sport of opinion-hurling found a stadium on talk radio and cable TV, the playing fields of certitude."
Bob Greene. Chevrolet Summers, Dairy Queen Nights, and He Was a Midwestern Boy on His Own. Collections of Greene's columns from the Chicago Tribune on all things American, whether eccentric or heroic -- on the world's worst ties (and proud of it), growing up Sgt. Bilko's daughter, Michael Jordan's willingness to risk failure to play baseball, a convention of women named Linda, the meeting between Elvis and Richard Nixon, and much much more.
James W. Hall. Hot Damn! Alligators in the Casino, Nude Women in the Grass, How Seashells Changed the Course of history, and Other Dispatches from Paradise. Hall is a novelist, but when invited to write a monthly essay about, mostly, Florida, these are some of the things he came up with. Great stuff.
Carl Hiassen. Paradise Screwed: Selected Columns. He's a fine writer with an eye for both the zaniness and total civic corruption of south Florida. Since only the personnel in government change, not the influence of swindlers, drug dealers, developers, and money, it's pretty disheartening.
Barbara Holland. Endangered Pleasures: In Defense of Naps, Bacon, Martinis, profanity and Other Indulgences. Wonderful collection of brief essays about the things we're too Puritan to fully enjoy. Holland has a sharp eye and a sharp tongue and an exactness of word choice that makes you fall in love with her sentences. Also, her Bingo Night at the Firehall, a wonderful book about her move to her family's old summer home in the Virginia mountains, 80 miles and a lifestyle away from Washington metro area. An outlander, she was never fully welcomed into the community, though she wrote regularly for the local newspaper. Her home is isolated, and her work is isolating. Nonetheless she slows her life down to the pace of a world in which "competition leaked out of our gene pool a hundred years ago." She reflects sadly on the encroachment of suburbanites who are moving in, outvoting the locals, destroying the culture they found there and admired as quaint. She has wonderful insight, and a gift for precision of language.
Sue Hubbell. A Country Year. Hubbell is a genius at the art of paying attention to what she sees. In this collection of her essays, she details the year or so after her marriage broke up and she had to do all the work on her farm herself. In On This Hilltop she writes about things like being invisible (trying to do business with men who insist on doing business with her husband instead), on their vain attempt to cultivate enough corn to make their fortune, on the women who work for rock bottom wages at the factories, the curse of zucchini, etc. In Far-Flung Hubbell, pieces she wrote for the New Yorker's "Our Far-Flung Correspondents" series, includes pieces on America's truck stops, Elvis sightings, the annual magicians' get-together in Michigan, finding the best pies in America, the life and death of the five and dime store,making deliveries in New York City (she raises bees and bottles honey), making art out of bugs, and more.
Molly Ivins. Molly Ivins Can't Say That. Molly is that most improbable of creatures, a Texan feminist liberal. But, like her politics or not, you can't help liking Molly, a woman who calls a protuberant abdomen a "beergut that belongs in the Smithsonian." The title of her book stems from the day her column pointed out that if a particular Texas legislator's IQ was any lower, they'd have to water him twice a day. This resulted in an advertiser boycott, and her newspaper promptly put up billboards all over Dallas saying "Molly Ivins Can't Say That, Can She?" But she can, and she does. Her columns cover Texas politics, than which there is nothing more colorful--where else would they be debating a "clean crapper" bill?--and US politics at large. She's brash, she's loud, she's direct, and she's a hoot. The follow-up collection, called Nothing But Good Times Ahead is also worthwhile.
Barbara Kingsolver. High Tide in Tucson. A collection of her remarkably insightful essays and speeches.
Tony Kornheiser. Bald as I Want To Be. A collection of his columns about Washington D.C. (Mottos: Live expensively and die. 911-please hold. The Nationa's Capital-Your Buck Stops Here. Bureaucrats Do It Eventually.), Dr. Seuss's death (a wonderfully touching Seussian parody), his untrainable dogs and children, adventures in canoeing, etc. Also see his earlier collection, Pumping Irony
The Last Word: The NYT Books of Obituaries and Farewells. An obit is one of the most challenging forms of writing -- capturing what mattered in a life in small amount of words. These are done amazingly well, for a fascinating range of personalities: Jeffrey Schmalz, the reporter dying from AIDS who became his own subject matter; Barney Josephson, the white guy who was pissed off at black performers having to play at clubs that wouldn't let black people in and founded Café Society as a desegregated place for people to listen to music, white and black; Howard Higman, who founded the World Affairs Conferences at the University of Colorado (where people indulged in "the theory of the leisure class"), who "switched to sociology in its graduate school only because everything there is to know was not a recognized discipline"; Fanny Steloff, founder of the Gotham Book Mart and importer and promoter of banned books like Lady Chatterley's Lover and Tropic of Cancer; Nicholas Slonimsky; Orville Redenbacher; Barbara McClintock, and many more.
Joe Lavin. But I Digress. Joe Lavin is a lot like that boy who insisted that the emperor wasn't wearing any clothes. He looks at the world around him and says, "Um, that doesn't actually make sense" (to which the world responds by keeping right on being absurd). When he was called for a telephone survey about iced coffee, he pointed out that he loathed iced coffee; the woman continued through the questions anyway, about when he would drink it and what he compared it to, a dialog that began to sound remarkably like Green Eggs and Ham ("Would you like it in a boat? Would you like it in a coat?). He recounts his adventures with the crazy people of the world, who adore chatting with him and telling him about their personal relationships with space aliens. He takes on topics like school ("Nazi Germany and the Seventh Grade: a Comparative Study"), the Dummies guides, the differences between men and women (only women or married men would ever buy a hutch), sports interviews, customer support lines ("Keeping People on Hold since 1983"), channel surfing, and why we apparently don't need elections because the newscasters are perfectly happy with exit polls. He asks useful questions, like why can't we vote for our pundits as well as our politicians. His take on the world is funny and offbeat and dead-on-target. I've been reading his column for a couple of years now, and this collection is indeed some of his very best stuff. To sample his columns, or order the book directly from Joe, visit http://www.joelavin.com/
Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner. Freakonomics. Makes some unintuitive and surprising connections, and refutes a fair amount of conventional wisdom.Topics include "Why experts routinely make up statistics," whether baby names really make a difference, whether cleaning up broken windows really matters in policing, legal abortion and the decline of crime, etc. If Leavitt is often confused with Malcolm Gladwell, it's because they both tell such immensely readable and fascinating stories while building their not-entirely-intuitive cases.
Cullen Murphy. Just Curious. A collection of his writings, many of them musings from the Atlantic Monthly, where he is editor. He is immensely curious, about things that wouldn't even occur to most people -- like finding out what local heroes or celebrities or historic events small towns pride themselves on, or tax court cases that reveal the undaunted optimism of ordinary Americans who think they can beat the IRS, or the odd bits of history that survive, or the impulse to construct anthologies of the "best."
Susan Orlean. My Kind of Place. A collection of her travel pieces (many from The New Yorker), including an old-fashioned grocery store in multi-ethnic Queens, the personal menagerie of tigers in NJ, a Cuban restaurant in Little Havana and its original version in decaying Cuba, climbing Mount Fuji (wonderful title: Do We Transcend Before or After We Purchase the Commemorative Eel Cakes?), the skymall, a mobile home park outside Portland OR. David Owen. The Man Who Invented Saturday Morning. Where he tours a museum of marketing failures, learns about life in the fast lane of the funeral industry, explores the evlution of Barbie dolls, and meets the man who invented the concept of TV shows for children as 30 minute commercials for matching toys.
Neil Postman. Conscientious Objections. The well-known critic of media and education discusses things like the way we name missiles, the parable of the ring around the collar, what happens to countries that introduce television for the first time, the disappearance of childhood, and my favorite, "Columbusity" -- making the most out of a fundamental mistake.
Leslie Savan. The Sponsored Life. A collection of her columns for the Village Voice from the late 80's critiquing advertising, both in terms of the purpose and success of infividual campaigns and in terms of their effects on us. Savan is witty and insightful and a lot of fun to read.
David Sedaris. Me Talk Pretty One Day. A collection of essays, many of them about language, starting with his adventures with the pretty young speech therapist who tried to cure him of his lisp, and going on to his adventures living in France knowing nothing of the language except a few nouns, and with a French teacher who despises him. He writes well.
Susan Sheehan and Howard Means. The Banana Sculptor, the Purple Lady and the All-Night Swimmer. A collection of true stories about people's odd passions - collecting postcards, trains (real ones), blue ribbons for pies and cookies; car racing, kite flying, spinning, garage-saling, etc.
William Zinsser. American Places. One I recommend for Americans and vistors alike--Americans because we teach and learn our history so poorly, and the rest of the world because this is such a wonderful distillation of the best things about us as a nation. Zinsser explores all the obvious places, of course--the Alamo, Mount Vernon, Mount Rushmore, etc.--and not with just the standard tour guide blah blah blah. Zinsser gives a wonderful sense of place and history, and shows you how the mythology evolved around these places. But he takes you to some unexpected places as well. His chaper on the Civil Rights Memorial is not only a powerful piece about the civil rights struggle and the Southern Poverty Law Center, but it is also a wonderful story about how a sculptor, Maya Lin, thinks about her art and her goal as she creates a monument, and about how her work interacts with its audience.
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Last updated August, 2006
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