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Some of my all-time favourite non-fiction books

  • Jan 8, 2010
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I'm a voracious reader. I don't think it's hyperbole to suggest that I've devoured over 5,000 books in my lifetime. While I'm generally a lover of fiction, I've found a number of great non-fiction reads in my life. I've determined that in order to push on my buttons and hold my interest, a non-fiction book generally has to be superbly written. I am definitely NOT a lover of tedious data compilation, listing of encyclopedic facts and dates and a purely scholarly analysis. If it's going to work for me, non-fiction has to read like something off of the best-seller fiction list. Here are a few of my favourites that meet that exacting standard:
The Physics of Star Trek
An exciting, entertaining and informative discussion on the serious topic of how the science in the series "Star Trek" stacks up against the frontiers of real world knowledge! What the writers got right, what they got wrong and how they sometimes beat the scientists to the punch with an uncanny level of foresight and prescience. Top that off with a list of amusing bloopers and you've got the makings of a thoroughly entertaining popular science book.
See the full review, "A serious romp through the physics of Star Trek?".
Turbulent Mirror: An Illustrated Guide to Chaos Theory and the Science of Wholeness
Until recently, such phenomena as the volatility of weather systems, the fluctuation of the shock market, or the random firing of neurons in the brain were considered too "noisy" and complex to be probed by science. But now, with the aid of high-speed computers, scientists have been able to penetrate a reality that is changing the way we perceive the universe. Their findings -- the basis for chaos theory -- represent one of the most exciting scientific pursuits of our time. "Turbulent Mirror" is an exciting, exceptionally well-written primer that will guide a mathematically oriented layman through the basics of chaos.
The Mathematical Tourist: New and Updated Snapshots of Modern Mathematics
When the first edition of Ivars Peterson's The Mathematical Tourist was published in 1988, the New York Times called it "a rich array of ideas, drawing on virtually every branch of mathematics and bringing in plenty of late-breaking developments to boot." Now Peterson has expanded this popular book to feature another decade of mathematical progress, including new sections on crystal structure, string theory, mathematicians' use of computers, chaos theory, and Fermat's Last Theorem. Most of the other sections have been reworked and reworded as well, and there are many new illustrations. One thing that has not changed is the clarity of Peterson's writing and his almost unparalleled ability to make mathematical ideas themselves interesting, without focusing on the lives and personalities of mathematicians. Martin Gardner called it an exploration of vast, unexpected regions of mathematics teeming with bizarre creatures and wondrous vistas!
The Ragged Mountain Portable Wilderness Anthology
Solo camping, by its very nature, attracts the type of person who is contemplative in nature and is comfortable with themselves and the solitude that solo camping engenders. Sadly that contemplative nature is frequently frustrated. While we are awed by nature's grandeur, its simplicity and its events, we are frequently unable to put those thoughts into prose that express the emotions even to ourselves. Enter "The Ragged Mountain Portable Wilderness Anthology", a compendium of pithy, soothing, exciting and lucid essays by some of the finest nature writers that have ever lived - RM Patterson, Aldo Leopold, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, Edward Abbey and Sigurd Olson, to name only a few. A great lightweight companion for someone who's probably exquisitely aware of every ounce on their back and an entertaining after dinner luxury item for whiling away that campfire time before you curl up into the sleeping bag for the night! And, you might consider giving a copy to a friend who just doesn't understand why you like being "out there"!
Nahanni trailhead: A year in the northern wilderness
This MUST be read to be believed. An extraordinary account of a year homesteading in what is arguably the most brutal, rugged piece of wilderness in the continent. In an eloquent bit of understatement, RM Patterson called the savage South Nahanni River "The Dangerous River". Despite this advance billing, John Moore proposed marriage to his fiancée and, at the same time, suggested that they spend their honeymoon homesteading for one year in the wildly remote Nahanni valley. Joanne accepted and the rest, as they say, is history. Lovers of adventure reading will savor "Nahanni Trailhead", the distillation of Joanne's journal from their wilderness year, compiled from diary notes written at the end of almost every challenging day. Courage, romance, hardship, excitement, cold, danger, peace, tranquility, fulfilment, loneliness and occasionally even tedium ... but all of it in an easy going style of writing that flows naturally from first page to last.
See the full review, "High adventure and romance!".
Why We Act Like Canadians: A Personal Exploration of our National Character
In a series of open letters to an American friend named Sam, (or to be more precise, "Uncle Sam" as a metaphorical representation of all of our friends south of our Canadian border), Pierre Berton uses colourful examples from our history, our climate, and our geography to explain the vagaries of our national character. In short, he explains to his befuddled American buddy not only what it is to be a Canadian but "why we act like Canadians"!
The Last Place on Earth (Modern Library Exploration)
A gripping examination of every detail of the great race for the South Pole between Scott and Amundsen that took place in 1911-12! The Last Place on Earth is a complex and fascinating account of the race for this last great terrestrial goal, and it's pointedly geared toward demythologizing Scott. Though this was the age of the amateur explorer, Amundsen was a professional: he left little to chance, apprenticed with Eskimos, and obsessed over every detail. While Scott clung fast to the British rule of "No skis, no dogs," Amundsen understood that both were vital to survival, and they clearly won him the Pole. Amundsen in Huntford's view is the "last great Viking" and Scott his bungling opposite: "stupid ... recklessly incompetent," and irresponsible in the extreme--failings that cost him and his teammates their lives. Yet for all of Scott's real or exaggerated faults, he understood far better than Amundsen the power of a well-crafted sentence. Scott's diaries were recovered and widely published, and if the world insisted on lionizing Scott, it was partly because he told a better story. Huntford's bias aside, it's clear that both Scott and Amundsen were valiant and deeply flawed.
Going Inside: A Couple's Journey of Renewal into the North
An extraordinary 13-month, 2,000 mile journey through the Canadian North! When people who have been swallowed up in the northern wilderness talk of returning to civilization, they say that they are going "Outside". this is the account - part love story, part adventure, part hymn to the great beauty of the North - of a couple's journey away from their troubled urban lives, across Canada, to the "Inside".
Singing Wilderness
In each of the thirty-four chapters of The Singing Wilderness, Sigurd Olson has sought to capture an essential quality of our magnificent lake and forest heritage. He shows us what can be read from the rocks of the great Canadian Shield; he offers a delightful essay on the virtues of pine knots as fuel; he writes of the ways of a canoe, of flashing trout in the pools of the Isabella, of tamarack bogs, caribou moss, the flight of wild geese, timber wolves, and the birds of the ski trails. And much more, with something to satisfy every taste for wilderness experience.
The Code Book: The Science of Secrecy from Ancient Egypt to Quantum Cryptography
In an enthralling tour de force of popular explication, Singh, author of the bestselling Fermat's Enigma, explores the impact of cryptography, the creation and cracking of coded messages. Some of his examples are familiar, notably the Allies' decryption of the Nazis' Enigma machine during WWII; less well-known is the crucial role of Queen Elizabeth's code breakers in deciphering Mary, Queen of Scots' incriminating missives to her fellow conspirators plotting to assassinate Elizabeth, which led to Mary's beheading in 1587. Singh celebrates a group of unsung heroes of WWII, the Navajo "code talkers," Native American Marine radio operators who, using a coded version of their native language, played a vital role in defeating the Japanese in the Pacific. He also elucidates the intimate links between codes or ciphers and the development of the telegraph, radio, computers and the Internet. As he ranges from Julius Caesar's secret military writing to coded diplomatic messages in feuding Renaissance Italy city-states, from the decipherment of the Rosetta Stone to the ingenuity of modern security experts battling cyber-criminals and cyber-terrorists, Singh clarifies the techniques and tricks of code makers and code breakers alike. He lightens the sometimes technical load with photos, political cartoons, charts, code grids and reproductions of historic documents. He closes with a fascinating look at cryptanalysts' planned and futuristic tools, including the "one-time pad," a seemingly unbreakable form of encryption. In Singh's expert hands, cryptography decodes as an awe-inspiring and mind-expanding story of scientific breakthrough and high drama.
Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded: August 27, 1883
An erudite, fascinating account by one of the foremost purveyors of contemporary nonfiction, this book chronicles the underlying causes, utter devastation and lasting effects of the cataclysmic 1883 eruption of the volcano island Krakatoa in what is now Indonesia. Winchester (The Professor and the Madman; The Map That Changed the World) once again demonstrates a keen knack for balancing rich and often rigorous historical detail with dramatic tension and storytelling.
Life in Darwin's Universe: Evolution and the Cosmos
The unique premise of LIFE IN DARWIN'S UNIVERSE is that just as the laws of physics and chemistry apply throughout the cosmos, so must Darwin's principles of evolution. Bylinsky's journey through time and space gives us a scientific view of what life might be like on uninhabited planets of the galaxies -- how the evolutionary push of life might respond to different physical requirements. Bylinsky even speculates on what creatures might have dominated Earth had conditions here been somewhat different.
All Creatures Great and Small
The first James Herriot omnibus traces the career of the world's most famous vet from his arrival in the Yorkshire Dales countryside to the completion of his courtship with his wife-to-be, Helen. This warm, joyous and often hilarious first-person chronicle of a young animal doctor positively shines with love of life and cannot fail to make you smile, laugh and cry all at the same time.
Into Africa: The Epic Adventures of Stanley and Livingstone
"Into Africa" presents the unimaginably complex biography of the legendary journalist and African explorer, Henry Morton Stanley, and his search across treacherous African terrain for the missing British hero, Dr David Livingstone. The ending of the story, the anti-climactic meeting in a remote African village and Stanley's utterance of the fabulously understated "Doctor Livingstone, I presume?" is well known. But the story ... my, my, my! "Into Africa" is a powerful paean to the indomitable, persevering nature of the human spirit of exploration and discovery. Dugard combines disease, danger, treachery, colonial politics, tribal warfare, wild animals, challenging terrain, racism, slavery, greed, love, courage, lust and even blind stupidity into a compelling and endlessly fascinating narrative that begins and then finishes all too quickly.
See the full review, "This can't be history! It was WAY too exciting".
Economics is not widely considered to be one of the sexier sciences. The annual Nobel Prize winner in that field never receives as much publicity as his or her compatriots in peace, literature, or physics. But if such slights are based on the notion that economics is dull, or that economists are concerned only with finance itself, Steven D. Levitt will change some minds. In Freakonomics (written with Stephen J. Dubner), Levitt argues that many apparent mysteries of everyday life don't need to be so mysterious: they could be illuminated and made even more fascinating by asking the right questions and drawing connections. For example, Levitt traces the drop in violent crime rates to a drop in violent criminals and, digging further, to the Roe v. Wade decision that preempted the existence of some people who would be born to poverty and hardship. Elsewhere, by analyzing data gathered from inner-city Chicago drug-dealing gangs, Levitt outlines a corporate structure much like McDonald's, where the top bosses make great money while scores of underlings make something below minimum wage. And in a section that may alarm or relieve worried parents, Levitt argues that parenting methods don't really matter much and that a backyard swimming pool is much more dangerous than a gun.
See the full review, "Learning should be this enjoyable more often!".
It takes considerable flair and panache to write history in a way that makes it read like a novel and not very many authors have that ability. Canada's Pierre Berton has it! Dava Sobel and Simon Winchester are certainly up to the task! In "The Man Who Mapped the Arctic", Peter Steele demonstrated his rightful claim to membership on that short list. Steele, a physician who has spent most of his life in the North and an arctic adventurer and mountaineer in his own right, has eloquently told us the astonishing tale of George Back, Franklin's undeservedly obscure and unsung Lieutenant and his astonishing exploits in exploration that rival Samuel Hearne's or Lewis and Clark's in their extraordinary scope and difficulty.
When one thinks of Arctic travel, the names that probably come to your mind first are Scott, Peary, Shackleton, Amundsen, Henry Hudson, Davis and, of course, Sir John Franklin. Wait a minute ... what about John Rae? "John Rae?" you say ... "Who's John Rae?" Well, exactly! One might say that this is precisely the point of the book. Ken McGoogan's "Fatal Passage" is a thrilling biography of John Rae who is probably the least known, least understood and least respected Arctic explorer in history but he is also arguably the finest, the strongest, most accomplished, most extraordinary and most skilled white man to ever set foot into Canada's far north!
See the full review, "The story of John Rae ... wait, who's John Rae??".

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January 10, 2010
Thanks for this list. I read almost exclusively non-fiction and a few books on this list peaked my interest based on your thoughts. I have heard good things about Freakonomics before, so I guess it is really time to read that one.
January 08, 2010
Nice list, Paul! I see a theme in your interests here :) Something tells me that you would make a great beer list, too!
About the list creator
Paul Weiss ()
Ranked #15
   A modern day dilettante with widely varied eclectic interests. A dabbler in muchbut grandmaster of none - wilderness camping in all four seasons, hiking, canoeing, world travel,philately, … more
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