In my regular Google sessions trying to find new and exciting content for this blog, I came upon an article from Slate.com titled: The 50 Best Nonfiction Books of the Past 25 Years. Since I’m not a huge nonfiction reader, I thought this might be the perfect way for me to find more interesting nonfiction to read. Taking from the experts, the best of the best from the last 25 years. I’m not going to name all of them, you can read the article for that. What I am going to do is make myself a reading list of nonfiction books that capture my interest!
“What kind of place is this exactly?” Lawrence Weschler asks the proprietor of the oddball Los Angeles storefront museum he stumbles into one day, where the exhibits are surprising, whimsical, and in fact often (but not always!) entirely made up. In Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder, Weschler spins the story of the Museum of Jurassic Technology’s unlikely creation into an entirely winning meditation on human ingenuity and creativity, a thought experiment about how the mind responds to being amazed. The result isa deceptively simple book that—like the 16th-century “wonder cabinets” that, Weschler explains, served as the very first museums—opens to reveal astonishments untold.
Although he’s now best known for his 1996 novel, Infinite Jest, Wallace made his reputation, particularly among younger readers in the late ’90s, as an essayist and a very particular sort of journalist. His editors at Harper’s sent him to a state fair and on a holiday cruise, pastimes whose reputations for carefree, middle American fun seemed hopelessly alien to Wallace himself, a hyperactive observational machine desperate to shed his own self-consciousness but incapable of doing so. The results, included in this collection of essays, were hilarious and revelatory; who knew it was even possible to write that way, to acknowledge how difficult it is for a certain kind of media-soaked mind to stop making associations and references, to forget itself? In these pieces, Wallace makes himself—and his doomed attempts to fit in and have a kind of fun he doesn’t really believe in—the butt of the joke, and a very funny joke it is (although less so in light of his suicide in 2008). This collection also includes some top-notch writing on tennis, and Wallace’s still-relevant essay on television and fiction, “E Unibus Pluram,” but the cruise ship and state fair pieces still shine the brightest.
We are a culture intoxicated by apocalypse and ruin, forever telling one another stories about what we’d do to survive should civilization as we know it collapse. But what if humanity itself went poof and left behind the entire apparatus of our existence without a single soul remaining to start over? That is the irresistible premise of Weisman’s book, a thought experiment substantiated by deep research into what it takes to keep the built world functioning and what has happened in the few places (Chernobyl, the Korean Demilitarized Zone) where there has been no one around to prop it up. Weisman, a science journalist, projects a week-by-week progression of flooding subway tunnels, farms reclaimed by grassland, toppling skyscrapers, domestic animals reverting to their feral state, and, less romantically, nuclear reactors melting down, chemical plants exploding into poisonous bonfires, and a vast mass of discarded plastics drifting around the world’s oceans for ages to come. The planet would eventually recover, he assures his readers—if “assure” is even the right word: The air would clear, the waters sweeten, and the animals, birds, and insects would take up residence in our old haunts. It’s a scenario both beautiful and terrifying, the original definition of the sublime, and executed with a methodical bravado that’s breathtaking.
What Batuman, a staff writer for the New Yorker, loves most about Russian literature, and about Russianness itself, are what she calls its “mystifications,” specifically, “the feeling of only half understanding.” In this delectable collection of essays, she describes her travels to such perplexing locales as Tolstoy’s former estate, Uzbekistan, a monastery on an Adriatic island, and graduate school. Hers is a lifelong quest for the grandiose, the melancholic, and—crucially—the absurd. Batuman seems to attract Borgesian peculiarity like a magnet. She journeys to Samarkand to study a language of dubious authenticity, in which one of the few remaining written texts takes the form of love letters between the colors red and green. When Aeroflot loses her luggage, the clerk asks her, “Are you familiar with our Russian phrase, resignation of the soul?” She gets talked into judging a boys’ “leg contest” at a Hungarian summer camp. And while most academic conferences are pretty dull, she attends one in which an old lady turned to another guest and demanded, “I would like to know if it is TRUE THAT YOU DESPISE ME.” When it comes to eccentricity, Batuman holds up her end—her Ph.D. dissertation compared novels to double-entry bookkeeping, and she talked her way into a Tolstoy conference by proposing a paper arguing that the novelist was murdered. While The Possessed is unlikely to enhance readers’ understanding of Dostoevsky, by the end they’ll be having so much fun they won’t care.
To say Gleick’s history of information and communication is wide-ranging is a bit of an understatement. According to Gleick, we are all “creatures of the information,” from the words that make up most of our interactions with one another to the code embedded in our DNA. This book constellates around Claude Shannon, a Bell Labs mathematician and cryptographer who founded information theory with a 1948 paper considering how to measure what it takes to transmit a message from a sender to a recipient—even if that recipient is just a subatomic particle on the other side of the universe wondering which way to spin. Human beings are some of the universe’s most energetic signal transmitters, and when Gleick isn’t explaining information’s relevance to Brownian motion and Gödel’s incompleteness theorem, he’s deep in the more engaging stories of African talking drums, Ada Lovelace’s nascent computer programs, and how the telegram changed the world. Information is not the same thing as knowledge, however, and it is knowledge that this book imparts in great, glorious fistfuls, as it loops through time and space, shedding brilliant light on first one corner of experience, then another. Its breadth and grasp are dazzling.