Seven Nonfiction Books About How the World Really Works

The cover of a non-fiction book is like the cover of a car: Open it, and you find lines like cylinders and pistons folded and joined together, an engine ready to push us towards answers to pressing questions. How did life begin? What is art? What happens inside our cells? How do our species stand up in a time of rapid change? The best nonfiction does more than just gather information. It takes the reader through amazing places, giving a deeper understanding of how the world moves and, most importantly, what drives it.

The seven fictional titles below are not textbooks; they are accessible to interested readers, provide an overview of important topics, and can serve as a jumping off point for further research. They explore the values ​​of our society and what it is built on, leading us to the admirable, the unique, the quintessentially human.

Transformer cover
WW Norton and Company

Transformer: The Deep Chemistry of Life and Deathand Nick Lane

Lane, an evolutionary biochemist, is well-versed in how we interpret life. In a previous book, Important Question, proposed the provocative idea of ​​how cells are formed from the fusion of atoms. For nearly two billion years, organized, bacteria and archaea, two of the three types of organisms that exist on our planet, roamed the ancient oceans until one archaeon swallowed the bacteria and emerged as the mother of all other species—including us. With Transformer, continues his tireless exploration of the genesis of biology. Lane focuses on millions of years of evolution and the twisting and turning of the earth—the Great Oxidation Event, the Cambrian explosion—while documenting the scientists’ observations. He clearly exposes the impermanence of our species, explains why life may be rare in our universe, and considers death as a process, not as an immediate end.

Cover by David Smith
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux

David Smith: The Art and Life of a Revolutionary Sculptorby Michael Brenson

Throughout his life, the American sculptor David Smith was versatile: Although his work took root after World War II, he remained devoted to industrial products, showing his apprenticeship in the Studebaker factory at an early age. Smith’s aesthetic, which was steeped in European conventions, was indebted to Pablo Picasso’s (like the Cubists before him, Smith saw his pieces removed from, even if they were against, the way the real world looked), and he argued that he was removed as such. the An American artic idiom. Brenson’s rich, authoritative biography considers not only the man and his legend, but also the explosion of modernity and the tension between abstraction and representation, against the backdrop of a changing world. Smith’s widespread influence shaped artists as diverse as Louise Bourgeois, Frank Stella, and Richard Hunt. “Smith’s breakthrough works in 1951-1952 did not so much emerge in the 1930s and ’40s as burst into the second half of the century,” Brenson writes, “presuming a different speed and flow, in their creation … rebelling against ‘solid, static and unchanging form.'” There Smith, the sculptures showed independence.

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Block Capital in the 21st Century
Harvard University Press

Capital in the 21st Centuryby Thomas Piketty, translated by Arthur Goldhammer

It was published about ten years ago, and became an amazing bestseller, Capitalism in the twenty-first century he looks back so we can look forward, fixing the economic situation from the 18th century onwards and seeing the incredible inequality that dominates our age. Piketty, a world-renowned French economist and polymath, draws on social history and historical literature—European revolutions, writers such as Jane Austen and Honoré de Balzac, sectarianism in the United States. He pays special attention to financial groups that have taken root over the past 40 years. Piketty points to 1980 as a key year: The rise of non-market thinkers Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher strengthened the power of the elite and busted the myth that loyalty and work would always pay off. Like Benjamin Appelbaum in his book Time of the EconomistsPiketty credits capitalism with improving efficiency while creating economic divisions that push the boundaries of morality.

Cover of The Hemingses of Monticello
WW Norton & Company

The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Familyby Annette Gordon-Reed

Our most skillful founder enslaved and held hundreds of people, but he was most dissolute, both publicly and privately, with one family in particular. Gordon-Reed, a law professor and historian, reveals the saga in his Pulitzer Prize-winning magisterial book of the relationship between the Hemingses and Thomas Jefferson, virtuoso of the revolutionary generation. In Gordon-Reed’s powerful, witty telling, Elizabeth, the slave and matriarch of the Hemings, was perfect for her children’s future, ensuring their survival since she was brought to Monticello after being inherited by Jefferson’s wife, Martha Wayles Jefferson. . Elizabeth’s daughter Sally, Martha’s sister, accompanied the future president to Paris in the 1780s, where she became pregnant. In France, Sally was legally free; she agreed to return to prison in Virginia after Jefferson promised to free their future children when each of them turned 21, a promise he only partially honored. “Hemings seized her moment and used her knowledge of her rights to make a decision based on what she thought was best for her as a woman, a family member, and a potential mother in her own circumstances,” the author writes. Gordon-Reed puts his book with careful research and anecdotes, revealing how Jefferson’s life is as inseparable from the Hemingses’ as American history is inseparable from slavery.

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Democracy's Data Cover

Democracy’s Data: The Hidden Stories in the US Census and Their Calculationsby Dan Bouk

A data analyst by training, Bouk delves into the 1940 census, taken when the US emerged from the Great Depression and the country was engulfed in flames. His investigation begins with a familiar anecdote from that year: A census taker named Selena Catalano calls a house in Rochester, New York, to interview matronly Nellie Oakden, Bouk’s grandmother. Bouk then expands his scope by combining archives and documents in other places, looking at other lives and creating a cultural history about how to collect and process information. Collectively, the census data show that urban and suburban sprawl poses challenges to our fragile—and, in some cases, traditional—political institutions. As demographic changes have intensified in recent decades — the influx of immigrants and the partisan alignment between cities and suburbs for Democrats and rural Republicans — so have contested elections and the threat of gridlock. This exploratory, written inquiry illuminates what simple statistics can teach us.

Cover of Apollo's Angels
Random House

Apollo’s Angels: A History of Balletby Jennifer Homans

Homans’s classic, published in 2010, shows the arc of ballet from its origins in the Renaissance Italian and French courts to the beginning of the 21st century, when the grace and power of George Balanchine and other modern masters blossomed. He examines how ballet as an art form has interacted with political thought over the past 500 years, including the divine right of kings and the evening of royalty. He is particularly strong on characters like Louis XIV, the “Sun King” (himself an actor); Pyotr Tchaikovsky; Sergei Diaghilev; and Jerome Robbins, when New York rose to challenge the traumatized Europe as a post-World War II playground. Twists and torques, jumps and lunges, relevé and glissade – the body is the canvas on which the choreographer paints murals of social flux and human epiphany. Apollo’s angels it is not a cultural history of a single art form; It is a prism through which to think about the human body through time and space.

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The Song of the Cell: A Review of Medicine and the New Personby Siddhartha Mukherjee

Mukherjee is a renowned oncologist and Pulitzer Prize-winning best-selling author. Emperor of All Maladies and The Gene. His new book is an expanded study of the cell—the basic unit of all living things—and its surprising types and functions. He studies neurons, cells involved in reproduction, and cancer spread, and projects towards a future in which cell engineers can cure diseases and change medicine. Cells are nothing but simple structures; rather, they are sinuous ecosystems, and come together on a brilliant scale in the body. Blood, for example, is a “cosmos of cells. The restless ones: red blood cells… Doctors: masmall platelets … They protect, observe: B cells form missiles; T cells, wandering from door to door can detect even the breath of an intruder.” Using that meandering prose, he weaves history and science; we meet important figures such as the quirky Dutch autodidact Antonie van Leeuwenhoek (who first observed what he called “animalcules” through his microscope) and today’s Nobel laureates who have entered their labs, experimenting with gene editing technologies. Understanding the cell is the key to the age of personalized medicine, Mukherjee argues: Are we ready to embrace it?

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