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nonfiction I love

There was an insmallpackages request that sparked this post, although the post has gone pretty far afield of the request. This is a post of nonfiction I've loved but suspect most people haven't stumbled across (so no Erik Larsen here, no Omnivore's Dilemma). Somehow it's nearly all American history, which surprises me a little, since I don't generally go looking for American history. And yet.

There may be a matching fiction post to follow later.

Everything and More: A Compact History of Infinity, by David Foster Wallace
Most people know Wallace the novelist, but he also contributed this idiosyncratic entry in the W.W. Norton Great Discoveries science history series. It's a peculiar little book that eschews such frivolities as chapter divisions as it explores the mathematical and historical developments leading to first calculus and then set theory, starting way back with Zeno and working our way forward through Newton and Leibniz, on to Georg Cantor, and all the way to Gödel's incompleteness theorem. There's plenty of chewy stuff here, philosophically and mathematically: the difference between numbers as symbols and as abstractions, the idea of different sizes of infinity, the barber paradox. Wallace never gets too deep into the algebra, so in theory everything he says should be comprehensible to the carefully reading layperson. And even if some of Wallace's sketches of proofs turn out to be a bit much, the ideas he presents are rich and wonderful.

This book holds a special place in my heart, because it was while reading this as an undergrad math major that I realized that math as a discipline didn't just stop with Newton in the 17th century. Georg Cantor made his major contributions to set theory in the late 1800s, and Gödel was born in 1906. This blew my mind: that math was not a pristine, static thing, but a human and ongoing enterprise. Somehow no one ever teaches you this in school.

Magnificence and Misery: A Firsthand Account of the Klondike Gold Rush, by E. Hazard Wells
Wells was a newspaperman reporting on the gold rush, and this book is comprised of his notes and articles. He talks about the hardships of just getting to the Klondike, the unpreparedness of many of the people going, and the living conditions once one finally arrived. I love books like this that look at the daily lives of people living through extraordinary events.

Five Points: The 19th-Century New York City Neighborhood that Invented Tap Dance, Stole Elections, and Became the World's Most Notorious Slum, by Tyler Anbinder
Speaking of daily lives, this book probably has more about the Five Point neighborhood than you will ever want to know. It serves as a great primer to the history of New York City in general: its working class, and national and ethnic diversity, its politics, its culture and poverty. Anbinder goes into tons of wonderful detail. At one point he has several pages of diagrams of the ethnic breakdowns of the populations of individual tenement buildings in a single city block. He spends an entire chapter on the terrible effects of the Irish potato blight that made even Five Points slums a welcome improvement. He documents the waves of immigration and how each wave was eventually integrated into acceptable society to make way for the next wave: the Irish, the Italians, the Chinese. He talks about the sometimes barely-civil rivalry between the Catholic and Protestant churches in the Five Points district.

As an introduction to the urban working class in 19th century America, you could do far worse, and if you happened to want to set a story in a New York slum, this is absolutely your book. And Anbinder makes all the detail interesting.

The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of the Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York, by Deborah Blum
Out of the whole list, this is the book I expect people are likeliest to have heard of before, as it was published fairly recently and to a fair amount of press, I think. Blum's main focus is the development of methods for testing for poisons, illustrated with individual accounts of murder and accidental death interwoven with the politics of development of the position medical examiner. At the beginning of each chapter, Blum discusses a different poison, its effects, and common ways people were exposed to it: arsenic, cyanide, and a number of lesser-known poisons. And amidst all that Blum also chronicles the ongoing saga of alcohol poisoning endemic to the Prohibition era. It's fascinating stuff deftly woven together.

An Elegant Madness: High Society in Regency England, by Venetia Murray
As I said, I do like "daily life" kinds of books, and this is one that goes into the daily lives of ridiculous excess as practiced by the Regency upper crust. This makes for a wonderful companion to reading Georgette Heyer (and to a lesser extent Jane Austen, although Austen's characters are not nearly this high in the social hierarchy). Murray has lots of nifty specific details, like the menu for one of the Prince Regent's banquets. I was particular struck by the fashion for gambling (noble sons lost their entire fortunes) and for drinking (men began at ten in the morning and never stopped) and eating (the quantities of steak habitually consumed at a single sitting at the men's clubs boggles the mind).

Bring Me a Unicorn: Diaries and Letters of Anne Morrow Lindbergh 1922-1928
This is a collection of personal writings from when Anne attended Smith College in the mid-1920s. Even so young, Lindbergh was a fantastic writer, and her descriptions of her daily life, her hopes and dreams are both a study of the life of an upper middle class American girl at that time and an intimate portrait of a really thoughtful and observant young woman. And then as the years go on, we see her meet Charles Lindbergh, do a lot of private fluttering over both him and his accomplishments as a pilot, and finally elope with him.

It's all just lovely. I'd love to have met her, to have a meeting of the minds over tea.

Crossposted from Dreamwidth. Comment here or there. (comment count unavailable DW replies)


( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
Dec. 5th, 2013 11:41 pm (UTC)
Fantastic. I've heard of the Five Points one and the Regency one (even checked out the Regency one from the library but didn't get to read it before I had to take it back) but the others are all new to me and there's definitely a few here I want to check out. Thank you for this post!
Dec. 6th, 2013 02:50 am (UTC)
Actually, I think I recced the Regency one to you, ages ago! And possibly the Five Points one, too (although It's a bit more niche).

You are most welcome. <3
Dec. 7th, 2013 12:30 am (UTC)
hee-- the one I've heard of the the poisoner's handbook! I may just read way, way too many murder mysteries!
Dec. 7th, 2013 12:54 am (UTC)
Ha ha, yes. It would be really useful to a murder mystery writer, I think!
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )

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