When I was an undergraduate, I meant to be an English major. I loved to read, surely I would be an English major, right? But when I got to college I was placed with the anthropology department for my freshman adviser, and I fell in love. People! An entire discipline about people! Figuring out why people do the things they do! It didn’t hurt that my adviser specialized in the cargo cults of Papua New Guinea, which led her to an interest in UFO movements. We studied all kinds of interesting stuff, I tell you what.
Margaret Mead was hugely popular once upon a time. She took her experience as an anthropologist and turned it into a career as a writer, columnist, and speaker. Alas, anthropology isn’t all that popular any more, and a lot of Mead’s own research has since been improved upon to the point where I can’t recommend it wholeheartedly. And Clifford Geertz, one of the great ethnographic writers, died just a year or so after I graduated. But I love anthropology, and I love recommending it to people, so even though there’s no such genre as “popular anthropology” any more, I have made it my project to amass a collection of books about people I can foist off on people and say, “Here! Isn’t this awesome?”
- Ishi, Last of His Tribe by Theodora Kroeber (who is Ursula K. Guin’s mother, for the fantasy fans out there). This is an anthropological classic, still fascinating today. Ishi was what they called the last surviving member of the Yahi people of California – in his tribe, it was forbidden to speak your own name. Kroeber wrote his biography, and this is pretty much all we have left of an entire way of life.
- Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely. More psychology than anthropology, this book is an enthralling exploration of studies on why humans do things that don’t make rational sense. Because we’re human, is Ariely’s conclusion. I love that he argues that we should change our social systems to fit our brains, rather than trying to change our brains to fit our badly-designed systems.
- Stiff by Mary Roach. I love all of Roach’s books (although Bonk was a little disappointing), but this is still my favorite. Stiff follows the life of a corpse – how forensic scientists study them, how funeral directors care for them, how cemeteries and crematoria dispose of them. Fascinating (if slightly grisly) stuff.
- Traffic by Tom Vanderbilt. Yes, it’s a study of traffic patterns. Also traffic control measures, drivers’ perceptions and attitudes, and the social history of the American relationship with cars. Vanderbilt has put together a fascinating study of something most of us do so often we don’t think about it any more – and offers some great reasons for why we should.
- The Great Cat Massacre by Robert Darnton. Another classic of the field, this one in history, Darnton pieces together the culture of early modern France from the texts we have available. Great stuff, from his attempts to understand just why people would find it necessary to slaughter all the cats in a city to his descriptions of – and quotations from – the Rousseau fangirls.
- The Unfolding of Language by Guy Deutscher, my favorite book for which I can never remember the title. Language is complicated stuff, moreso when you’re a mongolot like me, but Deutscher explains things clearly, with a friendly, casual tone that invites you in to learn what you can. (He even managed to make Hebrew structures understandable to me for a while, which I remain incredibly impressed by.) If you’ve ever had the slightest interest in the history of human communication, you’ll want to take a look at this.
I always used to resent the idea that I ought to read nonfiction to learn something – I read it because it’s fun. Got any fun nonfiction reads to share?