Some works of nonfiction are about subjects that are easy to quantify: a biography of a major political figure, for example, or a history of a nation during a particular set of years. But what happens when an author has something more complex on their minds? What about those books that set out to document concepts and ideas that can’t be easily documented?
In some cases, these books can survey a host of head-spinning concepts. In others, they may dedicate tens of thousands of words to explaining as best they can contradictory, ambiguous, or paradoxical information. That’s one of the pleasures of reading the right book: the amount of space an author has at their disposal can allow for a thorough survey of a subject, even when that subject may not be one that lends itself to an easy overview. Here’s a look at ten books which turn the ineffable into sentences and paragraphs, and help to give us a better sense of the world around us.
A Guide to the Unknown Universe
Jorge Cham and Daniel Whiteson
A comics creator and a particle physicist walk into a bar… That could be the setup for an amazing joke, but in this case, it explains the genesis of We Have No Idea, a book whose authors have an impressive set of experience working with high concepts and making them accessible to a general audience. Here, some of the biggest questions of the nature of the universe are rendered in easy-to-understand form, with humor and style.
Another tantalizingly obscure aspect of the world around us is a more recent addition to the realm of science and technology: namely, the rise of code to power websites, portable devices, and an increasing amount of the things we interact with every day. Vikram Chandra’s Geek Sublime is a study of what code and literature might have in common, and how this connection might lead to a more elegant future.
In his acclaimed comic xkcd, Randall Munroe delves deeply into scientific theories and unexpected properties of time and space, and does so with an abundance of humor and wit. Those same qualities come to the forefront of his book Thing Explainer, subtitled “Complicated Stuff in Simple Words.” For those of us with an interest in science without numerous advanced degrees, it’s a great window into the mysteries of the universe.
Rebecca Goldstein’s book on the life of Kurt Gödel is part of the “Great Discoveries” series of nonfiction books, which includes a host of boundary-expanding works. (See also: David Foster Wallace’s book on infinity.) Here, Goldstein’s focus is on the overlap between Gödel’s theoretical work with mathematics and his struggles with mental health.
And Other Essays
When one talks about books that make grandly complex concepts easy to understand for a general audience, Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time has a logical place on the list. Here, one of the leading thinkers of our time distills a wealth of knowledge about the known universe into a concise and readable book. It was also the inspiration for Errol Morris’s acclaimed 1991 documentary of the same name.
If you’re familiar with Neal Stephenson’s work, it’s probably due to his fiction: massive, sprawling, intellectually thrilling works of science fiction that blend high concepts with pulp thrills. In this work of nonfiction, the high concept remains intact, but a different side of Stephenson emerges–one that draws together disparate topics such as the early days of computers and the nature of the universe, and recounts it in a stylish manner.
For a head-spinning take on scientific discovery, the phenomenon of gravity waves, first predicted by Albert Einstein over a century ago, certainly hits the right marks. In Janna Levin’s book on the subject, she explores the search for evidence of these waves, and the way that the first sounds from space were heard by human ears.
Subtitled “Technophilia and Its Discontents,” Ellen Ullman uses her book Close to the Machine to explore the early days of the rise of digital technology. Working from her own experience in the industry, Ullman explores the divide between code and the tactile, and explores the way questions of gender arose in the technological world–making for a disquieting and thought-provoking read.
Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos
Brian Greene’s work, including the books The Elegant Universe and The Fabric of the Cosmos, distills huge ideas about the nature of reality into comprehensive, navigable volumes. In The Hidden Reality, Greene explores the notion of parallel universes, and what their possible existence can tell us about the nature of reality itself.
A Whole Story of the Universe
If you’d ever like to unnerve yourself to a severe extent, nothing does the trick quite like pondering the end of the universe. In Martin Bojowald’s Once Before Time: A Whole Story of the Universe, the author explores questions of the Big Bang theory, and whether or not the universe has a more cyclical nature than was previously thought.