Seven books that will make you smarter

The cover of a non-fiction book is like the hood of a car: when you open it you’ll find phrases like cylinders and pistons folded and curled up, an engine ready to propel us to answers to daunting questions. How did life begin? What is art for? What happens in our cells? How do our nation’s values ​​hold up in a time of accelerating change? The best non-fiction book can do more than just collect information. It takes the reader through strange landscapes and offers a deeper understanding of how the world moves and what moves it.

The following seven non-fiction books are not textbooks; they are accessible to laypeople, provide an overview of important topics and can serve as a starting point for further research. They examine what our society values ​​and what it is built upon, propelling us towards the monumental, the sublime, the primordial human.

WW Norton and Company

Transformers: The deep chemistry of life and deathby Nick Lane

Lane, an evolutionary biochemist, is uniquely qualified to study how we define life. In an earlier book The question of life, he put forward a provocative hypothesis as to how cells arose from the crush of atoms. He proposed that bacteria and archaea, two of the three types of organisms that exist on our planet, tumbled through ancient oceans for almost 2 billion years until a single archaeon swallowed a bacterium and became the mother of all multicellular offspring – including us – showed up. With transformerhe continues his tireless research into the genesis of biology. Lane focuses on millions of years of evolution and the twists and turns of the planet – the great oxidation event, the Cambrian explosion – and introduces visionary scientists. He beautifully expounds the sheer improbability of our biosphere, explains why life is exceedingly rare in our universe, and views death as a process, not just an immediate end.

The cover by David Smith
Farrar, Straus and Giroux

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

Throughout his career, American sculptor David Smith was immensely versatile: although his work was rooted in post-war abstract expressionism, he remained committed to industrial materials, reflecting his training in a Studebaker factory during his youth. Smith’s aesthetic, which defied European conventions, owed something to that of Pablo Picasso (like the Cubists before him, Smith viewed his pieces as distant from, even opposed to, the real world), and he defiantly claimed abstraction as such the American artificial language. Brenson’s rich, authoritative biography evokes not only the man and his myth, but also the fractures of modernity and the tensions between abstraction and representation against a backdrop of global change. Smith’s pervasive influence shaped artists as diverse as Louise Bourgeois, Frank Stella, and Richard Hunt. “Smith’s seminal works of 1951–1952 emerged not so much from the 1930s and 1940s as bursting into the second half of the century,” writes Brenson, “and projected a very different speed and flow, in their inventiveness… contributed to the revolt against ‘the fixed form, the unchanging and the self-contained’.” For Smith, the sculpture was a declaration of independence.

The cover of Capital in the Twenty-First Century
Harvard University Press

Capital in the Twenty-First Centuryby Thomas Piketty, translated by Arthur Goldhammer

Released almost a decade ago and a surprise bestseller, Capitalism in the 21st Century looks back to look ahead, examines economic patterns from the 18th onwards. Piketty, an internationally renowned French economist and polymath, draws on social history and literary classics – European revolutions, novelists like Jane Austen and Honoré de Balzac, the sectarian divide in the United States. He pays particular attention to the economic hierarchies that have been established over the past 40 years. Piketty describes 1980 as a pivotal year: the rise of free-market ideologues Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher cemented the power of the elite and put a damper on the myth that integrity and hard work always paid off. Like Binyamin Appelbaum in his book The hour of the economistsPiketty credits capitalism with improved efficiency while creating economic divisions that push the boundaries of morality.

The cover of The Hemingses of Monticello
WW Norton & Company

The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Familyby Annette Gordon Reed

Our most learned founder enslaved and exploited hundreds of people, but he was particularly involved with one family, both publicly and privately. Gordon-Reed, law professor and historian, unravels this saga in her masterful, Pulitzer Prize-winning account of the relationship between the Hemings and Thomas Jefferson, the virtuoso of the revolutionary generation. In Gordon-Reed’s vivid, sane narrative, Elizabeth, an enslaved person and the Hemings’ matriarch, was the lynchpin of her children’s fortunes and fortunes, ensuring their survival from the moment she was brought to Monticello after being killed by Jefferson’s wife, Martha Wayles Jefferson. Elizabeth’s daughter Sally, Martha’s half-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 servitude in Virginia after Jefferson promised to free her future children when each turned 21, an oath he only partially kept. “Hemings seized her moment and used the knowledge of her rights to make a decision that she felt was best for her as a woman, family member and potential mother in her specific circumstances,” the author writes. Layering meticulous research and insightful anecdotes on her book, Gordon-Reed lays out how Jefferson’s life is inseparable from that of the Hemings, just as America’s history is inseparable from slavery.

The cover of Democracy's Data

Data of Democracy: The Hidden Stories in the US Census and How to Read Themby Dan Bouk

Bouk, a data analyst by training, digs into the 1940 census, taken when the US was emerging from the Great Depression and the world was on the brink of conflagration. His investigation begins with a casual anecdote from that year: A census taker named Selena Catalano makes a home visit in Rochester, New York to interview the matronly Nellie Oakden, Bouk’s great-grandmother. Bouk then widens his opening by combing through archives and transcripts elsewhere, looking at other lives and writing a cultural history of how information is gathered and processed. Overall, census data shows that the explosion of cities and suburbs is posing challenges to our weak – and in some cases outdated – political institutions. As sweeping demographic shifts have escalated in recent decades — a rise in immigration and a sorting of parties between cities and suburbs for Democrats and rural counties for Republicans — contested elections and threats of gridlock have also emerged. This thorough, structured study shows how much simple population numbers can teach us.

The cover of Apollo's Angels
Any house

Apollo’s Angels: A History of the Balletby Jennifer Homans

Homans’ classic, published in 2010, traces the ballet’s arc from its origins in the Italian and French Renaissance courts to the early 21st century, when the grace and power of George Balanchine and other modern masters blossomed. She examines how ballet as an art form has intersected with political ideas over the past 500 years, including the divine right of kings and the twilight of empires. She is particularly strong on seminal figures such as Louis XIV, the “Sun King” (himself a dancer); Pyotr Tchaikovsky; Sergei Diaghilev; and Jerome Robbins, as New York rose to challenge a wounded Europe as the epicenter of dance after World War II. Twists and turns, leaps and lunges, relevés and glissades – the body is the canvas on which the choreographer paints murals of social change and personal revelation. Apollo’s angel is not just a cultural history of a single art form; it is a prism through which one can view the human body through time and space.

The Song of the Cell: An Exploration of Medicine and the New Manby Siddhartha Mukherjee

Mukherjee is a distinguished oncologist and Pulitzer Prize-winning author of the bestselling book The emperor of all diseases and The gene. His latest book is a comprehensive study of the cell – the common denominator of all life – and its dizzying array of types and functions. He studies neurons, the cells involved in reproduction, and rampant cancers, suggesting a future where cell engineering could eradicate disease and transform medicine. Cells are anything but simple structures; Rather, they are convoluted ecosystems, and they come together in the body to a dazzling degree. Blood, for example, is “a cosmos of cells. The restless: red blood cells… The healers: tiny platelets… The defenders, the discriminators: B-cells that make antibody rockets; T-cells, door-to-door wanderers who can detect even the whiff of an intruder.” In this swirling prose, he combines history with science; We meet key figures like the quirky Dutch self-taught artist Antonie van Leeuwenhoek (who first glimpsed what he called “little creatures” through his microscope) and contemporary Nobel laureates who have made themselves comfortable in their labs working on gene editing – test technologies. Understanding the cell is key to an age of personalized medicine, argues Mukherjee: are we ready to embrace it?

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