2013 was another good year for books, those dry old lumps of paper and ink, so we've rounded up the year's best in tech, science, design, architecture, urbanism, food, and more. We've also tapped our friends at Paleofuture and Edible Geography for their own lists, which appear below—and we hope to hear from all of you, as well.
Anything we missed? Anything coming out in 2014 that you're already excited about? Jump into the comments and let us know.
The books are listed in alphabetical order by title. Included in brackets at the end of each review are the initials of the person who chose that book: Gizmodo editors Alissa Walker [AW], Brian Barrett [BB], Geoff Manaugh [GM], and Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan [KCD].
Atelier Bow Wow: A Primer edited by Cornelia Escher, Megumi Komura, Laurent Stalder, and Meruro Washida
Now more than 20 years old, Tokyo architecture studio Atelier Bow Wow is still producing incredible work—like "pet architecture," its name for building wedged into leftover empty space. But there haven't been terribly many English-language books written about their work—and most of those focus on their (admittedly wonderful) drawings. This 250-page exhibit catalog gives us a bird's eye view of the studio's incredible diverse range of work, including photographs alongside Bow Wow's lovely illustrations. [KCD]
Bleeding Edge by Thomas Pynchon
To try to say a Thomas Pynchon book is about any one thing—even a topic as broad as "technology"—is useless. But Bleeding Edge, set immediately after the 90s dot com bubble, cares very much about tech, and how we relate to it. It's a tough read, a long read, a read that's equally at home talking internet and footwear. But most of all, and among other things, it's a dense look at where exactly our relationship with tech—both personal and professional—went wrong, and how we might ever set it right. [BB]
Building Seagram by Phyllis Lambert
With its striking bronze facade, unprecedented corporate patronage, and transformative urban plaza, the Seagram Building in Midtown Manhattan has rightfully become one of the most storied skyscrapers in the world. Building Seagram tells the tale of a single building that epitomized big changes in architecture, engineering, and public space happening in cities across the country during the latter part of the 20th century. As the daughter of Seagram chairman Samuel Bronfman, Lambert brings a personal perspective to the story and her own place in history—she commissioned architect Mies van der Rohe for the project when she was only 27 years old. [AW]
The Circle by David Eggers
A lot has been written about David Eggers' exploration of Silicon Valley intrigue and excess, though the most vocal critics seem to focus more on the author than the work. Ignore them. The Circle frames our social media landscape as a near-future dystopia, a world in which everything is connected and nothing is private. Beyond the social critique, it's also just good read, a nimble plot guided by a more than capable craftsman. Yes, it can be heavy-handed at times. Then again, so can Google+. [BB]
Clog's young editors bring together dozens of contributors to look at the role of sci-fi in architectural production. From movies and books to actual, honest-to-god science, each piece susses out how pop culture's wildest fantasies have wiggled their way into the real world—often by way of radical skyscrapers, unexpected material science, and urban planning. [KCD]
Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, The Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety by Eric Schlosser
Eric Schlosser's sobering and excellent look at the often terrifying challenge of keeping nuclear weapons secure—transporting them, storing them, maintaining them—was making waves even before it was published with his discovery of the near-nuking of North Carolina by a U.S. Air Force plane in 1961. The book is deeply researched, appropriately alarmed by the difficulty of keeping nuclear arms under the safe "command and control" of our armed forces, and highly recommended reading. [GM]
Dogfight: How Apple and Google Went to War and Started a Revolution by Fred Vogelstein
From the outside, it seems as though in a perfect world Apple and Google could have been friends. After reading this aggressively reported account from Fred Vogelstein, though, you'll understand why the animosity between the two was unavoidable—and just how deep it runs. Forget the size of the market the two are competing for; the real story lies in the personalities powering the too monoliths, and the lengths they've gone to outdo—and undo—one another. It's the foundation of a story that plays out in nearly ever consumer electronics product you own, and a surprisingly quick read given how much acrimony it covers. [BB]
It's hard to know where to begin in recommending Paul Bogard's The End of Night, for the sheer wealth of anecdotal and factual information contained within. Whether it's the man whose job it is to carefully tune the lights of Paris so as not to out-shine the stars, the so-called "Bortle scale" for measuring zones of true darkness, or the fact that the influence of artificial light on late-shift workers is officially classified as a carcinogen, Bogard's exploration of what electrical illumination is doing to humans—biologically, culturally, and neurologically—is fascinating from cover to cover. [GM]
The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon by Brad Stone
In stark contrast to Twitter's quarrelsome quartet, Amazon sprang from the mind of a single visionary. But, as Brad Stone's deep dive into your favorite online shopping warehouse shows, it wasn't without its own drama. Some of that even came post-publication, as Jeff Bezos's wife took to Amazon to defend him. Even without the histrionics, you'll come away from The Everything Store with an even deeper appreciation for one of the most innovative companies in the world. If you thought two-day shipping was impressive, you'll be amazed by the man who made it all possible. [BB]
Exploding the Phone: The Untold Story of the Teenagers and Outlaws who Hacked Ma Bell by Phil Lapsley
Before Anonymous, before Weev, before "hacking" became universally accepted as the cost of having the internet, there were the phone phreaks. While Exploding the Phone isn't the first close look at the men and women who made America's burgeoning telephone network their own personal playground, it's certainly the most thorough. It's also one of the most comprehensive looks not just at the hacking that plagued the AT&T monopoly's early days, but also how our telephonic infrastructure came to be in the first place. As a bit of tech history—with themes that resonate today—it can't be beat. [BB, GM]
Falling Upwards: How We Took To The Air by Richard Holmes
One of the most enjoyable books of the year by far, Falling Upwards is a history of ballooning told as the story of a human achievement nearly on par with the Apollo program. Hot air balloons, in Richard Holmes's telling, were technically extraordinary, culturally significant, and all but universally mind-blowing for those who experienced them. From the surreal story of Sophie Blanchard to early military surveillance flights in Europe and during the U.S. Civil War, the book zips from story to story—runaway balloons over Lake Erie, lost balloons over the Atlantic Ocean, balloons above the Arctic Circle—yet always retains a kind of giddy, humanist awe for its own subject matter. Holmes, a biographer of poets Percy Bysshe Shelley and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, successfully recasts balloon flight as something poetic and otherworldly, part riveting adventure tourism, part sublime human mythology. [GM]
This nonfiction account of the New Orleans hospital where patients were euthanized in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina also functions as a story about design failures: on a city level, an architectural level, and a social level. Sheri Fink, who won a Pulitzer for her work on the hospital, did more than 500 interviews to recreate those five fateful days, and her incredible reportage brings a haunting and tragic event to life. As the account progresses, we begin to see the building as a an architectural metaphor for the horrible tragedy taking place inside: thoughtless design and aging infrastructure are exposed as the building crumbles around its inhabitants. [KCD]
Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design by Charles Montgomery
A half century ago, we were told to move to the suburbs, grow a lawn and buy a car if we wanted to be happy. Now, as that trend begins to reverse, can urbanizing our lifestyles make us happy, too? As we pour more resources into our urban centers, Montgomery consults with psychologists and neuroscientists to find out what exactly about our cities is making us happy—and how we can squeeze more of it out of every square-foot. With great examples throughout history focusing on cheap urban interventions that generate maximum joy, like Bogotá's rapid transit buses and Paris's streetside plages, this book will not only force you to question the role of happiness in your everyday life, it will inspire you to walk out your front door and make changes in your own community. [AW]
One of two essential origin stories to hit shelves (or, more likely, Kindles) this fall, New York Times reporter Nick Bilton's Hatching Twitter exposes the fraught early days of one of the most powerful social tools in the world. If you're not interested in Twitter, or business, or Ev and Biz as viable names for adult humans, fear not. What makes Hatching Twitter worth your time isn't anything that could land in a business school case study; it's the meticulously researched and tautly written interpersonal relationships that drive this narrative. A great read for when you want a little more voyeurism than 140-character bursts allow. [BB]
A History of Future Cities by Daniel Brook
"Every month, five million people move from the past to the future," writes Brook, in his insightful argument about East-meets-West boomtowns that are slowly transitioning out of the developing nation mentality and into self-aware global superpowers. Brook looks at metropolises like St. Petersburg, Shanghai, Shenzhen, Mumbai and Dubai, which each have their own complicated histories, but where growing wealth and power are catapulting citizens quite literally into a new world. Essential for understanding the role of Westernization of culture, as well as preparing yourself for the day everything is going to change—when the past catches up to that future on the horizon. [AW]
Landscape Futures: Instruments, Devices and Architectural Inventions edited by Geoff Manaugh
If you're curious as to the thinking behind Gizmodo's shift towards cities and design, check out our EIC's Geoff Manaugh's new book, based on an exhibit of the same name at the Nevada Museum of Art in 2012. This dense tome is packed with an incredible spectrum of topics and ideas: archaeology, technology, architecture, biology, and history are woven into a single, cohesive look at the world around us—the titular "landscape," though that word seems insufficient to describe the deep well of subject matter taken on in this book. [KCD]
The Library: A World History by Joseph Campbell and Will Pryce
Architectural historian Joseph Campbell and photographer Will Pryce traveled to dozens of libraries across the globe (like Prague's Philosophical Hall at Strahov Abbey, above) to create this giant coffee table book, which seems like sheer library porn until you realize it also takes on the massive and nagging question of the past decade: What's the value of a library in the age of the e-reader? [KCD]
Never Built Los Angeles by Greg Goldin and Sam Lubell
Los Angeles has its detractors, but it certainly has no shortage of ambitious ideas. This comprehensive companion to the A+D Museum show is filled with projects that were proposed for the city but never saw the light of day. While the first impulse might be to mourn the L.A that might have been (better public transit! more skyscrapers! acres of public space!), the book also provides a peek into the complex, often haphazard process of city-building. Never Built is as much a commentary on the L.A. that exists, and forces us to ask where it can do better. Although I'm still sighing with relief about the freeway that was supposed to connect Santa Monica to Malibu… through the ocean. [AW]
The Once and Future World: Nature As It Was, As It Is, As It Could Be by J. B. MacKinnon
J. B. MacKinnon's Once and Future World looks at the very idea of nature, suggesting that a natural world hasn't existed for tens of thousands of years. But, he quickly clarifies, "This is nature by our most ordinary definition: the sum total of everything that is not us and did not spring from our imaginations." Humans, instead, live in a thoroughly augmented and influenced world, full of landscapes and ecosystems they have inadvertently designed, whether it's ancient predators hunted to extinction by our ancestors, thus making a world apparently safe for human settlement, or entire continental interiors altered over hundreds of generations. The at times devastating but, MacKinnon hopes, ultimately empowering twist to all this is that there is still the potential for an ethical relationship with the nonhuman world—a new appreciation for the "novel ecosystems" we mistake for nature—that MacKinnon describes in the book's final third. [GM]
Original Copies: Architectural Mimicry in Contemporary China by Bianca Bosker
From Paris to the 747, the phenomenon of architectural copying is well-worn, at this point. But Bianca Bosker offers a more nuanced take than "OMG WUT," examining what the copycat craze reveals about contemporary life in China. "These themes landscapes should not be so easily dismissed," she writes. "Far more than shelter, these homes are, in subtle but important ways, shaping the behavior of their occupants while also reflecting the achievements, dreams, and even anxieties of their inhabitants and creators." [KCD]
Out of the Mountains: The Coming Age of the Urban Guerilla by David Kilcullen
David Kilcullen is a former soldier and, now, widely acclaimed military analyst known for his research into—and firsthand experience of—counterinsurgencies in the mountains and deserts of the Middle East and Central Asia. But, he suggests, those landscapes are not the future of conflict—warfare is urbanizing along with the world's population, and violence is coming down "out of the mountains," as his title explicitly states, to infest the dense, highly populated, and infrastructurally challenged cities of the developing world. [GM]
Paradise Planned: The Garden Suburb and the Modern City by Robert A.M. Stern, David Fishman, and Jacob Tilove
This book may contain the answer to one of our greatest urban vs. suburban quandaries: Tthe garden suburb. These not-quite-dense, not-quite-sprawl planned communities offered a walkable, transit-friendly home with easy access to both city and nature—they originated in 18th century England as a way to provide respite for workers from the grime and grit of the city without sending them packing for the countryside. In Stern's lovely prose, this historical survey gives the garden suburb the second look it deserves while sparking all sorts of ideas for how we could bring these ideals to the contemporary city. [AW]
Picking Up: On the Streets and Behind the Trucks with the Sanitation Workers of New York City by Robin Nagle
Robin Nagle has been an "anthropologist in residence" at the New York City Department of Sanitation since 2006, driven there by an interest in the overwhelming administrative chore—and the incredible human stories—behind clearing the city of garbage. She wrote this book, she explains, to "better understand some of the human costs and labor requirements of waste." Her prose is fantastic; at one point, describing the now closed Fresh Kills Landfill, she writes that "the bulging hills seemed to go on forever and hinted at forces once human-made but now, perhaps, autonomously geological." The book's on-the-street reportage and much larger, anthropological analysis of waste both do the sanitation workers of the city justice. [GM]
Plutopia: Nuclear Families, Atomic Cities, and the Great Soviet and American Plutonium Disasters by Kate Brown
Kate Brown's Plutopia is a disturbing tale of two cities—Richland, Washington, and Ozersk, Russia—built specifically to produce plutonium for nuclear warheads. They were both secret cities, off limits to outsiders and planned entirely by the state, and they were always in the shadows of potential nuclear disasters—which, in both cases, inevitably arrived. Most astonishingly, Brown points out that Richland and Ozersk, taken together, released four times the amount of radiation into the environment as the meltdown at Chernobyl, yet, in each case, the regions have become nature reserves. These little plutonium utopias, centrally planned and beautifully manicured, ultimately succeeded in their roles, producing material for nuclear weapons, making them into the "Plutopia" of Brown's title. [GM]
Popular Lies About Graphic Design by Craig Ward
Graphic design is steeped in rules—both good and bad. In this brilliant book, Craig Ward discusses how and why these popular myths came to be. The lies range from "Comic Sans is the worst typeface ever created" to "Apple has the best graphic design," and the "truths" are biting, hilarious, and deeply satisfying. [KCD]
Radley Balko's libertarian look at the seemingly unstoppable rise of police powers in the United States—from "no-knock raids" to military-style armaments—is riveting. Landmark legal cases, abuses of power in the War on Drugs, midnight home raids, urban riots, Black Panthers, and enough military equipment to supply a small invasive army are only a few of the details in Balko's appeal for a rational deescalation of the police's arms race with itself, in a book that will equally appeal to either side of the political divide. [GM]
To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism by Evgeny Morozov
Evgeny Morozov's critical assault on the naive political optimism that all but drips from the hopes and moral calls-to-arms of so-called internet activism is both much-needed and well-timed. "Solutionism," as Morozov describes it, has had the perhaps all too obvious effect of actually neutering much of the very political activism its proponents hoped it would amplify. Rather than empower a new generation of political actors, Morozov argues, "solutionism" has instead only more fully embedded us within a media environment designed and regulated by a handful of specific corporations and lawmakers. Worse, the myth of the internet-as-liberator has turned even the most inane of everyday activities—"liking" things on Facebook and setting your Twitter feed's location to "Tehran" have never been so mercilessly satirized—into the only action some groups seem able to do. The book is by no means uncontroversial, but read it for yourself and feel the heat. [GM]
Secret Underground London by Nick Catford
Photographer Nick Catford, a core member of the fantastic underground infrastructural history group Subterranea Britannica, has published what feels like several lifetime's worth of work documenting everything beneath the surface of London, from abandoned Tube stations and government bunkers to the old quarries from which much of the city's building stock once came. Exhaustive, deep, and beautifully photographed, the only downside is the book's sheer, glossy mass, which makes it ideal for the coffee table but hard to carry with you on your own underground adventures. [GM]
Super Graphic by Tim Leong
This is not, strictly speaking, a book about technology. But you'd be hard pressed to find someone with a love of bits and bytes who isn't also drawn to Tim Leong's incredibly inventive collection of comic-inspired infographics. From Punisher decision trees to Pac-Man pie charts, it's a fresh look at a medium that's too often in danger of feeling stale. [BB]
Wild Ones: A Sometimes Dismaying, Weirdly Reassuring Story About Looking at People Looking at Animals in America by Jon Mooallem
Jon Mooallem's Wild Ones, at its most basic, is a book about endangered species—but, more accurately, it is a book about the often impenetrable environmental politics and the messy human emotions that surround and frustratingly complicate our interactions with the planet. From so-called charismatic megafauna such as polar bears to all but unseen species, such as a butterfly native only to a very specific plot of sand dunes in an industrial wasteland outside San Francisco, among many other examples, Mooallem offers what he calls a "weirdly reassuring"—with an emphasis on both words, as many of his examples are frankly surreal—look at animals, humans, parenthood, and the responsibility of taking care of another living creature. [GM]
Young Frank, Architect by Frank Viva
Leave it to a kid's book to humanize the rarefied debates of 20th century Modernism-with-a-capital-M. In this MoMA-produced fable, a young architect (the grandson) and an old architect (the grandaddy) plumb nagging questions about the profession. Not just the clash between formalism and rationality, but deeper issues that haunt many of today's designers: Whether architecture is still pertinent to cities, whether design can change the world, and how young designers can reconcile the failures and dreams of first-wave Modernists. All that, while also being truly adorable. [KCD]
Paleofuture's Best Books of 2013 were chosen by Matt Novak.
The Age of Edison: Electric Light and the Invention of Modern America by Ernest Freeberg
Don't be confused by the title; this isn't a new biography of Thomas Edison. Ernest Freeberg's The Age of Edison is actually a history of electric light and you won't want to put it down. Yes, the book uses Edison's late-19th century accomplishments as a jumping off point and returns to his technological developments in an effort to ground the narrative. But the story is so much larger than one man—as any honest story about technological innovation should be. It's hard to imagine what it must have been like to see your small town brilliantly illuminated in electric light for the first time, or to see the magnificent glowing signs filling Times Square in the bustle of the 1920s. But, with Freeberg's able prose, The Age of Edison is the next best thing.
Renewable: The World-Changing Power of Alternative Energy by Jeremy Shere
Journalist Jeremy Shere's new book, Renewable, is a breezy, easy-to-read look at the current state of alternative energy in America, grounded in the lessons of the past. Shere's perspective is explicitly non-partisan and owes much to other writers that have published similar work, such as The Atlantic's Alexis Madrigal and his 2011 book Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. My only criticism of the book is that it sadly lacks endnotes. I found myself on more than one occasion hoping to learn more about a particular story from history. But if you're looking for an interesting primer on the history (and history of the future) of alternative energy, Renewable is a great place to start.
Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age by W. Bernard Carlson
This new biography of inventor Nikola Tesla—the internet's favorite historical geek—is simply the best biography of Tesla. Hands down. Written by W. Bernard Carlson, a professor of history and engineering, the book's greatest strength is its ability to contextualize Tesla's amazing accomplishments—accomplishments that don't need the countless embellishments and fabrications that have accumulated about Tesla over the past half century. Tesla was an important inventor; but he was no saint. Nor did he do it alone. Many of the modern myths about Tesla can be traced to John J. O'Neill's hagiographic look at the great inventor back in 1944. These myths, unfortunately, were repeated in later books and have contributed to a warped understanding of this fascinating man. Carlson's book helps to correct the historical record in a big way. The book is somewhat more technical than the (now second-best) Tesla biography, Wizard: The Life and Times of Nikola Tesla by Marc Seifer. But if you're looking for a great page-turner about a man who helped build the future, look no further than Carlson's new book.
Edible Geography's Best Books of 2013 were chosen by Nicola Twilley.
Photo courtesy of The Cooking Lab.
Forget quick-and-easy dinner suggestions: the Edible Geography top ten books of 2013 all sit firmly within a growing genre of writing about food as a way of writing about ideas—although you will find the odd recipe for bioluminescent durian sauce and a sauerkraut-kimchi hybrid. But what you lose in kitchen instructions, you gain in an awe-inspiring mix of gene-hacking, container shipping, fecal humor, and food porn wizardry. From The New York Times best-seller that even your grandad has heard of (Michael Pollan's Cooked) to an artist-published manifesto for a new, open-source food-tech movement (the Center for Genomic Gastronomy's Food Phreaking), this list compiles the most exciting ways of thinking about, and with, food that crossed my plate in 2013.
Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation by Michael Pollan
Like Rachel Laudan, Pollan thinks that cooking has everything to do with who we were, are, and could yet be. In Cooked, however, Pollan's scope is simultaneously smaller than Laudan's (personally, geographically, technically, and historically) and wider — his adventures in braising, hog-barbecuing, and bread-baking are opportunities to explore elemental themes: air, water, fire, earth, and the human relationship with each, and each other. With the exception of the microbial adventures in the fermentation chapter, this book won't necessarily surprise you, but although Pollan may be telling you things you already know, when they're as well written as this, they have a freshness and force you won't forget.
Cuisine and Empire: Cooking in World History by Rachel Laudan
This is a weighty book, spanning three thousand years of human culinary history from the steamed millet mush of 1000 BCE to the foams, spheres, and encapsulations of the present day, and it starts very slowly indeed. The patient reader, however, is rewarded: Laudan's broad scope allows her to draw out previously obscure linkages and patterns (for example, she identifies the last lonely traces of Islamic culinary techniques in European cookery: Italian salsa verde, English mint sauce, and Catalonian picada), as well as convey the enormous (and, now, often overlooked) benefits of industrial food processing, as a release from the inadequate diets and hours spent grinding wheat or corn that characterized life for 99 percent of the world before the nineteenth century. In the end, Cuisine and Empire reveals that the way we cook is a kind of a code — a set of repeated, shared, evolving actions through which we embody and enact our shifting relationship with natural world, our ideas of personal health and social hierarchy, and our religious or ethical values. Show me how you cook, says Laudan, and I'll tell you who you are.
What do you see when you map the world through food? According to Food: An Atlas, a crowd-sourced, crowd-funded, "guerrilla cartography" project led by UC Berkeley professor Darin Jensen, you see the distribution patterns of the global almond trade but also the lost agrarian landscapes of Los Angeles, the geography of taco trucks of East Oakland and the United States beershed, as well as the rise of foodbanks in the UK, and much more besides. Available as a free PDF as well as in print form, this compilation of more than seventy food maps is less of a definitive atlas and more of an inspiring guidebook to the kinds of cartographic questions you can ask about food: it's hard to read it without coming up with ten more foodscape maps you can't wait to create.
This short but bold manifesto, published by the Center for Genomic Gastronomy, is available both as a free PDF and also as a rather gorgeous neon-pink-and-gold booklet. In it, artists Cat Kramer and Zack Denfield provide 38 examples of "what Food Phreaking might be, and what it most definitely is not." From DIY suggestions such as Colony Collapse Cuisine ("Why not limit yourself to a diet of non-bee-pollinated ingredients? Taste the future, today. And be prepared for bio-adversity.") to examples of culinary civil disobedience and outlaw ingredients (grey market raw milk vending machines, seed saving clubs, and beans tattooed with DNA-laced ink), the result is a mini-encyclopedia of stories at the fertile intersection of food, technology, and open culture.
Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal by Mary Roach
The prolific Mary Roach, fresh from tackling the science of corpses, sex, and space travel, takes the reader along on the journey our food makes every day, from nose to tail (or, to be precise, to Elvis Presley's constipated mega-colon). Gulp is stuffed full of enjoyably peculiar details, from a section on how dogs and cats taste food, to the fact that human hair is (a) Kosher, and (b) as much as 14 percent L-cysteine, an amino acid used to make meat flavorings and ersatz soy sauce. Although Roach's endless, schoolboy-humor footnotes (making fun of EneMan, the world's only enema mascot, for instance, or academic papers on "fecal odorgrams") can get a tiny bit tiring after a while, it's hard not to enjoy her infectious curiosity.
Ninety Percent of Everything: Inside Shipping, The Invisible Industry That Puts Clothes on Your Back, Gas in Your Car, and Food on Your Plate by Rose George
Journalist Rose George's new book on the overlooked world of freight shipping is about much more than food — there are Somali pirates, Filipino crew (a third of all seafarers are from the Philippines), and Liberian flags of convenience. But the 90 percent of everything that is transported by container ship includes food, and, while she spends thirty-nine days and nights aboard the Maersk Kendal, traveling from Felixstowe to Singapore, George notes that "shipping is so cheap that it makes more financial sense for Scottish cod to be sent ten thousand miles to be filleted, then sent back to Scottish shops and restaurants, than to pay Scottish filleters." While shipping has remade the contents of our plates and farms, a modern container crew has no idea what they're carrying (only flammable, toxic, or refrigerated goods are listed), and modern consumers have even less idea of the shadowy, floating world that George reveals, lying behind our endless retail abundance.
Pandora's Lunchbox: How Processed Food Took Over the American Meal by Melanie Warner
Although it inexplicably received much less attention that Michael Moss's simultaneously released Salt, Sugar, Fat, Melanie Warner's Pandora's Lunchbox is the behind-the-scenes look at the food processing industry that will truly blow your mind. Who knew that the world's largest manufacturer of Vitamin D, which is added into nearly all the milk that Americans consume (including organic varieties), is a factory in Dongyang, China, whose raw material is grease derived from Australia sheep's wool? Or that genetically engineered enzymes are routinely used to boost apple juice yield, stop cookie batters from clogging factory nozzles, and make soybean oil transfat free — and they don't have to be declared on the end product label? Warner makes a convincing case that these industrially engineered food-like substances (which make up an estimated 70 percent of the American diet) are an entirely alien form of nutrition, and "if we really are what we eat, then Americans are a different dietary species from what we were at the turn of the twentieth century."
Photo courtesy of The Cooking Lab.
The Photography of Modernist Cuisine by Nathan Myrhvold
Nathan Myrhvold may be a patent troll, but he certainly knows how to take an amazing food photograph.When Modernist Cuisine, his six volume, $450 encyclopedia unpacking the mysteries of sous-vide cuisine and the relationship between ultrasonic cavitation and crispy French fries, came out in 2011, reviewers spent more time marveling at the incredible images of a Weber grill sliced in half to reveal glowing coals and the browning base of the burgers, or a planet-sized blueberry, so close-up you could see its normally invisible orange seeds, than discussing its contents. Released this fall, The Photography of Modernist Cuisine reproduces some of the best images at an even larger scale, and, best of all, reveals exactly how they were made. That Weber grill? Thirty separate photos, cropped and combined. Pins, toothpicks, Plexiglass, and a band saw all play an important role, but there are also lighting and backdrop techniques you can copy at home. No more Martha Stewart-style #fails for your food snaps!
Sadly, The Secret Financial Life of Food is not a terribly well-written book. Still, it made my list because its subject matter is unique and completely fascinating: in it, author Kara Newman examines the role that the commodities market has played in shaping culinary history, unpacking such arcane curiosities as the corn derivatives market, cheddar cheese futures (cheddar is the only cheese variety traded on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange), and the Great Salad Oil Swindle of November 1963, which caused hundreds of millions of dollars in losses, but was overlooked in the drama surrounding JFK's assassination later the same month. Arcane, indeed, but increasingly relevant: as Newman points out, the amount of money invested in food commodities increased from $13 billion in 2003 to $260 billion in 2008, spurred by the profits to be made in a world of increasing food demand and, as climate change kicks in, decreasing supply.
In full disclosure, I contributed a short essay (about spaces of banana control) to this exuberant collection of fruit eclectica. Still, at the risk of self-promotion, I couldn't leave out a book that contains a recipe for bioluminescent durian sauce, a guide to the pineapple as architectural ornament, and, perhaps most thrillingly, a sustained meditation on the reason artificial raspberry flavored candy and soda is blue. You will never look at your fruit bowl the same way again.
Here are some other books that popped up on our radar, in all cases also worthy reads.
Androids in the Enlightenment: Mechanics, Artisans, and Cultures of the Self by Adelheid Voskuhl
Adelheid Voskuhl tells the story of, for the most part, 18th-century automata: mechanical animals and human machines that once entertained the upper classes with their dizzying promise of a robotized future.
Are We Being Watched?: The Search for Life in the Cosmos by Paul Murdin
Paul Murdin opens his book with a provocative claim and doesn't slow down from there: "The twenty-first century is the century of astrobiology: this is the era in which we will discover life on other worlds, and learn from it. This will be a momentous discovery." The book is a bright spot amidst other recent books about astrobiology and is a good one for a dark winter night.
Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield by Jeremy Scahill
A truly massive book, at nearly 700 pages, Jeremy Scahill's Dirty Wars is a narrative catalog of undeclared conflicts, black sites, and paramilitary skirmishes that the United States has either started or joined since 9/11.
Egyptian Oedipus: Athanasius Kircher and the Secrets of Antiquity by Daniel Stolzenberg
If you don't already know about Athanasius Kircher, you should take a long trip through his extraordinary and weird fields of research: a Jesuit priest who tinkered with everything from early cinematic projectors to talking statues, and wrote about impossibly tall skyscrapers inspired by the Tower of Babel and developed his own unique twist on a volcanic theory of a Hollow Earth. If Gizmodo had been founded in the 17th century, Kircher would have been its editor in chief. Stolzenberg's book is an excellent biography of the man and his ideas.
Explore Everything: Place-Hacking the City by Bradley L. Garrett
Bradley Garrett has recently propelled himself into the media spotlight as something of a spokesperson for urban exploration—something not everyone in urbex, as it's also known, takes kindly. Garrett's book, filled with incredible photos taken deep within the off-limits, backstage spaces of the modern city, and from all over the world, began its life as a graduate thesis. It thus suffers from an odd mix of heady theoretical citations for which the author then over-compensates by throwing in unnecessary references to how much Garrett and his cohorts had to drink that night. If you can overlook the unfortunate dude-bro implications of this—Walter Benjamin in one hand and a Bud Light in the other—you'll be treated to an amazing series of visits to sewers, catacombs, old schools, army bases, underground switching yards, and the stratospheric upper limits of huge bridges and skyscrapers.
If this is, indeed, as Paul Murdin has suggested, the century of astrobiology, then it is also the century of exoplanetology: the discovery and study of other planets. Lee Billings is a fantastic writer and this is an engaging book; its only weakness is a surprising propensity to stick around here on earth, describing the lives (and even loves) of his subject scientists, rather than describe, even if only speculatively, the weird mysteries of other worlds.
From Camp to City: Refugee Camps of the Western Sahara by Manuel Herz
When does a refugee camp become a city? Manuel Herz's urban and architectural investigation of camps in the disputed Western Sahara region is a well-researched, heavily illustrated, and fascinating catalog of the everyday materials—and the geopolitical implications—of these instant cities in conflict regions.
The Measure of Manhattan: The Tumultuous Career and Surprising Legacy of John Randel, Jr., Cartographer, Surveyor, Inventor by Marguerite Holloway
Where did Manhattan get its grid? Marguerite Holloway tells the prehistory and implementation of this geometric construction, down to the iron spikes hammered into Manhattan bedrock, marking, in some cases, future intersections that never came to be. It's urban design as historical adventure.
On An Ungrounded Earth: Towards a New Geophilosophy by Ben Woodard
This is an outlier for the list, a small pamphlet-sized book mixing H.P. Lovecraft with mining machines, ontology with the Death Star. Quite academic, but worth the experiment. The book's own description gives you quite an accurate sense of what to expect: "This book constructs an eclectic variant of geophilosophy through engagements with digging machines, nuclear waste, cyclones and volcanoes, giant worms, secret vessels, decay, subterranean cities, hell, demon souls, black suns, and xenoarcheaology, via continental theory (Nietzsche, Schelling, Deleuze, et alia) and various cultural objects such as horror films, videogames, and weird Lovecraftian fictions, with special attention to Speculative Realism and the work of Reza Negarestani."
Scatter, Adapt, and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction by Annalee Newitz
Annalee Newitz—editor in chief of Gizmodo's cousin io9—has produced a mind-bogglingly well-researched look into the history of extinction, planetary catastrophe, and a possible human future beyond the earth itself. Our species' secret weapon? Despite the book's title, if we band together, cooperate, and live in cities, Newitz suggests, we'll have eons yet ahead of us. One of the book's most memorable moments comes in an interview at the end, where a scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory quips that "Our kids are the last generation who will see no city lights on the Moon."
The Skies Belong To Us: Love and Terror in the Golden Age of Hijacking by Brendan I. Koerner
The great age of the hijacker gets its popular history told through Brendan Koerner's engaging and almost picaresque retrospective. The book, at times an absurdist tragicomedy, brings together Black Panthers, the Summer of Love, would-be Cuban communists, and a few dimwitted criminals who thought seizing control of an airplane would be the next best thing in political self-expression.
What did we miss? What did we get wrong? What's coming out in 2014 that you're already looking forward to? Let us know in the comments—and happy reading.
Opening image by r.martens via Shutterstock