The best books about important things hiding in plain sight

Susan Freinkel Author Of Plastic: A Toxic Love Story
By Susan Freinkel

Who am I?

I’ve been writing about science and the environment for over 20 years, but always I find myself gravitating to the non-sciency, non-naturey part of stories. My favorite part of my first book, on the American chestnut, was about how people in Appalachia loved and relied on this tree that was largely killed off in the early twentieth century. For Plastic: A Toxic Love Story, I was as fascinated by the cultural and psychological effects of plastic as its environmental and health impacts. One of the things I’ve learned is that some of the most powerful things shaping our lives – for better or worse – are ones we don’t notice or see. 

I wrote...

Plastic: A Toxic Love Story

By Susan Freinkel,

Book cover of Plastic: A Toxic Love Story

What is my book about?

When I started researching my book Plastic: A Toxic Love Story, I spent a day writing down everything I touched that was plastic. The list went on for pages. That eye-opening exercise revealed to me how thoroughly plastic permeated modern life. In the space of scarcely 50 years, plastic transformed how we live, work, and play. Plastic surrounds us at every turn; present in the air, the soil, the seas, and even our bodies. The rise of plastic is one of the most profound changes that has taken place in my lifetime – and it was hiding in plain sight. My book was an effort to answer two basic questions: How did this happen? And what does it mean for us and the planet? 

The books I picked & why

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Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal

By Eric Schlosser,

Book cover of Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal

Why this book?

I think of this 2001 expose as the granddaddy of this genre. The book reveals how “fast food has infiltrated every nook and cranny of American society” and the savage consequences of that long reach. Sure, we know fast food helped turn us into people who eat empty calories on the run. But the impact of fast food is much broader and deeper, affecting meatpacking, potato farming, minimum wage labor laws, urban sprawl, and even the tastes our tongues crave. It’s a tribute to the book’s revelations that many of the reviews ended on the same note of “you’ll never look at a burger the same way again.”

Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World

By Mark Kurlansky,

Book cover of Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World

Why this book?

The North Atlantic between Iceland and Canada once teemed with cod. That rich fishery is what lured Europeans across the Atlantic in the first place, starting with the Vikings. And salt curing of the fish – a method perfected by medieval Basque whalers is what made those long voyages possible. By the mid-sixteenth century, 60 percent of all fish eaten in Europe was cod. It soon would be a staple of new world diets – and one of the pleasures of the book are the cod recipes across the centuries. Above all, I appreciate how Kurlansky makes us care about this fish, whose numbers are now dwindling. As he writes, “the cod is on the wrong end of this 1,000-year fishing spree.” 

The 99% Invisible City: A Field Guide to the Hidden World of Everyday Design

By Roman Mars, Kurt Kohlstedt,

Book cover of The 99% Invisible City: A Field Guide to the Hidden World of Everyday Design

Why this book?

I’ve long been a fan of the podcast on which this book is based. By celebrating “the overlooked and the ordinary,” the authors remind us “that the world is full of amazing things.” Even the most mundane objects – locks, manhole covers, elevators, those inflatable dancing figures in front of car dealerships – were “designed,” a word signifying intent, inspiration, a desire to problem solve. For instance: the idea of painting center lanes on streets came to a Detroit man after driving on a country road behind a milk truck that was leaking its cargo. Stories like this make me see my surrounding with new eyes. Plus, I get an endless supply of fun tidbits to drop at cocktail parties. 

Underland: A Deep Time Journey

By Robert MacFarlane,

Book cover of Underland: A Deep Time Journey

Why this book?

This is one of the most gorgeous, profound, and nail-biting books I have ever read. We may be an above-ground species, but, as MacFarlane shows, our underground spaces reveal as much if not about much about the human impact on planet earth. They illuminate “the deep time legacies we are leaving.” Stops on his underground tour include: the invisible city of tunnels beath Paris streets; a remote Norwegian sea cave filled with ancient wall paintings; hollowed-out mountains on the Italy-Slovak border soaked with wartime atrocities. But the most moving journey is into Greenland glaciers where ice sheets tens of thousands of years old are melting away in real time. 

The World in a Grain: The Story of Sand and How It Transformed Civilization

By Vince Beiser,

Book cover of The World in a Grain: The Story of Sand and How It Transformed Civilization

Why this book?

This book is filled with surprises, starting with the foundational fact that sand is the most consumed natural resource, after air and water. It’s an essential ingredient of the modern world used for roads, to make buildings, to make glass, silicon chips, elastic, and much more. Surprise number two: we’re running out of this seemingly infinite stuff. China alone, I learned, used more cement in 2011-13 than the US did in the entire twentieth century. Today, he writes, “river beds and beaches around the world are being stripped bare of their precious grains. Forests and farms are being torn up. And people are being imprisoned, tortured, and murdered. All over sand.” Sand may be dry, but its story is gripping. 

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