The best novels that capture building/making

The Books I Picked & Why


By Herman Melville

Book cover of Moby-Dick

Why this book?

I had read Melville’s Billy Budd as a school assignment, so I thought I knew what I was in for with Moby-Dick: sailors, the arcane and elided names of ship parts, and one man’s vendetta against a whale. What I wasn’t expecting was the deadly, gore-filled business of whaling. The cetology chapter blew my mind and forever altered my understanding of what I could expect from a novel. I remain in awe of the impossibility of the goal that took men out to sea with eighteenth-century technology to hunt animals as large as their boats, equally unbelieving at the terrible and disastrous efficacy with which they succeeded at their task.

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The English Patient

By Michael Ondaatje

Book cover of The English Patient

Why this book?

The beauty of craft and human labor is a theme that runs through Michael Ondaatje’s novels. His The English Patient is a creation as lovely as the paintings that the mysterious burned patient recalls during his convalescence. I’d never given much thought to WWII bomb defusal until I read the Kip section, but in the decades since, it’s never left my imagination. Draw a Venn diagram comprised of a compelling story, beautiful language, and the practical ballet of technical work—Ondaatje resides right at its center.

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Sarah Canary

By Karen Joy Fowler

Book cover of Sarah Canary

Why this book?

In Karen Joy Fowler’s Sarah Canary, we get glimpses of the American railway being built, one painful railroad tie at a time, hewn from the raw landscape at a cost of human misery and lives. This novel is funny, poignant, and serves up a full course of rich, historical story that never lets you go, whether giving insights into the tough realities faced by the suffragist movement or the grim mistreatment of Chinese workers as they built the western railways.

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Angle of Repose

By Wallace Stegner

Book cover of Angle of Repose

Why this book?

I was in my mid-twenties when I fell under the sway of the old-school master of western writing, Wallace Stegner. His Angle of Repose is a triumph, mixing elements of failed love and mine engineering to tell a tale in which the raw material of the West is carved into its modern shape. The story captures the struggles of marriage and tribulations of making a home out on the frontier of American civilization. Concrete is invented, no less.

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By Ron Rash

Book cover of Serena

Why this book?

In Serena, Ron Rash gives us a vivid look at an industry largely concerned with un-making: the timber industry of 1930s North Carolina. Through lush descriptions of vast, virgin tracts spread across Blue Ridge mountain vistas, he captures the heartbreak of it. There are rattlesnakes and widow-makers and all manner of axes and saws.

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