The best books for understanding the world outside your front door

Who am I?

In my 30 years as a writer I’ve learned it’s not enough to simply deliver information; it has to be done in an entertaining, engaging, and inspiring way. I’ve been fascinated in how the world “works” all my life. As a kid I dismantled the family lawn mower (failing to get it re-mantled.) After teaching for two years I turned to general contracting where it was imperative to know how things “worked.”  As an editor with Readers’ Digest and Family Handyman magazine, I wrote the “How A House Works” column and headed up the DIY books division, teaching others how the world works. For the last 15 years I’ve been focused on books that explore the world around us.

I wrote...

A Walk Around the Block: Stoplight Secrets, Mischievous Squirrels, Manhole Mysteries & Other Stuff You See Every Day (and Know Nothing About)

By Spike Carlsen,

Book cover of A Walk Around the Block: Stoplight Secrets, Mischievous Squirrels, Manhole Mysteries & Other Stuff You See Every Day (and Know Nothing About)

What is my book about?

We read books about climbing Mount Everest, exploring the depths of the oceans, and traveling to the moon. But what do we know about the world right under our feet; the world we encounter every day? Join the author as he investigates where our trash and recycling go, where our water and electricity come from, how cell phone towers work, and why pigeons and squirrels thrive in urban, suburban, and rural environments. Twenty-six chapters cover 26 fascinating subjects. 

Meet the unforgettable characters the author encounters along the way: Squirrel linguists, graffiti artists in Paris, fellow judges in a roadkill cook-off, the Nordic Walking Queen. It soon becomes clear that this “everyday world” is as full of mystery, history, and intrigue as any story ever told.

The Books I Picked & Why

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A Pattern Language

By Christopher Alexander,

Book cover of A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction

Why this book?

This 45-year-old classic examines public and private spaces—why some attract us, while others repel us—and is as fresh and eye-opening as if it were written today. Alexander starts with the big picture explicating how we shape our surroundings and they, in turn, shape us. He marches us through shopping areas, workspaces, bedrooms, child caves, kitchens, and public squares pointing out why some elements feel so right, while others feel so wrong; he puts into words things we often feel only in our gut. His concrete suggestions are a breath of fresh air. Takeaway to ponder: Communities function best when no citizen is more than “two friends away” from knowing the mayor or other governmental head.

The Works

By Kate Ascher,

Book cover of The Works: Anatomy of a City

Why this book?

Ascher takes us on a delightful tour of  New York City, teaching us about the inner workings of one of the world’s most complex cities. In doing so, she gives us clues as to how our own cities work. Using words, statistics, history, and illustrations, Ascher makes the complex seem simple, From sewage to stoplights to subways she leaves no stone unturned. Fact to ponder: For years NYC shipped its garbage to a landfill in Texas, nearly 2,000 miles away.

The 99% Invisible City

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?

Based on his blockbuster podcast “99% Invisible” Mars investigates both the mundane and the bizarre. Presented in short snippets he unearths the history and mystery behind telephone poles, street grids, fire hydrants, boulevard trees, and dozens of other seemingly ho-hum objects. Mars uses a broad definition of “design”, at times bringing an engineer sensibility to his investigations, at other times that of a late night comedian. Total trivia: Ancient Beijing was illuminated at night by volcanic gasses channeled through bamboo pipes. 


By Witold Rybczynski,

Book cover of Home: A Short History of an Idea

Why this book?

The author’s examination of the houses, apartments, and environments in which we live begins in the Middle Ages and pushes us toward the future. While loosely chronologically based, the author has fun creating chapters that are more theme-based: Nostalgia, Intimacy & Privacy, Ease, Efficiency, Austerity, Comfort, and so forth. I was particularly captivated by his take on privacy (there wasn’t much of that in days gone by, comfort (not much of that either), and light and fresh air (guess what? A pronounced absence of that too).) There’s an eye-opener on every page. Point to ponder: In the Middle Ages, people didn’t so much live in their houses as camp in them.

Material World

By Peter Menzel,

Book cover of Material World: A Global Family Portrait

Why this book?

Never was the saying “A picture is worth a thousand words” more true than in this photographic journey around the world. Menzel and his team traveled to 30 countries, found a family in each location willing to move the entire contents of their home from inside to front yard and then photographed family, contents, and dwelling. From a mud hut in Mali to a luxurious dwelling in Kuwait, Menzel’s photos are always informative, never lackadaisical, and sometimes heart-wrenching. Points to ponder: The most valued possession for the Bosnian family featured in the book is listed as a lamp.

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