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.

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The books I picked & why

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

Why did I love 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.

By Christopher Alexander,

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked A Pattern Language as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

You can use this book to design a house for yourself with your family; you can use it to work with your neighbors to improve your town and neighborhood; you can use it to design an office, or a workshop, or a public building. And you can use it to guide you in the actual process of construction. After a ten-year silence, Christopher Alexander and his colleagues at the Center for Environmental Structure are now publishing a major statement in
the form of three books which will, in their words, "lay the basis for an entirely new approach to architecture,…

Book cover of The Works: Anatomy of a City

Why did I love 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.

By Kate Ascher,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Works as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A fascinating guided tour of the ways things work in a modern city

“It's a rare person who won't find something of interest in The Works, whether it's an explanation of how a street-sweeper works or the view of what's down a manhole.”  —New York Post

Have you ever wondered how the water in your faucet gets there? Where your garbage goes? What the pipes under city streets do? How bananas from Ecuador get to your local market? Why radiators in apartment buildings clang? Using New York City as its point of reference, The Works takes readers down manholes and…

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

Why did I love 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 Roman Mars, Kurt Kohlstedt,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked The 99% Invisible City as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?


Out now: The most entertaining and fascinating book about architecture and design, from the wildly popular podcast 99% Invisible.

A New York Times Bestseller

'Full of surprises and quirky information . . . a fascinating journey through the over-familiar.' - Financial Times, Best Books of 2020

'[A] diverse and enlightening book . . . The 99% Invisible City is altogether fresh and imaginative when it comes to thinking about urban spaces.' -The New York Times Book Review

'A delightful book about the under-appreciated wonders of good design' - Tim Harford, bestselling author of The Undercover Economist and Fifty…

Book cover of Home: A Short History of an Idea

Why did I love 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.

By Witold Rybczynski,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Home as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Walk through five centuries of homes both great and small from the smoke-filled manor halls of the Middle Ages to today's Ralph Lauren-designed environments on a house tour like no other, one that delightfully explicates the very idea of "home."

You'll see how social and cultural changes influenced styles of decoration and furnishing, learn the connection between wall-hung religious tapestries and wall-to-wall carpeting, discover how some of our most welcome luxuries were born of architectural necessity, and much more. Most of all, Home opens a rare window into our private lives and how we really want to live.

Book cover of Material World: A Global Family Portrait

Why did I love 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.

By Peter Menzel,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Material World as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Called “Fascinating! An incredible book” by Oprah Winfrey, this beloved photography collection vividly portrays the look and feel of the human condition everywhere on Earth.

In an unprecedented effort, sixteen of the world’s foremost photographers traveled to thirty nations around the globe to live for a week with families that were statistically average for that nation. At the end of each visit, photographer and family collaborated on a remarkable portrait of the family members outside their home, surrounded by all of their possessions; a few jars and jugs for some, an explosion of electronic gadgetry for others.

This internationally acclaimed…

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