The best books where authors infiltrate a wild community

Why am I passionate about this?

I’m a nerd about all things museums and archives, which I teach and write about. I was trained as an anthropologist, and got really interested in using anthropology’s methods (namely ethnography) to do long-term, embedded, deep-dive fieldwork in bureaucratic settings, like big museums. I love reading books by journalists, economists, historians, and others who do ethnography and really embed themselves in different communities, places, and cultures.


I wrote...

Extinct Monsters to Deep Time: Conflict, Compromise, and the Making of Smithsonian's Fossil Halls

By Diana E. Marsh,

Book cover of Extinct Monsters to Deep Time: Conflict, Compromise, and the Making of Smithsonian's Fossil Halls

What is my book about?

Extinct Monsters to Deep Time is an ethnography—a long-term, embedded study—of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, and the team planning the museum’s new fossil hall. Marsh joined a team of paleontologists, writers, project managers, designers, architects, and educators to get a grounded perspective on the inner workings of the world’s largest natural history museum and how science is communicated to the public. She shows that exhibits highlight the increasing conflict between the museums’ research and outreach functions in the 21st century.

Shepherd is reader supported. When you buy books, we may earn an affiliate commission.

The books I picked & why

Book cover of Cork Dork: A Wine-Fueled Adventure Among the Obsessive Sommeliers, Big Bottle Hunters, and Rogue Scientists Who Taught Me to Live for Taste

Diana E. Marsh Why did I love this book?

I’m reading, well listening, to this book right now! Bosker goes on a journey to become a Master Sommelier and writes a laugh-out-loud funny exposé of the wine world—from sommeliers to collectors, restauranteurs, producers, and even chemists—who dictate what we drink, why, how much we pay, and how we come to acquire certain tastes. I’d read it for the verbatim dialogue alone.

By Bianca Bosker,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

INSTANT NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER AND A NEW YORK TIMES CRITICS' PICK

"Thrilling . . . [told] with gonzo elan . . . When the sommelier and blogger Madeline Puckette writes that this book is the Kitchen Confidential of the wine world, she's not wrong, though Bill Buford's Heat is probably a shade closer." -Jennifer Senior, The New York Times

Professional journalist and amateur drinker Bianca Bosker didn't know much about wine-until she discovered an alternate universe where taste reigns supreme, a world of elite sommeliers who dedicate their lives to the pursuit of flavor. Astounded by their fervor and…


Book cover of Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War

Diana E. Marsh Why did I love this book?

I read this book right around the time I was writing mine—it’s a great example of how evocative writing can paint a real picture of a community, and a real sense of ‘being there.’ Here, Horowitz shadows Confederate reenactors, and describes their quirky rituals, attitudes, and worldviewsas well as the sheer lengths they’ll go to to achieve historic ‘accuracy.’ Along the way he illustrates the tensions we still experience in the US around race and whose stories are valid.  

By Tony Horwitz,

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked Confederates in the Attic as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

NATIONAL BESTSELLER • A Pulitzer Prize-winning war correspondent takes us on an explosive adventure into the soul of the unvanquished South, where Civil War reenactors, battlefield visitors, and fans of history resurrect the ghosts of the Lost Cause through ritual and remembrance.  

"The freshest book about divisiveness in America that I have read in some time. This splendid commemoration of the war and its legacy ... is an eyes–open, humorously no–nonsense survey of complicated Americans." —The New York Times Book Review

For all who remain intrigued by the legacy of the Civil War—reenactors, battlefield visitors, Confederate descendants and other Southerners,…


Book cover of The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins

Diana E. Marsh Why did I love this book?

This is an academic book, but it's beautifully written, and not too, too jargony. Tsing does a kind of commodity ethnography, embedding herself in multiple parts of the lifecycle of the Matsutake Mushroom trade, while depicting the worlds of pickers, restauranteurs, mushroom traders and auctioneers, nature guides, and more. She also weaves in a critique of capitalist markets in which these kinds of natural entities now are embedded, which I dig! 

By Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Mushroom at the End of the World as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

What a rare mushroom can teach us about sustaining life on a fragile planet

Matsutake is the most valuable mushroom in the world-and a weed that grows in human-disturbed forests across the Northern Hemisphere. Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing's account of these sought-after fungi offers insights into areas far beyond just mushrooms and addresses a crucial question: What manages to live in the ruins we have made? The Mushroom at the End of the World explores the unexpected corners of matsutake commerce, where we encounter Japanese gourmets, capitalist traders, Hmong jungle fighters, Finnish nature guides, and more. These companions lead us into…


Book cover of The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy: An Economist Examines the Markets, Power, and Politics of World Trade

Diana E. Marsh Why did I love this book?

This was the first book I read that was kind of an embedded object biography back when I was an undergraduate student in my second-ever anthropology class. I was totally hooked on the genre. This book follows t-shirts, from where cotton is picked, to where t-shirts are manufactured, printed, sold and distributed, to their disposal—including second lives on the used clothing market. “Who made your t-shirt?” as a great first starting question.

By Pietra Rivoli,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The keys to global business success, as taught by a T-shirt's journey

The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy is a critically-acclaimed narrative that illuminates the globalization debates and reveals the key factors to success in global business. Tracing a T-shirt's life story from a Texas cotton field to a Chinese factory and back to a U.S. storefront before arriving at the used clothing market in Africa, the book uncovers the political and economic forces at work in the global economy. Along the way, this fascinating exploration addresses a wealth of compelling questions about politics, trade, economics, ethics,…


Book cover of Fool's Gold: The Inside Story of J.P. Morgan and How Wall St. Greed Corrupted Its Bold Dream and Created a Financial Catastrophe

Diana E. Marsh Why did I love this book?

Tett got pretty impressive access to JP Morgan and the team of Wall Streeters who revolutionized, and later collapsed, the banking industry. I loved reading this book because it was so approachable and fast-paced, and showed how an ethnographic approach reveals unique (and in this case out-of-control) institutional cultures can have global impacts.

*A little like Karen Ho’s ethnography of Wall Street, but less academic!

By Gillian Tett,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Fool's Gold as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

From award-winning Financial Times journalist Gillian Tett, who enraged Wall Street leaders with her news-breaking warnings of a crisis more than a year ahead of the curve, Fool’s Gold tells the astonishing unknown story at the heart of the 2008 meltdown.

Drawing on exclusive access to J.P. Morgan CEO Jamie Dimon and a tightly bonded team of bankers known on Wall Street as the “Morgan Mafia,” as well as in-depth interviews with dozens of other key players, including Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, Tett brings to life in gripping detail how the Morgan team’s bold ideas for a whole new kind…


You might also like...

Who Is a Worthy Mother?: An Intimate History of Adoption

By Rebecca Wellington,

Book cover of Who Is a Worthy Mother?: An Intimate History of Adoption

Rebecca Wellington Author Of Who Is a Worthy Mother?: An Intimate History of Adoption

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

I am adopted. For most of my life, I didn’t identify as adopted. I shoved that away because of the shame I felt about being adopted and not truly fitting into my family. But then two things happened: I had my own biological children, the only two people I know to date to whom I am biologically related, and then shortly after my second daughter was born, my older sister, also an adoptee, died of a drug overdose. These sequential births and death put my life on a new trajectory, and I started writing, out of grief, the history of adoption and motherhood in America. 

Rebecca's book list on straight up, real memoirs on motherhood and adoption

What is my book about?

I grew up thinking that being adopted didn’t matter. I was wrong. This book is my journey uncovering the significance and true history of adoption practices in America. Now, in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade, the renewed debate over women’s reproductive rights places an even greater emphasis on adoption. As a mother, historian, and adoptee, I am uniquely qualified to uncover the policies and practices of adoption.

The history of adoption, reframed through the voices of adoptees like me, and mothers who have been forced to relinquish their babies, blows apart old narratives about adoption, exposing the fallacy that adoption is always good.

In this story, I reckon with the pain and unanswered questions of my own experience and explore broader issues surrounding adoption in the United States, including changing legal policies, sterilization, and compulsory relinquishment programs, forced assimilation of babies of color and Indigenous babies adopted into white families, and other liabilities affecting women, mothers, and children. Now is the moment we must all hear these stories.

Who Is a Worthy Mother?: An Intimate History of Adoption

By Rebecca Wellington,

What is this book about?

Nearly every person in the United States is affected by adoption. Adoption practices are woven into the fabric of American society and reflect how our nation values human beings, particularly mothers. In the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court's overturning of Roe v. Wade, the renewed debate over women's reproductive rights places an even greater emphasis on adoption. As a mother, historian, and adoptee, Rebecca C. Wellington is uniquely qualified to uncover the policies and practices of adoption. Wellington's timely-and deeply researched-account amplifies previously marginalized voices and exposes the social and racial biases embedded in the United States' adoption industry.…


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in environmental degradation, international trade, and wine?

10,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about environmental degradation, international trade, and wine.

Environmental Degradation Explore 25 books about environmental degradation
International Trade Explore 14 books about international trade
Wine Explore 59 books about wine