The best books for world-building

Who am I?

I believe stories to be our species’ instinctual tool for discovering our best selves. Sometimes those stories are about real people in the past, sometimes they’re completely imagined people in the future — sometimes we even swap out the humans for animals or aliens, or sassy anthropomorphized objects. Whatever the case, for a story to work its wonders, its details must be believable, or we reject its premise. These books help make a story believable, and, if you get the alchemy just right, those details can even help tell the story themselves.

I wrote...

New in Town

By Kevin Cornell,

Book cover of New in Town

What is my book about?

One fine morning, the people of Puddletrunk wake up to find their bridge has collapsed. They are not surprised. After all, termites have destroyed the last 200 or so bridges. Luckily, the people of Puddletrunk have a bridge-building expert in their town: the fabulous Mortimer Gulch, who will gladly rebuild their bridge for a pretty penny. But when a newcomer to Puddletrunk does not want to pay for the repairs, Mortimer is displeased. To make matters worse, this unusual foreigner has some innovative ideas that threaten to upend Mortimer Gulch's entire business.

Here is a whimsical yet timely picture book allegory about what new people with new ideas can bring to communities.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Why Elephants Have Big Ears : Understanding Patterns of Life on Earth

Why did I love this book?

If you’re gonna draw any creatures, humans included, it’s important to understand all the factors that influence their size and their shape. The temperature of their environment, the altitude, the precipitation— even the gravity of the planet itself. The book gives gives an in-depth understanding as to why animals look they way they do, and why some weird structures are not only practical, but crucial for a species to survive.

By Chris Lavers,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Why Elephants Have Big Ears as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Why are all the big land animals on Earth mammals? Why are reptiles so small today when they were so huge in the Age of Dinosaurs? Why are rivers, lakes and swamps dominated by large cold-blooded reptiles and not by mammals? Why are there so many birds on Earth and why are they all so small? In this beautifully written and utterly compelling book Lavers scours the fields of biology, physiology, ecology and palaeontology to find answers to these global-scale questions. In the process he reveals a fundamentally new view of life on Earth, one that offers no room for…

Book cover of What People Wore When: A Complete Illustrated History of Costume from Ancient Times to the Nineteenth Century for Every Level of Society

Why did I love this book?

This is a pretty exhaustive study of how humans garb themselves, and how function, wealth and technology all influence fashion. Whether you’re telling the a tale of a doughty Georgian lace merchant, or the harrowing adventures of an inter-dimensional jazz band, you’re probably going to put your heroes in some sort of clothing, and this book gives you insight into all the various ways humans have found to do that.

By Melissa Leventon,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked What People Wore When as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

What People Wore When combines the studies of two classic nineteenth-century illustrators Auguste Racinet and Friedrich Hottenroth for the first time. Their works are presented first by chronology and then by subject, so that illustrators, historians, and students alike can choose to follow the path of fashion through the centuries, or study in detail the contrasting styles of individual clothing and accessories. Silhouettes reveal the shape of style through the ages, detailed cross-references draw attention to recurring motifs, and navigation bars help the researcher to travel the complex chronology of costume.

With authoritative narrative from leading experts in the history…

Book cover of The Grammar of Ornament: All 100 Color Plates from the Great Victorian Sourcebook of Historic Design

Why did I love this book?

Clothing isn’t the only residue a culture and its people leave behind. Humans are natural pattern makers, and those patterns often give important insight into what those people value, as well as what fills their natural environment. Materials, dyes, tools… all these things have an influence on how a culture decorates their world and themselves. Patterns are a very subtle way to underscore a moment in a story.

By Owen Jones,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

This beautiful, highly influential book, long a classic in its field, remains today one of the most comprehensive and best-organized presentations of historic ornamental design. The original 100 color plates, meticulously reproduced here from the rare original folio edition, present a dazzling spectrum of copyright-free design motifs from both ancient and modern cultures. The Grammar of Ornament features designs from around the world: the West to the Far East and many cultures in between.

Graphic and fine artists will find nearly three thousand designs rendered in fine detail from a variety of sources:

Greek and Roman borders and mosaics Celtic…

Book cover of Mapping the World: An Illustrated History of Cartography

Why did I love this book?

You get a lot of insight into a culture from the maps they create. Not only how they view themselves, but how they view others around them. There have been times in history when cultures weren’t even concerned with their maps being geographically accurate— they were a tool for teaching religion, or indulging a yearning for the fantastic. This book gives an excellent overview as to the many ways humans have used, and designed, maps throughout the centuries.

By Ralph E. Ehrenberg,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Mapping the World as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Mapping the World is a one-of-a-kind collection of cartographic treasures that spans thousands of years and many cultures, from an ancient Babylonian map of the world etched on clay to the latest high-tech maps of the earth, seas, and the skies above. With more than one hundred maps and other illustrations and an introduction and running commentary by Ralph E. Ehrenberg, this book tells a fascinating story of geographic discovery, scientific invention, and the art and technique of mapmaking.

Mapping the World is organized chronologically with a brief introduction that places the maps in their historical context. Special "portfolios" within…

Book cover of A Museum of Early American Tools

Why did I love this book?

Nothing angers me more than when a book tries to explain something in words when it can be communicated much more effectively through illustration. That’s the beauty of Eric Sloane. The man visually recorded everything from weather phenomena to architecture to tools of bygone eras. I’m recommending the book A Museum of Early American Tools because its the one I’ve found the most useful, but I recommend checking out any of his books. At the very least, it can help you appreciate how those design decisions we take for granted— the roof of a barn, or the shape of a hammer handle— were honed by a balance of tradition, practicality, and circumstance.

By Eric Sloane,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked A Museum of Early American Tools as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This absorbing and profusely illustrated book describes in detail scores of early American tools and the wooden and metal artifacts made with them. Informally and expressively written, the text covers bulding tools and methods; farm and kitchen implements; and the tools of curriers, wheelwrights, coopers, blacksmiths, coachmakers, loggers, tanners, and many other craftsmen of the pre-industrial age. Scores of pen-and-ink sketches by the author accurately depict "special tools for every job," among them a hollowing gouge, hay fork, cornering chisel, apple butter paddle, boring auger, mortising chisel, a holding dog, hauling sledge, winnowing tray, reaping hooks, splitting wedge, felling axe,…

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in clothing, cartography, and animals?

9,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about clothing, cartography, and animals.

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