Best Books for Geeks & Nerds in 2021: Cerebral, Readable
The geeky and nerdy among us live to learn. Studying is fun, and reading is a pretty easy way to do it. But how do you choose the best books for geeks and nerds? Where do you look, and what do you look for? Where do you start?
But those were the questions the all-knowing editorial powers that be at Gear Hungry assigned me to answer, so I went (painstakingly) to work. Find your protractor and make sure your glasses are squeaky clean: the best books for geeks and nerds are here.
- Funniest: Chuck Klosterman X
- Most Feminist: Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg
- Best for the Bathroom: What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions
- Most Historical: Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire
- Most Technical: Knife Engineering
- Most Serious: Sacred Economics
- Best Art: The Walking Dead, Volume I: Days Gone Bye
- Most Practical: The Omnivore’s Dilemma
- Best for Kids: Fantastic Mr. Fox
- Most Entertaining: Those Guys Have All the Fun
The Best Book for Geeks and Nerds
Chuck Klosterman X is about rock ‘n’ roll and American sports. If that sentence turns you off, consider this: actually, it’s about everything but. In author Chuck Klosterman’s own words, “the only significant purpose of the text is to provide a superstructure for subtext (which always matters more).”
The veteran pop culture journalist has spent more than two decades going toe to toe with some of the world’s most famous people for the likes of Esquire, GQ, and ESPN. He’s built his reputation on his ability to pull back the proverbial curtain. Most celebrity interviews are banal and scripted; Klosterman’s are famously the opposite.
Chuck Klosterman X collects some of Klosterman’s most brilliant moments. Kobe Bryant describes ex-coach Phil Jackson with an f-bomb and asserts that he would have “destroyed people” under a different system. Later, Klosterman unironically asks ex-Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page “did you ever actually attempt magic?”.
The book is also peppered with essays and ramblings from Klosterman’s archives. Check out the 250-word “What If We Were Wrong? (Drink the Acid, Swallow the Mouse),” an oddball scribbling about his love of Mountain Dew.
There is the occasional clunker, which generally results from a dud interview. See “I’m Assuming It’s Going To Be Fun,” in which Pavement frontman Steven Malkmus builds a tiresome wall of hipster aphorisms until Klosterman appears to get bored and move on.
If you don’t like an article, just flip forward: the book contains 38 entries. It is noteworthy that a total of two feature women, which is a questionable editorial choice.
Still, Chuck Klosterman X is a consistently fascinating, hilarious book for pop culture nerds. It’s a reflective exhibit of popular American culture, executed by a master in his prime. Read my in-depth review here.
- AuthorChuck Klosterman
- Copyright Year2017
- Available FormatsKindle, Audiobook, Paperback, Hardcover
- Print Length464 Pages
Interviews display amazing insight
Chapters/articles are easy to digest
Reads quickly with funny, punchy writing
Occasional mediocre chapters
The subject matter is consistently masculine
Former Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a lightning rod in our collective consciousness. During a career that spanned half a century (27 years on the highest court in the land), RBG faced steep odds time and time again: emerging from the mire that was a male-dominated legal environment (and the world) in the 1970s, surviving multiple cancer diagnoses, and forging tough compromises in several conservative Supreme Courts.
Do you want to nerd out on the inside dope of RBG’s life and career? What were those years in the trenches like, in her own words? How did her husband of 56 years end up with the exclusive role of the family chef, and how the hell did she work up to 20 pushups as an 80+-year-old cancer survivor?
Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, co-written by Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik, is a well-rounded chronicle of America’s most notorious Supreme Court Justice. Primary sourcing and excerpts from RBG’s work and lead the way. Ancillary information about her upbringing, early career, family life, and personal habits bolster the narrative.
The late Justice’s biography promises to be one of the most popular books for RBG geeks in the wake of her tragic death. Add photography that continues to engage throughout, plus handy references like a timeline, endnote list, and index, and Notorious RBG is a great tool for any nerdy RBG researcher or casual fan. Check out this New York Times Bestseller and read my in-depth review here.
- AuthorsIrin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik
- PublisherDey Street Books
- Copyright Year2015
- Available FormatsKindle, Audiobook, Hardcover, Audio CD
- Print Length240 Pages
Thorough and fact-centric
Solid reference tools like official document excerpts, index, and career timeline
Frames intimate anecdotes within a businesslike narrative
Great catalog of images
Writing is sometimes dry and encyclopedic
Narrative skips around chronologically; refer to timeline
What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions looks, in many ways, like the quintessential book for geeks and nerds. The coffee table (or bathroom) book covers each absurd question in less than 5 minutes with snappy reading and quippy cartoons from Randall Munroe, author of popular comic strip xkcd. The scenarios are nerd-centric and debate-ready.
The entertaining book for geeks would inspire lively banter among the right crowd, tackling questions like “Is it possible to build a jetpack using downward-firing machine guns?” and “How much Force power can Yoda output?” Some of Munroe’s responses, especially to the “Yoda” question, are impressively well-researched.
That said, What If? utilizes unsubstantiated calculations and questionable experiments, so many of its conclusions rely on whether or not you believe Munroe. Personally, I didn’t care about finding the definitive answers to questions like “how high can a human throw something?” but I sometimes found Munroe’s answers so assertive that I felt incredulous.
So I looked into his reputation, with mixed results: Munroe earned a physics degree at a minor liberal arts university, then worked as a roboticist at NASA before committing to xkcd full-time. That’s according to his Wikipedia page, which is flagged for self-referentiality. I’ll leave the judgment up to you.
However, I will not withhold judgment on What If?’s sense of humor, which is as relentless as it is toothless. After demonstrating that half-full glass of water explodes under certain conditions, Munroe quips, “If the optimist says the glass is half full, and the pessimist says the glass is half empty the physicist ducks.” Haw haw. Rock bottom is arguably lower: Munroe also jokes that even though Yoda couldn’t generate enough electricity to power the planet, the energy he did generate would “definitely be green.”
Groan. All things considered, though, What If? is a worthy addition to your trivia stack and one of the best bathroom reading books for geeks around.
- AuthorRandall Munroe
- PublisherHoughton Mifflin Harcourt
- Copyright Year2014
- Available FormatsKindle, Audiobook, Paperback, Hardcover, Audio
- Print Length320 Pages
Explains complex phenomena in accessible language
Entertaining topics and research methods
Easy to read in short bursts
Amusing cartoon art and humor
Amusing cartoon art and humor
Ignores meaningful context
Kurt Andersen’s Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire is a thorough account of American history through the lens of our country’s fixation on alternative reality. The concept sounds a little far-out, but Andersen marshals cogent writing and studious research to produce a great book for history nerds.
Did you know that Ben Franklin, America’s categorically-celebrated first scientist, paid his bills for several years by publishing evangelical books that he himself considered nonsense? Or that America’s first white colonizers were compelled by private English advertising campaigns that promised fortunes in gold to those willing to make the trip?
Factoids like that continue to pop up and amaze the reader. They cohere to support one of the book’s core theses, which it states on page 30: “If you’re fanatical enough about enacting and enforcing your fiction, it becomes indistinguishable from nonfiction.”
Fantasyland explains American history as a forcible enactment of compulsory and controversial belief systems. The book makes sound arguments to relate significant American cultural moments that may appear obscure. For example, the mass fear of the “other” that produced the Salem Witch Trials in the 1600s is essentially the same mechanism that made violent Wild West shows profitable in the 1800s: wherever there is an “other” to be feared in the American imagination, there is a captive audience.
The book traces this and other threads through the nation’s early days all the way to our current national moment of instant gratification and political hysteria.
Pick up Fantasyland if you enjoy solid, engaging historical discourse — bonus points if you’re interested in cultural psychoses.
For more awesome books, check out our list of the best business & leadership books.
- AuthorKurt Andersen
- PublisherRandom House
- Copyright Year2017
- Available FormatsKindle, Hardcover
- Print Length429 Pages
Cogent historical analysis
Occasional jaw-dropping facts
Short chapters and snappy writing make for easy reading
Dr. Larrin Thomas’ Knife Engineering is as technical as its title: not knife “making,” but knife “engineering.”
Thomas, the son of a knifemaker, earned a PhD. in metallurgy and now writes about knives and steel for enthusiasts. Knife Engineering is a technical manual for those interested in an in-depth exploration of knife structure and metallurgy, heat treating, and knife making.
“The goal,” Thomas writes, “is to make things as simple as possible, even when they can appear complicated on the surface.”
Complicated indeed. Interested in making your own chef’s knife but don’t know how to choose the right kind of steel? Even if you could decide, would you then require a detailed understanding of how it performed under various edge geometries?
Then pick up Knife Engineering and get after it. There’s a lot to learn, but the language is pretty accessible (even to a layperson artist type like myself). And if all else fails, there are always the illustrations. As Dr. Thomas says, “Anyone can be an engineer.”
Here are some of the top productivity books that will help you live your life more intentionally. Check them out.
- AuthorDr. Larrin Thomas
- PublisherDr. Larrin Thomas
- Copyright Year2020
- Available FormatsPaperback
- Print Length450 Pages
Knife insight from a trade master
Technical writing for topic precision
Charles Eisenstein’s Sacred Economics explores how we, as a global society, interpret money. Eisenstein lays out the history of money and outlines various economic systems to solve the world’s most pressing financial problems. He proposes a monetary approach that helps resources circulate freely without inducing catastrophic poverty or environmental consequences.
How? It’s complicated. Good thing Eisenstein is a Yale graduate with an economics degree and that he writes Sacred Economics largely in layman’s terms.
It brims with subtly profound one-liners like this one from page 40: “When there is no standard of value, different humans want different things. When money is exchangeable for anything, then all people want the same thing: money.”
Or this one, from page 186: “Property is not an objective feature of reality.”
The book’s thesis requires some comprehension of higher concepts like negative interest and cost internalization. Still, Eisenstein articulates and demonstrates each concept carefully, giving readers all the resources they need to learn. He also draws on various economic models from the past, such as Native American gift economies. This broadens the book’s scope and informs the reader’s perspective.
Sacred Economics is a great primer on general economics and a radical exercise in problem-solving. Whether or not you agree with Eisenstein’s editorial positions, you’ll find his writing engaging and his proposals thought-provoking.
Check out our list of the top business books on the market to discover more amazing reads.
- AuthorCharles Eisenstein
- PublisherNorth Atlantic Books
- Copyright Year2011 (Updated 2021)
- Available FormatsKindle, Hardcover
- Print Length444 Pages
Clear, memorable writing
Written by the topic expert
Sometimes bogs down in history or jargon
As a TV series, The Walking Dead’s extreme success is predicated on its characters: the zombie-apocalypse epic is meant to make us reflect on ourselves, more so than scare us. The Walking Dead comics, by Robert Kirkman, display that approach convincingly. Published in 2004 (predating the show by 6 years), The Walking Dead, Volume 1: Days Gone Bye is a tour de force in simplistic art and time-tested storytelling, suitable for any comics nerd or fan of the show.
Days Gone Bye’s storyline is soap opera-worthy but genuine. (Note: spoilers ahead! Skip to next paragraph to avoid). A small-town cop protagonist awakens from a coma to a shocking new reality; searching for his missing wife and son, he finds them under the care of his old partner; eventually, we learn that the partner has fallen in love with his wife during his absence, and a jealous lover’s duel ensues, leading to the death of the partner at the hands of the son.
While the plot of this graphic novel for adults is amusingly maudlin, the action is directly relatable. Every character lands with real emotion. Their fear, hope, jealousy, and even humdrum normalcy are palpable as they debate what to do next, grapple with the unknown, perform chores around camp, and try to survive zombie attacks.
Oh, yeah, then there’s that — the zombie killing. Days Gone Bye’s violence is visceral, well-drawn (as is the whole volume), and often abrupt. Penciller/inker Tony Moore renders strikingly emotive characters from simple templates and stages them in vast expanses that contract claustrophobically when the “walkers” close in. The artwork displays comic mastery, generating an immersive experience with utilitarian yet detailed drawings.
Days Gone Bye collects the series’ first six issues, of 193 total. Unfortunately, Moore only draws those first six, and the art in the rest of the series labors a bit under typical gore-heavy comic noir. The story begins to stray from its initial simplicity; the dialogue gets more profane and the action more performatively sexual.
Still, I devoured 24 issues in an afternoon (and I’m not even a TWD fan). The Walking Dead: Days Gone Bye is a profound collection for comic lovers. For fans of the show or those who love tracing a story’s thread through its characters, the whole series is worthwhile.
- AuthorRobert Kirkman
- ArtistsTony Moore and Charlie Adlard
- PublisherImage Comics
- Copyright Year2004
- Available FormatsKindle, Library Binding, Paperback
- Print Length146 Pages
Simplistic, emotive art
Sparse but well-placed jokes
Will keep you up all night binge-reading
Gets watered down in later volumes
Do you want to read a book about food and nutrition that doesn’t exist for the sole purpose of selling you a diet? Me too. Consider The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Science books for nerds don’t get much more on-target; Michael Pollan’s excavation of human nutrition is as enlightening as it is unbiased.
Pollan traces nutrition to humanity’s ancestors in an attempt to reconcile the dietary confusion that hounds the developed world (and especially America). Our cultural impulse is to lurch between aggressively-marketed fad diets that demonize and eliminate certain nutrients or food groups while often completely misunderstanding (or being led to misunderstanding) the nutritional principles behind the diet. Even more disenfranchising, Pollan argues, is the industrialized, monocropping food system we collectively labor under.
Seeking provable and archetypal nutrition, Pollan explores the spectrum of our nutritional choices through four meals — beginning with fast food and ending with a plate he fully hunts and gathers himself from his home region.
The Omnivore’s Dilemma is a fascinating and thorough (sometimes exhaustive) treatise on nutrition and food systems as we know them. If you’re interested in nutrition but frustrated by “diet” firewalls, this book is for you.
(I also encourage interested readers to check out This is Your Mind on Plants, available in July 2021 — in it, Pollan explores the social connotations and physiological effects of opium, coffee, and mescaline. I’ll be picking up my copy for…research purposes.)
- AuthorMichael Pollan
- Copyright Year2006
- Available FormatsKindle, Audiobook, Hardcover, Paperback, Audio CD
- Print Length468 Pages
Tangents and sidebars can be long
Roald Dahl was a venerated master of young adult and children’s fiction. His novella Fantastic Mr. Fox is a clever, layered narrative. His novella Fantastic Mr. Fox is a nice book for nerds of all ages. On the surface, about a fox family outsmarting a group of cruel farmers. However, one layer below is an allegory about greed versus generosity and scarcity versus abundance.
Three cruel farmers, Boggis, Bunce, and Bean, try desperately to kill Mr. Fox, who “steals” a nominal amount of food from their farms each night for his family. Of course, there’s actually plenty of food for the farmers and the Fox family to coexist symbiotically — it’s just that the farmers would rather kill the Foxes. Boggis, Bunce, and Bean are megalomaniacs: their obsession with their own material superiority makes them senselessly violent.
(Spoilers ahead; skip next paragraph.)
The text, in fact, gets pretty graphic: “‘I’ll pick him up with my bucket!’ shouted Bunce. ‘I’ll chop him to pieces!’” Heart-wrenching fear grips the Foxes, especially Mr. Fox’s children. The farmers eventually abandon their livelihoods, allocating all their resources toward annihilating Mr. Fox and his family.
But Mr. Fox has a daring plan to undermine his terrifying (yet short-sighted) overlords.
Fantastic Mr. Fox reads with childlike mischief but delivers a cutting indictment of greed. It’s a bite-sized offering for book lovers of all ages by a modern master of fiction.
- AuthorRoald Dahl
- ArtistQuentin Blake
- Copyright Year1970
- Available FormKindle, Audiobook/CD, Hardcover, Paperback
- Print Length81 Pages
Suits readers of all ages
Contains cunning social allegory
Depicts some animal violence
Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller pull the rabbit out of the hat — or, they try to demonstrate how ESPN pulled the rabbit out of the hat — with the 785-page Those Guys Have All the Fun: Inside the World of ESPN. The titanic chronicle follows the network’s journey from a hare-brained startup to “The Worldwide Leader” through a fascinating collection of interviews with employees.
Those Guys Have All the Fun is a must-read book for any sports geek. It all started when a father and son got fired from their jobs as minor-league hockey announcers in 1979. As legend has it, Bill Rasmussen took out a $9,000 credit card advance and coaxed what would become ESPN out of it.
Those Guys Have All the Fun is the primary-resource chronicle of the company’s history. Shales and Miller source 550 past and current employees as they explore ESPN’s development far and wide, unveiling a culture in which “partying is a varsity sport.”
So is reading Those Guys Have All the Fun fun? It promises to be entertaining if a bit of an achievement: rags-to-riches beginnings, a harrowing tale of survival in the capitalist media jungle, and legends of debauchery, excess, and deadlines miraculously met.
Settle in, folks! This one’s gonna take a while.
Please take a moment to browse our list of the best-selling self-help books, as well, for more interesting titles like this.
- AuthorTom Shales and James Andrew Miller
- Copyright Year1970
- Available FormatsKindle, Audiobook, Hardcover, Paperback, Audio CD
- Print Length785 Pages
Massive archive of primary resources
Inside details of unlikely true story
Accounts of spectacularly foul behavior
Long; saturates into self-congratulation by end
How I Chose Each Book
Choosing the top books for geeks and nerds was the hardest part of putting this review together. At one point, my editor-in-chief rejected an entire ten-book list with a note that said, “you can’t just pick them according to what you [expletive] like!” I swallowed my instinct to retaliate, mainly because I realized he was right.
If this was going to be a buying guide of books for geeks and nerds, it had to include, in a sense, every geek and nerd. Thus, I retooled my approach.
The guide now includes a wide variety of books from all over the spectrum of the internet — that is, human experience. It also includes various formats: a biography, a collection of published articles, a series of graphic novels, etc.
Why You Should Trust This Guide
This is straightforward: to me, there are thousands (perhaps millions) of terrible books for every good one. I am a university-educated literary snob at heart. I spent 2007-2011 writing essays on books by everyone from heavyweight contemporaries (Jonathan Franzen, Toni Morrison) to classic masters (F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway) to the world’s archetypal storytellers (Homer, Shakespeare).
In short, this guide to books for geeks and nerds is written by a book geek/nerd.
Things to Consider
Before you pick up a book, make sure you’re interested in its topic. That may sound idiotically simple, but consider that the more a book’s content excites you, the less its style can annoy you. This can count for a lot.
For instance, I personally found that the cadence of Notorious RBG was occasionally labored. Its voice sometimes bland; good thing I’m so compelled by Justice Ginsburg that I didn’t care and read on anyway.
On the other side of the coin, a book’s style can overshadow its subject. Anyone who reads Ulysses by James Joyce or The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner is aware of this phenomenon. In each of those books, the narrative functions as a receptacle for the author’s voice. That method ostensibly gives the author more freedom to experiment with style. In this case, it’s far more important that you can withstand the style than that you’re interested in the story.
So, that self-contradiction said, I’m just saying: consider it.
How I Tested Each Book
Well, I read them. That’s the easy way to say I read them objectively. My personal biases are not out of the picture, but they are largely self-contained. I tried to evaluate each book from a balanced perspective and withhold assumptions about my audience.
From there, it was a matter of reading. And highlighting.
Features to Look for in Books for Geeks and Nerds
The best books for geeks and nerds are specific. Grocery-store drek-like novels by Dean Koontz or John Grisham are not going to engage the higher intellect. To find books that satisfy a deeper curiosity, you’re going to have to think outside the box.
Look for masters of category and well-researched nonfiction. Gravitate toward authority. Example: Say you want to nerd out on the magic. Instead of settling on Harry Potter, seek out a book by someone practicing magic, like Damien Echols.