To explain how the world works, authors have to break down complicated systems—without being boring.
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In the summer of 2018, shortly after I’d moved to Washington, D.C., the city’s water utility sent out a widespread boil-water notice. Looking back now, this wasn’t as alarming as it seemed then—I did as I was told, and the advisory was lifted two days later. But as I griped with my friends and roommates in the first hours after the announcement, I didn’t admit that I wasn’t totally sure what the problem actually was. I thought of myself as an educated and civically engaged person, but the exact process by which clean water made it to my home had rarely crossed my mind. Thanks to the local media, I learned what had happened: A valve had been opened, lowering the system’s pressure and making it possible that contaminated water could have trickled in. That sounds fairly intuitive, but just writing that sentence required a dozen open tabs and a fact-check from my editor. The incident made me wonder what else in my daily life I was taking for granted.
First, here are four new stories from The Atlantic’s Books section:
This week, Chelsea Leu wrote about books that attempt to explain some part of how the modern world works. The titles she chose manage to break down complicated physical systems into understandable parts without becoming horribly boring or painfully technical. Leu observes that ignoring quotidian infrastructure is easy—until it collapses, citing catastrophes such as the 2021 Surfside, Florida, condo-building collapse, and the colossal Ever Given ship getting stuck in the Suez Canal and grinding global shipping to a halt that same year.
Books like these demand a certain agreement between writer and reader. The writer must be a knowledgeable guide as they lead the audience deeper into the topic. When done well, the resulting pages look effortless—but authors need to do a lot of background work to be able to explain difficult concepts in clear terms. (An old bit of editor’s wisdom applies here: Often, journalists who are struggling to draft an article don’t have writer’s block; they’re just not done reporting.) And the reader has to be willing to follow where the book leads, even if they feel overwhelmed or like they’re technically out of their depth. This applies to books about science and technology, like the ones on Leu’s list, but the principle holds for books about other complex, important ideas, such as politics, philosophy, or biology.
I’m working on flexing these muscles with one of the books Leu recommends, Flying Blind, by Peter Robison. It’s an account of the Boeing 737 MAX crashes in 2018 and 2019, but it’s also an audit of how Boeing’s highly respected company culture warped and allowed the tragedies to happen. I’ve developed a little bit of a late-onset fear of flying ever since I spent early 2020 reading magazine articles about aviation disasters, including one in The Atlantic that I cannot bring myself to revisit. But I remain deeply curious about—and awed by—our mastery of planes, “a product now more than a century old, dating to a pair of bicycle makers who hitched a 12-horsepower engine and a chain sprocket to a spruce wooden frame,” as Robison puts it. So I’ll persist, and hopefully come away with a better appreciation of how much we do know about how to fly safely.
Eight Books That Explain How the World Works
What to Read
Cruel Shoes, by Steve Martin
I read this collection when I was 8 years old. The titular story features Anna, a shoe addict. Against the advice of a salesman, she tries on a sadistically designed “hideous pair of black and white pumps.” She forces her feet into them: “One had a right angle turn with separate compartments that pointed the toes in impossible directions. The other shoe was six inches long and was curved inward like a rocking chair with a vise and razor blades to hold the foot in place.” She screams. She pays. She crawls bloody into the street. The stories are short, some scarcely a paragraph long, and the demented vibe of this one is representative. I knew nothing about the author, nor about the surreal comedy he had pioneered in the 1970s. A few years ago, I revisited the collection as an adult. It read as if written during an extended bout of ergot poisoning. It sent my mind in impossible directions, and I recommend it to children of all ages whose sensibilities are ready to be similarly and pleasurably warped. — Graeme Wood
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The Songs that Shaped My Life
Having the Beatles in the world can feel pretty daunting for a musician. Everyone doing what I do knows that the world already has the Beatles. It’s incredibly unlikely that any of us will get anywhere close to their kind of impact. But that doesn’t deter us. Far from it. The Beatles are a shining beacon for every musician to steer toward. They built something whose scale is unattainable for us mortals, but they invited us all into their sandbox—to build with their sand. They encouraged us to think in new shapes.
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