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A Gift Guide for Well-Read Engineers (and Others!)

This is a story that I wrote for the magazine I work for in my real life, a trade magazine for design engineers. Since the story is full of great books — many that I’ve recommended to people who are not engineers — I decided to post it here too. You can read the article in its original form here (and as a bonus, see my silly editorial headshot).

Engineers ‘Just Think Differently’

It’s hard to find presents for engineers. If you need help, here’s PD&D’s holiday guide to great books for even the pickiest design engineer.

By Kim Ukura, Associate Editor, PD&D

One of the biggest challenges I face every holiday season is finding a gift for my dad, a electrical engineer for a medical device company. I was talking to my dental hygienist last week, and she admitted to having trouble coming up with gifts for her husband, another engineer. “They just think differently,” she said.

But, I think a great book can be a present for anyone, even the pickiest engineer. Plus, I’m one of those people that becomes irrationally enthused when asked for book recommendations – and even more excited when I can write a blog on the topic. I can’t tell if my co-workers and friends find my excessive book chatter annoying or charming, but either way they seem to accept it calmly.

That said, I’m excited to present a list of book suggestions for the engineer in your life, or some suggestions that you engineers can pass along to befuddled friends and relatives not sure how to pick out the perfect gift.

(I use the term “guy” frequently, but in the general sense, not that these recommendations are just for men.)

For the Big Idea Guy: Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From could be the best or worst gift for the Big Idea Guy in your life. The book looks at innovation over the course of human history, trying to figure out what causes a good idea to happen. This might give your Big Idea Guy inspiration, or just fan the flames of upcoming bad ideas he/she thinks are good.

For the Couch-Surfing Adventurer: Last year over Christmas, my dad became obsessed with Everest: Beyond the Limit, a Discovery Channel reality TV show about the yearly attempts to climb the great mountain. Inspired by his obsession, I bought him a copy of Jon Krakauer’s book Into Thin Air, a narrative nonfiction account of one of the deadliest seasons on Everest. My dad isn’t normally a reader, but he polished off the book in about a week (or said he read it before he gave it back to me, I can’t be sure which one).

When I mentioned this anecdote to my editor, he also recommended Ed Viesturs’ memoir, No Shortcuts to the Top, about Viesturs quest to climb 14 of the world’s highest peaks. He described it as a little drier than Krakauer, but still a good adventure tale.

If the chill of mountain climbing isn’t quite right, another solid adventure story to think about is The Lost City of Z by David Grann, the story of legendary explorer Percy Harrison Fawcett’s fatal quest to find a lost civilization in the Amazon. However, this book isn’t recommended if you’re at all squeamish about snakes, tropical diseases, or other giant bugs.

For the Cynical Cube Jockey: Every office has a coworker or two that’s down on their cube and cynical about the corporate world. For them, I recommend the newest compilation of Dilbert cartoons, I’m Tempted to Stop Acting Randomly by Scott Adams.

For the Tinkerer: I’ve already blogged about William Kamkwamba’s memoir, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, but can’t resist putting it on the list again. If you have a chronic tinkerer in your life, a friend that other people think are just a little bit odd, I’m confident they’ll find a kindred spirit in Kamkwamba’s story.

For the Sports Fan: The Renegade Sportsman by Zach Dundas combines a love of sports with a love of the DIY, looking at the world of nontraditional sports that are leagues away from stadiums and diva athletes. These grassroots athletes are unpredictable, fun, and pretty entertaining.

For the Chronic Hypochondriac: If there’s one book that’s sure to both fascinate and terrify that one person in the office who panicked about H1N1 last year, its Siddhartha Mukherjee’s biography of cancer, The Emperor of All Maladies. Mukherjee’s book looks at the origins of cancer, then the research and breakthroughs that have led to the most common treatments we use today. I also recommend this book for anyone in your office who frequently gets caught chatting about last night’s episode of House or Grey’s Anatomy at the water cooler.

For the Dad: Engineers can make great dads, especially when they instill a love of hacking to their kids from a young age. Ken Denmead, editor of the blog GeekDad, gives some of his best DIY projects for techie dads in the book Geek Dad: Awesomely Geeky Projects and Activities for Dads and Kids to Share. With projects from a working lamp made with LEGOs and CDs or the “Best Slip n’ Slide Ever,” this could be a great gift for the dorky dad you know.

For the Music Lover: If you’ve got an engineering friend that never takes off the headphones and is always going on about classic rock or the newest indie band, Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad could be right up their alley. This collection of interrelated short stories starts in contemporary New York with music producer Bennie Salazar and his kleptomaniac assistant Sasha, then travels back and forth in time telling stories about tangentially related characters, connected by music, rebellion, and friendship. It sounds artsy, I know, but it’s really good.

For the Non-Reader: Some people don’t like to read, and I guess that’s ok. Lame, but ok. But if you want to force a little reading time into their life, I suggest a magazine subscription. One of my favorite tech geek/awesome magazines is Wired, which mixes short quirky pieces with some of the best narrative journalism being written today.

Do you have other engineers in your life that you need book recommendations for? Leave some telling details about them in the comments or send an e-mail for customized book recommendations. Trust me, it’ll make my day.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Erin December 21, 2010, 8:56 pm

    Oh man, I could’ve used this a few days ago when I was shopping for my brother! He’s just gotten his masters in mechanical engineering and is impossible to shop for. He’s just getting back into reading after many years away and told me he’d like novels for Christmas. I only know he adored City of Thieves by David Benioff…that’s all I had to go on! If you happen to have any suggestions for that puzzle, I’d love to hear them and would happily apply them to my brother’s birthday 🙂

    • Kim December 22, 2010, 8:23 pm

      Erin: Hmmm, that’s a tough one! Maybe The Book Thief? I don’t read a lot of WWII stuff, so I’m not sure.

  • Jen - Devourer of Books December 22, 2010, 9:50 am

    Ooh, WHERE GOOD IDEAS COME FROM would have been a good call for my husband, maybe he needs that for his birthday. I got him THE BLACK SWAN: THE IMPACT OF THE HIGHLY IMPROBABLE instead.

    • Kim December 22, 2010, 8:24 pm

      Jen: Oo, that one sounds good. I haven’t read Where Good Ideas Come From, but it’s sitting on my shelf right now.

  • Jeanne December 22, 2010, 6:21 pm

    Steven Johnson’s Everything Bad Is Good for You is also a good book for the technophile, although it’s older. Ron has also liked everything he’s read by Steven Pinker, and The Black Swan (the one mentioned in the previous comment).

    • Kim December 22, 2010, 8:25 pm

      Jeanne: I have readEverything Bad is Good for You, and liked it a lot. I think it’d be a good book for people who like to argue, too.

  • Care December 25, 2010, 10:49 am

    I need to check out Wired. Thanks for the excellent tips.

    • Kim December 27, 2010, 11:13 am

      Care: I love Wired. I’m like 4 issues behind, but I am going to catch up, some time. I just don’t know when! I probably should start going to the gym again – that’s when I got them read a lot.