I’m endlessly fascinated by experts. Men and women who are so obsessed with developing a certain skill that they devote vast portions of their lives toward one specific activity.
Sometimes the sought-after skill takes the form of a mainstream pastime, such as fishing, hunting, or cooking. But the obsession can also manifest as a harder-to-understand passion, such as the notoriously deadly sport of alpine climbing. Or sometimes, it’s an even more esoteric, inward-facing pursuit, like mindfulness meditation.
True experts are rare, so when I encounter one, I pay attention. I love learning about how and why they do what they do–what drives them, what they sacrifice for their passions, and their long, grinding paths toward expertise.
The books below are written by or about individuals who are the very best at what they do. From catching a world-record tarpon to taming the wildness of your own mind, you will be entertained, intrigued, and impressed by the stories of these one-of-a-kind experts.
by Steven Rinella
Long before rising to fame as a television and podcast superstar, Steven Rinella was a committed hunter with a penchant for top-notch outdoor writing. In American Buffalo, Rinella combines his expertise in both hunting and writing to tell the fascinating story of North America’s most iconic mammal, the bison. Combining natural history with his own real-life Alaskan hunting adventure, American Buffalo will entertain and educate you– and, if you’re like me, it just may start a decade-long obsession with the creature.
BUCK, BUCK, MOOSE: RECIPES AND TECHNIQUES FOR COOKING DEER, ELK, MOOSE, ANTELOPE AND OTHER ANTLERED THINGS
by Hank Shaw
And speaking of hunting North American mammals, practically every one of my hunting-obsessed friends recommends Buck, Buck, Moose as their go-to resource for cooking wild game. Shaw is the master of making potentially complex and intimidating cooking techniques easy and approachable, even to complete novices like me. Whether making bone broth, venison jerky, or braised elk shank, this book offers culinary instruction and inspiration that will add value to even the most experienced wild game cook.
by Pema Chodron
Buddhist nun Pema Chodron wears many hats– she’s a writer, speaker, teacher, and highly regarded spiritual leader. But if I had to describe her true area of expertise, I’d say she is a professional in teaching people like me how to control their minds. Blending ancient Buddhist teachings with modern-day, real-world dilemmas, Chodron offers practical insights and specific tactics for helping people avoid being swept away by their emotions. All of Chodron books are excellent, but Start Where You Are is a perfect entry point into her work– the short, impactful chapters are easy and fun to read, no matter your religious affiliation.
by Mark Twight
Mark Twight was one of the foremost alpinists of the 80s and 90s, climbing the most iconic routes deep in the world’s coldest and most dangerous mountain ranges. He also projected a brash, my-way-or-the-highway demeanor that earned him the nickname “Dr. Doom” in climbing circles. Kiss or Kill is a collection of essays– writings that demonstrate his complete commitment to climbing, his unyielding high standards, and his ability to think deeply on topics such as suffering and achieving goals. If you’re the type of person who seeks out intense-yet-elective suffering in mountain sports, I can almost guarantee you will connect with Twight’s point of view.
by J. Drew Lanham
Dr. Lanham is arguably our country’s most well-known birder– he’s a college professor, conservationist, hunter, writer, and poet. Combining his expertise in all-things birds with his experience as a Black man in America, Sparrow Envy offers a unique, behind-the-scenes look into Lanham’s decades-long fascination with birds. Combining poetry and essays, Lanham effortlessly melds his thoughts around birds, nature, the outdoors, and race into one beautifully written volume that I find myself revisiting often.
by Monte Burke
When it comes to writing about obsessed individuals, there’s no one better than Monte Burke. Lords of the Fly traces the rise of the pursuit of fly fishing for tarpon, a sport that was invented and perfected by a cast of characters consumed by their passion. Some of the tarpon-chasing maniacs were full-time anglers and others were out-of-state businessmen who devoted all of their free time to chasing the prehistoric fish. But the common characteristic among everyone profiled in this book is that each of them wants to be the best– and will go to almost any length to capture and hold that elusive world record.
For more book recommendations from Ed, head over to his blog, Mountain & Prairie.