You may have encountered William Manchester’s A World Lit Only By Fire: The Medieval Mind and the Renaissance in a high-school reading list (I have a dim memory of finding it under the ‘Suggested Reading’ section of a European history syllabus myself) or any number of pop-history endcaps in a Waterstones or Barnes and Noble over the last 30 years.
This is an emotional reaction: there's a weird (to me) argument that pops up in arguments about late antiquity about if it "felt like" the Western empire fell. And like... there's a lot of nuance in thin slices of time/space/level of society/etc., but people know when they've lost access to trade networks and physical security their grandparents enjoyed, right?
In olden days a pot of garum
Wasn't so harum-scarum
But Jesu knows
Now anything goes
In olden days the Rhine frontier
Kept Germans from getting nearer
But then it froze
I am an air traffic controller, and there are no popular written works about my profession. But if I could eradicate Pushing Tin and Airplane from the movie universe, I would.
Physics: Brian Greene's The Elegant Universe. It seemed like everyone read it when it came out in 1999 and suddenly had a Lot of Thoughts About String Theory and Quantum Mechanics without having learned an ounce of either. One of those books where, when someone learns you're a physicist, will lead them to announce, "Ooh, I just read X, what do you think about it?" to an inevitable groan.
Lexicography: Simon Winchester. First the Professor and the Madman sensationalized something tiny and minor and sad in a field woven with more interesting stories, and then The Meaning of Everything retrod ground already covered more insightfully & intimately by people closer to the work.
Linguists by and large hate The Language Instinct, a work of Chomskyist propaganda that I nonetheless credit solely with introducing me to the field.
The Hero with a Thousand Faces and Joseph Campbell generally. I majored in religion as an undergrad, and spent a spring break watching a Joseph Campbell marathon with another religion major. I was SO geeked to tell my professors ALL ABOUT IT and the look of pain on their faces was something I will never forget. I have encountered professors in fields outside of religion and folklore—English lit, mostly—who still talk about monomyth and "the hero's journey." Now I am the one with a pained look on my face...
In the field of Tolkien scholarship, our Manchester is David Day, a guy who wrote a collection of companion books to Tolkien's works and is known for just making shit up and presenting it authoritatively. He created a wildly inaccurate map and just generally invented a lot of details with no basis in Tolkien's writings. It feels like he just assumed nobody would check.
Thankfully he's not doing any actual harm by inventing details to add to middle-earth, but my god is it annoying that he passes his intentions off as canon.
His books are real accessible and fun though. At least one of them is illustrated by Alan Lee, and I don't expect the popularity of his writings to diminish much if ever.
Wild, by Cheryl Strayed. I'm a serious, (even professional, maybe?) long distance hiker, and I have to say that within the thru-hiking community it probably rises to the same level of iconic dislike. I actually enjoyed the book when I read it, but here's the thing - she didn't thru-hike. It wasn't her goal, she didn't go in with a thru-hiker's mindset, she didn't have a thru-hike experience, and the book is not actually *about* hiking so much as it's about her relationship with her mother. And to her credit, she doesn't claim the book is about a thru-hike either, but if you mention that you're a hiker to anyone not in the community (particularly if you're a young woman), the first thing out of their mouth is, "Oh, like Wild?"
No. Not like Wild! The opposite of that! I actually know what I'm doing, and I'm hiking because I enjoy the sport.
Bill Bryson's "A Walk in the Woods" mostly escapes the scorn, I think because a) Appalachian Trail people are a different breed, b) it's older and didn't inspire so many unprepared copycats, and c) he was obviously so terrible at it that nobody would assume you're following his example. He didn't elide the difference between a section hike and a thru-hike to the same extent, and also it's easier to get away with being a dilletante on AT. The PCT starts in the desert, and if you're unprepared you can irreparably damage the delicate environment and also possibly die. I'm heading southbound this year for my second PCT, specifically to escape the hordes of baby hikers who don't know how to dig a proper cathole.
As somebody who studied cognitive science, and specifically linguistics, at Johns Hopkins -- the home of "optimality theory", which has a grounding in the idea that the "rules" of a language will have a neural basis, and hence we might expect different language features to interact in ways that reinforce or suppress other features -- Stephen Pinker's transition from "The Language Instinct" (which is a quite good introduction to what linguistics _is_) to "Words and Rules" (which is drastically over-confident, and almost certainly wrong) is certainly disappointing. (And then his sister is a big proponent of the idea that male and female brains are somehow wildly different. Most serious cognitive scientists will tell you that Cordelia Fine's Delusions of Gender is a much better summary of the science on that.)
Reality is Broken by Jane McGonigal. It was a pop culture sensation and I don’t know a single game developer who agrees with a word of it.
Also a medievalist and I have a lot of books that maybe don't rise to the level of Manchester but I feel similarly about. Huizinga's Waning of the Middle Ages--this idea of the "childlike" middle ages and the application of recapitulation theory to history, which is fundamentally rooted in 19th century scientific racism, just makes me want to scream. I don't know how many people are reading Huizinga these days but I think his ideas persist among non-specialists even in adjacent fields who are just unaware of the racism that in my view is inseparable from them. And then Norbert Elias, for example, seems to draw pretty heavily on Huizinga's account of the violence and immediacy of the Middle Ages, which is a problem. And don't even get me started on Steven Pinker's fatuous little book.
But also, Huizinga via John Gardner's Life and Times of Geoffrey Chaucer was hugely influential on 14-year-old medievalist me, and the idea of a world where there was no loneliness or alienation, like no *possibility* of loneliness even, was so achingly seductive. I don't think I would have become the medievalist I did without that drawing me in. And the way that the Middle Ages gets so bizarrely othered (those weirdos with no sense of time! they're not like us!) actually made it feel like a long-lost home to me, and a place to think through my own sense of alterity, and one that was available to me in a way that other frameworks for approaching that were just not for a pre-teen in the 90s. I think medievalism does some really interesting things for queer kids grappling with queerness, or at least did when I was coming along. So I do understand why accounts like Huizinga's have such staying power.
i don't really have a field, but a ways back i read Barbara Tuchmann's "Guns of August" and was raving on twitter about how much it ruled and was immediately slapped down in the comments by multiple *real* WWI historians quick to tell me why i wasted my time.
I am several weeks late, but my field is human genetics. Does Jesse Singal count? heh