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the island of conclusions

December talking meme: Non-Fiction

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December talking meme: Non-Fiction

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destina asked me for my seven favorite non-fiction books, which was a great question, though it turned out to be hard narrowing it down! I’m sure not sure these are my seven absolute favorites—I’ll probably remember something the minute I post this—but these are the seven(non-work) books I remember loving right now (many of them pretty recent).

For a long time the only kind of non-fiction book I really liked was biography and autobiography. I remember reading those “biographies for little kids” of people like Marie Curie and Louis Pasteur when I was really young. I still primarily enjoy books that have the story of a person or people at the center. That means I’m drawn to memoir, personal essays and biography, although with the caveat that I like those genres when they look outward and say something about history, culture or science. Conversely, I usually dislike books that purport to be about something else—history, culture or science—and end up telling us more about the writer than they do about the subject (though not always: I did like Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks).

So, in rough order of publication.

1. The Autobiography of Malcom X, by Malcolm X and Alex Haley (1965).

I was assigned this in high school, and it made a big impression on me. Most books kids and teens get assigned are so ingratiating—they want to be liked, and they want to leave you feeling righteous and cozy. Malcolm X clearly did care what a white teenage girl like me thought about him; in fact, he would probably have disliked me, if he had any time for me at all. It was bracing and compelling. I also remember really liking Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings in middle school, but Malcolm X’s descriptions of urban racism (partly in Boston, where I lived) struck closer to home. I haven’t re-read the book since—I wonder how it would read now. I had a similar experience in college with Franz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth.

Two other biographies that had a big impact on me as a teenager and college student were John Keats, by Walter Jackson Bate (1979), for obvious Romantic and romantic reasons, and The Nightmare of Reason: A Life of Franz Kafka, by Ernst Pawel (1984), for its insights into Eastern European Jewish culture between the wars.

2. My Own Country, by Abraham Verghese (1994).

This is a perfect example of a memoir that really tells a story about a whole community at a particular moment in history. Verghese was a young infectious disease specialist in rural Johnson City, TN at the beginning of the AIDS epidemic. He cared for men and women who were coming home, very sick, because they had nowhere else to go. He had no cure or treatments to offer them. What’s interesting about the narrative is the way it examines Verghese’s own experience as an exile of sorts, looking for a place to call home (he’s of Indian descent, but raised in Ethiopia) in relation to those of the people he treats.

3. Complications: A Surgeon’s Notes on an Imperfect Science, by Atul Gawande.

Not even necessarily this particular book, actually, but putting Gawande on my list as one of my favorite non-fiction writers. He’s so good at dissecting complex issues, and bringing them to life with anecdotes, and so consistently humane and fair-minded. I’m still digesting his most recent book, Being Mortal.

4. The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey, by Candice Millard (2006).

About Roosevelt’s quest to map one of the tributaries of the Amazon, after he’d lost his bid for a third presidential term. Just a great story, especially if you like jungles and exploration. Millard also creates a really compelling emotional arc, about Roosevelt’s relationship with his eldest son, who accompanied him on the journey, and his partnership with the Brazilians who accompanied him. Millard’s other book Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Medicine and the Murder of a President (2011)(about the assassination of James Garfield) is also terrific. I think I read she’s writing about Winston Churchill next; I will definitely be reading it.

5. The Good Soldiers, by David Finkel. (2009).

A kind of group biography about an army battalion in Baghdad during Bush’s “Surge” in 2007. This is not Generation Kill. It’s an incredibly scary and moving account of urban warfare. Also one of the saddest books I’ve ever read, surpassed only, perhaps, by Finkel’s recent follow-up book, Thank You For Your Service (2013), which follows the same group of men as they try to recover from wartime injuries in the US.

6. Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory, and the Conquest of Everest>, by Wade Davis (2011).

Another amazing group biography—not just of Mallory, but of all the men on the 1920s Everest expeditions—that illuminates a whole era and not just one, but two cultures: English not-quite-yet-post-colonial, and Tibetan. It has some of the best descriptions of trench warfare I’ve ever read, plus Bloomsbury culture, and the Tibetan understanding of the natural world. It has some longueurs, sure, but well worth persisting to the tragic end.

7. Men We Reaped: A Memoir, by Jessmyn Ward (2013).

I’m not sure favorite is the right word here, but this is the book I read this year that’s haunted me the most. Yet another group biography, of five African-American men in Ward’s life who died young, ending with the death of her own brother. It tells the story of the women in her family, too, which I found equally, if not more, devastating. Given that I read this in June, and we’ve been living in the aftermath of Ferguson since August, I think about it all the time.

Books that almost made the list: Testament of Youth, by Vera Brittain; Retribution: The Battle for Japan 1944-1945, by Max Hastings (2007); The Suicide Index: Putting My Father’s Death in Order, by Joan Wickersham (2008); and Defiance: The Bielski Partisans by Nechama Tec (1994)


So there you go: war, race and medicine. My obsessions, let me show them to you.

I'd love to hear what your favorites are, too!
  • Ooooh, this is AWESOME. Thank you so much for taking the time to list these out! I'm going to go look them all up - the closest I come to having any of them is that I've picked up Gawande's Being Mortal.

    Your obsessions and mine don't really overlap, per se, but I do love history, and thus I do read a fair amount of war tomes - tho usually nothing after WW II, because recent history is not as compelling to me (not enough time for proper perspective, yet).
    • Being Mortal is absolutely worth reading, though it's a pretty steep curve getting into it--I, anyway had to overcome a lot of "but I don't want to hear about that." But he ends up including so many accounts of meaningfulness (if that's a word) in end-of-life experiences, that it's an oddly consoling book. Instructive, too, about how to talk about difficult issues.

      I was thinking as I wrote the list that our obsessions don't really overlap--sorry--but thanks for giving me the opportunity to think about these books. (my own research interests are pre-nineteenth-century--maybe because of that, I tend to read about things after 1850 for pleasure.)
  • Thanks for sharing these. I'm reading a Max Hastings book about WW 1 right now.
    • Hastings is a good writer, isn't he? I just saw my library has the audiobook of the WWI book and was thinking of listening. How is it?
  • I read The Good Soldiers earlier this year, based, I think, on your post about it. Sad is right; I haven't had Thank You for Your Service in me yet.

    Both the Millard books sound great!
    • Thank You For Your Service is, if anything, even sadder--and a real indictment of mental health care in this country, generally. But Finkel still writes with so much compassion that it's worth reading, if hard going.

      The Millard books are SOOO good. I love books about the Amazon, so I assumed I'd like that one. But I had no preexisting interest in James Garfield, and I was still engrossed.
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