Nov 20, 2013

Non-Fiction November: Playing Favourites

button for Non-Fiction November listing non-fic authors

Lu at Regular Rumination and Kim at Sophisticated Dorkiness are currently hosting Non-Fiction November, a month devoted to… well, it’s pretty self-explanatory, isn’t it? They’ve been coming up with weekly blogging topics and inviting all non-fiction lovers to take part and have their say; although the first the first week of November is long behind us, I wanted to answer Kim’s opening question: “What is your favorite piece of nonfiction? Or, if you can’t pick just one, share several of your best nonfiction reads.”

Reading non-fiction regularly is a more or less recent change in my reading habits that was very much brought about by blogging. Watching people like Eva, Debi or Amy review non-fiction regularly made me go, “Hey, that sounds interesting and fun; I bet I could do it too”. I also have the Non-Fiction Five reading challenge to thank, as it really helped me explore what was out there and discover what is and isn’t for me. Five years later, I really can’t imagine not having a non-fiction book on the go nearly at all times.

It’s probably easy to come across as smug or self-congratulatory when discussing your non-fiction reading habits, as this is a type of reading that the world tends to take more seriously and elevate above all others. I could say that I love how non-fiction allows me to engage with ideas on a deeper level and expand my knowledge outside of formal education, and that would be true — but then again, I fully believe that fiction is just as capable of doing that. I’m grateful for everything that reading non-fiction regularly has added to my life, but most of all I’m grateful for the fact that my education allows me to find a wide range of topics accessible. My background (in both the humanities and the social sciences) makes it easy for me to feel comfortable with a variety of subjects and levels of formality, and over the years I’ve stopped taking this privilege for granted.

This isn’t to say that the same level of comfort can’t be achieved through autodidactism, of course — my point is simply that although the world likes to pretend that people’s attitudes towards non-fiction are a reflection of their intelligence or intellectual seriousness, they’re really much more about what they have or haven’t been exposed to before, and also the time and energy they have available. This last one I’ve been lacking for the past year or so, at least compared to previous periods of my life, and as a result I read non-fiction much more slowly. But because the habit is now so ingrained in my reading life, it’s been easy to keep it up even if at a slower pace. That’s another thing I’m grateful for.

Anyway, what I wanted to share with you today is a list of some of the best non-fiction I’ve read over the last few years. I organised the list using the topics I tend to read in the most, but of course there’s some overlap between them and some more or less arbitrary decisions had to be made (turns out I read a lot of feminist history, and a lot of science-based debunkings of sexism). Without further ado, here are my picks:

Gender, Sexuality and Feminism

Sexual Science by by Cynthia Eagle Russett

  • Delusions of Gender by Cordelia Fine: Of course I have to start with what is possibly my all-time favourite non-fiction title. Fine debunks gender essentialism and pseudoscientific neurosexism with intelligence, grace and wit.

  • Sexual Science by Cynthia Eagle Russett: I was led to this title by the references in Delusions of Gender, and I could see straight away why Cordelia Fine recommended it. Reading Cynthia Eagle Russett helped me put some of the same tensions between scientific research and cultural myths we see today into historical context, and I found that very valuable.

  • Straight by Hanne Blank: Another exercise in contextualisation, this time of the concept of heterosexuality. What seems natural and inevitable and like the default turns out to have, as Blank puts it in the subtitle, a “surprisingly short history”.

  • Virgin: The Untouched History by Hanne Blank: Hanne Blank is awesome enough to deserve two titles in a row. This time, she examines the concept of virginity and points out all the reasons why it’s a cultural construct rather than a physical attribute.

  • Feminism is for Everybody by bell hooks: Does exactly what it says on the label. bell hooks tells us why feminism is relevant in clear and concise terms, and also excels at explaining the importance of taking interesctionality into account.

  • The Mismeasure of Woman by Carol Tavris: This book was really important to me, in part due to the fact that I read it at just the right time. Tavris helped me articulate some of the misgivings I’ve always had about focusing on individuals and lambasting them for not being “strong” enough to overcome unfair social systems on their own, when in reality this is not something we can fairly expect of anyone.

  • Sex Changes: Transgender Politics by Patrick Califia: I’m immensely grateful to Cass for having recommended this to me, as previously to reading it I only had a very dim awareness of feminism’s shameful history when it comes to the inclusion of trans people. A huge blind spot to have, I know, but that’s privilege for you. Califia’s writing is accessible, insightful, and highly informative. I treasure everything I learned from this book.

    Biography, Memoir and Epistolary

    Rosalind Franklin by Brenda Maddox

  • Rosalind Franklin – The Dark Lady of DNA by Brenda Maddox: A moving and revealing biography of biophysicist and crystallographer Rosalind Franklin, highlighting both the ups and the downs of her career.

  • Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes by Mary M Talbot and Bryan Talbot: One of my favourite graphic memoirs, and a fascinating combination of social commentary, literary history and feminism.

  • Letters from a Lost Generation edited by Alan Bishop and Mark Bostridge: This collection of letters between Vera Brittain and four people she lost in the Great War (her brother, her fiancĂ©, and two close friends) is devastating and impossible to put down.

  • Blankets by Craig Thompson: The best graphic memoir I have ever read, and one of my favourite comics ever, period.

  • The Letters of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett: Intimate and as gripping as any novel, these letters allow you to eavesdrop on one of the greatest love stories in literary history as it unfolds.

    Science and Nature

    Cold by Bill Streever

  • Cold by Bill Streever: I can’t seem to be able to stop singing this book’s praises. It’s just the perfect combination of science, nature writing and cultural history.

  • The Madame Curie Complex by Julie des Jardins: An insightful historical analysis of why women have been sidelined in scientific fields. Turns out it’s not because they’re “naturally” less apt. Shocking, I know.

  • Bad Science by Ben Goldacre: I adore this book. Goldacre does a brilliant job of smashing pseudoscience while simultaneously explaining why the scientific method matters, and why we need to understand it rather than just trust that the people in the lab coats know what they’re doing. It’s a plea for the demystification of science and for greater scientific literacy as much as it is anything else, and that makes it close to my heart.

  • Beyond Human Nature by Jesse J. Prinz: I read a lot of debunkings of gender essentialism, but before this I had never read a book that challenged biological essentialism as a whole. Prinz does so with intelligence, nuance, and a detailed understanding of science.

  • Woman: An Intimate Geography by Natalie Angier: Everything you’ve ever wanted to know about the female body, and also about the ways in which our understanding of it has been distorted by the fact that we live in a sexist world.

  • Parasite Rex by Carl Zimmer: This book is just so much fun. Yes, it’s about parasites, but Carl Zimmer is the kind of writer that makes a topic you never knew you were interested in absolutely gripping.

    Literature, Criticism and Media

    What Good Are The Arts? by John Carey

  • What Good are the Arts? by John Carey: John Carey believes that art matters, but he also believes that the discourse surrounding defences of the arts is full of class assumptions we should be interrogating. The combination of these two positions is what makes this book so fascinating.

  • Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste by Carl Wilson: Wilson does for music what Carey does for literature, but both books apply to the arts as a whole. If you’ve ever been frustrated by arts and media debates that end up defaulting to one of two extremes (usually snobbery or anti-intellectualism), these are the books for you.

  • The Magician’s Book by Laura Miller: A perfect blend of memoir and literary criticism, and one of the best books I’ve ever read on the very personal nature of our relationship with literature.

  • The Influencing Machine by Brooke Gladstone: I just love graphic non-fiction so much, and this is a perfect example of why. Gladstone examines our relationship with the media and the tensions between striving for the truth and taking a stance in a smart and accessible way.

  • Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud: Another example of what I said above. If you’ve ever wondered why people (myself included) tend to get impassioned when comics are referred to as a genre rather than a medium or when someone says “I don’t read comics, but I love graphic novels!”, then read this book.

  • The Complete Polysyllabic Spree by Nick Hornby: And the other collections of Hornby’s Believer columns too, of course. I love books about books, and these are the best of them all. Plus, although I’m nowhere near his level, reading Hornby always gives me something to strive for in my own writing about my reading.

  • The Language of the Night by Ursula K. Le Guin: Le Guin turns her considerable intelligence to the role and relevance of fantasy, and completely demolishes genre snobbery in the process.


    A Stranger in the House

  • The Secret Life of Words by Henry Hitchings: I suppose I could have included a linguistics section, but history of language is history too. A fascinating look at how other languages have influenced English vocabulary over the centuries, which also contextualises and puts to rest some contemporary anxieties about the state of the language (for more on that, I recommend Hitching’s equally excellent The Language Wars).

  • Among the Bohemians by Virginia Nicholson: Subtitled “Experiments in Living 1900-1939”, this is a look at how a group of early twentieth-century artists first challenged certain social conventions that is far from romanticised.

  • Stranger in the House by Julie Summers: I love books that examine small pockets of history we don’t tend to focus on exclusively. I’d read a lot about WW2 before this book, but not so much about the personal challenges that the partners, children, parents and other people close to returning soldiers faced once the war was over and people who had seen the unimaginable attempted to resume normal lives.

  • Bluestockings by Jane Robinson: A history of the first generation of women to attend college in Great Britain. What’s not to love?

    1. What a fantastic and comprehensive list! I've been following you long enough that I don't think there are any huge surprises here but I love your book lists so much :D

      I find non-fiction more demanding, but I wish I didn't. I envy people who really love reading it.

    2. Understanding Comics is such a good book! I'm trying to get my daughter to read it. The Complete Polysllabic Spree makes me love Nick Hornby! :-) Fantastic list! I need to read Bad Science soon since you enjoyed it so much.

    3. Thank you thank you for this list! I've been in a miserable reading rut lately, nothing really grabbing my attention. I can't stand lukewarm reading. I was just thinking some nonfiction might make for a good palate cleanser! I'll definitely be checking some of these out. :)

    4. Thank you thank you for this list! I've been in a miserable reading rut lately, nothing really grabbing my attention. I can't stand lukewarm reading. I was just thinking some nonfiction might make for a good palate cleanser! I'll definitely be checking some of these out. :)

    5. I've grown to love nonfiction over the years. I think graphic novels have become a particularly interesting nonfiction storytelling platform recently.

    6. My TBR has just grown by at least a dozen books. At LEAST! This list is absolutely amazing. Thank you so much for participating! I think the one that has stood out for me the most and the one that I keep going back to to read about is COLD. It just sounds so interesting and unique and like you had an amazing experience reading it. STRANGER IN THE HOUSE also sounds amazing and very sad.

      I'm reading Parasite Rex now and I have to agree with you about Blankets and Dotter of Her Father's Eyes.

      Thank you again for joining in. This is an amazing list!

    7. Oh, gosh...TBR explosion! I'm particularly interested in Straight and Bluestockings, but all of these sound amazing.

    8. Hahahaha, dammit, Ana! I added all of these books to my list when you initially reviewed them, but now I feel a renewed sense of urgency to get them ASAP. Also starting on Monday I'm going to have access to an academic library again I AM GOING TO HAVE ACCESS TO AN ACADEMIC LIBRARY AGAIN, plus the fancy speedy interlibrary loan system, so I'm adding nonfiction to my TBR list willy-nilly.

    9. What a great list! "Stranger in the House" sounds like something that I would love--off to check the library to see if they have a copy!

    10. What a wonderful list of books -- thanks for compiling it for us!

    11. Like a few other commenters, I already added a number of these books to my wishlist because of you (and actually have some of them on my TBR shelves!) but now I feel like I should go read them immediately and buy the rest, too. :D Thank you for sharing this list!

    12. Thank you for this incredible list- it will keep me busy for months!

    13. Thanks, everyone - I'm really glad you found the list useful! It was fun to dwell on all these books I enjoyed and to remind myself of other related titles I wanted to read.

    14. Wow, this list is just dangerous from start to finish. Once I'd added a fifth one to my wish list I just knew it was all downhill from there...But uphill too, obviously, with all the knowledge I can consume. Thank you for such an amazing list!

    15. Oh my gosh, I love this post SO MUCH! Of course, this isn't the first I've heard of these books as your reviews already landed them on my wish list. But problems being 1. I seem to have lost my older physical wish list notebook (though I still hope it will turn up) and 2. While I used to be really good about remembering books in my head that I wanted to read, I seem to be losing that skill at a steadily increasing speed over the last few years (I'm telling myself that it's just a matter of my brain being too full of TBR titles and not a matter of my brain aging). Anyway, I'm totally bookmarking this post and then coming back to write these titles down. Thanks so much--this is truly a treasure trove!!!

    16. There are so many books on this list, I don't even know where to start. Well, actually I do. I love your comment in the beginning about being smug or self-congratulatory about reading nonfiction. It's interesting to think about that, since the nonfiction that tend to love are books that have many of the best pieces of fiction (plot, characters, scenes, etc.). So nonfiction never feels "harder" or "more serious" that fiction to me, just good stories in a different framework. One of my smaller hopes for the month was that seeing people write about great nonfiction stories would help nonfiction feel less intimidating for people who don't read it regularly.


    Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.