Week 4: (Nov. 18 to 22) – Nonfiction Favorites (Leann @ Shelf Aware): We’ve talked about how you pick nonfiction books in previous years, but this week I’m excited to talk about what makes a book you’ve read one of your favorites. Is the topic pretty much all that matters? Are there particular ways a story can be told or particular writing styles that you love? Do you look for a light, humorous approach or do you prefer a more serious tone? Let us know what qualities make you add a nonfiction book to your list of favorites.
For me to select a nonfiction book to read, I think it’s mostly determined by the topic, first of all. If I am remotely curious about whatever the subject of the book may be, then you can probably bet that I’ll take a second closer look at the volume.
(And you know – this can happen even if I’m not that taken by the subject, but then it’s totally dependent on how the back-cover blurb + the first page (+ any notable reviews) read. If one (or more) or a combination of all those hit the target and still sound interesting (and well-written), then I’ll be even more interested than otherwise. And sometimes it’s none of those things! 😉 )
But then again, let me add this caveat that sometimes it’s a topic that I didn’t know that I was curious about and yet I STILL finish a book on it. For example, who would have thought that one of the most interesting books that comes to mind from the last few years was one that examines the phenomenon of the Baby Beanie craze that took over the country a few years back?
(The book is called The Great Beanie Baby Bubble: Mass Delusion and the Dark Side of Cute by Zac Bissonette (2015).)
I didn’t collect Baby Beanies; didn’t own any Beanie Babies; hadn’t even thought about Beanie Babies for YEARS and yet, heard about this title, picked it up and found it to be fascinating. (And I’m still thinking about it years later!)
I’m not even sure how I tracked down this title in the first place, but I would bet that I read about it on someone else’s blog and then found it at the library. But who would know that this title even existed without those? I wouldn’t have.
So perhaps it’s a combination of all those factors listed earlier (the blurb + the first page + notable reviews + non-prof review of someone I trust re: reading)?
If anyone had ever asked me if I would be interested in learning the details and history of the Beanie Babies, my hand would not have been raised to say yes, and yet, it was actually one of my most intriguing and memorable reads that I can remember in recent memory. Go figure.
On a slightly different note, another NF book that blew my mind and sent me down tons of other rabbit holes since I read it in 2011: Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire’s Slaves (2011) by Adam Hochschild.
An amazingly well-written and well-organized read about the worldwide slave trade history and the efforts of a small group of men to end slavery in the British Empire (with ripples that crossed the globe afterwards), this was perhaps part of the catalyst that brought to my mind my ongoing interest in the African-American experience.
(I’m really interested in the experiences of other disenfranchised groups, so I’ll be learning more about them at some point.This just happened to be first.)
A finalist for the 2005 National Book Award in NonFiction, this title rather opened the door and pulled me in to educate me on the history of the slave trade, which, in turn, led me to become very interested in race, diversity, bias and the other buzzwords flowing across campuses right now.
Learning more about this part of history then pushed me to start reading slave memoirs and autobiographies (such as 12 Years a Slave and The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass or perhaps Ain’t I a Woman? by Sojourner Truth…)
Which then led me on to more recent history such as the Civil Rights Movement, desegregation/resegregation, the Great Migration, and right on up until we reach the various discussions about race and POC topics that make up part of today’s conversation.
(I would also say that another influence on this diversity interest would be the current U.S. administration and its disdain for anyone who’s not a rich white man. But that could be a whole other conversation, couldn’t it?)
In fact, I became so interested in this subject that it was one of the big reasons that I traveled to Memphis last Spring to learn more about the Civil Rights Movement there, to visit the Lorraine Motel and the National Civil Rights Museum, and to walk down Beale Street. (Beale Street is a real-life place but is also the title of a book: If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin (pub. 1974), plus it’s been released as a remake as a movie…)
(Another reason for the Memphis visit was to visit Graceland and other Elvis-related places. Interestingly, Elvis’ life and music were very influenced by the African-American experience, but again, that’s a whole other rabbit hole…)
Back to the topic at hand: which other qualities do I look for in a good NF read? Well, I need to find the topic appealing in some way. I’m also learning that I’d like it to be really well-written, well-organized, quite academic in how its research is cited and with a long bibliography at the end. (More books! Give me more!)
And if you could also throw in an occasional mention of some dry sense of humor – witty, clever without being condescending – then I’ll definitely read it.
And — I usually try to find a topic that’s pretty different from whatever I’ve just been reading about in my previous NF read, just to keep things interesting (unless I’m on a kick on one area in particular, in which case I might read more of the same).
(I’m very consistent in being inconsistent. 🙂 )
So – what about you? Let me know what you think. I am having a lot of fun visiting lots of other similar-minded people’s blogs!
If you’re curious what other slightly-random topic reads I’ve read about, you might like to check the following reviews:
- Black Women of the Old West – William Loren Katz
- Columbine – Dave Cullen
- The Fifties: Oral Women’s History – Brett Harvey
- The Great Starvation Experiment – Todd Tucker
- The Great Train Robbery – Michael Crichton
- No Idle Hands: A Social History of Knitting – Anne L. McDonald
- Venus with Biceps: A Pictorial History of Muscular Women – David L. Chapman and Patricia Vertinsky
- Elvis Presley: The Reluctant Rebel – Glen Jeannsome, David Luhrsson and Dan Solokovic
- The Lady and the Panda – Vicki Constantine Croke
- A Kim Jong Il Production: The Extraordinary True Story of a Kidnapped Filmmaker, his Star Actress and a Young Dictator’s Rise to Power – Paul Fischer
- The Dead Beat – Marilyn Johnson
- Envelopes: A Puzzling Journey Through the Royal Mail – Harriet Russell
- Once Upon a Quinceneara – Julie Alvarez
- Pledged: The Secret Life of Sororities – Alexandra Robbins
- The Snowflake: Winter’s Secret Beauty – Kenneth Kibbrecht and Patricia Rassmussen
- Sweetness and Light: The Mysterious History of the Honey Bee – Hattie Ellis
- And there’s even more listed on this page…
For the other nonfiction November posts, check out these:
- NF November Week 1: The NF Reading so far…
- NF November Week 2: NF/F Pairing
- NF November Week 3: Expertise
- NF November Week 4: Your NF Favorites
Many thanks to the hosts: