For years, I’ve really struggled to get into the genre of non-fiction. I’ve really just never thought much about it, to be honest. Although I love books that tell a beautiful story, I also really enjoy action/fantasy books with a lot of creativity, and those are far and few between in the non-fiction genre. However, after being on a book judging committee this year for my university, I began to read a lot of the non-fiction options… and fell in love. They still don’t capture me as much as fiction books do, admittedly, but I would be lying if I said I didn’t leave almost every non-fiction book reading experience without a strange sense of fulfillment, both for venturing out of my comfort zone and for being inspired by the story within. For my first #TopTenTuesday, I wanted to feature some of my favorites that I’ve read recently. They’re in no particular order; it’s simply a list. Let me know in the comments if there’s any non-fiction book you’d recommend! I’m always looking for new books to read.
1. Anything by Ron Chernow, but especially Alexander Hamilton and Washington: A Life
Ron Chernow primarily writes non-fiction of American historical figures and/or entrepreneurs. His books are pretty massive and definitely aren’t for the lighthearted who half-read things, but Chernow has the ability to write more than just a simple recounting of these different figures’ lives. He always adds his own underlying statement of whoever he is profiling, sometimes referring on a psychological background to do so. Whether it be painting Hamilton as the playboy he was, or Washington as the temperamental leader, he makes those who he features easily reachable through the pages. Definitely worth a read if you can stomach 700+ dense pages of historical recounts.
2. Anything by Erik Larson, but especially The Devil in the White City and In the Garden of Beasts
Larson is a little bit more across the map with the historical moments that he recounts. For example, while The Devil in the White City is about the 1893 World Fair in Chicago occurring at the same time of notorious serial killer HH Holmes’ murder spree, In the Garden of Beasts follows the American ambassador to Germany and his family in the years leading up to WWII. Being able to readily discuss events across this wide gap of years is proof to what an incredible writer and thinker Larson is, and his books almost read like fast-paced nonfiction books. I commonly recommend these to my friends who enjoy historical fiction, even though the stories are true.
3. Anything by Malcolm Gladwell, but especially Outliers
So I was introduced to Gladwell back in 2011, when I had to read his book Outliers for one of my high school classes. While most of my classmates complained non-stop about the book and questioned while we read it, mostly because they were personally offended by some of his statements like “people born in January are the most successful in life”, I loved it. While I understood that Malcolm was highlighting trends among those most successful in life (ex: The Beatles, Bill Gates, etc.), I also understood that he wasn’t saying I couldn’t be successful – just that I had to work harder; this was the lesson my classmates missed out on. His other books are just as incredible. David and Goliath talks about not letting your disadvantages define you and letting them strengthen you instead; Blink talks about the differences in decision making among people; and The Tipping Point talks about the growing influence of social media and commercialization on the spread of trends. His books are relatively short but full from page to page about thought-provoking matters, and I recommend him to many people whenever I can.
4. Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly
I’m sure most of you have seen this on all the reading lists for the last two years or so, and especially now with the Oscar-nominated movie of the same name being out on DVD. Hidden Figures follows a group of four black women working at NASA during the Space Race against the then-USSR, and their contributions to getting the first man on the moon. They worked as “human computers”, or mathematicians, to help calculate all the necessary formulas and numbers needed in order to properly launch a spacecraft safely and successfully – which they eventually did. But more than just simply the story of the Space Race and the United States’ decisive win, it is a story about racism and sexism and how these incredibly intelligent and powerful women of color rose above it all to do what they loved and ultimately give back to their country. The movie simply does not do it justice (mostly because it barely discusses the fourth main character at all), so I strongly recommend reading the book instead.
5. Hidden America by Jeanne Marie Laskas
I had to read this book while judging it for use in the University of Florida’s Common Reading Program, which introduces a book to first year students that they can discuss in select classes throughout their first year – and it ended up being a finalist, mostly due to my own pushing for it to be one. Hidden America follows different occupations in each chapter, with the author interviewing those in the occupation and shedding a little light on what they do; these occupations range from semi-truck drivers to coal miners to Bengals cheerleaders to legitimate cowboys and everything in between. She reveals how much goes into each of these different jobs, and how vastly under appreciated the amount of work they do or what they contribute is by the general public. Laskas is an incredible writer, and the stories she tells are heartbreaking, heart-wrenching, and heartwarming all at once. It was incredibly eye-opening, and I recommend to almost everyone I meet that’s looking for a good read.
6. A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier by Ishmael Beah
I went to a very sheltered Catholic school from preschool to middle school, and so when I went to public school my first year of high school, I had two pretty ignorant assumptions about the world: that mostly everybody was Catholic and that the only war in the world was the one we were waging in the Middle East. I was incredibly wrong on both fronts, as I realized my first year in public school as a freshman in high school. This was one of the first reading assignments I read, which revealed me to the entirety of the situation in not only Sierra Leone, but various other African and other countries. A Long Way Gone follows the entirely true first-person account of the author’s experience as a boy soldier recruited by the government to fight in the civil war raging in Sierra Leone. In most of the story, he is but thirteen years young, and doing unspeakable things that brings thirty-year-old American soldiers to their knees. It peeled my eyes wide open to not only the situation in Sierra Leone, but in other countries as well, and his haunting story and the harrowing tale of how he escaped when most do not stayed with me, and will stay with me, for the rest of my life.
7. The Fire This Time, a collection of works edited by Jesmyn Ward
In response to James Baldwin’s revolutionary book The Fire Next Time published in 1962 during the Civil Rights Movement, Jesmyn Ward has collected various works from various black writers to show that, unfortunately, racism is still alive and real – and that we all have the power to change that. This is the first collection of short stories/essays/poems that I have ever read and thoroughly enjoyed. Although they all talk about different people and memories and subjects and traditions, they all flow together seamlessly and effortlessly as both a celebration of black culture and a cautionary tale against claiming our society to be “post-racial”. To me, someone who tries to be an ally for the black community and the transgressions enacted among them, but someone who at the end of the day is a middle-class, college-educated white girl, this book allowed for me to look deeper into the culture of blacks in America and the slights they receive everyday for the color of their skin and the ancestral blood in their veins. Racism is never something I’ve understood or agreed with, but this book made me want to do more in combating it.
8. Callings: A StoryCorps Book by Dave Isay
StoryCorps is a organization that has set up storytelling booths around the country, for anybody and everybody to enter and share their stories. Usually, how it works is that someone is interviewed by someone else they know – a family member, a friend, a coworker, an acquaintance – about something that happened in their lives. The StoryCorps book that I know I saw all the time was one about a man who had lost both of his sons in the 9/11 attacks. Some of the stories are heart wrenching, but others were hopeful, and Callings seems to be filled with more of the latter. Dave Isay, the creator of StoryCorps, has edited the stories and taken out bits and pieces so that so many people can tell stories about the jobs that they love. There are the expected stories – doctor, teacher, firefighter – but then there are also the unexpected and the extraordinary: bridge tenderers, waitresses, NASA guinea pigs, migrant workers-turned-lawyers, etc. Not only does it inspire the reader to go after what they want and do what they love, but also opens their eyes to many occupations that they either didn’t give a second thought to or previously thought negatively about. Simply put, it’s a beautiful book about embracing one’s passion, and sharing that passion with the world.
9. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
While I had the opportunity to read this book as part of my AP Biology class my senior year of high school, it’s been getting even more attention as of lately because Oprah is making a movie about it. The story follows Henrietta Lacks, a poor black tobacco farmer who went to Johns Hopkins Hospital in the 1950s and received a diagnosis of cervical cancer that eventually ended up killing her and sending her to an unmarked grave – but not before the scientists, without her consent, took samples of her cells and froze them for further experiments. It ended up that her cells were fighter cells, and responded positively to the tests run on them, multiplying at unexpected rates and being so tough that they were used for a slew of future findings, such as the polio vaccine, the atomic bomb, and even some cancer treatments. While it is certainly a problem that all of this was done without her consent and her awareness of the situation, it is even worse that her family today still lives in poverty, while their ancestor’s cells can sell for billions of dollars to laboratories around the world. This story is not only a tale of how the scientists got away from such a grievous insult to their patient’s privacy and rights, but a story of Henrietta Lacks and the legacies she left behind, in both her cells and her family.
10. Born A Crime by Trevor Noah
Disclaimer: I love Trevor Noah, so I already knew without even opening the book that I was going to love it. He is incredibly witty and charming, but also amazingly intelligent, and that is what really seals the deal for me. This story is a compilation of eighteen essays by Noah on his life in apartheid and post-apartheid South Africa as the product of a mixed-race union, which, at the time of his birth, was punishable by up to five years in prison. He spent many of his early years hidden away by his mother, and even after apartheid was over, was still extremely protected by her and her religious beliefs. As a mixed boy, he never felt he belonged with the blacks or the whites of Africa, and he was frequently reminded about this by the prejudiced words and actions against him, such as nearly being kidnapped and being the subject of racial slurs. However, it is more than just a story of how he struggled throughout his childhood, but how he used it to form the man and the comedian that he is today. The tragic backstory seems almost incongruous with the man we know that sits behind The Daily Show desk now, but it makes me appreciate him all the more every time I see him on TV. Even if you’re not a fan of him, I highly recommend the book; it is inspirational and full of knowledge about apartheid, which was such a dark and relatively recent period of time in our world’s history that many people forget about.