The topic for Week 4 of Nonfiction November is Nonfiction Favorites, and the hosting blog is Doing Dewey. Instead of answering the provided questions, I decided to put together a list of my Top Ten Favorite Nonfiction Books to date.
The ten titles I selected easily fit into four overarching categories or types of nonfiction: Sweeping Histories, Atypical Memoirs, Memorable Royal Women and Medical Investigations. I reflected further on why I was drawn to each category and title below. In doing so, I realized that the elements I always look for in nonfiction are:
- Either a book that effectively summarizes a really long span of time, or one that focuses on a really weird and unique experience
- Highly personal writing in either case that always ties back the narrative to individual experience
- Conciseness in the writing – no droning on aimlessly
- To feel that I am learning something new.
Today is also the first official day of the #ThanksgivingReadathon ! If you haven’t published a Sign-Up post yet or posted your reading intentions on social media, make sure to do so today!
A Short History Of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson
The Rise And Fall Of The Third Reich by William L. Shirer
Wild Swans by Jung Chang
I’m a sucker for anything epochal, whether in fiction or nonfiction. Give me a family saga that spans decades and generations and I’m in. I particularly love nonfiction books that look at a long stretch of history (millenia in the case of Bill Bryson’s A Short History Of Nearly Everything and decades for the other two titles), and are able to summarize that breadth of history effectively and informatively into an enlightening analysis.
If you want to read more about my love for The Rise And Fall Of The Third Reich, check out the World War II Nonfiction book list I posted last week. When it comes to the other two titles, it’s the way in which they mix the personal and specific, with the historical and expansive that really draws me in. Among the three, Wild Swans is definitely the most intimate, since it focuses on a single family through the years. It still taught me so much about China’s history and the treatment of women in its society in the period it encompasses. It reads like a novel, but you’re educating yourself at the same time.
If you haven’t read A Short History Of Nearly Everything, I would recommend it most to people who also have a love for scientific nonfiction, astronomy and anthropology. It starts from the REALLY broad – the formation of the solar system and our place on the Earth in space – and then narrows down to the minute by looking into the history of scientific thought on Earth and its most important proponents. Despite this juxtaposition between broad and specific, the book never feels simplistic or introductory. It’s really an amazing feat. I think I’m due for a re-read soon.
Beyond Belief by Jenna Miscavige Hill
Coming Clean by Kimberly Rae Miller
I find myself recommending these two memoirs over and over again, because I think they are perfect gateways into nonfiction for people who typically don’t read from the genre. Why? It’s both because of their incredible topics as well as because of the very narrative style of the writing. Reading them is a bit like watching a scandalous (and informative) reality series on TV – and in fact I was at first interested in Coming Clean because of how riveting I found the TV series Hoarders and Hoarding: Buried Alive.
Both memoirs are also obviously highly personal. They really dig deep into the emotional side of each writer’s experience and give you a highly unique window into strange aspects of human life like growing up in Scientology and surviving the deeply damaging influence of hoarder parents. Between the two, Beyond Belief is the more exciting story because of just how extreme Jenna Miscavige Hill’s experiences were within the church of Scientology.
Catherine The Great by Robert K. Massie
The Six Wives Of Henry VIII by Alison Weir
Of course another category I read quite a bit of is royal biographies. The two books I picked for this list were both more specifically focused on the lives of infamous royal women – Catherine The Great and Henry VIII’s Wives. I think what fascinates me so much about learning of women who were in prominent aristocratic positions through history is two fold.
I love reading about their daily lives – the way they maintained their hygiene, dressed, oversaw their households and dealt with their husbands and children, as well as in some cases led their states. Also, as a woman, I am interested in the compromises they had to make during their lives to maintain power, downplay their femininity or in the case of Henry’s unlucky wives, simply try to stay alive.
In particular, I wanted to highlight Catherine The Great‘s biography in this section because I will read anything written by Robert K. Massie. He’s written mostly about Romanov history (a topic I know most nonfiction lovers are suckers for) and every one of his books on the topic is a transporting time-travel experience into snowy tsarist Russia. Catherine The Great is my favorite because the woman on which it focuses is one of the most storied female monarchs in history, and for good reason.
Brain On Fire by Susannah Cahalan
The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson
The Emperor Of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee
I featured the book in this category that really solidified my love for Medical Nonfiction – The Emperor Of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee. It’s a historical look at cancer research that spans centuries but primarily focuses on recent developments starting at the beginning of the 20th century with the advent of modern medicine. It’s clearly a large and unwieldy topic to cover in a single book, but Mukherjee does a masterful job of not only creating a story you can follow through individual medical breakthroughs, but tying each breakthrough to the personal stories of the scientists and patients involved. It’s completely and utterly worth reading, especially considering cancer seems to sadly be around every corner these days.
If you want something that steers a bit more on the side of the mystery than the medical, The Ghost Map successfully bridges the unusual divide of medical nonfiction and mystery. It almost has a Sherlock Holmes feel to it, as you follow a young doctor and cleric’s attempts to trace the origins of a destructive cholera outbreak in London in the mid 1800s. Steven Johnson expertly blends history, anthropology, urban planning, medicine and everday life in his narrative, and that’s no small feat.
As for Brain On Fire, it’s highly personal and felt very worryingly relatable to me. The author of the book experienced a viral infection that attacked her brain and had the very atypical effect of making her seem like she was losing her mind. Her account of the experience of no longer being able to trust what you are thinking, feeling, seeing and communicating was absolutely terrifying. The writing is engaging and intimate – she holds nothing back. Another good gateway read for those less familiar with nonfiction.
Have you read any of my favorite Nonfiction titles? What did you think? Are you adding any others to your TBR? Let me know in the comments!
For more TBR options, check out my other book lists on Novels And Nonfiction on World War II Nonfiction, Scientology, True Crime, North Korea, Scientific Nonfiction, Fateful Voyages, Noble Women Through History, Memoirs Of Escape And Redemption and Medical Memoirs.
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