Thoughts on Non-Fiction

Since November is designated for the Non-Fiction Reading Challenge, I thought I would talk about my favourite non-fiction genres and my experience of reading non-fiction books. The only non-fiction genre which I love but will not cover below is medicine/cognitive science. It will be the topic of my next post and I also previously covered it in this list here.

This new book on my TBR list traces the history of human movement on water

Some of my favourite non-fiction books fall into the categories of history and travel (culture exploration). Be it dinosaurs (The Rise & Fall of the Dinosaurs), the Middle Ages (A Distant Mirror) or stories of survival in hostile terrains (Miracle in the Andes), I find all these topics completely fascinating. My previous favourite reads also included books on Mexico, New Orleans, New York and Rome. Though some I enjoyed more than others (for example, I did not get along with Peter Mayne’s Marrakesh book nor with Kurlansky’s Havana), I am always keeping my eyes open for interesting books in these categories. Thus, I am currently looking forward to reading A History of the Bible by John Barton, The Ghost: A Cultural History by Susan Owens, The Boundless Sea: A Human History of the Oceans by David Abulafia, and Medieval Civilisation 400-1500 by Jacques Le Goff, an author that was recommended to me by Ola G.

Albert Camus makes remarkably lucid arguments against death penalty in Reflections on the Guillotine

I also read philosophy non-fiction, including books on religion, esoteric philosophy and Buddhism (The Way of Zen). In particular, I enjoy thought-provoking books on existentialism which have been my favourite for a long time, including the writings of Albert Camus (The Myth of Sisyphus/The Fastidious Assassins) and Søren Kierkegaard (Fear and Trembling). Some other philosophers that I want to read in future are Spinoza, Seneca and Marcus Aurelius. Moreover, I have books by William James and Bertrand Russell on my TBR.

A book to read on the abolition of slavery, on one quiet “legal” revolution

Since my background is law, I have read many books (excluding textbooks) on this topic over the years, be it on political/legal/philosophical theories and morality or on individual judges and famous legal cases. That will be books by Immanuel Kant, Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Emile Durkheim. My favourite books within this topic are the ones that trace the development of the common law over the centuries and also those that present famous cases in the law of tort. Books on human rights and civil liberties can also be very engaging and interesting. I particularly recommend Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery by Eric Metaxas that talks about William Wilberforce and his fight to abolish British slave trade. Other related books that I have on my TBR are Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide: Lessons from Belgium (apparently Belgium has one of the most “relaxed” laws on assisted suicide and one can request to be “put to death” for “constant and unbearable psychological suffering”), and Deadly Medicines & Organised Crime: How Big Pharma Has Corrupted Healthcare, which I saw reviewed by Juan Gómez-Pintado on his blog.

An autobiography of Jean Renoir, a great French director, that is on my TBR

I never previously considered myself to be a big reader of biographies or memoirs, but this is slowly changing for me and I notice that I become more and more drawn to biographies and autobiographies. For example, this year I enjoyed a biography of Fred Rogers and also Eric Lomax’s memoir. Since I am a movie buff and have a different blog on WordPress dedicated to all things film, I really want to read more biographies or memories of famous directors, actors or actresses. Recently, this blog introduced me to an autobiography of Irish actor Gabriel Byrne (Walking with Ghosts), which I am now eager to pick up, and other related books on my TBR list include books on Andrei Tarkovsky, Akira Kurosawa and Jean Renoir.

A very popular book by Prof. Kaku which I personally found hard to get into and like

One non-fiction genre which I am interested in but cannot find “good” books to read is space/galaxies’ exploration and generally books on stars, planets and our universe. I am fascinated by this topic, but whenever I pick up books in this genre, I become quickly bored with either too much unnecessary detail inside or with the repetition (authors often recycle what others have already said). Other books in this genre also tend to try overly hard to appeal to an everyday reader and employ too conversational a tone, including having inside too many clichés and pop culture references, as, arguably, do books by American physicist/futurist Michio Kaku. In the past, I did enjoy books by Stephen Hawking (A Brief History of Time/The Theory of Everything) on this topic, and was also impressed by the book If the Universe is Teeming with Aliens…Where is Everybody? by Stephen Webb. All this means that if you do have any suggestions or recommendations for me on good “space exploration” books, I would love to hear them! (and many thanks in advance!).

Honourable mentions: true crime has always been one of my favourite non-fiction genres to read, but given recent stressful events around the world, I now try to stay away from these books…at least for now and in the foreseeable future (so as not to overburden myself psychologically). Once in awhile I also enjoy books on cooking, especially those that focus on cuisines from Latin America or Japan. For other non-fiction books that I wholeheartedly recommend see my list here.

Do you read non-fiction? Will your participate in this year’s Non-Fiction Reading Challenge? What is your favourite non-fiction genre to read, and do you find yourself drawn to some non-fiction genres and not to others? Finally, do you have a favourite non-fiction book?

32 thoughts on “Thoughts on Non-Fiction

  1. Oh I love this post Diana. I have seen this space exploration book you mention and I was dubious about how good it would be – glad I didn’t pick it up now. I would say my favorite genres are anthropology/psychology/philosophy and books at the intersection of these topics. Spend Brinkmann’s The Joy of Missing Out and (to a lesser degree, but still good) his book Stand Firm. All of the books by Robert Greene in this genre are really great too, he tends to draw on figures from the past to explain how to navigate in the world. Natural History is also a favourite too, I would recommend The Book of Barely Imagined Beings by Caspar Henderson. I could keep going on but will leave it there hehe.

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    1. I am glad you loved it! I do love reading about anthropology and psychology too. I guess I put anthropology under the broad topic of “history” as in “history of the mankind” and psychology under “cognitive science” above, although I meant “the human mind”. There are many books at the intersection of these topics, as you say. I will definitely pick up some of Brinkmann’s books, many thanks! And, I do know Robert Greene books – they are very perceptive.

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    1. I am glad to hear you also like Le Goff – my expectations re his books are sky-high already! hehe I am sure that most people get along with Michio Kaku books just fine – it is probably my own personal issue, so I don’t want to dissuade people.

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  2. It seems we have quite a bit of overlap in our nonfiction reading. I love travel / exploration, certain subcategories of philosophy, memoirs and a variety of science related topics. I agree it is difficult to find science books about the universe / theory of everything, which nail the right balance between readability and technical details. Stephen Hawking is without competition my favourite. Carlo Rovelli isn’t bad at all and sometimes I enjoy Brian Greene, but he tends to go on about string theory, which I’ve always found difficult to swallow. I look forward to more nonfiction posts from you!

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    1. Thank you, I will continue with non-fiction in my next post too!

      Stephen Hawking will always be a star, you are right. And yes, Rovelli is not bad, but I cannot say he is great either. I only read one book by him (I think!) – “Reality Is Not What it Seems” and it did not make me rush and pick up his other books. Awkward translation may be letting his books down and he does have this tendency to recycle others’ theories (understandable, but still a bit annoying). And, again, I did not quite get along with Brian Greene’s books. The one I rated the highest was Greene’s The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes, but it was quite a trial too (and not only because of his obsession with the string theory, I think).

      Maybe I am asking for the Moon when it comes to books about the universe and planets, and I do understand that it is difficult to strike a balance between appearing intelligent, knowledgeable and original, and, at the same time, fun, accessible and entertaining.

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  3. I don’t read much nonfiction. What I do read tends to history and biography. Right off the top of my head, I would say that my favorite work of nonfiction is Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the 1920s by Frederick Lewis Allen. The premise of the book was to write about historical events immediately after they happened as another perspective to include in later historians’ interpretation of the events after time had elapsed.

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  4. Putting together some of your interests, have you read The Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes? It’s an absolutely marvelous sort of group biography about some of the major figures in science during the Romantic period. The part about William and Caroline Herschel was fascinating as a window into astronomy.

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    1. Great comment. I actually love reading about the history of science. I have heard about this book, but for some reason did not pursue it further. Now I will, thanks! (especially since I know next to nothing about Caroline Herschel). It now reminds of another book on the history of science that I enjoyed – “Invisible: The Dangerous Allure of the Unseen” by Philip Ball. That one traces the discovery of all things unseen – from pure magic tricks to microbes and radiation, was a good read, too.

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      1. Ooh, Invisible sounds fascinating! I can’t wait to see how you enjoy The Age of Wonder. I found Caroline Herschel to be such an intriguing figure, I then read a novel about her but it was not nearly so good. And the author totally changed the ending of her life…I find that weird in historical fiction. Anyway, Holmes is excellent in sticking to the facts but making them so interesting you can’t put the book down.

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  5. Loooved this! I will actually bookmark it for next year’s reading list!
    I won’t be taking part in the challenge because I have already planned on reading Cancer Ward by Solzhenitsyn and The Karamazov Brothers by Dostoevsky, but I do read non-fiction books. Usually they are history books, but I also read on clinical psychology &co, philosophy, medical research or books that are not as scientific but based on scientific research, like Why we sleep or Lost connections.

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    1. I am very glad you loved the post! I would love to hear your thoughts on Dostoyevsky too. I read Russian classics in my native Russian a long ago now, but am planning a list of my favourite Russian language books in December. “Medical research” non-fiction books can be exciting too. They are more or less a topic of my next post (already published), if you are interested.

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  6. Great post, Diana, and thank you for mentioning me on it! “Deadly Medicines” is very interesting. There’s no magic pill like a good book. I write down “Fear and Trembling” and the euthanasia book. I love Camus and “The Myth of Sysiphus”. My favourite nonfiction book is, perhaps, “The Origins of Totalitarianism”, by Hannah Arendt. Thomas Szasz is another of my favourite authors: “The Manufacture of Madness”. Saludos 🙂

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    1. You are welcome! I always enjoy your posts! I haven’t read The Origins of Totalitarianism, but now I am interested and will look for it, many thanks! And, oh, I love Thomas Szasz ! I actually included one of his books, Myth of Mental Illness, in my post of last year titled 7 Fascinating Books on Human Mind & Mental Illness. There was a period of time when I read many books penned by the so-called “anti-psychiatry movement” writers and these to a lesser extent also include Foucault and Goffman. Speaking of The Deadly Medicines book, I see that its author also wrote The Deadly Psychiatry and Organised Denial book? I also included it on my TBR, thank you!

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  7. Seems like a lot of great recommendations here! I don’t read a lot of non-fiction but in recent years I’ve been making more of an effort to read memoirs from people of colour, particularly from Indigenous people in Canada. I’ve also read some great essay collections along the same lines.

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      1. A Mind Spread Out on the Ground by Alicia Elliott is an excellent essay collection. Or Inconvenient Indian by Thomas King for more of a history. I’m currently reading Halfbreed by Maria Campbell which is a new edition of her memoir from 1973 and it’s quite eye-opening too.

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  8. There are many interesting titles to choose from here. Thanks for your post a few of these will go on my Christmas list. I’ve read a lot of non-fiction but not much in the area of space exploration other than A Brief History of Time and (delving deeply backward into the past) a wonderful biography called Gallileo’s Daugther. Both are excellent.

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    1. Galileo’s Daughter sounds very interesting! There was a time when I read obsessively on Galileo and on scientific revolutions in general. Living in Florence for some time helped since there is such a great Galileo museum there. I still have very fond memories of it and will now surely check out Galileo’s Daughter, many thanks for telling me about it!

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