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As some of you may know, I tend to gravitate to fiction books over nonfiction. Case in point: of the 80+ reviews I’ve written for Book News & Reviews over the years, only two of them—Sex on the Moon and Tiger, Tiger—have been for nonfiction works. That’s not to say I haven’t read, enjoyed, and recommended plenty of nonfiction books. But perhaps I’ve been a bit less enthusiastic in my desire to share and talk about the nonfiction titles I’ve read.
But this year, there have been nonfiction books I couldn’t wait to talk about. I was delighted when I learned a new essay collection would be released by Annie Dillard, a personal favorite ever since I discovered Pilgrim at Tinker Creek in an undergrad writing class. Then there was Rovelli’s Seven Brief Lessons on Physics and Klosterman’s But What If We’re Wrong?, both of which helped me finally get a word in edgewise with a certain friend who’s convinced he understands all the mysteries of the universe and tends to lecture his less informed friends (like me) despite pleas for mercy. And who wouldn’t want to tell everyone about a book featuring “the bad-ass librarians of Timbuktu”?
There were so many discussion-worthy nonfiction books in 2016, and not all of them could make our list of the Best Books of 2016. But if you have a favorite that didn’t make our 2016 list, let us know. We’re ready to talk books—fiction, nonfiction, whatever.
Tracy (that’s me), BCPL Public Relations Coordinator & Committee Organizer
The Abundance by Annie Dillard
I say: Annie Dillard can always be counted on for an offbeat perspective on seemingly everyday occurrences, and her way of observing the natural world is nothing short of inspiring. She’s not for everyone, but her writing always leaves me in awe.
Stephanie says: I am not usually one to read about science, blah! However, De Waal’s book may just change that. De Waal’s cross-species study of cognition is amazing, even to a layman like me. This book is to make you think twice when talking to your pets or walking through the zoo.
Stephanie says: Loved it! Often when a musician writes a memoir, they use the same poetry they utilize in lyric writing and the outcome is disjointed, sporadic bursts of words that end up being too stream of consciousness. That is not the case with Born to Run. Springsteen does indeed employ the poetry he is famous for, but the end result is inspiring.
I say: In past years, books like Ghettoside (2015) and Behind the Beautiful Forevers (2012) have given me an eye-opening glimpse at an unfamiliar world through in-depth fieldwork and compassionate reportage. Desmond’s stories of eight real families living in poverty in Milwaulkee is yet another gripping ethnographic study that I will remember for years to come. Literary journalism at its finest.
I say: I got more out of this book than I retained from an entire semester of advanced high school physics and two semesters of college astronomy. Rather than introducing boring formulas I’ll never use and endless technical terms and dates, Rovelli focuses on the wider theories, their inconsistencies with one another, and the questions that still exist in our understanding. In under 80 pages, he explains a century’s worth of physics in conversational language, creating an accessible, beautiful meditation on physics and philosophy.
Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life by Ruth Franklin
I say: Okay, I’ll be honest. I haven’t quite finished this book yet (it’s over 600 pages, and the audiobook I’m listening to is over 19 hours), but so far it’s fascinating! So I had to put it on this list anyway, even if it’s all downhill from here. Jackson’s life is interesting enough on its own, but Ruth Franklin does a wonderful job of grounding Jackson’s work and influence in her time and makes a convincing case for why she deserves more recognition in the greater literary canon. I’m a total book nerd with an interest in the history of publishing, so I am loving the references to Sylvia Plath, Ralph Ellison, and other writing and publishing personalities of the era as well as the insights into Jackson’s life and work.
The View from the Cheap Seats: Selected Nonfiction by Neil Gaiman Stephanie says: This is a book about writing, but more than that. It is about the love of words, sentences. Anyone who loves books for the artform that they are, for more than mere entertainment, would enjoy this book. It was written to inspire, and it did. I wanted to write in the margins and highlight my favorite passages.
I say: What a profound and moving book this is about death and about life. It’s beautifully written—I have oodles of passages saved in my Kindle highlights—and the author’s love of literature and his command of it permeates the entire book. One of my highlights (location 355) reads as follows: “Books became my closest confidants, finely ground lenses providing new views of the world.” With his own book, Kalanithi indeed provides a lens into the world, not only into his own life that ended far too soon but also a lens through which its readers can better understand their own hearts and minds.
Stephanie says: Paul Kalanithi always wanted to be a writer; instead, he followed in his father’s footsteps and became a doctor. I am sure many lives were saved by Kalaithi’s hands, but I mourn the loss of the writer. When simultaneously faced with death and new life, Kalanithi struggles with the one question we all struggle to answer; why are we here? And in my opinion, he answers it. Full of hope, full of wonder, Kalanitih will help you look at your world through a different perspective. A highly enjoyable read!