Random Thoughts on Nonfiction Reading

nonfictionbookclubI admit it: I’m a genre fiction reader. Nonfiction reads rarely find their way on to my TBR. Last year only 5% of my reading was nonfiction. The majority of that was religious reading done through a church book club. The one other read was a Dr. Phil book a friend told me had really helped her. She wanted to discuss it and I found it an easy if not exactly scintillating read.

This year I’ve gotten off to a stronger start. I’ve already finished four nonfiction books but once more they are religious reads and revolve around the subject we are doing in the church book group. To shake things up I’ve begun Living with the Enemy: What Really Happened by Roy McLoughlin which details the German occupation of the Channel Islands during WWII. So far I’ve found it an intense (and shocking) read. I’ve also been reading Hitler’s Furies by Wendy Lowery which details the role of German women in the Nazi regime. This isn’t exactly cheerful reading but it is thought provoking and educational. The fascinating thing about history is that it reminds us that all those times we accuse a fiction book of not having a dose of reality, we are probably wrong. Reality trumps fiction in terms of being bizarre, emotional and just plain crazy.

When I look over my favorite nonfiction reads of the last several years I realize that it is as eclectic as my fiction reading. Here are five of my favorites:

Gift of a Letter by Alexandra Stoddard – this little gem of a book is dedicated to a rapidly declining art form — the letter. Brimming with enthusiasm for her subject Stoddard gives us history, anecdotes and tips all designed to help us revive this intimate and underappreciated form of communication.

Living a Beautiful Life by Alexandra Stoddard – Stoddard invites us to add beauty to everyday living through simple things. It’s a lovely way to remind yourself that beauty really is all around us.

Home Warming: Secrets to Making Your House a Welcoming Place by Emilie Barnes – My home is more practical than lovely but I love to read books that describe the best ways to make a space both functional and pretty.

The Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense by Suzette H Elgin – This is a must read for anyone who has a passive-aggressive in their life. Wonder why you feel insulted when you technically weren’t insulted? Learn the secrets behind those conversations that have frustrated you for years.

Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell – This fabulously written account of what goes into being successful is an absolutely riveting read.

A lot of these books are out of print because they are older reads I’ve picked up at various sales. Still, they are books that have moved me, helped me or enlightened me in meaningful ways. It’s nice to have books like that in your life – books that haven’t just entertained or taken your breath away with their artistry but books that have really helped you know more about yourselves or others.

So what about you? Do you read nonfiction? What are the books that top your favorites list? What would you recommend adding to my TBR?

Maggie Boyd



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23 Responses to Random Thoughts on Nonfiction Reading

  1. Paola says:

    When I read nonfiction it’s mostly kitchen books and biographies.
    I can suggest two that have a lot of romance: The Fatal Friendship by Stanley Loomis about Marie Antoinette and Fersen (out of print but there are always cheap copies on Ebay) and Effie, The Passionate Lives of Effie Gray, John Ruskin and John Everett Millais by Suzanne Fagence Cooper.

  2. JRB says:

    Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand is my favorite book ever. I love romance but this book is by far the best thing I ever read. There is a part in that book surprised and scared me so much I literally dropped my kindle. So great. Also loved Seabiscuit by her.

    • mari says:

      Hell to the yes on both these!!!!! Second second these recs, everyone go to the library RIGHT NOW and get these books. Knock aside small children if you have to and clear your schedule. Yes. They are THAT good.

      • maggie b. says:

        I just bought Unbroken. I read the opening and it was fabulous and this seems like something both my husband and I would enjoy.

    • Nina says:

      Agreed. “Unbroken” is an excellent book.

  3. Melanie says:

    I mostly read fiction, but I adore travelogues. One of my favorite authors is Bill Bryson (my favorite of his is A Walk in the Woods, where he tackles the Appalachian Trail), who combines his travel with the history of the region, anecdotes from his research (like coming across a photo of black bears entering a camping ground, with the caption “what would you do?” Well, he’d apparently sh*t his pants and die. Sounds about right to me…), and a comedic turn of phrase.

    I also adore Jenny Lawson’s book Let’s Pretend This Never Happened – I apparently like some comedy with my nonfiction.

  4. AARJenna says:

    I love nonfiction, but I don’t read as much of it as I’d like. My choice of NF ranges all over the place, from biographies to social commentary to historical accounts. Lately, I have read a couple of books that I found fascinating:

    The End of the Suburbs by Leigh Gallagher – great look at how the sprawl of suburbia shaped our modern life and how the trend is shifting back to city dwelling

    Lucky Man: A Memoir by Michael J. Fox – I always loved MJF, and this is a bittersweet look at his life and how being diagnosed with Parkinsons Disease was both the worst and best thing that ever happened to him.

    The Overachievers: The Secret Lives of Driven Kids by Alexandra Robbins – a great read for anyone who has kids about how modern expectations are stealing away their childhood

    The Smartest Kids in the World and How They Got That Way by Amanda Ripley – another must-read for parents about successful school systems throughout the world and how the US measures up and what we can do to improve

    • maggie b. says:

      I will have to look at The Overachievers and The Smartest Kids in the World. I’ve read books kinda on the opposite spectrum The War Against Boys by Christina Hoff Sommers and Boys Adrift by Leonard Sax. Loved those. I keep meaning to read Searching for Superman and still haven’t had a chance to. This year I definitely need to set aside some serious time for nonfiction. There are just so many good books out there.

  5. Eliza says:

    I tend to read non-fiction in waves from time to time focusing on different books on the same topic when something has caught my interest. Examples from the past include the Revolution, the Oregon Trail and women’s diaries, Mozart, Dickens, etc. I didn’t read just one bio of Mozart, for example, but several, as well as the surrounding times.

    This winter I’ve been on a big time non-fiction glom on first century Palestine, the Gospel of Thomas and The Q Sayings by authors such as James M Robinson, John S. Kloppenborg, Marvin W. Meyer, John Dominic Crossan, Elaine Pagels, Burton L. Mack, Mark Allan Powell and Jean-Yves Leloup. I’ve read some of these authors before, along with others, but it really has been a huge glom this winter comparing not only what the International Q Project and the Jesus Seminar concluded, but also how the individual historians agree or differ. In fact, I’ve read as many non-fictions on this topic as I have western romances recently and I’m still going strong.

    What can I say other than when something catches my interest, I really go all out to learn and enjoy as much as I can. The glom this time happened to be set off by an excellent PBS special that featured some of the scholars in this field.

  6. Leigh says:

    I don’t think I read a non-fiction book at all last year, Although I read tons of articles for work — that should count for at least three books!

    I can’t really say that I will do better this year. It seems that my reading time is limited.

    Thanks for the interesting article Maggie.

  7. Maria D. says:

    I think I only read one non-fiction book last year (The Seeds of Beauty: Defining Your Beauty and Style from the Inside Out by Lakeysha-Marie Green). I need to add some more non-fiction to my reading but just haven’ gotten around to it. I’m definitely adding some of the ones that have been suggested to my reading.

  8. Renee says:

    I, too, don’t read a lot of nonfiction but I am trying to expand my reading choices. I enjoyed Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg about the challenges of women in the business world and The President’s Club about the relationships between the US Presidents. I like history and enjoyed seeing a different side of the Presidency.

    Also, I have both of the Laura Hillenbrand books on my TBR list. Thanks for the encouragement to get started.

  9. Karla says:

    I read a few nonfiction books every year just to mix things up. I find nonfiction reading satisfying because it is thought provoking and I frequently find myself discussing nonfiction books I read with my family (can’t really discuss the romance books…ahem.) The best I’ve read: Destiny of the Republic by Candice Millard, Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, and Sybil Exposed by Debbie Nathan.

    I do find nonfiction reading much slower than fiction so I’ll frequently have both types of books going at once. I’ve never really glommed a nonfiction author, but the closest I’ve come to this is reading three of Jon Krakauer’s books.

    • Eggletina says:

      Millard’s River of Doubt is good, too.

      For other travel writing combined with ruminative history I’ve also enjoyed books by Tony Horwitz, Colin Thubron, and Barry Lopez.

  10. Nina says:

    I probably read more nonfiction than fiction. Lately I’ve been into WWII nonfiction and just finished “The Boy on the Wooden Box: How the Impossible Became Possible . . . on Schindler’s List.” I think it’s supposed to be more of a kids’ book, but it was gripping and sobering all the same.

  11. RosieH says:

    About 30 years ago I bought a small book called “Freedom from Clutter” by Don Aslett. Since then I re-read it every couple of years and it never fails to enthuse me into sorting out my house. There have been numerous other books written on the subject but in my opinion none has the charm and wit of Aslett’s book which I think must have been one of the first to tackle the subject. I think an updated version has been reprinted in recent years but I haven’t looked it out to see if it is as good as my original.l

  12. Deann says:

    What a great topic! I love a good non-fiction book. Some of my favorites that readily come to mind are the following:

    Lone Survivor by Marcus Luttrell, which gave me greater appreciation for the sacrifices made by those who serve in our military and their families.

    Fearless by Eric Blehm, a deeply moving story about a Navy Seal. It is also a story of hope and encouragement for those who have made poor choices that you can turn your life around.

    The Innocent Man by John Grisham, which is a story about our criminal justice system and what happens when it doesn’t work, especially for those who struggle with mental illness.

    The Last Lecture by Randy Pautsch, wisdom and inspiration for every day life.

    Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer, a deadly expedition to Mount Everest.

    One Light Still Shines: My Life Beyond the Amish Schoolhouse Shooting by Marie Monville, a beautiful story of tragedy, forgiveness and grace.

    I also read Hitler’s Furies, which I found dark and depressing, but it did make me think about how the women were treated differently from the men with regard to punishment for their war crimes.

    I’m going to look for Home Warming and The Art of Verbal Self-Defense. Thanks for the recommendations.

  13. Amy says:

    Moby Duck by Donovan Hohn was very good according to my friends.
    I think science non-fiction is on the top of my to be read nonfiction pile.
    Then again I still haven’t gotten around to reading Dreams from my Father and The Audacity of Hope.

  14. willaful says:

    It’s All Too Much is a really insightful book about space and how we use it. Stuff is a great book on the psychology of hoarding. If you can find it, How to Make Sense is my all time favorite work of non-fiction. I just finished Health at Every Size, which makes a lot of great points about weight and oppression.

    Hub and I are slowly buddy reading The Warmth of Other Suns, about the migration of Southern blacks to the North. Very interesting.

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