I’ve read 46 books so far this year, toward my goal of 50. I’ve been challenging myself to read longer books, classics, and especially nonfiction this year, so although I don’t think I’ll reach the same book total as last year (52), I have read more pages in less time! This year I participated in two book clubs: the mail-based one with college friends and a neighborhood book and pub club, which have both motivated me to delve into titles I might not otherwise choose on my own.
My main reading goal this year was to read 20 nonfiction books, and I’ve read 18 so far! I haven’t been a big nonfiction reader since high school and college required textbooks made nonfiction seem dull and tedious, although I have remained quite the news junkie and a devoted subscriber to various newspapers and magazines. Not to mention that my entire career revolves around nonfiction!
This year I discovered some truly great nonfiction reads: gripping, moving, inspiring, well-written stories that resonate all the more because they are true. I’ve learned about things I would have never imagined: the astronaut selection process, the intricacies of mountaineering, the social strata of Mumbai slums, the symbolism of street art, the security levels in mental hospital wards. I got a lot of suggestions from the book The New New Journalism, which is an anthology of interviews with contemporary non-fiction writers about their research and writing processes. Highly recommended for writers and readers alike.
Here are my five favorites from this year:
1. Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble, and Coming of Age in The Bronx by Adrian LeBlanc
Wow. I cannot say enough good things about this incredible family saga. This is the kind of book that sinks into your skin and stays with you for a very long time after. Random Family is the sprawling tale of three generations of a Puerto Rican family and their intertwining stories as they navigate all of life’s triumphs and obstacles in the South Bronx, one of the nation’s most notoriously rough urban neighborhoods. This book reveals a hidden world of gang culture, state prisons, drug rings and addictions, the welfare and food stamp system, teen pregnancy, and all other intricacies of poverty…right here in New York City.
LeBlanc won all sorts of journalism awards for this work, and with good reason. The portraits of her characters are rich and honest: I found myself rooting for somewhat naive, optimistic teenage Coco and her various children, clinging to every hope that they would just survive. But some of the other characters I absolutely loathed. Yes, there are welfare queens and crack addicts in this book, but there are also just people. It helps the reader understand the crippling hopelessness and insurmountable challenges of poverty in a way that mere statistics and headlines can’t capture. I raced through this book in three days and didn’t want to let go…and I still can’t, really. Read more about Random Family here.
(P.S. The New York Times just published an absolutely wonderfully written, LENGTHY expose on the current state of homeless children in the city, focusing on a portrait of one girl, Dasani, and her family. It’s like a crash course for Random Family. Check it out here. Hope for print journalism!)
2. The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee
Confession: I’ve never been that interested in science. It has never fascinated or enthralled me the way it has a number of my peers. But I think if a book like Emperor of All Maladies had existed when I was studying, say, high school biology, my entire outlook would have been transformed for the better.
This is an incredible feat of historical and scientific research: a massive biopic of cancer from its first recorded victims, throughout the constant battle for a cure, to modern-day medicine’s astonishing abilities — and shortcomings. What I loved about this book is that it wasn’t just about the development of chemotherapy or experiments conducted on childhood leukemia victims, it also analyzed the intersection of the disease with culture. Mukherjee, an oncologist himself, delves into the origins of cancer’s first poster child, the foundation of the American Cancer Society, the explosion of fundraising for breast cancer research. It is all truly, truly fascinating. A book for everyone because I am certain that everyone has had their life impacted by cancer, in one way or another. Read more here.
3. The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America by Erik Larson
I love books that focus entirely on one specific moment in history and really dig deep into the details. This book juxtaposes the stories of two men: Daniel H. Burnham, the architect in charge of constructing the 1893 Chicago’s World Fair, and H.H. Holmes, America’s first known serial killer. The biographies intersect only slightly — Holmes constructs a “murder hotel” to lure in his victims who are visiting the nearby World’s Fair — so the construction of the book is a little odd, but as Larson explains, he chose these two contrasting stories to highlight the stark contrast in how men choose to live their lives. There are men who live to illuminate the world (literally, in Burnham’s case) by sharing their genius, and there are men who live only to bring darkness and death.
The H.H. Holmes chapters were obviously edge-of-your-seat material, and the kind of thing that infiltrated my nightmares for a bit after, but I really enjoyed the World’s Fair bits, too. Burnham and his team — which included Frederick Law Olmsted, the genius who gave us Central Park in New York — were racing against the clock, limited resources, an uncooperative climate and landscape to construct a miniature city so magnificent and inspiring that it would put all the nay-sayers in NYC and D.C. (two much more developed and reputable American cities at the time) to shame. A treat for all history buffs. Read more here.
4. Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand
I wrote a lengthy post about this book earlier this year after reading it. I would still heartily recommend it. So, so, so powerful. After you read it, watch this CBS story about Louis Zamperini, see what a humble and grateful man he is and his relationship with the author of his biography, and cry all over again. GAH.
You will have a lot of feels from reading this book, but the good feels outweigh the bad ones, I promise. Zamperini is incredible, his story is incredible, this book is incredibly put together and well-researched. It has also sparked my interest in reading Seabiscuit (Hillenbrand’s other bestseller) and other military nonfiction, like Flags of Our Fathers, which is awaiting me on my bookshelf. Check out Unbroken here.
5. 84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff
This darling little gem is a must for book lovers! This is the record of letter-based correspondence between Ms. Helene Hanff of New York, an avid reader, and stodgy bookshop employee Frank Doel of London that begins as purely business relationship and blooms into a charming long-distance, long-lasting friendship. (Warning: Quite a bittersweet ending.) It’s almost too whimsically wonderful to be true. Check it out here.
What are your favorite non-fiction reads?