I’m currently about 60% through the audiobook version of Michelle Obama’s Becoming and have been enjoying every minute of it. I grew up about ten miles from where Michelle grew up, and its fun to hear her mention places that I know rather well, like Water Tower Place or The South Shore Cultural Center and places in between. This will no doubt be an “A-List” book for me.
Upon finishing Becoming, I’ll have read 25 non-fiction books this year. Some were memorable, others I barely remember.
I thought about organizing the books into sub-categories like history, memoir, advice, etc., but then decided I was more interested in arranging them into these categories:
- A. Books that made a big impression on me and that I recommend wholeheartedly, without reservation.
- B. Books that I found enjoyable and that I’d recommend selectively to those who are interested in the subject matter.
- C. Books that didn’t make a lasting impression and I won’t go out of my way to recommend because I believe there are more helpful books available on the subject.
I’ll start with category A and then you can stop reading if you don’t want to see what’s underneath the cream of the crop. The order of each list is random.
- The Selected Letters of Willa Cather edited by Andrew Jewell and Janis Stout. I gave a heavy skim to the advance reader copy of this book and read around in the hardcover when it first came out in 2013. It wasn’t until this year that I attentively read the book cover to cover, reading each letter slowly, trying to see and feel the person behind the letters. It is fascinating to glimpse the changing times, moods, and challenges in the life of this great American writer.
- The Real Lolita: The Kidnapping of Sally Horner and the Novel that Scandalized the World by Sarah Weinman. A compelling read — a mashup of true crime and literary history. Timely.
- Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy: The Story of Little Women and Why It Still Matters by Anne Boyd Rioux. See purple highlight below.
- The Library Book by Susan Orlean. See below.
- Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America by Nancy MacLean. This book blew my mind. It provided some much-needed understanding of what is going on in American politics today, particularly the destruction of the Republican Party and the un-democratic behavior of so many politicians and lawmakers.
- Courageous Women of the Vietnam War: Medics, Journalists, Survivors, and More (Women of Action Series) by Kathryn J. Atwood. I’m a big fan of Atwood’s work. She writers engaging nonfiction books intended for a Young Adult audience but that is good reading for adults, too. This book is an important contribution to the literature of the Vietnam War and women’s history and wartime experience. Would make a good holiday gift.
- Born A Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah (audio version). This was a recent Book Cougars read-along that was recommended by author Bianca Marais as a nonfiction companion to her novel, Hum If You Don’t Know the Words, which is, itself, an excellent read and definitely one of my top fiction reads of 2018 (I’ll post a fiction recap in a couple weeks). Noah reads the audio version which is how I recommend you experience this book — there are many African language phrases used in the book so its great to hear the correct pronunciation, and his overall performance is a delight. Horrifying at times, but a delight nonetheless.
- 52 Things I Wish I Could Have Told Myself When I Was 17 by Shuly Cawood. While this may be a short book, it is not small in content. Each page is dedicated to one of the 52 things and reads like a succinct prose poem exploring and exposing an issue that resonates with the head and the heart. The Book Cougars hosted Cawood’s book launch for this title which you can listen to here.
My favorite nonfiction book of the year is a tie between The Library Book by Susan Orlean and Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy: The Story of Little Women and Why It Still Matters by Anne Boyd Rioux. Democracy in Chains came close to making it a three-way tie.
The Library Book made me feel warm and fuzzy — you’d think a book about the damage and destruction of a million books would be depressing, but it is not. As others have said, its a love letter to libraries. It’s full of delightful history about the LA library system with the true crime investigation of the arson that caused the fire woven throughout. Running through the book is Orlean’s own deep love of libraries and books that was instilled, nurtured by, and shared with her mother.
Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy made me think about things in new ways — literary scholarship, teaching, gender issues about reading, literary adaptations, and, of course, Little Women and Louisa May Alcott. Rioux skillfully includes so much fascinating information about 19th and 20th-century interpretations of Little Women, from adaptations to its influence in surprising places. I’m usually shy at parties but since reading this book I have started several conversations with, “Have you read Little Women?” It has led to some great conversations! The Book Cougars interviewed Anne Boyd Rioux at Orchard House in Concord, MA this summer. Click here to listen to the episode.
- The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit by Michael Finkel (audio version). True story about a man who survived alone in the woods of Maine for decades by stealing from area homes and camps before modern surveillance technology and techniques caught him. The Book Cougars talked with Michael at An Unlikely Story Bookstore in Plainville, MA. Click here to listen to our conversation.
- A Field Guide to Long Island Sound: Coastal Habitats, Plant Life, Fish, Seabirds, Marine Mammals, and Other Wildlife by Patrick J. Lynch. A beautifully illustrated guide and an excellent place to start learning about the critters, plants, and shoreline of the Long Island Sound.
- Dream More: Celebrate the Dreamer in You by Dolly Parton (audio version). Dolly reads this short, motivational book that grew out of a commencement speech she gave. Just hearing Dolly’s voice makes me happy.
- All Available Boats: The Evacuation of Manhattan Island on September 11, 2001 by Mike Magee, ed. The fascinating and untold story of how boats of all shapes and sizes responded to the Coast Guard’s call for “all available boats” and their evacuation of 300,000 people from Manhattan on 9/11.
- A Gift from the Sea by Anne Morrow Lindbergh (a re-read). The classic memoir about how time alone on the seashore helps put life into perspective.
- The Smart but Scattered Guide to Success: How to Use Your Brain’s Executive Skills to Keep Up, Stay Calm, and Get Organized at Work and at Home by Peg Dawson and Richard Guare. A useful self-help book that I’m still poking around in months after first picking it up.
- The Library: A Catalogue of Wonders by Stuart Kells. A fun romp through the often quirky world of libraries and book lovers/obsessives in various times and places.
- Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers Who Helped Win World War II by Liza Mundy (audio version). Follows the experiences of a few women codebreakers while offering loads of detail about the history of American codebreaking arising from World War I and how the work developed in WWII. Slightly maddening, too: another story about the tremendous amount of crucial work women performed during WWII that is only now coming to light.
- The Care and Feeding of an Independent Bookstore: Three Instructive Essays by Ann Patchett. Technically a pamphlet I suppose, but the content is substantial enough for a book. Bookstore lovers will enjoy.
- Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India, and Indonesia by Elizabeth Gilbert. Glad to have finally read this blockbuster memoir that was so influential to millions of women. I had mixed feelings while reading it and mixed feelings while thinking back on it, but in the end, it is thought-provoking and I like that.
- Starting from Scratch: A Different Kind of Writer’s Manual by Rita Mae Brown. This was a re-read that is a bit dated but still has some merits. Brown fans and/or writers may enjoy it. Weeks after reading this book I’m still thinking about some of the advice she gives and the points she makes, so some chapters are still relevant. I’d like to see Brown put out an updated version.
- Email Marketing Mastery by Tom Carson-Knowles (audio version)
- Email Marketing Demystified by Matthew Paulson (audio version) — 1 & 2 on this list were books I listened to with one ear while driving around on errands.
- Women and Power: A Manifesto by Mary Beard. This book is based on lectures the author gave. Beard is a classics scholar and looks at some ways women have been silenced and makes connections to contemporary politics and society, but a manifesto this is not.
- The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing (audio version) by Marie Kondō. I was seriously gung-ho about this book upon finishing it, but have cooled off in the months since, and even feel a little foolish about my earlier enthusiasm. That said, if you’re leaning toward reading it, go for it. It is, if nothing else, motivating in the moment. And I suppose I do still ask myself whether an item “sparks joy” before deciding what to do with it…that’s something that’ll probably stay with me for life.
- The World as It Is: A Memoir of the Obama White House by Ben Rhodes. This is a big book and it just didn’t hold my attention enough to wade through 480 pages.
Overall, 2018 was an excellent non-fiction reading year for me. As I finished compiling this list, I glanced over at the stack of books next to my desk and spotted two more to add. They’re now listed above. I have a nagging suspicion there are a couple other books missing from this list. Sigh. I try to be diligent about adding books to Goodreads and/or my reading spreadsheet, but that doesn’t always happen.
This year I took a break from rating books on Goodreads. It is such a messy and subjective situation for me, and not all books are treated equally. In the past, I’ve gleefully rated a book 5 or 2 stars only to look back months later and wondered about my mental state. I recently started rating books again and am deciding how to be consistent about it. I’ll either rate the book upon finishing it, while the glow or gloom is upon me, or I’ll wait a week and have more perspective. If you give books star ratings, how do you handle it?
What was your top non-fiction read of 2018? Did you read any of the above? Please let me know in the comments!