Nonfiction November: A Round-Up of My Top Nonfiction Book Picks
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Nonfiction books: what’s the first thing that comes to mind? Do you think of textbooks? Cookbooks? Historical accounts of the past? Books of essays? Maybe an old celebrity biography you had in your teenage years? The list is as endlessly diverse as the person making it.
Because it takes on a myriad of forms, nonfiction is almost impossible to sum up. You know good nonfiction when you read it though. It isn’t merely a retelling of facts, but a retelling of reality with the vivacity and appeal of the most gripping fiction. Nonfiction writing reframes factual events, shaping them to tell a story worth telling. It reminds us that reality is just as powerful, mysterious and insightful as the storylines we follow on screen. And beautifully told and written to boot!
Nonfiction November is a reading initiative to encourage and promote the reading of nonfiction works. It started out as a children’s literature event, but has since spread out to include all age groups. In the spirit of this fantastic initiative, here are my top nonfiction picks for the month of November and beyond.
For easy navigation, I’ve split them up into categories: essays, ethics and society, memoirs and long-form journalism. Whether you enjoy long-form journalistic pieces, travel narratives or memoirs, you’re guaranteed to find something you’ll love here.
The personal essay has seen quite a boom in recent years, with works such as Emilie Pine’s Notes to Self and Zadie Smith’s Feel Free achieving high critical acclaim. There is no pretending that the rise of the personal essay cannot be attributed, at least in part, to the sharing nature of the digital age. Across all social media platforms, billions of users share their thoughts, opinions, confessions and anecdotes on a daily basis. We are more used to getting information about people’s lives directly from the source than ever before. Why, then, do we still read personal essays? What extra value can the essay provide?
It seems to me that the value of the essay flows from two sources. Firstly, because the essay is an extended piece of personal writing, it provides a deeper and more complex understanding of an individual’s mind at work than a tweet or Instagram caption. Secondly, it is a valuable act for the essay writer themselves. Writing an essay allows for honest expression, creativity, and analysis of thought and actions. It is a brave and vulnerable act: there is no way of hiding behind fictional characters, and the responsibility to faithfully represent reality lies in the author’s hands.
An essay is a trial
Of course, the word ‘essay’ comes from the French essayer – ‘to try.’ The essay is therefore by its very nature an attempt, a trial, a sketch. It is a representation of the mind at work: exploring and constructing, making discoveries and making mistakes. The best essayists do all this and more. They use the power and beauty of language to meander through the issues at hand, weaving pieces of writing as complex and individual as their very selves. And they do it all in a digestible format.
With the expansive variety of essay genres, it is easy to find something that sparks our fancy. You might enjoy personal essays, political essays, nature pieces, philosophical musings, or something else entirely. Here are just a few of my favourite essays and collections:
Joan Didion — The White Album
F. Scott Fitzgerald — The Crack-Up
Ralph Waldo Emerson — Nature
Ernest Hemingway — Pamplona In July
Virginia Woolf — A Room of One’s Own
David Foster Wallace — Consider the Lobster
Joyce Carol Oates (editor) — The Best American Essays of the 20th Century
Zadie Smith — Feel Free
Ethics and Society
As a philosophy graduate, I feel that I have to mention philosophical texts in this article. It’s part of the code of conduct really. Philosophy has taught me many things over the years, but mostly it has made me understand that I know nothing. Almost everything we take as truth or fact can be undermined, questioned, argued for or against. In my experience, philosophy opens the mind and stretches it, making you look at things from a different perspective. More often than not, it makes you want to tear your hair out. That’s just one part of its beauty.
If you’ve never studied philosophy or had an interest in it, I wouldn’t blame you for assuming that it’s boring or difficult. But in reality, there are plenty of interesting philosophical texts out there that are beginner friendly. You just have to find an area of philosophy that really sparks your interest. For me, that area is ethics, or moral philosophy.
If you’re a fan of The Good Place on Netflix, you’ll already have received a crash course on ethics. From the trolley problem to motivation for moral decision-making, The Good Place is one big philosophical thought experiment. If nothing else, I’d highly recommend watching the show. But if you’re looking for some reading material, here are a few of my favourites:
Marcus Aurelius — Meditations
Alain de Botton — The Consolations of Philosophy
Plato — The Last Days of Socrates
Aristotle — Nicomachean Ethics
Yuval Noah Harari — Sapiens
Yuval Noah Harari — 21 Lessons for the 21st Century
Philosophize This! Podcast
Memoirs and Biographies
For an extended look at an individual life, memoirs and biographies are a great place to go. They provide a view beyond the scope of a personal essay, and allow you to see the individual in a greater context. With memoirs, you get a first hand view of events or circumstances of which you might already have a general knowledge. They open up an individual perspective on broad and complex issues, allowing the personal sphere to shine through. The benefit? They bring things back to a human level, a language that we all share.
Memoirs give you a great idea of the personal voice of the author, whether or not they are already in the public eye. They give the individual authority over their own story, and the responsibility to tell it in an accurate way, to the best of their ability. Not everything contained in a memoir is a cold, hard fact — but most often, it is true to the extent that memory and creative expression allows. Apart from the events themselves, the way the story is told is entirely up to the author, opening up a world of creative freedom.
For all of these reasons, I love delving into a memoir or biography. It humanises my heroes and often explains complex sociopolitical issues in an engaging way. The memoirs you want to read will depend on your interests, but here are a few of my favourites or to-be-reads:
Adam Kay — This is Going to Hurt
Michelle Obama — Becoming
Tara Westover — Educated
Irvin D. Yalom — Love’s Executioner
MFK Fisher — The Gastronomical Me
Dolly Alderton — Everything I Know About Love
Sylvia Plath — The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath
Ernest Hemingway — A Moveable Feast
Elizabeth Day — How to Fail
Shaun Bythell — The Diary of a Bookseller
Of course, there’s got to be something on this list for fans of journalism. In the age of digestible, headline-focused content, there has to be a place for longer, more complex explanatory pieces. A well researched, well argued and well written longform article is a pleasure to read. It is the written equivalent of an insightful documentary. Great sources for this type of content are The Guardian, The New Yorker and Longform.org (who also do a fantastic podcast). If you’re looking for something a bit longer, though, here are a few favourites:
Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey — She Said
Lisa Taddeo — Three Women
Susan Cain — Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking
Daniel Jones (editor) — Modern Love
Joan Didion — Slouching Toward Bethlehem
So there you have it! A long list of nonfiction favourites and recommendations to last you until Nonfiction November 2020. I hope you found at least one or two of your next reads here. Let me know your favourite nonfiction books in the comments or over on Instagram!
And while you’re here, why not check out my autumn 2019 reading list? You’ll be guaranteed to find your next fiction favourite there!
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