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Armchair BEA 2013: I Want to Help You Read More Nonfiction

Armchair BEA 2013: I Want to Help You Read More Nonfiction post image

When I saw that one of the genre-focused topics for Armchair BEA was nonfiction, I got really excited. Reading and recommending nonfiction is what I’m known for around the blogosphere (to the extent that I’m really “known” by that many people), so it’s a perfect prompt for me.

The problem I discovered as I sat down to write is that it’s almost too big. I love nonfiction of all styles and topics so much that I really didn’t know where to start in writing this post even with the help of the prompts provided by the kind hosts of Armchair BEA.

After some hemming and hawing, I decided to turn the topic around a little bit. One of the things I love doing is making nonfiction recommendations, especially to people who don’t read a lot of nonfiction or don’t know where to start with the genre because they feel intimidated or think that nonfiction is boring (it’s doesn’t have to be!).

So instead of writing about nonfiction I love, I want to take today’s prompt as an opportunity to make personalized nonfiction recommendations to anyone who wants one.

To get a recommendation, leave a comment on this post answering these three questions:

  1. What is a recent “thing” (book, movie, television show, etc.) that you loved and would like to learn more about?
  2. What kind of nonfiction are you looking (Light? Serious? Personal? Academic? Anything?)
  3. Do you have any bookish pet peeves or favorite qualities in a book I should know about?

Over the next couple of days, I’ll respond to each comment with a recommendation for one or two nonfiction books that I think you should try based on your answers. To see your recommendation, please subscribe to the comments or check back over the weekend.

I can’t guarantee that every recommendation will be a hit, but I hope they’ll give you a starting point for getting into nonfiction or, if you already read and love nonfiction, an idea for a new book or author to try. Thanks for playing!

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Bex May 31, 2013, 6:44 am

    I love this idea 🙂 This is probably going to be really unhelpful and general, but a subject I’d love to know more about it early American History. Being from the UK I know quite a lot about UK history but nearly nothing about American! I prefer reading non-fiction books that are more narrative in style and engrossing (rather than the huge tomes with black & white pictures and hundreds and thousands of footnotes and references!).

    • Kim May 31, 2013, 6:33 pm

      This one was a little tricky! Most of my American history reading starts about 1850, so I had to stretch to think of books that are earlier.

      An author I am going to recommend is Nathaniel Philbrick. I haven’t read him yet, but friends have liked his writing. Both BUNKER HILL (very new) and MAYFLOWER are about early American history.

      Another author to check out is Sarah Vowell. She writes about American history, but in a more humorous and irreverent way. I loved THE WORDY SHIPMATES, which is about the Puritans, and ASSASSINATION VACATION, which is a “tour” of presidential assassinations. I loved them both.

      • Kim May 31, 2013, 6:39 pm

        Another book that is on my wishlist that fits this topic is DESPERATE SONS by Led Standiford. Again, I haven’t read it, but I want to!

  • Shannon @ River City Reading May 31, 2013, 6:45 am

    I had a hard time narrowing this topic down, too, but I’m glad it was chosen…it makes me sad to see so many people say they don’t read non-fiction! I’m going to peek in on your recommendations 🙂

    • Kim May 31, 2013, 6:34 pm

      I haven’t gotten to read any of the posts yet, but any time I see someone say they don’t like nonfiction it makes me a little sad. I think you just have to find the author or sub-genre that works for you (same as you do with fiction).

  • Meaghan (@cineastesview) May 31, 2013, 7:45 am

    What a very cool idea! Hmmm, I generally don’t have trouble finding (too many) books to read but I’m always open to suggestions. I love late-Victorian / Edwardian England. I’m a fan of both Downton Abbey and Ripper Street. Really, I like anything with a *good*, gripping story to it. My pet peeves are useless tangents, more than 3 POVs, and gushy romance.

    You can see more of the non-fiction I like here: http://mwgerard.com/armchair-bea-ethics-non-fiction/

    • Kim May 31, 2013, 6:45 pm

      I love Downton Abbey too, and there’s been a lot of Downton Abbey inspired nonfiction lately (although I haven’t read any yet).

      A book I want to suggest is maybe a little earlier than you like, but I thought it was fascinating — THE GHOST MAP by Steven Johnson. It’s a story about how two men, a reverend and a doctor, figure out the cause of London’s 1854 cholera epidemic. It’s a really interesting look at science, society, urban planning and politics.

      There was a book out this May that might be a little more in your time period, although I haven’t read it yet — THE WOMAN BEFORE WALLIS by Andrew Rose. I mostly want to read it because of the subtitle: “Prince Edward, the Parisian Courtesan, and the Perfect Murder.” I think it sounds amazing.

  • Fyrefly May 31, 2013, 8:52 am

    Awesome idea! I’ve been increasingly into non-fiction since I started blogging, but I will always take recommendations. My problem is that I don’t know what to ask for! My favorite non-fiction books are often microhistories that get me interested in things I didn’t even know I was interested in. (Victoria Finlay’s Color is my usual example.) I don’t really have any non-fiction pet peeves (maybe multiple extended quotations from primary sources without a lot of commentary?).

    • Kim May 31, 2013, 6:52 pm

      I love microhistories too, although I never think to call them that.

      I put together a book list of foodie nonfiction that has a few microhistories on it: https://www.popcircle.com/detail/Collection/2269/130 From that list, I think EXTRA VIRGINITY by Tom Mueller and THE POTATO by Larry Zuckerman might fit best (but I haven’t read them to verify if they’re good).

      Last summer I read a book called THE BALL by John Fox (a history of the ball, and by associate, some sports played with a ball) that I thought was really fun. WORD FREAK isn’t exactly a microhistory, but it is a look at the world of competitive Scrabble and has some history of the game in it. Plus, it’s really very funny.

      • Savvy Working Gal June 5, 2013, 12:31 pm

        I have to admit Extra Virginity slogs a bit. I participated in an olive oil tasting and was really looking forward to this one. I still haven’t finished it.

  • Word Lily May 31, 2013, 9:37 am

    I love: fiber arts! BBC’s Sherlock! I like … lots of things. But this part doesn’t seem as important to me.

    I like my nonfiction to still have a narrative, a story. I get peeved when a supposed outside journalist gets all tangled up in the story they’re reporting (This bugged me about The Man Who Loved Books Too Much, and it’s why I won’t read Henrietta Lacks). I sometimes like stunt memoirs, but sometimes the POV is super annoying. (The movie of Julie & Julia was tons better than the book, imo, because Julie was obnoxious and the movie had more Julia Child. Looking back, I probably shouldn’t have finished the book.) I think I might also like pop-sci, but … that hasn’t been fully tested. (I read and liked Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers; thick science, but still worth reading.)

    • Kim May 31, 2013, 6:56 pm

      If you like sports, the best sports book I’ve read recently is THE BOYS IN THE BOAT (I just finished actually, I haven’t even posted a review), but it’s not published until next week.

      For a gripping story, I highly recommend Tracy Kidder (I think Care mentioned him on Twitter today), especially MOUNTAINS BEYOND MOUNTAINS. Another good one was THE BLACK COUNT by Tom Reiss, about the real-life inspiration for the Count of Monte Cristo. FULL BODY BURDEN by Kristen Iversen is a memoir, but also an investigation into a nuclear facility in Colorado — I’m not sure if this will push your authors involved button or not (since it’s part memoir, she’s obviously in her own story but not in an obnoxious way), but I thought it was wonderful.

      • Word Lily May 31, 2013, 8:03 pm

        Yes, I’ve got a tab open of Kidder’s books. And I saw The Black Count mentioned in another post today, somewhere. I need to read Dumas this year (hopefully), so this might be a good follow-up to that!

        I’m not so much into sports books. I have a brother who is all about everything sports, though.

        Thanks, Kim!

        • Kim June 2, 2013, 10:45 am

          I think The Black Count won an award last year, maybe the Pulitzer for history? I’m going to go check… Nope, it was the 2013 Pulizter for biography or autobiography. I think it’d be really great to read in companion with a Dumas book, since the Count was such an inspiration for his son, the author Dumas.

  • Care May 31, 2013, 9:51 am

    I want fun science-y books please.

    • Kim May 31, 2013, 7:00 pm

      Science! Obviously, Mary Roach is a must-read (my favorite of her’s is STIFF, what happens to cadavers, which makes me a little weird!).

      THE POISONER’S HANDBOOK by Deborah Blum is one of my favorite, a mix of history and science about the birth of forensic toxiology. Another one I liked is HERE IS A HUMAN BEING by Misha Angrist which is all about personal genomics and how science is learning about the human genome.

      Oliver Sacks is a famous science writer, but I actually haven’t read anything by him yet.

      • liz June 7, 2013, 3:47 pm

        I will enthusiastically back up Kim’s suggestion of Mary Roach… Just adore her…

    • Fyrefly June 3, 2013, 3:05 pm

      Butting in here, but: Science! A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson and Dr. Tatiana’s Sex Advice to All Creation by Olivia Judson are both funny and thoroughly awesome.

      • Kim June 3, 2013, 8:07 pm

        Great recommendations, thank you! I would not have thought of Bryson, since I’ve only read his travel writing and don’t like it very much. But Bryson on science would probably be much better!

  • Andrea @Cozy Up With A Good Read May 31, 2013, 9:54 am

    Wow, this is such a great idea, especially because I would love some recommendations on non-fiction books to try out since I’m all about the fiction. It’s weird but I love historical fiction books but have never actually looked into reading more about those times.

    I’ve been reading a lot about the regency era, but what I have really most recently fallen in love with is the Italian Renaissance, just read a book based in this time period.

    I would definitely read anything, light or serious, I don’t really want an academic though, I think I want to have fun while reading it. And I definitely want a bit of a narrative story to it rather than just being all over the place.

    I can’t wait to see what you can recommend 🙂

    • Kim May 31, 2013, 7:06 pm

      Oh man, the Italian Renaissance is way out of my reading comfort zone. But, I am going to give it my best!

      One book I’ve been intrigued by is GALILEO’S DAUGHTER by Dava Sobel — it’s a science/history book that I’ve read some rave reviews of. There’s a book out this November, PRINCESSES BEHAVING BADLY by Linda McRobbie, that sounds really fun too.

      A book I liked that’s might five you time period, if not the location is BLOOD WORK by Holly Tucker, which is a story about the development of blood transfusion in France from 1665 to 1668. It’s a little gross in parts, but I liked it a lot.

  • Flo May 31, 2013, 10:27 am

    Hi Kim,

    Even if I follow your blog and your twitter account, it is the first time I dare to comment (I am French, read in English, but find it sometimes/often a little bit difficult to write in English).
    It is your blog that made me realized that I was reading quite a lot of nonfiction books and that encourages me to launch, a year ago, a sort of ‘nonfiction project’ gathering a handful of other bloggers (I’ve entered the URL of my very young blog in English but I’ve got one in French and the project runs on this one — so far, I haven’t reviewed nonfiction books in English but it will be the case. I am a little bit overwhelmed with two blogs and the fact to write in English for one of them).
    And, yes, you are “known” by me for the nonfiction profile of your blog and it is what makes it special!
    I’ve already bought a book after reading one of your review (‘Everybody was so young’ by Amanda Vaill). It is still in my TBR pile but its day will come 😉

    1. Your first question seems to me the best one to address to someone who doesn’t read nonfiction because it is exactly the reason why I am going to read a particular book (e.g. F. Scott Fitzgerald is one of my favorite writer and I tend to be interested in all this period of time, the Lost Generation, and so on). But the fact is that it would be difficult to answer this first question because a lot of subjects interest me (this week, I read a short book about mosses in Japan). This said, if you have other Fitzgerald or Jazz Age related nonfiction books to recommend, I am interested (I already have in my TBR pile his biography – in French, I’ve read ‘A moveable feast’ even if I can’t stand Hemingway and I’m not a big fan of Zelda).
    2. Kind of nonfiction: must help me to better know the subject without being to much academic. I love memoirs too.
    3. Main pet peeves: science and all that is related to walking and travels in awful places where it is dramatically cold or hot 😉

    Sorry for my so long comment :S

    • Kim May 31, 2013, 7:13 pm

      Thank you so much for working up the courage to comment! I really admire people who can speak and write in multiple languages (I’ve never been much of a linguist myself), especially when conversing in one is uncomfortable.

      Since you’ve already got it, I highly recommend EVERYBODY WAS SO YOUNG — it was exactly the kind of book I wanted to read when I was in a 1920s, Fitzgerald kind of mood. Another book set in the U.S. in the 1920s that is great is THE POISONER’S HANDBOOK — I know you said you didn’t like science, but this is more science/history (maybe it’d be worth checking out from the library to see).

      A book that sort of reminds me of the elegance and social stuff in Fitzgerald is FIFTH AVENUE, 5 AM by Sam Wasson. It’s about Audrey Hepburn and the making of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, just really jazzy and sophisticated and interesting.

      • Flo June 7, 2013, 5:04 am

        Thank you Kim for your suggestions!

        I’ve checked out from the library but none of the books are available – I am lucky enough to have a ‘foreign languages’ section to complain but the library purchases (nearly) only novels. Even if ‘Fifth Avenue, 5AM’ has been translated in French, the library doesn’t seem to be interested in it. As I love Audrey Hepburn (how do you guess? 😉 and in particular in this movie, I will add the book on my wishlist and cross my fingers (my birthday is next month: a great timing!).

        After checking the details of ‘The Poisoner’s Handbook’, I am not sure it would be a good pick for me (crimes and forensic scientists make me sick – I’m a coward, yes, and the view of a syringe is like watching an horror movie :D)

        For now, I am going to try to read ‘Everybody was so young’ this month and will share with you my thoughts by commenting * finally * your review.

        Thanks again!

        • Kim June 9, 2013, 8:52 am

          If you don’t like crime, THE POISONER’S HANDBOOK would not be good for you. It’s pretty grisly in parts. Definitely read EVERYBODY WAS SO YOUNG. That one was just wonderful 🙂

  • Charleen May 31, 2013, 11:40 am

    This is an amazing idea! I read hardly any nonfiction. Let’s see…

    1. Well I loved the new Star Trek movie… but other than a behind-the-scenes type book I don’t know how that would translate into a non-fiction subject. I’m generally more interested in history than science, as far as that sort of thing goes. My biggest passion is classical music. (I don’t know how any of this actually helps narrow me down to a subject, I know I’m not answering the question very well.)

    2. Light but academic, if that’s a thing? Informative but not dense.

    3. I think any of my pet peeves are exclusive to fiction, dealing with narrator perspective and such. I guess a non-condescending tone would be important for me for non-fiction.

    Thanks for doing this!

    • Kim May 31, 2013, 7:20 pm

      Hmm… this one is stumping me a little bit! if you want a book about space, Mary Roach’s PACKING FOR MARS could be fun (although it is science-y).

      I can think of two books that are a bit about music, but I haven’t read either of them yet to verify their potential awesomeness. One is DO YOU DREAM IN COLOR? a memoir by a blind mezzo-soprano named Laurie Rubin. The other is a book that is coming out this July, IMPERFECT HARMONY by Stacy Horn, a memoir about Horn’s experience being in a community choir in NYC.

      I feel like there must be some really gripping history mystery books about classical music or composers or something, but I can’t think of a single one… I hope these are decent recommendations!

  • Heather May 31, 2013, 11:41 am

    Ha ha! Yes! Great idea. I’m a nonfiction junkie so I have way too many I’m trying to read at one time. They are a great way to learn about so many things without having to pay for college. But I will check back and see what recommendations you have for everyone!

    • Kim May 31, 2013, 7:22 pm

      My unread nonfiction shelf is twice as full as my unread fiction shelves. It’s ridiculous. I love learning trivia and “fun facts” from nonfiction that I can pull out during parties — makes me feel smart 🙂

  • Jennifer May 31, 2013, 1:04 pm

    Kim, you are my nonfiction guru! 😀 I love what you’re doing with today’s topic. Awesome idea!

    Take her suggestions and run with them folks, she knows what she’s talking about.

    • Kim May 31, 2013, 7:22 pm

      Thanks Jennifer 🙂

  • Cara May 31, 2013, 3:04 pm

    Hi Kim!

    I just started following you on twitter after reading some of your posts with Book Riot. What a fun idea! I actually enjoy nonfiction but I find the hardest thing about making a selection is figuring out which authors actually have credibility to speak on the topic! I like all kind of things including history (history of the space program and presidential history are two of my faves). Two of my favorite nonfiction authors are Ben Mezrich and Malcolm Gladwell. Thanks in advance for the recommendation!

    • Kim May 31, 2013, 7:28 pm

      Credibility is a really tricky thing in nonfiction! I always check out the bibliography and see if the sources seem legit, and if I’m really concerned, seek out reviews from trusted experts to get some second opinions.

      Ben Mezrich is tricky on that credibility point. I want to believe he has sources for everything he writes, but it feels like he embellishes (even though I love his books too).

      If you haven’t read it, you must pick up ASSASSINATION VACATION (really hilarious presidential history by Sarah Vowell). Jim Lehrer wrote a book a couple years about the history of the televised presidential debates that I thought was nerdy but awesome, TENSION CITY.

      On more of the pop social science side, I really liked SUPERFREAKONOMICS (the author’s are escaping me at the moment). EVERYTHING BAD IS GOOD FOR YOU by Steven Johnson is another fun pop culture manifesto type book too. I hope at least one of these is good 🙂

  • Dana May 31, 2013, 4:21 pm

    What an awesome idea to help out folks who don’t know what book to read! I hope you have lots of people who take you up on that offer. I love non-fiction even if I do read more fiction. Enjoy the rest of Armchair BEA!

    • Kim May 31, 2013, 7:28 pm

      Thanks! This has been harder than I thought, but hopefully it’s giving people a place to try something new.

  • Rich S May 31, 2013, 5:47 pm

    I love sports, genealogy and making the world better. I prefer narrative non-fiction. Thanks!!

    • Kim May 31, 2013, 7:30 pm

      If you like sports nonfiction, THE BOYS ON THE BOAT by Daniel James Brown is a must-read. I haven’t stopped gushing about how awesome I thought that one was since I finished reading it.

      FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS by Buzz Bissinger is a sort of obvious suggestion, as is THE BLIND SIDE by Michael Lewis (but I liked both of them). I also liked a newer book about baseball in the inner city called A CHANCE TO WIN by Jonathan Schueppe.

  • Melissa June 1, 2013, 5:38 pm

    You need to turn this into a blog feature of yours. 🙂 LOVE this!

    • Kim June 1, 2013, 7:34 pm

      Thanks Melissa! I’ve been thinking about doing something like it, but I haven’t figured out the logistics of how it would work. If you have ideas, let me know!

      • Word Lily June 2, 2013, 8:11 am

        I think you could ask for scenarios, and then when you make your recommendations, share the request and your recommendations as a post.

        • Kim June 2, 2013, 10:24 am

          That’s a good idea. It’s be easy enough to set up a Google Form to have people input information, then just use that to do posts throughout the month.

  • Akilah June 2, 2013, 8:09 am

    I don’t need any recs, but I just wanted to comment on what a fantastic idea this is.

    • Kim June 2, 2013, 10:56 am

      Thank you! I wasn’t sure how it would work, but it seems to have gone well. And it’s been fun for me, which is important too 🙂

  • Maphead June 2, 2013, 2:38 pm

    Ahh, great questions to ask. Lemme see what I can possibly come up with as far as answering them.

    1. After witnessing over the last decade how the Internet has made it easier for individuals to promote lies, perversions of science and bogus conspiracy theories I wanna read more books that address truthfulness and deal with debunking the bogus. I have Merchants of Doubt all ready to go and I’d love to read The Lifespan of a Fact and An Army of Davids.
    2. As far as what kind of nonfiction I enjoy, I tend to go through stages. Last year and the year before I was reading a lot of stuff about the Middle East and comparative religion. Seems like I always gravitate towards memoir and history. This spring it’s been infectious disease. Who knows what’s next!?
    3. As far as pet peeves, lately I’ve been getting all bent out of shape over single subject “big picture” kind of books that come up a bit short. Either the author has selected a topic that doesn’t warrant book length treatment (and should have been left as an extended magazine article in a publication like The New Yorker) or selects a topic that is too expansive and the book ends up being too superficial.

    Great topic for a post! Keep up the good work!!!

    • Kim June 3, 2013, 8:11 pm

      You already read so much nonfiction, how am I supposed to come up with anything for you!? Just kidding. I love a challenge.

      Ok, actually this was hard. I have a slightly off-topic recommendation — MEMOIR: A HISTORY by Ben Yagoda, which is about exactly what it sounds like. But it also addresses the idea of truth and memory in memoir, which is tangentially related to the Internet helping to promote lies, but does connect to your interest in memoirs.

  • Charlie June 2, 2013, 5:46 pm

    I like this idea a lot.

    1) About the food industry, particularly people growing their own food (I read and loved Robin Shulman’s Eat The City, it wasn’t long enough).
    2) Any sort, though preferably not too academic.
    3) I’m not keen on ‘probablys’ and unsupported statements. I like narrative non-fiction but I’ve no idea if that would be used in the sort of book I’m looking for.

    • Kim June 3, 2013, 8:19 pm

      Good topic! I think THE OMNIVORE’S DILEMMA by Michael Pollan and ANIMAL, VEGETABLE, MIRACLE by Barbara Kingsolver are obvious suggestions, but I’d be a little remiss if I didn’t mention them.

      I was poking around on Edelweiss today and happened to run across a July release that might fit this topic too, FROM THE GROUND UP by Jeanne Nolan.

      For a more science/politics look at the food system, FOOD FRAY by Lisa H. Weasel was pretty good, too.

      • Charlie June 12, 2013, 8:51 am

        Ok, I’m definitely reading Pollan’s work now. Kelly (WellReadReadHead) said how good his books were, but you recommending him as a follow-on from Shulman, next time at the store it is.

        I think I’ll leave the Kingsolver until I’ve read Flight Behaviour but the other two to read soon sound great. Glad to hear you’re making a regular feature of this!

        • Kim June 12, 2013, 7:26 pm

          I feel like Pollan is sort of the contemporary guru about food writing, especially when it comes to real food and small farms and whatnot. Maybe the Malcom Gladwell of food? I don’t know. I read OMNIVORE’S and his other book though and learned a lot from both.

  • Katie @ Doing Dewey June 3, 2013, 2:21 pm

    What a great idea! I like giving non-fiction recommendations too, so I had a lot of fun swapping book ideas in the comments. I’m so glad BEA had non-fiction as a topic; there are a lot more bloggers who read non-fiction than I was aware of 🙂

    • Kim June 3, 2013, 8:19 pm

      Absolutely! I haven’t had much of a chance to go through all the posts yet, but I’m looking forward to it. I think seeing the other recommendations in this thread was one of my favorite parts too.