Friday, February 26, 2010

Top 10 Non-Fiction

As promised to my sister Jen, a list of some of my favorite non-fiction through the years. I probably left out some good stuff, but it was fun to remember all my favorites as I wrote this.

10. In Defense of Food, by Michal Pollan. This book is a simple and quick read, but simple in the sense of elegant cohesion rather than simple-mindedness. The author's premise is (simply): eat food (not processed chemicals), not too much, mostly plants. His point is that nutrition science is how we got into our current confusion about food, and that since its advent our diets have rapidly deteriorated, leading to epidemic obesity and heart disease. He promotes going back to basics, like actually eating whole foods rather than nutritionally-concocted food products like snack packs and diet bars. We once knew how to eat when it was passed down through families and cultural tradition. Time to go back.
9. Musicophilia, by Oliver Sacks. Oliver Sacks is a brilliant writer as well as a neurologist; the extraordinary case studies he cites wouldn't be quite as dazzling in lesser hands. Sacks explores the many strange ways music can interact with the brain, offering examples as diverse as Nabokov's purported "amusicality" (complete lack of enjoyment in music, hearing it only as an unpleasant din) to how musicians with debilitating memory loss can reclaim a part of their identity through performance. Fascinating and fun.
8. The Children in Room E4, by Susan Eaton. I enjoy reading books based on education, but I am often suspicious of them: too often, they are so often heavily political or obnoxiously sappy (my Foundations of Education professor actually made us read Tuesdays with Morrie. For a grad school level course! Shudder). Even Kozol's excellent Savage Inequalities felt at times forced and manipulative to me. The Children in Room E4, in contrast, meticulously cites the history of desegregation legal battles and Civil Rights advocacy: Eaton uses this foundation to build an excellent argument for how education in the years since Brown v. the Board of Education has become increasingly resegregated due to white flight and the housing industry's racist policies of the '60's and '70's. The book then goes on to promote integration as a solution best for everyone--if we believe in a the virtues of a racially and economically diverse society, where better to start teaching mutual tolerance and understanding than in public schools?
7. Alphabet Juice, by Roy Blount Jr. I love Blount's premise--that words really maybe aren't just arbitrary symbols for the things they represent, as linguists claim--and I love even more how he goes about whimsically and unscientifically cataloguing the way words' connotations shift based on their sounds. It is more of a celebration of words than an actual argument, and so fun for a language-lover to read!
6. The First Word, by Christine Kenneally. Kenneally provides a succinct history of linguistics, from the 19th century through and including Chomsky with his various adherents and detractors. The purpose of the book is to explore the new research into evolutionary linguistics, long a taboo topic among linguists who considered it to irrelevant or unscientific. She takes a chapter by chapter approach, examining research into what aspects of anatomy, cognition, culture, and socialization may have been necessary to the evolution of language. Ambitious and far-reaching yet designed for someone with little or no background in linguistics, though to be frank, those without a passion for the field may find it tedious.
5. Green Metropolis, by David Owen. This book was fantastic: practical, logical, well-supported, convincing of the need to conserve energy and rely less on oil, and heavily critical of the popular "green" movement with all its inconsistencies. The author asserts that the American, Thoreau-based environmental tradition is counterproductive in focusing on movement away from the cities, long demonized as environmentally unfriendly. Convincing data show that city-dwellers, by virtue of public transport and smaller apartments (and therefore less stuff) are far more environmentally efficient than their suburban and rural counterparts; they are fitter, too, from all that walking. He attacks architectural organizations for awarding "green" awards to commercial buildings with all the new ecological bells and whistles, located miles from where any of its employees live and thus requiring them all to commute large distances to get to work. He likewise pokes holes in the logic of a wealthy family in a huge home, interviewed for the newspapers for their recent environmentally friendly, multi-thousand dollar gadgets. In the interview, the patriarch congratulates himself for doing "the right thing." As Owen points out, the positive environmental effect would have been far greater if the family had simply bought an "energy efficient" (i.e. smaller) home. Good stuff.
4. Ex Libris, by Anne Fadiman. I read this book a few years ago, and unlike most of the other books on this list, it is filled with a book-lover's ruminations, and is therefore not an informational text. Fadiman is intensely readable, likable, and relatable. She has that rare gift for description where you find yourself squealing in delight, "yes! yes that's it exactly!" A fast, pleasurable read.
3. Blink, Malcolm Gladwell. Malcolm Gladwell is a premier story-teller, and here he explores the role of snap judgments, which can be astoundingly accurate, uncomfortably revealing, or harmful, depending on the situation. His arguments are not always the most air-tight I've ever seen, but the questions he asks and the angles he takes are invariably interesting and fun. Blink was my first experience with Gladwell, and it was easily devoured. He's good brain candy!
2. Into Thin Air/Into the Wild. Yes, these are two different titles by John Krakauer. And they are both fabulous--the first describing the author's role in the disastrous Mount Everest expeditions of 1996, the second an attempt to understand the intense and uncompromising personality of Chris McCandless, who ventured into the wild to live a Thoreau-like, simple, and deliberate life without hypocrisy, and ended up being killed: the wild unpredictability of nature that he had come to crave was his undoing. After reading Krakauer's account, I don't believe McCandless would have seen his death as the ultimate tragedy.
1. Collapse/Guns, Germs, and Steel, by Jared Diamond. Really, these two books could be separately listed as my number 1 and 2 entries. While both are written in the incomparable style of Jared Diamond, their subjects are sufficiently diverse to stand alone. Jared Diamond is hands down my favorite non-fiction writer. His entire process is so appealing to me: come up with a befuddling, comprehensive, unanswered question--why did the Old World conquer the New, and not the other way around? (Guns, Germs, and Steel), or why do some societies suddenly collapse? (Collapse, clearly)--compile a mountain of data, build a theory, test it against the data, and then overwhelm your reader with extensive and meticulous evidence. His books are the scientific method at its best: intensely creative, painstakingly methodical, refreshingly interdisciplinary. LOVE his stuff.

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