Book Recommendations: Non-fiction

Note: This post will be updated as I read and is linked in the Navigation menu

One year I made a New Year’s resolution to read one non-fiction book a month. I thought it was going to be a tedious way to improve myself and continue to learn after graduation from university. I did not expect to fall in love with the genre.

This list is divided into two sections. The first is non-fiction for people who don’t read non-fiction. The genre can be intimidating! These books are easy to read, with a chatty style and lack of overwhelming technical terms.

The second section is for books that are more specific/niche/difficult to read. I recommend them for people who already have an interest in the subject or are willing to push through technical language.

Non-fiction for Fiction Readers:

Macintyre, Ben– Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies

D-Day is often most remembered by that scene from “Saving Private Ryan” but this book delves into the ludicrous, hilarious, and astonishing story of the agents who spun the lie to the German intelligence that made the battle succeed…because the Germans were expecting the troops to land elsewhere. Some highlights from these characters include requests for chocolate from MI5 “for medicinal reasons,” a man with a degree in chicken farming creating entire networks of fake spies to feed bad information, and a woman who whispers insults about people to her dog in Russian. If you like James Bond, you’ll love this story because these real people pulled off one of the greatest espionage schemes in history and they were perhaps the least capable of doing so.

Nafisi, Azar– Reading Lolita in Tehran

Note: this book has a LOT of heavy literature analysis. If you don’t like classics, maybe this might not be the best choice. I almost put it in the other category but if you’re a heavy reader of fiction, you may have the background that this book relies on. Reading Lolita made my top ten list of 2016. It beautifully illustrates how our relationship with literature can give us strength and purpose while also focusing on parallels between literature and our modern lives. This book feels important to me on another level because it is very humanizing of the people of Tehran. In the western world, we’ve been blasted by negative media about this area and only see certain images of it. The book is political, feminist, and deeply touching.

Roach, Mary– Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal

Everything Mary Roach has written is well worth reading but I picked Gulp because of the many, many absurd scenes in this book that had me picturing the professional scientists Roach was interviewing staring at her in dumbfounded exasperation. Roach asks questions that we all wonder but are usually too polite to ask and isn’t afraid of getting her hands covered in various types of fluids and solids to understand the science. She conveys these stories with gleeful prose that’s easy to understand and easier to laugh to. I think Gulp requires less squeamish warning than Stiff, so I picked it for this list.

Ronson, Jon– Lost at Sea: The Jon Ronson Mysteries

Like Mary Roach, Jon Ronson has a way of reporting his stories that is comedic and relatable. This is a collection of essays with highlights include Ronson interviewing the Insane Clown Posse about their song “Magnets” and their distrust of nerdy looking people wearing glasses, a trip where he attempts to recreate a road-trip from a James Bond novel, and visits the North Pole where it’s always Christmas (maybe enough to drive people to murder).

Sandel, Michael J.– Justice, What’s the Right Thing to Do?

What’s that whole, philosophy thing about anyway? Michael Sandel breaks down in an understandable way many of the prominent ethical questions of our time. It’s a book that was suggested to me when I first showed interest in philosophy and a recommendation I pass on. The philosophy in Justice is all practical, ethical philosophy, not the sort of nebulous “How do we know we know?” topics that tend to have people running away screaming at the top of their lungs. The questions discussed here include examining the free market, taxes, and capital punishment. It’s a great resource on being able to understand and structure your own opinions on topics that often arise when politics are discussed while also being accessible to readers unfamiliar with philosophical concepts.

Simon, Matt– The Wasp that Brainwashed the Caterpillar: Evolution’s Most Unbelievable Solutions to Life’s Biggest Problems

This may be the funniest non-fiction book I have ever read. It’s split into easily digestible sections, perfect for consuming when you have 10 to 15 minutes of time and want to learn something new. The book captures perfectly how shockingly strange our neighbor animals on this planet can be. It will gift you with many stories to pull out at parties, though maybe people don’t want to hear about the ant that stacks up the dead bodies of its conquered foes on its back like a towering monument of victory (I absolutely would love this story at a party).

Non-fiction:

Gladwell, Malcom– What the Dog Saw and Other Adventures

I would call Gladwell a less funny more technical Mary Roach. His writing is still far into the range of accessible, but he focuses more on journalism than comedic journalism (not that his stories can’t be amusing).  This collection of essays, which I think is much better in the latter half, covers topics from why there’s only one ketchup and dozens of varieties of mustard to the difference between choking and panicking. I prefer this one to Blink, because I feel that, unfortunately, there are some pop-psychology mistakes present in that book.

Kean, Sam– The Violinist’s Thumb: and Other Lost Tales of Love, War, and Genius, as Written by Our Genetic Code

This book has a lot of dense science focused on genetics, but the stories within are worth pushing for. While genetics don’t determine everything about our life, they can determine how well we can play the violin (due to extremely flexible fingers) or why eating a polar bear’s liver is lethal and why nuns were some badass scientists. Another book where I went around yelling at everyone about what I learned within it.

Newborn, Jud– Sophie Scholl and the White Rose

I actually had to read this book for class and ended up finishing it in the university library, sobbing where everyone could see me. Sophie’s story and the story of her brother and the rest of the white rose is affecting because the main players of the story are so young. These are students (and a professor) who were brave enough to try to spread a message of resistance against the Nazi regime, risking their lives to do so. There’s a fervent (maybe foolishly idealistic) passion in the texts that these students wrote that’s intoxicating. The only way I can describe this book is spiritually uplifting. It restored my faith in humanity.

O’Connell, Mark– To Be a Machine: Adventures Among Cyborgs, Utopians, Hackers, and the Futurists Solving the Modest Problem of Death

Transhumanism is an idea that I’ve been interested in for years and Mark O’Connell’s book is a great entry point to the world of people seeking to leave our biological bodies behind. Because O’Connell doesn’t subscribe to the doctrine of transhumanism himself, there’s a through-line to his adventure that follows his own path of regarding his mortal body and what it would mean to be free of it while not losing sight of how absolutely bonkers some of the transhumanists’ ideas sound. For people who are interested in futurism, biotechnology, and A.I., this book will be a pleasure to read.

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