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Life at the Library

Posted on: February 26, 2020

Nonfiction for fun! 14 librarian-recommended reads

person hold three nonfiction books

This post was written by Cate Triola, a librarian at Park Grove Library in Cottage Grove. When she’s not matching readers with a great true story, she enjoys cooking and reading about ghosts. 

Just as with fiction books, what each nonfiction reader enjoys is unique to them. The great thing about nonfiction is that it’s organized by subject, so if you find a true crime book you really love, there’s another one right next to it that’s just as good.

Even if you think there is no way your interests could show up in the nonfiction books, you might be surprised. I like books about ghosts, and lo and behold, there’s a nonfiction section for that!

Seeing Other Lives

book cover born a crime by trevor noahOne of the big trends in nonfiction right now is memoirs and autobiographies. It gives readers the chance to understand life from a different perspective, or find some solidarity in sharing an experience with another person. Just as everyone’s life has highs and lows, and every story has its ups and down, so too do memoirs. You get to read about the funny parts of someone’s life, as well as the hardships.

If you’re an audiobook reader, these stories are very often narrated by the author themselves. One of my favorite books to recommend to readers is Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood. Listening to his audiobook is like listening to his stand-up comedy for 9 hours, and I got to learn about life in a country I otherwise didn’t know much about.

Another memoir I recommend is Thick: And Other Essays by Tressie McMillan Cottom. They say reading fiction makes a person more empathetic, and the same is true for memoirs. We can read stories about people like us to get a new perspective on our own experiences, or we can learn a lifestyle completely different from our own. Either way, we gain a better understanding of ourselves and the people around us.

Revisiting and Revising History

book cover notorious RBG by irin carmon and shana knixhnikAnother trend in nonfiction is the refurbishment of histories and biographies, especially when you get to combine history with popular culture. Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg by Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik not only talks about RBG’s rise to the United States Supreme Court, but also her workout routine, how she’s going to vote if she’s wearing a certain necklace, and the heartbreaking loss of her husband, Marty. It doesn’t read like a textbook, and you don’t need a legal dictionary or a lawyer to get through it. The authors have helpfully annotated RBG’s writing with their own plain-language explanations.

Another trend that has emerged is books about lesser known people in history, especially women and people of color. The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper by Hallie Rubenhold is almost entirely about the women who were victims of the Jack the Ripper. It only mentions Jack the Ripper a handful of times, and is otherwise completely about the lives of these women whose names most people don’t know.

Entertaining Science and Tech

book cover what if by randall monroeWe’re also seeing a lot of entertaining books about science and technology. Authors are writing about complicated concepts in ways that everyone can understand. One of the masters of this is Randall Munroe. I recommend all of his books, but my favorite is What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions. He takes completely ridiculous questions and assesses them scientifically. One of my favorite chapters in this book goes into the biological history of New York City 1000, 10,000, 100,000, 1,000,000, and 1,000,000,000 years ago, complete with comic drawings and, if you’re an audiobook listener, Wil Wheaton’s delightful narration.

And for the more macabre-minded, we have Caitlin Doughty’s books about what happens to us after we die, making for a deeply personal, fascinating, and often hilarious read, pulling in scientific information and personal narrative. I recommend Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs?: Big Questions from Tiny Mortals about Death and Smoke Gets In Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory.

Teasing Your Tastebuds

book cover The Sioux Chefs Indigenous Kitchen by sean shermanI love cookbooks that talk about the history behind a recipe. There is so much that goes into our food that I think we take for granted. One of my favorite cookbooks is The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen by Sean Sherman. It’s a beautiful tribute to nature in Minnesota and the history of its people. I love reading the author’s narrative as much as I love cooking and eating the recipes. Instead of just throwing ingredients you bought at Cub Foods in a dish and not calling it a casserole, you take the time to appreciate the food you’re making and the work you and other put into bringing a dish to life. And then you get to eat, which is fun.

I also recommend Notes from a Young Black Chef: A Memoir by Kwame Onwuachi. Honestly, I had my own shrimp étouffée recipe that I used, but after reading the author’s story about serving his shrimp étouffée to an oil spill cleanup crew at sea, I’ve converted. A good story can really make a recipe something more.

Chilling True Crimes

book cover home sweet murder by james pattersonPerhaps the champion of nonfiction leisure reading has historically been true crime. Even that genre is evolving to be more accessible to readers who are hesitant to pick up nonfiction books. If you pick up James Patterson’s Home Sweet Murder and look at it side-by-side with one of his fiction novels, you can barely tell which one is which. The master of fiction is also a master of true crime, and being a quick and easy read is a great way to start off on your journey into the world of nonfiction.

Modern, Accessible Poetry

book cover milk and honey by rupi kaurPoetry is also evolving. There’s a trend in modern poetry to expose the normalcy of the human experience, like with this radical idea of body acceptance. That’s what Rupi Kaur does in her books of poetry, Milk and Honey and The Sun and Her Flowers. Poetry has always been a way for people to feel connected to each other. And now we have poetry that encourages us to feel connected to ourselves, and to love ourselves the way we are.

We’re also lucky in Washington County to have this beautiful collection of poetry written by women serving time in the Washington County Jail, the most recent of which is titled Unlocked Memories. One of my favorite poems is one that talks about the simple things in Minnesota life, like sitting around a campfire with your family. These women are going through probably the worst experience of their life, and they are brave enough to invite the world to know their thoughts, desires, and fears, and because of that, we have a chance to look at the things we consider to be normal in a new light.

Transparency in Mental Health

book cover furiously happy by jenny lawsonFinally, there is the emergence of the transparency of mental health. This can be seen in all types of literature, fiction and nonfiction. In 2017, a survey showed that 32 percent of Minnesotans report having less than stellar mental health, and nearly half of all Americans will deal with a mental illness at some point during their life.

For something so common, it’s no surprise that this theme is showing up in popular media. One of my favorite examples of books focusing normalizing mental health concerns is Furiously Happy: A Funny Book about Horrible Things by Jenny Lawson. This isn’t like your traditional self-help book. Reading books like these is about expanding your support system when you may feel alone in your mental health journey. It’s about giving readers a way to laugh at something they struggle with. It’s a way of normalizing something that so many people deal with, but so few people talk about.

So What’s Next?

If you’re intrigued by nonfiction, but you’re not sure where to start, talk to your librarian! We are always happy to pair the right person with the right book.

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