There was a time in my life, from middle school through college, when I rarely read a non-fiction book for pleasure. As a younger kid, I read many non-fiction books, about astronomy, archaeology and ancient history, dinosaurs, and other science-y topics. I loved them. But there was perhaps a dearth of such books aimed at 13- to 20-year-olds (or I had read them at an earlier age), or I really needed an escape in those turbulent and emotional teenage years. Whatever the reason, I immersed myself in fiction whenever I could. Nowadays, I am more receptive to non-fiction. Here are some recommendations:
The first adult-level non-fiction book that was not assigned reading for a college course and which made a big impression on me (as in “Wow! What a GREAT book!”) was Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years, by Elizabeth Wayland Barber. This book about the history of textiles and women in society opened my eyes to things I never knew and is very engaging and accessible to the layperson. While it may seem obvious to some that women would be interested in clothing, this book is not about fashion but the culture, meaning, and creation of cloth for fashion and decoration, from the paleolithic through ancient Greek and Egyptian times. Barber starts with the earliest known textiles, of which there may be no evidence other than in ancient carvings or paintings. I loved this book, and I finished it quickly!
Another great book from a similar time in my life is A Scientist in the City, by James Trefil. I read this on an airplne to Chicago for an education conference when I was still new to teaching. I read this book without particular expectations, and I loved it. I love cities, and I was fascinated by the complexity of the systems that make cities possible. I was also impressed by the accessibility of this book. You do not have to be a scientist to enjoy it, only interested. Well, it helps to have some high school education. I have passed this book along to high school students, only to have them keep it for months, because after they read it, their mom has to read it, and their brother, and it takes a while before I get my copy back!
In a completely different vein is The Cartoon History of Time by Kate Charlesworth and John Gribbin. Is there a name for non-fiction graphic novels? Because this is one. Dramatically different from Larry Gonick’s The Cartoon Guide to Physics, The Cartoon History of Time is very short (only 64 pages), very colorful, and is hosted by Junior Chicken and Alexis the ‘Quantum’ cat. Starting with the laws of thermodynamics and explaining quantum theory, cosmology and relativity on the way, this is a fun and humorous look at exactly what the title says: the history of time. Along the way, famous physicists are introduced and pop culture references abound. While I love this book as well, I rarely find another person who loves it as much as I do, in fact most people I mention it to seem never to have heard of it. However, I found another person in that situation, Lucy Lyall who is the creator of the webcomic Kaspall not only knows this book well but her whole family loves it—and yet, most people she knows/meets have never heard of it when she describes it as an inspiration for becoming a comic artist!
This winter I finished reading a book I spent at least two years reading: The Ancestor’s Tale by Richard Dawkins. Dawkins is a most excellent writer. I love his precise and elegant sentences and the way he explains the more obscure vocabulary words that are specific to genetics and biology. One of the best things about this book is that it is broken into small pieces, of only a few pages each. Though the whole book (not including the notes and bibliography) is 614 pages, I could read three pages before falling asleep, feel like I had learned something, and not have difficulty picking it up again a week later. I learned a LOT from this book. Evolution is a topic I understand, but I am far from being an expert in it. Dawkins helped me understand better where the evidence comes from and how we can trace the changes back to the origins of life on Earth.
While I was already reading The Ancestor’s Tale bit by bit, my husband returned from a trip with a book he’d picked up at the airport for airplane reading: Lynne Truss‘s Eats, Shoots & Leaves. A charming book that appeals to those of us who are well-educated and enjoy good usage of Standard English, our copy comes with a “Punctuation Repair Kit” featuring sticky-backed apostrophes/commas to be placed appropriately when needed. What is missing is the jumbo bottle of correction fluid for removing unnecessary quotation marks! Interestingly, I still remember vividly the first time I heard that joke about the panda, told to me by my friend Line.
A panda walks into a bar,and orders a sandwich. The waiter doesn’t blink an eye, and goes ahead and brings the panda the sandwich. The panda sits and eats the sandwich, then when the waiter brings the check the panda pulls out a gun and shoots the waiter! Then the panda starts towards the door. The bartender who witnessed the scene from behind the bar leaps out and chases after the panda, yelling “What do you think you’re doing! Why did you shoot the waiter? He didn’t do anything to you!” The panda turns and says to the bartender “I’m a panda. Look it up.” Then the panda continues on his way. So the bartender goes back to the bar where he keeps his handy encyclopedia, opens the book to the entry on pandas, and reads “Panda: a black and white bear native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves.”
About six years ago I picked up Mark Kurlansky‘s tome Salt: a World History from the library, and read it while waiting for vacuums to form in various machinery I was using during my summer doing carbon nanotube research at the University of Pennsylvania. Nearly every day I was evaporating metal onto a substrate to test electrodes, or putting my electrodes in a vacuum oven to test their durability under high heat and low oxygen. When you need extreme vacuum, you have to wait awhile to get the air pressure low enough. That gives plenty of time to read, which is good because Salt is a thick book. However, it is fascinating! When you look at history through the supply of salt available in various locations at various times, it is amazing how much influence such a simple and abundant compound has had. I liked this book so much I gave a copy to friends as a Christmas present! Now, since it is a holiday weekend, I am reading Kurlansky’s much slimmer volume Cod.
If you have a chance, try out one of these books! If you think there are books I’d like based on what I’ve said about these books, I’d love to hear about them. Summer library season is right around the corner!