Brief Thoughts on November Nonfiction Reads (2)

As I get back into blogging, one thing I’m going to have to keep reminding myself is to keep reading what *I* want to read. During my time away from blogging world, I read fairly widely and diversely. I find as I get back into the blogging world, I’m getting all kinds of great sounding recommendations that I’m searching out – but the end result is that my reading is threatening to become less diverse. Where you get your recommendations matters, as does the echo chamber that blogging often creates.

In the past week I’ve read another 4 non-fiction books. Here are some brief thoughts on each of them.

When I Was a Child I Read Books by Marilynne Robinson

This collection of essays was not at all what I imagined it was going to be. I tend to like going into books with little to no advance knowledge of their subject, because I like the surprise. Generally with nonfiction, however, I pick books based on their subject. In this case, I added the book to my hold list at the library based on a couple of tweets on her writing and how fantastic it was. Obviously I gravitated toward the nonfiction offerings, and this collection appeared to be about books and reading and so I requested it.

Imagine my surprise when I begin reading and find a collection of essays on religion, divinity, theology, history, anthropology, science, culture, politics, and more! The writing is beautiful and the ideas are expansive and kind and marvelous. Her take on religion is one which grants every human the highest level of intelligence. She dissects many texts on religion and atheism and science, bringing up different opinions or aspects, looking at anthropology and history, and comparing what we say to how we act. A key point she makes a few times on the subject is that all authors have their own biases and start from certain assumptions, and so even the most objective nonfiction books should be read skeptically. This is a great point that we should all remember, and is a great reminder on why we should read widely.

A truly remarkable collection of essays that, while I didn’t agree with in all parts, I still enjoyed reading.

I am convinced that the broadest possible exercise of imagination is the thing most conducive to human health, individual and global. (page 26)

Since it is intelligence that distinguishes our species and inventiveness that has determined our history, by what standard should an unconventional act or attitude be called unnatural? (page 145)

When I Was a Child I Read Books by Marilynne Robinson

The Year of Reading Dangerously: How Fifty Great Books Saved My Life by Andy Miller

I’m not sure what is dangerous about reading fifty books, but Miller does make a case that the reading that he did changed his life, reminding him of the pleasures of reading and bringing more happiness into his life. The book chronicles his decision to actually read many of the books he claimed, throughout his life, that he had actually read. From that list of 12, he continued on to read another 38. The titles are varied but ranging mostly from classic to male cult favorites.

At one point the author remarks on the internationalism of his list (which contained only British, American, Irish, Russian, and German authors…) while bemoaning the sparsity of female authors on the list. That tells you something, perhaps, of my thoughts on the books he chose – I found the lack of diversity and gender ratio (5 to 1) disappointing. While there are titles I want to read from among his list, some of the books didn’t interest me at all.

The idea of books having an impact on your life is of course something I would agree with. Miller’s constant assertions on the imminent death of libraries and paper books I agreed with less, as with his comments on giving up on a book, or his frequent disparaging comments on Dan Brown. He seemed to go back and forth on what could or couldn’t be included as a “great book”, often seeming rather dismissive of things he didn’t particular enjoy.

Could someone honestly call themselves well-read without reading Middlemarch, Moby-Dick, and Anna Karenina? Probably not. (page 53)

I frequently yearned to escape from my dull routine and a great book – of any stripe – offers us a cheap getaway from reality. But there are all sorts of holiday destinations and a multitude of ways to travel. (page 101)

Stitches by David Small

Another graphic memoir! (I swear I usually read a lot less memoirs…!) This book takes us through Small’s early life growing up in Detroit, his family troubles, and the results of a harmless operation. Beautiful illustrations and an interesting story.

The Birth of the Pill: How Four Crusaders Reinvented Sex and Launched a Revolution by Jonathan Eig

I have some feelings about this book as well. It was interesting and informative, and I highly recommend it as a great historical look at an important scientific breakthrough that affects so many of us. That being said, I think it, as with any book, contains some biases.

As the author mentioned a few times, the results of some of the trials and tests may have gone differently if more women had had a say in what were acceptable side effects. Along the same line, I wondered if a woman or a person of color might discuss some points in more detail that Eig seems willing to brush aside. For example: Sanger was a remarkable lady who accomplished much, but Eig seems a bit forgiving of her part in the eugenics movement, almost arguing that she said the things she did and allied with groups that she did solely to advance her own cause. As well, the trials in Puerto Rico are still a point of bitterness and contention, and when I’ve read about them in the past they’ve been used as examples of how trials should not be done. Again, Eig almost brushes this off, as if it were necessary to do the trials in the way they did.

While an interesting read, I recommend reading with an open mind and then doing some independent research. I haven’t read it, but one book on my wish list dealing with this subject is Sonia Shah’s The Body Hunters: Testing New Drugs on the World’s Poorest Patients.

What have you been reading for nonfiction November?

7 thoughts on “Brief Thoughts on November Nonfiction Reads (2)

  1. Trisha

    I recently read Stitches as well; although I feel that I read it so fast I didn’t do it justice. That Robinson title is really misleading, but it sounds like a good read, so I might still pick it up.

  2. Jenny @ Reading the End

    Oh, I read that Sonia Shah book! I don’t UNrecommend it, but I don’t particularly recommend it either. Her citations are all over the place, and it made me antsy about whether her facts were correct. I’d really love to read a book on that topic that felt more reliable, if you ever happen upon one.

  3. Kim (Sophisticated Dorkiness)

    I go back and forth on how I feel about the “echo chamber” of book blogging. On the one hand, seeing lots of chatter on certain books makes me pick them up. And because of the folks at Book Riot, a lot of the love is for books that are by diverse authors. But I also know that I’m happy when I read things I don’t know much about and that I come to myself. It’s a tricky balance.

  4. Vishy

    Wonderful reviews, Amy. Marilynne Robinson’s book looks quite interesting. I would love to read it sometime. Andy Miller’s book looks quite interesting but I think many of his conclusions would be contentious. His comment – “Could someone honestly call themselves well-read without reading Middlemarch, Moby-Dick, and Anna Karenina? Probably not.” actually made me smile 🙂 Because a Chinese reader might say that anyone who hasn’t read ‘Three Kingdoms’ and ‘Dream of Red Mansions’ is not widely read, while for a Latin American reader those essential classics which are part of the canon might be works by Marquez, Borges, Neruda and Paz. The culture and the background of a reader is so crucial in influencing her / his reading taste that it is so difficult to predict what is essential reading and what is not.

  5. Bina

    Yay, found your new (-ish?) site! 🙂

    I’ve read quite a few articles about Stitches, but still haven’t read the book as such. The Robinson essay collection looks pretty amazing! Cause with the other author’s eurocentric ideas of the canon..nope gonna skip that. Hope you’ll enjoy the Testing book!

    I didn’t participate in nonfiction november, but upside of thesis writing, I’m always reading nonfiction 🙂 One I’ve actually read from cover to cover is Feminism and War by Riley, Mohanty and Pratt, eds. It’s a collection of very short essays and articles and overall quite brilliant about mapping anti-imperialist feminist critiques of war. Recommended!

  6. Care

    I will read everything by Marilynne Robinson. So far, I’ve only read one. But it was hard-hitting wonderful to me.
    I will have to think up which books I will read for NonficNOVEMBER.
    Welcome back to blogging!


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