When I read non-fiction, I stick to books that focus on historical events instead of memoirs, hagiography or, God forbid, self-help books. A non-fiction book needs to read like fiction and be written so well that you forget you are learning something while being entertained. The three books and one book series below accomplish that major feat.
Empire of the Summer Moon by SG Wynne – I could easily call this the best non-fiction book I’ve ever read. Wynne doesn’t take sides, he doesn’t gloss over the atrocities perpetrated by the Indians nor the destructive actions of the white settlers and US Army. It isn’t that there are no villains in this tragedy, its that everyone was a villain.
Only Yesterday by Frederick Lewis Allen – first published in 1932, Only Yesterday is a history of the Jazz Age or Roaring Twenties before it was distant enough in the past to receive those monikers. It was fascinating to read a contemporary account of what were recent events to Allen through the lens of 80 years of history. This was published before FDR, The New Deal, the worst of the Dust Bowl and Depression, before Pearl Harbor, World War II and the Red Scare of the 50s. What was so fascinating is how similar the political and social disquiet just after World War I (it didn’t have that moniker at the time) is to the social and political issues we are facing today.
Assassination Vacation by Sarah Vowell – a funny little book about the author’s obsession with presidential assassinations. When I say funny I mean comical. Vowell has a great writing voice that makes reading about death not feel morbid. An interesting aside: Vowell voiced the character of Violet in The Incredibles.
The Old West by Time/Life Books – Raise your hand if your family had a set of encylopedias back in the day. *raises hand* With instant access to information through the internet, it is easy to forget that reference books were the way we learned about history and the world. Starting in 1961, Time/Life Books published series of books on different subjects and made them available through monthly installments. The list of subjects covered is impressive. My family didn’t have The Old West series, unfortunately. I discovered these books in a antique/junk stall when I went to Round Top, Texas, in April this year. The seller offered to give me 20 books for $50, a deal I regrettably turned down because I didn’t want to haul 20 books through the antique fair and to the car. Plus, I shamefully admit I was a little embarrassed to be buying encylopedias on the Old West when my friends were buying fun decorating stuff. After reading The Soldiers installment of the series I’m even more distressed I didn’t buy the guy out. These books are fantastic. They are well-written and have great pictures from the time covered. I’m impressed with how evenhanded the history is; these were written in the 70s and I expected them to be more jingoistic than they are. Long out of print, my local Half Priced Books has them for sale for $8. So far, my collection includes The Soldiers, The Great Chiefs, The Indians, The Pioneers, The Townsmen, The Cowboys and The Railroaders. I will eventually get them all.
There were a few non-fiction books I started but did not finish, not because they weren’t good but because I got distracted by researching the Old West for my novel. The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan is an excellent book about The Dust Bowl…Last Call by David Okrent is about Prohibition and was what Ken Burn’s documentary about Prohibition that aired this year on PBS was based on…Women’s Diaries of the Westward Journey by Lillian Schlissel is a good reference for the language of the time but not something that is readable in the traditional sense…In addition, I also have a fair few books that I haven’t started but am anxious to, books on the roaring 20s and prohibition, mainly. There are too many books and too little time!
- Book Review: “Assassination Vacation” by Sarah Vowell (swampofboredom.com)
- 12 Days of Boredom 2011 Day 7 – Home Improvement (swampofboredom.com)
- 12 Days of Boredom 2011: Day 1 – Health and Fitness (swampofboredom.com)
- 12 Days of Boredom 2011: Day 4 – Television (swampofboredom.com)