My Highly Subjective List of My Favorite Non-Fiction Books

The other day, I read a Twitter feed about people’s favorite non-fiction books, and I had heard of very few of them. None of my favorites were featured, so I started thinking about my favorite non-fiction books of all time. These are books that I recommend constantly and think about even more. They are in a vague order from favorite to most favorite (or something).

Honorable Mention: On the Rez, Ian Frazier. Like many of the best non-fiction stories, this one manages to provide a huge amount of information across a broad swath of history and still introduce us to individuals that we fall in love with. The Rez of the title is the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota. Through Le War Lance (and others) we learn the history of the Oglala Sioux and the modern challenges of their people. Although Frazier is a white dude from New York, nothing about this book feels like cultural appropriation. It feels like great journalism and long talks on long rides and sadness and heroism. It’s great. It only gets an honorable mention because I don’t think of it often enough. Maybe I need to re-read it. Also recommend Ian Frazier’s The Great Plains and the New Yorker story he wrote about trying to get plastic bags out of trees. He’s awesome.

5. The Meadowlands: Wilderness Adventures at the Edge of the City, Robert Sullivan. When I was growing up, my mom took NJ Transit to work in Jersey City. She carried a Peterson’s Guide to Birds with her every day, and when the train passed through the Meadowlands, she’d mark down bird sightings by putting the date next to the species. It was a swamp and a dump and natural treasure. It was a mob burial ground. Sullivan (full disclosure: his mom was my high English teacher) gets all of it from the bow of his canoe and on many sojourns by foot with the wierdos who love that New Jersey treasure. I think of this book often, not only when I am feeling maudlin for dirty Jersey, but any time I’m near a complicated ecosystem. We have a lot of those in California, too. Don’t recommend this one often enough, but I invoke it to defend New Jersey, which I often must do.

4. Moneyball, Michael Lewis. When I got married, I told my husband he could pick one team or sport that he wanted me to follow, and I would try my hardest to become a fan. To his everlasting disappointment, his choice – baseball – was an easy fit, thanks to this book. Fifteen years in, he wishes he’d picked football, so that I’d stop complaining about concussions and unpaid labor by student athletes, etc. Anyway, Moneyball made baseball very easy to understand and enjoy, and I recommend it to all spouses who struggle to enjoy the sport. It comes up pretty frequently at little league games and generally in Oakland, to explain our perpetual second class status.

3. My Traitor’s Heart, Rian Malan. I love this book so much, I wanted to name my older son Rian. We decided not to because we didn’t want to be correcting people’s pronunciation for the rest of our lives (it’s pronounced Ree-an. It’s South African). Malan’ grandfather was an architect of apartheid; Malan himself is a journalist and was an ex-patriate and supporter of the ANC. He returned to South African to try to understand the country and tried to do so by covering its crimes. The book tracks six murders – three white victims, three black victims – and uses them to explore racism, policing, apartheid, and reconciliation. It’s very similar to David Simon’s book Homicide (another favorite) but it goes deeper, because the author reflects so much about his own family’s role in the racist system of his country.

2. Fear of Falling, Barbara Ehrenreich. Fear of Falling is probably the most relevant Ehrenreich book for our times. Admittedly, it doesn’t address explicitly the racism that shapes class aspirations of the working class, but it persuasively explains why class is treated so differently in the US. The working and middle class in the US allies itself with the wealthy out of the mistaken hope that they will soon join its ranks, rather than finding solidarity with each other to end the class system. We are all “temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” I also recommend Ehrenreich’s book Blood Rites, a look at the evolving cultural opposition to war. I’m going to assume you’ve read Nickeled and Dimed but if you haven’t, please read that too.

1. In the Darkroom, Susan Faludi. It’s slightly possible that this book benefits from the recency effect. I read it last year while I was revising my memoir and it really shaped my thinking about how to tell a story about an unusual parent. For many years, Faludi was estranged from her father. He moved back to Hungary in her young adulthood and they rarely spoke. Then he reached out to tell her that he’d had a sex change operation in Thailand at the age of 70. The book covers her visits with him in Budapest and  to Thailand, trying to understand this person who had been a Jew and a Nazi sympathizer, a Jew and Christian, a father and an abuser, and a man and a woman. It’s about nationalism and history and gender and difficult fathers. It’s really good.

Those are my top non-fiction reads. Please tell me what other non-fiction books I should read.


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