Today we have a little something different on the blog! Recently a conversation transpired between me and my friend Ahuva, who is a fellow biomedical engineering student. After talking about the classes we’re taking, Ahuva mentioned some great non-fiction books that she felt could be a stand-in for particular subjects we’ve taken in the past. I felt that her suggestions would make a wonderful post, and since many people are participating in Non-fiction November, what better time to bring you all a guest post filled with fascinating non-fiction books for you to read! So without any more preamble, I’m going to hand it over to Ahuva to recommend you some non-fiction books to get your love of the genre started!
Non-fiction’s Day in the Spotlight
Lots of people associate non-fiction with 3rd grade book reports on dead presidents. I know I did for a while (no offence, James Madison). Somewhere between now and 3rd grade, though, I came to love this genre, maybe even prefer it. Here’s why: truth is stranger than fiction. The world is full of quirky and wonderful and terrible things, all of which make for great reading. Not a bad deal, I’d say, especially when the writing is good enough to, as a friend rightfully put it, “make you feel like you’re not in school”.
A word on organization:
I’ve taken the liberty of breaking down some of favorite non-fiction picks by topic and, for lack of a better word, density. Think of category 1 as a light snack, and category 3 as a non-fiction steak, to be consumed slowly.
Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family – Robert Kolker (3)
A fascinating, sometimes heartbreaking look at the way thinking about schizophrenia has changed. This book spans the life of 12 children, 6 of them with schizophrenia diagnoses, so you can see both how the field of mental health has evolved and how far we still are from understanding schizophrenia.
Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness – Susannah Cahalan (2)
Somehow this manages to be both deeply personal and a panoramic view of the treatment of psychiatric patients. If I was being perfectly true to genre, this should probably go in memoir, but it read as a sort of cross of memoir/expose and contained lots of practical information related to advocating for loved ones in mental health institutions.
Educated –Tara Westover (2)
You might find a common theme among these entries: I’m fascinated by human beings and beliefs at the edge of societal norms. Though it felt a bit long towards the end, this book delivered on the difficulties of growing up in a religious fundamentalist family.
When Breath Becomes Air – Paul Kalanithi (3)
I could write a whole post on doctor memoirs alone. If you’re going to read just one of this sub-sub-genre, this one is touching and absolutely devastating. As a doctor deals with his own death, he reflects on a career of service to others and its larger meaning to his life and legacy.
The Body: A Guide for Occupants – Bill Bryson (2)
An engaging read that covers a wealth of practical and somewhat-more-quirky information related to the human body. Like most good non-fiction, this can be enjoyed regardless of your background knowledge in biology.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks – Rebecca Skloot (2)
This classic addresses the implications of racism on clinical research. A thought-provoking coverage of the history and evolution of cell culture, as well as how much of it is owed to the exploitation of one woman.
Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal – Mary Roach (1)
Mary Roach is always supremely well-researched, hilarious, and adventurous. In this somewhat wacky coverage of all things digestion-related, you will learn more than you ever wanted to know about the science of humans eating and all that comes afterwards.
Uncle Tungsten – Oliver Sacks (1)
While Sacks might be more famous for his works related to neuroscience and his practice as a neurologist, I fully geeked out on this ode to learning and experimentation. Reading this made me feel strangely nostalgic for my non-existent childhood playing with chemistry sets.
The Radium Girls: the Dark Story of America’s Shining Women – Kate Moore (3)
Ranked three because this story is nothing short of horrific. I hadn’t known about the young girls who painted clock faces with radium before, so this book both enlightened me and provoked my outrage at the way the radium dial companies neglected their basic safety.
How to Invent Everything: A Survival Guide for the Stranded Time Traveler – Ryan North (1)
If you’re curious about how things came to be, this book covers a nice span of the history of human accomplishment. A lightweight and funny book of inventions, from the development of language and math to computers.
What If: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions – Randall Munroe (1)
The bizarre entries on things like swimming in a nuclear cooling pool or building a jetpack from downward-firing guns are accompanied by comical cartoons from the maker of XKCD. This is perfect for a) reading a NASA scientist’s breakdown of some obscure scientific questions b) laughing at the human capability to think of said questions c) gifting the scientifically-inclined people in your life (my copy was a gift from my sister).
The Colossus of New York – Colson Whitehead (2)
Full disclosure: I am absolutely a member of the Colson Whitehead cult following. This is a short essay collection focused on different facets of life in NYC, so I’d mostly recommend it for those who are somewhat familiar with New York landmarks and culture. As always, though, Mr. Whitehead’s humor and wry observation are transcendent. I read it because of my interest as a native New Yorker, but what came across strongest was a complicated love for a place and its people.
Lost at Sea – John Ronson (1)
This is an intriguing essay collection about, well, lots of different things. As an investigative journalist, Mr. Ronson is skilled in tracking down some of the more fringe human-interest stories. As a human being, he addresses them with genuine curiosity, humanity, and his trademark humor. While the topics covered range from disappearances on cruise ships to income disparity in the United States, there is a definite sense of coherence as you read through the whole collection.
I am aware that the entire world of history/political science is regrettably missing from this list. It seems I am not particularly drawn to those for some reason, but I’d be happy to take any recommendations that you think might change my mind! Happy reading, and thanks for letting me hijack this blog for the day!