Reading non-fiction

#1

I typically build my reading list 3-4 books ahead and always make sure to include one non-fiction read in there somewhere. One of the things that always trips me up is trying to understand if the book will actually be good enough, and if I’ll learn anything. Since these books typically tend to be lots longer I know it has to be good or else I’ll feel like I’m wasting my time and energy.

Most of the non-fiction I read is Military History, and most military historians are elderly, conservative white men. Their views align with one another and most end up reading like the textbooks we read in high school, which isn’t surprising. There are a few exceptions however, and I’ve only found those after researching why a particular historian/author decided to write a book on the topic. For instance in the introduction to A World Undone by G.J. Meyer, he writes:

From the start my objective was to weave together all of the story’s most compelling elements – the strange way in which it began more than a monther after the assassination that supposedly was its cause; the mysterious way in which the successes and failures of both sides balanced so perfectly as to produce years of bloody deadlock the leading personalities; the astonishing extent to which the leadership of every belligerent nation was divided against itself; the appalling blunders; the incredible carnage – while at the same time filling in as much as possible of the historical background. And I used the word weave advisedly. An early decision was to intertwine the stories of the war’s major fronts rather than dealing with them separately, and to mix foreground, background, and sidelights in such a way as to make their interconnections plain. I continue to think that such an approach is essential to showing how the many elements that made up the Great War affected one another and deepened the disaster.

Great! Having read a few books prior about WWI, mostly focused on isolated events within the war, I knew this read set out with the right intentions, to answer the right questions for the reader. The next question I ask myself when choosing a non-fiction book is why the author chose that topic, in that form. G.J. Meyer writes:

… I gradually became aware that I had never found a one-volume history of the war that seemed to me entirely satisfactory. It hardly need be said that the number of fine works on the subject is very, very large. Among these works are brilliant scholarly accounts of how the war erupted when it did in spite of the fact that almost no one wanted it … Some of these books are almost above criticism. Few of them even attempt to appeal to the general reader.

Also great! He is filling in a gap that he saw in the historical account of the war, a war that needs to be understood in his mind, even to people who are not scholars of the war. I now have a good picture of the 1000 pages ahead of me and that I will certainly learn something in the way that it was meant to be understood (we all learned that WWI started with the assassination of Franz Ferdinand but it is actually way more intricate).

After understand the why, I do a quick search for reviews and if they are > 85% favorable I add it to the list.

That was long-winded, but how do you go about navigating the world of non-fiction and choosing what to read next? What is a non-fiction read that you would recommend to anyone? What is one that you would not?

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#2

That’s a great question. Like searching for a lot of things on the Internet, I’ve done a lot of google searches similar to "Best non-fiction about ". I also look on forums like r/books, or threads where people recommend their favorites.

My favorite non-fiction I read in the last year was Ron Chernow’s biography of Grant. Grant was such a compelling figure, and while the book is quite long, it never felt too dense or long winded. Beyond Grant himself the book gives an interesting blow by blow look at the Civil War, what happened afterward, how reconstruction failed, and how that set the stage for America today.

I’d strongly recommend it.

I’ve also been working my way through the Robert Caro “The Years of Lyndon Johnson” series over the last few years. I found those a little more difficult than the Grant, but no less fascinating.

I’ve also been very slowly working my way through Robert Tombs “The English and Their History”. As you may expect, it’s about the English…and their history. All of their history. You may not have heard, but there’s a lot of history. A lot.

I tend to have a bunch of long winded non-fiction books in various stages of completion on my kindle. I also have “The History of the Peloponnesian War” by Thucydides and “The Dark Ages” by Charles Oman . The Dark Ages was originally published 1914, and is…a lot. Sample chapter summary:

“The Franks in Northern Gaul - Their early conquestions - State of Gaul in 481 - Chlodovech conquers Northern Gaul, 486 - He subdues the Alamanni, 495-6, Conversion of Chlodovech, 496 - He conquers Acuitaine from the Visigoths, 507 - He unites all the Frankish Kingdoms, 511.”

Not sure I’ll ever finish those two.

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#3

A few things come to mind here!

Trying to evaluate a book before reading it is something I think a lot about with my antilibrary in general, and it’s all the more important when deciding whether to read a book that’s really long, difficult, or for whatever reason seems like it’ll be a major time investment.

I think in some ways it’s easier to evaluate non-fiction books (vs. fiction, poetry etc.) because they tend to have more structure. Often I can read a couple pages of the introduction, scan the chapter list, and flip through the book (physically or digitally if I’m able e.g. on Amazon) to get a decent overall impression.

I try to read a good number of reviews, on Amazon + Goodreads when available, otherwise see what Google turns up. Of course have to take everything with a grain of salt but it’s usually helpful to see the range of perspectives. Often I think a book with a good number of extremely enthusiastic reviews but some that hate it will be a better pick than one with consistent blandly positive reviews.

Thinking on a more general level I think I can identify maybe two broad things that will make a non-fiction book particularly appealing to me:

First would be if it’s noted as being one of the best of its kind — whether the definitive treatment of a certain topic, an exemplar of some certain sub-genre, etc. A couple good example lists of this sort of book: Ask MetaFilter’s best introductory books and The Best Textbooks on Every Subject

Second would be if the subject itself seems uniquely fascinating and gives me a strong impression that the book will be really fun and/or informative. There’s always a chance a book might sound amazing but actually be poorly written, but usually if an author can make a book seem distinctive enough on first impression, I’m inclined to at least give it a try.

This is interesting to me because my approach is basically reading as widely on different topics as I can. I definitely still have some preferences e.g. language, technology, ecology…but can’t think of one single area where I’ve read extremely deeply to get a really good sense of interconnections among an entire field. Curious if it’s a conscious decision to learn as much as possible about military history specifically, or if it just happens those continue to interest you most?

Great quotes there about the why behind A World Undone. I agree maybe a good heuristic is whether a book’s intro answers these sorts of questions — why another book on this topic? why am I the author to write it? what’s the unique perspective here? what gap does it fill? — all great things to keep in mind!

And maybe some other questions to add, particularly e.g. for a book that may be your first introduction to a topic — will this give me a good starting point / overview? does it seem fun enough to get through but also substantial enough to not feel like I’m wasting my time?

Have to run now but I’ll try to come back later to add some more specific nonfiction reads I would / would not recommend to everyone and why!

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#4

If I can I’ll get a physical copy and find a chapter that hooks me. this isn’t the most accurate bc sometimes I’m more alert and sometimes I’m more tired. Bc it’s non fiction what I want from it isn’t narrative but knowledge: facts, perspectives. If I just scan one chapter at the library and that’s the only chapter I care about, that’s ok.

Sometimes I can get the overall perspective without all the details. Good example is the Accidental Superpower. I probably could have skimmed the intro and stopped. I ended up borrowing it on a strong recommendation but it ended up being way too much detail for what I wanted.

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#5

I often pick up non-fiction books if they’re on a topic I know nothing about, especially if they’re on a topic I’ve never even thought about. I’ve started being more judicious by looking at their bibliography: do they have one? Is it extensive? Who did the author look to for answers?

I don’t do too much more research up front beyond that. Instead I will read everything with a grain of salt. I don’t look to non-fiction to tell me the “truth” per se but rather what people are thinking about in general, what topics might be important, and what I should learn more about. I sometimes use Wikipedia in parallel; if I come across a topic in a non-fiction book that I find interesting or contentious, I’ll look it up on Wikipedia to get more answers. This is especially helpful when you read a passage that has clear author bias. I won’t look up “George Washington was born on such and such day”, but I might look up “George Washington’s actions at such and such event were good :)” Were they really?

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#6

Following up with some examples of nonfiction I would / would NOT recommend and why.

Thinking about this a bit more I realize that, broadly, there are nonfiction books I read to learn something specific, and there are ones I read to expand my worldview. Both involve learning but the former are for more bounded practical purposes e.g. a book about Wordpress development, and the latter are driven more by open-ended curiosity. Most of the ones I’d recommend most highly fall into this latter category.

Great point from @morgane about judging a book in part by its bibliography…not a perfect measure but the degree to which a book is a sort of central node in the network graph of its field (both mindful of its progenitors, and generous to its progeny) seems like a good thing to consider.

Books I’d recommend really to everyone:

Books I’d recommend strongly but maybe not to everyone because they tend to be a bit more specific:

Books I would not recommend at all:

  • 64 Things You Need to Know Now for Then — seems like a promising collection of essays on tech innovations…but entirely too shallow to be of any use, and not that well written / edited
  • It Takes a Village: And Other Lessons Children Teach Us — hard to disagree with the general point of the book (children are important!) but extremely full of platitudes
  • The World is Flat — I don’t recall if I even finished this…a simple metaphor, treated ad nauseam
  • The War of Art — similar to Minding the Muse (mentioned above), in the creative self help genre, just…less good / inspirational / useful IMO
  • Creative Schools — interesting topic, but felt phoned in, kind of boring and superficial writing
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