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?