Summer reading: nonfiction

So, last week I gave a brief review of American Wife and The Likeness and asked what good novels you’ve been reading. I think I’ve got enough on my list to get me through the end of the year! Thanks for the great suggestions. Now, let’s turn to nonfiction.

I must say, the finest nonfiction book I’ve read this year is Miss Conduct’s Mind over Manners. It’s a quick read, but thought-provoking, empowering, and hilariously funny. Plus, the recipes in the appendix are delicious! It’s a delightful confection: imagine a cross between Malcolm Gladwell and Miss Manners, channeled through Tina Fey.

But there’s a chance–just a slight, off chance–that I might be biased about this.

Fact is, I haven’t read all that much non-fiction this year. I tend to go through phases with that. And I read so much nonfiction to when I was writing MCMoM that I’ve kind of burned out on it for a while. Also, certain kinds of nonfiction can be hard for me to read. Or–that’s not really the best way of putting it–it’s more that I tend to want a particular experience when I read. I want to get swept away into a narrative world. I want to escape. I want, usually, to power down and let go of my self-ness for a while.

Fiction does that for me. Some kinds of nonfiction–narrative nonfiction, like history (The Fatal Shore by Robert Hughes) or true crime (Always in Our Hearts by Globe features editor Doug Most)–can do that as well. But nonfiction that is about ideas rather than stories is incredibly stimulating to me. It’s like having a conversation with someone who is finally putting together all those odd thoughts that have been floating around in your brain and you never knew how to connect before, or else like listening to someone who’s flat-out wrong and you are compelled to correct them, or in most cases, a combination of both. Which, for a big ol’ INTJ like me, beats snorting wasabi on a roller coaster next to Robert Downey Jr. for sheer excitement value.

So it can be hard for me to read good philosophy or religious studies or sociology or psychology or any other -ology for more than a couple pages at a time. Then I get so excited I need to go e-mail my friends about the incredibly insightful or incredibly stupid thing the author wrote, or take a walk with Milo and contemplate, or write a blog entry, or clean the kitchen and fume, or pour myself a glass of wine and yell at Mr. Improbable. (He doesn’t mind. He’s a writer, too, and needs to work out his ideas. We both sometimes talk to each other and sometimes talk at each other, and we’ve gotten fairly good at knowing which is which.)

I do have recommendations, though. I pulled together a short bibliography for MCMoM. It’s not everything I read for the book, but it’s everything that I thought someone who liked the book might also like. If you’ve got MCMoM, you’ve got the list–but my 1-2 sentence reviews didn’t make it in to the final version for page-count reasons. (Or, now that I am rereading what I wrote, perhaps because I grotesquely overused the term “classic.”) So, below the jump, are some of the best nonfiction books I’ve read since starting my own book–and why I liked them.

Leave your own fave reads in comments!


Bishop, Bill, The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart (New York: Houghton Mifflin Co., 2008). Ever wonder why all the bumper stickers in your neighborhood tend to be for the same candidate? Or how you can pretty much tell a person’s politics by what they eat for breakfast? This book explains it all.

de Tocqueville, Alexis, Democracy in America (New York: Penguin Classics, 2003). This classic was written in the early 1830s, and reading it now is like finding your first-grade report card, with comments written by a wonderfully perceptive teacher, and realizing that although circumstances and capacities may change, you really are the same person you were when you were five. I wonder if more people would read it if it were marketed as “America’s First-Grade Report Card”?

Putnam, Robert, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000). Depressing, but good, and a surprisingly fast and witty read.

Post, Peggy, Emily Post’s Etiquette, 17th Edition (New York: Collins Living, 2004). This is the best overall compendium on etiquette out there. Post covers nearly everything you can imagine, in an informative and non-stuffy way.

Stone, Douglas, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen, Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most (New York: Penguin, 2000). Another classic. Short and reader-friendly. It won’t make difficult conversations easy–nothing can do that–but it will give you a step-by-step checklist of how to get through them gracefully.


Chen, Joanne, The Taste of Sweet: Our Complicated Love Affair with Our Favorite Treats (New York: Crown, 2008). An entertaining book about the biology, psychology, cultural history, science, and commercialization of sweetness. Why is there always room for dessert?

Pollan, Michael, The Omnivore’s Dilemma (New York: Penguin, 2006). The classic. Do I even need to introduce this one? Just read it, then you’ll know what all your foodie friends are going on about.

Wansink, Brian, Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think (New York: Bantam Books, 2007). You can read that subtitle two different ways, and the book is about both of them.


Ariely, Dan, Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions (New York: Harper, 2008). If you’ve ever slapped your head and thought, “Why did I do that?,” this book will give you the answer. If you’ve never slapped your head and thought, “Why did I do that?,” you probably weren’t paying attention. You will now.

Greenhouse, Steve, The Big Squeeze: Tough Times for the American Worker (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008). Depressing in 2008. Terrifying in 2009. Enraging at any time.

Kasser, Tim, The High Price of Materialism (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2002). An academic, but short and punchy, take on why more stuff doesn’t make us happier–and why, contrary to conventional wisdom, poverty does not ennoble.

Schor, Juliet, The Overspent American: Why We Want What We Don’t Need (New York: HarperPerennial, 1999). The examples may be somewhat dated, but Schor’s take on consumerism is non-judgmental and compelling.


Farkas, Steve, et al., For Goodness’ Sake: Why So Many Want Religion to Play a Greater Role in American Life (New York: Public Agenda, 2001). Whether the prospect of religion in public life gives you a happy glow or the heebie-jeebies, this report is worth a read.

Horgan, John, Rational Mysticism: Spirituality Meets Science in the Search for Enlightenment (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2004). An accessible and at times very amusing account of the current state of research on spiritual experiences. The author is not above using himself as a research subject.

Radosh, Dan, Rapture Ready: Adventures in the Parallel Universe of Christian Pop Culture (New York: Scribner, 2008). Dan Radosh is the ultimate New York Jew, so when he goes on a cross-country mission to experience everything from Christian music to Christian pro wrestling (really!) hilarity–and some very thought-provoking conversations–ensue. Not at all a “Ho ho, look at the rubes” field trip, Rapture Ready is one man’s heartfelt attempt to grapple with a culture that mystifies, alienates, and in some ways, charms him. (I reviewed this book here.)

Wolfe, Alan, The Transformation of American Religion: How We Actually Live Our Faith (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005). All of Alan Wolfe’s research tends to wind up saying, “Oh, we’re all reasonable people and basically want the same thing.” I’m not so sure that’s true, but it is comforting, and his fieldwork is excellent. A nice way of finding out what’s going on at the church down the street without actually having to sit through service and make awkward conversation at coffee hour.

Sex & Relationships

Etcoff, Nancy, Survival of the Prettiest: The Science of Beauty (New York: Anchor, 2000). Depressing as hell, but knowledge is power. So, apparently, is blondeness.

Hochschild, Arlie and Machung, Arlene, The Second Shift (New York: Penguin, 2003). This is less about how couples split domestic chores than about how they reconcile how they share housework with whatever gender ideology they hold. You’ll love the traditionalist woman who claims that feminists are worse than murderers, and yet still manages to get her husband to do half the housework.

Kanter, Rosabeth Moss, Men and Women of the Corporation: New Edition (New York: Basic Books, 1993). Originally published in 1978, this is one of those rare business books that remains a classic. Crucial to understanding how gender plays out in the workplace.

Wallerstein, Judith and Blakeslee, Sandra, The Good Marriage: How and Why Love Lasts (New York: Grand Central Publishing, 1996). Suck it, Tolstoy: all happy families are not alike. This book breaks down the essential qualities of a good marriage, and shows the diverse forms good marriages can take.


Bloom, Paul, Descartes’s Baby: How the Science of Child Development Explains What Makes Us Human (New York: Basic Books, 2005) All about the software our brains naturally come installed with. This is the one book on child development I would recommend even to people who don’t like children.

Coontz, Stephanie, The Way We Really Are: Coming to Terms with America’s Changing Families (New York: Basic Books, 1998). Shorter version: it wasn’t always the 1950s. Even the 1950s weren’t the mythologized version of the 1950s if you were black or working-class.

Crittenden, Ann, The Price of Motherhood: Why the Most Important Job in the World is Still the Least Valued (New York: Holt Books, 2002). The title pretty well sums it up. Take your Lipitor and do about an hour of yoga before reading this book, because the injustices it documents will make you angry.

Peskowitz, Miriam, The Truth Behind the Mommy Wars: Who Decides What Makes a Good Mother? (Berkeley, California: Seal Press, 2005). A well-researched, but also deeply personal look at the situations facing mothers (and fathers) and how the standard media narratives fail to grapple with the real issues.

Health & Disability

Goffman, Erving, Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity (New York: Touchstone, 1986). One of those classics in sociology that opens up a whole new way of thinking about the world. Goffman’s prose style takes some getting used to–I often find myself thinking, “I wish I could read this in the original German” and then remember that English was, in fact, his native language. But it’s worth it.

Groopman, Jerome, How Doctors Think (New York: Mariner, 2008). As Predictably Irrational points out, our thinking is often flawed–but in predictable, not random, ways. Groopman’s book elucidates the particular mistakes doctors are prone to, and offers advice for patients on how to reduce your chances of a misdiagnosis.

Harding, Kate and Kirby, Marianne, Lessons from the Fat-o-sphere: Quit Dieting and Declare a Truce with Your Body (New York: Perigee Trade, 2009) If you’re like me, you would like self-help books better if they featured 1) a little more science and 2) a lot more profanity. In which case, this is the book for you. It’s not just for fat folks, either–if you’ve ever experienced discontent with your looks, read this. A good antidote to Survival of the Prettiest.

Salamon, Julie, Hospital: Man, Woman, Birth, Death, Infinity, Plus Red Tape, Bad Behavior, Money, God and Diversity on Steroids (New York: Penguin Press, 2008) What really goes on behind the scenes at a major hospital? Television has lied to us–it’s not just pretty people having sex. It’s much more interesting than that.


Budiansky, Stephen, The Truth About Dogs: An Inquiry into Ancestry, Social Conventions, Mental Habits, and Moral Fiber of Canis Familiaris (New York: Penguin Group, 2000). An extremely funny summary of the current research on humanity’s best friend. If you’re the sentimental sort, it might bust a few illusions, but isn’t it much nicer to appreciate dogs (and everyone else) for what they truly are?

Grandin, Temple, and Johnson, Catherine, Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior (New York: Harvest Books, 2006). One of the most fascinating books on animals, and autism, ever written. It’s also fairly hilarious. Temple Grandin is a high-functioning autistic woman, and her lack of social inhibition leads to some great moments, whether she’s deflecting a pass from B.F. Skinner (really!) or crawling around on all fours after her hysterectomy on the theory that since dogs recover from being spayed faster than women do, maybe they’re on to something.

Shevelow, Katherine, For the Love of Animals: The Rise of the Animal Protection Movement (New York: Henry Holt & Co., 2008) Scholarly but highly readable history of the moment we decided to stop seeing animals as tools or commodities and began to consider their welfare. Any history of animal protection has to explain what the animals were being protected from, so if you’re easily disturbed, do not read this book. There are some images I still wish I could bleach out of my brain.

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4 Responses to Summer reading: nonfiction

  1. Amy R. says:

    Other than “Mind Over Manners,” I recently finished Dr. Jerome Groopman’s “How Doctors Think” and “Julie and Julia.” The first one can get kind of dense — it’s part Mystery Diagnosis and part public policy. But it’s a valuable resource in being a good patient (whether you have chronic problems or not).

    “Julie and Julia” was interesting. I wish it had focused more on the food, but I suppose that is what the blog was for. (Incidentally, I am now reading “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” because there is nothing like a cookbook that reads like a good book.)

  2. My perennial favorites in narrative non-fiction:
    Harvey Oxenhorn’s classic “Tuning the Rig”;
    David Lipsky’s 2003 book about West Point, “Absolutely American”;
    and Kristen Laine’s 2007 “American Band.”

    I found Atul Gawande’s “Better” a good deal more satisfying than “How Doctors Think,” –Groopman seemed to be writing in slow motion.

  3. CharleyS says:

    I just finished “The Sweet Life in Paris: Delicious Adventures in the World’s Most Glorious — and Perplexing — City” (Broadway Books, 2009) by David Lebovitz. Lebovitz is the former pastry chef from Chez Panisse and the author of a number of very good cookbooks. This book recounts his observations on food and culture in Paris and the odd experiences of an American living abroad. Witty and amusing.

    FYI, his blog is at:

  4. Betty says:

    Ops! Something happened above with my link. So I tried it again.

    I am currently reading a self-help (non-fiction) book by Libby Gill called UNSTUCK: Mastering the rules of risk-taking in work & life. It gives you a powerful process for getting UNSTUCK in your personal and professional life. The Clarify, Simplify & Execute process will show you how to clarify your vision, simplify the most direct route to get there, and execute your action plan against measurable milestones. So far it’s helped me overcome limiting assumptions and undermining behaviors. It’s been very empowering! FYI

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