For the past several months, I’ve been reading nothing but YA novels, partly because I want to become more fluent in the genre and partly because I’m a YA judge for this year’s Whitney Awards. But I’m getting a little burned out, due in large part to reading one dystopian the other day that elicited a violent and angry reaction, and I think it’s time I read something else for a while. In particular, I’m craving some really good non-fiction.
I put out the call on Twitter and Facebook yesterday and got a lot of great suggestions, and I also got a lot of suggestions that sound painfully boring (I’m looking at you, biographies!) So, I thought I’d get the discussion going over here, so all you David McCullough fanatics can proselytize and I can ignore you more formally. I also thought I’d list some of my favorite genres of non-fiction, and see if I can get some ideas in those directions. (And yes, I want other ideas too. I’m not as close-minded as I’m making myself sound.) (But MAN, I hate biographies.)
Books About Human Behavior
There are a million terrible business books out there, and while I was getting my MBA I had to read a lot of them. Some are useful but dull, like Good To Great, while others are ridiculously overhyped, like The World is Flat. (I imagine that this book was a revelation to the baby boom generation, but I can’t remember a single one of my internet-addicted, iPhone-using peers who did not find every paragraph in this book maddeningly obvious.)
But, there are business books I adore, and generally they’re in the realm of behavioral psychology, consumer behavior, or the like. (This is probably why I’m in marketing, not finance.) For example, I love Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational. Ariely is a behavioral economist, who, rather than creating logical, mathematical models of how humans should act (as is done in traditional economics) he analyzes the way people actually do act. As the title suggests, a great deal of our buying habits are irrational: we’re almost incapable of determining the value of a product; we have a crazed fixation with the concept of “free”; we’re hugely influenced by external experiences; the list goes on and on.
In that same vein, I love Click, by Bill Tancer. Tancer digs through enormous databases of internet tracking data to uncover secrets about how we behave online. Similarly, Paco Underhill’s Why We Buy has a couple decades worth of observation data he can draw upon: he started a company that employs secret shoppers to follow consumers around malls and supermarkets and record everything those people do: What do they look at and what do they ignore? Which signs do they read and which don’t get a second glance?
One question I always get when I interview for jobs is: why does an author want to work in marketing? The answer is simply that I’m fascinated by human behavior. Writing is all about understanding a character’s motivations so deeply that you can plausibly extrapolate their actions. Marketing is almost exactly the same thing.
Books That Look At History in a New Way
I got a minor in history, and I’ve always enjoyed it, but rather than read a simple history of a subject (though I do that too) I’m fascinated by books that shed new light.
I love 1491: New Revelations About America Before Columbus, by Charles C. Mann. So much of American history has become obscured with myth that it’s hard to tell what really happened. This book is full of fascinating historical and archaeological finds, some humorous (you know how you’ve always heard that Squanto taught the pilgrims to plant a fish with their seeds as fertilizer? He probably learned that while touring Europe a few years earlier), and some heartbreaking (in 1540 Hernando De Soto trekked from Florida to Arkansas, finding hundreds of Native American settlements, coming across two or three villages every day. When the area was revisited 50 years later, explorers would go weeks without seeing a soul, as everyone had died of European disease.)
On this same subject, everyone recommends Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel, which, I agree, is a great book, but I love his lesser known Collapse even more. In this one, he explains the collapse of a dozen civilizations (including the Mayans, Easter Island, the Anasazi, and others), particularly showing how misuse of their own resources led to their demise. (I know that sounds a bit like a hippie environmentalist book, but it’s not really.)
While we’re talking about the Anasazi, there’s a travel log I adore: In Search of the Old Ones, by David Roberts. Unlike the others I’ve mentioned, this one isn’t by a historian, but simply a travel writer. He talks about his own experiences trekking through the southwest for the last twenty years, mingling recent archaeological research into his personal stories. I’ve read this one probably eight times, to the point where its binding is falling apart.
Other Stuff I Like to Read
This blog is already too long, so I’ll wrap it up.
I’m a sucker for World War Two history (though, for some reason, I’ve never really enjoyed Stephen Ambrose). I enjoy behind-the-scenes looks at modern events, such as books on the CIA or the Supreme Court. Being the nerd I am, I even read like to read travel guides (a habit I got into because of trying to write about places I’ve never been).
What I Don’t Like:
On the other hand, I’ve never read a biography I’ve loved. I’ve read a few that were decent, but nothing I’d ever want to read again, and nothing I feel like recommending. I don’t doubt that there are some good ones out there, but they just seem so completely narrow in scope that I don’t see the point. I like John Adams, but do I like him enough to read 500 pages, devoting many hours and days of my life to him? Not really. I don’t doubt he’s interesting, but . . . I just don’t get it. Feel free to try to convince me otherwise.
I’d love to hear any suggestions you have, either in my preferred genres or out of them.