How much of your reading is non-fiction? Does it fluctuate, or are you committed to reading (or not reading) it?
When others were participating in non-fiction November last year, and actually reading a lot of the books that I’d been kinda-half-sorta thinking about reading, I realised that tending towards fiction had shifted into reading almost entirely fiction.
The thing is, there are always novels to pull my attention away from these other important and serious and overtly edifying choices.
My goal? Increase my non-fiction reading to 15% and focus on finding new areas of reading interest so that I would find the non-fiction shelves as inviting as the fiction shelves.
The Artist’s Library by Laura Damon-Moore and Erinn Batykefer (2015) contains chapters on how the library can serve as a source of inspiration or a place to work creatively (also practical chapters on how to start an arts organization and work on your business in the library). My favourite image is that of a fingerprint in which the whorls and marks are shaped by the names of books and authors. Light and easy, this is great for dabbling.
Maya Angelou first appeared on the Oprah show in 1993; that’s the first time I encountered her, and she brought a presence to the stage which I found so striking that I had to learn more; I bought my copy of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings shortly afterwards. Just a glimpse of a volume like Maya Angelou: A Glorious Celebration (2008) and I would have been all-the-more smitten. So many photographs and copies of pages from her memoirs: this volume makes a terrific companion for reading Maya Angelou’s autobiographies. (I just looked at the pictures!)
Lynn Knight’s The Button Box (2016) contains twenty-eight chapters, each titled for a particular kind of button which opens the door to a discussion of a chapter in women’s socioeconomic history. It’s tremendously accessible although readers who yearn for more detail could track the sources in the voluminous pages of reference materials at the back (endnotes and selected bibliography, fiction and non-fiction). “Favourite dresses, best coats, everyday overalls, children’s clothes, their buttons reach across the generations and the large and small stories of women’s lives.” VMC and Persephone devotees: you will love this!
Readers of Lyanda Lynn Haupt’s Crow Planet will be especially pleased to discover more talk of the feathered in The Urban Bestiary (2013). Also included is talk of the furred and the rooted, along with some helpful images (for identifying pawprints or determining whether scat belongs to a mouse or a rat or a squirrel). Her tone is inviting and informal and the volume is also entertaining, particularly when she shares anecdotal information about humans’ common fears and obsessions about creatures alongside stats which reveal these are both unjustified and irrational. I read this one straight through and then reread some parts afterwards.
In writing Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses (2003), Robin Wall Kimmerer draws on knowledge received from the plants themselves, from her training as a scientist, and also from an affinity for the traditional knowledge of her Potawatomi heritage. “Mosses and other small beings issue an invitation to dwell for a time right at the limits of ordinary perception. All it requires of us is attentiveness. Look in a certain way and a whole new world can be revealed.” She has a way of making analogies and issuing invitations to readers into her passion for moss which looks easy but obviously takes years of study and attention. Although I was known to snap photos of moss long before I requested this book from the library (there was a long wait and I haven’t finished in a single borrowing term), this slim volume has given me new words and new ways to see and listen. “Finding the words is another step in learning to see.”
The Island of Knowledge by Marcelo Gleiser (2014) landed on my TBR thanks to brainpickings. It’s the most challenging read in my stack, but this makes sense because this is a book which takes over where science leaves off. Not being much of a science-y reader, you might think this would make me more comfortable. Instead, this is the kind of volume which requires that I read even the first sentence of each paragraph – the introductory sentences – twice (at least), let alone the later sentences which build upon the introductory idea. “To what extent can we make sense of reality?” he asks. To what extent can I make sense of this book, I answer. But, then, I try again.
But, then, Stephen Buchmann’s The Reason for Flowers (2015) is science-y, so not all is lost. There are definitely words in here which make me slow down – like ‘pollinators’, ‘hybridizing’, and ‘glandular’) but also talk of mythology, marketing and murals. For every ‘thorax’ there is a ‘chocoholic’, with talk of state emblems and online shopping alongside talk of insect activity and DNA. Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire was one of the first non-fiction books to tempt me beyond the fiction shelves (it’s still a favourite) and this volume is just as accessible, although longer and more specific (whereas Pollan’s was shorter and dealt with only one flower and three other kinds of plants). This is one I will need to renew, but I don’t wonder whether I’ll be able to finish it either!
A Long Watch: War, Captivity and Return in Sri Lanka by Ajith Boyagoda and Sunila Galappatti (2016) landed on my stack thanks to 2016’s International Festival of Authors. Sunila Galappatti’s discussion of her experience writing the story of Commodore Ajith Boyagoda’s experience as the highest-ranking detainee of the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka was gripping and her struggle to capture his voice and his story fascinates me. This is not a long book, but it is a challenging story (as it should be).
Barbara M. Walker’s The Little House Cookbook (1979) exists because Laura Ingalls Wilder’s frontier stories contained so many scenes with delicious meals. A lot of them included pancakes! The cookbook also includes some of Garth Williams’ illustrations (for additional charm) and the ingredients and instructions have been adjusted so that what was once prepared on hearth and old-fashioned stove can be readily replicated with modern kitchens. The recipes typically contain a snippet of the original story with some explanation when substitutions and alterations are required for today’s cooks and sometimes a bit of historical context.
Kathryn Laskey and Meribel Knight’s Searching for Laura (1993) will immediately appeal to bookish folks who imagine tracing the literary footsteps of their favourite characters. Meribel Knight was five years old when her mother first started reading her the Laura Ingalls Wilder Little House books. So, years later, when the family planned an RV trip to the real-life Plum Creek and Walnut Grove, Pepin and De Smet, it seemed like a dream come true. But these characters lived more than a hundred years ago, and what Meribel discovers looks very different. The photographs her father, Christopher Knight, snaps of the holiday are perhaps meant to capture a kind of quiet musing, but there is sadness there too, it seems.
Kristin Petrovich’s Elemental Energy (2016) snuck into the stack not only because it has a pretty cover, but because the whole book is pretty. It’s like a Dorling Kindersley book for grown-ups about crystals and stones, so how could I not. There are sections on acupressure and massage, creating elixirs and detoxifying. It’s great for browsing and brings a whole new meaning to the idea of bringing home stones from the beach.
Samarra Khaja’s Sew Adorkable (2015) includes fifteen projects which are perfect for the “chic geek”. Even though I haven’t sewed anything since the tenth grade, and don’t expect to take up the habit because it would interfere with my excessive bookishness (hard to read and sew at the same time, right?), I had fun browsing the projects. My favourites were the cover for a tissue box, which looks like a typewriter (the tissues come up like pages of paper) and the shower curtain which looks like binder paper, with blue lines and a pink border. So cute!
If you’re looking for an introduction to qigong, Ronald H. Davis’ Qigong through the Seasons (2015) might serve you well. The format is slightly over-sized and he takes time to explain elementary concepts, from ‘yin’ and ‘yang’ to the ‘five phases’. There are chapters on mindfulness and meditation, food and chronobiology, as well as long sections on each of the four seasons. The diagrams for movement are stick figures – which comes off as charming rather than cheap (a long way from Namaslay, see below) – and for those new to the forms perhaps best used in conjunction with some supplementary videos online, but the tone is no-nonsense and down-to-basics.
Candace Moore’s Namaslay (2016) might have immediate appeal for fans of her website, but I stumbled into the book and borrowed it because I liked the format, with large-scale photos with arrows pointing out detailed information about positioning and focus which I can use in my fledging home practice. Overall, it feels like there is more emphasis on the perfect asana than I find comfortable; the text accompanying each pose often includes suggestions for modifcations and occasionally these are also pictured in a second photograph (the book as a whole is helpfully divided into beginning, intermediate and advanced), but the focus seems to be on the goal rather than the process and, as a beginner, I don’t quite feel included. Nonetheless, she says all the right things in the segments which are about her personal journey and the tenets she believes underscore a healthy and nourishing practice, so maybe I am simply intimidated by the glamour.
What non-fiction have you been reading lately? Or, thinking about reading, if you’re more of a fiction-lover too?
If you had to read something out of this stack, which would you choose? (Or, have you already read one/some?)
Does any one of these make you want to recommend another specific book to me?
If you made reading goals for this year, how are you doing so far?